GROSSE POINTE BLANK
***½/**** Image C+ Sound B+ Extras D
starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd
screenplay by Tom Jankiewicz and D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack
directed by George Armitage
***½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C
starring John Cusack, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Joelle Carter
screenplay by D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, based on the novel by Nick Hornby
directed by Stephen Frears
by Jefferson Robbins John Cusack spent much of the 1990s stubbornly trying to dodge his high-school reunion. Barely present in Sixteen Candles, he nevertheless may have suffered a bit of the curse that pursued John Hughes's other players: We wouldn't let them grow up for quite a while, and careers were hampered. Cusack navigated this impasse better than most, netting late-'80s leads both romantic (Say Anything…) and dramatic (The Grifters) that unpack and showcase his mature dimensions. Cusack has, if it's not too oxymoronic, a vulnerable edge--his characters are deeply attuned to others, but only out of self-defense. Lloyd Dobler, Roy Dillon, and, in the two films under discussion, Martin Blank and Rob Gordon constantly assess input to learn how the prevailing emotional currents of a scene affect them, not others. "You think I'm a dick," Lloyd determines when Diane (Ione Skye) gives him a Pen of Friendship as a parting gift. His feelings, dependent on hers, are paramount. Cusack's heroes are sensitive but far from selfless, yet the actor somehow convinces us otherwise.
George Armitage's Grosse Pointe Blank is a thoroughgoing Cusack vehicle, the first co-scripted by the star and his Chicago theatre allies Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, with writer Tom Jankiewicz. It breaks stride with Cusack's past vehicles in that it displays him frequently in athletic motion (the kickboxing of Say Anything… notwithstanding) and rides something of a zeitgeist: It's a post-Pulp Fiction artifact, from that cascade of films after 1994 (The Big Hit, The Boondock Saints, The Way of the Gun) that depict professional thugs as humanized and humorous. It winks at this by not quite destroying a Pulp Fiction standee in a convenience-store shootout between Cusack's paid assassin Martin Blank and "Basque-whacker from the Pyrenees" Felix La PuBelle (karate sensei to the stars Benny "The Jet" Urquidez). It's a fantastically tight, motormouthed script ("Hey, Chatty Cathy, clip your string!" one character urges, to no avail), well-served by a deft cast (including Steve Pink, Jeremy Piven, and Joan Cusack, natch) and by Armitage's darkly comic lensing. Honed on exploitation actioners and justly praised for 1990's Miami Blues, the director deserved better than to go from this to The Big Bounce.
Grosse Pointe Blank was the film that hipped me to Cusack's dexterous, shifty method. At his best, he manages to sell us on characters built on big piles of rationalization and self-deception, and turns them into heartthrobs without even taking off his shirt.1 (Watching the movie now also makes me miss Dan Aykroyd.) Blank, two years before Analyze This made a whole shtick of it, is in therapy with skittish Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), trying to explain away his high-body-count profession or, possibly, leave it altogether. His late-twenties crisis comes alongside two dangerous invitations: one from hyperactive rival hitman Grocer (Aykroyd), who wants to affiliate all contract killers in a professional guild; and one to his ten-year high-school reunion in the titular Detroit suburb. (A lot of contortions to arrive at a catchy title, but it works.) The latter prospect appeals to him more than the former, mostly for the chance to stalk the senior-year girlfriend he dumped (Minnie Driver) and therapeutically come to grips with the banal domestic forces that made him a killer. As vengeful NSA agents looking to smoke Martin, Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman have a great build-up throughout the movie, then go out like a couple of punks. This is a sacrifice I'll accept to watch the cackling way Aykroyd empties his handguns, then discards them. I sometimes wish for a prequel that's all about Grocer, but that kind of thinking leads to Ghostbusters 3.
It's clever audience triangulation, putting Cusack in the adult context of a black comedy while embedding him in high-school flashback anxiety no doubt shared by the fans who discovered him through Hughes. It also amplifies the monologue as a signature of his films. In Say Anything..., Lloyd narrates his fatalistic thoughts (and rips off Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the way a smart teenage boy in 1989 would) in a tape-recorded confessional. Here, he breaks the fourth wall to open his therapy session with Oatman, and later addresses and re-addresses himself in a mirror. Cusack as auteur gives himself moments of staring into the abyss, and the abyss is him. If Grosse Pointe Blank has faults in the way it handles its supporting characters, they rest with Blank as core antihero. He can only see himself and others clearly through a sniper's reticle. "It's not me," Martin says, to separate himself from the act of killing. This is nearly fatal for Driver's character Debi, who, in keeping with her crystallized image in Martin's mind, has the sort of job--a radio DJ gig--a high-schooler would find cool but still lives in her father's house. ("My apartment burned down.") Wary, sly, and lovely, Driver is great in the role, but her Debi is perhaps too willing to pick up her old narrative with a guy who not only stood her up on prom night but went on to garrotte human beings for briefcases full of cash.
Here's the best argument for the "sensitivity" of Cusack's characters as a selfish device. Like Iben Hjejle's Laura in High Fidelity, Debi exists pretty much entirely in relation to her man. The thing that throws Debi back to Martin, and Laura back to Cusack's sadsack record-shop impresario Rob Gordon, is daddy issues. Debi is ready to drop Martin like hot Ebola until he intercedes in Grocer's attempt to kill her father (the great character actor Mitchell Ryan). Likewise, Laura falls back into Rob's self-regarding gravity only after her own father, never seen or heard, dies of a heart attack. He's there when they need him or, rather, when they need someone to stand in, or stand up, for the most important male in their lives.2 That kind of emotional poaching is the mark of many a psychic vampire. Neither Martin Blank nor Rob Gordon has a very developed respect for women, however puppy-eyed they might come on.
Stephen Frears's lensing of High Fidelity, adapted by Cusack's crew with Scott Rosenberg from the Nick Hornby novel, is a clearer-in-the-rearview sort of movie. It's funny and genuine while you're watching it, but it's also quite insinuative, and only later do you realize you've embraced a heel as your hero. An obsessive, pop-oriented list-maker freshly stung by Laura's decision to move out on him, he sets out to query his "top five" past lovers and learn why their relationships didn't work. The insights he gathers are remarkably shallow. High-school flame Penny (Joelle Carter, late of "Justified") appears to be the soulmate Rob had let go. In adulthood, she's a movie critic, a profession that embraces judgmental thought and top-five lists in a way that reeks of compatibility.3 When she reveals a sexual trauma stemming from her rejection by Rob in high school, she breaks my heart--and Rob blithely writes it off as not his fault. Artsy college girlfriend turned socialite Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is "awful" and "talks shit all the time," yet she basically pins and dissects Rob flaw by flaw when he puts the question to her. His response to mentally-disturbed ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lili Taylor) is to flee and pat himself on the back for not taking sexual advantage of her. You can't call it misogynist, really, because Rob loves women, but he loves them on his own blinkered terms, in his own immature (mid-thirties) fashion. These characters are "underdeveloped" because Rob is underdeveloped--and hardwired into his perspective, we're indicted by our allegiance to him. Every female character in High Fidelity, including the admired Laura, resoundingly fails the Bechdel test. But then, Rob never asks them to talk about anything but him.
The Cusackian monologue instinct is in full career, as is the reflex that seems to always find the star getting rained on. High Fidelity is essentially one long speech supplemented by supporting players and location jumps. It's an angry speech, too, from a man-boy revisiting his catalogue of romantic disappointments, full of judgment for those around him and venom for those who thwart him. (He yells at his mom to shut up. It's the only time we see her.) Rob is unflinchingly honest about himself--but only with the audience, not with his peers. His retreat from female inquisitions is his Chicago record store, Championship Vinyl, which would probably be closed by now...grist for Brendan Toller's lo-fi but vital documentary I Need That Record!. The all-male enclave of shy LP hunter Dick (Todd Louiso) and aggro taste-fascist Barry (Jack Black) is at once Rob's succour and evidence of his past mistakes. These guys are solely defined by the records they sell and the posters on their walls, and Dick and Barry's in-store Laurel and Hardy act is the film's best comedy.
The construct speaks to a certain breed of Hornby-ite male known to exist in the wild: urban or suburban, prisoner to his interests, unable to deeply relate to others except in the code of music consumerism, sports fandom, what have you.4 When you line up either Rob's quest scenes or the record-store dialogues, the thing might begin to pall, but Frears balances the whole with an energy and dexterity that pairs vinegar with honey. We cheer Rob when he recommits to Laura because we like Hjejle's winning turn as Laura--though again, she reunites with him because, in her words, "I'm too tired to not be with you." Rob, for his part, goes straight back to being an obtuse pedant, and can't directly answer the simple question, "Why do you want Laura back so badly?" Here's why: Because he thinks it's his last chance; because he's territorially freaked out by the thought of Laura sleeping with somebody else; and because he wants to be the kind of guy who would be in a committed relationship. His choices along this road are Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet, or Natasha Gregson Wagner. My heart bleeds.
Both High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank position music as a common cause, a unifier, or a battleground that defines character. One of the best reasons to watch either is its soundtrack. Pop music cues, diegetic and non-, are so prevalent and so strategically deployed that they unfortunately tend to overwhelm the incidental scores--by no less than Howard Shore and Joe Strummer, respectively. DeVincentis acted as a music supervisor or consultant on each, with Cusack also credited with song selection for High Fidelity. Grosse Pointe Blank has Martin nostalgically cruising his hometown to the sounds of The Clash, The Jam, The Specials, Eels, Faith No More, ad infinitum. High Fidelity's record-shop milieu, of course, provides even more fodder: Find here The Beta Band, Stevie Wonder (despite Barry's cruel in-script assessment of "I Just Called To Say I Love You"), Belle and Sebastian, Doug Sahm, Stereolab, Lisa Bonet singing Peter Frampton5, and Bruce Springsteen proving in a cameo that he absolutely cannot play guitar and talk at the same time. There's a reason he had Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Buena Vista's here-at-last HD presentations of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity do me one great favour: At last I can read all the music credits wrapped in the closing crawls. I wish I could compliment them further. Both transfers are, at best, indifferent. Grosse Pointe Blank's 1.85:1, 1080p image halos up something fierce from edge-enhancement, and seems unable to reconcile contrasting colours in the frame. Martin's black suits vanish into the nearest shadow--a desirable effect for a paid assassin, less so for a matinee star. This is less quality than one should expect from a "15th anniversary edition." The shortfalls in video, to my ear, are made up for by the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio--again, especially considering the film's use of '80s music. Songs get better play in the audio field than F/X and dialogue, filling up the room while conversations and noises are shunted largely to the front channels. The exceptions are the satisfying bark of firearms. Armitage appears to have selected gunfire sounds that differ just slightly from much of what you're used to--more metallic bite, more satisfying detonations, really waking up the subwoofer and rear channels. The mix itself sadly does no justice to Grocer's psycho patter in the big finale, as he stalks Martin and Debi through her father's house. That manic voice of retribution should really come from everywhere.
High Fidelity, in 1.85:1/1080p, does away with the halos but subs in some softness and--in the medium shot at 16:55 where Rob slouches on his sofa and tells Dick Laura's left him--some weird frame jitter. Ascribable to the source print, the telecine, or the original lensing? Overall, I found the viewing experience comfortable, if modestly grainy and a tad dim. Rob spends a lot of time in darkened or dark-textured spaces--his grape-coloured apartment appears to be both incredibly dirty and underwater; no wonder Laura split--so we're not really missing what's not there. Outdoor scenes, as Cusack shows off some of the more scenic Chicago landmarks, fare much better. Music obsessives will gain a new view on Championship Vinyl's wall hangings and stickers, far more legible here than they were on DVD or, certainly, VHS. I spotted two stickers for NIL8, a long-running punk band from my former hometown, which I haven't been able to see since the theatrical run. Also, while Marie de Salle refers to her own song "Eartha Kitt Times Two," a freeze-frame of her CD label dubs it "Patsy Cline Times Two."6 Again, dialogue runs to the front channels in the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but the music gets an enveloping multi-channel treatment that demands notice. For instance, I realized for the first time that 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" is a) trimmed by half a verse, and b) persists in the opening scene much longer than its historic 2:31 running time should allow. Yes, I am Barry.
In the 14 minutes of standard-def deleted scenes, the standout surprise (and the longest) features an unhappily-married Beverly D'Angelo trying to unload her estranged husband's high-value 45s onto Rob for pennies on the dollar. The setup for this scene, in which Rob takes the call summoning him to her house, remains in the film. Harold Ramis bows, unmemorably, in another snipped bit as Rob's father. "Conversations with Writer/Producer John Cusack" (SD) spreads an interview across 11 minutes, with the silly option to watch it in five individually-titled segments. "Conversations with Director Stephen Frears" is five segments in 15 minutes. I assume that these are held over from the DVD. Surprisingly, for having fuelled two of the most pop-single oriented comedies of the late-'90s, Cusack defines himself as "not a collector" of music. But (again while breaking the fourth wall) he has a few nice insights into the way music confers meaning to chapters of life. Frears, Cusack's director on The Grifters, paints himself in this instance as a hired gun, brought on late in the process and trusting the script to take him in the right direction. "I'd've been very happy to be a sort of studio director in the '30s and '40s," he says. He reports himself stunned by Jack Black's performance as Barry, the role that was his breakout. I was too, at the time, and so was everyone else, but events since make me wish it had been Todd Louiso.
Grosse Pointe Blank offers its two-minute trailer in SD as the only extra; both discs boot up with promos for Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie as well as the BD releases of The Avengers and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the case of either title, Buena Vista misses the opportunity Universal exploited with American Graffiti to flog some digital music merchandise. There are a lot of top-five lists out there they could help fill.
1. Leaving aside Being John Malkovich, in which selfish, hungry pathos is the alpha and omega of the character. return
2. It's never addressed, but I have to wonder: Does Rob's early failure to deliver an answering machine message scotch Laura's chance to spend time with her dad before his death? Doesn't matter--we never knew him; he's a Dead Father Ex Machina. Barry's response to the news echoes the audience's: "Oh, drag." return
3. Who knew then that such compulsions would become the fodder of the postmillennial Internet, where click-through listicles are passed off as journalism? return
4. The locale shift from Hornby's London to Cusack's native Chicago fails to elide a few Britishisms from the script, e.g., "sad bastard music" and "postal district." return
5. In Hornby's book, Marie de Salle is a visiting American songstress with whom British Rob and his shop-boys become smitten. Bonet's casting, as a black chanteuse with a come-and-go Caribbean accent, was probably meant to echo that exoticism, at least to white male moviegoers identifying with Cusack. (Frears himself confirms this in the extras.) And she has a sweet voice. return
6. Fearless Leader Bill Chambers points out that other songs listed include "Beat It," "Ghostbusters," "My Heart Will Go On, "MMMBop," and "Baby Got Back"--all original hits by the original artists! return
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