A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 112 – Grosse Pointe Blank

Grosse Pointe Blank – June 20th, 2010

Our second movie for reunion weekend is unarguably one of our very favorites of our whole collection. Or well, it’s one of my favorites. I’m not sure when I first saw this. It came out just about when I graduated from high school, but I’m pretty sure I was at least a semester into college before I got around to seeing it. No matter, though, since I loved it immediately and have seen it I can’t count how many times since. I can quote large swaths of its clever and bizarre lines, which end up being less clever and more bizarre out of context, but who cares, right? It’s a great movie. Today we watched it with a high school friend of Andy’s (in town for the reunion) and his friend’s parents.

The whole conceit of the movie is in the juxtaposition of John Cusak’s character, Martin, and what he does (professional killer) with where he goes (his high school reunion). It’s such a mundane thing that so many people can identify with. High school reunion invitation shows up, you start thinking about how much time has gone by and you look at your life and all. And for most people it’s like last night’s movie, where Romy and Michele have regular lives and want regular-but-impressive lives. Martin Blank has an impressive life and all, but it’s nowhere near normal. The opening scene sets it all up so very eloquently, with Martin doing a job, taking out another assassin from a hotel room while over his headset his secretary Marcella (played amazingly by Joan Cusak) reads him the invitation to the reunion. She perkily shares with him his classmates’ various achievements, like Outward Bound trips and cheese shops while he takes aim and fires. And right there you know the direction this movie is moving in. Hit man goes home. And you know how yesterday I talked about the baggage high school leaves with people? Yeah, Martin’s got more than most.

Or maybe it’s the “angst over killing a lot of people” as his therapist, Oatman (played by Alan Arkin) suggests. But that can’t be all of it. He’s also got an obsession with the girl he left behind. On prom night he left her waiting for him and disappeared, taking off and, as we learn later, joining the army and eventually becoming a freelance professional killer. She’s understandably upset over this and has been for the past ten years. And here comes Martin, back to their reunion, looking to somehow fix things, but he has absolutely no idea how to do that. Oh yeah, and then there’s physical baggage in the form of a rival hit man, Grocer (played by Dan Ackroyd) and the government spooks he’s called in to take out Martin. Oh, and another hit man who’s in town to take him out because he accidentally killed a millionaire’s dog on a job. So there’s the juxtaposition again. Martin’s got all these professional badasses with lots of guns coming after him, but he’s dealing with them, and a job that’s intertwined with the reunion, while trying to win Debi back and revisit his youth and figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Providing he lives through the reunion.

As Grocer tells him at their first meeting in the movie, “life’s full of second chances.” Which seems to be at the heart of the movie. It’s all so exaggerated. I mean, most of us aren’t going to be dealing with quite the same level of life-threatening risk when we go back to see our old schools and classmates. We’re not so removed from the day-to-day society most people live in. We’re not assassins. But when Martin muses about how he doesn’t even know what he has in common with the people back in his home town anymore, when he practices small talk before the reunion (aside from the bit about killing the president of Paraguay with a fork) it all feels so very much like what many non-assassin people go through when faced with this sort of situation. He’s the ultimate outsider. Take anyone who felt like they didn’t belong and multiply it by a billion. He professes to his therapist that he doesn’t care about morality but obviously he cares about something or why go back?

He goes back for Debi. Obviously. And Debi, who is played with a mix of quirky vindictiveness and hopeful caution by Minnie Driver, seems to warm up to him, until of course it all comes crashing down and Martin’s professional life intrudes upon his reunion and he finds himself having to defend himself to her. And desperately trying to explain how he can do what he does and still be a guy worth her attention and love, you can see it in his face when he knows he’s failed to convince her. He’s failed to convince himself. But of course he does have a useful skill set when the guns get pulled out and people start shooting.

It’s a great movie with some surprising depth to it in addition to the great quips and stellar performances. I honestly don’t think anyone gives a bad performance in this and everyone gets some fun moments. The two hit men, Grocer, Debi, her father, Martin’s old friend Paul, everyone at the reunion. I know I’ve made it out to be all serious, and it has serious bits to it where Martin really does have to consider his life and choices, and there are lines about all that, sure. But they’re often spoken by unlikely people, like Grocer giving the second chances line, or Paul at the reunion, talking about how the reunion organizers think people can’t evolve from who they used to be. So they’re funny too. For every serious moment, or attempt to be serious, there’s a humorous line or delivery or something going on in the background that makes you laugh. Martin tells Debi, Paul and Debi’s father that he’s a professional killer. Flat out. Debi asks if he gets dental, Paul wants to know if you have to do post-grad work and Debi’s father tells him it’s a growth industry. He’s a serious guy (though given how we meet him and all, he’s had a lot of rotten luck lately) but when faced with the normal world all that seriousness is out of place. He has to learn how to incorporate who he is with who he was.

He needed that. So by the end, when he’s taken care of work and gone to the reunion and fired his therapist and saved Debi and explained to her just why he left her in her prom dress, waiting, ten years ago, you get the impression that he really has changed. And one gets the impression that there’s no way in hell Debi will let him fully swing back the other way. Maybe his morals are still “flexible” and sure, he can still handle a variety of weapons, but he’s moving on.

June 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Grosse Pointe Blank

June 20, 2010

Grosse Pointe Blank

Slightly different circumstances with the viewing of this movie will probably result in a fairly different feel to my review. Although I did not go to my twentieth high school reunion yesterday I did make an effort to get together with one of my best friends from high school who was in town for the reunion. So today Amanda and I went over to his parent’s house to watch today’s movie. (I offered to post a review from him if he’d like to write one, but he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the idea.) The result is that I didn’t have my laptop in front of my while viewing the movie today and I’m writing this review after the fact from memory.

Luckily, Grosse Pointe Blank is one of those movies I’ve watched many, many times, so I’m confident I can almost recite the film. As I watched I sort of took some mental notes on things I wanted specifically to talk about (maybe I should have used a notebook like Amanda did to organize my thoughts.) With my memory of the move thus refreshed, I feel I can at least try to do it justice with my review. I do feel some pressure, I will admit, because this movie is so wonderful, unique and brilliant that I fear my random thoughts on it will be insufficient to really address the source. Still – that’s the risk with a daily movie project like this. I only have a limited amount of time to dedicate to each film, and sometimes my thoughts don’t gel as nicely as other times. So I’m just going to dive into my mental notes on the film and see where they take me.

I want to start my review by talking about the movie’s soundtrack. I have noticed, looking back on some of my reviews here, that I tend to highlight the soundtrack or score almost as an afterthought late in my review, and that’s an injustice to many of the movies we’ve watched. In particular with this movie the music sets the tone for the action and places the movie in a particular place in time. As the movie is about a tenth reunion of a class that graduated in 1986 it’s filled with nostalgic eighties tunes. As a child of the seventies and eighties myself I’m the perfect target group for these songs. Much like the nostalgic fifties soundtrack of American Graffiti this movie places itself in time and tugs on those nostalgic heart strings. It’s a movie with not one, but TWO fantastic soundtrack CDs full of songs that pull you back in time to a more care-free moment in your life. If you went to high school in the eighties.

As a whole the film does a very careful balancing act. It’s an action/comedy/romance and dedicates about equal parts to all its components. The music helps in this as well. At several key points in the movie the music takes center stage during action scenes. The dialog and other effects are dialed down and the music ratchets up, lending the action with an otherworldly soulfulness. In a way. I often talk about sound design and music choices, but I don’t talk about sound editing. This movie is a poster-child for how sound editing can alter the feel of a film. (Another thing the movie does often and well is use songs to bridge between scenes, with the start of a song preceding the establishing shot for the next bit. It blends the whole film together into a better whole.)

The movie tells the story of hit man Martin Blank. John Cusack plays him as a sort of burnt out workaholic professional. He has no life outside his job, it seems. And lately he’s begun to loose his passion for killing. It also feels like he might be losing his touch. At a therapy with is psychologist he reveals that he’s still dreaming about his high-school sweetheart. And he’s been invited to his tenth reunion. And his latest mark is in Detroit. So he’s going back to his home town of Grosse Pointe. In a way the reason that Martin has no life is that he’s left his life behind him. He’s been running from it, but now forces are converging to bring him home, and he’s going to have to find a way to reconcile his old life with his new one.

It’s not going to be easy for him. The love of his life, Debi Newberry, resents the way he disappeared and stood her up on prom night, never to be heard from again. There are other killers in town including a rival hit man, two government agents tailing him so they can kill him if he attempts to kill anybody himself, and yet another hit man who has been hired to kill Martin in reparation for his inadvertent killing a prize hunting hound that belonged to one of his clients. His mother is insane, and his father is dead. And add to all of that the angst of meeting and dealing with all his old classmates.

Of course I’m simplifying things in my quick plot summary. Part of the joy of this movie is in following Martin on this journey as he tries to reconnect with the past and discovers how much has changed in the intervening years. It’s artfully put together, revealing things each in their own time and way. Take, for example, one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie, when Martin visits his father’s grave. There’s no dialog at all, just Martin emptying a bottle of scotch on the sport where his father is buried and dispassionately dropping the bottle there. It says so much about him and his father and so simply.

There’s a real honesty to a lot of the performances in the movie as well. I get the impression that much of the dialog is improvised, but I could be wrong. It just feels raw and real and honest. Which is odd for an action movie or comedy. (There’s one odd part of the movie where a large hunk of dialog is repeated. It’s two alternate takes on the same conversation, that acts to sort of reiterate the feelings of the scene – which is about how long it’s been since he’s seen some of the people from his old class.) The script is great as well, full of quotable lines that Amanda and I use all the time.

Another strength of the movie is the amazing cast. John Cusack of course is cool, suave, and still slightly lost and adrift as Martin Black. How does he manage to be simultaneously so likable as a bloodthirsty killer and so lost and vulnerable? Minnie Driver, as Debi, provides a lot of the tenderness and the broken heart of the movie. She so effortlessly portrays the way that Debi pines for Martin while at the same time resenting his betrayal of her that you never question that she really is this person. (I remember being shocked when I first heard her speaking with her real accent – a sure sign that she had completely nailed the accent of her character in the movie.) You have Dan Aykroyd as the nasty rival killer Grocer. It’s a fun juxtaposition seeing Dan playing such a blatantly evil character, given the generally affable roles he’s taken in the past. Then there’s Hank Azaria playing it pretty much straight as one of the government agents out to kill Martin. And by far my favorite role in the movie is Martin’s conflicted therapist Dr. Oatman, played perfectly and hilariously by Alan Arkin.

Furthermore the scenes at the actual tenth reunion itself really capture that awkwardness of spending time with the strangers who used to be people you knew years ago but have lost track of. It’s a combination of the dialog, the performances, the music… just everything. It’s almost painful to watch, it’s so close to the mark. But, really, it’s not painful. The whole movie is a joy. I don’t know if I can express just how much of a joy it is. A great, great movie.

June 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment