Grosse Pointe Blank: “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?”

Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997 – 107 minutes.   ★★★1/2

Directed by George Armitage.

Starring:  John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria.

Where to watch:  15th Anniversary blu -ray (which unfortunately contains no extra features other than a standard format trailer).


Early in this film, the character Martin Blank (John Cusack) receives word of his upcoming ten-year high school reunion.  Most viewers will relate to Martin’s anxiety surrounding this event.  To go or not to go?  What will it be like to see everyone after so many years?  What if he runs into his old flame, a girl that he still hasn’t gotten over?  And the person he has been hired to assassinate, should he kill him before or after the reunion?  OK, maybe that last part is not so relatable.

Martin is a paid assassin,  who is good at what he does, and claims to have no moral qualms.  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it” he tells his psychiatrist.  Martin is having recurring dreams about his high school sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver).  He stood her up on prom night, and still has some anxiety.  Of course this is nothing compared to the anxiety his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) experiences, because he has a killer for a client.

Martin Blank is being pressured by a business rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join an assassin’s guild of sorts.  Martin wants no part of it, which makes Grocer unhappy.  It is at this point that Martin has a job opportunity in the same area that his reunion will take place, so he decides, after some prodding from his business partner (Joan Cusack) to kill two birds with one stone.  He can take out his target, and go to the reunion.

The rest of the movie is set around reunion weekend in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (hence the movie’s clever title).   The story is really two stories happening at once.  The drama of returning home after ten years, and reconnecting with family, friends and lovers;  and the day to day workings of an assassin who is himself being targeted by more than one person.

While this mixing of tone may not work for everyone, ultimately the film is funny, charming, and entertaining.   When Martin reconnects with Debi, there is a genuine chemistry between the two, which is fun to watch in all of their scenes together.  The ending of the movie does not quite work for me.  It is a bit frustrating to watch a movie that takes chances, and mixes tone well, kind of give up on itself in the last fifteen minutes, becoming very predictable.

The performances are great, throughout,  Cusack is a unique actor.  Give him the right material, and he fills a niche that nobody else could touch.  Come to think of it, one could say the same about his sister, Joan, who is also good in this movie.  Minnie Driver is just pitch perfect in her role.  Aykroyd plays his part over the top (does he know any other way?) but it works here.   Alan Arkin plays his small part so well,  you would swear it was written expressly for him.  This film is also a reminder that Jeremy Piven was funny before he became a total dickhead.

Director George Armitage is a bit of a mystery.  He came up in the stable of young directors that got their start under Roger Corman. (I don’t think you can overstate how influential a figure Corman has been to cinema). Armitage first made a name for himself with Miami Blues in 1990, which received positive reviews, but didn’t make a ton of money.  He didn’t direct again until this movie in 1997.  Why the long gap?  Grosse Pointe Blank would be the critical and commercial peak of Armitage’s career.  Another 7 years would pass before his next film, The Big Bounce, which was panned by critics and lost a lot of money.  Since then, Armitage hasn’t directed anything.  Again, I don’t understand the gap.   One would think he could have parleyed his success from Grosse Pointe Blank into other movie offers.

One cannot talk about Grosse Pointe Blank without talking about music.  The movie features snippets of dozens of songs, predominantly 80’s New Wave.  Minnie Driver’s character, Debi, is a DJ at the local radio station, which is an excuse to squeeze even more songs into the movie.  The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash scored some music for the movie as well.  There is a great moment that features Guns ‘n Roses version of “Live and Let Die”, segueing into a muzak version of the same song as Cusack enters a convenience store.  I’m not sure if that was Stummer’s idea or not, but it’s a subtle moment that works well. I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend Tom, and we both laughed at this moment.

This movie turns 20 this year, and it has aged pretty well.   So, if you like:  John Cusack, dark comedies, 80’s alternative music, or people getting stabbed in the neck with pens, this is the movie for you.  It is far from perfect, but it takes chances, and just like Martin Blank, it hits its mark more than it misses.

Northern Ireland double feature: Odd Man Out, ’71. Plus Ghostbusters.

Movies watched:  Odd Man Out (home – 116 minutes), ’71 (home – 99 minutes), Ghostbusters (AMC Southcenter 16 – 105 minutes).

Total elapsed time:  2 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes.


Director Carol Reed is far from a household name.   The only films of his that are really well known today are The Third Man and Oliver!   But his body of work contains quite a few gems, including Odd Man Out.  This film stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, a leader in a Northern Irish “organization” that is never named, but is clearly meant to be the IRA.    One of the great things about this movie is that Carol Reed has removed politics from the plot.  Ultimately, this movie is about people dealing with the consequences of their choices  It delves into some rather deep subject matter, with ruminations on life, death and personal responsibility.

McQueen and his friends pull off a robbery,  and he scuffles with and shoots a guard.   He is left behind, hiding alone in Belfast.  The rest of the movie deals with everyone’s attempt to find McQueen, and his attempt to get to sanctuary.   This movie was released in 1947, so we know there can be know escape for Johnny McQueen.  He must be brought to justice.  So the movie has a sense of fatalism as it moves along.  And yet, for all that, the conclusion is incredibly moving.   Performances are strong throughout, but the real strengths of this movie lie in Carol Reed’s direction, Robert Krasker’s cinematography, and the musical score of William Alwyn.


Krasker, who would later win an Oscar for The Third Man, does a magnificent job lighting this film, with many elements of German expressionism;  long shadows abound. As Johnny begins to hallucinate, there are images like the one above, involving special effects photography, quite clever for the mid ’40’s.   The musical score is outstanding as well, particularly in the final moments of the film.  One small image in particular will stay with me forever.  James Mason’s character is lying in the snow, and he sees a curtain part, and two small boys looking with joy and wonder at the falling snow.  Then, the curtain closes.  The lighting, staging and music all combine to make this unforgettable, and a great metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and the joys it brings. This film is highly recommended.


I guess I had Northern Ireland on the brain, or in the heart, because I next watched the 2014 movie ’71.   The movie is set in the titular year, when the conflict was at its most atrocious and bloody.  A young British soldier named Gary (played  by Jack O’Connell) is patrolling in Belfast when he becomes separated from his fellow soldiers.  He must then try to survive a night in Belfast.  So the movie shares that plot point at least with Odd Man Out, a man trying to get through a night in Belfast.  Otherwise, the movies are very different.

This excellent movie marks the directorial debut of Yann Demange.  The movie is a burst of frenetic energy unbelievable tension.  It is entertaining, moving, and at times difficult to watch..   Two times during the movie I felt tightness in my chest, from the tension.  Once, I stood up off the couch, unable to contain my emotion.


’71 also feature Sean Harris, who played the villain in  Mission Impossible:  Rogue Nation.  He is playing a different version of that character here, and manages to seem more menacing in this movie, despite the much smaller stakes.  His acting is like a kettle of water that is about to boil;  everything is bubbling just under the surface.   


And finally, last weekend I saw Ghostbusters on the big screen, for the first time since its original theatrical release.  It holds up very well.  Reflections:

–Remember the scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character is going to rearrange his albums autobiographically?  I am that way about movies.  I can remember the circumstances of every movie I’ve seen (who with, when, where).  So I’m sitting there in the theater with my adult son and his girlfriend, thinking that the first time I saw Ghostbusters I was 12 years old, and with my mom.  She enjoyed it more than I thought she would.

–Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis:  good God, they all look so young.  And they were all so good.  This movie falls into that brief window when Aykroyd was genuinely funny.

–I had forgotten how late into the movie Ernie Hudson comes along, but I am glad he is there.  He has some of the best moments.

–There is sure is a lot of cigarette smoking in this movie.  I know, different time, but it seems gratuitous in a couple of scenes.  I was looking for a pack of cigs with a logo;  product placement perhaps?

–Finally, there is a Reginald VelJohnson sighting in this movie!  He is the cop that lets the Ghostbusters out of jail after they have been arrested.  Just 4 years later VelJo (as I affectionately call him) would play another policeman, the unforgettable Sgt. Al Powell, in Die Hard.  


–Finally, did you know there was a TV show called “The Ghostbusters” that aired in 1975?   It reteamed Larry Storch and the massively-schlonged Forrest Tucker from “F Troop”, as ghost-busting detectives, who have a gorilla as a sidekick!  It lasted one full season and is just about as bad as it sounds.  I almost made it through one episode on youtube, but the laugh track was just too much to take.  I do love Storch and Tucker though.  (And of course, I wish I was packing like FT.  Then again, what man doesn’t?)