Grosse Pointe Blank 1997 ****

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Was there ever such a carefree time as 1997? No terrorism, no political unrest, even the hit-men were nice guys as evidenced by George Armitage’s fondly remembered rom-com Grosse Pointe Blank. Sure, there’s a high body count, and yes, the John Cusack’s character is a sociopath, but dress it up in day-glo colours, throw in Minnie Driver as love interest, and add a slick soundtrack and you’ve got proper feel-good fare. Why worry about the future?

Martin Black (Cusack) is a troubled man, although even his shrink (Alan Arkin) isn’t too keen to engage with his neurosis. A dedicated hit-man, Blank falls out with his handler (Dan Ackroyd) before heading back to his suburban alma mater for his high school reunion. Local DJ Debi (Driver) is till spinning records at her main-street record shop, but she’s still smarting from being stood up on prom night. Can Martin Blank recover his mojo, win back his girlfriend, and survive a return to his high school, all the while fighting off various professional assassins?

And what’s at stake here. really? Not much, other than whether Martin and Debi will get it together, but that’s the charm of Tom Jankiewicz’s script, loosely improvised by the cast. Many 1990’s films are now rendered somewhat inconsequential by their reliance on fading star-power to deliver high-concept, low-gravity fare, but Grosse Pointe Blank catches most of the cast on an upswing, and leans into the irony that’s it’s a rom-com first and the killing-sprees are mainly there for decoration. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and Armitage’s film is that peculiar kind of movie confection that’s more about wish fulfilment than dealing with anything real.

In short, it’s an ideal scenario that you return to high school for a reunion, and you’ve got the coolest job by far, a warm and cozy fantasy vindicated by the cartoonish, almost bloodless approach to assassinations shown here. The Reagan years were just fading, and there was still a no-questions asked approach to what anyone did for a living; Blank cheerfully tells his fellow graduates that he’s a killer and no-one turns a hair. Cusack and Driver are at their most charming, Actions have consequences in real life, but movies offer an escape from that, and Grosse Pointe Blank looks back on a happier time when you could launch into over a dozen murders and still get the girl and walk off into the sunset with a happy tune from one of several soundtrack albums.

 

Stage Fright 2014 ***

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The Venn diagram showing the number of people who like musicals and the number of people who like slasher movies surely has a minimal intersection; writer/director Jerome Sable deserves credit for not chickening out on either genre for his entertaining hybrid Stage Fright. After the death of her opera-singing mother Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), daughter Camilla (Allie Macdonald) is still haunted by the loss. Ten years later, she’s working in the kitchen of a summer-camp, run by her father Roger (Meat Loaf). They’re staging a kabuki musical version of a well-known show, retitled The Haunting of the Opera, but the onstage-backstabbing is overshadowed by the grisly deaths that dog the performance. Stage Fright is garnished with tuneful music numbers that feel like Disney and Black Swan filtered through South Park, mixed with some tense and extremely violent killings. A uniformly strong cast are anchored by a terrific performance from Meat Loaf, who seizes the chance to play the harassed but ambitious producer with elan. Stage Fright is an engaging curiosity, a clever horror music spoof with genuine tension and songs that stick with you for days.

Barney’s Version 2010 ***

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Canadian humorist Mordecai Richler’s work hasn’t been particularly well served by the silver screen; after an auspicious start with 1974’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, things fizzled after 1977’s urban outlaw tale Fun With Dick and Jane. Richler died in 2001, but Richard J Lewis’s 2010 adaptation of Barney’s Version is a useful taster for his dry wit. Paul Giamatti plays Barney, an aging TV producer with a hockey penchant, who looks back on the loves on his life, including Rosamund Pike and Minnie Driver. Dustin Hoffman contributes a lively turn as Barney’s father, and the whole enterprise has the blackly comic sprawl of a John Irving novel; it’s also very Canadian and very Jewish, and will appeal to fans of both cultures. David Cronenberg contributes a cameo.