The Sure Thing (1985)

Sure_thingposterThe Sure Thing is one of the early works of both director Rob Reiner and young teen star John Cusack, and it proved to be a success for both parties. In the film, Walter Gibson and his friend Lance are heading off to college. Gib is heading to a stuffy school on the East Coast, while Lance is venturing off to the sun-soaked southern California shores with the female prospects at an all-time high. It doesn’t help Gib who has recently been striking out with the opposite sex, because, to put it bluntly, they don’t buy his astronomy inspired pick-up lines. He’s just too much of a jerk.

And so the two friends go off to their separate spheres and for Gib things do not end up too bad. His school’s not a bore, but he’s not getting the kind of action Lance has, not yet. That is until his friend tells him about a “sure thing.” The girl who is one out of a million and who is available, just waiting for Gib in California. So as any red-blooded American college student would do, Gib begins the cross-country trek over his Christmas Break.

The catch is this. He’s forced to travel with an overly enthusiastic couple obsessed with singing show tunes and that’s not the worst of it. His backseat companion is fellow classmate Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) who happens to be very attractive, but she also hates his guts.

She and Gib happen to be polar opposites, and they did not get off to a good start at school. She already has a boyfriend. She is always on top of her academics, and she never does anything outrageous. Gib is a showboat, prone to wildness that includes shotgunning beers and trying to pick up girls.

Their constant bickering and nagging find them sitting on the roadside in the middle of nowhere trying to thumb their way to California. And so it looks like they will go their separate ways, but they end up traveling together, broke, wet, and starving. Somehow they get there and along the way they begin to genuinely appreciate each other. There does not have to be anything between them. Of course, right before they get to their final destination a disagreement leaves them at odds. However, after spending so much time with someone like Alison, a sure thing just does not have the appeal it once did for Gib. He proves to himself that’s he’s not quite as shallow as he thought he was. If only Alison could know that.

The enjoyment of this film is not so much in discovering the result because any Joe Schmoe who has seen at least a handful of romantic comedies knows how the story is supposed to end. The true joy of the experience is how we arrive there with these two characters. In the back of our minds, there is a kind of peace of mind, because although they seem so far apart and at odds, we know where they will end up. We can take a little bit of enjoyment out of every single moment they spend together mundane or not. In many ways, the road movie feel of The Sure Thing brought to mind other similar storylines like Train, Plains, and Automobiles as well as It Happened One Night. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Cusack pulls off the lovable jerk well and despite her initial stuffiness Daphne Zuniga is a lot of fun too.

4/5 Stars

Love & Mercy (2015)

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)It’s a tough one. How do you do justice and even begin to scratch the surface of a living legend like Brian Wilson? His songs have brought joy to countless millions and numerous generations of music lovers. And yet out of all the joy he gave people, his life was steeped in so much pain and suffering. If anything became all too clear, it was the harsh reality of his life back then, but thankfully not now. At first, I didn’t understand the significance of the title (It’s the lead track of one of his albums back in 1988), but the words it hoists up are so perfect in describing his character.

I must say that I was a little skeptical of two actors playing Wilson. For those who don’t know, Paul Dano plays a young Wilson in the ’60s during his creative peak and familial turmoil. Then John Cusack picks his portrayal up in the ’80s when a messed up Wilson is being controlled by his quack psychiatrist Eugene Landi. They seem like two starkly different touch points, displaying two very different actors. Again, how could a director, in this case, Bill Pohlad, find cohesion out of this narrative chaos? But it works and ironically, that’s exactly what Brian Wilson did in his lifetime. That’s why he was such a mastermind.

As a young man his father abused him — hounded him to death. He suffered panic attacks, stopped touring, and embarked on some of the greatest musical odysseys anyone could ever hope to imagine.  We are thrown headlong into his genius during the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions. It might be a reenactment, but it feels like I am watching an artist at work. He’s on a different level, and it makes me appreciate each one of his songs even more. On a side note, I recently saw the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the famed group of session musicians. And while they brought the skill in their craft, Wilson did truly bring artistic genius that was unique to him. That’s what, in many ways, caused a rift between him and his bandmate cousin Mike Love.

We are tossed back and forth from earlier past to later past as Wilson meets cars saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and embarks on a new journey as the manipulative Landi continues to drag him deeper and deeper into hell. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that this is the same Wilson and that is helped by Cusack’s performance. He is jumpy, helpless, muted, almost in a haze. But in him, you can see there is an immense vulnerability and capacity for love. That’s what Melinda sees as the layers get peeled back and that’s why it tears her apart seeing Brian suffer so.

As it turns out, Brian Wilson’s mind is not only a place of musical creation, but of fear, pain, and confusion. He was stuck between an antagonistic father and Landi’s manipulating presence. Whether it was the abuse, the drugs, the hallucinations, or a little bit of each, his story is one with a happy ending, and the film plays out that way. Isn’t it fitting that his immortal tune “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” closes the gates on this chapter of his story? It certainly is not over, still going, forever hopeful, and continuing to soar ever higher on a wave of positivity.

His genius astounds and now his resilience amazes me. He finally has found the Love & Mercy he deserved. Thank you Brian Wilson for gifting us such immortal tunes.

4/5 Stars

Say Anything… (1989)

Say_Anything“How’d you get Diane Court to go out with you?”
“I called her up.”
“But how come it worked? I mean, like, what are you?”
“I’m Lloyd Dobler.”

She’s a brain, he’s not, sounds simple right? For such a basic premise Say Anything… has surprising depth. A lot of this is a credit to the performances of John Cusack and Ione Skye, along with the script by Cameron Crowe. The story is this: high school is over and the unknown future is what looms ahead. For Diane Court that means college, a fellowship in England, and the like. For Lloyd Dobler, we do not know what that means and he doesn’t either. For the moment he still has time, and he wants to use that moment to pursue Diane, the seemingly unreachable girl.

First of all, you have to understand how insane that goal is for a guy like Lloyd. He is a lover of kickboxing, The Clash, and he is an average student who lives with his sister and little nephew. Diane is the class valedictorian, doted over by her loving father, and she is a surprisingly sweet girl who dresses well and is a cut above. Not in a million years is he supposed to get her, but I said that already.

Anyways, Lloyd is a straightforward and to the point kind of guy, so he simply calls her house to ask her out. She finally gives into to his requests, and they go to a party to celebrate the end of their high school career. For him, it’s their first date, and she sees it just as a very nice evening. Diane leaves with a new found appreciation for Lloyd because he’s not like other guys. He periodically checks on her during the party to make sure she is alright and points out broken glass on the pavement for her to avoid. He is a gentleman in a trench coat, a strangely vulnerable figure.

Lloyd’s only future plans are to hang out with Diane as much as possible and as far as career plans he is not really sure. When everyone else, even his high school counselor, worry about the future, he always seems strangely, even naively, content.

Diane and Lloyd are slowly growing more and more connected and intimate. However, when Mr. Court goes under criminal investigation things begin to change. At first, everything is the same, with Lloyd teaching Diane how to drive stick shift and Diane growing more and more comfortable with him. And yet, with the familial situation at hand, she feels it necessary to break it off with him, leaving him a pen to write her with. Lloyd is especially wounded, confessing to his sister over the phone, “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.”

Soon enough Mr. Court’s account is cut off and in some ways, I felt strangely sorry for the man, but more so for Diane. One day Lloyd comes by with his boombox in tow, standing outside her window in one last monumental act of devotion. Nothing happens right then. Diane is still struggling with her father who it turns out has been swindling his elderly clients, but all for her future. She feels lied to and the only person she could run to is Lloyd, so she does and he takes her back.

Later on, he sees her father in prison and shares that his plan is to go to England with her, despite all the objections that come with it. The two jet-setters are together again proving all the doubters wrong. They wait for the ding of the smoking sign signaling the beginning of the rest of their lives.

This is perhaps one of the greatest high school romances ever, because it is far from the typical superficiality. Lloyd Dobler is played so wonderfully by John Cusack. You cannot help love this lanky guy who is fearlessly straightforward and willing to take a chance. Ione Skye is a bit overshadowed, but she is still convincingly sweet as the victim who finds the perfect guy. John Mahoney’s character is a despicable man and yet it is a credit to him that he actually makes us feel a bit of pity, for an instant. Obviously, the boombox scene is iconic, but I think it is the little things about Lloyd that make this film great. Every person could probably take a page out of his playbook by being honest, vulnerable, and most definitely loyal.

4.5/5 Stars

The Grifters (1990)

b2415-grifters1When you have Martin Scorsese producing and Stephen Frears directing you are bound to get something intriguing, and The Grifters is just that. It’s a Neo-Noir starring John Cusack (no Lloyd Dobler), Angelica Huston and Annette Benning. It’s got everything you can expect with a title like that from small-time swindling and horse races in La Jolla to deadly Femme Fatales with shady intent.

The film really has three stars in the above, but at the center of it is young grifter Roy (Cusack) who has been doing nicely for himself ever since he went off on his own. But his type of life does not come without a price. Lilly (Huston) is an old vet who has worked all the angles for a long time and now she is in the service of one tyrant of a bookie named Bobo. She hasn’t seen her son for 8 years, and all of sudden she comes back into his life finding him in need of medical attention. Their reunion is far from civil.

Then last but not least is the despicable Myra (Benning) who seduces her way into the hearts and the wallets of many men. Now she’s with Roy but before there was another con man and she is far from exclusive using her sexual wiles to get anything and everything she wants. It’s not surprising Lilly can’t stand her guts. No one could. If he’s honest not even Roy. Soon enough Lilly poisons him towards Myra and the seductress wants revenge and she seemingly gets it.

What follows involves lots of blood, lots of money, and a descent deeper towards a hellish conclusion that feels hollow and cold. Elmer Bernstein’s score accentuates the mood with a tense and altogether creepy string section.  As far as character dynamics, go this has to be the strangest triangles around. Each one of these confidence tricksters is a grifter and each one has a slightly different angle. However, when it’s all said and done only one of them can come out on top even if they didn’t want it to end that way. That’s just the way things go. There is no turning back, only running away for dear life.

The three leads played their roles to a tee and The Grifters proved generally engaging even if all the questions were not answered with loose ends still to be tied up. It also blends the general themes and outlook of noir with a setting that almost feels anachronistic at times. It’s hardly a complaint though and maybe things are better this way anyhow.

3.5/5 Stars