Tag: john cusack

Never Grow Old


Never Grow Old (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The thing about westerns is that many are revenge stories in their core. And so it is often a challenge to tell a story in a fresh way when ruffians (Josh Cusack, Sam Louwyck, Camille Pistone) arrive in a frontier town and decide to stay indefinitely. It is apparent about a quarter of the way through that “Never Grow Old,” written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, lacks both originality and vision; at one point I wondered why the filmmaker felt this particular story needed to be told. Because if the viewer had seen at least five western pictures, it would be easy to determine its ultimate destination. Does it truly require eighty minutes to get there?

An argument can be made that it is not about the destination but the journey. However, the journey is not interesting either. Emile Hirsch plays Patrick Tate, Garlow’s carpenter and undertaker. He lives just outside of town with his pregnant wife (Déborah François) and two young children (Quinn Topper Marcus, Molly McCann). Soon Patrick meets Dutch (Cusack) in the dead of night, the latter having knocked on the former’s door, asking for directions regarding a man with a bounty on his head. It is made clear that Patrick cannot refuse—not only this favor but also future ones. Hirsch plays Patrick with a constant air of desperation. Despite the inconsistent Irish accent, he is able to meet Cusack’s calm intensity.

But the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with these two forces who must clash—morally and physically. It goes on autopilot as bodies pile up when Dutch decides to open a business—a whorehouse that serves alcohol, considered to be a mighty sin by the devout Christians (led by Preacher Pike portrayed by Danny Webb) of Garlow. Violence is paraded on screen—men being shot, a young girl getting raped by an old man, blood mixing with mud, a hanging, among others—and yet there is only minimal drama. The reason is because we do not care about these disposable characters. Most intrigue is generated when Patrick and Dutch are in a room simply exchanging words.

Patrick’s occupation involves building objects and putting corpses in the ground. There is poetry in lending a hand on creation and destruction yet the writer-director does not take advantage of it. Instead, Patrick is consistently shown reacting to situations—merely a tool in a plot so ridden with clichés—until the protagonist is no longer an enigma. Meanwhile, Dutch disappears for long periods in the middle of the film. He appears from time to time to do or say something would-be philosophical. I grew tired of the charade that the material forces upon us.

I enjoyed the look of the picture, particularly when it employs natural light. Scenes shot at night are appropriately dark and menacing. There is a convincing quiet in the darkness, like anything could step out from it. Not even lamps or torches could allay the danger. When the film is not so plot-driven but rather driven by feeling, one cannot help but wonder whether the work might have been better off as a sensory experience: strip away the heavy-handed plot and let the emotions flow, place us directly in a mindset of having to survive in an 1849 frontier town.

Blood Money


Blood Money (2017)
★ / ★★★★

There are not enough plot twists in Lucky McKee’s “Blood Money” to justify having to endure extremely irritating characters who come across four bags full of money, each containing two million dollars, while hiking in the wilderness. In the middle of it, I found myself rooting for the white collar villain, an embezzler, a man named Miller played with cool by John Cusack, because then the movie would have been over. Despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the material is so generic, it feels closer to two hours.

Attempts at character development inspire epic eye rolls. Notice how it tells rather than shows. Three college friends—Victor (Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), and Jeff (Jacob Artist)—sit around a campfire spewing expository dialogue that details their histories, current thoughts, and hopes for the future. None of the dialogue rings true; it is so superficial—like one feeling jealous that his former girlfriend is now with the other guy—that the whole charade feels like a teen soap opera. It does not help that not one of the performers is particularly compelling to watch or listen to. The awful dialogue is worsened by the constant, interminable whining. If I were around that campfire, I would have called it an early night by pretending to be unwell because staying would actually make me feel unwell. It is unbelievable that the trio have convinced themselves to remain friends with one another. Every one of them is vile. Maybe that is their commonality, their sick bond.

The manner in which the sound is put together is most irritating. Of particular struggle is when actors speak their lines while standing next to a river. Dialogue is barely audible. It is worsened by the fact that the score is almost always present during these exchanges. So no matter how passionate or angry a person becomes during an increasingly complex task of towing four heavy bags full of cash across a forest, the experience—their suffering, our catharsis—is muffled. At one point I wondered if it was the director’s intention to make a bad movie because some mistakes are so elementary. It is like reading an essay plagued with spelling errors.

Chase scenes are standard and edited haphazardly. It does not even bother to stop once in a while to show us the beauty or danger of the setting. It feels like amateur hour when at times you feel as though could take any old camera and capture more effective shots of predator attempting to catch its prey. Cue close-ups of performers not looking remotely tired, let alone breaking a sweat, for supposedly sprinting about half a mile. Time and again the picture fails to establish elements that make up a convincing survival thriller.

“Blood Money” is a near complete waste of time, but there is one fresh quirk about it. Miller does not wish to kill those who stumbled upon his money. He asks for them to simply hand the bags over. It is the students’ greed, one of them in particular, that allows an awkward situation to snowball. There is minimal entertainment to be had here despite the numerous unintentional humor. We should be laughing at their stupidity, but we are reminded time and again that the filmmakers do not even bother to make a passable movie.

Adult World


Adult World (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Amy (Emma Roberts) is informed by her parents that they can no longer support her poetry career. She has over $90,000 in student loans and all she has ever done since graduating from college is enter literary contests—which require money to enter. Clearly, Amy needs to get a job but the interviews do not go well since she lacks practical experience. Eventually, the aspiring poet lands a position at a sex shop. Although she has never imagined ever working in one, she figures she must hang in there until her big break arrives.

Written by Andy Cochran and directed by Scott Coffey, “Adult World” is the kind of movie that, I guess, should speak to those who have some level of animosity toward the millennial generation because the protagonist reeks of self-entitlement despite lacking a key ingredient: experiences that, in theory, would allow her to write about something real or substantial. Although the material offers a handful of amusing scenes dispersed throughout, it is not an effective commentary of a self-aggrandizing character because it lacks a critical third act. We remain to wait for the punch in the gut but next thing we know the movie is over.

Roberts makes Amy almost unbearable—which is a compliment to the performer. It is the kind of role that Reese Witherspoon would probably have spearheaded back in the ‘90s and excelled at. Although Amy lacks Tracy Flick’s determination, the two share an annoying, over-the-top willingness to impress whoever is foolish enough to pay attention. Amy hopes to be taken under the tutelage of Rat Billings (John Cusack), her favorite author whose career has peaked in the late ‘80s.

Even though the picture deserves some credit when it comes to not going for the obvious parallels between the aspiring and washed-up poet, their interactions ought to have been more meaningful—at least to us. Perhaps the problem is the technique behind the acting. Cusack tones it down, his character always brooding, often wrapped in his toughness. Meanwhile, Roberts turns up the energy to ten, her character seemingly on amphetamines because everything is so dramatic. Hyperbole may be a part of Amy personality but there is a way to play exaggeration with subtlety.

Two interesting performers who get a healthy amount of screen time are Evan Peters, who plays the manager of the sex shop, and Armando Riesco, playing a transgender woman. However, their characters are underwritten. The screenplay does a good job showing that Alex and Rubia, respectively, are people of substance—the kind of people that Amy needs to be around so she can be inspired—but it fails to present specifics. Instead, we get to see how Alex and Rubia live and that is somehow supposed to communicate how hard they have it in life.

The story takes place during a bleak winter and the color palate consists of white, black, and grey outside. Of course it is supposed to symbolize the protagonist’s made-up state of calamity. At one point she wonders what she has done to deserve becoming an unpublished poet. She got good grades, was placed on the ninety-seventh percentile on the SATs, received awards, and stayed true to her art in college. We are amused somewhat because we know exactly why. And yet some of us may feel repelled. After all, such a sentiment has been tackled in other, better movies before. The picture offers nothing special to separate it from similar works that critique millennials.

The Sure Thing


The Sure Thing (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gib (John Cusack) goes to school in a New England college while his best friend, Jason (Boyd Gaines), attends UCLA. Jason writes letters to Gib in an attempt to lure him to visit during Christmas break. He claims that there is a beautiful exchange student (Nicollette Sheridan) willing to meet Gib and that she is a “sure thing” if he so chooses to go there. But Gib does not have enough money for a plane ticket. So, he decides to hitch a ride and once he gets inside the car, he sees that a classmate from English class, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), is already sitting in the backseat. Both have the same destination. The problem is, they cannot stand to be in each other’s company.

Predictable is a word that many might summon to critique the film, but one can argue that “The Sure Thing,” directed by Rob Reiner, is meant to follow a familiar structure. By sticking to an arc that works, it puts in an extra effort to elevate other elements. What allows it stand above the rest are the performances, witty exchanges between the lead characters, and a lead character with something else on his mind other than procuring sex.

Without Cusack’s playful charm and understanding of how certain lines ought to be delivered, Gib might have ended up as a creep given his need to bed a woman. During conversations that touch upon insecurities of being young followed by short silent moments, Cusack allows his character to communicate wit and a bona fide sense of humor. Underneath it all, we recognize that Gib knows he has a lot of growing up to do but at the same time it does not mean that he will sacrifice youth for the sake of coming off more mature than he really is. In that way, there is an honesty and goodness to him that most of us can get behind.

The throwaway characters enter the frame, deliver the punchline, and are never seen again. This is a smart move given that they are almost always one dimensional. Take Gib’s roommate, for instance. Although the guy is often seen under the sheets, he is given a chance to shine when he is actually clothed. The pick-up line he shares with Gib is nothing short of uncomfortable and hilarious. The same can be applied to the couple (Tim Robbins, Lisa Jane Persky) who kindly give Alison and Gib a ride. Their penchant for singing show tunes during the road trip can leave one’s ear ringing for days.

The interactions between the college hitchhikers is the centerpiece. Unlike many films of its type, opposite personalities learning to recognize the good in each other and perhaps sharing something deeper later on, their arguments do not lean toward annoying. Instead, their exchanges are cute, awkward at times, and quite sincere. Alison’s willingness to stick by the rules and always thinking ahead is nicely balanced with Gib’s disregard for the rules and proclivity for living in the moment. We expect each of them to strike some sort of balance after being around each other for a couple of days. It does not unfold this way.

Written by Steven L. Bloom and Jonathan Roberts, “The Sure Thing” is entertaining, intelligent, and aware of the wrong notes that others of its type cannot help but hit. It has some scenes, like the ones that take place in Los Angeles, that should have been tightened a little bit and given more originality. However, as a whole, it manages to take potentially corny material into a lovely full-course meal.

The Raven


The Raven (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Set in 1849, the Baltimore police has a mystery on their hands. As a mother and daughter are gruesomely murdered in their own home, the perpetrator is nowhere to be found despite the fact that the cops can hear the killings in action seconds before they demolish the door. Except for the entrance, there appears to be no other exit other than a window which is nailed shut. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) is assigned to solve the case. Upon closer examination of the room, he realizes something: this murder is exactly like one of the stories published by Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack).

Although the concept of “The Raven,” based on the screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, glistens with promise, its potential is mostly hindered by miscast performers and unearned fluctuations in tone that take viewers out of the experience and prevent them from completely buying into the requisite twists and turns of the mystery.

Cusack as Poe is at times a chore to watch. He excels in capturing Poe as a drunk, desperate to get another drop of alcohol from a bartender, because his affliction is given an air of light comedy. However, when the events turn deadly serious as the body count increases, Cusack does not seem conflicted enough as someone who feels indirectly responsible for the twisted killer replicating his art.

Perhaps it has something to do with the romantic angle of the picture. Poe and Emily (Alice Eve) are in love but the two cannot be together out in the open because her father (Brendan Gleeson) despises Poe. While it might have been interesting as a subplot, eventually, however, Emily becomes a pawn in the killer’s game—too predictable, very limp in that a man’s weakness is a woman.

Meanwhile, Evans as the head detective is a bore. He has two reactions: looking quiet, brows furrowed, very determined to solve the case and yelling when things turn for the worse. One may expect that Fields’ lack of sense of humor might somehow complement Poe’s lighter side. They would be wrong.

This is because the screenplay fails to provide scenes in which Poe and Fields relate to one another as passionate people of their chosen professions and, on the most basic level, as human beings. When they are in the same room, it is all about business. The essence of their relationship does not at all seem to permeate through scenes when they are not the focus. In other words, their connection feels limited only in scenes that we see.

Despite a lack of chemistry between an actor and his character in addition to the character’s lack of genuine connection with others, the film looks great. I was surprised that it actually shows us bloody corpses, severed body parts, and at times the actual murder. Its most memorable piece is perhaps the giant scythe swinging like a pendulum which moves closer and closer to a man’s body, threatening to cut him in half. The tunnels underneath the city is also visually striking. The setting is given appropriate lighting and awkward camera angles are employed to induce suspicion in us that something is bound to go wrong.

“The Raven,” directed by James McTeigue, is a prime example of a story, at least on paper, that pulses with enough creativity that it might be considered a good idea to create. But since the actors recruited are not quite fit for the role, when it inevitably hits some bad notes, the discordant elements are all the more amplified.

Grosse Pointe Blank


Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin, had been invited for a 10th year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. He initially did not want to go for two main reasons: He did not want to talk about his career and he was reluctant to face his former flame (Minnie Driver) who he stood up during prom night. Coincidentally, Martin’s secretary (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) informed him of a job in Grosse Pointe so she advised him to attend anyway so that he could tie up some loose ends in his life. “Grosse Pointe Blank,” directed by George Armitage, is a comedy with an edge. While it did have its comedic scenes such as Martin’s interactions with his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) who was reluctant to have him as a patient and a fellow assassin (Dan Aykroyd) who wanted Martin to join his union, it also worked as an exploration of a man having a pre-midlife crisis and the regret of having to leave his youth so soon. There was conflict inside Martin and happiness was something that he couldn’t quite reach to matter how hard he tried to claim it. For instance, there was a spice of sadness when he found out that his former home was now a grocery store and his mother had lost touch with reality. It also worked as an entertaining action flick especially toward the second half of the picture. However, it was still cheeky because the characters never seemed to run out of bullets. The overkills were very amusing but I thought it was appropriate considering the assassins’ enthusiasm (or obsession) with their jobs. Although I must say I did wish Hank Azaria was used a lot more instead of him simply cracking obvious jokes in the car as he tried to stalk Martin around town. The best element about the film was the romantic relationship between Cusack and Driver. A guy coming back for his former lover could easily have been cliché but the writers came up with ways to keep the tension fresh between them. At first I did not feel the connection between the two characters but as the movie went on, I wanted them to be together because they complemented each other’s personalities. “Grosse Pointe Blank” was more than an 80s nostalgia flick. I loved the selection of songs. Even though I grew up in the 90s, it was the kind of songs I listened to while growing up because my parents were adolescents in the 80s. Watching enthusiastic and cooky characters and listening to music that was very catchy which reminded me of my childhood made me feel good inside. Fans of quirky action-comedies with a great script like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” will most likely enjoy this offbeat but highly likable film.

Hot Tub Time Machine


Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Three friends in their forties who weren’t happy with the way their lives turned out (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry) and a twenty-year-old with no social life (Clark Duke) accidentally went back in time after getting into a hot tub with magical powers. As ridiculous as the premise was, after watching the trailers, I was open to what it was about to bring. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as funny as I thought it would be. I think the picture was stuck in a rut for too long; when the four were transported back to 1986, the characters spent too much of their time trying to stick to what they did fourteen years ago so that they wouldn’t accidentally change the future. As a result, the film felt stagnant and boring because the characters knew exactly what they had to do. Fortunately, the script eventually rose above the formula and really let the characters do whatever they wanted with little disregard to the consequences of their actions. Out of the four actors, I thought Corddry was the most effective because of his histrionics. Cusack, Duke, and Robinson pretty much played themselves and they kind of blended among each other. While I thought the nostalgia was there (music, fashion, the way people spoke, the bad special effects–which I loved), the picture needed a lot of focus. There were times when I was very confused where the story was going and why the characters were doing certain things. Also, lessons like “friends always stick with each other” was too after school special for me. It was corny, unnecessary and, quite frankly, unfunny. Still, I enjoyed watching the supporting actors such as Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan and Chevy Chase. They didn’t have much screen time but their appearances were nice breaks from the randomness that were happening. I’ve heard a lot of people claiming that “Hot Tub Time Machine,” directed by Steve Pink, was like “The Hangover” or that it was as funny or funnier than that surprising box-office success. I very much disagree because I felt like “The Hangover” had more control of its material; it didn’t feel as convoluted as this film nor did it feel like it was trying too hard. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy “Hot Tub Time Machine” in parts but there were extended time periods when I wasn’t laughing. I love everything about the 80s (especially fashion and hair that were so out there) but I felt like this movie didn’t take advantage of that era. I felt like the characters were trapped in that ski resort instead of owning it since it was their second time living through that part of their lives. When you’ve got a ridiculous (but fun) premise, you have to deliver in a big way and make sure to rise above the title and avoid using it as a crutch.