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The Grifters (1990)   Leave a comment

grifters

Based on a pulp novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Donald Westlake, The Grifters tells the story of three con artists, their ways of getting on in the world, and the often tragic ways their lives intersect. Lilly (Anjelica Huston) works for a mob guy back east decreasing the odds on long shots at the race track in La Jolla. Whenever she sees long odds on a horse, she puts money down on it thus decreasing the odds and therefore the pay out. Lilly decides to visit her son Roy (John Cusack) in Los Angeles just in time to save him from a life threatening injury and put her in danger of one from her boss, Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle in a scary and effective role). Lilly and Roy have an odd, hinted at relationship so when Lilly meets Roy’s love interest, Myra (Annette Bening) sparks, albeit understated ones, fly. Roy keeps his livelihood a secret from the two women, but the audience knows he’s on the grift as well. He makes his living nickel and diming bartenders while presenting himself as a good citizen. Mom knows he’s no salesman and Myra suspects, but neither can prove it until Roy and Myra, who’s no saint herself, take a trip to La Jolla and Myra sees Roy in action. She confronts Roy who admits he’s a con man and then asks him to go in with her on a big con. Myra recounts her experience with major league grifting and thinks Roy would make a great partner. Myra’s description of her former life stars the always fantastic J.T. Walsh and is easily the best part of the film. Roy won’t bite though claiming the fact that he’s small-time and has no partners has kept him alive and out of jail. Myra is convinced that Lilly’s dislike of her keeps Roy from the big con so she sets out to take Lilly out of the picture. What happens next pits the three opportunists against each other in a fight for survival.
Set in late 1980s California, The Grifters could easily take place in the 1940s or even in ancient Greece with its Oedipal twinges and tragic events. The characters are world weary and tough and exist in boarding houses, race tracks, and bars. Despite their living outside the law, they live within the law of their own society and know the penalties of transgressing there. A host of tremendous character actors including Eddie Jones, Charles Napier, and Henry Jones gives this film the atmosphere of a classic noir despite its setting. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Martin Scorsese, the film’s glossy look contrasts starkly with the dark lives the main characters live. The Grifters is a well done neo-noir which combines the intricacy of a good con artist film with the brutality of a more modern crime drama. The only fault I find with the film is that it didn’t delve deeply enough into the lives and crimes of its characters. Perhaps giving us only a glimpse into these lives was the point though because it made me wonder about what happened before and after this episode. I enjoyed The Grifters overall and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.

huston grifters

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Say Anything (1989)   Leave a comment

say anything

“I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.”

Lloyd Dobler, a bright, sweet underachiever, loves Diane Court, class valedictorian. It writes itself, doesn’t it? She’s headed for a promising future and he’ll be lucky if he graduates. Opposites attract and they do sort of a modern Romeo and Juliet thing complete with dueling parents and Lloyd wedging a cross into the door of the high school gym at graduation. Or…they have a short romantic summer in which they learn to be open-minded about people and not take them at face value, then have a moving break-up scene and we see them at different colleges starting their lives apart.

Be still, my heart. Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut could have skated by on a thin premise and the charisma of John Cusack, but the plot, characters, and acting chops of the entire cast lift Say Anything to a higher level of teen angst films. First, the plot allows us to see Lloyd and Diane fall in love, but it also deals with their relationships with family and friends. It’s not all dates and necking and will they or won’t they. Diane has a dad and a job and a desire to step outside her academic life and see the world. Lloyd has military parents stationed overseas and a grown sister (real-life sister, Joan), her young son, and nagging doubts about his own future.

The characters and the actors who play them make this a denser film as well. John Mahoney, as Diane’s father, never disappoints and his single-minded single dad gives a terrific performance as both Diane’s best friend and the first guy to let her down. He also has a wonderfully touching scene. He flirts with the attractive saleslady in a shop and asks her out as he acts the big man and places a large order. She tells him, awkwardly that his credit card has been declined. Embarrassed, Mahoney makes an excuse and leaves the store. The scene speaks to Mahoney’s character and part of the motivation for his misstep. Joan Cusack is solid, as usual. Lili Taylor has a nice smaller role as one of Lloyd’s close friends and has a great line. When Lloyd decides he won’t try to get back with Diane he says it’s “…because I’m a guy. I have pride.” Lili says, “The world is full of guys. Be a man; don’t be a guy.” Eric Stoltz, Lois Chiles, Jeremy Piven, Chynna Phillips, Philip Baker Hall, and Bebe Neuwirth have small roles and the entire ensemble works together nicely. Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson even appears as Lloyd’s martial arts coach.

Cameron Crowe wrote the screenplay for Say Anything and his dialogue has a natural sound to it. Nothing is forced and the story flows along nicely. The iconic scene with Lloyd holding the boombox over his head playing “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel has less impact in the film than I thought it would, but it carries more emotional weight for me now that I understand it in context. Say Anything had fully formed characters, an interesting plot, and John Cusack. It didn’t fit into the usual teen mold and had a less stylized ambiance than a John Hughes film. I enjoyed Say Anything and I’m glad Cinema Shame gave me a reason to see it.

say anything still

 

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