‘Red Rock West’ still rocks, 21 years later

Red Rock West posterRed Rock West/1993/Red Rock Films/98 min.

Nicolas Cage’s new movie “Joe” is being hailed as Cage’s comeback. It’s a meaty role in a dark film about desperate people doing bad things, to be sure.  But I like my degenerates a bit more clever and I kept thinking of Cage’s terrific turn in the smart and stylish neo-noir “Red Rock West.” It’s now 21 years old and I think it improves with age.

In playing Michael Williams, an ex-Marine looking for a job in a dusty Wyoming town, Cage creates an uncommonly sympathetic character. Rejected for a spot on an oil-drilling crew because of his bad leg, Michael figures he’s got nothing to lose by stopping into the Red Rock West tavern, the hub of a bustling metropolis of 200 people.

Brooding tavern-owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) mistakes Michael for a hitman known as Lyle from Dallas (damn those Texas license plates). Wayne wants his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), out of his hair forever. Before Michael’s picked up a buzz, he stumbles into a quagmire of serpentine deception and murder for hire.

Since he accepted the cash, Michael gives it a go, but changes his mind when he gets an eyeful of the raven-haired, fine-boned Suzanne – a flinty, ferocious femme fatale – and hears her side of the story, including a chapter in which she wants Michael to kill Wayne. “Being married does strange things to people,” she tells him.

Nic Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle remind us of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

Nic Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle remind us of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

Michael hits the road but comes to a screeching halt as he nearly drives over a body, who, it turns out, is Suzanne’s ex-lover. Then the real Lyle from Dallas (the inimitable Dennis Hopper) shows up. Lyle from Dallas don’t take kindly to another man messin’ with his hard-earned hit money. Natch.

It also turns out that Wayne works two jobs – tavern owner and, gulp, town sheriff. Actually make that three – pre-Red Rock, he and Suzanne robbed a bank in Illinois for about $2 million. Suzanne don’t take kindly to anybody messin’ with her haul from the robbery so, with Michael in tow, she sets out to stake her claim, then vamoose South of the Border. But, in the end, Michael isn’t quite the slave to cash that she is and when she finally heads out of town, it’s not quite in the style she’d been planning.

Dennis Hopper plays the "real" hitman from Texas.

Dennis Hopper plays the “real” hitman from Texas.

At 98 minutes, “Red Rock West” is a taut, sexy, funny story that lingers at the right spots and lurches forward just when you were getting cozy. The scene in the graveyard where the four principals dig up bills and duke it out, then plug and pierce the night away is stellar. As they go through bullets, blades, a sword and chains, Hopper snarls, Cage seethes, and Boyle shows prowess with a pistol. Fine performances, all around.

Director John Dahl, who co-wrote the script with his brother Rick, taps 1940s film noir roots with their exploration of shifting identities, appearance vs. reality and the range of motivations that drive people to create their own moral codes. Cage’s disillusioned dreamer recalls the laconic sadness of a young Robert Mitchum, though Cage’s part doesn’t quite allow him to plumb the depths of darkness. Boyle recalls the regal beauty of Gene Tierney and the cool intensity of Jane Greer.

The story is set in a dusty Wyoming town.

The story is set in a dusty Wyoming town.

Infused with humor, the script meditates on the role that luck plays in our lives. We see that Cage has borne Fortune’s smiles and blows. At one point, upon finding his gas tank near empty, he mutters, “F’ing story of my life.”

Natives of Billings, Montana, the Dahls set the film not in a claustrophobic or hostile big city but in sunny Western climes, which work well to highlight Cage’s isolation and desperation. Country singer and actor Dwight Yoakam plays a grimy a truck driver who gives Cage a lift and Yoakam’s mournful “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” is a fitting conclusion to the film’s score. (Dahl started his career directing shorts and music videos.)

After 1989’s “Kill Me Again” and “Red Rock,” John Dahl made “The Last Seduction” in 1994 as well as “Rounders” in 1998 and “You Kill Me” in 2007. He’s also worked on many high-profile TV shows like “Breaking Bad,” “True Blood” and “Dexter.” We hope he and Nic Cage can hook up again – a slick thriller, or a jet-black TV series, perhaps? We’re waiting impatiently.

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‘The Last Seduction’ is smart, funny and unforgettable

The Last Seduction/1994/ITC/ 110 min.

Several years ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune. Each week, I interviewed experts on ways women could work smart and climb the corporate ladder. Most of the time, no matter what the obstacle or dilemma was – job hunting, negotiating a raise, getting a promotion – the bottom line was: do your homework, highlight your achievements and ask for what you want.

In 1994’s “The Last Seduction” by director John Dahl and writer Steve Barancik, Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory takes this advice to dazzling new heights. As the story unfolds, this career maven excels in not just one job, but several. In the opening scene, she’s a supervisor at a telemarketing sales firm in New York City, where she doesn’t ask, she demands. Then she needles her hapless sales guys mercilessly, calling them “maggots, eunuchs and bastards.”

At least they know where they stand. That pat-on-the-back stuff is way overrated.

Later she becomes Director of Lead Generation at an insurance company in a small town in New York state. Under her own steam (at night, of course, this being a noir) she researches prospects for a telemarketing murder business. Hey, it’s not like there isn’t a market.

And she launches an entrepreneurial venture in which she steals a boatload of cash from her husband, malleable Clay (Bill Pullman) and taps loyal-to-a-fault Mike, her lover/investment partner (Peter Berg), to help her. Neither of these dudes is much of a match for her – their chief virtue (besides being good looking) is that they are good at following orders, which is especially true in Mike’s case.

Bill Pullman and Linda Fiorentino play husband and wife.

When one of Mike’s friends asks him: “whadd’ya see in her?” he replies: “a new set of balls.” Her résumé also includes legs that never stop, bedroom eyes and a ready laugh, especially at the expense of doofuses or dumpy small-town mores. Just when you think an interfering man is going to impede her climb to the top, she flicks him away like a speck of lint from her sleek pinstripe suit.

Having done her due diligence, she’s hoping to close the deal in such a way that neither Clay nor Mike can claim a penny of the profit. Talk about multi-tasking. It’s understandable that so much juggling might make Bridget a little irritable from time to time.

Luckily, Mike is nothing if not supportive and just turns the other (butt) cheek when she calls him a rural Neanderthal. When he suggests they go on a date and chat sometime; she asks: “What for?”

When Mike (Peter Berg) suggests going on an actual date, Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) asks, “What for?”

To say that Fiorentino, a Philly native with a fiery intensity, nails the part is an understatement. She is one of the fiercest femmes fatales in all of neo-noir moviemaking. If I were a guy, I think seeing this performance would surely give me an uneasy night’s sleep. I would have loved to see Fiorentino work with Quentin Tarantino, but her career short-circuited fairly early. I have heard she was a tad hard to work with – shocker! Pullman, Berg and the rest of the cast more than hold their own, underplaying their parts and letting Fiorentino hold bitchy court.

Director Dahl is a neo-noir specialist (he also directed “Red Rock West,” “Kill Me Again and “Rounders”) and the sharp, funny script is peppered with references to noir classics. For instance, Dahl tips his hat to “Double Indemnity” by having Bridget and Mike both work at an insurance company and, when Bridget calls the police to falsely accuse a guy of exposing himself (so she can make a getaway), she gives her name as “Mrs. Neff.”

I suppose that could be evidence of her truly tender heart – in her imagination, the doomed lovers Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson get married and live happily ever after. Yeah, right. But, if Bridget said it, you might believe her.

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Osborne shares highlights of this year’s TCM Film Festival

TCM host Robert Osborne speaks Wednesday at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Photo by John Nowak

“She’s so beautiful, you can’t believe she’s in her ’80s, and she’s so nice,” said TCM’s Robert Osborne about actress Ann Blyth, who co-starred with Joan Crawford in the classic domestic film noir “Mildred Pierce.”

Blyth will discuss the role when the movie screens at the TCM Film Festival, which starts Thursday at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Osborne told journalists at a roundtable on Wednesday that he was surprised that Blyth wasn’t typecast. “She was so effective as the mean daughter [Veda] that you hated. Why didn’t that affect her career? She played sweet ingénues after that.”

Club TCM at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Photo by John Nowak

Other festival highlights for Osborne include interviews with other guests and screenings of “Funny Girl,” “Razor’s Edge,” “Cluny Brown,” and “Desert Song.”

The schedule features a strong film-noir component. “The mood is so rich, it’s a prominent part of the festival,” said TCM’s head programmer Charlie Tabesh. “We noticed that it was immensely popular last year. The theme was style and it fit in very well so we wanted to keep it up this year. People like to see these films on the big screen.”

Inside Club TCM at the Roosevelt. Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz also touched on the popularity of noir and guest programming by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller. Mankiewicz said he wants to suggest a night dedicated to neo-noir director John Dahl (“Kill Me Again,” “Last Seduction” and “Red Rock West.”)

“Dahl clearly had a keen appreciation of ’40s and ’50s noir,” Mankiewicz said.

A vintage photo of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at Club TCM. Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

We at FNB would love to see a Dahl night. Until then, we can get our fill of these fantastic screenings. And there’s a plethora of photos and memorabilia on display at the Roosevelt. For example, today, before opening night, there’s a special presentation of a suit Humphrey Bogart wore in “The Big Sleep.”

So now it’s back to the Roosevelt! We will be updating on twitter for the rest of the fest.

All photos TM & (C) Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc.

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Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘The Film That Changed My Life’

Winners of the April giveaway have been selected and contacted. One will receive “Blow Out,” Brian DePalma’s 1981 neo-noir thriller starring John Travolta. The movie was recently rereleased by Criterion. The other winner will receive a copy of “The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It,” a book by Sharrie Williams.

For the May giveaway, I am giving away a copy of my friend and former colleague Robert K. Elder’s book: “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark.” Directors include: Danny Boyle, Peter Bogdanovich, John Dahl, Henry Jaglom, Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan, Richard Linklater, John Woo, John Landis, Neil LaBute and John Waters.

(Meanwhile, Rob has a new book out called, “It Was Over When: Tales of Romantic Dead Ends,” based on stories compiled via his web site of the same name.)

To enter the May giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post through May 31. The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early June. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared.

Good luck!

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