‘Whiplash,’ by writer/director Damien Chazelle, works on many levels, including as a neo-noir tale of obsession

Whiplash posterStrictly speaking, “Whiplash,” about a jazz student going to crazy lengths to please his maniacal teacher, is a drama. But unstrictly speaking, “Whiplash” counts as neo-noir.

How so? Shot in LA (in 19 days) but set in New York City, the urban landscape has a stark, unforgiving, slightly menacing vibe. Andrew, the sensitive but determined student (Miles Teller) at an elite fictional music conservatory, steers his passion into obsession, blood dripping from his fingers, as he determines to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer, à la Buddy Rich.

Andrew shuns his ever-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and, perhaps thinking he’s in charge of his destiny, he stubs out his nascent romance with a lonely movie usher/Fordham student named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he will resent her.

Andrew meets his match in the form of the tyrannical, abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), always dressed in black with immaculate posture and a perfectly shined bald head, who believes that verbal whippings and public humiliation will push his musicians into the realm of greatness.

Most noirishly, as the story unspools, there are subtle signs that we somehow, without knowing quite when or how, have left reality behind and are stranded in a dream-world of desperation, angst and paranoia. The dramatic lighting and tense pacing also contribute to the edgy, one-foot-in-hell mood. Cleverly, though, the story ends on a high note – a triumph of Andrew’s talent and perseverance.

“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is one of my favorite films this year. Chazelle is both imaginative and precise in his storytelling; the Harvard University grad clearly knows what’s like to navigate a path at a competitive, elite institution. And he clearly knows jazz – in fact, both he and Teller play the drums. “Whiplash” also functions as an homage to the art form.

To me, though, Chazelle’s greatest accomplishments are the memorable, moving performances from the entire cast, especially Teller, looking a bit pudgier and pastier than usual, as he goes from schlubby to super-focused, and Simmons as the quietly rageful, ready-to-pounce sadist.

Kill the Messenger poster“Whiplash” opens today in theaters.

ALSO OPENING TODAY:

The Judge,” directed by David Dobkin. Compelling performances from a great cast (Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton), but the bloated, overlong script weighs this court-room drama/father-son story down. Way down.

And still on my list to see: “Kill the Messenger” is a conspiracy thriller directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner about drug smugglers with links to CIA. Based on true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb.

Also: “Addicted,” a story of adultery, directed by Bille Woodruff and starring Sharon Leal.

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Tense neo-noir ‘Gone Girl’ is the go-to movie this weekend

Gone Girl posterIn the poster for “Gone Girl,” star Ben Affleck stands near a body of water – not a sandy white beach burnished by the sun, but a murky strip of gray bounded by non-descript industrial buildings. A dump, in other words, and just the kind of place that could drive you crazy, especially if the rest of your life isn’t going so great and if your relationship is, well, a bit frayed.

Director David Fincher conveys that strong, vivid sense of place (North Carthage, Missouri) as well as a mood of dour frustration (Affleck’s Nick Dunne is in a strained marriage) within the first few minutes of “Gone Girl,” the much-anticipated neo-noir movie based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. (Flynn also wrote the script.)

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head,” Nick tells us. Literally, as he touches her sleek blonde hair, and figuratively: “What are you thinking, Amy? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

It seems that Nick’s fate is to ponder these questions and consistently come up short on answers. That’s because elegant and efficient Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund only child from an upper-crust East Coast family, is always several steps ahead of Nick, a good-looking, polite Midwestern guy who fancies that he might one day write the great American novel. They meet in Manhattan, where they both work as magazine writers but, when they lose their jobs, they move back to Nick’s hometown, which has been decimated by the recession.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick becomes the No. 1 suspect. As the drama unfolds, we discover that the answers to the questions about Nick and Amy are far more devastating than we could have imagined.

Flynn’s smart, multi-layered script (which closely follows her book) is just right for Fincher’s capable hands. The film is tense, gripping and darkly funny, and Fincher draws stellar performances from Affleck and Pike as well as Kim Dickens  as the low-key but tenacious lead detective on the case, Tyler Perry as Nick’s slick, smooth-talking defense attorney and Carrie Coon as Margo, Nick’s straight-shooting and sarcastic twin sister.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

The plot of both the book and movie eventually becomes fantastic, even absurd. Sticklers for plausibility likely will grumble by the end.

But that didn’t bother me much because I think Flynn’s aim, as outlined on page one, was to raise thorny questions about the façades we present when dating, the fronts we gain from our jobs (or lack thereof), the compromises of intimacy and the unconscious crafting of a joint identity, the waning and waxing distance between two people over time, and the creeping self-denial and even outright lies that sometimes prop up a relationship, not to mention the current state of sexual power and politics. (The “cool-girl” soliloquy, particularly in the book, is downright searing.)

It’s a lot to think about and Flynn makes it entertaining to boot. That said, there is one central flaw to both the movie and the book, and that’s a deep connection, an undeniable, goose-pimply intensity, between Nick and Amy. That needs to be there for the story to work completely and it’s missing – there isn’t much chemistry, let alone a combustible, powerful passion. In establishing Amy as the alpha girl, Nick’s character remains a bit dull and two-dimensional.

Granted, she’s drawn to the good-looking, affable Milquetoast because she can boss him around, but a Type A like Amy would tire of mere arm candy and look for more of a challenge – someone to push back a bit and stand up to her. After all, she appears to be the golden girl with the world as her oyster.

And there are still a few stand-up, take-charge guys out there, right?

“Gone Girl” opens today in theaters.

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‘The Drop’ makes compelling descent; ‘Honeymoon’ pops scary question about connubial bliss

The Drop posterThe Drop

It’s a terrific cast: Tom Hardy as Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (a bit of a doofus with a weakness for stray dogs); the late James Gandolfini as Bob’s cynical cousin Marv, who runs the bar; Noomi Rapace as Bob’s scarred and streetwise love interest; Matthias Schoenaerts as a menacing psycho and John Ortiz as a smart, smooth-talking cop.

It’s a tense, top-notch script, written by neo-noir stalwart Dennis Lehane based on his short story called “Animal Rescue,” and it’s well directed by Michaël R. Roskam. The “drop” refers to cash bundles that are left surreptitiously at bars and kept safe until mobsters stop by to collect them. When Marv’s bar is robbed and the gangsters’ cash seized, a series of double-crosses and brutalities ensues.

These characters live and breathe before us – Gandolfini in particular easily inhabits a guy who wants the Christmas decorations in his bar down by December 27, who knows which whiskey will seal a deal and who unwinds by parking himself in front of a mindless TV show.

It’s a good-looking film, capturing the feel of a bleak midwinter, shot by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis.

With much in its favor, the entertaining “The Drop” isn’t a great film because the storytelling becomes a bit too convoluted, there are too many questions left unanswered by the end. It feels like something is missing – perhaps the layers of Bob’s character have not been peeled back far enough.

Still, “The Drop” is a thoughtful, mesmerizing, sometimes funny fall into neo-noir darkness.

Honeymoon posterHoneymoon

For some couples, the honeymoon phase might last months, even years. Not so much in the creepy sci-fi flick “Honeymoon,” an impressive effort from first-time director and co-writer Leigh Janiak.

For Brooklynite newlyweds Paul and Bea, ensconced at an idyllic lake cottage far from the city, tenderness and romance are quickly replaced by tension, then terror.

At first, of course, everything seems perfect. Bea (played by Rose Leslie of “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey”) chirpily recites the couple’s dating rituals and the cherished moment Paul (Harry Treadaway of “The Lone Ranger”) proposed. They can’t keep their hands off each other.

Several hours later, late at night, Bea wanders off alone. Paul finds her and brings her back to the cottage. It soon dawns on him, though, that this version of Bea is not the girl he married and their relationship unravels. Heather McIntosh’s haunting score and crisp cinematography by Kyle Klutz help set the uneasy, eerie mood.

Rooted in psychological fear and grounded with solid performances, the film asks how well we can really know anyone, even those to whom we are intimately attached. As Treadaway put it at a recent press day: “The very process of committing to someone – you love them with all of yourself and trust them with everything you have – is opening up the possibility of this person breaking that trust or not being the person you hoped they were.”

And few things are more frightening than waking up next to a stranger.

“The Drop” and “Honeymoon” are playing in theaters.

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‘Life of Crime’ a waste of time, talent; horror dumbed down; ‘The Last of Robin Hood’ a guilty pleasure

Life of Crime posterLife of Crime

Writing a “Life of Crime” review poses a challenge in that the movie, even though it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, is so slight and so bland I’d forgotten most of it by the next morning. Something about kidnapping, extortion, adultery and Milquetoast men …

Set in 1970s suburban Detroit, the film introduces us to what we hope will be a cast of edgy, funny characters but who, thanks to a crummy script from writer/director Daniel Schechter, turn out to be a bunch of insipid sad sacks. Jennifer Aniston’s Mickey is married to a rich and obnoxious jerk named Frank (Tim Robbins).

He is cheating on Mickey with Melanie (Isla Fisher). Mickey is cheating on him (sort of) with Marshall (Will Forte). Bad guys appear and kidnap Mickey, then tell Frank to pay up if he ever wants to see her again. But Frank balks, thus putting a wrinkle in the works.

Given the source material, this should have been a more engaging movie. The cast makes a valiant effort and, while there are a few laughs early on, there’s an oddly flat tone and zero atmosphere. It might have helped had the film been shot in a Detroit suburb (references to Woodward Avenue are shoe-horned in) instead of Connecticut, but somehow I doubt it.

As Above posterAs Above, So Below

Not long into John Erick Dowdle’s “As Above, So Below,” the plucky protagonist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) rattles off a long list of her advanced degrees. Apparently, this impressive pedigree is meant to establish that Scarlett, an alchemist and explorer as well as a professor, is a multi-talented, ultra-capable, intrepid brainiac. Not.

That she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed becomes quite clear when she and her dumbass crew descend into the catacombs of Paris on a ridiculous quest to find the “philosopher’s stone,” which is said to yield material riches and eternal youth. Oh, and truth. That’s what motivates the learned Scarlett, natch.

What comes next is undiluted unpleasantness – life-threatening struggles involving blood, bones, rats, demons and ghosts galore (including Scarlett’s own deceased dad – deep, right?) and more blood and bones, all shot with a frenetic hand-held camera. That’s followed by a forced, tacked-on ending.

I hope Scarlett didn’t invest too much money getting those degrees. If she did, she got robbed.

Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn

The Last of Robin Hood

 Errol Flynn, by most accounts, was a charming, devil-may-care adventurer and actor, best known for playing Robin Hood and an assortment of big-screen Warner Brothers swashbucklers.

One of Hollywood’s most popular movie stars of the 1930s and  mid-’40s (he inspired the saying “in like Flynn”), the actor’s career had slipped by the 1950s. In 1957, Flynn, also known as a womanizer, began a relationship with a teenager named Beverly Aadland, an aspiring actress.

This strange and sleazy pairing is the focus of “The Last of Robin Hood,” by writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Bottom line: this is a guilty-pleasure flick.

Kevin Kline has fun playing decadent, debauched Flynn, Dakota Fanning shines as the precocious Bev and Susan Sarandon conjures sympathy for Bev’s sadly deluded mother, only too willing to look the other way.

If “The Last of Robin Hood” feels like a made-for-TV movie, that’s because it is. Originally made for Lifetime Films, this title has now secured a theatrical release.

“Life of Crime,” “As Above, So Below” and “The Last of Robin Hood” open Friday in theaters.

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3-D ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ entertains, despite a so-so story and one-dimensional characters

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For/2014/Miramax Films/102 min.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” with its bold visuals based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, is a slick 3-D homage to black-and-white cinematography. The snazzy images of Miller’s film (he wrote and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) are its chief virtue.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

In this follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City” (which Miller and Rodriguez directed with Quentin Tarantino), viewers are plunged into a perilous urban universe. Created with truly spectacular special effects and animation, it’s a sleazy, dazzling, self-contained world of inky black, shocks of bright white, stunning shades of gray and pops of color.

Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez devote much less effort to the story – an episodic tale of temptation, lust, murder, betrayal, revenge and vigilante justice. The stellar cast – including Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis and Eva Green as the title’s Dame, nail their parts but leave you wanting more. Since only a few of the characters move from one story to the next, there aren’t enough opportunities for these great actors to spark some chemistry and play off one another.

Does the fact that the story is mined from graphic novels mean we shouldn’t expect any depth, nuance or surprise? The narratives are underdeveloped and unsatisfying to a point that suggests laziness. (Why don’t we forget about that dialogue and just add another shot of Eva’s luscious body? Or have Jessica gyrate some more. Who’s gonna complain, right?)

Presumably, the filmmakers made an effort to portray a passel of kick-ass femmes fatales, but it felt like mere window dressing. Why, for example, does Jessica Alba’s character need to mutilate herself before going into battle? In the end, these women have very little power.

This Dame is fast, fierce and entertaining, but she’s no femme fatale in my book.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” opens today.

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Film noir feast this weekend: ‘Sin City,’ Exile Noir and ‘Pickup’

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

There are several delectable film noir offerings this weekend in Los Angeles. First, a sequel worth seeing! That would be “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” by directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. It’s a follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City.” (Miller adapted both scripts from his graphic novels.)

Sin City 2“Sin City 2” stars Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie opens Friday.

Following closely behind its Hollywood Exiles in Europe series, UCLA is hosting Exile Noir, a lineup that explores the major contribution to film noir by German-speaking émigrés in Hollywood, all of whom were schooled in German expressionist cinema. Exiled from Nazi Germany, Jewish writers and directors brought a dark vision to their work, informed by staggering loss, pain, fear and betrayal.

Their arrival in Los Angeles permanently altered the city’s creative landscape. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, recently told Susan King of the LA Times: “[Their arrival] changed not just the film industry and the kind of films that were being made, it changed the intellectual life. You have people who are not in the film industry but came here because of the weather and perceived opportunities, like [composer] Arnold Schoenberg and [author] Thomas Mann. They changed the intellectual character of Southern California.”

Pitfall poster 214The program, which runs through Sept. 28, kicks off with an impressive double bill: the prototype of the genre, “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) and “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth), starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt. In honor of “Double Indemnity” turning 70 this year, on Valentine’s Day, we compiled a list of 14 reasons we love this flick.

This series is presented in anticipation of the Skirball Cultural Center exhibit, Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, running Oct. 23–March 1, 2015. More on that in the next few weeks.

Also, as I mentioned earlier this week, the Egyptian Theatre is showing Sam Fuller’s film noir masterpiece “Pickup on South Street” and “White Dog.” His daughter Samantha Fuller will introduce the movies.

There’s no doubt: Life is good for noiristas in Los Angeles!

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The Film Noir File: Sam Fuller plays rough in noir classic ‘Pickup on South Street’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies(TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Thelma Ritter and Richard Widmark play tough cookies in "Pickup."

Thelma Ritter and Richard Widmark play tough cookies in “Pickup.”


Pick of the Week

Pickup on South Street” (1953, Samuel Fuller). 10 p.m. (7 p.m.) Wednesday, Aug. 20. From the 50s heyday of vintage film noir and the Red Scare comes a hard-boiled gem. Trust me. They don’t make em any tougher, crazier or edgier than this grimy, sharp classic by Sam Fuller — a prize winner at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and probably Fuller’s best movie. It takes place in New York City in the lower depths, the dark waterfront, the mean streets. Our “hero” is a ferret-faced natty pickpocket (Richard Widmark), who lives on the docks by night and, by day, strips suckers of their wallets on the subways.

After accidentally lifting some valuable microfilm capable of compromising national security, the thief is suddenly up to his neck with cops, with a rat’s nest of Commie spies run by Richard Kiley, with a beautiful, tight-skirted, loose-moraled streetwalker played by Howard Hughes missus Jean Peters, and with a scrappy fence little old lady huckster named Mo, played by the great character lady Thelma Ritter in her most atypical role.

If you haven’t seen “Pickup on South Street,“ you don’t know noir at its noirest. Or Thelma and Sam at their roughest and toughest.


Friday, Aug. 15 (Faye Dunaway Day)

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967, Arthur Penn). With Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder. Reviewed in FNB on Feb. 4, 2013.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Three Days of the Condor” (1975, Sydney Pollack). Robert Redford is a U. S. government reader and analyst whose world suddenly opens under his feet one day, when most of his colleagues are killed and he becomes a wanted man on the run. The quintessential paranoid anti-C.I.A. thriller, this is a modern variant on the prototypical Hitchcockian “wrong man suspenser. Based on the novel “Six Days of the Condor,” it’s been copied endlessly, especially by novelist John Grisham. With Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson and John Houseman.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway star in "Chinatown."

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway star in “Chinatown.”

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Chinatown” (1974, Roman Polanski). With Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and Burt Young. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 11, 2013.

Saturday, Aug. 16 (Herbert Marshall Day)

6: 15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “The Underworld Story” (1950, Cy Endfield). Big city reporter Dan Duryea gets exiled to a small-town murder case, in a plot that reminds you of Billy Wilder’s (later) “Ace in the Hole.” With Herbert Marshall and Gale Storm.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Foreign Correspondent” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). With Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders and Herbert Marshall. Reviewed in FNB on March 26, 2014.

10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “Murder!” (1930, Alfred Hitchcock). A guilt-stricken juror (Herbert Marshall) tries to clear a convicted murderer whom his vote condemned. One of Hitch’s best and most inventive early talkies. With Miles Mander.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Letter” (1940, William Wyler). With Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and Gale Sondergaard. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 19, 2012. Followed at 1:45 a.m. (10:45 p.m.), by the 1929 film version of “The Letter,” directed by Jean De Lemur, starring the legendary lady of Maugham’s “Rain,” Jeanne Eagels.

Sunday, Aug. 17 (John Hodiak Day)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lifeboat” (1944, Alfred Hitchcock). With Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak, William Bendix and Hume Cronyn. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 16, 2014.

Coolhand Luke poster


Tuesday, Aug. 19 (Paul Newman Day)

1:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). With Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris and Arthur Hell. Reviewed in FNB on June 19, 2014.

5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.). “Cool Hand Luke” (1967, Stuart Rosenberg). With Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton. Reviewed in FNB on March 21, 2014.

Wednesday, Aug. 20 (Thelma Ritter Day)

10 p.m. (7 p.m.). “Pickup on South Street”: See Pick of the Week.

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‘A Most Wanted Man’ ranks as one of the year’s best movies

A Most Wanted Man posterA Most Wanted Man/2014/Demarest Films/122 min.

Shocking violence has become so yawningly common, so eye-rollingly banal that its flippant depiction onscreen is often just par for the course.

But once in a while you see a movie that derives its tension not from a pool of trigger-happy cardboard psychos and their brutal pursuers but from white-hot sparks that fly between finely drawn flesh-and-blood characters; people with depth and dimension, with vital things at stake.  That’s the case with “A Most Wanted Man,” a sharp, suspenseful thriller (based on a John le Carré novel) by director Anton Corbijn.

Corbijn has assembled outstanding actors at the top of their game to bring this story to life. The story and the film belong to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) as Günther Bachmann, a driven workaholic in a German government security/anti-terrorist agency in Hamburg.

His job is keeping surreptitious watch over a mysterious half-Chechen, half-Russian Islamic immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who learns he is the potential heir to a fortune, assuming his claim to the money can be verified. In Günther’s mind, Karpov is a “minnow” in the larger quest to capture “a barracuda and a shark.”

Hoffman plays Günther with arresting realism. We see the dirt under Günther’s nails, hear the raspy voice that’s endured countless smokes and copious Scotch, see the hint of a pleased smile at the culmination of his search. Hoffman is mesmerizing.

Also turning in captivating performances are: Rachel McAdams as Karpov’s lawyer, Willem Dafoe as an uptight banker, Robin Wright as a CIA agent and Nina Hoss as Günther’s colleague.

Corbijn’s carefully rendered  mise-en-scène shows Hamburg, often shot against inky-blank nightscapes by Benoît Delhomme, as glossy and gritty, bustling and lonely. Herbert Grönemeyer provides a haunting score. Where Corbijn missteps is pacing what turns out to be a rather spare plot – the story idles a bit in the third act.

That’s a small flaw, however. Well crafted and superbly acted, “A Most Wanted Man” stands as one of the best films of 2014.

‘A Most Wanted Man’ is currently in theaters.

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‘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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Enchanté: COLCOA film fest hits LA

coloca-logo5[1]The City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Film Festival, a fixture in Los Angeles for 18 years, shows new and classic French films at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. The fest runs April 21-28.

This year’s fest offers another prime schedule of French motion pictures. “We Love You, You Bastard” (or Salaud, on t’aime, to be French about it), the latest film by Claude Lelouch, is the opening night film.

Lelouch, a New Wave writer-director (auteur), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his 1966 “A Man and a Woman” (or Une Homme et un Femme). He conquered movie art-houses and has been active ever since. This new Lelouch movie stars two venerable French rock stars Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell in a story about sowing wild oats and dealing with the results.

What is showing to tempt noiristas? Well, 1960’s “Purple Noon,” one of the great film noirs, starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. This gripping thriller was directed by Rene Clement, based on a novel by the American expatriate crime writer Patricia Highsmith and dazzlingly shot by Henri Decae. It screens at 1:45 p.m., on Tuesday, April 22.

our-heroes[1]le-dernier-diamant[1]Then, there’s the highly popular Film Noir Series on Friday, April 25. Can’t wait! At 5:30 p.m. is the North American premiere of “Our Heroes Died Tonight” (Nos héros sont morts ce soir). Set in early-1960s Paris, this minimalist noir, written and directed by David Perrault, plunges into the seedy world of semi-professional wrestling where backroom dives smell of Gauloise and sweat, and the fights are all rigged.

At 7:30 p.m. Eric Barbier’s heist thriller “The Last Diamond,” makes its international premiere. Starring Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal, the film follows in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” The carrot for the crooks is mighty pretty: the fabled Florentine, a 137-carat yellow diamond last seen in 1918, which has resurfaced and is up for sale in an exclusive Antwerp auction house.

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venus-in-fur[1]The Larriere Brothers’ crime drama “Love is a Perfect Crime” plays at 10:30 p.m. Adapted from “Incidences by Philippe Dijan, whose other novels inspired the films “Betty Blue and “Unforgivable,” this chilly thriller revolves around a University of Lausanne student who goes missing. The top suspect? Her professor and lover, natch. “Love is a Perfect Crime” stars Mathieu Almaric, Karin Viard, Maiwenn and Sara Forrestier. This is the film’s West Coast premiere.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

There are two other enticing events on Friday. The massively influential but too mortal (and gone too soon) French auteur François Truffaut will be remembered at a 1:30 p.m. screening of his very personal 1977 tale of a femme-chaser “The Man Who Loved Women,” starring Charles Denner as the Man, and Brigitte Fossey, Nathalie Baye and the supremely piquant Leslie Caron as some of the Women. There will be a talk on Truffaut after the movie.

At 8:30 p.m., that brilliant and elusive Polish-American-French cineaste, Roman Polanski will be represented by his latest film “Venus in Fur,” based on the masochistic novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and David Ives’ play from it. “Venus” stars Polanski’s muse-mate Emmanuelle Seigner as an extroverted actress who shows up after hours to read for a part.

la-belle-et-la-bete[1]the-murderer-lives[1]On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the one French film of this year’s glittering menu that you absolutely don’t want to miss: the 1946 fairytale treasure “Beauty and the Beast,” written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Josette Day stars as Belle and Jean Marais as Bete. The film was photographed (lustrously) by Henri Alekan, scored (hauntingly) by Georges Auric and technically advised by Rene Clement, who we suspect, had more to do with the film‘s impeccable, fantastic technique than just advice.

If fairytales aren’t your tray of gateaux, there’s a brutally real alternative: “Abuse of Weakness,” a fierce semi-autobiographical drama by auteur Catherine Breillat about her own fleecing by a famous conman. “Abuse” screens at 7:45 p.m.

“We Love You, You Bastard” rescreens at 1:15 p.m.

Sunday brings the closing session of the competition, but there are two more major French classics on Monday, April 28. At 2 p.m., you can see the great director Patrice Chereau’s 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ breathless historical novel “Queen Margot” (La Reine Margot). Chereau’s film stars Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil.

And at 3:30 p.m. there’s another film noir, a black-and-white ‘40s classic: “The Murderer Lives at No. 21” by Henri-Georges Clouzot. French stage and screen actor Louis Jouvet stars as the relentless detective Wens.

The COLCOA screenings are at the Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046.

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