Sunday, 22 May 2011
Leaving Las Vegas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth Shue, Julian Sands
By Alan Bacchus
Mike Figgis’s tragic love story in which Nicolas Cage drinks himself to death while falling in love with Elizabeth Shue’s hooker with a heart of gold is still as powerful now as it was when it was first released.
Looking back, this film plays like the same kind of dreamy romanticism of Wong Kar Wai, who was making movies like this at the same time – tonally improvisational and natural but also visually stylized and wholly cinematic. But it’s perhaps Bernardo Bertolucci with whom this film shares a kinship most. Figgis’s tale of sex and self-destruction fuelled by character, location and a whole bunch of graphic sex reminds us of Last Tango in Paris.
The opening 15 minutes of Figgis’s film is simply masterful, as it features the establishment of Nicolas Cage’s life in Los Angeles as a Hollywood screenwriter at the end of his career of self-destruction. Hell, Figgis is even bold enough to let the first act play out before the title sequence. The rest of the film is a torrid and tragic love affair between a hooker and a drunk, a relationship ironically not consummated until the final scene. It's a transcendental affair of mind and spirit.
Cage, who deservedly won an Oscar for his work, is at his most effective as a sad but charming drunk with a remarkable sparkle in his eyes. He generates such strong sympathy for such a depressing character. Figgis, one of the few directors to get in sync with Cage’s unique talents, pulls an inside-out method performance from the idiosyncratic actor. We can really only look to the Coen Bros., Norman Jewison, Spike Jonze and Werner Herzog as the others who tapped into Cage’s unique expressive personality as well as Figgis did.
In addition to the performances, Figgis’s working methodology affects all elements of the film bringing a seemingly effortless feeling, like a master jazz musician on a freeform solo – a literal example that compliments Figgis’s own self-composed jazz score.
Though it’s narratively ambitious and unconventional, Figgis’s visual palette is pure cinema. Declan Quinn’s 16 mm photography looks fabulous. The attraction of 16 mm in the pre-video, pre-HD times, other than the smaller and mobile cameras, is a distinct colour saturation you can’t get from 35 mm. Of course, on Blu-ray it doesn’t quite 'pop', but this is a film that shouldn't pop. It’s a grainy and dirty little masterpiece, just like the seedy town in which it’s set.
Watch for interesting cameos and early bit parts from Danny Huston as a bartender and Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey as a bar patron, as well as Marishka Hargatay, Lou Rawls, Bob Rafelson and even Julian Lennon!
Unfortunately, I could do without the songs from Sting, which are peppered throughout the film, but they surely fit the times. Sting’s mid-90s jazzy crooner stylings fit the all-around blue mood. It's a minor distraction from an otherwise great film.
Leaving Las Vegas is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.