Movie Project #7: Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Running Time: 111 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I heard this is one of the greatest films about alcoholism, a subject I have always found fascinating. I have also heard many great things about Nicolas Cage’s performance.

Accolades: Four Oscar nominations (one win for Best Actor), four Golden Globe nominations (one win for Best Actor), total of 29 wins and 19 nominations from multiple awards outlets

“I don’t know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking ’cause my wife left me.”

That one line perfectly encapsulates the life of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter who lost control of himself long ago. After getting fired from his job, Ben decides to travel to Las Vegas to “drink himself to death.” A rather generous severance check allows him to do as he pleases in Vegas, and he continues to consume seemingly endless amounts of booze. Beer, vodka, tequila, whiskey… you name it, Ben will drink it.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

It is in Vegas where Ben meets another sad soul, a prostitute named Sera (Elizabeth Shue). The two of them immediately bond over their shortcomings, and both seem willing to overlook the other’s major faults. It isn’t entirely clear what draws the two of them together, other than both are incredibly lonely and desperate to find someone to care for them. Truth be told, there really isn’t a whole lot that they can do for each other. At one point, after Ben tells Sera that he cares about her, he makes a point to say, “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.”

Sarah’s reply? “I know.”

And so goes this tragic tale. There is a strange affection between these two characters, even though their relationship seems doomed from the start. After all, can a hooker really help a drunk, or vice versa? Yet even though this is a bizarre couple, their relationship is completely believable.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

This credit completely and undeniably goes to Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom have delivered arguably the best performances of their careers. Their chemistry is perfected to the point of absurdity, with each expertly portraying someone who has essentially hit rock bottom. There are others in the cast — such as Julian Sands as Sera’s brute of a pimp, or Ben’s old colleagues played by Richard Lewis and Steven Weber — but this is very much a two-person show. Cage won an Oscar for his performance, and I’m willing to forgive his last decade of shoddy work based simply on this alone. It’s that good.

Leaving Las Vegas was filmed on a very small budget, which paved the way for Mike Figgis to direct, write the screenplay and compose its music. He filmed most of the scenes on location with Super 16 cameras, and as a result the film has a very personal, authentic feel to it. His overtly jazzy soundtrack may be a bit too much at times, but it does fit in with the overall bleak, downtrodden nature of the movie.

As far as films about alcoholism go, this is one of the better ones I have seen. Leaving Las Vegas is painstakingly depressing, but its authentic nature hits all the right notes.

8/10

Movie Project #46: Dead Man [1995]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Dead Man [1995]

Dead Man [1995]
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Western
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, and Gabriel Byrne
Running Time: 121 minutes

“Do you know my poetry?”

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, shot entirely in black-and-white and labeled a “psychedelic Western” by the director himself, is unlike any film I have seen. What starts out as a familiar Western plotline — a foreigner arrives in an unwelcoming new town and gets in trouble — quickly flips itself on its head and turns into an absurd existential journey.

Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, who we quickly learn is a “dead man” even if he doesn’t know it yet. An accountant from Cleveland, Blake rides by train all the way out to the frontier town of Machine where he has been promised a lucrative new job. It’s clear upon arrival that Blake is woefully out of place. He shows up in a preposterous checkered suit, and he is nearly laughed out of the company building by the business manager (John Hurt). It turns out the job position has been filled, and even after appealing to the company’s truculent owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final film performance), Blake walks away empty-handed.

Dead Man [1995]

Things only get worse from there. Blake somehow manages to bed a woman, only to have her sulking ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) show up afterward. In an act of self defense, William shoots the man, getting himself shot in the process. The bad news continues as it is revealed that this was the son of Dickinson, and the wealthy business owner hires a posse of hitmen to snuff out the accountant.

While on the run, Blake meets a large Native American guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who attempts to help him come to terms with his impending death. It is from this point forward where the film takes a surreal turn, as Nobody takes Blake on a journey of spiritual enlightenment. They meet some bizarre characters along the way (including an unforgettable group of mountain men played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris), and we are kept up to speed on the hitmen via seemingly random interludes. The film fades in and out of the paths of each side, much like Blake goes in and out of consciousness.

Dead Man [1995]

Quite frankly, there’s a lot to take in, and it can get difficult to piece it altogether. By all accounts, this seems to be a film in which multiple viewings are necessary to get the full effect. Critics were divided upon its release — Roger Ebert famously gave this 1 1/2 stars, while Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an entire book on the subject — but it has built a cult following since then.

I can’t say I’m entirely on board with the film, but I loved the cast, led by Johnny Depp’s meek protrayal of William Blake. Gary Farmer makes for an intriguing spiritual guide, a more contemporary take when compared to the early Western time period. The supporting cast is nothing short of phenomenal, with memorable performances from the likes of Mitchum, Hurt, Iggy Pop, Thornton, Harris, Alfred Molina, and even Crispin Glover. Throw in Neil Young’s improvisational guitar score and you have all the makings of a bona fide cult hit.

My first impression of Dead Man is mixed, but there are enough ideas in place that make me believe I could enjoy it more on a second viewing. I may need to go on my own spiritual quest beforehand, however.

6/10

Retro Gaming Project #2: Chrono Trigger [DS]

Earlier this year, I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date, but it will be a fun adventure while it lasts.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

Chrono Trigger
System: Nintendo DS (originally on SNES, also available on PSN, mobile devices and Virtual Console)
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square
Developer: Square
Release Date: November 25, 2008 (originally March 11, 1995)

If there was one game that was glorified more than any other during my youth, it was Chrono Trigger. I seemed to have heard more about this Square RPG than any other, as it was often ranked near or at the very top of all types of “best of” lists. For years I skipped over it, either due to its insane SNES cartridge price or simply because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Looking back, it’s kind of amazing how a once-rare game is now available on so many platforms, including Android and iOS devices. For review purposes, I played through the Nintendo DS port.

Chrono Trigger tells the story of Crono (no “h”), a vibrant young lad with spiky red hair, and his efforts to save the world from its impending doom. Crono becomes aware of this future apocalypse after a freak accident with a teleportation device sends him back in time. Now, with the capability of time travel, Crono embarks on an adventure that takes him all the way back to 65,000,000 B.C. and forward to AD 2300. Along the way, he meets a number of interesting characters (including a robot and a talking frog) who help him on his adventure.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The time travel dynamic takes an otherwise familiar RPG storyline (youth prevent the end of the world) and adds a fresh coat of paint. Being able to travel to the past and the future is fascinating, especially as Crono attempts to keep the course of nature on the right track. In one early moment, his ally Marle is mistaken for her ancestor, a queen in AD 600, so the group has to find a way to bring back the real royal leader. The ability to travel through time at will is much welcomed.

The RPG gameplay is also familiar, but it is so refined that it ranks among the best I have seen in the genre. For one, there are no random battles. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, and Chrono Trigger thankfully provides visible enemies on screen. This means that many of the battles can be avoided if desired, giving the gamer a bit of added flexibility.

The battle system itself is fantastic. The game uses an Active Time Battle system, which allows attacks to be made once a character’s personal timer fills up. Since this is not entirely turn based, this allows for more freedom and requires a bit more strategy. On top of standard attacks, there is an option to use Techs, which allow for powerful spells that can be combined with multiple characters. These use up MP points and drain each character’s timer, but their damage to enemies can often be very rewarding.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The game’s dungeons and combat areas are all well-designed, and many of them allow for a good amount of exploration without that frustrating feeling of getting lost. There is a quite a bit of loot scattered around, and some of the bonus dungeons in the DS port include some truly powerful weaponry. Side quests also warrant deep expeditions, and they can help with leveling up before the final epic boss battle.

Upon concluding the game, a new mode opens up: “New Game+”. In this, a new game is started but all of the weapons, equipment, etc. from the first game are carried over. This allows for a quicker playthrough in order to get to a different ending, of which there are thirteen. For those who want to see other possible conclusions, there is a surprising amount of replay value to be found.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

In terms of aesthetics, Chrono Trigger holds up remarkably well. The 16-bit sprites are as gorgeous as ever, and the DS port throws in some well-crafted anime cutscenes as well. The real treat here, however, is the astoundingly beautiful musical score. Composed primarily by Yasunori Mitsuda, the game’s music is unforgettable, as it uses a wide variety of instruments and does not focus on any one genre. Every town and locale in the game has its own unmistakable tune, many of which are outright classics. A quick YouTube search will find countless remixes and tributes to Mitsuda’s work in this game — I cannot emphasize enough how beloved this soundtrack is, and it sounds just as impressive today.

So, does Chrono Trigger live up to the hype 15+ years later? Yes, mostly. I loved the style, the music, the battle system and many of the characters. If I were to find any faults, it would be from the handful of moments where I became stuck and wasn’t quite sure what to do. Thankfully, guides are more abundant today than they were in 1995, so it usually didn’t take long for me to figure out where to go next. I’m not ready to crown Chrono Trigger as the best RPG ever as many do, but I can say with confidence that this is a damn good game that will likely be as endearing in another twenty years as it is today.

9/10

Heat [1995]

Heat [1995]

Heat [1995]
Directors: Michael Mann
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

Heat is an epic crime film in every sense of the word. Michael Mann really went all out with this blockbuster, cashing in on his $60 million budget and getting the most out of the nearly three hour runtime. This Los Angeles-set movie is mainly focused on two men: Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), a veteran LAPD homicide detective, and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a lifelong criminal and expert robber. Both men live for one thing — the rush they get from their jobs — and their personal lives suffer from it. Once Hanna gets wind of McCauley’s criminal escapades throughout the city, he becomes fascinated by him and tracks him on his way to his biggest heist yet. The character development for these two characters is outstanding, and it is easy to become attached to both, even though one is clearly “good” and the other is “bad.”

The movie is aided by an unbelievably strong and star-studded cast. Seriously, this is a who’s-who of popular actors from the 90’s (although not restricted to that decade, obviously). De Niro frequently shares screen time with his group of thieves, which includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo and Kevin Gage. There are also small, but important, roles from Jon Voight, William Fichtner and Dennis Haysbert. Even a very young Natalie Portman is in this movie. Each of these characters has a fleshed-out storyline to make the viewer care about them, and that is impressive even with the movie’s extended running time.

And yeah, about that length. It took me a while to get around to this movie due to its prolonged running time. This is a long crime saga, and you have to be prepared to sit down for the full three hours to get through it. Is it worth watching all the way through? Yes, absolutely! While there are a number of subplots weaving in and out of the main storyline (some that probably could have been omitted), this is still very much an exceptional film due to excellent acting, a strong script and some downright badass scenes.

There are two scenes in particular that everyone talks about whenever Heat is brought up. One is the bank heist/shootout, an elongated gun battle that is quite possibly one of the best firefights ever recorded in film. The other is a sit-down scene where Pacino and De Niro have a cup of coffee, the very first time the actors have appeared together on screen. Much was made of this encounter when the movie came out, and it is still interesting to see it today. Both scenes are phenomenal, albeit in very different ways.

Some will cry that Mann went overboard with this movie, trying to cram too many stories into one film. I agree that a little probably could have been trimmed off the top, but I still very much enjoyed Heat. This is one of the best crime sagas that I have seen, and its frequent praise is well-deserved.

8.5/10