Movie Project #20: Face/Off [1997]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Face/Off [1997]

Face/Off [1997]
Director: John Woo
Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Crime/Sci-Fi
Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen
Running Time: 138 minutes

Going into Face/Off, I was hoping for a ridiculous, over-the-top action flick, and that’s exactly what I got. John Woo’s third American film is genius in that it sets up two of Hollywood’s craziest actors and lets both of them go off the rails.

Nicolas Cage is at his most deliriously best right from the get-go, playing a terrorist supervillain named Castor Troy. His archenemy is John Travolta’s Sean Archer, an FBI agent who is seeking revenge for the murder of his young son (killed by Troy, of course). Their first confrontation in the film depicts the age old battle of airplane vs. helicopter. Later, they fight on top of a speeding powerboat. The action scenes are signature Woo — stylish as all hell, and full of spectacular explosions.

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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.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans [2009]

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans [2009]
Director: Werner Herzog
Genre: Crime/Drama
Language: English
Country: USA

A common misconception is that Port of Call New Orleans is a remake of the Harvey Keitel-starring 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant. It is not; it just so happens that both movies revolve around a self-destructive police officer who exhibits truly appalling behavior. In fact, director Werner Herzog lobbied to have the movie’s name changed before its release, but was unsuccessful.

In Port of Call, Nicolas Cage stars as Det. Terence McDonagh, the degenerate cop in question. After suffering a severe back injury on duty, he becomes hooked on painkillers and pretty much any other drug he can find (heroin, crack, cocaine, etc.). McDonagh abuses his power to get what he wants by frequently bullying citizens and threatening them with jail time if they don’t help him feed his drug and/or gambling addictions. He is the essence of human scum, yet he is considered the best detective in New Orleans. It is this parable that makes it hard to feel attachment to this character, yet at the same time it is difficult to look away from his depravity.

This is Nic Cage at his finest. The man has been in a lot of crap movies these days, and his acting has been questionable to say the least. In Port of Call, he has free reign to go crazy and have this be acceptable. McDonagh is portrayed as a wild man, a reckless individual who Cage takes over the top throughout the entire movie. To say he is entertaining is an understatement; it’s just painfully difficult to like the guy.

Cage is aided by a solid supporting cast. Eva Mendes plays his prostitute girlfriend, Frankie, who shares a mutual love of drugs. Val Kilmer has a small (and subdued) role as his work partner. Xzibit plays a drug kingpin who is involved with some heinous crimes in the city. Tom Bower is McDonagh’s alcoholic father, and his background provides further insight as to how Terence became such a lowlife.

Port of Call New Orleans is a wild ride that knowingly indulges in excess, and thrives because of this. While I would hesitate to call this a *great* film due to occasional laughable dialogue, bizarre character behaviors and the difficulty to actually want to embrace any of these schmucks, I did enjoy the movie quite a bit. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Zeitlinger’s stunning cinematography; there are some truly gorgeous shots of New Orleans that really give the film a strong connection to the area. As an exercise in debauchery, Port of Call is certainly worth viewing. One question though: what the hell was up with Herzog’s reptile infatuations?