Friday, June 9, 2017

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) Blue Valentines

The downward spiral of a boozer and a hooker in Sin City.

Written and directed by Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs (1990)).  The film was based on the semi-autobiographical novel Leaving Las Vegas by John O'Brien an alcoholic writer who offed himself two weeks after selling the book rights. The beautiful cinematography was by Declan Quinn (The Kill-Off (1989)), and the music was by Mike Figgis.

The film stars Nicolas Cage (The Cotton Club (1984), Moonstruck (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Red Rock West (1993)) as Ben Sanderson. Elisabeth Shue (Palmetto (1998)) as Sera, Julian Sands (Siesta (1987), Boxing Helena (1993)) as Yuri Butso, Richard Lewis (Curb Your Enthusiasm TV Series (2000– )) as Peter, Steven Weber as Marc Nussbaum, Emily Procter as Debbie, Valeria Golino (Rain Man (1988)) as Terri, Thomas Kopache as Mr. Simpson, Laurie Metcalf as Landlady, Graham Beckel as L.A. bartender, Lou Rawls as the concerned cabbie, and Mariska Hargitay as Hooker at bar.

The film won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Nicolas Cage. It was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

I re-watched this film the way you'd rubberneck a car wreck. I saw it upon first release, and then basically forgot about it's existence for twenty plus years. It dovetails nicely with the other addiction films some of which are Noirs, The Lost Weekend, The Man With The Golden Arm, I'll Cry Tomorrow, Stakeout On Dope Street, The Days Of Wine And Roses, Wanda, Panic In Needle Park, BarflyRequiem for a Dream.

Most of the story other than Ben's L.A. sequences is told in flashbacks as Sera confides in her analyst, counselor, therapist, we never actually find out which, who, throughout the film remains unseen and off screen.

Ben (Cage) on a buying spree

bumming money for a drink
torching his possessions

Ben Sanderson: I don't know if I started drinking 'cause my wife left me or my wife left me 'cause I started drinking, but fuck it anyway.

Washed up manic depressive screenwriter Ben Sanderson, his marriage on the rocks his boozing out of control, torches all his ties to the past and drives to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. He figures it should take him about four weeks.  Sera a L.A. prostitute since she was sixteen, has fled from her Latvian pimp Yuri to make the Las Vegas casinos and streets her beat. Yuri has tracked her down and has her servicing groups of Eastern European gamblers. She is also turning tricks.

Sera (Shue) on the job

entertaining the "guests"

Ben and Sera first meet when Ben, drinking and driving of course as he blows into town, almost runs Sera down as he  runs a red light.

Sera almost run over

first meet
 Ben checks into a dive motel, The Whole Year Inn, which he, in his drunken fog, interprets appropriately as The Hole You're In.

Getting familiar with his new "home", driving around the city he spots Sera walking the streets, and offers her $500 for sex. She takes him on and the two of them drive to Ben's flop.  While he sits on the edge of his bed Sera gets down on her knees and begins to give Ben a blowjob. Ben though stops her and tells her that he only wants to talk.  Ben calls her his angel.


Sera: You can fuck me in the ass. You can cum on my face. Just keep it out of my hair. I just washed it.

Sera is attracted to the loveable lush and the two of them develop a dependent relationship based on both of their needs to combat depression and loneliness. They have a sort of truce, Sera will never ask Ben to stop drinking and Ben will never complain about her hooking.

Ben Sanderson: We both know that I'm a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I am a person who is totally at ease with that. Which is not to say that I'm indifferent or I don't care, I do. It simple means that I trust and accept your judgment.

Ben Sanderson: Don't you think you'd get a little bored, living with a drunk?
Sera: Well... that's what I want.
Ben Sanderson: You haven't seen the worst of it. I knock things over... throw up all the time. These past few days I've been very controlled. You're like some sort of antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance. But, that won't last forever.

Periods of serenity are juxtaposed with bouts of uncontrollability, usually triggered by the lack or denial of alcohol.  His only drinking problem is when he can't find a drink. At first things go swimmingly but soon Sera begins to get concerned about Ben's deterioration. She begs him to go see a doctor, Ben is agast. When Sera is out turning tricks Ben heads to a casino and is picked up by another hooker. He takes her to Sera's apartment, and she finds them there. Sera throws Ben out.

Things continue to spiral into Noirsville, Sera gets anally gang raped by college football players and then evicted from her apartment. Ben gives her one last call on the phone and then cashes in his chips at a dive motel.


Ben and Terri (Valeria Golino)

Graham Beckel as L.A. bartender,

Yuri (Julian Sands) and Sera

bleeding from the gang rape

Sera: I think the thing is, we both realized that we didn't have that much time. And I accepted him for who he was, and I didn't expect him to change, and I think he felt that for me, too. I liked his drama, and he needed me. And I loved him. I really loved him.

Nicholas Gage is excellent, he gives a resourceful credible performance, energetically flying high ecstatically then becoming morose and despondent as he lurches from scene to scene. On a side note nobody could drink as much as depicted and still have a pulse, also, and this is from personal experience, there is no way a man can function sexually being as blitzed out of his gourd as Ben.

Elisabeth Shue is playing the hooker with a heart of gold trope. A working girl would normally steer clear of a prospect like Ben, she gives the impression during her therapy sessions that she is a competent business woman and able to size up the trick and perform on autopilot. She confesses that with Ben it was different, she took to him as one would care for a wounded bird, it was a mutual need that each supplied the other. Her nursing of Ben assuaged her loneliness, and provides her with a modicum of redemption.

Whenever Ben and Sera are together a "Ben And Sera Theme" leitmotif plays it's reminiscent of Clair de Lune. The rest of the bluesy soundtrack consists of  Angel Eyes, It's A Lonesome Old Town, My One and Only Love, performed by Sting.  Lonely Teardrops performed by Michael McDonald. Come Rain Or Come Shine performed by Don Henley. Ridiculous performed by Nicolas Cage. I Won't Be Going South (For A While) performed by The Palladinos, and You Turn Me On courtesy of The Crazy Horse Saloon, Paris

The performances, the atmospheric cinematography of Las Vegas and vicinity, coupled with the moody music provides a sad noir backdrop that elevates the whole into a memorable work of art. 9/10

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