Here's a trivia question for our dear readers: what do Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Richard Dreyfuss, and Massimo Troisi have in common? The "they're all actors!" answer is pretty obvious, but their real link to each other and history may be viewed by some as a bit...embarrassing. All four of the above mentioned men lost out on winning an Academy Award in 1996, when the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar went to....
Let that sink in for a minute. For a man who has literally dived off the deep end in his career numerous times, and not just on screen, who has attached himself to some questionable works in his quest to build one of the most successful acting careers (in terms of box office earnings), to have more Academy Award wins than Johnny Depp, Peter O'Toole, Brian Cox, Brad Pitt, and John Malkovich combined, it just seems like the world got turned on its ear, and there is forever a record of it. Now, some of the flat out worst films in recent memory ('Bangkok Dangerous,' 'G-Force,' 'Ghost Rider') can all say "Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage" on their liner art to fool buyers into thinking they're going to watch a film full of great acting prowess.
So, that begs the question: did the Coppola turned Cage earn his trophy? Was there ever really a time when he was actually acting in the films he starred in, rather than just showing up and being Nicolas Cage? Will this review ever start talking about the film it's for?
'Leaving Las Vegas' is a brutally ugly film. It doesn't pull the heartstrings as much as it impales the audience with a tire iron. It's unrelenting and unforgiving in its portrayal of its characters. Quite honestly, it's much more depressing and disturbing than 'Requiem for a Dream,' and that is truly saying something. A film with literally no replay value, this is one of those "you have to see it, then wish for a long time that you never did" films, whose backstory is so very unfortunate that it acts very much like a suicide note.
Alcohol is the cause of each and every one of Ben Sanderson's (Cage) problems. In his eyes, though, it will be the solution. After losing his family and job due to his love of the drink, and destroying his worldly properties, he takes his severance pay to Las Vegas to go on a historic bender. With the aim of living large one last time, Sanderson starts drinking himself to death and refuses to eat or seek help. When he meets the beautiful Sera (Elisabeth Shue), he finds that something extra to spend his last few dollars on, but the connection he shares with the equally damaged prostitute isn't enough to stop him from pursuing his goal. Sera can't win, as she either will lose the man she loves to death, or lose him if she interferes with his death wish.
Sanderson is an amazing character, one who is instantly likable, yet at the same time, so very distant that he's almost inhuman. We want to be there with him in his struggles as his body slowly shuts down, but it's almost like watching a loved one die. It's excruciating cinema, where there is no one to root for, no silver lining around the dark clouds, just a perennial sense of despair and a bottomless chasm where hope should reside. Few films are so persistently pessimistic yet honest. Without reading the John O'Brien novel that the film is based on, I can't see how anyone could read the book or watch this flick, and not wonder about the state of mind of the man behind it, and that was made fairly obvious when O'Brien killed himself while the film was in production.
Cage is a marvel in this flick, with a weird mixture of seriousness and the unhinged lunacy that I love so dearly from the man with the bird hair. From the opening shots, we know we are witnessing a troubled man, as he goes on perhaps the most epic shopping trip recorded on film, to help create his liquored up death bed. Cage is as convincing as humanly possible, with the exception of the drastic weight loss found in every other Christian Bale film, in his portrayal of a man who lost it all and no longer cares, reveling in the sound of the ever-looming death rattle. He's complex, yet amazingly simple. Not even the purchase of Han Solo-esque clothing can cheer the man up!
Of course, without an outside influence of some sort, Sanderson would be an incomplete character, and that's where Sera comes in, one of the most bizarre characters in film. The self destructive relationship is insane, without a doubt, but it's convincing, as the two troubled souls connect in their misery. They're more realistically tragic than any iteration of 'Romeo and Juliet,' if not mainly for the fact that their love has more obstacles than every episode of 'American Gladiator' combined. Shue is wonderful in her role, without a doubt, and she is to blame (or thank, however you view it) for one of the most disturbing aspects of 'Leaving Las Vegas.'
A film about killing oneself should not be sexy, yet, in some twisted, dark, horrible way, the relationship between Ben and Sera is beyond scorching. With great chemistry together, Cage and Shue truly do sell the fact that there really is something between the two characters other than the fact that they're so horribly fucked up. Their relationship isn't all that physical, either, as it seems Sera's inability to stop working the streets creates an almost unbreakable barrier that the two are stuck on opposite sides of. Yet, with minimal nudity, the forbidden love affair is all the more enthralling, a tease that isn't frustrating, but rather turns up the heat and keeps you right with it until it wants to lose you on purpose.
'Leaving Las Vegas' is an amazing film, let there be no doubt about that, yet, it's also horribly offensive, crude, and twisted. Death shouldn't be sexy, sex shouldn't be deadly, and even more confusingly, Nicolas Cage shouldn't be so amazing. With a breathtaking performance countering a smoldering one, this film oozes charisma and possibly something else that I don't want to touch with a ten foot stick. Finishing this film may seem like an endurance test, but it's worth it, to see the story completed and realized. I have never seen a film like 'Leaving Las Vegas,' and that's a damn good thing.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Leaving Las Vegas' is currently only available on Blu-ray (domestically) at Best Buy stores, and through their online site, along with a large pile of other MGM and Lionsgate catalog fare. The release itself is housed on a Region A marked BD50 disc, with no annoying pre-menu content. In fact, there is no main menu. The disc autoplays, like an older Warner Bros. release, and there is only a pop up menu for settings, scene selection, and accessing the trailer. In other words, it's a dump release, similar to the ones Anchor Bay have put out for the last year on odd catalog titles not likely to sell all that well.
'Leaving Las Vegas' looks like microwaved hell. That may be a compliment, considering how pathetic this Blu-ray release is. Presented in 1080p, using an AVC MPEG-4 encode, this title was just thrown on the format and given the following amount of time and attention in its preparation and restoration: none.
After opening with a flat, uninviting shot that hardly screams "I'm in high def! Wow, look at the great deal you just got, I'm an awesome disc!," the film proceeds to spend about two hours going through a few different sorts of ugly. Behind grain levels that obscure detail, black levels that seem too bright, yet still crush so hard that a hole in time and space appear any time two black objects touch. Dirt sprinkles aren't too major, but they're obvious, and some seriously glowing edge enhancement artifacts can be even more blatant and unmissable. Facial features are completely lacking, while skin tones are beyond unpredictable and sporadic. Banding? Sure, why the hell not. Throw in brightness fluctuations and a random haze that affects the entire picture, and you have a Blu-ray disc that wants to be the live action equivalent of 'Dead Space: Aftermath.'
The audio doesn't fare much better, sadly. Sure, it's lossless, via a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but this is one of those times where lossless or no, it just doesn't matter.
Soundtrack elements are lively through all angles, though sometimes it lacks conviction, just lazily hitting channels because it's told to, when it just wants to crawl up in a hotel and die. Rear activity is very random, and there are even a few localized effects that hit the wrong channels, hooray! I suppose I can forgive the weird rattling in the gas station scene, or the incredibly harsh audio in the finale of the film as aesthetics, but I can't so much forgive the constant shrill feeling that only "complements" the ambience levels that cut in and out mid-scene and the fact that dialogue is randomly muted and incomprehensible.
Nicolas Cage may sometimes drunkenly slur dialogue intentionally, but this is just a bloody mess.
The lone extra here is the Theatrical Trailer, in three minutes of very soft high definition. If anything, at least the crummy video is consistent.
'Leaving Las Vegas' isn't for the faint of heart. It's a disturbing downward spiral, with two incredibly troubled characters who are understandable, yet not exactly pitiable. Suicide isn't a pretty thing, and watching it unfold over two hours is definitely not exactly easy, breezy cinema. This Best Buy exclusive release sports some very crummy audio and video, and no extras, aside from a trailer. It's cheap, which is great, even if it is hard to find due to limited stock at any given store. This is a good flick, but a bad, bad disc.