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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classics. Leaving Las Vegas, And Now Miguel

“Leaving Las Vegas” (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Mike Figgis, 1995 (MGM/20th Century Fox)

“Try to think that love’s not around. Still, it’s uncomfortably near…”

Frank Sinatra, in “Angel Eyes”
Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas as an alcoholic Hollywood agent named Ben Sanderson — who loses his last job and then drinks himself to death in Las Vegas in the arms of a beautiful hooker named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) — is a classic movie potrayal of a lost soul, a man suffused with racking pain and horrible anguish, yet unable to give up the liquor that’s killing him, or the weakness that drives him to it. And this is a classic movie about addiction: its anguish, its sweet sodden joys, its last brutal stop.

The story comes from an almost unbearably truthful novel by John O’Brien — a writer and alcoholic who killed himself two weeks after writer-director Mike Figgis contacted him about this movie — and Figgis(a musician who also composed the score)  turns it into a bluesy, jazzy, heart-scarred lament, set in the Las Vegas that Frank Sinatra might be singing of (and in) in songs like “Angel Eyes” and “One for My Baby” —  with Nelson Riddle strings, a bare-bones piano and a saxophone wail behind him. The movie, photographed by Declan Quinn, has the lurid glamour of Las Vegas at its most destructively enticing and expensively sleazy , and the shivery pop poetry of life seen through a shot glass.

At its center, Cage and Shue really deliver the goods.  Their roles are familiar, almost cliched — the Hollywood drunk and the Vegas hooker — but the way they play them, in the seemingly improvisatory, emotionally shattering style of most Figgis films, makes the movie extraordinary. Cage, alternating at the start between boorish pugnacity, shame-faced wheedling for booze money (from some Hollywood players, whose world he will soon exit), and an odd expression of almost seraphic joy, when he kicks back the booze and sucks death, has rarely been better or as good. (If we get mad at him for movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it’s because we know he’s capable of movies like this.)

Among the movie portraits of alcoholism, Cage’s is one of the great ones: as giddy and melancholy as Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, as lost and stumbly and falling-apart as Albert Finney in Under the Volcano, almost as shatteringly funny, euphoric and sadistic as Jason Robards in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and a bit better than that other Hollywood drunk Oscar-winner, urbane Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Cage gives us an indelible image of addiction and its grip and suffering, showing us with lucid clarity the progressive erosion of a charming, bright yet fragile spirit.    

Of course, to the average drunk, probably dying nearer the gutter than the Vegas casinos, hotels  and motels where Ben hangs out, Ben’s exit with Sera might seem almost an unlikely paradise. That’s true. But there’s no less pain, and he’s no less dead, after the last swig or sip. Neither is any other doomed soul, caught in the neon glare and the cold black velvety night , listening to shivery pop ballads (sung by Sting instead of Sinatra), trying to make love (and failing) and dying, dying, dying.

Extras: Uncut, unrated version not seen in theatres.

 “And Now Miguel” (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Joseph Krumgold, 1953 (Milestone)
This beautiful litle black and white documentary — about 12-year-old Miguel Chavez and his dreams of joining his father and brothers in their annual trek taking their sheep to summer pasture  in the Sangro del Cristo mountains of New Mexico — is a small gem of lyrical etnographic moviemaking, in the tradition of Robert Flaherty. And it’s far too little known — mostly because of its curious history.
 Writer-director Joseph Krumgold directed And Now Miguel — whose title refers to Miguel’s ascension in the Chavez family traditions — for the U. S. Information Service in 1953. (It was his outstanding credit in a career devoted first to low-budget Hollywood genre films, and later to a few documentaries.). The next year, as a writer, Krumgold reworked the story into a Newberry Award-winning novel — a book which was, in turn, made into the more widely known fictionalized featire of  1966, starring Pat Cardi and Michael Ansara, directed by family movie specialist James B. Clark (A Dog of Flanders, Misty).
Krumgold’s picture, which uses Miguel and his real family, and runs barely more than an hour, is the superior picture. Some may find the narration, supposedly by Miguel, cloying. (I didn’t.) But the images of the sun-parched New Mexico landscapes and the sheep ranching Chavez family’s life — the sheep-herding, the shearing, the fiestas — are lovingly, memorably recorded by Krumgold, cinematographer  Kenneth Marthey and assistant cameraman Richard Kent.  The very first shots are of a ewe tending her newborn lamb, the flock’s first of the season, who scampers off, key the movie’s unusually reverential mood.  This is a superb movie for children, gentle yet full of life and natural poetry. (Puzzlingly, Milestone’s print includes the count-down headers at the beginning of each reel. If you know it’s coming, it shouldn’t bother you.)
 This DVD must be special-ordered from Milestone. Telephone number: 1-800-603-1104. E-mail:   
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon