The 1995 Project continues as a movie about a depressed alcoholic proves to be nothing compared to the story of a little brave pig.
Leaving Las Vegas (directed by Mike Figgis)
I go into every movie trying to find something to admire about it, but for the life of me I just can’t understand how this movie managed to be as critically acclaimed as it was when it was first released. Plenty of critics whose writing I like and respect found it to be one of the most realistic, gripping dramas of the nineties and I remain baffled. All I see is a rote screenplay and mediocre filmmaking. I can’t even support the performances, which I was ready to praise even if the movie weren’t any good, by Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage, who was awarded the Academy Award for his work here.
Cage plays Ben, a suicidal alcoholic who loses his family, loses his job (as a Hollywood executive) and moves to Las Vegas hoping to drink himself to death. Elisabeth Shue plays Sera, a prostitute who has it as hard as prostitutes usually do in this type of movie. They fall in love, but these are two damaged people and it doesn’t go well. At the time, Leaving Las Vegas was praised as an honest and bleak drama about human connection. To me, it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy that romanticizes depression and fetishizes the dangers of prostitution.
The worst part in the movie is the first time Ben and Sera spend the night together. Ben pays for her to come to his hotel room. He doesn’t want to have sex with her. “Just stay with me” he says. This somehow makes Sera decide to reform Ben. I thought maybe she felt pity for him, wanted to give her life meaning by helping a pathetic man. But that’s not the case. This is a romance, and Sera is attracted to Ben. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t find any romantic spark between the characters in any of their scenes, and the case isn’t helped by Figgis’s mundane direction, that doesn’t give us any visual motif or stylization that would represent the lovers’ brewing passion that is absent from the script.
The level of tragedy at the end of the movie as ridiculous as anything you’d see in Showgirls, the other ’95 movie about Las Vegas that, unlike this one, was labelled as one of the worst ever made. At least Showgirls knows it’s ridiculous and stupid. Leaving Las Vegas is unbearably bleak and absolutely blind to how melodramatic it is. How could people not see this was the real stinker?
Babe (directed by Chris Noonan)
There is a notion out there -and it was certainly more pronounced back in 1995- that it’s a little ridiculous that the Academy saw fit to nominate a movie about a pig for Best Picture. I’m assuming such a thought can only come from two types of people: A) People who have never seen Babe, or B) people so dumb they don’t recognize a great movie when it stairs them in the face
Babe, co-written and produced by Australian auteur George “Mad Max” Miller and directed by first-timer Chris Noonan is one of the best films of the nineties, and one of the best children’s movies ever made. Children’s movies, by the way, may very well be the most under-appreciated and neglected genre by film critics, who sadly tend to give mediocre movies a pass just because they’re aimed at children. It is my belief that not only should criticize children’s movies as toughly as we do adult ones, but we should actually be tougher. Children are, after all, far more impressionable and susceptible to the pop culture they consume. I’m speaking from personal experience. I was lucky enough to grow up with amazing pieces of media that shaped who I am today. I also watched a lot of trash, but I can only imagine what kind of person can result from a kids who spend all their childhood watching nothing but trash.
But the role of education in media and film criticism is a discussion for another time. Right now, I just want to let you know that Babe is a magnificent movie, and one that will prove indispensable in the formation of any child who watches it. It is the story of a little pig (Christine Cavanaugh) who is separated from his mother and ends up at a sheep farm run by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). He is the only pig there, so he is kind of adopted by the dogs. He, however, can’t enter the house, and go on to the fields and shepherd the sheep because he is not a dog. As time goes on, the little pig proves that there is no reason why anyone should settle for the explanation that one can’t do something just because “that’s the way things are.”
It’s a valuable message for children, but a good children’s movie is much more than just a healthy message. Babe is brilliant in the way it seems tailor-made to turn the life of a pig into a fantasy world all of its own. The Hoggett farm is a masterpiece of art direction (designed by Roger Ford), turning a simple cottage into a microcosmos for a whole world. It is much more mundane, but it is as full of life and detail as Oz or Middle Earth. The cinematography (by Andrew Lesnie) gives the movie a golden fairy-tale look, the soundtrack borrows from grandiose classical music, and the visual effects -both computer animation and animatronics- remain practically seamless after all these years.
If there is anything that I don’t think is perfect about Babe is the fact that the movie has a pretty accelerated pace. We move from scene to scene very swiftly and there is relatively little time for reflection, especially in the first act. At only 92 minutes long, I wouldn’t have mind a bit more measure in the movie’s rhythm, but only as long as it didn’t sacrifice its story-telling economy. Because the truth is this isn’t a big flaw or anything, even if things fly by, one still gathers all the information necessary, and it is even more effective on children, thanks to the movie’s dealing with its emotional issues from a perspective a child would recognize instantly. This is a story about mothers and sons, abandonment, wanting to belong, discovering the world, life and death. It’s the story of a child discovering the world and his place in it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenes shared by Babe and James Cromwell. It’s in these scenes that the movie adopts a slightly more measured pace, and finds the core of its story. They are also the scenes that make the movie as touching and effective for adults as it is for children. Cromwell, deservingly nominated for his understated role, is the absolute perfect casting for farmer Hoggett. I can’t imagine any other actor taking on the role, and doing so with as instantly iconic and moving results. In a lesser movie, he’d be the grumpy old man whose heart is softened by a lovely child. In Babe, he is just a sensible human, a man who carries a lifetime of hopes and dreams inside him, and who sees in this pig a similar loner with whom to connect.
Babe is a masterpiece, there is no other way to put it. Its final act is a thing a beauty that will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has a heart. For a little movie about a pig, I think that’ll do.