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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas(1998)
Journalist Raoul Duke and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo drive from LA to Las Vegas on a drugs binge. They nominally cover news stories, including a convention on drug abuse, but also sink deeper into a frightening psychedelic otherworld. As Vietnam, Altamont and the Tate killings impinge from the world of TV news, Duke and Gonzo see casinos, reptiles and the American dream.
For more about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray release, see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on February 2, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox, Hunter S. Thompson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Katherine Helmond
» See full cast & crew
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray Review
A love-it-or-hate-it cult classic finally winds its way onto Blu-ray...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, February 2, 2010
Panic. It crept up my spine like the first rising vibes of an acid frenzy. There I was. Alone in Las Vegas, completely twisted on drugs... no cash, no story for the magazine, and on top of everything else, a gigantic god damned hotel bill to deal with. How would Horatio Alger handle this situation?
A consummate marriage of manic source and surreal adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is unequivocally Hunter S. Thompson, unequivocally Terry Gilliam. While the late author's 1972 novel and the Brazil director's subsequent 1998 film have divided audiences over the years, alienating some and engrossing others, both have successfully carved out a notch in pop culture infamy; both have been denounced by sneering detractors who claim Thompson's twisting narrative and Gilliam's unapologetic aggressiveness are aimless and off-putting; and both have been hailed by countless critics who find the words and imagery of Thompson and Gilliam's brazen bastard to be as maddeningly memorable as they are intoxicating. Above all else, both are blessed with an inexplicable magnetism that continues to hypnotize readers and viewers alike, even some three decades after Thompson first lost himself in the endless expanse of the Nevada desert. Does their madhouse of mescaline and ether go too far? With little to show for it? Perhaps. But it's in their reckless journey that Fear and Loathing comes alive and etches its mark. It's the sheer absurdity of the destination that makes it so compelling. And it's the elusive insanity of it all that makes Gilliam's freebase film worth watching.
Based on Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," Gilliam's adaptation follows Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) -- a balding journalist with an illegal pharmacy crammed in the trunk of his rented Chevy Impala -- and his best friend and attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they brave the sunbeat wastelands of Nevada to cover a national motorcycle race. Duke has little interest in the race though. Under the constant influence of multiple drugs, he drags his equally inebriated attorney to any casino, nightclub, restaurant or hotel that will have them, leaving destruction in his wake and succumbing to any and every hallucination that scrambles up his leg with a knife in its teeth. Along the way, he encounters a terrified hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire), a chummy photographer (Craig Bierko), a grizzled colleague (Mark Harmon), a gullible young painter (Christina Ricci), a high-strung police officer (Gary Busey), a flirtatious reporter (Cameron Diaz), a mouthy carnie (Penn Jillette), a waitress (Ellen Barkin), a fanatical speaker (Michael Jeter), and a slew of other eccentric cameo roles Gilliam assigned to familiar Hollywood faces. And that's not even including the cannibalistic reptile-people, eel-headed desk clerks, and invading infantrymen that dominate Duke's acid-birthed delusions.
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in this world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can be exhausting at times. Gilliam's skewed Inferno is a repulsive, gut-wrenching assault on the senses; an unrelenting stream of ugliness and depravity that doesn't offer viewers a single moment of respite or relief. Even so, Gilliam's vile vision is actually captivating in its cruelty. He takes such confident command of Thompson's reigns that it's difficult to resist his perverse imagination. Those who make it through the first twenty minutes of the film are more likely to stick with the director to the end; those who balk at Duke's bat-stricken fear and shake their heads at the insatiable man-beasts that suddenly cloud his view should go ahead and eject the disc before their patience is undone. From flooded hotel rooms to swerving convertibles, from desert target practice to sandstorm races, from Depp's Looney Tune antics to Del Toro's gut-jiggling exclamations, Gilliam pushes, prods, and pulls his audience from scene to scene, banking on their investment in the inane extremes of it all to justify the cost of their tickets. He issues no apology, begs no forgiveness; he hurtles ahead with blind abandon, disregarding anyone he leaves by the wayside. But it's in his brave, unwavering portrayal of Duke and Gonzo's madness that the director finds his stride and the film finds its resonance. Fear and Loathing may vault the boundaries of good taste, but it does so with such audacity and swagger that it takes on a life of its own. I couldn't watch the film more than once every six months -- I just don't have the stomach for multiple viewings -- but I recognize Gilliam's filmmaking prowess, the sharpness of his screenplay, and the wholehearted commitment of his cast.
What was I doing here? What was the meaning of this trip? Was I just roaming around in a drug frenzy of some kind? Or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story? Who are these people, these faces? Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used car dealers from Dallas, and sweet Jesus, there were a hell of a lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, still humping the American dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.
To that end, Depp and Del Toro are forces of cinema-spewn nature. Chameleons in every sense of the word, the actors are so committed, so convincing, so cemented in their characters that the whole of the film rises to meet their performances. Whether you adore Gilliam's brass tacks or despise his bleary antics from beginning to end, it's impossible to deny that Depp and Del Toro completely inhabit Duke and Gonzo. If their expressions or mannerisms suggested either man wasn't completely invested in the project, even for a split second, the entire film would start to unravel. But it's their dedication to their crass characters that propels the minimalistic story along; it's their focus and attention to detail that allows Duke and Gonzo to emerge, against all odds, as engaging (albeit cartoonish) protagonists. The actors straddle fine line after fine line -- their debate about what to do with a young girl nearly renders the bumbling duo unlikable -- but they manage to keep the pair's appeal teetering on their shoulders. Of course, it helps that Thompson's mesmerizing prose, impeccably delivered by Depp, takes center stage, cleverly giving the author's psyche a starring role in the film. Don't get me wrong, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn't for everyone (even those who find something to enjoy in its labyrinths may not want to add it to their shelves), but it serves up an experience like no other. Give it a spin and see how you fare.
And that, I think, was the handle... that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum. We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark... that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray, Video Quality
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tumbles onto the scene with the same commendable but imperfect 1080p/VC-1 transfer that appeared on Universal's 2006 HD DVD release. First, the good. Syrupy colors and bottomless blacks dominate nearly every shot, lending Gilliam's sweltering Nevada palette and trippy lithium-addled primaries legitimate power and punch. Skintones, though purposefully pushed to extremes on occasion, are warm and lifelike, and contrast, though skirting the heights of depths of light and shadow, remains strong and stable throughout. Detail is impressive as well. Closeups are riddled with pulsing pores, streams of sweat, jutting stubble, and the remains of cocaine misfires; establishing shots are teeming with well-rendered travelers, dilapidated street signs, swirling sand storms, and thousands of tiny, flashing lights. Grain, unobtrusive as it is, has thankfully been preserved, and serious macroblocking and unintentional noise are nowhere to be found. In fact, compared to all of the film's DVD releases, the Blu-ray edition represents a significant upgrade and showcases countless improvements. That being said, there are a number of problems that simply can't be ignored. Dark lounges and other nightmarish interiors are hindered by slippery delineation, edge enhancement continually undermines the integrity of the image, and clarity fluctuates quite dramatically at times. Moreover, print damage, dirt, and blemishes can be spotted throughout the film (most noticeably during Duke and Gonzo's first drive to Vegas), and errant wavering affects the searing skies. Eagle-eyed videophiles will even notice minor artifacting, aliasing, and crush flittering into view throughout the film.
Regardless, fans of Fear and Loathing will be quick to forgive such shortcomings -- some of which can be attributed to the original print -- and actively overlook the shakier aspects of its catalog presentation. The gushing fan in my brain wanted me to raise my video score by half a point, but the grim-faced critic next to him convinced me to stick to my guns.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Universal's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is as unpredictable and unwieldy as the film itself -- looping is obvious and jarring, sound effects sometimes come and go as they please, and Depp's jabbering is occasionally unintelligible -- but the majority of these weaknesses trace back to Gilliam's sound design, not the studio's technical efforts. Dialogue is generally crisp and well-prioritized, LFE support is quite satisfying, and dynamics are noteworthy. Nimble pans effectively send Depp and Del Toro flinging from channel to channel, and directionality is decent, especially considering the insanity of the characters' drug-induced haze. Unfortunately, the rear speakers are a bit too restrained at times (even when Depp's narration isn't anchoring the soundfield to the center channel), failing to envelop the listener as readily as they do during Duke and the doc's more chaotic misadventures. That's not to say the front-heavy nature of the track spoils the experience, mind you, just that it doesn't always lend itself to the madness unfolding on screen. Ambience and acoustics are adequate, but far too two-dimensional to warrant any serious praise. All in all, Universal's lossless track is faithful to a fault. Fear and Loathing apologists will quickly shrug off the worst of it, but audiophiles will have to grit their teeth and focus on everything the mix does have to offer.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas includes just two special features -- a batch of expendable deleted scenes (SD, 10 minutes) and a decent EPK (SD, 11 minutes) -- a far cry from the mammoth supplemental package found on the 2003 Criterion Edition DVD release (a generous 2-disc set that boasted three audio commentaries, multiple documentaries, and other absorbing bonus material).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may not be for everyone, but Gilliam diehards and Hunter S. Thompson aficionados will eat it up. Depp and Del Toro's absurdist performances are a whirlwind of inspired insanity, Gilliam and company's screenplay is as quotable as they come, and the visuals... oh dear readers, the mad-hatter visuals are unforgettable. Alas, Universal's long-awaited Blu-ray release is a tad disappointing. It rises and falls with a hit-or-miss video transfer, a somewhat limited DTS-HD Master Audio track, and a mere twenty-minutes of supplemental content. Still, despite a few bumps in the desert road, Fear and Loathers will be quite pleased with the upgrade, while Universal's oh-so-reasonable pricepoint should help bring new cinephiles to the Gilliam/Thompson fold.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Other Editions
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