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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion Collection)

The Criterion Collection // R // February 18, 2003
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Aaron Beierle | posted February 15, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

One of the more underrated films of the late 90's, Terry Gilliam's adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a perfectly bizarre picture - one that spins a chaotic yarn, is about as messy as its characters, and yet still never seems - at least in my humble opinion - aimless or, especially, boring. Based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, which focused on the author's drug-addled trip to Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, the film's 118-minute running time is largely fueled by Johnny Depp's utterly brillant portrayal of Thompson.

The film opens with journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) picking up a hitchhiker in the desert (a cameo by Tobey Maguire) and proceeding to freak him out with their incredibly strange behavior. They then enter into preparation for heading out to Vegas to cover the race. After a period of collecting and taking remarkable amounts of drugs, they arrive there and end up sinking in the quicksand of the Vegas lights, hardly covering the race they were sent there to watch.

The second half has the journey of the two spiraling out of control, including one stretch where Duke finally breaks free of Vegas, only to be called back to cover a Drug Enforcement confrence. The film met with savage criticism when it was released in 1998, as most felt it was an aimless mess. Aside from a few moments that seem to serve no purpose aside from darkly funny laughs, I still disagree. The film's focus is clearly on the loss of the kind of innocence present in the 60's as the 70's began, summarized quite superbly in the speach mid-film, where Duke states as he looks out his window, "we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave", and, "our energy would simply prevail." In the middle of a darkly hilarious, trippy film, it's a moving, quiet moment.

If there's one other element that ties the film together, it's Depp's performance as Thompson, which clearly should have garnered some sort of awards notice. A twisty jumble of nerves, mannerisms and the occasional odd noise, Depp's portrayal is a brilliant creation - maddeningly funny at times and always surprising. Depp and Del Toro are terrific together, as well. Del Toro's Dr. Gonzo is occasionally as fascinating an effort as Depp's, but in his own way: a funny, scary and potentially threatening character, Del Toro plays underlying rage well. Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire and others provide quick, but memorable cameos.

Always a director with a remarkable visual style, Gilliam (who apparently wasn't too familiar with book or the drug culture) still manages to provide some imaginative and trippy visuals. Aided by a terrific crew, including cinematographer Nicola Pecorini ("Rules of Engagement") and production designer Alex McDowell ("Fight Club", "Minority Report"), Gilliam's adaptation of Thompson's book is vividly realized, never going too overboard in trying to present the already often over-the-top material.

Personally, I find that the film has gotten clearer and more enjoyable since I first viewed it nearly five years ago. It's not without concerns; the film could have certainly used a bit of trimming here and there, but Depp and Del Toro more than carry this wild, entertaining journey.


VIDEO: Criterion presents "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" with a new 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Created from the 35mm interpositive and supervised by director Terry Gilliam, this is a nearly perfect presentation of the film's gorgeous and trippy visuals. Sharpness and detail are first-rate throughout, as the picture appears crisp and well-defined, even in some of the darker interior scenes (which appeared murky on Universal's prior DVD release).

Really, the only flaw that I noticed throughout the presentation was that a couple of specks appeared on the print used. Literally, just a couple - no more, no less. Absolutely no instances of edge enhancement appeared, while compression artifacts were also not present. This is a totally natural, "film-like" presentation that was smooth and natural-looking throughout. I'd be surprised if the theatrical presentation I saw in 1998 looked this good.

The film's rich, vivid color palette - especially in the Vegas scenes - look superb here. Colors remain bright, well-saturated and clean, with no smearing or other issues. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones usually appeared accurate. This is an outstanding transfer from Criterion.

SOUND: While Universal's prior release offered only a 2.0 soundtrack, Criterion's DVD includes both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 options. The soundtrack was remastered from the original magnetic 6-track masters, while both the DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks have been remastered at 24-bit. Additionally, audio restoration tools have been used to reduce flaws. It's wonderful to finally hear the film's 5.1 soundtracks, as they certainly provide a far more entetaining experience than the 2.0 soundtrack provided on the prior release. Surrounds are put to use to extend some of the trippier sound effects into the room, as well as provide some reinforcement for the film's terrific music. Some of the outdoor scenes also provide really convincing ambience in the rear speakers - some crickets chirping, a gust of wind, etc.

Audio quality is fantastic (especially on the DTS track), as sound effects and dialogue are reproduced clearly, while the classic rock score sounds absolutely marvelous, with a nice low-end kick and great warmth and detail. The DTS track is a little more detailed and crisp, as well as a bit more seamless and enveloping overall.

EXTRAS: This Criterion Collection edition of the picture includes two discs full of extras, with no less than three audio commentaries on the first disc with the film.

Commentaries: The first commentary from Laila Nabulsi, producer, Johnny Depp, actor and Bencio Del Toro, actor. The second commentary is from Terry Gilliam, director and the third is actually from Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist. These are all newly recorded tracks and, as per usual for Criterion, the participants have been recorded separately and their comments have been recorded together.

The Depp/Del Toro and Nablusi commentary is particularly interesting in several regards. Depp got to spend a great deal of time with Thompson and his discussion of his experiences both doing research and on-set are fascinating and funny. Nablusi (who has a cameo in the film as Grace Slick)'s road to getting the picture made was ten years long, and her discussion of trying to get studios to understand the humor and ideas in the book, as well as getting the right people involved, is enjoyable and involving. Del Toro's comments about getting into the character and trying to commit to the role and everything involved within is insightful and compelling, as well.

Gilliam's commentary is a terrific overview of both the production and the realities behind Thompson's life. An energetic speaker, Gilliam is highly informative in his discussion of trying to realize a film based on a novel that many called "unfilmable". Thompson's commentary is occasionally out-there and wild, but a Criterion staff member, Nablusi and Thompson's assistant try to act as interviewers and sometimes get him to open up about his history and opinions of the film.

Deleted Scenes: 4 deleted scenes (taken from the workprint and including optional commentary from Gilliam) are available. There's some funny and interesting moments in these scenes, but they seem to be largely dropped due to pacing reasons.

The Film: The second disc starts off with this section of film-related materials.

Hunter Goes to Hollywood: Part of a documentary that is being put together about the life of Thompson, this ten-minute piece shows a bit of a visit by Thompson to the set of the movie. Somewhat uneventful, but mostly fun and an enjoyable, brief piece, overall.

"Not The Screenplay": This is an audio discussion with screewriter Tony Grisoni, director Terry Gilliam and producer Laila Nablusi. This is a very frank and honest discussion of the struggle that Gilliam and Grisoni had to deal with when the WGA awarded screenwriting credit to former director Alex Cox. Gilliam doesn't discuss Cox's leaving the picture much here or in his commentary, but Nablusi does go into detail about the creative differences that she and other members of the production had with Cox. Gilliam's discussion of some of the absurd rules of the WGA and the struggle - battle, really - to get credit is really quite fascinating. Also included in this section is "Dress Pattern", a short film that Gilliam made during his battle with the WGA.

Johnny Depp reads correspondence from Hunter S. Thompson: This 15-minute piece has Depp reading some of the letters that Thompson set during production. Strange, fascinating, odd and occasionally brilliant, the letters are imaginative, bizarre and fun to listen to.

Also in "Film": A wealth of production stills and storyboards are offered, as well as "A Study in Marketing". In that section, Gilliam offers an fantastic optional commentary over the trailer, where he discusses how he thought the marketing should have been approached. In a little over 2 minutes, Gilliams sums up a lot about his views on advertising and marketing in Hollywood. If anything, Criterion should have expanded this commentary into a larger discussion by Gilliam, as I would have liked to have heard more on the director's views on marketing non-mainstream fare. Also included are 7 TV spots.

The Source: This section offers material focused on Thompson and the novel.

Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood: This 1978 BBC documentary follows Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman from Thompson's Aspen, CO home all the way to Hollywood. There's hints of ideas and concepts about the film, but this is mostly a collection of involving and out-there interviews that attempt to try and get into Thompson's thought-process and history. The 50-minute documentary is sometimes slow-going, but often a fascinating and insightful journey. Well-filmed (and still in good condition), this piece is certainly worth viewing.

Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard": This section offers audio clips from the 1996 recording of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", with voice talent including Jim Jarmusch, Maury Chakin and Harry Dean Stanton.

Also: Lastly, the DVD offers a gallery of Ralph Steadman images and additional information on the real Dr. Gonzo, Oscar Zeta Acosta, including photos and a discussion of him from Thompson.

Final Thoughts: A film that has gained a strong following in the years since its release, Criterion has finally given "Fear and Loathing" the treatment it deserves with this outstanding two-disc set. Audio/video quality are absolutely marvelous, while the supplements lend great insight into the novel and the production of the film. Although not for everyone (as its reception in 1998 showed), I can't recommend this set highly enough, especially to fans.

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