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The Criterion Collection presents
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion) (1998)

"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 uppers, downers, laughers, screamers... 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 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 the 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."
- Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp)

Review By: Dan Lopez  
Published: February 16, 2003

Stars: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Craig Bierko, Christina Ricci
Other Stars: Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Mark Harmon, Tim Thomerson, Tobey Maguire, Michael Jeter
Director: Terry Gilliam

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for (pervasive extreme drug use and related bizarre behavior, strong language, brief nudity)
Run Time: 01h:58m:22s
Release Date: February 18, 2003
UPC: 715515013222
Genre: comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+A-A- A

DVD Review

I'll freely admit that I'm not only too young to have had experienced any element of the 1960s and '70s (except in infant form), but I'm also too young to have had firsthand experience of the bizarre shenanigans undertaken in those days by radical, freewheeling journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Only through reading his work have I experienced a sort of vague, barely tangible "contact high" of his life, his experiences, and the mood of the time he wrote about. Despite his "Gonzo" reputation (a term Thompson coined for his own style of journalism), there is a certain philosophical wisdom in his work that manages to portray the decay of the "Flower Power" generation and its ideals. While Thompson's alter-ego character, Raoul Duke, grew into a larger-than-life figure for which wretched excess and disdain for all things sane was the regular routine, Thompson himself generated a certain aura of calm, collected intelligence, which is a strange thing to say about one so thoroughly twisted.

His 1978 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the stuff of cult legends. It is a surreal, scary, funny, and altogether incredible account of Thompson's journey (as Raoul Duke) to the famous desert town with his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (based on Thompson's real-life legal contact, Oscar Zeta Acosta) to cover a motorcycle race as part of the sports press. As for which parts of the book are real and which are fictionalized, I'll leave for historians to sort out, but suffice to say, it is a journey into the depths of a drug-induced, nightmare-slash-dream that has little to do with the journalistic mission for which Duke is initially sent to Las Vegas. Like many books of such strange nature, Fear and Loathing was often branded with the term "unfilmable." Of course, adjectives like that are often just challenges to people who want to do something a little different and, undoubtedly, very difficult. While writer/director Alex Cox initially struggled to get the production off the ground, the reigns were eventually handed over to Terry Gilliam, arguably the perfect director to helm such a project. Having lived through the turbulence of the 1960s and using his writing and artistic talents to buck the American system he felt was collapsing, his eventual disdain with the decay of American society (as he saw it) had led Gilliam to England, where he would eventually find haven as part of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The end result of years of work and collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson himself is a film that, for better or worse, tries to literally interpret its inspiration and deliver an authentic experience.

Thanks largely to amazing performances by Benicio Del Toro (who gained 40 pounds for the role) as Dr. Gonzo and Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, Fear and Loathing, the movie is an embodiment of the literature from which it springs. While it is true that the book—and therefore the film—is centrally about the exotic over-indulgence of narcotics of every type, I'd be hard pressed to think of the film as glamorizing drug use. Instead, Gilliam takes the book's words as a guide and presents the film as a travelogue of sorts. But instead of seeing the sights of 1970s-era Vegas like a tourist, we see them as two bottomed-out drug fiends might: an infinite playground of sights and sounds that are only enhanced by the ingestion of any toxic substance available. Why this works and why it comes out so funny is difficult to explain. This isn't just simplistic, juvenile pot humor a la Cheech & Chong; this is a virtuoso symphony of chemical insanity. The connection between Depp's performance as the manic Duke (based so precisely on Thompson himself that it is truly frightening) and Del Toro's over-the-top machinations as Gonzo are the stuff of acting mythology. Yet, I doubt you'll see this film mentioned in any Academy Awards® speech or documentary on great performances of the 20th century, and that's a shame, because this duo manage to play off of each other like Bogey and Bacall, Taylor and Burton, or Tracy and Hepburn.

In the end, Fear and Loathing is a hand-in-hand companion to a book that has effected the lives of so many who, unlike me, "grew up" reading the work of Thompson and, in some form, saw his writing as a doorway into deep messages, despite the top layer of drug abuse and surrealistic humor. There's also a slight message here; while at first the binging and insanity might seem fantastically entertaining, in the end, it leaves one very hollow and empty, which might be a metaphor for Las Vegas itself. While it represents, to an extent, part of the American dream, which is to start poor and then, through the "majesty of Vegas," become rich; in reality, most people have lost more than their money when they leave.

"History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullsh**, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened." - Raoul Duke

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: I noticed no substantial difference between this transfer and the extremely nice transfer found on the original DVD release. This is a good thing, of course, as it means nothing went wrong in the re-release, and the anamorphic, widescreened image is still as sharp and clean as ever. The film uses highly complex cinematography and a variety of weird lighting schemes and other gimmicks to complete the look, therefore only a good transfer could really pull it off without either artifacts, severe graininess, or color bleeding. Luckily, none of this is a problem. The anamorphic enhancement is smooth and doesn't add jagged aliasing to the picture, thankfully. The dreamy, pastel colors of so much of the Las Vegas setting don't collide and cause horrendous visual problems, even on my older TV, which is always a good sign.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno
DTSEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Viewers can choose between a Dolby Surround, Dolby 5.1, and DTS 5.1 soundtrack, and the obvious choice seems to be the 5.1 mixes. Both the Dolby and DTS mixes fit the film quite well with their immersive and hypnotic mixtures of how they place certain sound effects and integrate the musical score into the picture. Obviously, for a film filled with such drug-induced experiences, the sound is often used to support the strange visuals, and all of the speakers are put to good use providing specific moods for specific scenes. While I personally felt the Dolby track had slightly better bass, the DTS had the crisp rear/front balance you usually expect from the format. Even at very high volumes, the track never sounds forced or exaggerated, and always delivers a good mixture of all the elements, even the often hazy dialogue between Gonzo and Duke.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English (captions) with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 TV Spots/Teasers
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by (1): Director Terry Gilliam, (2) Actors Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, and producer Lalia Nabulski, (3) Author Hunter S. Thompson, Producer Lalia Nabulski, and various others.
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Storyboards, conceptual art, photo stills galleries
  2. Hunter S. Thompson/Johnny Depp correspondence pieces
  3. A look at Oscar Zeta Acosta
  4. Excerpt from the 1996 audio recording of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  5. A discussion over the battle for screenwriting credit
Extras Review: While there are good special editions and there are weak (sometimes pointless) special editions, Criterion's 2-disc presentation of this film is not only hefty, but amazingly good. The previous edition, from Universal, contained deleted scenes, but not much else to sink your teeth into.

Starting with the first disc, there are three commentaries. The first, with director Terry Gilliam, is about what you'd expect from him (if you've listened to one of his commentaries before). He's relatively relaxed, yet able to remain serious about discussing details regarding the filming of the movie and such. He reveals much about the evolution and development of the film, and manages to stay focused on the movie quite well, given its surreal nature. The actors' commentary is equally interesting, with Depp and Del Toro discussing their motivations and inspirations for getting into character. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect to their work is the fact that while Depp spent months with Hunter Thompson developing his Raoul Duke role, Del Toro had to, instead, rely on stories and other such information to try and combine the elements of the fictional Dr. Gonzo with the real-life, but late, Oscar Acosta. Producer Lalia Nabulski chimes in with her own questions and thoughts throughout this commentary. Last, but not least, there is a third track featuring discussions between Lalia Nabulski and Hunter S. Thompson, who gives his thoughts on the film. Other people show up, some from calling Thompson on his speaker phone, and then participating in the recording. Thompson basically critiques the film in his usual humorous way, never too serious and never too harsh on Terry Gilliam, with whom he disagreed on many occasions.

The first disc contains 3 deleted scenes, also included on the previous release, only now they come with optional commentary by Terry Gilliam. While one scene, direct from the book in which Duke and Gonzo harass a district attorney, was understandably dropped because of pacing issues, another scene is rather interesting. It would have ended the movie on a totally different note (a scene in which Duke encounters a Vietnam Veteran coming home from the war). Another scene features an extended version of Tim Thomerson's cameo in the film.

The second disc is a wealth of supplements that really help to flesh out Fear and Loathing quite well. To begin with, there's a multitude of art galleries featuring not only work for the film, but the entirety of Ralph Steadman's legendary artwork for the original publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, done for Rolling Stone magazine. On top of that is more artwork and photo stills from the movie (which was heavily influenced by Steadman's work). There is a newly-recorded segment in which Johnny Depp reads, on-camera, a series of letters that he and Thompson shared with each other during the early days of production. It's an interesting look at what Depp must have initially encountered when getting on-board the project. A short film (about 10 minutes) entitled Hunter Goes to Hollywood is a brief documentary of Thompson visiting the set of the film and is actually an excerpt from a much larger, yet unpublished, film about Hunter's life.

There is an audio track featuring Terry Gilliam, screenwriter Tony Grisoni, and Lalia Nabulski in which they discuss the controversial (but seldom heard about) battle for who would ultimately receive credit for having written the film. In a move that eventually backfired on the Writers Guild of America, Alex Cox (who had nothing to do with the project that eventually became the movie on this disc) received sole writing credit for the entire film. Although eventually Gilliam and Grisoni got their names in the credits, you'll notice Alex Cox's name is still in there. Gilliam's famous alternate intro to the film (in which we, the viewers, are warned that no screenwriters were responsible for the script) is presented here, but to be honest, I was disappointed that this intro was not put onto disc 1 so it could be played with the movie (as could be done on the original DVD release). The ultimate stupidity of the entire debate is that any accurate adaptation of the Thompson book would undoubtedly use the same scenes and situations, so assigning credit to the first writer in a production company as the sole "creator" (in this case, Cox) is a little frustrating anyway.

But wait! There's more! There is also a look at the real-life Oscar Zeta Acosta by way of a rare film of him speaking at a Chicano rights forum, which was essentially the thrust of his entire life. Additionally, there is an audio track of Hunter Thompson reading the introduction he wrote to Acosta's biography (from which the now-famous line "He was a high-powered mutant of some kind..." was taken). There's also an entire chapter from the CD audio recording of Fear and Loathing (the book) presented, featuring the voices of Jim Jarmusch, Maury Chakin, and Harry Dean Stanton. One of the best inclusions on the disc is the entire 1978 BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing in Hollywood (about 50 minutes), in which Thompson and Ralph Steadman go on a road trip to Hollywood to meet with Universal Pictures about a film project (which, though unnamed in the documentary, turns out to be Where the Buffalo Roam, the film in which Bill Murray portrayed Thompson in a semi-biographical way). It's an excellent look at Thompson in the era of Fear and Loathing itself, featuring some amazing and rare footage that includes a satirical pro-Nixon rally held by Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray on Thompson's suggestion. Rounding out this considerable package are original trailers (with commentary by Terry Gilliam, who discusses how badly the film was marketed in order to try and find the "right" audience), and a booklet featuring a reprint of a review by Jay Hoberman, as well as two essays by Hunter Thompson.

One cannot discuss this edition without giving a nod to the absolutely fantastic presentation. To begin with, the double Alpha case itself is housed in a clear shell featuring Steadman's artwork. The case itself has no text, only a wraparound version of one of Steadman's title-pieces for the original Fear and Loathing magazine version. Each disc features great, highly stylized menus; the main menu is heavily animated. The first disc features a very cool, full-motion sequence of Ralph Steadman drawing his distorted and 'messy' main title text, while the second disc takes the cover art and animates it, complete with sound effects. Nowhere on or in the disc (except in supplement form) is ANY of the Universal promotional artwork used, which gives this edition a very new, fresh, and interesting look.

[This review has been edited for errant information relating to the layer change. - Editor]

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tends to split people into "love it" or "hate it" groups, which is understandable. Regardless, it's this reviewer's opinion that, in a weird, skewed way, the film is a modern masterpiece that not only does justice to a classic piece of "Gonzo" literature, but stands on its own as a silly tribute to its own excess. This new special edition from Criterion is simply a "must-have" for the fan, proving yet again that despite the "special edition" craze in the DVD world, these guys know how to impress.

 


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