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 Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)   Wed Oct 08, 2008 1:59 pm

To try and bring Hunter S. Thompson's cult 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the big screen was nearly an impossible task for the best part of 20 years. The story was so rich with it's explicit descriptions of drug use and it's wild drawings done by British artist Ralph Steadman. But, it was first talked about as far back as 1978, when Martin Scorsese was attached to direct it, with Jack Nicholson playing Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke, and Marlon Brando playing Dr. Gonzo, his Samoan attorney, (really an American-Mexican activist called Oscar Zeta Acosta.) That fell through. Then, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were attached to the film after the success of The Blues Brothers, that never happened. Oliver Stone was attached once, nothing ever came off that. Ralph Bakshi had planned an animated version of the film, but failed to convince Thompson it would work. Eventually, cult British director Alex Cox signed on to do it, and it actually went into pre-production, but he fell out with Rhino Films, the production company, (who had only signed on Cox so they could keep the film option.) They quickly found another director, this one seemed such an obvious choice for the film, he had a brilliant track record of films and he had the perfect visual eye and imagination for material of his calibre!! It was Terry Gilliam, and his film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is perhaps the most vivid depiction of drug use and it's effects on it's users ever depicted on film, oh, and it's leads have never been better!! Wink

The film is based upon two trips to Las Vegas made by Thompson and his attorney Oscar Z. Acosta in March and April of 1971. The book and film seems to condense it all to with the space of what feels like a few days. It starts off with journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) travelling to Las Vegas with a car full of narcotic drugs, as Duke has been assigned to cover the Mint 400, a cross-country motorcycle race organised by Las Vegas' Mint Hotel for Sports Illustrated magazine. But, within the haze of drugs and alcohol, Duke loses interest and instead, he and Gonzo take to the streets and hotel rooms of Las Vegas' finest hotels and casinos, which continues for days, even when Duke is assigned to do another story in Las Vegas covering the National District Attorneys Conference On Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. It get's worse after that, especially when Duke tries 'adrenochrome'...

Clearly, this kind of film, and the erratic behaviour on display here was never going to be the stuff of mainstream cinema, there hasn't been this much drug use on display in films since the likes of Easy Rider in the 1960's. As Duke rumminates as he looks through his car boot of contents, "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." But, it stays faithful to the original book, which is what Gilliam set out to do, but it retains alot of his trademark imagery and themes of people rebelling against the system. But, the film's greatest weapon in it's arsenal is the giddy cinematography by Nicola Pecorini, a one-eyed Italian Steadicam operator, who used to work under Vitorrio Storaro, and even used Storaro's lighting equipment to bring to life the mind-melting effects of the drug use that's going on in the film. It even utilises on stock footage from the flower power era of just a few years before 1971, when Duke whistfully thinks back on the era, commenting on what their cause was. But, the set designs are creepy as well, including their hotel suites, and the corridors and casino's that surround them, including the Bazooko Casino Circus, which Duke comments on being "what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday nights if the Nazis had won the war. This was the Sixth Reich."

At the films core are two mad and exquisite performances from it's leads. Johnny Depp gives his best performance, giving us a scarily accurate depiction of Thompson, he even went as far as having his head shaved to look more like him, it makes Depp look 20-30 years older, and as one friend of Gilliam's observed, "You take away Depp's hair, you take away his fuckability!!" Very Happy Depp even went as far as using alot of Thompson's personal possessions in the film, including his cigarette filter, (never seen without it throughout the film), glasses, (never takes them off), Hawaiian shirts, hats and other bits of clothing including ID as well. If that isn't Method acting, God know's what is. Depp slurrs his dialogue, sometimes through clenched teeth with the cigarette filter always in his mouth, but the stuff he comes out with instantly memorable dialogue!! "Dogs fucked the Pope, no fault of mine!! Very Happy When Depp zones out on drugs, especially on adrenochrome, you can actually believe it, walking like he's Minister for Silly Walks, he becomes Thompson, and that takes true dedication!! Benicio Del Toro also brings the mysterious Dr. Gonzo to life vividly as well, (he had little to go on, as Gonzo's inspiration, Oscar Z. Acosta went missing, persumed dead, in 1974), Del Toro's depiction of Dr. Gonzo is as a big, wild slobbering monster, especially when he's on drugs. But, he shows a dark side to the character, especially when it's revealed he slept with an underrage young artist called Lucy, (played by Christina Ricci), but it is Del Toro's best performance, and it is a contrast to the more restrained and dramatic parts he plays these days in films like Traffic, 21 Grams and Che. Wink

The film is complimented by ONE HELL of a brilliant supporting cast, who really wanted to be a part of the film for next to nothing. The cast includes a young Tobey Maguire as the Hitchhiker, (in a blonde wig), Cameron Diaz as a Blonde TV Reporter that Gonzo tries to seduce in the hotel elevator. Ellen Barkin plays the waitress in the North Star Cafe, where she's threatened by Gonzo, (in a nearly unwatchable and uncomfortable sequence), the late, great Michael Jeter plays L. Ron Bumquist at the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs convention, Katherine Helmond (who worked with Gilliam on Time Bandits and Brazil), plays the desk clerk at the Mint Hotel who turns into a moray eel. In a flashback to the Matrix Club in San Francisco in 1965, we see Thompson for real, as well as Lyle Lovett as a drug dealer and Flea as a hippie musician who shares Duke's acid in a very distorted but beautiful sequence. In quicker cameos are Penn Jillette (off Penn and Teller), as a Carnie Pusher, Gary Busey as the lonely Highway Patrolman, Mark Harmon as a drunk magazine reporter at the Mint 400, Craig Bierko as the untrustworthy "Portuguese" photographer Lacerda, Harry Dean Stanton as a Judge, ("Castration!! Double Castration!!"), and a pre-Mini Me Verne Troyer appears as Wee Waiter!! Very Happy

But, it's Gilliam's enthusiasm for the film's visuals that compliments the lead roles as well as the abundance of cameos that surround them!! The film itself is like a drug, you watch it, and you're not the same afterwards!! The film was his third film to be shot in America after The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), those two films were done as a director for hire, taking on two projects he hadn't originated himself, and finding financial success with them. He'd been offered Fear and Loathing a decade earlier, but said no. When Alex Cox had left, he took it on, wrote a new script with his writing partner Tony Grisoni in a matter of a mere 10 days, (which later led to controversy with the WGA.) But, the film was shot on the hoof and on a quite low-budget. But, it's the best way to do the book justice, as the events of the film all take place within a matter of days, the film does the same, with alot of stuff done at near breakneck speed, like the energy that Duke and Gonzo has in the film. But, it doesn't look or feel rushed, every scene looks beautiful, tinged with madness and horror. From the Vegas casinos to the godforsaken desert surrounding Vegas. Basically, it's about two drug-fuelled friends looking for the American Dream, but instead walk into a nightmare, not helped by all the drugs they ingest. Razz

Trailer here!!



It's Gilliam's maddest film and also one of his very, very best. He stays true to Thompson's original text, but at the same time, he's able to take the work, and make it his own, giving the film his own visual stamp. Who else could have brought the Lounge Lizard sequence to life as vividly as he?? Razz He gets the best out of his actors and really brings the multicoloured hellhole of Las Vegas to life, it's a town which should look beautiful, but after seeing this film, you'll do your best to stay as far away from the place as possible!! Shocked This is not good publicity for the film, but it says alot about the attitude of America at that time, the 1960's were over, Vietnam was still raging on into self-destuction, and alot people didn't believe the American Dream anymore, at least not those Duke observes in Las Vegas. Oh, and the film also has a brilliant soundtrack, as well as songs by Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Yardbirds, Jefferson Airplane, Booker T. & the MG's and The Dead Kennedy's, it also has an ear-splitting rock montage bursts by Ray Cooper, (longtime Gilliam collaberator), and Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei, (best known for his theme for Kill Bill. Wink) Even 10 years on, the film has lost NON of it's impact, it still has a massive cult following, it still attracts alot of viewers, both new and old, (oh and try and track down the Criterion Collection DVD!!) It's a film which gets better and better with repeat viewings, you always discover new details everytime you watch it, but that's Gilliam for you, no-one has a more perfect visual eye than him!! Very Happy
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