Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – Movie Review

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is supposed to be a lament, but it just sucks. Visually, the film is great; there’s all sorts of neat tricks with lighting, camera movement and special effects to conjure the illusion that two drug addicts stumbling about is somehow interesting, but, unfortunately, the illusion’s effectiveness quickly fades and all that is left is the bad script. The script is so bad that they should have called it Dull and Boring in Las Vegas instead.

There isn’t really a plot. We follow two druggies, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, “Doctor” Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), as they engage in a chemically-induced assault on the Las Vegas strip. Duke is supposed to be there to write on a bike race in the desert, but is instead inspired to write about the American Dream and the failure of the 1960’s counterculture. However, the narration Duke provides only makes the film seem pretentious as if he’s trying to make the things depicted on screen seem more significant than they actually are. It’s a shame for the premise had potential; perhaps the problem lies in the source material, Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 book of the same name, but I haven’t read it so I cannot say.

Anyway, I don’t really have much to say about this movie so I’ll let another do the talking. Here’s what one Ron Wells says of the film, when it first came out in 1998:

For all of you idiot film reviewers, do the two main characters, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) really look like they’re having a grand old time? I don’t think so. Like Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome, we see the ugly downside of the drug revolution. Revolutions tend to end in anarchy and pointless bloodshed. Instead of a higher consciousness, we get Duke, and we get a ringside seat for how meaningless and cruel the real world is, and a close look at the demons within himself. “Fear and Loathing” does for psychedelics what “Boogie Nights” does for cocaine; displaying in graphical detail the ultimate failure of drugs as an escape route. You feel the psychic thud as our anti-heroes hit bottom. It ain’t pretty.

Okay, maybe I should add my two cents here. Yes, the film displays the “ugly downside of the drug revolution,” but the problem is is that it hardly does anything more. There’s the narration, as mentioned before, and some images that try to heighten things, but they mostly fail because the “insights” Duke provides aren’t exactly mind-expanding. And the images are quite blatant in their meaning as we see, during one of Duke’s more potent highs, Richard Nixon’s distorted head on a television screen along with Jimi Hedrix’s rendition of Star Spangled Banner juxtaposed in the background. During that same scene Gonzo offers Duke more cocaine that he sprinkled on his knife, then seconds later he offers more but on his gun, then Duke’s mind molds him into the Devil. A bit obvious, no? But even then, the emphasis is still on how “crazy” Duke’s and Gonzo’s shenanigans are. Wells goes on:

It’s a valid complaint since we barely see what the poor bastards are like when they aren’t binging, so no level-headed base line is ever really established. These guys didn’t end up this way overnight, though. They worked their way down. “The Truman Show”, one of the best films of the year, doesn’t make a lot of sense without knowing the conventions of television. However, we all know about sets and cues and product placements. In this case, uneducated about drugs, these bozos look like a couple of joy-riding assholes pissing on anything standing in their way. They aren’t exactly doped up on any judgement enhancers. Duke and Gonzo’s understanding of the repercussions always comes too late. They have no guide for their descent into hell, just the psychic corpses of everyone they ran down on the way to mark their way.

This is just Wells making excuses: It’s not the movie’s fault, but your own for being too square to understand the psyche of a junkie, okay? Seriously, the film really is just “a couple of joy-riding assholes” with a message merely tacked-on. That’s it. It could have worked if the film had more to rely on than just the visuals. Oh well. So, what else does Wells have to say?:

Now this is a damn funny film, but it’s not some Bill Murray flick. Vegas is surreal enough, without turning into a cross between Sid Vicious and Otis, the town drunk. You can either laugh at the buffoonery and/or cringe with recognition from your own experiences. I know I did. Duke, Thompson’s alter-ego, has moments of clarity throughout the film. He knows the 60s are over. Like a lot of habitual users, though, he’s always trying to move the bottom of the well lower to prevent hitting it on the way down. The drugs may expand your mind, but sometime you’ll look down and see only the filth you’re standing in.

Notice how he doesn’t mention any specifics concerning the humor in the film. Yes, the movie attempts to be funny, but mostly fails. For one thing, Depp’s performance is silly at first, but it’s, in the end, too cartoony. All he does is stumble about, make jerky arm movements and eye-twitches. There really isn’t much of a character to laugh at, but rather a collection of traits and eccentricities that are seemingly designed to illicit laughter. I’m not saying there should be a deep characterization, but at the same time this isn’t a 1930’s slapstick; the film is established in reality (or, rather, crashing through it) so there at least needs to be something a little bit more to the character that we can laugh with/at. There are also a number of scenes and moments that try so hard to be funny, like the scene in which Duke is pulled over by a cop (played by Gary Busey) which ends with the punchline of the cop wanting a kiss on the cheek.

Also, note how Wells defends the film for what it depicts, instead of how it depicts it. Now, what he describes can also describe almost every movie about drug usage and addiction. This reminds me of another “review” by wannabe internet celebrity Jeremy Jahns where he calls The Avengers an amazing film, but says so because it featured superheroes who didn’t get along at first. What’s silly about this is that every movie about a team assembling to save the world, or whatever, starts the same way. Just because certain tropes are present doesn’t mean the movie is “better” or “more believable,” but it’s in the way in which the tropes are used or whether if they work for the film. Wells concludes his review:

What kind of moron thinks this film glamorizes drugs? “Die Hard” can be a lot of fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to live through it. “Fear and Loathing” is a sort of psychedelic action film. It’s a blast, but I wouldn’t want to be there, either. If you want an easy rush, get on a roller coaster. The other stuff is just pants-shitting terror. Buy a ticket, take a ride.

He’s right in that the movie doesn’t glamorize drug use, but one also can’t deny that the movie expects us to be intrigued by it; perhaps, this isn’t an unrealistic expectation for there are the sheltered who will be drawn to such “dangerous behavior and lifestyles”; however, drug usage and its predictable outcomes aren’t immanently intriguing. And this is, again, the film’s greatest flaw; it’s almost nothing, but druggie shenanigans even with the inclusion of Duke’s narration. Shenanigans can be interesting, but with Fear and Loathing we just get the same shit over and over that’s about as exciting as a ride on the Ferris wheel. However, as much as I like to rag on critics, especially “professional” ones, they, overall, seemed to had gotten this movie right when it came out, perhaps for the wrong reasons (maybe reasons Wells was originally trying to counter in his review,) but whatever. This movie is lousy and I don’t know why I wasted two hours on it. I guess maybe because it’s one of those “cult films” that are supposed to be once-neglected gems, but now have been pulled from the muck. But after watching this, I’m hoping there are more deserving films out there, ready to be truly seen.

Shane Koyczan, The Disappearing Poet

Shane Koyczan is the bane of my existence. He’s a poet with no talent who gets paid to write garbage and no one seems to bat an eye. Here’s one of his “poems”:

6:59 AM

I’ve been told
that people in the army
do more by 7:00 am
than I do
in an entire day

but if I wake
at 6:59 am
and turn to you
to trace the outline of your lips
with mine
I will have done enough
and killed no one
in the process.

This poem is shit. For one thing, it’s awfully prosaic. Second, it’s manipulative: someone might (mistakenly) call this atrocity a good poem because of the anti-war sentiment, uttered tritely, at the poem’s end. Koyczan could have actually improved the poem had he just snipped the last two lines (though it would have been more beneficial had he scrapped the whole thing.) But the obvious is often lost on terrible writers. Here, have another:

Sketch

If I knew what I know now then
way back when we first met
I’d point to the sunset and say

I drew that for you

see

it’s wrinkling in the rain.

In the words of Mr. Plinkett: “It’s good to show contempt for your audience.” Virtually every line is a cliche, an achievement in of itself. Also impressive is the fact that people gave this guy ninety-thousand dollars to publish his book of poetry, A Bruise on Light (even his titles suck!)

As a bonus, here’s an awful video he released a few months back for his poem, “Troll” which is about cyberbullying. I have to admit, I’ve never been able to sit through the entire video; I challenge you to make it past the forty second mark.

However, it’s not so much the fact that Koyczan is terrible that is bothersome (for there are countless poets like him), but the fact that he is quite successful while other, much better poets, dwell and die in obscurity. There are several reasons for his being successful: 1.) his poetry is “inspiring” because it deals with issues like bullying in a “positive” (read: obvious) way 2.) his poetry is relatable and easily understood 3.) his poetry is also easy to replicate; literally anyone can write like Koyczan; this fact makes the reader feel better about being mediocre himself (this also explains the success of poets like Bukowski) 4.) Koyczan has a decent voice and stage presence 5.) he has a pretty intense neckbeard.

Despite all this, I’m an optimist. Poets like Koyczan come and go while truly great poets, even if they aren’t appreciated in their time, always remain for they are not easily replaced. The only reason people still know of terrible poets like Bukowski is because of the images that surround them and what those images represent. But celebrity fades and Koyczan’s certainly will; other Koyczans will come and fill his gap and do so well enough to satisfy the public.

Things I Watched This Week

Here’s a bunch of movies I saw recently that I don’t feel like writing in-depth reviews of:

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013):

Everyone on earth has already seen this movie so at this point it would be superfluous to write a review of it, so here’s a (short) review of it. According to ninety-eight percent of the globe this movie is a “modern day classic”, however, it’s mostly just fluff, albeit entertaining fluff. People have made the obvious comparisons to Goodfellas, but it’s not nearly as good, in fact, I would argue that it rips off that earlier classic in a number of ways (either Scorsese now, somehow, lacks confidence, or has become lazy.) The best scene in the film is when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) is trying to “play” and bribe an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), but has his head so far up his ass he doesn’t realize that the agent is merely playing along. At the end of the scene Belfort tells the agent and his partner to go screw and as they’re leaving he starts flipping bills into the air in a pathetic attempt to affirm his status. However, for the most part, the film gets too repetitive and the characters simply aren’t that interesting. The ending also isn’t very good, with the camera panning toward the faces of people attending a “get rich” seminar Belfort is speaking at, which is supposed to be a commentary on how people want to be like Leo’s character despite everything. It’s a bit too blunt and forced. Still a fun movie, but even if an hour were trimmed-off it still wouldn’t be as great as Goodfellas for we never get much insight into Belfort’s character.

The Piano Teacher (2001):

Another overrated film, but even more so than The Wolf of Wall Street for, while that movie is at least good, The Piano Teacher is a mediocrity. It’s about a repressed, manipulative woman (Isabelle Huppert) who teaches piano at a music conservatory. She’s obsessed with the music of Schubert whom she spouts highfalutin nonsense about in order to make herself seem like she has an exclusive relationship with the music. She’s also a pervert, making regular visits to a porno shop–later, she scolds one of her students after she catches him there, looking at magazines–she also becomes obsessed with a handsome student (Benoit Magimel) who is smitten over her. It starts out as an interesting character study, but then devolves into a trite depiction of obsession and psychosexuality; the ending is also lousy. I guess what saves the film are the performances and some good moments throughout that give insight into the characters. Not nearly as bad as some other critical favorites, like Lincoln (more like Nixon, if you ask me! Actually, Nixon is pretty good so never mind) and American Beauty (more like Boring and Shitty!), but I’m baffled by all the praise its received.

Dead Ringer (1964):

Old Bette Davis film that’s well-crafted and entertaining. A woman, played by Davis, kills her wealthy twin sister and takes on her name and life. It’s a nice little thriller with some decent characters that aren’t merely cardboard cutouts. However, as well-wrought the script is, there are some holes in the plot, the biggest at the end where the main character is sentenced to death for killing, not her sister, but her sister’s husband (who, ironically, she loved); the problem is that the evidence for her involvement is circumstantial, at best, yet she still gets the gas chamber. It’s a movie that’s probably not going to “stay” with me for very long, but at least it succeeds at what it sets out to do, for the most part.

Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014):

Finally saw this one and it was terrible. Jarring cuts, wretched symbolism and cliches up the ass. The plot is nearly the same as Spiderman 2, except that movie didn’t have to rely on ham-fisted scenes to get its point across, scenes like when Peter Parker is on a building’s ledge, watching her girlfriend crossing the street below only for him to turn and see a building on fire. He has to choose between his girlfriend and his duties as Spiderman, decisions, decisions. Can we stop it with the comic book films for a while? Even the supposed “good” ones like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are merely passable. The recent X-Men film was good, but I still think that Hollywood should try milking some other cow to death, you know, to spice things up a little.