A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 507 – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – July 20th, 2011

The other night, at the beginning of Rango, the little Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon at the center of the movie bounces across a highway. He swings off a car antenna, rides a bicycle wheel and smacks into a car carrying a very obvious reference to this movie. And at the time I jokingly said we should watch this next. Then when we were going through our list looking for movies around two hours I mentioned this and we said hey, why not, right? There are a couple of connections beyond the reference, with Johnny Depp and Las Vegas featuring in Rango and in this movie as well. So we put this on and settled in for an evening of hallucinations and monologues.

And really, it’s mostly a lot of Johnny Depp as “Raoul Duke” (a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, who based the character on himself) doing a lot of drugs and hallucinating and talking about it. But then there are moments of such depth. There’s the oft-quoted monologue about San Francisco: “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.” I mean, damn. That makes me so sad. It makes me tear up every time I hear it and it’s in the middle of this incredibly bizarre drug trip of a movie. And that’s what makes this movie interesting to me. I mean, it’s visually entertaining, with all of the drug trip visuals, but it’s the mix of drug-fueled antics and behavior and insightful commentary on the culture of the time that makes it more than what it might at first appear.

Truth be told, I’ve been struggling with this review. How do I even begin to touch this movie? How do I explain it? It defies true explanation by its very nature. That’s one reason this review is so late. I mentioned in the morning that I might just recount the dreams this movie gave me. It would be about as lucid as the movie itself. But the dreams are now just a hazy memory. I don’t often remember my dreams for long. But I do remember that they were full of Las Vegas and hotel corridors and confusion. Which I’m sure is par for the course after watching this movie.

I have been to Las Vegas, but my trip was full of Star Trek, not drugs, so it wasn’t quite the same experience as is presented here. The thing is, this isn’t really a cohesive experience. It’s not like this is one continuous drug trip. It’s not one journalism assignment for the main character. It’s not one hotel. It’s not one drug. It’s a series of moments and observations, witnessed and recounted through a haze of recreational chemicals and societal malaise. What makes it so fascinating to me is the combination of irreverent and bizarre moments and serious commentary and action. There’s some truly dark stuff going on in this movie and if all you know of it is the hallucinations near the beginning then you’re only seeing half the story.

Given that the story is so wildly all over the place, it’s difficult to really relate the events in the movie. It’s not a story with a beginning, middle and end so much as it’s a series of episodes showing a certain time and place through a certain filter. The fictional characters Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, head to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a motorcycle race for a magazine. It doesn’t really matter what race or what magazine. Details like that are incidental to the story. The point is that on the drive down to Vegas the two men take an impressive array of drugs and are thoroughly wasted by the time they get there. And from there the story sort of goes off the rails. But that’s the point. Duke misses the race almost entirely, seeing only the beginning before getting distracted by the LSD and mescalin and ether and the strange world of the Las Vegas strip as experienced with chemical assistance. And I mean, the strip is one of those strange nowhere-else-like-this places anyhow. So the addition of hallucinogens is only adding to the strangeness, not creating it.

Honestly, the series of subsequent events are a blur. And I think that’s intentional. Duke flees the hotel in a fit of paranoia, makes it out of the city without paying for the room (or the damage done to it) and then gets stranded and then goes back and checks into another hotel where Dr. Gonzo has moved to along with a girl he met on an airplane (she paints pictures of Barbara Streisand) and they go to cover a District Attorney convention on drug culture and they do more drugs and eventually Duke wakes up and the new room is a pit and he knows things have gone very wrong. And I’ll be straight here, I’m not entirely sure of the sequence of events. Duke has some flashbacks and I’m pretty sure that the diner scene near the end isn’t one of them but this review has taken me so long to write I could be misremembering. But it’s pretty dark. It’s a very different mood than the earlier scenes of circus-themed casinos full of people who look like fish or whatever. The return to Las Vegas heralds in a very different mood.

I think part of the shift is that it’s a return. That the original trip had been its own thing, fun in a way but ending in paranoia. And the return is tinged with more of that paranoia which is then bolstered by the proliferation of officers of the law. One never gets the impression that Duke really wanted to go back to Las Vegas. It wasn’t an environment he was entirely comfortable with anyhow. And then there he is. The return trip goes down hill very fast, with talk about selling the girl Dr. Gonzo’s brought to the room and then the trip to the diner, where Dr. Gonzo pulls a knife and threatens a waitress with it. It’s a far cry from the beginning of the movie. But at the same time it feels almost like a natural progression. Not a smooth one, to be sure, but a showcase of how things can go from strange to bad to worse to even worse than you ever thought possible. It happens in bits and pieces and part of what the movie does well is to make the audience feel as disjointed as Duke himself is supposed to be feeling. We’re all just along for the ride.

The two key selling points for me here are the cast and the visuals. The writing I take as a given. I’ve never read Thompson but Andy’s been reading the book this is based on since we watched it and he claims it’s pretty much word for word. So what really does it for me are the performances, which are universally fantastic, and the visuals that manage to convey both the reality of Las Vegas and the unreality of the drug-induced visions Duke has at the same time. Johnny Depp is a weird guy, to be sure, and he’s amazing here, but I also have to give a whole lot of credit to Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. It’s a thoroughly unlikeable role for much of the movie and he pulls it off amazingly. But then the rest of the movie is peppered with bit parts played by very recognizable names. Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, just to name a few. They show up and have their moment or moments and then they’re gone, because really, as I mentioned, the story is Duke’s (or Thompson’s, if you want to go there) and he’s the focal point. It’s about him and drugs and Las Vegas and really, what more can I say?

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 417 – Trainspotting

Trainspotting – April 21st, 2011

Apparently we’re just having a drug-themed movie week or something. This wasn’t planned ahead of time, but I saw this morning that it’s Iggy Pop’s birthday and this was the first movie that came to mind. After all, we already did Cry Baby. We don’t own the sequel to The Crow (and we’re saving that anyhow and we’d have had to watch it first) and while he does apparently do one of the lead voices in the English dub of Persepolis, we don’t do dubbed versions unless we can’t do the subtitled version. So, here we are. Not that he’s in this, but I’ve always associated him with the movie since he’s very prominent on the soundtrack and pops up in conversation in the movie itself.

Now, I’ve got a lot to say about this movie so I admit I started my review earlier in the day. Really, I’ve been thinking about the review for the past year or so. Ever since we watched our first book-to-movie adaptation, which would be the first few movies, since Hellboy was a graphic novel first. This has been a long time coming. Because this movie is, in my opinion, one of the very best book-to-movie adaptations ever made. It is my go-to example of such a thing when the topic comes up in conversation and I’ve had to be really careful not to digress into a discussion of it whenever the topic comes up in my reviews. Because I could talk about this movie for days.

I mentioned in my 12 Monkeys review that I spent a few weeks in England when I was in high school. I happened to be there just when this movie was coming out in theaters. It was hugely advertised there. I grabbed the book first, then the soundtrack, then saw the movie with the rest of the group (none of whom had read the book and most of whom thought the movie was okay at best). My point here is that, like 12 Monkeys, for me this movie is inextricably linked to that trip. A lot of other things happened on the trip, both good and bad, but this was something I felt like I would remember, and I have. It’s one of the things that spurred me to pay more attention to film and books and the differences between them as mediums. Their physicality, experience of consuming and audiences are totally different and therefore they need to present their content differently. It was a revelation for me.

If you haven’t read the book this movie is based on, let me make it quite clear: It is very different from the movie. The book is a series of loosely connected stories and episodes from the lives of a large group of people who all live in Scotland or are from Scotland and who are either heroin addicts or in some way connected to an addict or addicts. There are a few plotlines that weave in and out of the stories. You’ll meet one character in one story and hear everything from his point of view. In another he’ll show up in the background as a guest at a party in a story being narrated by a girl who’s only met him once. Some stories aren’t connected at all. Some only in the vaguest of ways. Others use a huge network of people to connect wildly disparate plots through nothing more than the people involved and which acquaintances they have in common. And there are passages in the book that are so brutal they make me uncomfortable just thinking about them years later. If you had shown me the book first, without telling me there was a movie? I would have said it was impossible to do.

I would have been wrong. Because what director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge did was pluck out a core group of characters and their stories and turn them into a cohesive plot for the movie. The focal point of the film is Mark Renton, a long-time heroin addict. Everyone else in the movie orbits him to some extent. Friends, family, girlfriend. Renton’s the star here. Because he’s an engrossing character. Not a good guy, to be certain, but when he’s seen in comparison to characters like the amoral Sick Boy and the violent Begbie, well, he looks a whole lot better than he otherwise might. Sure, he lies, steals, gets his friends hooked on heroin. For some reason he’s also sympathetic. He’s made rotten choices throughout much of his adult life and he’s dealt with some rotten consequences. He feels guilt – or at least he does when he’s not high. He narrates the story and leads us through the miserable life he leads along with the people around him.

Back when this movie came out it got some bad press from people who claimed it was glorifying drug use. I would beg to differ on that count. Renton might not suffer much in the way of major consequences – he weasels out of jail time for shoplifting, somehow avoids HIV infection, manages to get to a hospital before an overdose kills him and eventually he gets clean and doesn’t get himself killed by someone else. But at the same time, he’s the exception to the rule here and the movie is quite clear about that. One friend gets jail time. Another dies after AIDS-related toxoplasmosis causes a stroke. Renton’s life is a series of near misses punctuated by shooting up and detoxing, repeatedly. He even starts up the movie determined to get clean (after an introduction telling you how crap it all is) and he even manages for a bit! And is thoroughly miserable immediately after. He goes back on heroin and is again miserable. He’s miserable whatever he does. And the movie constructs the life around him in such a way that, well. It’s somewhat understandable.

This is not to say that there’s a solid argument for drug use here. It seems to feel good while you’re doing it, but the movie shows very clearly what the effects are, from the wasted and sickly characters on the screen to the casualties of their inattention to life around them. But it all seems like a hideous cycle. Get high and you miss everything around you and spend all your time zonked out or stealing to get the money to pay to get zonked again. Get clean and you face up to the mess you’ve made of your life and the fact that your friends are all horrible people who did the same things you did when you were all in need of a hit. They screw each other over multiple times. It’s horrible.

And yet somehow the movie remains full of humor. It is one of the oddest pieces of balancing I’ve ever seen. There are terrible things in here. Infants dead of neglect, guys stealing from a nursing home, terrifying detox scenes, bar brawls with innocents getting beaten to pulp and of course all the heroin. Yet Renton remains somehow sympathetic. I genuinely want to see him break out of it all. I want to see him get clean and get out and away. And the movie has a generous helping of humorous lines that I quote all the damn time. It has some fantastic moments between the cast of characters and I smile a good portion of the time while watching it. But then they’re peppered in through a movie that is, in essence, about the hopelessness and disaffection of a generation and the effects it all has. Each of the characters goes in a different direction in response to feeling utterly trapped. Begbie goes looking for fights. Sick Boy abandons all pretense at caring about anyone but himself. Spud curls up and gives in. Tommy ends up the worst junkie of the lot. And Renton screws his mates to break free.

Following Renton and his “so-called mates” through this movie, I find it utterly amazing that such a cohesive story was pulled out of Irvine Welsh’s book. And I love the book, but it is not a piece of literature with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. It’s casting a very wide net over the Edinburgh drug scene and pulling back a huge host of characters and stories to give you a bit of everything. This movie is taking all of that and pulling you into one storyline and still managing to show so very much of that same culture. These characters give you such a wide view of the possibilities (or lack thereof) that I really felt like they hit many or most of the truly key notes of the book.

Part of what makes the movie work so well and give it its humorous edge, is the way it’s all put together, with frames frozen in place so Renton can narrate a little, or titles like “The Worst” and “in Scotland” put around the word “TOILET” on a bathroom door. And then there’s the magical realism type scenes when Renton is high or detoxing. This movie has a wicked little sense of humor about itself and its subjects while at the same time treating their lives seriously. And the rest of what makes it work so well, aside from the magnificent adaptation work in the script and directing, are the performances.

I love everyone in this movie. The entire main cast is fantastic. Obviously we have Renton in the lead and this is the movie that introduced me to Ewan MacGregor. He is utterly unbelievable as Renton. He’s an underhanded and manipulative little twerp a lot of the time. He’s messed up in many ways. He self-describes as a bad person. And MacGregor makes him likable. That’s tough. That’s more than tough. There’s Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy (who’s lacking in moral fibre but knows a lot about Sean Connery) and you know, I knew Miller from Hackers. He’s certainly well named here and provides a good foil for Renton on several occasions. Ewan Bremner will always be Spud to me, no matter what else I see him in. Kevin McKidd and Kelly Macdonald were both fairly new to film at the time but I think they’re both great as Tommy as Diane, respectively. And oh man, Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Next to Renton and Begbie’s the closest focus the movie has. He’s a snarling wiry bundle of rage who acts as the human antagonist here and does an amazing job of it. I was so impressed when I saw Carlyle in less ragey roles because he’s so good at it here. But that just goes to show how great an actor he is.

All of this together makes for a spectacular movie, but it’s the adaptation aspect that really puts this one over the top for me. It’s that this movie takes something so utterly unworkable as the book and alters it so drastically but maintains the spirit of it. That’s brilliant. Look at so many other book-to-movie adaptions and see how they do it. They can be slavish to the book, going page by page and sometimes that works, like in Sin City. Sometimes it just falls flat because the material is too specific to the medium of the page. And sometimes just enough changes are made to push the material onto the screen without doing every word written down. But I think this movie is a wonderful example of how one can truly embrace the difference in mediums and rework a text in enormous ways to produce something that could only be done on film and captures the essence of the book at the same time. It’s beautiful.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment