Terry Gilliam Week Day #6: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas

I hope it hasn't felt too disrespectful these last few Days, doing two Monty Pythons and a documentary about a film that fell apart for Terry Gilliam Week.  Let's wrap up with a proper film of his, one of his best: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.  I've read the criticism, and a few points do ring a little true - Terry seems overly focused on depicting the hallucinations over the human drama, the celebration of bad behavior is juvenile or that Johnny Depp's performance feels like too much of a caricature.  But for me, it all works, breathing the source material vivid cinematic life.  And if you want some perspective on how good a job is doing, just go watch the other Hunter S. Thompson movies - Where the Buffalo Roam, which came first and The Rum Diary, which came after.  Gilliam has gotten a grasp on this material that no one else has managed to get.
Sure, Gilliam is injecting his own inclinations, as any filmmaker should.  Being obsessed with the visions certainly puts you more in Duke and Gonzo's headspace, and you can't say he didn't nail some fantastically trippy set pieces.  Hunter's episodic plotting didn't prove more any compelling presented dry in the other films, anyway - if anything, that's their weak spot.  And by the time you get to the harrowing diner scene, I don't think you could accuse this film of missing the darker subtext.  Speaking of the diner scene, wow the supporting cast they've assembled here: Benicio Del Toro, Ellen Burstyn, Trancers' Tim Thomerson, Gary Busey, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, and like a dozen celebrity cameos.  Everybody's perfectly cast.  If you didn't like this film, fair enough, but I don't think we'll ever see a better adaptation of Thompson's work on any screen.
Universal released this in 1998 on a respectably anamorphic widescreen DVD.  But in 2003, Criterion turned it into a fancy, 2-disc special edition.  For blu, Universal again started us off with an almost barebones disc in 2010, which Criterion replaced with their own special edition BD (with all the same stuff as their DVD set) in 2011.  But in 2019, Arrow restored the film in 4k with a fancy, 2-disc limited edition blu-ray set (followed up by a single disc standard edition in 2020).
1) 1998 Universal DVD; 2) 2003 Criterion DVD;
3) 2011 Universal BD; 4) 2019 Arrow BD.

So Criterion's DVD has clearly just taken Universal's 1998 transfer and slapped their extras onto it.  It's anamorphic at 2.31:1, and generally free of problems.  But it's still soft and smudgy standard def stuff, which Universal's blu cleans up nicely.  Now framed at 2.35:1, it un-squishes the image a bit while also revealing more picture, particularly along the bottom.  But really it's just the sharper, cleaner image that attracts.  It's a nice bump to HD, and worth upgrading from the DVD for.  At least, it was until Arrow came along and trumped it.  Still at 2.35, it adjusts the framing a little, vertically, but the real benefit is the new, finer scan.  Grain that was just lightly hinted at is now distinctly visible, as is fine detail.  The general color-timing is the same across all the editions, but highlights and shadows that were a little over-contrasty and blown out on the old blu are now natural and photo realistic on the Arrow.

The Universal DVD gives us the original stereo mix with optional French and Spanish subtitles.  Criterion gives us a new 5.1 mix in addition the the stereo and replaces the foreign subs with English ones.  Meanwhile, the Universal blu makes the frustrating decision to give us just the 5.1, albeit in DTS-HD and with multiple subtitle options including English.  Thankfully, Arrow gives us the original stereo track as well as the 5.1 in DTS-HD, and keeps the English subs.
As for extras, I did describe the Universal discs as "almost" barebones.  That's because, besides the trailer, there's the deleted scenes and a quick 10-minute featurette. But Criterion, of course, had a lot more to add.  For starters, how about three audio commentaries?  One's by Gilliam (who also provides commentary to the deleted scenes and even the trailer), which is a solid, thoughtful overview.  One's by Depp, Del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi, which is more fun and anecdotal.  And the last one is by Thompson himself, again with Nabulsi, which is... interesting. Then there's a 50-minute documentary that's not about the film.  It's actually a vintage Omnibus episode from the 70s with and about Thompson.  And then there are a bunch of what I'd call scraps, little featurettes, often just audio recordings or old film clips, a few about the film, and more about Thompson himself.  There's a 14 minute video where Depp reads his letters to and from Thompson aloud and snippets from a 1996 Fear and Loathing audio CD.  There are several stills galleries, TV spots, and a 28-page booklet.

Arrow doesn't have any of Criterion's extras, but they do have the stuff from Universal, plus a whole lot of their own including their own commentary with Gilliam.  Instead of the BBC Omnibus documentary, they have a 2006 feature-length doc on Thompson from 2006.  Then there are new on-camera interviews with Nabulsi and Del Toro and a great 30-minute featurette interviewing key members of the crew, including the cinematographer, production designer, etc.  And they have a video essay by critic Ian Christie and their own set of scraps, including vintage footage of Thompson and extra interview clips and B-roll from the original EPK, plus more TV spots, trailers and galleries.  And that's just disc 1.
2019 Arrow BD.
Disc 2 is dedicated to a recent documentary called For No Good Reason, all about Thompson's illustrator, Ralph Steadman.  I can't say I was super interested in this when the set was announced, but it's good.  We get a great look at his work and how he makes it.  And for Fear and Loathing fans, yes, Terry Gilliam is interviewed, and Depp is on location at Steadman's house, interviewing him and going through his work.  Sony had previously released it on blu in the US in 2012.  The film is presented in 1.78:1 and looks great with lossless 2.0 and 5.1 mixes and optional English subtitles.  It also has its own set of extras, including extended interviews, deleted scenes and galleries of Steadman's art.  Though it should be noted that Sony's disc had more extras, including a commentary and a Q&A with Steadman that didn't make it here.

The disc comes in a clear amary case with reversible artwork housed within a thick slipbox.  Also inside is a full-color 80-page book, six postcards, a double-sided fold-out poster and one of Arrow's cards for an upcoming release (mine's for Daniel Isn't Real).
So Arrow's release is easily the definitive release of the film to date, though serious fans may want to pick up a copy of the Criterion for the additional extras.  Depending how much you're interested in For No Good Reason, you might just opt for Arrow's standard edition.  Although if you haven't already got it by now, I'd advise waiting a little longer.  Between the time Terry Gilliam Week started and today, Arrow announced an upcoming UHD edition of their 4k Fear and Loathing restoration with Dolby Vision/ HDR to arrive May 22nd (so yes, I'm taking full credit.  I clearly made this happen).  Although, annoyingly, their upcoming release seems to have dropped some of the extras from their 2019 set.  But I'm sure it will be the definitive release... at least until Criterion comes out with their own UHD and the arms race continues.

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