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Criterion’s 4K remaster of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant ‘Fisher King’ is phenomenal


Robin Williams received a Best Actor Oscar nomination as Parry, a homeless man who recruits fallen radio shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) to help him retrieve the Holy Grail.

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4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray, 1991, R for violence, language, sexuality and nudity Best extra: Director Terry Gilliam’s 1991 commentary

AT THE OUTSET of his commentary, Terry Gilliam says that he’s always adhered to three rules when he made a film: • Never do anyone else’s script but his own • Never work with a major motion-picture studio • Never work in America He broke each of those rules with “The Fisher King,” and the kicker is that in many circles, including this one, it’s regarded as his best movie. And not because he somehow compromised. It’s steeped in Arthurian mythology – the Fisher King was the last in a line of monarchs tasked with guarding the Holy Grail – and there’s no shortage of Gilliam’s fantastical flourishes. But when he got behind the camera, he was determined to resist those impulses.

(1) The opening sequence is a monochromatic shot of Lucas bathed in the sterile light of his studio. (2&3) A limo waits to take Lucas back to his penthouse. (4) Jack and his live-in girlfriend Sondra (Lara Harris) are on the top of the world. (5) Three years after his fall, Jack is living with Anne (Best Actress Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl), who runs a video store.

“The briefing I gave myself was not to make a fantastical film, my usual twisting, grotesqueing version of the real world,” Gilliam says, laughing. “I failed miserably. I was pushed forward to make the film I usually make by the people I hired to do the opposite.” So, why did he break his filmmaking rules? Because, he told IndieWire in 2015, his career was on the ropes after the fallout from the criminally under-appreciated “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (released on 4K by Criterion in January). “The Fisher King” offered a shot at redemption – like Jack Lucas, the shock jock played by Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”) – by showing that he could behave and bring a film in on time and on budget. “I was in a depressed mood because I’d made ‘Munchausen’ and the studio basically dumped it. So I thought my film career was finally over and I’m finished,” Gilliam says. His agent started sending scripts, including the one for “The Addams Family.” None of them interested him until he received the Oscar-nominated “Fisher King” screenplay by first-timer Richard LaGravenese (“Freedom Writers”). “I started reading and I stayed up till—I don’t know what time in the morning it was. I thought this is really great writing. I said, ‘I really like this, I like these characters, I understand what it’s all about.’ That was the beginning of it. But I had to say, ‘OK, I’m going to put my head in the lion’s mouth.’”

(1&2) A self-pitying alcoholic, Jack goes on a bender one night and is rescued by Parry from a couple of thugs. (3&4) Jack wakes up the next morning in Parry’s underground “abode.”

Lucas is the egomaniacal, self-absorbed star of New York morning radio until his on-air rant prompts a listener to bring a shotgun to a popular yuppie restaurant. Three years later he’s a suicidal, self-pitying drunk living in the cluttered apartment over the video store run by his girlfriend Anne (Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl, “Big”). Stumbling into the street, he’s about to throw himself in the river one night when he’s beaten up by a couple of thugs and doused with gasoline. Enter his knight in not-so-shining armor, a homeless man named Parry (Best Actor Oscar-nominee Robin Williams, insert favorite movie), who rescues him and takes him back to his “abode.”

Parry is convinced that the “little people” have sent Jack to help him on his quest to recover the Holy Grail from the castle-like apartment of a Manhattan billionaire. When Jack discovers that Parry was once a college professor who was at that restaurant the night the gunman opened fire, and watched as his wife’s brains were blown out, he joins the quest and helps Parry connect with his damsel in distress, a klutzy office worker named Lydia (Amanda Plummer, “Pulp Fiction”). Standing in the way is Parry’s formidable demon –the fiery Red Knight who embodies his aversion to facing the loss of his wife. The friendship and love that leads to redemption for Jack and Parry is the heart of Gilliam’s wonderful, moving movie.

(1) Jack discovers that his on-air rant led to the fatal shooting of Parry’s wife and other diners at a popular yuppie restaurant. (2) Amanda Plummer is Lydia, Parry’s klutzy damsel in distress. (3) Parry comforts his friend, a homeless cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter. (4) Commuters break into a spontaneous ballroom dance in Grand Central Station.

VIDEO/AUDIO To say that “The Fisher King” (1.85: 1 aspect ratio) looks phenomenal is to sell it short. Sony Pictures handled the 4K remastering from the 35mm original camera negative. Like “Munchausen,” it enthralls from the opening sequence, an overhead, monochromatic, circular shot of Jack hermetically sealed in his studio. His sterile penthouse apartment is terrific, too, especially with the bright blue Manhattan skyline as the backdrop. And when the story moves to ground and underground levels, whether during the day or at night, it feels organic and lived-in. Detail is fabulous in both the extreme, sometimes cartoonish close-ups or when cinematographer Roger Pratt (Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys”) uses forced perspective. The shadows are wonderfully deep and thanks to a perfect application of Dolby Vision HDR color grading, the Gilliam-approved palette could not be more authentic. The HDR10 peak brightness hit 1000 nits and averaged 305 nits while maintaining a super high video bitrate per second ensuring every bit of grain captured and encoded onto the 100-gigabit disc. The reworked 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack gets high grades, too. Dialogue is crystal-clear, the sounds of the city fit seamlessly in the mix and the Oscar-nominated score by George Fenton (“Groundhog Day”) is pitch-perfect.

(1) Jeter’s cabaret singer pulls out the stops. (2) Lydia offers moral support. (3-6) Thanks to Jack, Parry connects with Lydia.

EXTRAS All of them have been picked up from the 1991 Blu-ray but that’s not a bad thing – they’re all still worth a spin. They include interviews with cast and crew; a feature with Keith Greco and Vincent Jeffards, the artists who created the Red Knight; another feature about Bridges’ on-set photography; and a 2006 interview with the much-missed Williams. But as with any Gilliam movie, the place to start is his commentary. He’s typically forthcoming and all-encompassing, discussing why he was recruited to direct (he worked with Williams on “Munchausen” and the producers wanted to use him as bait); dispelling the popular notion that Williams was always a “madcap” improviser; pointing out the mythological symbolism; and explaining the choices of locations and what went into his and Pratt’s decisions. He also makes a telling point about the story, one that rings true today. Coming from a TV background (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”), his attitude toward the media is that “it’s a dangerous technology that we have invented.” “We live in this world where we seem to have instant communication going on all the time. Yet, there’s no communication. It keeps people apart.” In “The Fisher King,” the villain is radio. There’s no need to spell out what it is in 2023. Craig Shapiro

(1) The fiery, demonic Red Knight embodies Parry’s aversion to facing the loss of his wife. (2&3) Jack brings the Grail to Parry, who is recovering at an institution after he was left catatonic following an assault. It’s not long before he’s back in form. (4) In the final shot, the two friends lie naked in Central Park under an umbrella of fireworks.

1 Comment

May 06, 2023

I just got the Criterion blu ray before they jumped into 4k. Is it that big of an improvement?

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