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There's an age-old premise in the western world about how the ultimate geek is one who can spout out a complete sketch from the non-sensical annals of the Monty Python crew.  Worse still is someone who recites word-for-word one of their movies in its entirety.  So ever since this comic troupe split up the fans have always cried out for more of the madness, to which a musical equivalent eventually followed with the antics of Weird Al Yankovic - now there's a combination of useless memorisations!

Monty Python's Life Of Brian
As fans already know (and will probably start arguing with me on the finer points), Life Of Brian (1979) was the third full cinematic movie produced by this crazy bunch of former university students after Jabberwocky (1977) and Holy Grail (1975).  Its production was dogged by many setbacks, mainly when original financiers EMI backed out due to the script's apparently blasphemous nature.  But former Beatles guitarist George Harrison came to the call after he read the script when he believed it would never be made and set up his own film company Handmade Films to get shooting finally underway.  Since this movie was alleged to have made the holy unholy, noone in the religious community would have dared to see such a sacrilegious work and some people even went as far as to ban the screening of it in various provinces around the world (even though they'd never seen it to understand it properly).

Many TV shows such as Monty Python's Flying Circus found out the hard way that it's one thing to come up with a good 5-minute joke, it's another to be able to stretch out that same joke for about an hour and a half.  So their theory was "why not just string along a whole heap of these and try to come up with a coherent storyline between them all?".  Why not indeed.

One word of note is that all of the filming took place in Tatooine ... whoops sorry, Tunisia ... the same area where Star Wars IV, I, and II were filmed.  Since Life Of Brian was released two years after the original George Lucas epic, I'm still not sure as to whether this location was an obvious nod to its predescent celluloid outing or just pure coincidence.

Monty Python's Life Of Brian
Movie
Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is born on the same day as baby Jesus next door when three wise men mistakenly pay homage to Brian, until they realise their mistake and destroy any chance of Brian obtaining his 15 minutes of fame.  Fast forward 33 years later and many tumultuous events are taking place with "things going astray" such as the fight by hundreds of ineffective socio-political groups to rid themselves of the occupying Romans, premature stonings, lepers losing their livelihood, cut-throat lessons in Latin, the futile art of haggling, and general street-preaching.

As Brian gets caught up in the middle of all this chaos, his life seems to turn full circle when a group of desperate followers deem him to be the next messiah, no matter how much he denies his divinity.

What has always had me wondering is how on earth a predominantly English style of humour like this is actually translatable into various languages and whether a lot of the jokes go missing on the viewers who aren't in tune with our own sensibilities to this kind of comedy.

Video
Not the best, but it's the best yet for this movie.  Compared to the original R1 NTSC release by Criterion some years back, this new R2 PAL version by Columbia/Tristar outshines it by probably only one factor - colour.  There was also a bare-bones release in R2 for this movie but this was of questionable quality.

One thing that has been impossible to eradicate from this low-budget film is the amount of dirt on the print (some might say it was from all the dust being thrown around in Tunisia).  Columbia/Tristar have taken great pains to minimise the many artifacts that plague this film through their famed remastering system, the same one which was put to use on Monty Python's first flick The Holy Grail.  There is a great deal of grain for this DVD to contend with here but you will usually be unaware of its presence as the film plays along (thanks again to Sony's mastering), although pausing will reveal it in all its ugly glory.  Also, MPEG-blocking can rear its not-so-pretty head in some of the shots, but this is almost non-objectionable in the grander scheme of things.  The image is slightly soft throughout the running time, however focus is surprisingly sharp enough so that nearly all of the detail never goes begging.

Monty Python's Life Of Brian
The one thing that struck me about the image was the amount of colour saturation in all the scenes and as natural a skin tone as possible given the age and condition of the original negatives.  Many scenes that were originally displayed in a relatively bland "desert" motif suddenly has a whole new spectrum that was otherwise unseen, in particular the "old man in shackles" sequence where the prisoner is hued in a deep blue lighting with Brian being very orange in the very same frame - you sometimes get the feeling that Sony artificially produced this look but there have been assurances that this is what the negative should have looked like all along.  Black levels and shadow detail also are strong, deep and detailed where it's needed the most, although the famed "Romanes Eunt Domus" sequence still has that artisticly hard-to-see quality about it (well, that and it was a poor day-for-night filmed piece anyway).

This movie has never looked better, making the Criterion edition look somewhat ordinary by comparison.  I may do a small screenshot comparison between the two versions in the near future.

Audio
This is a very unusual combination of soundtracks with very different qualities throughout comprising of English 5.1, German (mono) 2.0 and Hungarian 5.0 mixes.  Essentially, all of these soundtracks serve their purpose admirably with clear enough dialogue output and sufficient support from the music and effects throughout - the weird thing is that the Hungarian 5.0 mix tends to have a slight delay in the redub of their voices which almost makes it appear like a badly dubbed Hong Kong flick at times.

Each soundtrack has its own distinguishing characteristics and (dis)advantages, however the Hungarian 5.0 mix tends to have a more pronounced surround presence than the English 5.1 one, except maybe for the "alien-ship wars" sequence oddly enough.  That being said, depending on the sound setup you are using, the Hungarian 5.0 mix can either sound brighter or just plain brittle compared to the English 5.1 mix.  There is limited sub-woofer usage in the English 5.1 mix but it comes into play regularly enough to make its presence known.

Monty Python's Life Of Brian
Extras
The menu seems simple enough to operate until you try to use your remote control, so it does call for a little bit of patience to get around which button you should press first to navigate the system.

There's only one major extra on this disc that also comes on the Criterion R1 edition, the 50 minute documentary entitled "The Pythons".  This was produced at the same time as the film itself and actually covers a wide spectrum of Monty Python's work with interviews conducted at the time of the filming for Life Of Brian.  It's actually an interesting foray into their history.  The only trouble I had with the quality of this presentation is that this is a PAL transfer of an NTSC transfer of the original film-negatives which gives an unpleasant juddering effect, especially evident in the Flying Circus clips.

There are five trailers, two of which belong to Monty Python's Life Of Brian & The Holy Grail, then three unrelated ones for Eight Crazy Nights, I Spy and Mr Deeds.

Then to top it all off there is a selection of over 20 subtitles for the movie proper ... just the thing to branch out this satirical look at religion in as many nationalities and cultures as possible.  This time the English subtitles follow the dialogue more closely to what is being said (although it still misses a few para-phrases here and there), the Criterion ones misinterpreted quite a few passages before though.

Monty Python's Life Of Brian
Basically, the Criterion R1 DVD holds a veritable treasure chest of supplemental material including five deleted scenes (taken from poor-quality test 3/4" tapes with separate audio commentaries), two full-length audio commentaries for the movie itself and a hand-picked selection of radio ads.

Summary
If you have the R1 Criterion edition already then don't part with it for love or money, but you would be a fool not to also purchase this fine R2 Columbia/Tristar remaster.  And just like Robocop, the people at Criterion have ensured that their product is one to be treasured by its fans for years to come, mainly at the expense of not letting their exclusive material be reused for any future release of the movie by another distribution house.

If you just can't help but sing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life", then this DVD is for you.  Even though this R2 edition is short on extras, the quality of its presentation is unsurpassed.


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