Monty Python's Life of Brian (Columbia Tristar) (1979)
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Trailer-Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Eight Crazy Nights, I Spy
|Year Of Production||1979|
|RSDL / Flipper||RSDL (68:31)||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||2,4||Directed By||Terry Jones|
Sony Pictures Home Entertain
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Hungarian Dolby Digital 5.0 (448Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.85:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
English for the Hearing Impaired
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
This is the kind of film that really does not need a plot synopsis, since most people will already be familiar with the plot. Some people will have seen it so many times that they will be able to repeat large chunks of the dialogue verbatim.
Essentially the story is about Brian. At birth mistaken by three wise men for the Son of God, his mother raises him to believe that his father was a certain Mr Cohen. But it transpires that his father was in fact a Roman centurion, one Naughtius Maximus. Horrified, Brian decides to join a rebel group, the Peoples' Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean Peoples' Front). The presence of Judith in this group is another incentive. The group plans to kidnap Pilate's wife, but their mission goes astray with unforeseen consequences, Brian being mistaken for the Messiah. But as we all know, he's not the Messiah.
This is of course a Monty Python film, the second of three narrative films that they were to make. The first was 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which this reviewer still regards as their funniest. Brian, though is not far behind. The group had its origins in university revues in the early 1960s, but did not come together as a sextet until 1969 when their first 13-part television series Monty Python's Flying Circus screened on the BBC. Initially the show had a cult following which confounding BBC executives, most of whom did not understand the comedy. The show ran for four series and 45 episodes in total, spawning a number of spin-offs. There were two episodes made for German television and the feature film And Now For Something Completely Different, which was a series of sketches from the television show reshot for the cinema.
Brian was directed by Terry Jones, who also plays Brian's mother (in the original script called The Virgin Mandy). Brian is played by the late Graham Chapman, who does triple-duty as one of the wise men and Biggus Dickus. The rest of the Python troupe play multiple roles: John Cleese, who left the troupe after the third TV series but returned for the films, is PFJ leader Reg, several Roman centurions, a wise man, the master of ceremonies of a stoning and others. Michael Palin is Pontius Pilate, an ex-leper, a prisoner chained to a wall, a mild-mannered and overly-polite Roman official supervising the crucifixions (through the door, line on the left, one cross each) and more. Eric Idle is Stan, a PFJ member who wants to be called Loretta, plus a haggling beard seller and one of the prisoners slated for crucifixion. Terry Gilliam is a hilariously mad prison guard and he also did the superb production design on the film. Python regular Carol Cleveland has a small role and there are cameos from Spike Milligan and executive producer George Harrison. Judith is played by Sue Jones-Davies.
I can recall that when this film was released there was considerable controversy over the storyline, with claims of blasphemy coming from the religious sector. How much of this outrage was genuine and how much was driven by the publicity machine is unclear twenty-five years later. What is clear is that the film is not blasphemous. It is irreverent, but the targets of the satire seem to be the various warring factions in the Middle East, as well as those who fall easily under the spell of false prophets. I think that people were offended not by the content of the film but by the thought that the events of this era could be depicted with anything other than the usual turgid reverence. In fact, I think more people would be offended by The Passion of the Christ or The Greatest Story Ever Told than would be offended by Life of Brian. That being said, there are swipes at organised religion and some people may feel uncomfortable watching the film. Too bad, in my opinion.
When I first saw this film on initial release, I have to admit to being a little disappointed. I had watched some of the original series on television when it was first screened here, and had seen Holy Grail at the cinemas several times. Because Brian eschews the usual series of interconnected skits and has a coherent narrative, it seemed slower and less funny that I had expected it to be. Of course, I was wrong. The film has gotten better with age (both mine and that of the movie) and now I can appreciate it for the classic that it is. Even on an umpteenth viewing I laughed more than I have at any other film made in the last twenty years, although judging by the state of film comedy, that isn't saying much. I initially sat down to watch the film at 11pm at night, thinking that I would watch twenty minutes or so before going to bed. I ended up watching the whole film through, and felt much better for having done so. You will feel better for having a copy of it on DVD.
The film is presented, enhanced for 16x9 displays, in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
I can recall that when I first saw this film in the cinema in 1979 or thereabouts it looked disappointing, very grainy and dark. I also recall reading somewhere that there were problems with the film stock, and so the grainy and dark appearance is the original look of the film. Happily it does not look quite as bad on DVD.
The transfer is sharp and clear. There is a good level of detail visible, though the grain mitigates against perfect clarity. Contrast levels are very good, though again it does not look ideal. Shadow detail is quite poor. There is no detail in the black areas of the image, whether that be shadows or the black beards that several of the cast sport, where no individual strands of hair can be seen.
Colour is quite good as well. In outdoor scenes the colour seems washed out and weak, but indoor scenes are more vibrant and lifelike. Blacks are quite solid and clean without much in the way of low level noise, though there is some in the shadows in indoor scenes.
Edge enhancement is visible throughout, wherever objects are outlined against the sky. The effect is noticeable but not especially annoying. Viewers with large projected displays may find this a problem.
There are surprisingly few film artefacts. Apart from the heavy grain, there are occasional tiny white spots. There are more frequent spots of dirt, but this is a pretty clean transfer. There is a coloured scratch at 39:42 for a few seconds.
The subtitles are in large white font which matches the dialogue and is easy to read, according to the sample I viewed.
The film comes on an RSDL-formatted disc with the layer change positioned at 68:31. It was barely noticeable during my viewing of the film, being placed at a cut between scenes.
The film comes with an inauthentic Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. There is no alternative stereo track, the only other tracks being in German and Hungarian, hopefully not translated by Alexander Yalt, publisher of the infamous Hungarian phrase book.
I am a little disappointed that I cannot watch the film with an audio mix that approximates that which was available in the original cinema release. The remix has good points and bad points.
On the former side, we have the music score, which comes over surprisingly well in this mix. It sounds very clear and full-bodied, almost as if it had been re-recorded for this release. There is a good blend of front and rear channel usage. There are also some low frequency effects, though I did not notice any activity from the subwoofer. This may be because the bass is well integrated into the overall sound picture, or because the entire low frequency load was handled by my main and surround speakers. In any case, bass levels are very good.
The dialogue is problematic. There was a lack of clarity a lot of the time, which meant that some lines I found unintelligible. It is also noticeable that when music overlaps dialogue, the music changes from being spread across the five channels to being more centrally located, along with the dialogue. This suggests that separate tracks for dialogue and music were not available for this transfer. The dialogue has always been a problem with this film, so I don't think the problems here were created in the transfer, but even so I do not think the remix helps.
Audio sync is generally almost perfect, even though a lot of the dialogue was post-synchronised. For example, Michael Palin dubbed the one word spoken by George Harrison.
The music score was written by Geoffrey Burgon and is quite witty in itself. There are of course the two songs at each end of the film. The opening credits have the song Brian as sung by Sonia Jones in Shirley Bassey style. The end of the film has the famous Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, sung by Eric Idle.
|Surround Channel Use|
The main menu has a lengthy scrolling animation inspired by the opening credits of the film and with some clever sound effects rather than music. The menus are relatively easy to navigate and look very good.
This is a BBC programme made on location in Tunisia during the shooting of the film. It is not really a making of documentary, more a look at the Pythons ten years on from the first episode of the television series. There are interviews with all of the troupe, excerpts from the TV series and their earlier films, and from some of the solo projects the individuals worked on. Some of the rehearsals for this film are shown. This is actually a fascinating documentary and a superb extra to the film. It gives an insight into the personalities of each of the performers and their relationships with one another.
It is shown here in the original television aspect ratio, though it was shot on film. It is in very good condition, quite clear and sharp, and though there are some film artefacts such as burn marks (for example at 26:27), these are few and far between.
This seems to be a US-release trailer with voice-over. It is not particularly exciting or funny. It is 16x9 enhanced in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
This is the UK-release trailer for the film, with the original Chinese voice-over (which sounds like Bert Kwouk). It was created by the Pythons themselves and must be one of the funniest trailers ever made. The parody of The Seventh Seal had me in stitches. This is a must-see.
All of these trailers are 16x9 enhanced and in superb condition, video-wise. A pity that these are what passes for comedy in the modern era.
There have been numerous releases of this film on DVD. A previous R4 version was released by Rainbow as a pan-and-scan transfer, so this can be safely relegated to the DVD dustbin of history. In fact, you can thwow it to the gwound.
The UK Region 2 release is identical to the Region 4. This Region 2 release seems to be the same throughout Europe
The first US Region 1 release was from Anchor Bay, and featured a transfer from a video master which was not 16x9 enhanced. I think we can rule this out.
The second US Region 1 release was from Criterion. I have a copy of this release and so I can do a direct comparison with the Region 4. A comparison of the two is not straightforward. Both are 16x9 enhanced but appear to come from different source material. The Criterion has a reddish tint to the video, and looks less realistic than the Region 4 in terms of colour. A good comparison is the marble columns in Pilate's palace, which are bony white on the Region 4 and slightly pinkish on the Criterion. The Criterion also has a lot of film artefacts, but the Region 4 seems to be slightly cropped at the bottom of the frame. The Criterion also has some edge enhancement, but if pressed I would think it has a little less than the Region 4. The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0.
The Criterion wins on the extras side of things. It has the same BBC documentary, although the print used by Criterion has a lot more film artefacts and is less sharp and clear. There are two audio commentaries. The first has Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle, the second John Cleese and Michael Palin. In each case each participant's comments were recorded separately.
Added to this are five deleted scenes found on a working tape by Terry Jones, each of which has an optional audio commentary by Jones or Eric Idle. There are four radio spots and the same trailer that appears on the Region 4 disc, although here it is not 16x9 enhanced.
My verdict on the comparison is that I will have to keep both versions. Because of the additional extras, I would have to recommend the Criterion, but anyone would be well satisfied with the new Region 4.
A great film and a pretty good disc.
The video and audio quality are very good despite some problems.
A fine selection of extras, though Region 1 wins out here.
|DVD||Pioneer DV-S733A, using Component output|
|Display||Sony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Speakers||Main: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175|