Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Life of Brian: Criterion (1979)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

After slaying the Arthurian legend in their now classic Holy Grail, the Pythons set their sights on the Greatest Story Ever Told, Blind faith, virgin birth, crucifixion - nothing is sacred in this epic send-up of ancient times, which draws on the cornball biblical blockbusters of the 1950s to lampoon celebrity culture in any era. Criterion has gathered the guilty parties- including John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin - for two audio commentaries as provocative and hilarious as the film itself. Available for the first time in 16x9 enhanced transfer, Monty Python's Life of Brian can finally be viewed in all its - ahem - glory!

Director: Terry Jones
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Digital Stereo; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 19 chapters; rated R; 94 min.; $39.95; street date 11/16/99.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones; Audio Commentary by John Cleese and Michael Palin; Theatrical Trailer; Five rarely seen deleted scenes with audio commentary by the Pythons; Four original British radio ads; 50-minute documentary film The Pythons, shot on location during the making of Life of Brian.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/D+/A

Hey, hey! It's officially been decreed Blasphemy Week here at the DVD Movie Guide! Between South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and now Monty Python's Life of Brian - not to mention the screening of Dogma I attended - I may have some explaining to do with the man upstairs!

Well, that should be the case only if He (or She or It) doesn't have much of a sense of humor, because all of these movies are pretty creative and funny. And besides, SP:BLU is really the only film in that group that contains blasphemous material; Dogma and LOB could be more accurately characterized as potentially heretical but not blasphemous. How ironic is it that the only movie that doesn't explicitly deal with religion is the blasphemous one? (And boy is it!)

Also ironic is the fact that SP:BLU - easily the nastiest of the bunch - didn't inspire protests, but the other two did. Dogma received a fair amount of flack, but probably not as much as the Pythons saw back in the late Seventies when their opus arrived. This increased controversy is probably understandable since so much has occurred in the interim; it was easier to shock folks back then, and the subject hadn't previously received attention.

Not that LOB deserved any of the negative focus it received. Truthfully, there's nothing anti-God or anti-Jesus in the movie; the few glimpses we have of Jesus are all totally benign in their treatment of the character. However, the same cannot be said for the way the film treats organized religion. Those groups are heavily mocked, though in a very nonspecific manner; since Catholics, Protestants, and all the other Christian sects didn't exist during the time period the movie covers, the Pythons couldn't formally address them.

But they didn't need to name names to make their points, and good messages they are, all in regard to the pettiness and absurdity that can follow such organizations. While religious groups have certainly been responsible for a lot of good throughout history, they've also carried out a lot of nastiness and hatred all in the name of God, and it's that side of the equation - the manner in which the messengers distort and lose the message - that is often the concern here.

One has to remember, of course, that this is a Monty Python film, so don't expect a serious discourse on these issues. Indeed, their points are raised through their comedy and as such they don't beat you over the head with it. Instead, what we see is a very witty, clever and irreverent look at an alternate history that features a man named Brian who just happened to be born on the same day and in the same place as Christ.

The Pythons' work was always inconsistent, and LOB is no exception. Some parts are terrific, while some are pretty spotty. Still, the movie maintains a fairly high standard throughout and there aren't any genuinely lame sequences. They toss a lot of material at the wall and most of it sticks.

Mainly because the Pythons worked so well as an ensemble, there's no real standout among them in LOB. Graham Chapman's Brian receives the most screentime of any character, but I don't think Chapman's film exposure is higher than any of the other Pythons. The difference is that all of them play a number of different and hilarious minor roles, whereas Chapman sticks mainly to Brian, a character who acts mainly as a straight man. Happily, Chapman does get to play one juicy role: that of the lisping Roman Biggus Dickus.

Ah, Biggus Dickus - that reminds me of one of the most amazing qualities of Python productions. When they were on, the Pythons - as with the better episodes of South Park or Beavis and Butthead - could mine extremely crude subjects for laughs. In my review of SP:BLU, I tried to pinpoint why this is - why are some fart jokes stupid but some others hilarious - but failed, and I don't think I've gained any insight into this strange phenomenon over the last few days. Suffice it to say that some of the jokes of LOB are quite cheap, but many are also quite funny.

Part of the reason seems to relate to the charm of the performers, and all the Pythons are quite excellent here. Again, none really stand out, but that's more due to the interrelated and complementary natures of their performances. The Pythons had something terrific much in the same way as the crew behind SCTV: they all were together so long that they knew each others strengths and weaknesses intimately, so the entire group organism could function well.

And that's the case with LOB. Certainly some of the TV sketches were funnier than parts of this film, but the movie sustains a strong narrative and makes some excellent points through its comedy. Were one so inclined, one could neatly dissect the film and closely examine all these different lobs and volleys and more fully explore what the Pythons were saying, but you know what? From Kindergarten through grad school, I spent 21 years of my life dealing with academic pursuits, and I'm not eager to renew that form anytime soon, so I'll just leave it at this: Life of Brian is a damned funny and entertaining little film. There!

The DVD:

Coming to a clear consensus about the Criterion DVD is more difficult. This edition is my first experience with LOB on DVD; a movie-only version also exists, but I never saw it, so I cannot compare the two. Criterion present the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.

The picture of LOB is very erratic. At times it looks pretty good, with decent sharpness, a clear frame, and nice color reproduction. Unfortunately, those moments are the exceptions, not the rule. For the most part, I found multiple problems with the image. Sharpness usually appeared decent, though some haziness occasionally interfered with the image. Various marks, spots and scratches often mar the picture, and grain at times seems excessive; the early shot in which we see Jesus addressing his followers displays intense amounts of grain. Colors generally are bland but acceptable; the film tends toward earth tones so it's somewhat hard to judge, but the hues seemed fairly unspectacular. Black levels and contrast actually appear quite good - the dark areas of various costumes looked very nice - but shadow detail was especially weak; those areas of the picture often seemed flat and hazy, and nuances became lost.

From what I've read about the previous DVD release of LOB, that image didn't look any better than this one. Is this as good as we'll ever see the film appear? Maybe. I have no idea how solid the source materials are, but this isn't the first Python-related film to offer weak picture; Criterion's Time Bandits DVD also has many problems, and their laserdisc release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail certainly offered a less-than-wonderful image. Whether or not this is as good as LOB can look, it isn't too hot; it definitely didn't ruin the movie for me, but I certainly think a better picture would add much to the film.

The quality of the movie's Dolby Pro Logic 2.0 mix is also quite erratic. In general it seemed very thin and occasionally strident. The dialogue was always intelligible as far as the quality went; at times, I had difficulty understanding what the actors said, but that was due mainly to their accents, not to any audio flaws. Nonetheless, speech usually appeared flat and fairly weak. The musical score occasionally sounded decent, but in general it seemed fairly poor and offered little dynamic range. Effects also appeared flat and somewhat harsh. The mix tended to be monaural in nature. At times I heard good use of the surrounds and the front side channels - such as during the spaceship scene and for some crowd noises and music - but it didn't offer much of a presence, even when the age of the material is considered.

So far the Criterion DVD of Life of Brian sounds like a lost cause. Poor picture, weak sound; not much reason to get it, huh? Not necessarily so. The DVD rebounds in a big way with its supplements; Criterion have included some excellent materials here, stuff that's good enough to redeem the disc.

First up are the two separate audio commentaries. We hear from all five of the surviving Pythons: Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam on the first track, and John Cleese and Michael Palin on the second. Both commentaries are quite good, though anyone expecting nonstop hilarity will be disappointed. For one, it should be noted that in Criterion tradition, all of the participants were recorded separately, so we don't witness a Python reunion or any interaction between the men. Also, audio commentaries don't generally lend themselves to humor; they're usually opportunities for folks to offer information and to reflect on their work, and that's largely the case here.

Anyway, I found both commentaries to be quite insightful and entertaining. We hear a lot about how the film was made in addition to details about its inspirations and anecdotes about the Pythons themselves. Some people don't like the Criterion method since it removes the spontaneity of the "straight-through" commentary from the equation, but I like the level of organization and the coherency of their tracks; there's very little dead time, and the discussions flow logically and consistently. I think Criterion produce the best commentaries in the business, and there's nothing here that alters my opinion.

Plus Criterion have the good sense to license material when necessary. The LOB DVD includes a 50 minute BBC documentary about the Pythons cleverly titled The Pythons. This program was produced during the filming of LOB and while it focusses some of its attention on the creation of that movie, much of the time we learn more about the history of the group and hear them discuss themselves in that manner. The documentary also includes a number of Python and Python-related clips, which is nice to have so we can better see what the participants discuss. The program is a little dry - that stuffy BBC! - but it's quite informative and interesting and I'm quite pleased to see it here; it's inclusion was an unexpected pleasure.

Also wonderful are the deleted scenes featured on this DVD. We see five in all, and they vary in length from about 30 seconds up to approximately five minutes; in total, they take up about 11 minutes. The segments range from pretty good - "Otto" and "Sheep" - to not-so-hot - "The Sign that is the Sign" and "Pilate's Wife". These clips come from a long-forgotten worktape, so quality is pretty bad; they're still watchable, though, and can even look pretty decent at times.

One terrific addition is that all of these clips offer commentaries as well. At various times, Idle, Gilliam and Jones can be heard discussing different aspects of the scenes such as their inspirations and why they didn't make the final cut. While the inclusion of the segments is valuable enough, these comments really help make the clips informative as well as entertaining and interesting. Nice job, Criterion!

A few other supplements round out the collection. The film's rather bad theatrical trailer is here, as are four British radio ads for the movie. These aren't all that funny, but they are curious and interesting; in each, someone connected with a Python - Gilliam, Cleese, Palin and Idle - provides some financially prompted reason for you to see the film. They're clever but uninspired. Finally, the DVD's booklet includes a brief but compelling history of the film written by British critic George Perry. Most notably, it adds some detail to the protests and controversies I mentioned.

The Criterion Life of Brian DVD is clearly not the most exhaustively supplemented that you'll see, and I had some trouble giving the extras an "A" because I thought I might be reacting without internal consistency because I've granted lower ratings to DVDs that seem to have similar or even more bonus materials. However, I feel comfortable with this DVD's "A" because it succeeds in regard to quality as well as quantity. Two full audio commentaries, a 50-minute documentary, 11 minutes of deleted scenes plus comments with them - that's some incredibly strong stuff, and this is a nicely realized set of supplements.

Despite the low ratings I gave it for picture and sound, I have to recommend Monty Python's Life of Brian without hesitation. Yes, the image and audio are fairly weak, but I feel they're probably about as good as they'll get; the source material seems to be the issue. To me, these concerns are outweighed by the amusing, inventive and provocative nature of the movie itself and by the fantastic array of supplements. The DVD seems a little pricey at a list price of $39.95, but discounts from Internet retailers will drop that amount significantly, and the package is well worth the cost.

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