Monty Python's Life of Brian
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 commentary tracks as provocative and hilarious as the film itself. Available for the first time in a 16:9 enhanced transfer, Monty Python's Life of Brian can finally be viewed in all its - ahem - glory.
The Criterion edition of Monty Python’s Life of Brian is presented on this dual-layered disc in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 despite stating 1.85:1 on the back packaging. The image has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions. I’ve seen countless DVD versions of this film, ranging from the original Anchor Bay release to the Canadian-only Sony release, and then the recent special edition from Sony released throughout Region 1 (and of course I’ve seen those impressive screen grabs from the Blu-Ray version over at DVD Beaver.) Of all of the releases the Criterion one is probably the second worst one, only being better than the Anchor Bay release as I don’t believe that one was anamorphic.
The image on this is pretty bad. I originally attributed it to the fact that maybe the source materials were beyond repair, but after seeing the Canadian version released a few years ago and then the recent, very impressive 2-disc edition released I know this wasn’t the case.
The image is always soft, never sharp. Colours are on and off, sometimes looking decently saturated and bright, while most other times they come off faded and rather dull. Black levels aren’t that great, darker scenes coming off rather murky. Artifacts such as edge-enhancement are present throughout, unfortunately. But the most annoying aspect is the print, which is in horrid shape. On the commentary John Cleese comments on how this is the best he has seen the film, so I can only imagine what it looked like before.
I was fairly happy with this transfer when I first saw the disc, but the subsequent releases since then have bypassed this release and only make it look that much worse.
Criterion sticks with the original 2.0 Dolby Surround track.
While the dialogue is easy to hear the whole thing is fairly flat. Music comes off a tad too harsh at times but can sound hollow along with the voices. Minimal use is given to the surrounds and have to say that I found this track to be more mono than anything. Only do some sequences employ the surrounds and I didn’t notice much activity between the front three speakers.
The quality is fairly low and this is more than likely an issue with the source as every release of this film on DVD and VHS doesn’t sound altogether that hot. You can hear everything at least, but don’t expect it to sound great.
Criterion throws on a nice collection of supplements at least, but they can also, for the most part, be found on other releases of the film.
The big extras are the two commentaries, one by Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle, the other by John Cleese and Michael Palin. Everyone was recorded separately and then edited together.
Don't expect many laughs because the Pythons are actually fairly serious when they discuss their film, although Eric Idle is willing to have a little more fun than everyone else. Still both tracks are fairly informative. Gilliam and Jones spend the most time on the actual production and look of the film (and I wasn't surprised to learn that Gilliam did direct a few of the scenes) while the others look at the writing process, the characters and the controversy that followed the film, Cleese spending the most time on this. Some of the problems they had during the filming of Holy Grail are also mentioned on this, ranging from damp hotel rooms to the problems with both Jones and Gilliam directing.
The nicest treat would have to be the deleted scenes that Jones apparently dug up from his basement. They are in extremely rough shape but not unwatchable. While some are duds there are a couple scenes that are still good. These each come with alternate commentaries by whoever was involved in the scene and they explain why the scene was cut.
A wonderful 1-hour documentary called "The Pythons" is also included. This is an extremely well done piece on the group that was filmed during the filming of Life of Brian getting interviews from everyone and showing some of their past efforts. There is a lot of information packed into this piece making for one of the better shows I have ever seen on the Monty Python gang. The disc is almost worth getting just for this alone.
You also get your few fallback extras such as the Warner Bros. American trailer (I would have liked to see the British one, though) and 4 funny radio ads begging you to see the movie. In one you have Michael Palin's dentist beg you to see the movie so Palin can afford to have the work needed on him done and you have John Cleese's mother beg you to see so she can't be left out on the street to die. Gilliam's mother also makes an appearance and, my favorite, Eric Idle's family also begs you to see it so he can stop hiding from the tax collectors and come home.
The insert with the release has a decent essay by George Perry, who declares the film the best Python film, and also touches briefly on the controversy surrounding its release. I think more insight into that controversy would have been a nice feature, though we do get a bit of coverage on that subject throughout the disc.
It’s not a packed release but I had a fun going through them all. The commentaries and the doc more than made me happy and should please most Python fans.
The less than stellar transfer doesn't help, but the supplements are very good, yet this isn't even a real benefit for the Criterion disc. Usually Criterion’s supplements are exclusive to their releases but this isn’t the case here. The supplements on here can actually be found on other releases. The single-disc Canadian release actually contains the “The Pythons” documentary while the new “Immaculate Edition” on both DVD and Blu-Ray contains the rest of the features, even the same commentaries, plus some extra goodies (while neither “Immaculate Edition” contains the “The Pythons” doc, despite Sony's Canadian release from a few years ago having it, they both have a new documentary on the making of the film.)
In the end I do have to direct you away from this DVD. The transfer on the new Sony DVD/Blu-Ray clearly blows the Criterion’s transfer away, they contain most of the same supplements, plus they’re both much cheaper (the Criterion MSRP is $39.95 while the Blu-Ray is $29.95.) I loved this DVD upon its original release but far better DVDs have come out since then making this release pretty much obsolete. Not recommended.