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Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Blu-ray)

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Genre: Comedy / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam / Actors: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones ... / Blu-ray released 2012-03-26 at Sony Pictures Home Ent. / Features of the Blu-ray: Subtitled

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      06.06.2012 09:32
      Very helpful
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      A good-quality transfer onto Blu-ray, but the film is a little trying

      This Blu-ray currently costs £14.

      I used to love Monty Python when I was a kid, but had pretty much got bored of it by my early twenties. I can completely understand why it was revolutionary for its time, but while there are some great comic ideas, the pacing of the sketches - especially the way they almost invariably go on for way too long - mean that it's often more irritating than funny. I hadn't seen any of the TV show or the films for years, but as this one is new out on Blu-ray, it seemed like a good time to see whether it stands the test of time.

      It's light on plot, but the film is loosely based around King Arthur and his knights as they try to find the Holy Grail.

      There are some really good things about the film. It looks amazing - Terry Gilliam, the co-director, later made Jabberwocky, which is visually similar (and is another film with great visuals but lousy jokes). It feels like a real effort has been made to evoke the middle ages, and the mud and straw and mist and all the rest of it look great. The lighting is sometimes a bit off, which makes it hard to see what's going on in a few scenes. But Gilliam and Terry Jones had never directed before, and the film was made on a minuscule budget, and on the whole it looks good and is well made. It also makes great, ironic use of pompous library music.

      The film was shot entirely on location in Scotland, and they've found some lovely locations and authentic castles for their silliness. Terry Jones has always maintained that comedy is funnier if it looks credibly like the thing it parodies, and they succeed pretty well on that front, with some quite inventive camera set-ups and a few genuinely perilous looking stunts.

      But the comedy itself... well, hm. What can you say? Nothing dates worse than comedy, and perhaps because it's influenced so much that came later, an awful lot of Python is... kind of annoying. Although notionally telling a larger story, the film is really a series of sketches strung together, just like the TV show was (they got better at telling an actual story when they did Life of Brian; I probably should have bought that instead). As in the TV show, there are great ideas that are driven into the ground through being extended long after they've stopped being funny. The running gag about swallows carrying coconuts is funny for the first minute, and then not funny the next 18 or whatever times it comes up. The French knights are sort-of funny for about 30 seconds, and then deeply vexing. And so on.

      Other gags are just awful - teeth-itchingly embarrassing. The knights who say 'ni' are probably the most obvious example, but the three-headed knight is likewise awful, and the rabbit. And I've never thought that the ending worked at all.

      But occasionally there are good ideas that aren't ruined by over-extension or excessive silliness. The Tale of Sir Lancelot, in which the over-excited knight massacres a castle full of entirely peaceful wedding guests, still made me laugh. The 'bring out your dead' sketch is short enough to be funny and the Sir Gallahad sketch is only slightly let down by characters having unfunny 'wacky' names. Terry Gilliam's animations are pretty good and Neil Innes's song about the cowardly Sir Robin is a classic. I guess it all comes down to the individual's Python tolerance. I have enough nostalgic fondness to get me through the film safely enough, but found myself cringing on more than one occasion.

      It's obvious now that John Cleese is easily the funniest Python, and even the more leaden, over-played gags are made more tolerable if he's involved. It's no coincidence that the best section of the film is the one that focuses on his character. Michael Palin is also hugely endearing, even if his comic range doesn't extend as far as Cleese's. The other Pythons are less charming. Eric Idle is versatile, but I just plain don't like the guy, which makes it difficult to enjoy his performances. Terry Jones puts on annoying silly voices to hide his lack of basic acting ability, and Graham Chapman shouts all his lines, possibly because he was drunk for most of the shoot. Terry Gilliam just stands at the back and grimaces, but he does it pretty well.

      The picture quality on the Blu-ray looks great to me, but the last time I saw this was on VHS years ago, so I'm not sure how much of an improvement it is from the most recent DVD edition. But there's lots of detail visible, and although it's not a particularly colourful film, the colours are now brighter and more vibrant. As mentioned, the lighting isn't great in some of the film, but this release allows you to see much more than before, like who's singing which bits in the Knights of the Round Table song, or Palin's OTT grimacing as the Knight who says ni.

      There are a lot of extras, although I think only a couple of things are new for this release. There's some option to download an iphone app to play alongside the film, but even if I had such a thing I wouldn't fork out for something like that. The Pythons are greedy, however much they try to be funny about it, and I'm not spending more on this than I already have. There is even advertising for other films (like The Smurfs) on the menu page.

      The main extras, I guess, are the recently rediscovered outtakes and extended scenes. About 8 minutes' worth are some of Gilliam's animations, and 15 minutes are bits that were cut from the live action film. Gilliam and Jones introduce them (Gilliam tries too hard to be funny), and none of the cut stuff is exactly hilarious. The outtakes hint at John Cleese having been a bit difficult to work with (no great surprise), as a few of them involve him coming out of character to berate someone behind the camera. I think all the other extras were already available on the DVD.

      There's no 'making of' documentary, although there's a fairly long (40 minutes) featurette where Jones and Palin revisit some of the locations. It's kind of funny (if inevitable) that the castle where they filmed quite a lot of it has Python stuff in the gift shop. There's also a 15-minute BBC report from the film shoot, made in 1975. This is a bit more interesting as you see the film crew at work, although is let down by the presenter trying to be funny.

      There are two commentaries, one from Jones and Gilliam, and one from the other three. These are odd, as it's obvious they all recorded them separately, but they try to create the illusion that they're all in the same room together. Gilliam tries a bit too hard to be jokey, but I guess they're interesting enough. They're quite guarded, though - it's no secret that this was not an enjoyable film shoot, and you feel they're not really giving us the whole story.

      There are two scenes dubbed into Japanese - I'm not sure what the point of these is, unless we're supposed to find foreign languages intrinsically funny. "Tee hee, they talk different." Nice to know that the Japanese for 'ni' is still 'ni', though. Someone's done a Lego version of the Knights of the Round Table song, and there's a rather poor image gallery. The US re-release trailer is quite funny, but a short 'educational' film about coconuts starring Michael Palin most definitely is not. In fact it's so amateurish it's hard to believe they thought it was worth including on the DVD.

      Obviously Python has enough of a rabid fan base to make it worth including all these extras (as a horror fan, I can sympathise). I've managed to establish that I don't need to see any more Monty Python, but if you're a fan, this will probably be an essential purchase. If you're not, this isn't going to convert you.

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