Monday, September 15, 2003

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Special Edition)

A jaw-droppingly good restoration of the quintessential offbeat comedy film. If you've laughed at Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, chuckled at the Kids in the Hall or have any sort of interest at all about comedy itself, this is worth your while

The very mention of this comedic masterpiece should be enough to bring a smile to your face. Widely regarded as the very peak of sketch comedy troupe Monty Python's career, The Holy Grail has nearly become as much of a religious establishment as the dark-aged deities it spoofs. There exist lunatics around the world who are able to not only directly quote lines from this film, but to recite the entirety of the script, from start to finish, without err. And, after just a single viewing, it's easy to find yourself tempted to join their ranks.

Featuring an unbelievably talented (and young) cast fronted by comedy legends John Cleese and Eric Idle, this is one of the few cases you'll ever encounter of a film that undeniably lives up to its hype. Even now, nearly thirty years after its debut, Holy Grail holds up better than the recycled, sitcom-esque crap that's flooding the theatres today. It's overflowing with the kind of offbeat, unexpected, blatantly bizarre humor that defined the Pythons, and speaking personally it's something that's always been right down my alley. I've been watching this flick since I was in elementary school, and as such might have a little bit of personal bias towards it. Then again, taking a quick glance at the sheer number of actors, comedians, directors and celebrities who cite this as one of their greatest influences, perhaps it'd be better to say the entirety of pop culture has become biased towards the earliest feature length effort from the British Pythons. I really can't do this film enough praise.

The story is simple enough, and yet manages to become intertwined and entangled within itself throughout the course of the brisk 89 minute run time. King Arthur, best known for his acquisition of the sword in the stone and subsequent leadership of the knights of the round table, is featured here as a blunt, modest man... oblivious to everything going on around him, and painstakingly patient through the most bizarre of circumstances. As the story unfolds, Arthur slowly gathers his knights, briefly visits Camelot and is charged by god to retrieve the infamous Holy Grail. The troupe embarks directly on their quest, without the slightest idea of where they're headed, and eventually runs into dozens of almost unrelated hurdles along the way.

In print, the premise sounds painfully unfunny... almost a joke unto itself. And, perhaps if they'd stuck to their guns about the whole "knights in shining armor" thing, that early judgment may have been partially right. But a great deal of what makes this so fun to watch is the way the characters interact with one another, address their environments and simply carry themselves. The Knights of the Round Table chat amongst each other in a very modern, almost twentieth century style. Formalities are few and far between, and supporting characters whose entire role in any other period piece would have been limited to "Yes, sire, I'll retrieve my master this very moment" are here given the chance to argue the finer points of foreign birds and migratory patterns. Unimportant lackeys dive into in-depth dissertations at the drop of a hat, spiraling off into a tangent with little or no provocation. The main characters generally respond by staring in disbelief, jaws agape, as they try unsuccessfully to bring the conversation to a close. Literally hundreds of medieval cliches are addressed and promptly disposed of throughout the course of the film, while simple, obvious visual puns are thrown out like darts at every moment. It's a film that anyone can enjoy, regardless of intelligence, age or demeanor. There's literally something for everyone.

Perhaps funniest of all, though, is the silent, serious nature with which Arthur portrays himself through body language. Played by a well-bearded Graham Chapman, Arthur simply excretes regality, thinking the world of himself. In his own mind he's a born leader, but to everyone else he looks like a scrawny white guy, prancing around with a very thinly-veiled homoerotic flair. He clutches his chest in surprise, he holds his wrists tightly against his upper body at all times, and he's indescribably funny throughout. Other characters attempt to accomplish this same bit of magic, (with John Cleese's portrayal of an odd, confrontational French soldier with an exaggerated handlebar mustache coming very, very close) but none manage to do so nearly as well as Chapman.

Perhaps the only problem I have with this movie lies within its conclusion, which seems rushed, inappropriate and uncharacteristically unfunny. After leading up to one moment through the entire course of the picture, the stage seems set for a climactic conclusion, but rather than using this whole head of steam to blast across the finish line in glorious fashion, the film instead runs head-on into a wall, derails and collapses. Maybe that's the true comedy of it all, and I'm just missing the boat. Regardless, it far from tarnishes the brilliance which shined so brightly before. Grading the film itself on a scale of one to ten, The Search for the Holy Grail gets a 9.7.

Immediately, only seconds after popping this DVD into your hardware and hitting the "play" button, something is going to strike you as a little bit odd. Something's different about this classic, but it's tough to put your finger on it until the murky opening scenes are in the past. Bluntly enough, this new restoration looks BREATHTAKING. One of the toughest things to endure about the film's earlier VHS incarnations was the god-awful quality of the video, the way everything had been overtaken by a sort of yellowish-brown hue, darkened and muddied. Seeing as how every copy of the video I'd ever seen looked like that, I merely assumed it had something to do with a bad matchup between the British PAL encoding and the North American NTSC. However, this most recent DVD release cleans up those long-standing visual stains with uncanny precision, revealing in its wake an entirely new motion picture. Wide shots of the infamous "Trojan rabbit" scene are awesome sights, now that the original color saturation is in place. It's honestly as though someone took a cloth and some Windex to my television screen and wiped away thirty years' worth of dust and muck. The restoration alone is worth upgrading the copy of Holy Grail in your collection from VHS to DVD.

Fortunately enough, though, the crews in charge of this new DVD didn't stop there. With a full two discs in the set, almost every base is covered... in addition to several spots in between. Naturally, the collection features the film itself, with the aforementioned high definition transfer and restoration of the original video, along with a less awe-inspiring 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. The discs also come fully equipped with two feature-length commentary tracks; one from directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and another from John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin. The commentary tracks are both thoroughly interesting, with the directors' chat a little more insightful and the actors' track more disjointed. Jones and Gilliam reveal a lot of obscure facts about the creation of the film that I hadn't realized, such as the involvement of rock bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the production, and is generally a much better listen than its partner track. It's strange, it almost feels like Cleese, Idle and Palin weren't even in the same room together when they recorded these audio tracks, and that various comments from each were merely spliced together at appropriate points throughout the film.

The Special Features section is overflowing with options, including but not limited to three sing-alongs (featuring full lyrics to the film's three notable song-and-dance numbers... if you ever wondered what they were trying to say during the incomprehensible verses of "We're Knights of the Round Table," today is your lucky day), a short film titled "How to Use Your Coconuts" (which comes off as very, very forced and very, very stupid), a cast directory (which shows just how many hats the actors wore throughout the course of the film; Michael Palin alone played nearly a dozen characters), photos and more. In addition, the second disc showcases two unique featurettes about the film; one which was shot on set in 1974 for the BBC, and another which reunites Gilliam and Jones in the year 2000, on the location of the main castle used throughout filming. The two short films couldn't vary more in terms of attitude and content, as the older video does a relatively good job of capturing the excitement and antsy nature of being on set with these guys and the newer film shows off an older, wiser couple of Pythons marveling at how much has changed in the area since they were last there. I preferred the second short, myself, due in large to the great number of tidbits and notes the two directors reveal about their budget, the set and the problems they had to overcome just to get the movie off the ground. I never realized that the half dozen castles Arthur and his knights visit throughout the film were in actuality filmed on one location.

There also exist tiny easter eggs and jokes hidden throughout the discs. An easily overlooked selection from the main menu offers aide "For the Hard of Hearing," and when clicked screams at full volume the five selections available from that page ("PLAY MOVIE!!! SCENE SELECTIONS!! AUDIO OPTIONS!!, etc...) I won't spoil them all for you, but rest assured the simple process of discovering these little bits and pieces, scattered throughout the two discs, will absorb hours completely on their own. And, unlike the short "How to Use Your Coconuts" feature I mentioned earlier, these tiny hidden jokes and one-liners are virtually all up to the quality of the old Python shorts and sketches. Good stuff.

Without exaggeration, I seriously cannot recommend this DVD any higher. It's not humanly possible. Whether you're a devoted, lifelong Python fan or merely someone with a passing interest in comedy in general, this is a worthwhile purchase. You won't find a better transfer of the film in your life, the list of features is almost overwhelming, the original team is represented nearly in full, through dual commentary tracks and several featurettes, and it's very affordable at the same time. Go out and buy this now, before you forget. Seriously. Now.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.9

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