Terry Jones' Monty Python's Life of Brian

Like many of us, I've been revisiting the work of Python/ director Terry Jones since we lost him last week.  So let's do something in his memory and take a look at one of his most beloved films... one that has an interesting history on home video, but could also really use a shot in the arm in 2020: Monty Python's Life of Brian.
1979's Life of Brian is Monty Python's second film... or third, if you want to count And Now For Something Completely Different, but that's really just a compilation of the best skits from their series for the US market before their TV could be seen in the states.  I've read that Holy Grail is the Pythons' most popular film in America and Brian is in the UK.  For their part, the Pythons themselves seem pretty unified that this is their favorite, in large part because it's the film that has the most to say besides just being silly.
Not that it isn't silly, of course.  The premise is that, a baby was born just across from Jesus Christ, and he keeps getting mistaken for a messiah despite not being one.  The Pythons play almost all the major characters, including Graham Chapman as the titular Brian, Terry Jones as his mum, Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate, Terry Jones as Simon the naked holy man, John Cleese as Reg, leader of The Peoples' Front of Judea and Graham Chapman as Biggus Dickus.  This film has more of a cohesive narrative than the other Python films, although you might say that's immaterial so long as it's packed with great comic moments, which Brian absolutely is.  We get a few animated sequences from Terry Gilliam, though not so many as we'd seen in previous Python efforts, taking more on the role of the physical production and art design.  The locations, shot in Tunisia, where they were able to make use of the sets from 1977's Jesus Of Nazareth, are truly impressive and lend the outrageous comedy a remarkably credible backdrop.  And Eric Idle closes out the whole thing with what became his most famous and popular song, "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life."
Life of Brian debuted on DVD in 1999, with a widescreen but non-anamorphic, barebones DVD from Anchor Bay.  Very shortly afterwards, like just a few months later in 1999, Criterion reissued it as a now anamorphic special edition.  And that was the whole deal until it came time for an HD upgrade.  In 2008, Sony released their Immaculate Edition blu-ray, and that's been the sole go-to release ever since, with the same edition essentially replicated in every region around the world.
1) 1999 AB DVD; 2) 1999 Criterion DVD; 3) 2008 Sony BD.
So yeah, Anchor Bay's DVD is a pale, low res 1.84:1 image floating in a sea of non-anamorphic dead space.  I'm actually surprised it's not interlaced; it almost looks like it should be interlaced.  Criterion's DVD, then, is a still pretty pale, properly anamorphic 1.78:1 (despite claiming 1.85:1 on the case), with just the tiniest slivers of dead space in the overscan area.  You can see it includes more picture around all four sides, but particularly the bottom, no doubt due to its lifted 16x9 mattes.  Sony then mattes their blu back down to 1.85:1, losing a little along the sides with it.  It's also, thankfully, no longer so pale, though it looks like some of that's due to some artificial contrast boosting and a side effect of edge enhancement.  It's certainly the best of the three, but it's also clearly an old master that looks like maybe it was never even made to hold up on blu.  I mean, it's a 2008 blu, so what can you expect?  But even by those standards, it looks like detail is light and they tried to make up for that with some unfortunate tinkering.  It's not terribly terrible, I suppose... the grain is mostly, if gingerly, visible, and the haloing isn't super heavy.  But this is a film ready for a remaster if I've ever seen one.

Audio-wise, both films give us your basic mono track, with only Criterion offering optional subtitles.  Sony brings a whole bunch of language options, including French and Hungarian dubs and English, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Thai (whew!) and Turkish subs.  But they've ditched the original mono track and now only give us 5.1 remixes, in both TrueHD and LPCM.
Anchor Bay just had the trailer, but Criterion packed their edition pretty nicely.   We start out with two audio commentaries, one by Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle, and the other by John Cleese and Michael Palin.  Both provide a good mix of insight and laughs.  Then there's a collection of deleted scenes, one of which solves a small mystery that's always followed the film, and all of which have optional commentary.  And there's an excellent, vintage hour-long documentary, simply called The Pythons.  It's a BBC-made feature ostensibly on the Pythons overall, but it interviews the cast while they're on the set of Brian, so the film winds up being as much about the film as the rest of their career.   They also have the trailer, four radio spots, and an insert with notes by critic George Perry.
The Pythons.
The Pythons is interlaced and pretty fuzzy, presumably just taken from broadcast, which I guess is why Sony dropped it from their Immaculate Edition.  Because they've carried over all of the other Criterion extras.  And to their credit, they've come up with some new goodies as well, the best of which is a new, hour-long retrospective, The Story of Brian.  It's also quite well made, and fairly different from The Pythons.  It's great to have the new one, but I still miss the old one (which, for one major advantage, had access to Graham Chapman).  Some of the other extras are nice to have, but not so exciting.  There's an entire script read-through by the Pythons, which sounds neat, but it's awfully long and essentially all the same material as the film.  To be quite honest, I can't say I listened to the whole thing.  Besides that, they've added a photo gallery and a couple unrelated bonus trailers.
So the new documentary is the best part, but it's not enough to make me not miss the old doc.  For me, at least, it's even worth copping a cheap copy of the old Criterion DVD to supplement the blu, which for all its flaws, is still the best release going.  But twelve years on, it's really time for a new blu, with a remastered transfer, the original mono returned, and all the legacy extras.  And now that peoples' attentions are turned to Jones again, maybe there's a chance?

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