Tag Archives: John Cleese

CAPSULE: MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland

PLOT: King Arthur, along with Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Bedevere the Wise, and Arthur’s squire, Patsy, set out to find the Holy Grail, meeting the Black Knight, a killer rabbit, and the knights who say “Ni!” along the way.

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While most of ‘s work flirts with surreal fantasy, this film simply doesn’t plunge as deeply into the genre as most of the other movies directed or co-directed by Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Brothers Grimm).

COMMENTS: As someone who has seen every episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (and “Fawlty Towers”), as well as all four of the “Python” feature films, it pains me to say this, but—this picture simply isn’t all that funny. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (along with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) seems like it would have been more effective as a half-hour episode of “Python”, but, stretched out to feature-length, the seams really start to show. This production has so many indelible moments—“It’s only a flesh wound!”; coconuts used in lieu of the sound of horse’s hooves; “Bring out yer dead!”; etc., etc. etc.—that it seems churlish to say that it doesn’t hang together very well. It sounds like a ridiculous argument, like complaining that the films of Mel Brooks need more plot, but Holy Grail is only hilarious in fits and starts. Some of the funniest bits are the most subtle (“Someday, all this will be yours.” “What, the curtains?”) Otherwise, there is a surprising amount of dead air in this somewhat murky-looking film (it was shot on a very low-budget), which nevertheless has been acclaimed as a deathless classic by generations of nerds. By now, the movie is so immortal that it has been adapted into the hugely successful Broadway musical “Spamalot”, produced by the late Mike Nichols. But the film itself still seems like a huge pile of hit-and-miss gags that don’t actually add up to a real movie. And it is only weird in the way that all Python is weird; the fourth wall is broken repeatedly, but  was doing that 40 years before Python.

The Holy Grail isn’t strange enough to make the List. However, even this nutty farce is a far better exploration of Arthurian myth than the awful film version of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot (which Chapman’s Arthur dismisses as “a silly place”) or Walt Disney’s exceedingly mediocre animated film The Sword in the Stone.

Because of the eternal popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has been released and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray a seemingly endless number of times. Some of the behind-the-scenes-stories (in the DVD Extras), like the one about how Chapman’s alcoholism was totally out of control on the set, are perhaps more interesting than the film itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some inspired lunacy—and a lot of dry stretches; awfully bloody, too.”–Leonard Maltin, “Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide: The Modern Era”

“The Python team’s surreal take on the legend of Camelot bursts with inspired lunacy.”–Jamie Graham, Total Film (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam

FEATURING, , , Terry Jones,

PLOT: Monty Python discusses life, from the sanctity of every sperm to the rudeness of the Grim Reaper, in a series of sketches.

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monty Python’s films, in general, present a challenge to crafting a list of weird movies. Python pioneered modern trends in surreal humor, but they were so successful at popularizing their craft that their once avant-garde style has become virtually mainstream. And, among their three original-material feature films, The Meaning of Life presents a particular challenge: it’s easily the weirdest of the trio, but also quite less impressive and consistently hilarious than either Holy Grail or Life of Brian. Should Meaning of Life make it ahead of Grail and Brian because it’s a slightly weirder entry, should we select one of the better known classics to represent the Python project, or do all the movies deserve to make it?

COMMENTS: Made nine years after the comedy troupe bid farewell to their hit television series, The Meaning of Life resembles a big-budget, R-rated reunion episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The “search for the meaning of life” structure is almost as loose as the themes that linked their television sketches, and the show’s stream-of-consciousness style (a maternity-room sketch on “the miracle of birth” yields to a satire of Catholic birth control policy, which inspires a joke about Protestant prudishness, which segues into a Church service where the pastor prays “ooh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…”) remains intact. The boys’ wit is still rapier sharp–it’s actually more focused at times, blatantly anticlerical and socially aware—and the team immediately regained their comic chemistry as if they’d never been apart. This being a revue-style construction, the results are understandably uneven, but the irreverent tone is always winning. The Python’s approach to comedy is so silly and fun-loving that even the most cutting and grotesque jokes only irritate the starchiest of stuffed shirts. If there is a clunker in the bunch it’s the opener, a fifteen minute standalone Terry Gilliam short titled “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” about a mutiny among a group of older workers at a financial services corporation that turns into a pirate fantasy. Watching this bit, you may think you’ve accidentally put the wrong disc in your player, but stay with it; after “Assurance” ends, we’re treated to the sight of the Python faces stuck on goldfish bodies as they swim around in a restaurant tank and wonder about the meaning of life. Affecting a French accent, Eric Idle then sings the “Meaning of Life” theme song to some typically crazy Gilliam cutout animation (including a machine that stamps out nude clone families wearing Mickey Mouse ears), and we’re ready for the show to begin. The sketches fans talk about most are the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number (with its chorus line of high-kicking nuns) and the unforgettably vile (and funny) “Mr. Creosote” sequence, about a projectile-vomiting glutton who gorges himself at a posh restaurant until he explodes. The movie also features some of the most unapologetically and outlandishly surreal bits in the Python canon: a pink-suited man emerges from a refrigerator to serenades an old woman with a lecture on cosmology, as a means of convincing her to become a living organ donor. Heaven is envisioned as a hotel where it’s Christmas every day, with an eternal floor show featuring sequined angels parading about in Santa suits with exposed breasts. The film’s interlude (helpfully legended “the Middle of the Film”) features three characters straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting (if Dalí had painted punk transvestites with faucets attached to their nipples) wondering “where is the fish?,” a sublimely random and irritating bit of performance art that the Python-faced goldfish cheer as “terrific!” Scenes like these, together with the mild blasphemy and uncharacteristic grossness of Mr. Creosote, make The Meaning of Life the Python’s most outrageous cinematic effort, if not their funniest. It’s as disorganized and confusing as life itself—a near masterpiece of irreverence. And, true to the film’s promise, the meaning of life is revealed at the end, so no one can claim to be cheated.

Universal Studio’s “30th Anniversary” Blu-ray/DVD combo release of The Meaning of Life includes all the features from the 2003 DVD (including the Jones/Gilliam commentary track) and adds a new bonus feature in a one-hour reunion roundtable by the surviving Pythons (minus the deceased Graham Chapman, obviously, and with busy Eric Idle chiming in via Skype).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird kind of fun.”–Paul Chambers, “Movie Chambers” (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, David Warner, , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)