HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Sunday, August 5, 2012

HOLY FLYING CIRCUS -- DVD review by porfle

And now for something completely different--a (very, very loosely) fact-based "mock-u-drama" about Monty Python but with actors playing them and actual events depicted as a string of vaguely Pythonesque comedy sketches, animations, fantasy sequences, non-sequiturs, and various other bits of silliness.

HOLY FLYING CIRCUS (2011) is the story of the legendary British comedy team's controversial 1979 film "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and the storm of protest that greeted its premiere.  While Christian organizations and religious leaders branded the film blasphemous without having seen it, many communities were bypassing its general audiences rating and stamping it "X."  Not only that, but the Pythons themselves encountered considerable harrassment, possible legal consequences, and even death threats.

What "Life of Brian"'s staunch detractors failed to understand is that the film was, as its Wikipedia entry points out, simply lampooning the New Testament era itself the way its ground-breaking predecessor, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", poked fun at the Arthurian legend.  In no way is Jesus Christ ridiculed or made sport of during the story (Eric Idle would later comment: "He's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff..."), which focuses on a hapless schlub named Brian (Graham Chapman) who is mistaken for the Messiah as his life runs a parallel but comically skewed course to that of the real thing.

As a Christian, I found the film remarkably unoffensive upon my first-run viewing, with some scenes featuring Christ in the periphery but not as the target of any mockery.  Strangely enough, HOLY FLYING CIRCUS itself is considerably more blasphemous, with a surf-bum Christ (Ben Crispin) arguing with his "Dad" (Stephen Fry) and, in the opening scene, passing an unholy amount of flatulence.  By comparison, "Brian" is exceedingly tame in that area.

Writer Tony Roche was in a decidedly silly mood when he wrote the screenplay for this BBC Four production, basing much of the Pythons' behavior on that of their best-known fictional characters and trying to recapture the atmosphere of their films and TV series.  Little of the genuine Python spirit comes through, however, and almost none of their distinctive visual and directorial style.  While the film boasts some extremely oddball characters (especially BBC Four's talk programming head Alan Dick, as played in the broadest manner by a manic Jason Thorpe) and situations, most of the comedy is of a more generic bent.

What should make HOLY FLYING CIRCUS most interesting to fans is the actors' portrayals of the Pythons themselves.  While I didn't find Thomas Fisher and Phil Nichol to be especially reminiscent of Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam, Steve Punt's Eric Idle comes to life during one of his familiar rants.  Oddly, Rufus Jones doesn't really bring Terry Jones to mind all that much until he's in drag (as Michael Palin's wife), at which time he becomes a delight to watch.

The most eerily accurate performances are those of Charles Edwards as "nice guy" Michael Palin and Darren Boyd as abrasively opinionated John Cleese.  Both have the voices and mannerisms down cold, as well as bearing remarkable resemblances to Palin and Cleese.  One recurring gag is Palin's tendency to lapse into vivid fantasies which result in much of the film's most off-the-wall visuals.  (I was reminded of "Time Bandits" during one or two of them.)  Edwards' Palin, despite his apparently being married to Terry Jones, is the story's island of calm and reason and the only main character to appear in an even halfway serious scene.
Boyd, on the other hand, is an exquisitely volatile, high-strung, verbally caustic combination of both Cleese's "Basil Fawlty" and "Argument Clinic" personas, supplying HOLY FLYING CIRCUS with several of its most nostalgia-provoking comedy highlights.  These include a heated dispute with a newspaper vendor (which ends with a Basil Fawlty-style leaping attack with tree branch) and some amusing run-ins with a religious group whose members include a man suffering from extreme Tourette's Syndrome.

The film's climax is a televised debate on BBC Four's "Friday Night, Saturday Morning", moderated by Tim Rice (Tom Price), with Cleese and Palin defending their film against conservative humorist Malcolm Muggeridge (Michael Cochrane) and the Bishop of Southwark (Roy Marsden).  What may have been an uncomfortable experience for Palin and Cleese in real life is depicted here as nothing less than a nightmarish ordeal of frustration and miscommunication as the Pythons' reasoned arguments are met with smug sarcasm and unyielding dismissal.  It's a strange sequence that's actually rather unpleasant to watch until a final cathartic burst of insanity reminiscent of "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days."

The DVD from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Extras consist of deleted scenes (9 min.), outtakes (19 min.), production stills, and a look at the making of the astoundingly impressive phonotrope which graces the opening titles.  The film is presented in a 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.

While Python fans will definitely want to give HOLY FLYING CIRCUS a peek simply out of curiosity, it may appeal to non-fans as well for its grab-bag style of off-kilter whimsy and occasional brief snatches of historical interest.  I liked it mainly because of Darren Boyd's marvelous portrayal of my favorite Python, John Cleese, and because it made me want to dig out my DVD of "Life of Brian" and watch it again.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack

No comments: