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by Bill Gibron

2 Nov 2009

“At its heart, it’s a love story…albeit a relatively strange one” or so says Oliver Stone at the beginning of the latest DVD version of his 1994 murderers-on-the-run masterwork, Natural Born Killers . Fashioned from a script by then hot-eur Quentin Tarantino and styled after the maverick director’s other ‘90s masterpiece, JFK , this combination commentary and cultural coming of age was turned from a exploitation thriller into a demented overview of our media-saturated society, the continuing obsession with crime (not punishment), the profiler like scenarios that jumpstart death sprees, and the always raging internal demons that fuel the carnage of onscreen characters Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). And then there is the visionary aggrandizement of director Stone himself.

True, if you strip away all the quick cut complexities, if you remove the genre-bending approach to child abuse and molestation (rendered in repugnant ‘50s sitcom style), super cop corruption (policeman Jack Scagnetti - a sober Tom Sizemore - is just as perverse as his internationally idolized prey), and a seemingly ever-present obsession with Native American mysticism, what you wind up with is Badlands with an added satiric element. No matter what Tarantino intended with this screenplay, Stone literally skinned it alive, using the passion felt by Mickey and Mallory (and their violence illustration of same) as the basis for a denouncement of everything tacky and tabloid circa the end of the millennium. By taking the audience to task over its love of sex and violence (which the movie simply drowns in) Stone suggests we’re all Mickey and Mallorys…at least to a point.

The story centers on the couple’s notoriety and the desire by Aussie reporter Wayne Gale (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) to get an exclusive story. When Mickey and Mallory get lost in the desert, they come across a shaman who suggests that actual demons run through these antisocial outlaws. Eventually trapped inside a local pharmacy, the duo are captured and taken to jail. There prison warden Dwight McClusky (a Loony Tunes like Tommy Lee Jones) makes a deal with Scagnetti to transport his star prisoners out of the facility (the agreement is that Mickey and Mallory will meet an untimely “accident” along the way). However, their plans are thwarted when Gale lands a post-Super Bowl interview with the pair. Mickey uses the opportunity to escape, grabbing guards and using them as hostages, all in an effort to be reunited with Mallory.

Several things stand out about Natural Born Killers some 15 years later. Like the other great films of the era (Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Se7en), Stone’s dark comedy about the fall of post-modern man is, today, a much imitated and mimicked effort. Entire subcategories of cinema rose out of this cacophony of images and collage of sounds. It’s also frightening how dated the declarations against the news media (and the public consumption of same) really are. If Mickey and Mallory could see what Fox News and the like have wrought, they wouldn’t waste time plugging police. It would be pundits in their well worn crosshairs. While the level of violence is minor compared to the once new, now old trend of torture porn, and there are still touches of studio stargazing when it comes to the casting (Harrelson, though not the original pick for Mickey, was a hot property back in ‘94), this is a still a subversive effort that remains relevant.

What keeps this otherwise marginalized movie controversial is its desire to let no one off the hook for what these mass murders do. Everyone is to blame in Stone’s film - miscreant parents, apathetic politicians, power mad law enforcement, copycat criminals, as well as the conspiratorial, clueless masses who drink in the couple’s appalling antics and revel in their repugnant hatred for humanity. Of course, Natural Born Killers would argue that Mickey and Mallory only kill “bad” people - men who mash on innocent young girls, rednecks who reject propriety to spew their brazen bigotry on an unresponsive world. But it’s the confrontation with the past and the accidental death of the medicine man that dooms the pair. In fact, what Stone is saying throughout this amped up narrative is that, while driven by fate and a mutual need and necessity, Mickey and Mallory are only as bad as circumstances make them. Murder a pedophile and you’re a hero. Take down a crooked policeman and you’re head for the electric chair.

With this latest DVD expanding Stone’s vision to include much of the gore removed from the initial release of the film, Natural Born Killers becomes more of a royal romantic geek show than ever. While our gun totting terrors spread fear around the countryside, the trail of blood and entrails leads directly to the gates of Hell (or in this case, a prison recreation of same). There is a Pilgrim’s Progress quality to the storyline, Stone taking his characters through various religious and moralistic stages of denial/acceptance before setting them before the great God/Devil itself - TV, in the persona of Downey Jr.‘s Wayne Gale. As perhaps the most important piece of the entire cinematic puzzle, this investigative hack, hoping to score enough ratings to up his profile (and keep his wife and girlfriend happy), represents the ultimate stand for our loathsome lovers, their 15 minutes-plus of fleeting fame - and they play him perfectly.

As with many Special Edition digital packages, this offering is loaded with intriguing added context. Disc two houses an amazing documentary that outlines the controversies surrounding the film, from the various protestations to the unusual court case where Natural Born Killers was accused of “inspiring” the criminal acts of two clearly misguided teens. All the while, Stone puts up his best bruised ego demeanor, taking the assault in stride (perhaps recognizing that any hype, including publicized hate, is good for the box office bottom line). Elsewhere, deleted scenes give us a chance to see cutting room floor performances from Ashley Judd, Denis Leary, and the Barbarian Brothers while a 44 page booklet outlines the various issues surrounding the production, as well as the film’s place in motion picture history.

There is no denying Stone’s artistry and vision, even if you’re nauseated by the images and ideas he’s offering. Just like he did with his take on the Kennedy Assassination (or later look at the Nixon Administration), this is a director who has an uncanny knack for opening up a can of worrisome worms, and then using said bait to lure the truth - or a version thereof - out of hiding. While we are still no closer to discovering the actual facts about what happened that sad day in November ‘63, Natural Born Killers has actually enlightened us toward the addiction and insidious nature of the shock speculative style of reporting that passes for news nowadays. Sadly we learned little from these lessons, turning Stone’s showboating maelstrom into one of the most prophetic films ever. Like the equally enlightened Network, what was once satiric and sly is now too real to be funny. Instead, like a huge neon warning that everyone ignored, Natural Born Killers gets to say I told you so - and yes, it really does have to wallow in our shame and relish it so.   

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

It’s a shame that John Hughes died when he did. In self-imposed exile for most of the last decade, he was clearly talented and certainly had more to offer the world of entertainment than his flawless teen comedies of the ‘80s and the less successful remakes and family films of the ‘90s. Proof of such possibilities came back in 1987, in the form of his first “adult” effort, the holiday themed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (recently re-released on DVD). Relying on the undeniable chemistry of comedians Steve Martin and John Candy, and trading on the Thanksgiving theme to explore issues of family, friendship, and loss, it marked a radical departure from the coming of age growing pains of his previous films. It also proved that Hughes could direct something other than slapstick and/or schmaltz. For all its physical shtick, this is one buddy film that relies less of humor and more on heart.

Our story begins the week of Turkey day. Advertising executive Neil Page (a nicely moderated Martin) is in New York, trying to wrap up an account before the holiday starts. Desperate to get home to his family in Chicago, he dreads the next few hours. Still, all he has to do is catch a cab, make his plane, survive the flight, and it’s a few fun days of wife, kids, and candied yams - that is, until he boards the aircraft. There he meets traveling shower curtain accessories salesman Del Griffith (Candy at his very best). A massive mountain of a man, this overly earnest passenger takes an instant liking to Neil and as they prepare to depart, they strike up a casual friendship. Then, disaster hits. O’Hare is snowed in and no flights can land. Neil and Del end up in Wichita, Kansas and with hotels all booked and no rental cars available, they have to figure out a way to get from the Midwest to Lake Michigan, less the miss the festivities all together.

One has to give Hughes credit - the premise for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains as unique today as it did 22 years ago. Sure, now we have cellphones and PDAs, means for any traveler to take the bullshit by the horns and improve their chances of getting home for the holidays, but way back during the waning days of the Reagan era, getting around during the madhouse that is Thanksgiving week was a challenge of low tech Herculean proportions -and the talented writer/director makes the most of it. Some of the material may be straight out of an old burlesque skit (Candy and Martin having to share a bed) and a few jokes do trade on the guys’ individual flaws (Neil marveling at Del’s cavernous underwear), but thanks to the shared experience that both of these divergent personalities have to go through, because of how their yin/yang archetypes play against and into each other, we come to identify and sympathize with their plight.

And then Hughes pulls out all the sentimental stops. Few can remember how devastating Del’s secret is now that it’s become part of cinematic common knowledge (don’t worry - we won’t spoil it here), but it stands as the kind of risk that the Ferris Bueller filmmaker wasn’t really known for taking. Most of his movies ended happily, narratives tripping over the occasional problem or personal pothole before reaching a kind of zany Zen optimism. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was different. It was mean to be serious and edgy. It was made to explore more mature elements in a person’s life. Martin’s harried ad man just wants his workday to be over so he can find his way back home. Candy, on the other hand, must cover up the truth so as not to look desperate or pathetic - and he does such a great job that when the reveal arrives, it’s stunning.

Indeed, this is the best these two ‘70s icons have ever been in a comedy. Both are poised, polished, and well moderated. Martin is more or less the straight man, forced to forage for laughs in hilarious putdowns of car rental agency personnel and his traveling companion’s cockeyed cheerfulness. Candy’s part is more complicated. Sure, he’s the fat man with quasi-questionable social skills (never, EVER, take off you shoes in a closed aircraft, John) and many of the jokes come at his physical expense, but this makes for a more meaningful finale. It’s a mutual discovery that both Neil and the audience have misjudged Del, elevating his human pratfall into something almost noble. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, especially since Candy was a genius at finding the complexities within the cliché. In a film that has basically two main focuses to lead us through the plotting, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles couldn’t ask for two better guides.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is nowhere to be seen on the new “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition of the DVD. According to reports, Hughes shot almost twice as much film as a normal production does, leading to an initial three hour cut that is less a movie and more a montage of alternate takes, extended sequences, failed bits, and other character subtext. While this “holy grail” version of the film has long been coveted by fanatical lovers of the title, Hughes himself hinted it would never see the light of day. Not only was it a mess, he argued, but it was more or less “rotting” away in Paramount’s vault. Now, with his death, there is probably no call to see such a sloppy first attempt. At least this new disc has a few fun features, including three EPK like looks at the film itself, Hughes’ attempts at making movies for adults, and the talent that was John Candy. The sole deleted scene about airplane food is interesting, but not necessarily funny.

Hughes would go on to try another adult theme with the pregnancy-oriented She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. It was not as successful for reasons that continue to remind us of how wonderful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is. No matter what you think of Martin now (Pink Panther remakes? Please…) or how Candy eventually ended up, this was a pinnacle for all parties involved. It was the moment when Hughes was seen as finally casting off the angst of adolescent America and instead embraced the equally complicated complaints of 20 to 35-somethings. While we’ll never know if he had another classic in him (one can’t judge based on the silly scripts he contributed recently), it’s safe to say that John Hughes has a secure legacy in Hollywood laughfests. No matter the age bracket, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stands as one of his very best. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

While it’s rare, it is indeed possible for a single element to save an otherwise standard piece of cookie cutter cartoon entertainment. For the last few decades, Hollywood has been cranking out the CG family films, animated efforts relying on quirky pop culture riffs and stunt voice casting to provide minimal amounts of superficial entertainment. While character and narrative depth are often secondary considerations, the funny business formula forged after years of Shrek-ccess must be met. Luckily for the latest installment of the Ice Age franchise (Dawn of the Dinosaurs, new to DVD and Blu-ray) that Simon Pegg came along. While the rest of the movie meanders along like a miserable Mastodon, this engaging tre-quel uses the Shaun of the Dead star to singlehandedly revive the series’ sagging fortunes.

The story picks up after the big Meltdown of the previous picture. Mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and his equally hulky honey bunny Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a child, and with the responsibility of fatherhood comes the inevitable cracks in close friendships. Sabertoothed Diego (Denis Leary) feels the need to leave the pack, while simpleton Sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wants kids of his own. When the dim-bulb beast falls into a sinkhole and discovers a group of eggs, he immediately adopts them as his own. When they hatch, Sid is suddenly the father of…three baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes. When Manny and Ellie find out, they insist he return the foundlings to their rightful species. But this causes a major problem when the group gets lost in an underground domain of dinosaurs. Thankfully, heroic weasel Buck (Pegg) is around to protect the neophytes from danger while showing them the survival ropes.

It’s a little off-putting at first. Fans of the Ice Age films really don’t come to this material expecting danger and derring-do, but the moment our one-eyed adventurer shows up, all the cloying skrat love and kiddie oriented concerns fall by the wayside. While parents might balk at the notion of having to put their wee ones through a mega monster mash, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is clearly out to be a meatier, more menacing version of the series. Like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen without Michael Bay’s desire to play sledgehammer visionary, this installment takes everything that made the first two films tolerable, tweaks it with the addition of some genuine action energy, and the pours on the 3D gimmick du jour to make sure we get the appropriate cerebral overload (sadly, home video can’t recreate the real dimensional feel of the theatrical film).

For their part, the regulars show up and earn their paycheck. Romano does urbanized Droopy better than most similarly styled comedians, while her Majesty has little to add. Leary is really the odd man out here, shuttled to the side so that Leguizamo’s Sid can play proportionally dumber than ever before. Primary director Carlos Saldanha (also on hand for the first two films) does make great use of the supporting characters, including Seann William Scott and Josh Peck as charming frat dude possums Crash and Eddie. But it truly is Pegg that saves the day. While the four credited screenwriters are busy trying to find a continuous string of jokes, the English icon’s dry, devil-may-care wit takes everything Buck does and turns it into a post-modern manipulation of old school Hollywood heroism. He’s like a combination of Errol Flynn and Eric Idle.

If there is a flaw in the execution, however, it’s in turning the dinosaurs into one dimensional villains. Instead of infusing them with the same complicated characteristics of the stars, it’s all teeth, terror, and really bad attitudes. Mama Rex gets a moment or two of maternal attention, but that’s it. Like the water - both frozen and flowing - in the first two films, this inarticulate element really adds very little to the narrative…and that’s a shame. Kids really love those prehistoric creatures, and by giving them some basic personality traits, the series would have a whole other tempting talent pool to draw from. As it stands, Ice Age 3 feels like a film that said everything it had to say this time around. Where the series goes from here is anyone’s guess (and, one assumes, on the mind of everyone currently working at Fox).

At the very least, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic. The high definition medium really enhances the detail and depth put into CG film like these. Granted, there’s no 3D option, and the 1080p image can only go so far in recreating the theatrical experience, but the end results are stunning - specially when our heroes enter the lush, verdant dinosaur world. As for bonus features, Fox really lays out the content. We get a great commentary, a series of behind the scenes featurettes, a look at some deleted scenes, and a piece with Pegg about creating his character. There are also several episodes of Fox Movie Channel Presents, all focusing on different actors from the film, as well as a clever compendium of Skrat Shorts (known as the “Skrat Pack”). Each one illustrates how the mute little mouse-thing singlehandedly strives to revive the art of slapstick. While a few wear out their welcome before long, the entire package (including a regular DVD and digital copy) supplements the main feature effortlessly.

So it’s clear that there is more to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs than Simon Pegg and his fearless ferret. Indeed, from the look of the “lost world” to the various interpersonal (or interspecies) issues drawn upon, the movie is definitely an improvement over the standard stereotypes and formulas employed by the genre. On the other hand, Saldanha and the gang have kind of painted themselves into a corner. The next film in the franchise will have to focus on kids, since the whole third act centers on Ellie giving birth, and when movies take such a turn toward the juvenile, a huge section of the audience ends up being left out. Still, if any series can find a way to make their next installment work, it’s Ice Age. While other wannabe franchises have come and gone, this one remains flexible, and fun. And as long as they keep casting talent like Pegg, they’ll be perfectly fine.

by Bill Gibron

31 Oct 2009

One of the most profound dogmas in Chinese (and other Asian) philosophies is the notion of balance, yin and yang, the equilibrium between light and dark, good and evil. It’s a basic ideology, a mindset that is applied to elements as divergent as cooking and art, science and interior design. Yet within each discipline, the same faith in stability and the strength from same applies. As part of their Halloween release schedule, newly formed Palisades Tartan offers up to excellent examples of this foundational back and forth. The excellent ghost/demonic possession tale P offers a subtle, often scary look a life as a Thai bar girl in Bangkok, with some frightening folklore and magic thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, The Butcher is the kind of geek show nightmare that makes Hostel look like a sunny Eastern European travel ad. Gory and gruesome with no more desire than to completely shock its audience, this Korean scandal was recently banned in its own home country as being too brutal for audiences to endure.

In P, we meet up with notorious “witch’s granddaughter” Aaw. In order to help the child’s failing self-esteem, the aging relative teaches her magic. Laying down both the benefits and the backlash, the girl grows up into a beautiful teenager. When the local merchant demands reimbursement for all the credit she’s given the family, Aaw is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Thailand’s sex capital to work as a dancer in a bar/brothel. The madam sees real possibilities in the new country rube virgin, and the re-named Dau is soon seeing customers, getting paid for unspeakable acts she could have never imagined during her life back home. Suddenly, she remembers her magical gifts, and starts using them to get revenge on those who’ve wrong her. But she fails to heed her grandmother’s rules, creating a demonic entity that invades Dau’s dreams - and then heads out into the night to feed.

As for the storyline in The Butcher, there isn’t much of one. The premise is rather simple - a filmmaker hires local mobsters to kidnap people. He then brings them to a remote location set up as a combination studio and slaughterhouse, attaches cameras to his hostage’s heads, and then he films them as a masked maniac in a pig get-up murders them in completely inhuman and horrific ways. During this particular session, a married couple are caught, and the filmmaker has a field day with this unusual dynamic. While making his sickening snuff entertainment, he gives the husband an actual chance at survival. All he has to do is suggest a new, nasty way for his wife to die and the auteur of atrocities will let him go. Of course, there is a catch. Just because one member of this perverted production company says he will live doesn’t mean the man with the chainsaw agrees.

The differences between P and The Butcher are a primer in conflicting approaches to terror. One is a sly story of prostitution and personality clashes inside a combination of superstition and supernatural sorcery. The other is a first person POV assault on the senses, a nonstop stream of video splatter inter-spliced with endless screaming and character pleading. P plays on its characters with style and a sense of purpose. One could easily see The Butcher as a cruel commentary, a slap in the face of foolish American audiences who, as the “director” here laments, simply can’t get enough hardcore violence. While both rely on the culture and customs of their particularly country, one makes better use of the sinister subtext they provide. The other simply sits back, turns on the ever-present camcorders, and watches while people are vivisected with vicious callousness.

P is the much better film, for reasons that have little to do with the amount of blood being spilled. In fact, there is probably as much arterial spray in Dau’s demonic revenge as there is throughout The Butcher‘s callous corpse grinding. Western filmmaker Paul Spurrier, no stranger to Thai ways, also recognizes the need to keep his fellow fright fans laden with grue. But unlike the 8mm miscreance of director Kim Jin-Won’s eviscerating excess, we shudder at the thought of our heroine’s horrific secret. Indeed, The Butcher is more for the confirmed gorehound, the person who can’t enjoy a scary movie experience without seeing organs removed and eyeballs garroted. There is nothing wrong with such an approach: it has its own unique, visceral qualities that when handled properly, make the menace practically leap off the screen. But P finds a way to make it work as part of an actual story. The Butcher is just a sideshow with a high tech sheen.

There’s also another issue with the latter title that bears discussing. With everything from Paranormal Activity to Cloverfield mimicking the now infamous Blair Witch style of handheld shaky cam creep-outs, it’s hard to look at The Butcher as something new. In fact, films like The Pooghkeepsie Tapes and [REC] have illustrated caught on tape carnage better than most of the material here. In fact, the only thing this movie really has going for it is the insane killer with a passionate Porky complex. Watching this animal-headed freak walk down a dark corridor, his fatalistic intent ever-present and palpable, is more than enough to conjure up a good case of the willies. But then the rest of the narrative is taken up with endless whiny, our husband begging for his life like a schoolgirl being unfairly grounded by her parents. In the end, we enjoy Dau’s determined attempt to rise above her degrading circumstances. The Butcher just wants us to wallow around in its senseless splatter.

Still, as perfect illustrations of the whole hard and soft, subtle and sledgehammer style of Asian horror moviemaking, this duo is almost definitive. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find two films as patently polar opposite of each other than these - and yet, we can still see the same traditions and cinematic trademarks within both. For all its sleazoid suggestion and underage smuttiness, P is really a tale of payback gone mystical, while The Butcher breaks down the basics of onscreen violence into three practical components - maker, murderer, and those who enjoy watching both. And the determining factor for both is blood - lots and lots of blood. While that meaningful monochrome symbol showcases the inherent concept of yin and yang, P and The Butcher discuss the conceit in clots of brazen blood red. While neither film is perfect, one clearly wishes to engage, not enrage, its audience. 

by Bill Gibron

29 Oct 2009

While the comparison has been made before, the passage of time has confirmed it as fact: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the Beatles of sketch comedy. True, similarities do stop at content and culture-shaping impact, but there are a few undeniable facts that link to two UK phenomenons together. Both came out of Britain to conquer the world, forever changing the way we look at certain artistic styles and creativity. Each used their distinctive personalities and divergent interests to shape their approach, and the final results remains relevant even 40 some years later. There’s even the same sentiment toward a “reunion”. With the death of a significant part of each outfit, bringing them back is just never going to happen.

And so, like the Fab Four, it’s time to cement the remaining members place in history. It’s time to tell the truth, Anthology style, to pour on the context and explain away the misinformation - or in some cases, create a few new myths along the way. Recently, IFC Films presented the stunning, six part overview of the group’s founding and immeasurable success that followed. While far from definitive (even at nearly five and a half hours, it still skips by many of the more important aspects of their origins) it still represents a massive attempt at explaining away Python once and for all. In that regard, A&E is releasing two separate documentaries on DVD, a pair of features that, in their own way, supplement and support the Almost the Truth take on Monty Python. While The Other British Invasion does repeat some of the same stories and anecdotes, it argues for its place as part of the overall sketch god Bible.

The first offering, Before the Flying Circus, is the best. It covers the boy’s formative years, from Eric Idle’s 12 year stint in an authoritarian English boarding school to the awkward physicality of a young John Cleese. Terry Gilliam was a BMOC A-student in Minnesota while Terry Jones and Michael Palin showed an early love of the theater. Because he is no longer here to speak for himself, Graham Chapman’s switch from doctor to performer is handled in a perfunctory is pleasant manner, and we get nothing on unofficial “seventh” member of the troupe, actress Carol Cleveland. While a few of the same faces show up (Palin’s old school chum who introduced him to cabaret, UK comic icon Ronnie Barker) and a few more make an exclusive appearance here (most notably, David Frost).

As with Almost the Truth, happenstance seems to play a great part in the Python’s evolution. We get the impression early and often that many of the opportunities provided to the fledgling superstars literally fell into their lap. No horrific tales about waiting tables, working in a factory, or slogging away in an insurance office before the “big break” arrived. No, once they entered University and took up residence in the Oxford/Cambridge theatrical societies, it was graduation, TV shows, and eventual world domination. Of course, the gang would argue differently, though it is odd to see how someone like Gilliam went from Occidental College to a national humor magazine (Help! ) to Python while having no set career path. Apparently, talent trumps even the most rudimentary of individual struggles.

Throughout, it’s the stories that sell us on Monty Python’s lasting legacy. We hear how certain partnerships took shape, how the guys bounced ideas off each other while staunchly supporting their own vision. Unlike Almost the Truth, which set up the various battles inside the situation (Jones had the notion of constantly breaking down barriers, while seasoned performer Cleese was convinced the group was prone to repeating itself), this is a prologue, a primer in preparation for the real story behind Python’s astonishing success. If you’ve seen Almost the Truth, Before the Flying Circus will function as a fascinating fill in the blanks (why no mention of the seminal Complete and Utter History of Britain, IFC?). Together, they take us to the moment when a group of English jesters carved up the court of international satire.

The second feature, Monty Python Conquers America, is more of a tribute than an actual narrative. We get dozens of doting celebrities - everyone from Hank Azaria, Carl Reiner and Luke Wilson to Judd Apatow and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone - expressing their appreciation for what the group did for post-modern humor. In between are clips of classic sketches as well as input from various PBS personalities, all of whom marvel at how an initially unsuccessful show (at least in US) became perhaps the most important comedy series ever.

The Pythons also offer their two cents, suggesting that much of the hoopla came not from the show itself, but from the otherworldly success of the Holy Grail film. Of course, Almost the Truth took three hour long episodes to cover most of this material, meaning we get less factual analysis and more famous fawning. Still, as a glimpse into how their peers felt (and still feel) about the Flying Circus, Conquers America is an indispensible indication of the group’s lasting impact.

One of the best bits here, however, is reserved for the DVD bonus features. Found on the Before the Flying Circus disc, “Animated Gilliam” allows the now famous filmmaker to comment on the four distinct cartoon opening he created for the series. While some of his reminiscences are rather obvious (“I was clearly thinking about sex then”), he does try to decipher the mystery behind some of the faces, and feet, used. The other extra is taken from an old PBS vault copy of an episode in which the opening sketch “A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party” was presented. Later cut from UK versions of the episode (the BBC felt it was blatant political pandering and pulled it), this “Silly Walk” like effort is very funny indeed (a version of it appears live during the Hollywood Bowl ‘concert’).

As with the lads from Liverpool, history and its various clueless contrarians have tried to rewrite the truth about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Some dismiss it outright, claiming it’s dated and fails to deliver on its overhyped, overexposed promise. A few will take it further, acknowledging the group’s importance but then pointing out how others did it better and more bravely. Still, there is an undeniable truth that even the most notorious naysayer can’t deny - like The Beatles, the efforts of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam endure. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the most important comedy series of the post-modern era. It really doesn’t take a definitive documentary (or set of same) to prove that. The continuing laughter speaks for itself.

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