Monty Python reminds us to always look on the bright side of new adaptations May 24, 2010
By G. Michael Dobbs
A new Monty Python production marking the 40th anniversary of the group and an interesting film starring Woody Harrelson are in this week's DVD review column.
Not The Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy
I like my Monty Python straight up. I've been a fan since high school and their distinctive humor has been a big part of my life.
A friend of mine bought us tickets to "Spamalot," the Broadway musical that is an adaptation of the group's second feature film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and for me it was weak tea -- a Python product for folks who weren't necessarily fans.
"Spamalot" has proven to be a huge critical and popular success and I'm sure that was in the back of Python member Eric Idle's head when he came up with the idea of putting the third Python film, "The Life of Brian," through a musical blender.
The difference is that Idle and his musical collaborator John Du Prez decided to present the musical version of "Brian" in the form of an oratorio instead of musical theater. This format is actually a parody of Handel's "The Messiah" with a full orchestra, chorus and soloists performing the music.
Idle and Du Prez have staged various versions in this country, Canada and Australia before they presented the version recorded last fall at the hallowed Royal Albert Hall in London for this DVD.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Python's founding, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam as well as Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes all make appearances with little comedy bits. Only John Cleese was missing in action.
While "Spamalot" may not be a favorite, I really enjoyed this production. The new compositions, based on the narrative and dialogue from "Brian," are quite funny, the performances are impressive and Idle's rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is a treat.
Plus, as an encore, Palin performs one of the best-known Python songs, "The Lumberjack Song" -- another joy.
The extras include a look at the week before the performance and how it came together as well as a number of the songs presented in sing-along form.
So whether you're a classical music fans with a sense of humor, a late-coming Python fan through "Spamalot" or a hardcore guy like me, this new production offers something for everyone.
Earlier this year the movie "Kick Ass" received a fair amount of buzz. An adaptation of an acclaimed comic book series, "Kick Ass" told the story of a young comic book fan who decided to become a superhero.
The comic book's appeal was its connection to reality -- a moderately athletic kid with a couple of bats for weapons makes a lousy superhero. The filmed version was somewhat notorious for its depiction of violence, especially from a potty-mouthed 11-year-old girl.
The "Kick Ass" movie was loud and fast-moving but was ultimately cinematic popcorn. "Defendor" plows the same ground, but is not so disposable. The two new films make for an interesting set of bookends on the same subject.
Arthur Poppington, played by Woody Harrelson, is a mentally and emotionally challenged guy who yearns to avenge the death of his mother, who deserted him when he was a child.
He lives out his dream by donning a homemade costume and patrolling the streets of his city as "Defendor." Armed with a trench club, marbles and jars of live wasps, Defendor records his actions with a camera and VCR rig he wears.
In his delusions, he searches for "Captain of Industry," the crime boss he believes is behind his mother's death.
When he interrupts an illicit act by a corrupt undercover cop, he sets in motion a series of events that test his resolve as well as the patience of the city public works foreman that has befriended him.
Although there are some throwaway comic moments in the film, Harrelson delivers a complex and moving performance as a man who, if he had received the proper help as a child, wouldn't find himself in such a situation.
A cast including the very underrated Elias Koteas as the crooked cop and Kat Dennings as the young prostitute he eventually saves provides able support.
First time director and writer Peter Stebbings certainly impressed me with this sure-handed movie. Unlike "Kick Ass," this is a very involving human drama.