Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Title:  Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Directors:  Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Date:  1975
Studio:  Columbia Tristar
Genre:  Comedy
Cast:  Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Connie Booth
Format:  Color, Widescreen
DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”  — Peasant

“Let me go back in there and face the peril.”  — Sir Galahad
“No, it’s too perilous.”  — Sir Lancelot

Monty Python’s Holy Grail film is very silly — but I mean that in a good way.  The film is full of very funny, and very quotable lines (I’m delibrately avoiding listing all of them) and it’s episodic.  However, it does have a plot — it’s not a collection of random sketches, like the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series.

The film begins, well, before even the plot of the film gets started we’re treated to the irrelevant humor of  the Pythons as the film is subtitled, for no apparent reason, in Swedish – then the subtitles break down into an invitation to visit Sweden and a discussion of moose bites.  A title card then informs us that those responsible for the titles have been sacked (fired).  The new titles are alternating red and green flashing, with lots of mentions of llamas.  Needless to say – this is no better.  But it is an example of the clever Python humor.

The film, proper, begins with Arthur, king of the Britons, looking to collect the bravest knights in the land to join his court at Camelot.  But no one has heard of  him.  Eventually he finds Sir Bedevere, the clever, scholarly knight.  The film then breaks to “The Book of the Film” to briefly introduce Arthur’s crew of knights (including “The aptly named ‘Sir not appearing in this film’ “) — which is one of my favorite lines. Arthur and company encounter the French taunters, then each knight gets a tale from Sir Robin’s encounter with the three-headed knight, to Sir Galadhad’s bravely facing the women of Castle Anthrax, only to be “rescued” by Sir Lancelot.  Sir Lancelot himself gets his own tale, to rescue the person in Swamp Castle about to be forced into marriage — he is very surprised to learn the person is a prince not a princess!

Arthur and Sir Bedevere encounter the Knights who say “Ni”.  Finally the group meet Tim the Enchanter who gives them a clue.  They proceed to the cave and encounter the Killer Rabbit, before getting another clue leading to the bridge of death.  There, each knight must answer three questions:  “What … is your name?”, “What … is your quest?”  and either “What is your favorite color?” or an actual question.  This task manages to whittle down Arthur’s knights, ’til it’s only Arthur and one page who reach the castle where the Grail is hidden – only to again run into the French taunters.  Arthur, however, is about to seize the castle with an impressive group of Ren-faire knights when the police show up and the film ends.  (Throughout the film we see clips of this – an old historian is cut down by one of Arthur’s knights, he’s found dead by his wife, the police arrive, the body’s taken away, the police start to investigate, etc — all of  this is silent drama for the most part).

Terry Gilliam’s drawings and animations, made famous in the Monty Python TV series, then later in films, break the episodes of the film apart, and act as transitions.  They are quirky and surreal but add little to the plot (except for the sequence with the Black Beast in the cave; and Arthur’s crew somehow being stranded in the snow in Iceland or some such place for no reason whatsoever).

Again, the film is very funny, and very silly.  There really isn’t any logic too it, but it’s Monty Python — logic is the last thing one expects.  It’s also intentionally low-budget looking.  For example, no one rides a horse, but the sound of  Arthur’s horse is provided by two coconuts.   ‘Course, other characters actually notice this!  Again, it’s a fun, enjoyable film.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Moulin Rouge

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Mary Poppins

  • Title:  Mary Poppins
  • Director:  Robert Stevenson
  • Date: 1964
  • Studio:  Disney
  • Genre:  Musical, Children
  • Cast:  Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermoine Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber 
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC (40th Anniversary 2-disc ed)

Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts. — George Banks

“As I expected:  ‘Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.’ ” — Mary Poppins

“I never explain anything.”  — Mary Poppins

“You know, begging you pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.”  — Bert
“Father? In a cage?”  — Jane
“They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of ’em, carpets and all.” –Bert

Mary Poppins is a wonderfully inventive film made for children but that the entire family can still enjoy.  The animation looks a bit flat by today’s standards, however the film’s music and storyline still hold up.  Set in 1910, Mr. Banks is a banker with two children and a wife.  His wife is involved in the Suffragette movement (to give women the right to vote).  It’s implied the children are holy terrors — the Banks have fired six nannies in four months. However, Mary Poppins shows up and takes the children through a series of adventures, with her friend, Bert – a Cockney who makes money any way he can (as a one-man band, painting chalk drawings on the sidewalk, selling roasted chestnuts, even as a chimney sweep).  But it’s Mary’s ability to loosen up the stiff, cold, and indifferent Mr. Banks and bring him closer to his own children that is at the heart of this film.

Though largely live-action, with plenty of special effects, the entire section where Mary, Bert, and the children jump through a chalk drawing and have adventures in a park is animated.  This is classic Disney animation, and the technique of combining animation with live action was new when the film was made.  It does look a bit dated now, but the dances, music, and even excitement of things such as the horse race, or Mary and Bert being carried across the animated river by animated turtles still work.

This film is also filled with music, song, and dance  — and contains some of Disney’s best songs:  “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim-Chim Cheree”, and “Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious! — all of which I knew as a child and can still sing along to and even recite.  (I still have all of “Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious!” memorized!)

Please note in the list below I am not including a single line or two of a main song repeated later.

List of Songs and Musical Numbers

  • Sister Suffragettes — Mrs. Banks
  • The Age of Men/Banks Schedule — Mr. Banks
  • The Nanny Song (a desperate advertisement) — Jane and Michael Banks
  • A Spoonful of Sugar — Mary Poppins
  • Chim Chim Cheree — Bert
  • Jolly Holiday (with Mary) — Bert, Mary
  • Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious! — Mary, Bert, Ensemble
  • Stay Awake (a lullaby) — Mary
  • I Love to Laugh — Ed Wynn
  • Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag) — Mary
  • Investing in the Bank / Interest — The Bankers
  • Chim Chim Cheeree — Bert
  • Step in Time — Bert, Ensemble
  • Let’s Go Fly a Kite — Mr. Banks

Again a wonderful film, especially for children.

Oh, and I should say that I am aware that the life of chimney sweeps and the children they used was not a good one, and also that Suffragettes were treated horribly, often force-fed and jailed, but that still doesn’t stop this from being a good fantasy film.  However, I do find it amusing that Disney cleaned-up the old British saying, that “it’s good luck to kiss a chimney sweep”, changing it to “good luck will rub off if I shake-hands with you.”

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:   4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World

Gone with the Wind

  • Title:  Gone with the Wind
  • Director:  Victor Fleming
  • Date:  1939
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Classic, Romance, Historical Epic
  • Cast:  Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia deHavilland, Ann Rutherford
  • Format:  Technicolor, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars, and when the wars were over — no one ever knew what they were about.”  — Ashley Wilkes

“No, I don’t think I will kiss you.  Although you need kissing and badly, that’s what’s wrong with you.  You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.”  — Rhett Butler

“What a woman!” — Rhett Butler

Gone with the Wind sweeps you into it’s story gradually but completely.  You are quickly immersed in the story and the characters.  And the film is really Scarlett’s story.  Scarlett O’Hara, despite first appearances, in a way is a very modern character, and at times a strong woman.  She’s manipulative, determined, strong and feisty, and she knows what she wants (or thinks she does).  She’s willing to do whatever she has to do, whenever she has to.  Scarlett is in sharp contrast to Melanie (deHavilland) who’s kind and generous — to a fault, and weak and even, at times, a bit simple.  Melanie can be strong (watch her face down Union troopers in the second half of the film for example), and she’s honest about her feelings and in her marriage to Ashley (her much older cousin).  DeHavilland is fantastic in her thankless role as the perfect Melanie.  Scarlett’s sisters never learn anything about strength, or getting what they want (which is simply a husband to care and provide for them) and whine and simper-on throughout the film.  Scarlett never once whines or complains, not really, she just does what needs to be done, or what she thinks she needs to do (and she doesn’t care at all who she hurts in the process). Essentially Scarlett’s a bitch in both the good and bad sense of the word.  Because in some circles to be a bitch is a compliment, and in some circles it’s the only way to really survive.  And whatever else you say about Scarlett O’Hara — she’s a survivor.

When we meet Scarlett, she’s not that impressive — she comes off as dumb, and shallow, concerned only with her looks, and her beaus.  But even in the beginning of the film it’s suggested she’s not as dumb as she pretends – she just acts that way because it’s how she’s been taught and how she thinks she can get a man.  However, she soon finds out the man she’s “wanted”, who she thinks really loves her, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) from the plantation next door, is going to marry his cousin Melanie, instead.  We aren’t told if this is an arranged marriage or a love match.  Ashley and Melanie are actually well suited to each other — both are kind and gentle, always doing what’s expected, never raising any controversy, filling their roles the way one was expected to — given the times and their statuses.  Scarlett, throughout the film says both aloud and by her actions that she loves Ashley and that she’s convinced he loves her — even when both are married to other people.

The war (the American Civil War) comes and all the men go off to fight.  Ashley and Melanie have been married.  Scarlett, in a fit of pique, marries Charles, Melanie’s brother, even though Charles was her sister’s beau.  Charles dies of pneumonia during the war.  Scarlett really doesn’t care, and even rebels at wearing Widow’s Weeds and not dancing at the next round of society balls (which at this point are only being held as war fund raisers).  She gives in to convention, though, and manages to look stunning in black.  (At the time, only a widow would have worn black, especially at a society function).  During the society ball, she manages to arrange things so each of the women will be “auctioned off” for dances. Rhett Butler bids on and wins Scarlett.  She’s so desperate to dance, she takes him up on it, claiming it’s for charity (we know it’s not).  Rhett is the dashing stranger — he’s avoided service in the war because he has no desire to get himself  killed and he hates all the waste of  war.  Rhett’s a gambler, a blockade runner, and a rakish rogue.  He’s trouble and considering Scarlett is as well — they are very suited to each other.  Even Rhett says to her, they are two of a kind.

Scarlett and Melanie end up in Atlanta, working as nurses to help the wounded.  Scarlett doesn’t particularly like this duty, but she knows she must do it.  Melanie has Ashley’s baby (nine months after his Christmas leave). She’s sick and ill just before and during the birth, but Scarlett manages to figure out and help with the process.  By this time, the war is nearly over, and Sherman’s troops are marching on Atlanta.  Rhett comes to the rescue of the three women (Scarlett, Melanie, and Scarlett’s maid, Prissy) and the baby.  He gets them out of Atlanta and safely on the road to Tara, Scarlett’s home, then leaves, informing Scarlett he’s going to join the war effort for a last stand.

Scarlett manages to make it the rest on the way on her own, seeing Twelve Oaks (the Wilkes plantation) burned to the ground on the way.  Tara’s survived, but her family’s in ruins:  her mother has died, her sisters are still weak and ill from a fever that killed her mother, and her father’s gone out of his head from shock.  Saddled with a another sickly and physically weak woman and a baby, Scarlett endures.  She finds that her home still stands, but it sits in the middle of a wasteland, and there’s no food or money. Scarlett runs out into a field, eats a carrot she finds, and starts to throw up.  Then  she holds up her hand, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” she swears.  This is the end of part one, and the intermission card is on the DVD.

Part two picks up during the Reconstruction.  Scarlett is told she needs three hundred dollars to pay the taxes on her home.  That might not sound like much, but in the 1860s/1870s it was a small fortune, especially when you have absolutely no way of making any money.  Scarlett uses a pair of drapes to sew herself a new dress and tries to get the money from Rhett Butler.  He’s in a union jail (stockade) and can’t access his money which is in a London bank.  (After all, it’s not like they had ATMs back then, and though he could access his funds via bank draft, it could be traced and the money taken — this is a risk Butler isn’t willing to take).  Scarlett then runs into Frank Kennedy, another of Sue Ellen (her sister’s) beaus. She marries Frank to get at his money that he’s made running a general merchandise store, and convinces him to buy the lumber mill next door.  Scarlett saves Tara, but lives in Atlanta, running the mill and lumber business.

Scarlett proves to be a shrewd businesswoman, running the mill (though Ashley Wilkes is her partner in name), at a time when women seldom worked, much less ran their own businesses.  However, one day she takes a horse and buggy (another concept the ladies in town find scandelous – Scarlett driving her own buggy, alone) through a bad area of town.  She’s attacked.  Rhett Butler shows up and rescues her. Scarlett, Melanie and the other girls have a sewing party, and Scarlett knows something is going on, but doesn’t know what.  She later learns Ashley, her husband, Frank, and several other men have gone to attack the men who attacked Scarlett.  Frank’s killed.  Ashley returns, wounded, but alive.  (Rhett again comes to the rescue, faking being drunk, with Ashley faking being even drunker, as in the local doctor, so they can get into Tara which is being guarded by Reconstructionist/Union troops on the lookout for the men who attacked the men who attacked Scarlett).  A widow again, and in Widow weeds, again, Rhett proposes to Scarlett.  They marry and soon have a daughter, Bonnie.

Scarlett, however, is so vain, that after the birth of  her daughter, she decides not to have any more children because it will ruin her figure.  Rhett considers divorcing Scarlett when she tells him this, but decides to stay. He’s fallen for Scarlett, despite their tendency to constantly fight, and Scarlett’s drinking issues.

When Bonnie’s around eight, Rhett gets fed-up and takes Bonnie with him on a trip to England, when they return dual tragedies occur:  Bonnie’s killed in a horse-jumping accident (it really is one of  the saddest moments of the entire film), and Scarlett, who’s gotten pregnant again, despite her intentions, falls/is pushed down a flight of stairs, gets sick, and has a miscarriage.  Her second pregnancy is interesting anyway because it’s the result of something seldom talked about now, and certainly not in 1939 — marital rape.  (She’s drunk/he’s drunk — they fight, he carries her up the stairs and literally has his way with her, then leaves for London the next day).  Also, the scene on the stairs between Rhett and Scarlett is filmed in such a way that we really don’t know if Scarlett fell by accident, if she fell accidentally on purpose to anger Rhett, or if Rhett was so angry at her he pushed her without thinking.  Whatever — he’s devastated by the two losses.  It doesn’t help that though Scarlett calls out for him, all the women around her decide not to tell  Rhett she wants him with her when she’s ill.  Shortly thereafter, Melanie, who was told not to have more children, get’s pregnant, has a miscarriage, and dies of sepsis  (or possibly pre-eclampsia). She even tells Scarlett to look after Ashley for her.  Scarlett talks to Ashley though, and finally realises she really loves Rhett, and her feelings for Ashley were a childish crush and a pipe dream.  She goes to tell Rhett — but he basically doesn’t believe her and leaves her.  In the end, Scarlett’s bereft and without a man, but she realises that she does still have the one thing that really matters — land, Tara, her home.   Somehow, Scarlett will be just fine.

Gone with the Wind really is a great film.  It’s more than simply a romance or a war film.  It’s unusual in that the entire film is told from the point of view of a woman — and not a goody-goody woman, but a woman who’s complex, scheming and manipulative.  And unlike the designing women or femme fatales of the Film Noir films, Scarlett isn’t made to fatally suffer for her mis-doings.  The film sweeps you up and into it’s world and it’s characters.  Vivien Leigh is gorgeous, and gives an incredible performance as Scarlett.  Clark Gable is fantastic as Rhett Butler.  The rest of the cast shine in their roles, sometimes in the smallest and simplest scenes (such as the conversation between Melanie and the Atlanta madam Miss Belle after she hides Ashley and saves his life).

The film also looks gorgeous — it’s a early Technicolor film, and the colors just pop right off the screen.  I loved the restoration work on my copy — it looks brand new, with no color bleeding or red cast.  There are scenes in Gone with the Wind that still impress, such as the burning of  Atlanta.  The film is of course, based on a novel, and print screen cards appear not just at the beginning of  the film, but throughout the movie explaining what is going on, especially in the larger canvas of the Civil War — it adds to the scope of the film.

The politics of the film deserve a mention — this is a film that white-washes (no pun intended) the Old South, and slavery in particular.  Blacks (called “darkies” in the film — even by Scarlett and Rhett) are referred to as servants, not the slaves they were.  They are also portrayed as being well treated and taken care of and happy with their lot (something that simply wasn’t true).  The film is definitely sympathetic to the South.  However, that speaks volumes about the times when the film was made (1939) and the times the film portrays (the 1860s) as well as the point-of-view of the author of the book. Students can learn from such a film what attitudes were in the past, and then learn what the harsh realities were.

About the famous slapping scene, though — often it’s taken, completely out of context as an example of the film’s racism.  However, when Scarlett slaps Prissy — she’s hysterical.  Scarlett could have easily have slapped a white woman who was behaving in such a fashion.  And Scarlett pretty much slaps everyone in the film at one point or another (including her sister, Rhett, Ashley, and possibly even Melanie – but again to wake her up).  Slapping Prissy is not out of character for Scarlett, it’s in character.  And considering Prissy’s hysterical at the time — she needed to be slapped (it’s film grammar for shutting up a hysterical woman).  Besides, in the film’s context — Prissy is Scarlett’s slave, not a servant, and technically Scarlett had the right to hit her.  Not that it’s right, but there you go.  There’s a lot more in Gone with the Wind that is on the racist side, but that scene isn’t one of those things.  It certainly isn’t something worth banning the film for, as has been proposed occasionally.

Overall, a really remarkable film and a must see.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Mary Poppins

Happy Feet

  • Title:  Happy Feet
  • Director:  George Miller
  • Date:  2006
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers Animation
  • Genre:  Musical, Animation, Children’s
  • Cast:  Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia, Steve Irwin
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“What fabulous worlds lay out there far beyond the ice?  Was there anyplace one small penguin without a Heartsong could ever truly belong?” — Lovelace / Narrator

I truly enjoyed this movie when I first saw it in 2006, but only recently found it on DVD on sale, albeit the 1-disc edition.  The movie is still excellent and the animation is astounding!  In Happy Feet penguins court their one true love by singing their unique Heart Song.  However, baby Mumble can’t sing.  He can dance, though.  Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a fantastic tap dancer (especially for a penguin).  However, the other penguins think this is weird, and ultimately the Elder Penguin (Hugo Weaving) kicks poor Mumble out, blaming him for the famine that’s troubling Emperor (penguin) Land.  Mumble having heard about strange aliens tries to find out why they are taking the fish and has a series of adventures, meeting a group of Latino penguins, led by Ramon (Robin Williams), the guru Rockhopper penguin, Lovelace (also Robin Williams), and ultimately ending up in a zoo.  His dancing attracts attention, and Mumble returns to Emperor Land.

There he again courts his childhood sweetheart, Gloria, and wins her, with his dancing.  I loved the sequences between Gloria and Mumble, I really did.  The Elder Penguin again gets upset, but the aliens (man) shows up and issues edicts to ban fishing in Antarctic waters.  The penguins are saved.

The music in this film is Motown — and extremely well integrated into the plot, as is Mumble’s dancing. Mumble needs to be true to himself, and ultimately he is.  The animation is incredible — the ice looks like ice, the water looks like water, and even the snow isn’t as fake looking as filmed snow normally is.  At one point wind blows and we see Mumble fur move.  And of course, the dancing penguins, all in time, works perfectly. Mumble is adorable, and his story works well and is very enjoyable.  Again I really enjoyed this film.

The special features on the single disc version are a little disappointing — music videos, an old Merrie Melodies cartoon, one trailer, and probably the most useful special feature – a lesson in tap dancing by the film’s choreographer — though that is geared for children.  Still the film is worth having.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4
Next Film:  Either Mary Poppins or Gone with the Wind (another film I just recently picked up on sale)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

  • Title:  The Maltese Falcon (1931)
  • Director:  Roy Del Ruth
  • Date:  1931
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast:  Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“This is murder and don’t you forget it!”  — Police Detective Dundee

This film is one of two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett classic mystery included on the Warner Brothers three-disc special edition of the classic Film Noir version starring Humphrey Bogart from 1941.  I actually avoided watching it for over a week.  However, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be.  It’s no classic, but it’s not a disaster either.

Richard Cortez plays Sam Spade as a hopeless flirt, who trades quips with his secretary and is definitely having an affair with his partner’s wife (something alluded to in the 1941 edition, but definitely toned down).  Archer, moreover, knows about his wife’s indiscretions.   The only woman Sam doesn’t seem to flirt with, is his client, Ms. Wonderly.

Since we actually see Archer in this film, he’s slightly more sympathetic.

Watching the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is very much like watching a stage play version of a favorite film.  Much of the dialogue is the same or recognizable, but it’s delivered completely differently by a different crew of actors, none of whom are well-known.  I didn’t mind flirty Sam Spade, though Bogart gives a much more nuanced and haunted performance.  Bogart’s Spade is a man on the edge.  Cortez breezes through the film like he’s having a grand  time, and even reminded me a bit of Errol Flynn.  Bebe Daniels, in a way, I actually liked better than Mary Astor.  At least she’s fairly straight-forward, even when she’s lying to Sam.  (This version drops her multiple identites from the plot).  But the bit players – Cairo, Gutman, even Wilbur are very bland here.  The 1941 version is much better with Peter Lorre, Syndey Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr.

This film is much shorter (around 71 minutes), and less complicated.  And, like a play, many larger (more expensive to film) scenes are dropped or mentioned but not shown (we never see Archer’s body, or the burning of La Poloma, the ship that brings the Falcon to San Francisco).  Also cut is some of Sam’s wondering around the streets of his city, thinking things over.

  • Recommendation:  Skip it, unless you happen to get a free version as an extra, then you may as well watch it.
  • Rating:  2.5 Stars
  • Next Film:  Mary Poppins