Erik The Viking 1989 ***

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The recent demise of both Terry Jones and Neil Innes provides an opportunity to consider one of the least beloved entries in the sub-Monty Python canon, 1989’s Erik the Viking. Although it re-unites Jones as writer/director with John Cleese, who replaced Jack Lemmon at short notice, Erik the Viking feels like a feature script developed by Jones as a Python project, but rejected by the others; Michael Palin’s diary suggests dissatisfaction with the script. Jones seems to have recast each role with name players, but unfortunately these are not like-for-like substitutions, and without the usual Python ability to work over a script to provide a variety of accomplished comic set-pieces, the results are patchy.

And yet Erik the Viking is infused with Jones’s ability to take his area of expertise (medieval history) and riff on it to comic effect, and the structure of the film is solid. Erik (Tim Robbins) is a Viking who rejects the carnal, violent excesses of his fellows warriors and seeks something higher. He sets off on a voyage that takes his crew to Valhalla and beyond, with a central stop-off on the island of Hy Brazil, ruled over by King Arnulf (Jones) where a developed spiritual philosophy means no killing is allowed. Erik and his crew are pursued by Hafdan the Black (Cleese), who has a spy in Erik’s camp in the form of Loki (Anthony Sher).

Norse legends provide some familiar set-ups, with Loki, the age of Ragnorok and the rainbow bridge all coming into play, but Jones neatly dodges clichés; the Vikings have no horns on their helmets, and Jones’s patented gift for giving medieval characters 20th century vocabulary and pre-occupations provides some laughs. The Vikings argue in petty fashion about who sits where on their boat, and one character witheringly notes ‘You don’t even believe in Asgard!’. The timing isn’t always what it should be; when you replace a comedy troupe with randoms like Eartha Kitt, Michey Rooney and John Gordon Sinclair, consistency of vision takes a nose-dive.

Erik the Viking kicks off with an unwise rape joke (involving Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter) that doesn’t sit well with the generally genial nature of the comedy; without the usual team, Jones seems to have over-reached in terms of tone and content here, and there’s a few tumble-weed moments as gags go awry. But with a few smart sequences, like how the Hy Brazilians argue philosophically but to no effect as their island sinks around them, there’s tantalising evidence of a potentially great Python film that never came to fruition. And Innes creates a splendid mock-heroic score that keeps the rather ramshackle proceedings on point.

All You Need is Cash 1978 *****

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The lowest-rated show of the week when it premiered on tv in 1978, Eric Idle and Gary Weis’s mockumentry about popular British band The Rutles has gained a cult following. This is due in part to the stellar reputations of pretty much everyone involved, but also to the song-writing gifts of Neil Innes, who sadly in no longer with us as of December 2019.

All You Need is Cash is a satirical variety show in which members of the Beatles, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live combine to poke fun at the way the Fab Four’s exploits were reported. Innes contributed 20 songs to the soundtrack, charting the rise of Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry, the Pre-Fab Four. It’s impossible to write about them without hearing the voice of avuncular narrator and presenter Eric Idle, who contributes a peerless set of gags here, from the rat-cellar the band played in (‘”Rat Keller” means, literally in German, “Cellar of rats”. That’s not “Seller of rats”, a seller of rats, a person who sells rats for a living to another man as it were, of course not.’) to the band’s huge concert at Che Stadium (‘named after the Cuban guerrilla leader Che Stadium’). Idle also surfaces as such august experts as Stanley J. Krammerhead III, Jr., occasional visiting professor of applied narcotics at the University of Please Yourself, California.  

Mockumentaries usually have a higher number of celebrity cameos than jokes, but this early entry has tonnes of both, with comic talents like Dan Ackroyd, Michael Palin, Bill Murray and Barry Cryer all contributing brief but amusing scenes, and there’s also a hesitant Paul Simon and a strident Mick Jagger, who seems to find it remarkably in-his-wheelhouse to lie convincingly about his rivalry with the Rutles. George Harrison exec-produces and turns up, investigating the theft of pretty much everything from the band’s business address. Paul and Ringo reputedly weren’t amused by the film, but seem to have come round to it; it’s a loving tribute to the Beatles, even if it doesn’t pull many punches in making fun of them.

Best of all are Innes’s pitch-perfect parody songs, so good they’re fun to listen to in their own right. Ouch perfectly mimics Help’s simplicity, Get Up and Go sends-up Get Back, and Cheese and Onions perfectly nails the languid epiphanies of the Yellow Submarine/Magical Mystery Tour period. Before Spinal Tap, All You Need Is Cash is the original mockumentry, a delightful, funny feature-length comedy that features both subject and parodists in perfect harmony. Innes’ reward was a massive law-suit from ATV Music, but our improved laws on parody circa 2019 should ensure that his music will last a for a lunchtime and beyond.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote 2018 ****

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99 cents is the humble rental price for Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film so long awaited that other films have been made about how long it was taking; Lost In La Mancha details an earlier flurry of activity that failed to get Cervantes famous story onto the big screen. It has not been lost on Gilliam that spending thirty years attempting to tell the story of a man who famously titled at windmills has a poignancy all of its own, so finally watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a strange experience; it’s initially hard to separate the film’s making from the story. The vibe is very 1989 in terms of a magic–realist narrative; An advertising executive Tony Grisoni (Adam Driver) slips back in time and finds himself in the company of the legend Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce). Rewrites have allowed Gilliam to embrace the meta elements here; while shooting a commercial featuring the character of Don Quixote, Grisoni unearths his own student film on the same subject, and sets out to visit the locations, only to find the actor he cast is now living as the character. The production difficulties, which were not surprisingly many and diverse, have been detailed elsewhere; what’s on screen may not have the full sweep and scope of what the director imagined, but it looks pretty good, and evokes exactly the right spirit for a modern Cervantes adaptation. What Gilliam has not compromised is that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a text that the audience can get lost in, alongside the main character, over a 132 minute running time, and it’s almost certain that the same overwhelming effect would be what was intended when production started in 1989. Driver does well with a tricky role, Pryce is imperious as Quixote, and the episodic narrative blends scenes from the original text with some nice commentary. Trickling out unannounced on home streaming services may not be what Gilliam dreamed of, but fans of Gilliam, Monty Python and Cervantes will want to buy this one for a dollar or more; it’s a magical mystery tour mixing past and present, fact and fiction, film and literature, and the pleasurable experience of watching it snatches a secret success from the jaws of well-publicised failure.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07QNM5C4F?camp=1789&creativeASIN=B07QNM5C4F&ie=UTF8&linkCode=xm2&tag=justwatch09-20