Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Olive Films - ERIK THE VIKING, YELLOWBEARD, SHE-DEVIL and SKI SCHOOL on Blu-ray ""

Sunday, May 31, 2015


ERIK THE VIKING (1989; Terry Jones)
Those of us that grew up loving Monty Python couldn't help but see the films from their glorious "trilogy": HOLY GRAIL, LIFE OF BRIAN and THE MEANING OF LIFE. HOLY GRAIL seems to be the most popular of those three and justifiably so, but the other two get plenty of love from Python fans as well. A film that gets less love and has been forgotten by many is ERIK THE VIKING. Though it is not quite a full Python movie in the same way those other movies are (the Python members are present here, but not in every scene as they were in the other films). Terry Jones was director or co-director (with Gilliam) on those main three films and he flew solo on LIFE OF BRIAN and ERIK as well. The spirit of Python is certainly present in ERIK and it's a little unfortunate that it has been lost in the shuffle a bit. 
This movie always gave a little trouble though I must admit in that the opening scene plays off a joke about rape and that's a tough spot to start a movie from. That said, the scene proves to be rather poignant and pivotal for our main character Erik (Tim Robbins) so it's not played completely for comedic value. The whole crux of the movie lies in the existential crisis of the titular Erik who has never fully embrace the looting, raping and pillaging ways of his viking brethren. He believes there must be something more and he convinces his comrades to travel across the sea to try to talk to the gods. The movie is filled with darkly comic Python-esque jokes and asides, taking some pretty humorous shots at the viking "lifestyle". Terry Jones is certainly a solid director and while not the visual stylist that Terry Gilliam can be, he makes good films for sure (I am particularly a fan of his MR. TOAD'S WILD RIDE which doesn't get enough attention either). All told this is an honorable entry in the Python cannon and one that should find more fans via this new Blu-ray (which looks pretty good).
Quick Note: Olive Films has done fans of ERIK THE VIKING something of a service in that they have released the longer cut of the film (107 mins) as opposed the version that was out on DVD a while back (which had been cut down to 79 minutes by Terry Jones' son (with Jones' blessing)). Apparently Terry Jones had always wanted to trim the movie a bit and they took this opportunity to do so. Fans were not pleased with this (see the Amazon reviews of the DVD for some vitriol), but they will hopefully like this new Blu-ray, which looks nice and has the movie restored to its original runtime.

YELLOWBEARD (1983; Mel Damski)
This is yet another underseen Python spinoff from the 1980s. Though not directed by Jones or Gilliam, this one was co-scripted by and stars the great Graham Chapman as Captain Yellowbeard himself. It also has John Cleese and Eric Idle, but thats not all. No this movie has the comic pedigree of some other heavyweights as well. First off, it has a very Mel Brooks-y vibe in that Marty Feldman (in his last film appearance), Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, and Kenneth Mars are all featured, but the comic thoroughbred-isms don't stop there. Cheech and Chong are also part of this mighty farcical ensemble as is Peter Cook (who is also one of the co-screenwriters). So you have this intermingling of powerhouse comedy troupes for this tale of a pirate who escapes prison to gather a motley crew and go off looking for the vast amounts treasure that he stashed years earlier.
One of the biggest things I remember about YELLOWBEARD is how difficult it was to see for a really long time. It looks like the DVD didn't even come out until 2006, which is pretty late if you think about this cast and how much of a following they have. I'm sure it's probably a matter of the films rights getting tangled up legally in some way, but it always seemed strange to me that it was so tricky to find it. Its scarcity and the reputations of the featured players certainly set up some pretty immense expectations in my mind though and these expectations were perhaps more than any film could live up to. It's not bad though (if a bit under lit in spots). I've always had a great fondness for Graham Chapman and his ability to carry off ludicrous comedy in the most delightful way. I've heard it said that he and John Cleese used to write Python sketches together and that Cleese would work for hours on certain bits, trying to figure out how to make them right. Apparently Chapman had the ability to come in and solve such problems quickly and with seemingly little effort. He was a man who lived and breathed absurdity and carried it into both his writing and his performances. YELLOWBEARD is no exception. Since his character is a pirate who has been in prison for twenty years, when he gets out he looks rather haggard. This only makes him funnier to me as his actions as a madman here are backed up by his appearance. The whole ensemble is fun though and they have their moments of hilarity (John Cleese as a blind bar patron with acute senses is good for a laugh or two). The script itself feels slightly undercooked or the film is not edited and shot in such a way as to get quite the most mileage as it could out of the ridiculous goings on. It's still worthwhile though and I had a good time with it. I just always enjoy seeing the Pythons (and the rest of this gang) working in longform as opposed to sketch. Happy it's out there in HD (though as I said the film is a little dark, especially during the indoor scenes).

SHE-DEVIL (1989; Susan Seidelman)
This movie is one that has been completely obscured by the stuff I vaguely remember about seeing it at the time it came out on VHS. I remember not liking it too much honestly, but the reason why is shrouded in guesswork. I think it had something to do with me being kind of over Roseanne Barr at the time. While I was a fan of her show for a while, at some point I just stopped finding her funny back then. The other thing was that at its core, it was a revenge movie that got a little mean-spirited. On top of that, I never would have known who director Susan Seidelman was when I first saw the movie. I may have already seen DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, but that one went over my head to in terms of digging it. Nowadays I have a much great appreciation for Seidelman and her films. SMITHEREENS and SEEKING SUSAN are two that I am definitely a fan of.
This rewatch of SHE-DEVIL allowed me to re-examine it with wiser eyes. At one point, Seidelman cuts to two close-ups of Meryl Streep's and Ed Begley Jr.'s eyes. It's a little jarring, but it is the moment where the somewhat fantastic tone of the movie starts to come into focus. I was reminded of Sergio Leone and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST or FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. It's a very interesting tone for sure and one that I'm sure probably put me off when I was in high school. Everything is stylized and almost cartoonish in this Frank Tashlin kinda way, but with a darker edge than Tashlin ever ventured to try. The music is even reminiscent of a Looney Tunes short in parts. It's a remarkably interesting undertaking for a studio film. While the 1980s was certainly home to its fair share of wacky comedies, few were quite like this one. I like the closing shot quite a bit.

SKI SCHOOL (1990; Damian Lee)
SKI SCHOOL comes from a long tradition of sex comedies about underdogs. Watching sex comedies at a certain point becomes just like watching slasher films. The formula is fairly tried and true and is often just a matter of plugging in a new setting and in this case, a new sport. SKI SCHOOL is later in the sex comedy cycle in that it came out in 1990 but feels for all intents and purposes like an 80s movie. It follows the likes of HOT DOG: THE MOVIE, another skiing sex comedy that hit theaters six years prior. SKI PATROL was yet one more ski comedy and it came out the same year as this film (there must have been some kind of ski-resurgence in 1990). One thing SKI SCHOOL has to its advantage though is some solid and humorous chemistry between it's main group of three dudes (Dean Cameron and the other two guys). A sex comedy really can float on the charisma of its goof-offs and these fellas are charming enough and silly enough to keep things going. You know you're in for a specific kind of thing though when you have bare breasts onscreen within the first two minutes. That is a thing of the past I think. Back before the rise of the internet and freely available porn when cable was the great place where a kid could catch something like this late in the evening. When someone told you that they had cable, part of the draw was that we could see movies like SKI SCHOOL. Same thing for VHS and straight-to-VHS comedies. Folks don't feel the need to make films that show boobs almost right out of the gate anymore. Many films directed at a youth audience now land in that quagmire of the PG-13 rating. SKI SCHOOL reminds me that R-rated wacky comedies were a thing that we sorely need in this day and age. They've not completely gone away, but I feel like we as a society need to concern ourselves less with PG-13 material and more on R-rated material. Let's not be afraid to scar our children people, them being too sheltered is just not a good thing. End of pseudo-rant. Watch SKI SCHOOL. It's dopey, but it's still kind of a hoot. I mean, if you're not a Dean Cameron fan I just don't even know what to say to you. Plus SKI SCHOOL also stars the guy who played "Styles" in TEEN WOLF TOO. What more could you want?

1 comment:

Ed South said...

Interesting to note that between Ski School and the very PG-rated Ski Patrol, Ski Patrol enjoyed a wide theatrical release - although it didn't really make any money.