Terry Jones

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.

Anyway.

Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).


Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an excellent collection of very funny sketches on a theme. It’s really funny. It’s often exceptionally well performed–acted is a bit of a stretch–and it’s got a wonderful tone. It also lacks narrative momentum, which is kind of extraordinary since it’s about the quest for the Holy Grail. The Pythons sort of drain any epical structure. It’s a fine approach. It leads to some great sketches, but it just doesn’t connect all its pieces.

Did I say “it” enough? We needed to get past some things.

There’s a certain meta thing the film does–from the opening titles and the end credits–but it’s just filler between the sketches. The meta element is conceptually amusing, never funny, while the sketches are always funny without having much conceptual amusement. I think one of the transitory cartoons has more depth in a pun than anything in the film proper.

Unfortunately for Holy Grail, the comedic intensity of the sketches is unsteady. The finale is nowhere near funny enough to finish the film. There’s spectacle to it–extremely well done spectacle, probably directors Jones and Gilliam’s best work in the film–but there’s not the right kind of humor. Is everything before it great? No, especially not some of the stuff in the second half of the film when the quest gets more underway. But the first half is pretty spectacular and there’s still some strong material in the second half, just not as much as in the first. And there are some pacing issues with the sketches.

Holy Grail’s other problem is it’s too well-produced. Terry Bedford’s photography is exceptional, John Hackney’s editing is better. The fine production design is part of the joke–these six jackasses are funnier in a realistic tenth century than they’d be in a stagy one–but the editing almost gets distracting at times. It’s too good.

As far as the aforementioned jackasses go–and Holy Grail is jackass humor more than anything else; the idea being you act like a jackass long enough, eventually it’s funny. And Grail waits. Directors Jones and Gilliam take their sweet time waiting for the pay-off. They even joke about it after a while. Because jackasses make you wait to laugh.

Anyway, Graham Chapman’s a fine King Arthur. He’s the straightest man in the picture. John Cleese’s good. Eric Idle’s good. Terry Jones is kind of annoying. Michael Palin’s great, of course. Terry Gilliam’s actually not annoying. I always assume I’ll find him annoying but I don’t.

Connie Booth’s got a nice part in one of the sketches.

Holy Grail is a funny effort. It’s not quite successful–if only because it’s disinterested in trying to be anything but funny, even if it’s smart funny. But not always. Smart, I mean. It’s always funny. Even when it’s annoying.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Gilliam, Jones, and Michael Palin; director of photography, Terry Bedford; edited by John Hackney; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; produced by Mark Forstater and Michael White; released by EMI Films.

Starring Graham Chapman (King Arthur), John Cleese (Sir Lancelot the Brave), Eric Idle (Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot), Terry Gilliam (Patsy), Terry Jones (Sir Bedevere), Michael Palin (Sir Galahad the Pure), and Connie Booth (The Witch).


Life of Brian (1979, Terry Jones)

Life of Brian operates most significantly on two levels. The first level is the intellectual one, where the audience is invited to anticipate if and how the film will juxtapose Graham Chapman (he’s the Brian whose life the film concerns) against Jesus. Brian is the kid down the block who just never impressed quite so much.

How Life of Brian negotiates Jewish humor is a different level entirely and not one I’m knowledgable enough about to discuss.

So there are those two levels, but then there’s the third salient level of interaction for Brian. The one with the dumb jokes. The easy gags. Monty Python knows how to pace those jokes out, where to place them not as the final punchline (though occasionally penultimate) but to propel the scenes. Even though Brian is slow, it’s frantically moving at all times. Julian Doyle’s editing is a big deal. This pace, the gorgeous location shooting, the Monty Python guys playing multiple roles each–Doyle has to do everything just right. He never lets the film be in on the joke. He carries through the film’s visual agreements.

Because Brian is a filmed on location Bible epic. The production values are amazing. Director Jones manages to be enthusiastic about the sets but never showy. Peter Biziou’s photography is phenomenal. Brian’s a technical marvel.

It’s also hilarious. The script, the performances, just great. I’m a John Cleese fan so I’m always hoping he’ll give the best performance of a Python, but he doesn’t in Brian. Chapman’s awesome in the lead. He’s not exactly a calm in the center of the comedic storm, he’s just blissfully unaware. Chapman sells that bliss.

Jones–as an actor–is great. Michael Palin’s got a good bit as Pilate. But my favorite is Eric Idle. He gets a lot of the dumb jokes and he makes them work.

There’s excellent supporting performances from everyone, with Sue Jones-Davies (as Judas’s sister and Chapman’s love interest) standing out. Spike Milligan’s hilarious too.

So, Life of Brian. It’s great. I wish I’d seen it sooner. And now I need to go because I’m trying to come up with a painful pun to exit on.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Jones; starring and written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Julian Doyle; music by Geoffrey Burgon; production designer, Gilliam; produced by John Goldstone; released by Orion Pictures.

Also starring Kenneth Colley (Jesus), Sue Jones-Davies (Judith), Terence Bayler (Gregory), Carol Cleveland (Mrs. Gregory) and Spike Milligan (Spike).


Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson)

Every so often, Labyrinth plays like an episode of “Fraggle Rock” with special guest star David Bowie. Oddly, the film starts Bowie heavy but pretty soon he’s just popping in to remind the viewer he’s still around. His performance is terrible; his singing sequences are fine, especially how capably he acts with all the puppets.

It’s important too, because there’s nothing to Labyrinth without the puppets. Henson knows how to direct the puppets and his company knows how to make living creatures with them. It’s a shame none of this attention went into the story, which apes The Wizard of Oz more than a little.

Except Jennifer Connelly’s lead is unlikable for a long, long time. There are all sorts of hints at how her adventure in the magical goblin land relates to her real life, but the metaphors are undercooked. The film’s goal is more about showcasing what Henson and company can do.

And they can do quite a bit. Labyrinth is absolutely gorgeous. While the Alex Thomson photography doesn’t especially impress, John Grover’s editing is amazing.

Connelly is likable enough–eventually–but she doesn’t really have a character to play. Labyrinth doesn’t even spend time making the fantasy world seem real, which becomes clearer and clearer. Henson just needed to slow down and enjoy himself. Or maybe he really didn’t want to do anything with human actors.

Problems aside, there are some truly wondrous creature creations in the film and it goes by fast. Just way too fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; screenplay by Terry Jones, based on a story by Dennis Lee and Henson; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by John Grover; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Eric Rattray; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring David Bowie (Jareth the Goblin King), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah), Toby Froud (Toby), Shelley Thompson (Stepmother), Christopher Malcolm (Father), Natalie Finland (Fairy), Shari Weiser & Brian Henson (Hoggle), Ron Mueck & Rob Mills (Ludo) and Dave Goelz & David Alan Barclay (Didymus).


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