Sunday, November 28, 2010

Caligula (1979)

"I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens.  Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula I am all men as I am no men.  And so, I am a god."
The infamous Caligula has a history almost as fragmented and complicated as the man who bore the same name.  Caligula was originally intended to be a television mini-series produced by Italian director, Roberto Rossellini.  When that production fell apart, Gore Vidal wrote a screenplay based on the original treatment. Vidal, and Rossellini's nephew, Franco Rossellini, could not gather the necessary financing for the film so Vidal approached Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.  Guccione agreed to finance the production if the script was modified to include more sex and nudity. The entire film was to become a much larger, more lavish production than originally intended.
Almost from from the very beginning, the film was cursed with difficulties. Guccione hired Tinto Brass as director.  Vidal and Brass clashed immediately.  Vidal thought Brass should follow his script to the letter and Brass was more interested in his own interpretation.  Brass also disagreed with Guccione about the level of sexual content in the film.  Finally, Brass banned Vidal from the set and Vidal began to distance himself from the film that was originally entitled Gore Vidal's Caligula. Brass and actor, Malcolm McDowell, began to re-write the script.  Once principal photography was finally complete, Guccione fired Brass and took over editing himself.  He and Giancarlo Lui then shot extra scenes with explicit sexual content to add in.  Almost no one was pleased with the final results.
It may have been an omen that Caligula was shot at Dear Studios in Rome where Cleopatra, another troubled epic, had been shot thirteen years earlier.  Despite its many problems, Caligula does have some things working in its favour.  It has a terrific cast.  Malcolm McDowell creates an unforgettable and unique performance as Caligula and the first act of the film is grounded really well by Peter O'Toole as Tiberius and John Gielgud as Nerva.  Helen Mirren also does a great job as Caligula's fourth wife, Caesonia.
The film features fantastic art direction and costume design by two-time-Oscar-winner, Danilo Donati.  Unfortunately, from the way the film is shot, not much of it makes its way to the screen clearly.  Over 3500 costumes were made for the film and the cast wore over 5000 pairs of handmade boots and sandals.  Donati also designed the largest prop ever created for a film at the time; a full-scale Roman ship that was 175 feet long and 30 feet high with 120 hand-carved oars.  With a final budget of about $22 million, this was the most expensive independent film made at the time.
The story begins in 37 CE when the Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) dies and is succeeded by the young Caligula (Malcolm McDowell).  The film chronicles Caligula's rule which was less than four years long.  It's a story about power and corruption.  I think the film does a good job of showing Caligula as a very young man who has lived a very strange life and has power thrust upon him at too young an age. It details his descent into paranoia and madness and ends with his assassination in 41 CE.
The film suffers from really poor direction and awful camera work.  I have a feeling that Brass and his director of photography, Silvano Ippoliti, were trying to parallel Caligula's mental deterioration in the style of the film.  If that's the case, it was almost entirely ineffective.  The film comes across as almost amateurish.  It's filled with strange zooms, shaky frames and soft focus.  The additional shots by Guccione don't help much.  There's an overall sense of inconsistency that makes the whole effort a bit haphazard.  As mentioned above, the few shining moments are when Donati's epic sets are allowed to be seen.
Caligula is mostly controversial for the inclusion of explicit sex.  I, for one, don't see this as especially controversial except that it was practically unheard of for American cinema of the time.  The filmmakers were trying to recreate pagan Rome before the onset of Christian mores.  Sex was a huge part of Roman life and what little we know about the historical Caligula suggests that he may have been even more open than most about sexuality.  I'm not attempting to evaluate the moral implications of mass-produced pornography or its treatment of women but, as a matter of historical record, it's appropriate to include sexual content in a film about the life of Caligula.  I think the film includes too much sex and I wish it were shot better but I disagree with those who say it has no place there.
There are about a dozen different versions of Caligula.  It has been edited and re-edited so many different times for different countries and to remove sex, to include more sex and to re-arrange story-points that it is impossible to point to a definitive version.  The version that is most often seen is the unrated 156 minute version.  This is the only version I have seen and I own it on the 2002 DVD release.  In 2007, a new three-disc DVD was released by Image Entertainment.  That DVD includes two cuts of the film with audio commentaries by Mirren and McDowell and a bonus disc featuring Vidal's original script.  Someday I'll pick up that version just for the bonus features.
The version that I have includes an hour-long bonus feature from 1981 entitled A Documentary on the Making of 'Gore Vidal's Caligula.'  It's an interesting enough historical document that mostly features an interview with Bob Guccione with bits from Gore Vidal, Tinto Brass, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren.  There is some behind the scenes footage that I always find interesting.
I don't think that Caligula is any way a great film but I must admit it has grown on me with successive viewings.  The first time I watched it I was as turned off as most people.  The structure is so poor that it takes multiple viewings to pull the story out from the extraneous sex and bad photography.  If you enjoy historical epics then I'd say Caligula deserves to be watched at least twice and cinephiles will have to see it, if for no other reason than as an historical document.
Caligula lived a short, tragic life.  I think that a good modern comparison might be Michael Jackson.  No one could live the lives of those men without becoming a little twisted.  They were famous from childhood, born into families that used them and abused them.  No one could live those childhoods without becoming traumatized. And, as young adults, they lived completely sheltered and isolated lives because of their fame and eccentricities.  Yet they were always, always in public view and unable to make a single move without being watched and judged from all quarters.  This is bound to create a sense of paranoia and maybe a little madness in anyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Creatures of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

1977 saw the release of the last of the Harryhausen Sinbad trilogy with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  I think Ray Harryhausen's work in this film is outstanding but taken for granted.  The creatures in this film are mostly familiar animals and the animation is so flawless I think viewers tend to forget it's happening!
The first creatures we see in the film are definitely not familiar animals.  I usually describe them as "ant men" but I'm not sure if that's what was intended.  Zenobia summons three ant men from a fire to battle Sinbad and his men in the exciting early scenes of the film.
Zenobia transforms Prince Kassim into a baboon.  Harryhausen has said that the filmmakers originally considered using a real baboon but that it wasn't possible to find one that could be trained appropriately.  Frankly, I'm glad they let Harryhausen create one because it showcases how incredible his art has become.  Kassim's movement is flawless.  It's easy to forget that you're watching an animated character.
Unwilling to do menial labour, Zenobia fashions a bronze giant called Minoton to do her heavy lifting.  Minoton is actually a combination of stop-motion and an actor in a suit.  He was played by Peter Mayhew in a couple of scenes.  Minoton is one of the classic and unforgettable characters most associated with Harryhausen.
One of the animals I mentioned above is a giant walrus that Sinbad and his crew encounter on their way to Hyperborea.  He doesn't get much screentime and it's sort of a strange encounter but, nevertheless, well-executed.
One of Harryhausen's most sympathetic creations is Trog, a larger than life troglodyte encountered in Hyperborea.  He's extremely life-like and his facial expressions give him a really strong character.  You really feel like you can see Trog thinking.  Apparently, Trog was originally going to be an actor in a suit.  Harryhausen wanted to use animation to give him more of a fantasy, pseudo-reality feeling.  I think it works!
Finally, another of the animals I mentioned, a sabretooth tiger.  All three of Harryhausen's Sinbad films include a climactic battle between two of his creations. In this one, brave Trog faces the tiger and allows Sinbad's party to escape.
Be sure to check out Ray Harryhausen's official website for more great info on the master.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

"Set a course for Hell and damnation!"
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was the most expensive (with a budget of $7 million) and ambitious of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad trilogy, yet it was the least successful.  The film was shot in new and rarely seen locations around the world. From Spain to Malta and Petra, Jordan where no previous film crew had been allowed to film.  I think the main difficulty is that was released late in the summer of 1977.  The summer of Star Wars.  Though Harryhausen did his usual incredible job with visual effects, Industrial Light and Magic reinvented the world of visual effects with Star Wars.  It eclipsed many films that year.
At first, John Phillip Law was set to reprise his role as Sinbad in the new film directed by Sam Wanamaker, but when Law became unavailable the role fell to Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne).  Wayne is a very bland presence in the film but he's supported well by Margaret Whiting as the nefarious Zenobia, Patrick Troughton as the wise Melanthius and Jane Seymour as the young Princess Farah. Peter Mayhew also joins the cast (uncredited) as Minoton.  Mayhew starred in Star Wars as well in the role of Chewbacca.
The story begins in Charak, where Prince Kassim is about to be crowned caliph after the death of his father.  His sister, Princess Farah, looks on in terror as her stepmother, Zenobia, uses black magic to turn Kassim into a baboon before he can be crowned.  Zenobia hopes to have her own son, Rafi, crowned as caliph.  If Kassim is not crowned within seven full moons his right to the crown will be forfeit.  Sinbad arrives in Charak to see Farah, who he's been courting, and to sell the merchandise he's collected abroad.  He is met by Rafi who tries to poison Sinbad's crew.  Then Zenobia summons three strange "ant men" who attack Sinbad and his men.
Sinbad and his men escape the creatures and retreat to his ship.  The next day, the royal vizier and Farah ask Sinbad for help.  Sinbad tells them he has heard of a wise Greek called Melanthius who lives on a far island.  If anyone can help restore Kassim it is Melanthius.  He agrees to seek him out.  Sinbad tells Farah that once Kassim is restored, he intends to ask the caliph for her hand in marriage.  Zenobia threatens the crew and tells them their journey is useless.
After Sinbad departs.  Zenobia and Rafi create a bronze monster in the shape of a minotaur.  They call him Minoton and Zenobia uses her magic to bring him to life. The strange trio board a small bronze boat and sail off after Sinbad to ensure he never finds Melanthius.
Aboard Sinbad's ship we learn that Kassim still has his human faculties.  He plays chess with Sinbad and Farah on the journey to Melanthius' island.  The island is surrounded by dense fog and dangerous rocks but Sinbad makes it through safely. Zenobia's oars are damaged and her boat is delayed.
The crew eventually finds Melanthius and his daughter.  Melanthius suggests that the only way to save Kassim is to sail north to Hyperborea where there is an ancient Temple of the Elements where the prince might be restored.  He agrees to accompany them on the voyage and the crew sets sail immediately.  Meanwhile, Zenobia and Rafi have repaired their oars and are able to follow Sinbad's ship away from the island.
Not content to simply follow without knowing the destination, Zenobia transforms herself into a seagull and lands aboard Sinbad's ship.  Then she shrinks herself to a few inches in height and sneaks about to discover that the destination is Hyperborea.  She is briefly captured by Melanthius who suspects Zenobia used the same magic potion on herself as on Kassim.  Zenobia has it with her and Melanthius tests it on a bee which immediately grows to the size of a bird.  Sinbad is able to slay the bee and in the chaos, Zenobia takes what's left of her potion and escapes. Unfortunately, there is not quite enough to restore her entirely and she is left with the foot of a seagull.  Now aware of the destination, Zenobia realizes that Sinbad has a chance of success and strives to reach Hyperborea before him.
Sinbad has too great a head start and they reach the north first.  The size of their ship means they have to take a longer overland route to Hyperborea.  En route, they are attacked by a gigantic walrus and they lose a crewman before they are able to chase the animal away.  When they reach the farthest north position they find a warm, green environment.  There, they encounter a primitive hominid that they nickname Trog.  Kassim is able to communicate with Trog who leads them to the ancient temple.
Meanwhile, Zenobia and Rafi have found an ancient passage through the ice.  Their small bronze boat is easily able to navigate it.  The passage leads directly to the centre of Hyperborea and they arrive at the temple sometime before Sinbad's party. Once there, Minoton is able to break into the temple but only at the expense of his own life.
In the temple, a great shaft of blue light falls from the ceiling.  Melanthius notices a gold cage and suggests that Kassim should be placed inside and passed through the light.  Before this can be done, Zenobia and Rafi appear and Rafi attacks Kassim. They tumble down an enormous staircase and Rafi breaks his neck.  Around them, the temperature change from their entrance to the temple is causing massive icicles to melt and fall.  In the chaos, Melanthius and Sinbad manage to get Kassim into the light where he is restored.
Devastated at the loss of her son, Zenobia calls on her dark forces one last time.  She sends her spirit into a frozen sabretooth tiger and, as the animal, attacks Sinbad's party.  No Harryhausen film would be complete without a final battle between two of his creatures.  Trog steps in and fights the tiger until he is too wounded to go on. Finally, Sinbad is able to defeat the tiger just before the entire temple collapses.
The crew is able to safely leave Hyperborea.  They arrive back in Charak just in time for Kassim to be crowned caliph.
Though the film features spectacular locations and a solid story, it lacks the excitement of the previous two installments.  By 1977 Harryhausen has become so proficient at his craft that audiences are taking it for granted.  At the same time, the story calls for him to create mostly well-known animals instead of fantastic creatures.  I think those two factors make the film seem less spectacular.  In fact, Harryhausen does a superb job of making the baboon a flawless impersonation of real life.  Cynthia Tingey's costumes are fun but they have a definite 70s flare which tends to date this film more than the other two.  It's still a really entertaining journey but not as memorable as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
The DVD is available in the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection and it does have some bonus features.  Oddly, they are mostly about other Harryhausen films.