Reviewing Bollywood Film ‘Ek Thi Daayan’, an Ekta Kapoor Production Starring Emraan Hashmi, Konkona Sen, Huma Qureshi and Kalki Koechlin; Directed by Kannan Iyer

Ek Thi Poster.jpg

Ek Thi Daayan Poster (Wikipedia)

GRADE: C / 30%  

Summary: Ek Thi Daayan is too conventional, convenient, crude and clichéd to create fear; at best, it spooks you but only with a feeble ‘Boo!’ – don’t let Ekta Kapoor’s unconventional marketing trick you!

In case you need a tip or two on product placement strategies, Ek Thi Daayan is the film for you. Watch closely in one scene as a Maaza tetra-pack gets to share the screen space with Emraan Hashmi and the actor playing his hypnotist (who remains anonymous sadly because I can’t locate his name anywhere). Marvel at how Kapoor brightened the Apple Logo on IPhone so it could shine and upstage Emraan and his Dayaans more than once! You’re so convinced about producer Ekta Kapoor’s marketing astuteness (we all know she controls everything) that you wonder whether her poor director Kannan Iyer included the movie’s lyricist Gulzaar’s book during one song sequence as a homage or whether it was another one of Kapoor’s impressive marketing tricks.

These tricks will in fact impress you more than the bundle of magic tricks Emraan’s character Bobo the magician performs in his acts (‘Bobo’ really? And are we to take a guy with this stage name seriously? Seriously!). If, although you need a tip or two on how to create fear through the medium of film, then Ek Thi Daayan is too conventional, convenient, crude and clichéd to teach you anything – Kapoor’s unconventional marketing (which includes airing a mini-series, starring a variety of TV soap ‘bahus’, titled Ek Thhi Naayka on Life OK channel) may have tricked you but read this review further and you may be safe and secure, both from the film’s ineffectuality and from spending your dear money (even dearer with inflation) on these daayans.

Cover of "Rosemary's Baby"

Watch Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby Instead of This Film 

In case you are reading this, let me tell you that you’re one little step closer towards saving yourself. If you’re already thinking “Okay, I won’t watch this! But tell me what I should see instead” then I suggest you order a DVD of Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, a 1968 Mia Farrow starrer masterpiece that is actually spine-chilling. Ek Thi Daayan at best is spooky, a highly crude and reductive alternative to Rosemary’s baby. Both films involve babies (okay, Ek Thi Daayan has a little older kids) and demonic cults (the difference being that Rosemary’s Baby already shows the cult’s activities once beforehand while Daayan reserves it for the climax only) but the essential difference is that Roman Polanski is able to create terrifying paranoia while Kannan Iyer can only do the feeble ‘Boo!’.

Ekta Kapoor at 98.3 FM Radio Mirchi 2.jpg

She Controls Everything – Ekta Kapoor (Wikipedia)

The plot in Ek Thi Daayan involves famous-magician-with-a-haunted-past Bobo’s fear of women with long plaits or ‘chotis’ and suspicious appearance and behavior… okay, that was too simple a way of explaining it: here’s what happens: Bobo keeps getting these visions of his truly dreadful past involving his sister while he is performing on stage; this results in a couple of near-fatal mishaps during his performances on stage. His ladylove Tamara (played by Huma Qureshi, whose previous performance in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ was critically hailed) is reluctant to marry him because Bobo’s a bit weird basically; Bobo consults his hypnotist Dr. Palit to allay his fears, and this is when the movie takes us to a mega-flashback scene which extends till the interval. We learn that even as a child he was a weirdo who dressed in shirts and read books on witchcraft and sorcery. We also learn how a mysterious lady Diana played by Konkona Sen entered his family’s life, became Bobo’s step-mom and then wrecked their lives; you chuckle a bit when Bobo’s senile grandfather (the stock character who inexplicably presages a catastrophe in horror films) begins mumbling names all of a sudden as though he’s some sort of seer). After the interval, we are brought back to the present as Bobo tries ridding his past by marrying Tamara – here comes one of the worst and most unnecessary scenes in Bollywood film history, a marriage song-and-dance sequence where everyone looks at the fucking camera as they shake a leg: ‘WTF Kannan! WTF Ekta! SELLOUT ALERT!’. Once that unfortunate scene passes, our film’s third female protagonist, the talented Kalki Koechlin (who was great in Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Shanghai’) enters as Lisa Dutt, a musician who’s a big fan of Bobo; our magician suspects that she’s a Daayan after remembering his grandfather’s prophesy. The rest of the film involves the question ‘Is she or is she not?’ and in the end… I won’t tell you what happens but do yourself a favor: skip the film, watch the trailer but with this in mind that what you see is a subterfuge and you may get your answer to who’s the Daayan and who isn’t.

Vishal Bhardwaj 2010 - still 110691 crop.jpg

The Sad Truth – Vishal Bharadwaj’s Script Fails

Half the dialogues in the film are laughable, especially when you hear Bobo screaming ‘Choti Kaat Doonga! (I will cut your plaits!) with utmost seriousness. Vishal Bharadwaj could make witch-movie ‘Makdee’ a decent film but here he isn’t able to pen convincing dialogues (consider the scene where Tamara rebukes Bobo for staying mum about his past and Bobo makes up by saying ‘I want to start life afresh. Let’s get married’ followed by the hideous dance sequence. Totally unconvincing) nor is to tie loose ends or even give some freshness to the story itself. He may excuse himself saying that half the film has to be looked from a child’s perspective (so the predictability) but come on, he’s an adult penning the script, so can’t he at least break the Indian horror-film conventions?

Konkona at Taj lands end.jpg

Konkona Sen is One Sexy Daayan (wikipedia)

You’re only left with decent performances that may hold you from walking out of the film. Konkona is the only worth mentioning in this review; her unconventional sexiness is even more alluring when her pupils dilate (Falling in love with a Daayan, mister me?) and she really makes us sit back and enjoy her character/creature even when she’s given horrible ‘saat samundar paar’-like lines to speak in the second-half. The rest are alright but Emraan is just too self-aware that he’s in a horror film and has to always look spooked (much like Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Woman in Black’).

In a nutshell (and I’m generously borrowing from a dialogue in the film but with certain modifications): Ek Thi Daayan scripts snores, its horror farts out and its miles away (actually light-years away) from being the tiger of Indian horror films.

 

My Choice for Best Director Oscar 2013 (Having Seen & Reviewed All 5 Films) : Michael Haneke For Amour

English: Michael Haneke Français : Michael Han...

Michael Haneke is My Choice For BEst Director (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nominees for Best Director, 53rd Oscars:

 

(Amour) Michael Haneke

 

 

(Beasts of the Southern Wild) Benh Zeitlin

 

(Life of Pi) Ang Lee (Winner)

 

(Lincoln) Steven Spielberg

 

(Silver Linings Playbook) David O Russell

 

 

My Choice for Best Director

 

1st Place: Michael Haneke (Amour)

 

2nd Place: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

 

3rd Place: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

 

4th Place: Benh Zeitlin (Beats of the Southern Wild)

 

5th Place: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

 

Last year, we had four exceptionally honored and highly talented men competing for the Best Director spot at the 53rd Academy Awards. Along with these four, there was another very talented newcomer who vied for the coveted spot. The five names include Spielberg, Lee, Russell, Haneke and Zeitlin; Spielberg’s a world-famous director so no problem recognizing him, Haneke is more popular among festival goers yet a highly familiar name because of the Oscars (his last picture ‘The White Ribbon’ was nominated for Best Foreign film), Russell is well known for his high-octane movies with quirky and high-octane characters and for his on-set arguments (read filthy fights), Lee holds a high prestige in the industry for his works of art which are also commercially successful, Zeitlin is the guy whom very few know because he’s an fresh face. All five directors deserve to be a contendor for this spot (I’m not considering other directors who also deserve to be here for e.g. Kathryn Bigelow), so here’s how they rank in my opinion:

 

English: David O. Russell attending the premie...

David O Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fifth place is David O. Russell. He shouldn’t have cast Bradley Cooper as the lead in Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley acting with a different rhythm from that of his co-stars; he took his character too seriously and turned it less quirky. The other cast was quirky and likeable in a light-hearted way so we could laugh at the ludicrousness of their character’s situations. Cooper however made me pity his Pat a tad too much, and so I couldn’t take his situation jokingly. Whenever he turned up, the screwball comedy turned into a dark comedy. Hence, Russell is my last choice.

 

Benh Zeitlin (Wikipedia)

Benh Zeitlin (Wikipedia)

In the fourth place I would place Benh Zeitlin. This is not because his film has faults – in fact the decision to case actors with absolutely no acting experience helped the film achieve the almost documentary-like realism from its characters. You see this community he depicts in his film celebrating together and supporting each other in difficulties, and you are to look more at their unity than the moral question of whether what they did was right or not. Some critics argue unnecessarily that the character of the father was too abusive or that the characters shouldn’t have left the help offered to them, but they fail to notice that the film is from the viewpoint of the community and not outsiders. Benh Zeitlin uses handheld camera and 16mm film to capture their lifestyle as it is: dirty and uncouth for us but home for them. I need to see Benh’s future films before I can note how his directorial style is, but for a first film, I can say it’s pretty damn impressive; no wonder he came runners-up at the prestigious New York Film Critics’ Society for Best First film.

 

In the third place comes Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg cast Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, which is a major plus for him; then he cast Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones for the roles

Spielberg

Spielberg (Photo credit: xTrish)

of Lincoln’s wife Mary and Lincoln’s Conservative ally Thadeus respectively which are a double bonus for him. Spielberg’s only mistake was to include Josh Gordon Levitt, the only weak link in the film. Yes, his Lincoln’s beginning is a bit theatrical but everything gets fine once he finds the right foot: note how Spielberg captures Lincoln’s swooping authority every time: he circles the camera around Lincoln and his addresses till he pans the camera on Lincoln and slowly closes in and in till Lincoln finishes, and each time this technique works in capturing the spell that Lincoln’s monologues have over others. The camera is low lit but not even so low that you can’t see what’s happening (Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar had way less lighting), but as the Bill for Slavery abolishment gets passed and things turn positively for the film’s protagonists, you do see the scenes infused with more light. Plus, I was very pleased with how Spielberg filmed some scenes, such as the Voting segment where Lincoln was shown in his office playing with his youngest son as his party fought for him in the House; I also loved the way they treated the assassination sequence by not showing the actual assassination taking place but only the news being announced on stage and a close up shot of Lincoln’s youngest son screaming in terror is seen. So Spielberg is the second runner-up for me in the Best Director Category.

 

Ang Lee

Ang Lee (Photo credit: jiadoldol)

I was initially going to place Michael Haneke in the third position but then I thought I’d place him in the  second position. But now I’ve changed my mind again: it is Ang Lee who’s in my runners-up position for Best Director for his film Life of Pi. His film is truly wonderful with one of the best opening credits sequence you can get in film; there are beatific shots of different zoo animals and birds resting peacefully or gamboling playfully as the melodious score by Mychael Danna hums mellifluously till the opening credits end. Almost all the scenes are beautifully shot and Ang Lee is totally invested in making his film look as magically majestic as possible; you can’t believe just how realistic the animals in his film look (they’re all CGI!). Some of the scenes are so profound you find almost plunging into the depth of the film’s oceanic themes; take for instance the moment where Pi looks into the ocean and we are taken way below the depths of the waters, below the aquatic creatures till we see images of his past, images of people whom he has lost forever. Then the camera brings us back to the surface and pans straight into the tiger’s face looking at Pi. I can never forget the impact this shot had on me: it was way beyond wonderful. My only gripe with this film is that Suraj Sharma is no Quvenzale Wallis (she’s the lead in Beasts of the Southern Wild); he cannot say a line without concealing the hint of artificiality in his tone. He’s probably the only reason why I place Ang Lee in the second position; a director is to be held responsible for his casting choice, especially when they are big directors and get complete freedom in choosing their cast.

 

The winner, in my opinion is Michael Haneke for the film Amour. It’s a poignant film which has the director’s signature style all over it. You see the director’s touch especially when he decides to include shots of landscape paintings and empty rooms in two separate montage sequences to capture a sense of loneliness and dismalness. Haneke splendidly keeps us engrossed for over two hours, allowing us to watch the couple’s final journey without cutting unnecessarily or allowing any theatrically to seep in the film. The greatest part is how is modulates the pace of the film through the camera (while I know it’s the DOP who operates the camera, it’s mostly the director who chooses the right shots. In fact DOP Darius Khondji’s digital photography was rejected by Haneke, who worked more than a year to get the film done in his way): in the beginning, while a shot tracks the fireman as he looks around the couple’s empty home to only find the dead body of the woman, the next flashback shot of the couple leaving the theater, going home and having breakfast the next morning is all shown in middle-to-long shots, which only changes to close up shots when the husband realizes that his wife is acting unresponsive and strange. The best decision by Haneke was to restrain the music only to certain scenes to let it act as a motif in the film.

 

So there you have my choice for the Best Director of 2012 in film. Although it’s been long since the last Academy Awards, India has yet not been able to get a number of these films and hence my verdict comes a bit late.

 

 

Review of Oscar Nominated ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ A Benh Zeitlin Film Starring Quvenzane Wallis and Dwight Henry (also includes a criticism of Cole Smithey’s review of the film)

Grade: A

Summary: You are amazed by how Quvenzane, a six year old understood her character and the film’s message better than Cole Smithey, the self-proclaimed ‘smartest film critic in the world’. The film captures a community’s unyielding spirit of self-sustaining survival that needs more heart than sense to empathize with.

Here’s a link to Cole Smithey’s scathing review: http://www.colesmithey.com/capsules/2012/11/beasts-of-the-southern-wild.html

Cole Smithey can freely proclaim himself to be the ‘smartest film critic in the world’, but he has surely got ‘The Beasts of the Southern Wild’ review entirely wrong. He seems to watch it from the point of view of a pragmatist, a surgeon, a social worker, a rescue volunteer, a cynic; he criticizes the relationship between Hushpuppy, the six-year old kid and her father Wink, calling it abusive. He also condemns the film’s ‘message’ that a kid will be more responsible only when she faces life-threatening situations. He doesn’t realize that Hushpuppy’s journey is a ‘way of life’ for her and her people. To him, Hushpuppy’s father is an abusive man who shouldn’t be allowed to rear a child, and maybe he awaited a moment where Hushpuppy would ‘run away’ from her father and ‘gain freedom’. Smithey wrote his review with a narrow-minded outlook – the ‘it’s not right because it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to’ view. He doesn’t look from the viewpoint of the Bathtub community where Hushpuppy and her father belong, but as an outsider who just assumes them to be a bunch of unlettered idiots who reject any outside help or guidance. Maybe Mr. Smithey should visit the Sentinelese tribe once and ask them to cooperate.

Beasts of the Southern Wild does not look at the practicality of the situation; if you look at it that way, you’ll think that the Bathtub community did a mistake by acting uncooperative and hostile with the rescue workers and doctors who try helping them after the community’s houses gets ravaged by a violent storm. What it wants you to see is the togetherness of the community, whose members are like an extended family of both blacks and whites. How can an educated be so ignorant that he misses the entire point of the film which states its point so lucidly and unassumingly? You don’t go to Beasts of the Southern Wild and watch it with your own prejudices on what is right and what’s not: you go and watch it to understand these people, how their mind works and how their heart beats. That’s when you’ll get something out of it.

Hushpuppy, the tiny but tough girl with an indomitable spirit lives with her reckless but hardly abusive father Wink (two very uncommon names and no, they’re not nicknames) in a cluttered shack; both father and daughter have delimited their spaces, and Hushpuppy spends most of her day with her pets. It’s not really a healthy relationship but that doesn’t mean it remains the same throughout. As their secluded community is impacted by a storm, Hushpuppy and her father act more protective of and close to one other, with the latter teaching his daughter how to weather the unfavorable conditions by staying strong (by ‘beasting’ the crab i.e. smash it open and suck out the juice, and catching fish with bare hands) while the former proving her mettle by braving the winds and overcoming the adversities.

Hushpuppy has a very deep understanding of the world for her age, and if she were a real person, she’d probably be the female counterpart of Obama when she’d grow up. Most of what you hear from her is spoken through narration, and Quvenzane Wallis, the girl playing her sounds miraculously sincere with not one false note ringing from her (only a deadly scream!). It’s as if she understood clearly what her character was thinking, and how this little kid could understand Hushpuppy so completely is astonishing. The man who plays her dad is Dwight Henry, a baker turned actor who also interprets his character perfectly; a tad harsher and we wouldn’t have sympathized with his Wink. Wait for their poignant final scene together: it defines brilliant and natural acting. But what’s even more impressive is how the ensemble, a raggedly motley of  white trash and black families acts like they’ve known each other for years.

Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director opted shooting the film on 16mm with crude cuts (instead of 35mm used today) and so you shouldn’t expect polished filmmaking; but the roughness is what makes the film even better. You may find some things to be unappetizing, like a shot of a dead animal’s intestines, or raw flesh being eaten by the characters or a fish being clobbered. But all this ‘shoddiness’ and ‘dirtiness’ define the environment in and circumstances under which the film’s characters live. The magic realism in the film isn’t as expansive and satisfactory as it is in Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’, but one should know that while Life of Pi was based on a Booker Prize winning novel, Beasts has been adapted from Lucy Aliber’s less-known one-act play. And to bring this play to screen in his debut attempt, that too with a cast of mostly inexperienced actors, Benh Zeitlin is THE man, or still better, ‘DA BEAST’!

Reviewing Oscar Nominated Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master’, starring Philip Seymor Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

English: Director Paul Thomas Anderson in New ...

Director Paul Thomas Anderson  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

GRADE: BBB

 

Summary: It’s themes don’t resonate as clearly as those in his earlier film ‘Magnolia’,  but there’s still the wonderment of watching Paul create this complex audio-visual experience and the brilliant cast of course which makes this a satisfying experience

Lancaster Dodd, who is addressed as ‘The Master’ by the followers of ‘The Cause’, a philosophical sect led by him does not know the ultimate secret to all world problems himself. He does seem to have a vague idea about it, but his understanding seems garbled and vacillating; in one scene, he erupts at one of his followers for questioning a change he makes in his newly published book. He seems to get closer and closer to his answers while ‘curing’ Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who is sex obsessed and suffers from alcoholism and aggression. Freddie almost seems like Dodd’s alter ego who seems to display the feelings that Dodd restrains from, so while Dodd scolds Freddie whenever he displaces his anger towards those who criticize Dodd’s beliefs, I do think a part of him wants to do exactly that but cannot for the obvious reason that it would tarnish his reputation. So when Dodd says to his family in one scene that it is The Cause that needs Freddie more than Freddie needing The Cause, he implicitly means that it is he himself who needs Freddie.

 

Paul Thomas Anderson, the director and writer of 2012s multiple Oscar nominated ‘The Master’ does not know about Dodd The Master’s ultimate goal either. So there’s not a single moment in the movie where the Master reveals his ultimate purpose of curing Freddie; instead what Anderson tries to create is this little world of ‘The Cause’ which gains momentum right after the Second World War, and tries to create another form of escapism/diversion (whichever seems more suitable) from the real world. For Dodd, to get a person like Freddie is like jackpot because he’s a man who’s just escaped war and does not have a proper ground for himself – to push him back to reality all of a sudden is traumatic for a guy like him. So he’s the right person who truly needs The Cause’s help, not those people who believe the Cause can do miracles like curing leukemia by recalling past lives. As Dodd proceeds to help Freddie, there is a sense of disillusionment in Dodd and his belief that he can cure everything. I felt Anderson was trying to convey this in his film, but themes and symbolisms don’t connect with us easily as they did in his earlier film ‘Magnolia’ or the brilliant Jason Reitman movie ‘Up in the Air’. You’ll have to break your head to find these meanings, and so the reaction given by late critic Roger Ebert “But what is the film trying to communicate?” is expected and justified.

 

I personally think that this film will be easier to grasp by those who’ve been a part of some religious or philosophical group/cult in their lives. I had a short stint with an organization myself, and I can say that Paul clearly has done his research about the way such organizations work or the things that people experience there. People who want to wash off their past deeds or are haunted by some past memory usually are easily enamored when they find a temporary relief to their pains; Freddie’s grief of leaving his love Doris for war is placated during his first session with Dodd. Such people soon find themselves closely associated with the leader and during the period learning about the leader’s own vulnerabilities; Freddie defends Dodd against anyone who’s critical about him, including beating up a skeptic, fighting the police who come to arrest Dodd, and later assaulting Dodd’s publisher. And one fine day, they are ready to leave because they’ve got what they wanted and need no more.

 

Joaquin Phoenix getting interviewed at the pre...

Joaquin Phoenix who has a penchant for playing the eccentric: from I’m Still Here to The Master (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul also casts a wonderful ensemble who builds up complex characters: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd, a highly ambitious man with noble intentions, in a way that evokes empathy towards his vision despite not believing some of the ‘curing methods’ that he practices. Joaquin Phoenix gives Freddie a complex characterization, which includes narrow eyes, a hunched back and a bony appearance. When he’s dirty, he’s as dirty as one can get, when he’s angry, he’s a raging animal you’d want to stay away from and when he’s vulnerable, he tears at your heart. Amy Adams plays Peggy, Dodd’s strong, supportive and pregnant wife the way you’d expect Amy Adams to play her, but yes her face conveys a lot in some of the scenes, like the one where her character looks concernedly at a drunken Freddie from the corner as others are singing and dancing.

 

But the best thing about The Master is the brilliantly complex audio visual orchestra created by Paul: he’s such an expert at blending onscreen, off-screen sounds and background score with image, flashbacks, dreams that this movie is a must-see for all filmmakers and enthusiasts. Even with the sheer beauty of the image, the colors and the sounds, its themes may not resonate the same way for everyone, so it’s either ‘You follow them or you don’t’.

 

When They Tease You Then Trick You!

I was eagerly awaiting for the release of the remake of Sam Raimi‘s cult movie Evil Dead. The original film was a splatter-gore fest that feasted on dismembering its characters in the most elaborate manner without actually being disturbing. There were a number of laugh-out loud scenes, including the one in which Bruce‘s girlfriend turns into a zombie but the movie also managed to be quite thrilling. Remember the scene in which Bruce tiptoes to the basement and there’s an entire sequence of a screen and a projector getting splashed in blood. Also the iconic tree-rape sequence which I could hardly watch without skipping the first time I saw with my family around.

So I was ecstatic when the Online booking Website here put ‘Evil Dead’ the remake in its coming attractions. Its the absolute best film to watch on the big screen while munching popcorn. But on the last day before the new releases arrive, this film disappeared the coming attractions and now the only thing that’s playing is a Bollywood Zombie film called ‘Rise of the Zombie’, which the theater owner have deliberately kept on show timings where they can charge you more (there’s not more than two shows of the film playing in the theater).

I don’t expect Evil Dead The Remake to come on television here unless of course they modify half the film before showing it. Anyway, in case any person who reads my blog actually wants to know about the latest or old Bollywood films, they can simply give me the name of the movie and I’ll give them a quick verdict.

Roger Ebert, Great Film Critic Dies at The Age of 70

English: Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz Hammel-...

 Roger Ebert With Chaz (left) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as I watched for the first time ‘At the Movies – with Siskel and Ebert‘ and opened Imdb to check out about a review of a film they were trashing, I caught the news of Mr. Ebert’s sad demise at the age of 70. This man is more known in the USA but I have been a great fan of his reviews because they capture his laconic style of articulately conveying why he felt something about the film. I don’t see this in so many other popular reviewers, including Mr. Richard Roeper, who’s currently handling his blog along with a few other reviewers.

Mr. Ebert’s recent venture was to limit his job to writing about films that ‘mattered to him’ and he was to start Ebert Digital. You should go to his site to check it out, although the fate of the site now that he’s gone is unknown. My condolences to Chaz, his wife whom I saw tearfully and poignantly describing Ebert’s battle with cancer on Ted Talks. It’s so sad that he just died before he could get to live his dream of writing reviews of only those films he really cared about.

R.I.P. Mr. Ebert

Review of Caligula, An X Rated Movie Starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud (What were they thinking?) ; Written more than one year ago

Grade: D

Cover of "Caligula (R-Rated)"

Cover of Caligula 

Summary: Characters show flesh, but never flesh out in another attempt to bring history to life

(spoiler alert)

After his sister’s tragic death, Caligula (played by Malcolm McDowell), after declaring a month’s mourning, surreptitiously walks through the streets disguised as a beggar and witnesses the lawlessness and decadence of his people. When, in a show, two people dressed as Caligula and his dead sister Drusilla enact vaudeville, an outraged Caligula disrupts the event and is later thrown into a dingy underground cell where many other offenders of both sexes perform depraved acts of fondling openly. A greasy bearded man comes to him and asks for money but Caligula outwits the man and in turn wins his respect. When free, he finds the senate to be a corrupt quagmire swimming with offenders of all kinds, and extracts his revenge on them, also appointing criminals at the prison as Senate members. This was probably the only redeeming moment in Caligula; this is where I was able to appraise how far this film would have gone had it been told by a competent director and written by a capable writer. Unfortunately, Gore Vidal has written this film and Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione have directed it, and therefore Caligula, a biopic of one of the most notorious rulers in the Middle Ages, became Caligula, the most controversial film of the 20th century, now the most controversial film of the 21st century. Its fate is similar to Mommie Dearest’s and The Room – the makers themselves fear that they wouldn’t recover their money and therefore advertise the film in a different, crude way.

Caligula, as mentioned above, intended to show the rise and fall of the Emperor most known for his brutal executions, salacious and extravagant life and eventual madness. Thank god the filmmakers refrained from showing the ‘sawing’ method of execution otherwise it would’ve caused even more outrage. They however did pay particular attention to the ‘sex’ and the ‘violence’, and we do see Caligula giving orders, mostly irrational and bizarre, but that is all we get in the 156 minutes of the film. A quick read through Wikipedia should be more resourceful – it is believed that after Caligula’s accession, the first two years was marked with development. Caligula had passed many laws for the benefit of the people and therefore was respected by his countrymen. His mental debilitation was gradual, and many stories about his cruelty were debatable. Gore Vidal and the directors of the film aren’t interested in most of the facts, all they want is to depict an infinitely evil and barbarous Caligula and an equally filthy Rome.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most unforgiving part about the film is that it always wants to reach the extremes of everything – sex, violence and corruption, and in the process, obliterates any space for true human feelings among the characters. Compare this with A Clockwork Orange and we find that Alex resided in a radical, dystopian society that resembled, in a metaphysical way, our modern, changing society. Caligula does not give this feeling at all, because it was written without much thinking by Vidal possibly while he was hating the world or feeling aroused. Sex in Caligula includes incest, fondling, rape, fisting, deep throats, oral sex, anal sex, ejaculations etc by straight, gays, lesbians and some weird humans. The nudity is so high, if the movie were released in India its runtime would be four minutes or even less. In fact, the movie makes you want to see more clothed people rather than the opposite! Most of it is exaggerated and depicts a pornographic version of ancient Rome, except that many of the models look hideous. The violence is offensive because it mostly includes genital mutilations rather than stabbing or poisoning. The Roman lifestyle feels highly exaggerated and the directors seem to have read the ‘excessive sex’ part only.

The movie also fails to have any dramatic element, unless sex is drama, which is very unlikely. Dialogues are asinine, and they make Caligula seem like a mad immoral teenager who doesn’t think of anything but sex. In fact, there are reviews that praise the part where he is about to die and a senator tells that he would give up his life for Caligula instead; hearing which the emperor eagerly accepts his proposition. I feel that such scenes make the drama reductive rather than ingenious; the only part that slightly impressed me is the one that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Helen, Toole, Teresa and Gielgud only present shadows or rather fleshes of their characters, and keep their speech to the minimum. The rest do mere skin show, though I do admire their guts for doing it for such a big budget, mainstream film.

While watching Caligula, my mind suddenly thought of Cleopatra, the movie that I had watched some time back. Both films depict fall of an emperor, two in the case of Cleopatra, and both are badly made. While Cleopatra is glossed up with extravagant costumes and over-the-top, affected performances, Caligula is replete with sex and very thin characters. In both I sensed an absence of human element and feelings that are required to hold the integrity of a film. Both the films required fictional aspects that were however built on reality, and better chemistry between the characters. But I would choose Cleopatra over Caligula solely because it stuck true to facts and tried not to rely on cheap tactics.

In a word, Caligula can be described as: Scrotum.