Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AGE OF CONSENT (1969) was Michael Powell's final film. Frankly, it's a miracle it ever got made! Why? Because the film Powell made BEFORE this one was PEEPING TOM (1960); and that one was such a career disaster to the director that it effectively ended his career. Nowadays, PEEPING TOM is of course thought of as a classic but at the time the "distasteful" subject matter seemed to offend everyone and there was very little chance that Michael Powell would ever get to make another film. Basically, the only reason he DID is because filmstar James Mason was going to co-produce AGE OF CONSENT along with Powell. It seems incomprehensible to me, even owing to the brouhaha over PEEPING TOM, that such an obviously fine, talented and respected director would be passed over because of one movie. But sadly, this was the state in which Powell would find himself until Mason co-produced and starred in AGE OF CONSENT. Reportedly Powell's old partner Emeric Pressburger contributed a tiny little bit to the film but not enough to illicit a film credit; Pressburger apparrently wasn't interested in the story. While this would in fact be Powell's final film, it was also the first movie made by a certain Helen Mirren: already a respected Shakespearean stage actress making her film debut here.
AGE OF CONSENT was based on a book by Norman Lindsey and filmed on the breathtakingly beautiful Australian Great Barrier Reef. The film finds James Mason as a jaded and disheartened artist whose agent suggests he finds a deserted island somewhere to rekindle his artistic inspiration. In the film, Mason is supposed to be Australian by birth; I think the least said about his Australian accent the better -- and, in fact, Helen Mirren reportedly has made considerable fun of her co-star's accent while cheekily proclaiming her own spot on! Mason travels to a not-quite-deserted island off the Great Barrier Reef (along with his SPECTACULAR dog Godfrey -- more on him later) where he finds a ramshackle cottage on the beach. Along with one or two bizarre neighbours, Mason encounters a waif-like part-time thief (Helen Mirren) who catches and sells seafood in order to make enough money to escape her drunken grandmother and go to the mainland to become a hairdresser. Mason suggests that Mirren pose for him and he will pay her; thus increasing the money much more than the girl could make from catching prawns or stealing chickens. Mirren agrees and, happily for us, spends a great deal of the movie with her kit off -- like EVERY good Helen Mirren movie, actually. However, before you switch off, I should say that oddly the nudity in the film doesn't come across as gratuitous, smutty or tasteless. It has been described as "an artist's nudity"; that is, one gets the same feeling viewing the film as looking at a nude painting in an art gallery. Sure, Helen Mirren looks great but the nudity reads as particularly innocent. By all reports, Powell was extremely kind, supportive and gentle while directing the actress. Mirren, in an interview provided on the DVD, states categorically that she had absolutely no problem with the nudity at the time; owing to the fact that they were filming on a mostly deserted Barrier Reef location at a sun-drenched beach. It was only on interior studio sets where she found nude scenes a little disconcerting. Here, however, Mirren is exceptionally natural in front of the camera. All through the film (clothed and unclothed), Mirren snorkel-dives and swims through coral reefs (extremely risky when naked, I must add) and does ALL her own stunts and diving. Another remarkable scene occurs when Mirren is alone, nude, in front of a full-length mirror; her character observes herself with palpable studiousness as she is realizing she is no longer a child and has become a woman with all the seductive power and beauty that such a new role brings with it. A really capital bit of acting from the future Dame. Another breathtakingly beautiful scene finds Mirren posing waist-deep in the ocean as Mason paints her; Mirren holds a spear like a trident and appears for all the world like some female Poseideon risen from the deep surveying her kingdom. The acting by Mirren and Mason in this scene, mostly worldless, is truly something to see.
Basically the entire film focuses on the developing relationship between Mason and Mirren; thankfully Mason avoids appearing as a lustful old pervert trying to score with a young babe. Mason, in fact, spends 99% of the film without the slightest hint of lustful intentions towards his model. In fact, by the end of the film Mirren storms off in a tiff because Mason only thinks of her as a model while she obviously has deeper feelings for him. At one point, Mason's gambling semi-friend Jack MacGowran shows up unexpectedly on the island in order to hide from authorities trying to collect his unpaid alimony payments. Mason's distaste at this intrusion is palpable; he wanted to get AWAY from the modern world and here is MacGowran storming in like a brusque hurricane effectively putting a halt to all Mason's artistic progress with his new "muse" Helen Mirren. Powell was apparently very much against casting MacGowran in the role but I think his performance is spot on for the character: venal, greedy, shifty and low-class! The director reportedly rode MacGowran particularly hard (uncharacteristically) while treating everyone else on the shoot with gentlemanly kid gloves. Regardless, one of the biggest stars in the entire film (an opinion shared by Powell himself) is Godfrey the dog who performs with remarkable acting prowess. At one point, the dog proves himself quite a comedian! Mason takes a boat trip to the mainland at one point to pick up supplies so he ties Godfrey up with a leash and collar. As Mason returns after a day's shopping and calls and whistles for Godfrey, we see the dog comes running down the beach before Mason gets there. That's right, Godfrey has freed himself and run rampant along the beach all day. Upon hearing Mason, the dog runs back to the leash and collar and, honest to God, is seen nosing himself BACK INTO THE DOG COLLAR. I know that you can teach dogs a lot of tricks but I never once imagined you could teach a dog to do something like that -- put itself single-pawed back into a dog collar!
AGE OF CONSENT is a surprisingly interesting viewing experience. I don't know what I thought the film would be like before I watched it but afterwards I found the film to hold up rather well. Even disregarding Helen Mirren's acres of flesh. As I've said, the potential for lasciviousness is neatly avoided by the film and one is left with a film that seems to get a good handle on the process of "artistic muse": what it is and how one finds it. The ultimate result in the film's 11th hour that finds Mirren and Mason to finally adopt a "romantic" relationship did strike me as somewhat false and I probably would have preferred them to remain strictly artist and model. However, this is only a very minor quibble and I don't think it hurts the film at all. The film does, however, feature an EXTREMELY creepy, loungy "theme song" called "The Age of Consent" which is totally inappropriate to the gentleness of the film and is quite effective in making one's skin crawl. However, just think of the campy song as separate from the film ... there's always the mute button during the end credits! It hardly needs to be said, I don't think, that the film looks ravishing; beautifully shot by DP Hannis Stauding. Also, the previously excised musical score by Peter Sculthorpe has been restored; which is a very good thing since the music in the film is sympathetically composed to fit perfectly with the film and I can't imagine it without it. Happily, AGE OF CONSENT has just been released on a 2 dvd box set called "THE FILMS OF MICHAEL POWELL" along with the long-awaited release of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH finally on DVD! You may recall I wrote about THAT film a while ago on this blog and you can re-read it by clicking here. This double DVD set is simply a must have you can't do without!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

THE MIST: IS IT THE BEST STEPHEN KING HORROR FILM??? The movies made from Stephen King's horror fiction have notoriously been pretty dismal: we're talkin' THE LAWNMOWER MAN, CHRISTINE, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, SLEEPWALKERS....the list goes on and they're dogs all. The movies made from his non-horror work (STAND BY ME, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, MISERY) -- kinda a lot better, I'd say. But for some reason King's horror fiction (for which he is obviously best known) have resulted in some piss-poor movies; this is the opinion of the author himself, by all accounts. My nominee for the best film of a Stephen King horror novel has always been the 1979 TV adaptation of SALEM'S LOT starring David Soul and James Mason and directed by Tobe Hooper. It certainly is the most enjoyable. The 1990 TV movie of STEPHEN KING'S IT starring Tim Curry as a magnificent Pennywise the Clown features a terrific first half (like SALEM'S LOT, IT was shown over two nights in two parts) and a huge letdown in the second half. The other actual "theatrically-released" movies which generally have been considered the most successful are THE SHINING starring Jack Nicholson and CARRIE starring Sissy Spaceship and a magnificent Piper Laurie. While my feelings toward THE SHINING have improved in recent years (meaning I quite like the film), it isn't really Stephen King's THE SHINING but instead it's Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING which departs quite radically from the source novel (by general consensus). And CARRIE is simply OK; nothing particularly great saddled with a . . . well, should I come out and call him a hack . . . director. The trouble with THE SHINING and CARRIE is that both are directed by directors of which I am not very fond: Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma. However, such has been the state of Stephen King horror movies that I've held them in the #2 and #3 places as the best following SALEM'S LOT. 2007's THE MIST directed by Frank Darabont changes everything.
Here they MAY be spoilers so if you haven't read the novella or seen the film, you might wanna go watch it before reading this. Made on an apparent shoestring -- starring a cast of mostly unknowns (with a couple exceptions) -- THE MIST is probably the best screen adaptation of a Stephen King horror story. Now, I've gone on record before as not being a particular Stephen King fan; I've only read one novel (SALEM'S LOT), a couple short story collections (NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW) and the excellent non-fiction DANCE MACABRE. However, I have read the novella THE MIST and have always liked it very much. It's a terrific story, in fact, of a small Maine town (Maine, as everyone knows, is like Stephen King's "Arkham" -- and that H.P. Lovecraft reference will NOT be the last one in this post) which is suddenly blanketed by an opaque mist inside which there be monsters. Now, it's been about a decade and a half (or more) since I've read the novella but I found Frank Darabont's film (which he wrote as well as directed) to be very faithful to the novella. However, be warned. While SALEM'S LOT may be a lot of fun, THE MIST isn't; it's an extremely grim and harrowing movie which tied my guts in knots. Not because of the monsters but because of the too-real portrayal of typical mob mentality. Confronted with the unknown and threatening, the ordinary folks trapped in the supermarket quickly (and I mean VERY quickly) turn into superstition-fueled, reptile-brain-functioning reactionary monsters which are frankly more frightening to me than the slimy creatures outside in the mist! The most problems are caused, of course, by the more-and-more unhinged radical religious zealot Mrs. Carmody (brilliantly portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden -- in fact SO brilliantly portrayed that I hated her guts!) who seems to regard God as the wrathful, vengeful fuckhead stomping around the Old Testament instead of the God of love we more-reasonable people seem to think He is. Mrs. Carmody views the mist monsters as God's wrath brought down upon the supposedly sinful inhabitants of the town. Of course, the visible evidence of townsfolk sinning only starts when egged on by Mrs. Carmody who quickly manages to whip up the mob into committing beatings and attempting to throw a child to the monsters as a "blood sacrifice" appeasement -- all the while quoting the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac -- and conveniently forgetting that God prevented Abraham from doing it. James Mason made the same mistake in the 1956 Nicholas Ray film BIGGER THAN LIFE; of course, his character is seriously mentally ill and addicted to cortisone. When Mason's wife correctly points out that God stopped Abraham from stabbing his son, Mason shouts out the typical cry of a hypocritical religious zealot seriously devoid of the facts: "Then God was WRONG!" Marcia Gay Harden's Mrs. Carmody is something of a cross between James Mason's BIGGER THAN LIFE character and Piper Laurie's mother from CARRIE. And boy, did I hate her during the film. What a well done acting job, then! Probably my favourite moment in the film is when Mrs. Carmody is pontificating some particularly nasty rubbish and is hit in the forehead by a can of peas thrown by the beloved actress Frances Sternhagen! Stoning people who piss you off, Sternhagen says, is quite appropriate. After all, it's in the Bible! And she's got plenty of cans of peas left! Brilliant!
But let's get to the leading man: Thomas Jane plays the father and husband who takes his young son (Nathan Gamble) and feuding neighbour (Andre Braugher) into town to the supermarket after a freakishly violent storm the night before has cut the town's power and sent a tree hurtling through his picture window. Unfortunately for her, the wife and mother is left behind at their house. Before leaving, they notice a thick, white, opaque mist rolling in over the lake. By the time they get to the supermarket (packed with townspeople also getting supplies), a man comes running into the store bleeding from the nose and screaming about monsters in the mist. As the mist closes in on the front windows of the supermarket, a customer decides to make a run for his car, is engulfed in the mist and begins screaming horribly. The townsfolk decide it might be a good idea to stay inside the store. A mother announces that she HAS to leave since she's left her 8 year old daughter watching her even younger son and has no choice. This mother is played by unknown local actress Melissa Suzanne McBride and she is absolutely showstopping! Someone needs to give this actress work pronto! Her desperate yet quiet pleading for someone to go with her into the mist falls on deaf ears as she challenges first one person and then another to "walk a lady home". No one volunteers and the mother goes off into the mist alone. The funniest part about all this is that, somehow, at the end of the film we see her and her two children made it! This one small scene so impressed everyone on set that they broke into spontaneous applause.
The store's electrical generator conks out and a group goes back to the store's loading dock to fix it. While back there, huge tentacles slither under the loading dock door and drag a stock boy to his death. While the group (lead by Thomas Jane) tries to convince everyone that there really ARE monsters in the mist, another group (lead by Andre Braugher) thinks they're playing a sick joke and there's nothing out there. Sadly, Braugher gets a group together to venture out into the mist and get help and they're never seen again. When night falls, huge insect-like monsters fly up against the glass storefront. Even larger pterodactyl-like flying creatures, trying to gobble up the insects on the glass, break through and wind up in the store causing more carnage! A man set alight by makeshift torches suffers so much pain that a group (again led by leading man Thomas Jane) decides to venture next door to the pharmacy for some painkillers and antibiotics. Inside the pharmacy, they discover monstrous webs inside which is a previously-seen MP who tells them this was all caused by a secret government/military project nearby -- right before his entire body explodes with baby spiders. The HUGE spider-monsters who laid the eggs inside the MP attack the group and Frances Sternhagen again shows the stuff she's made of by cobbling together a makeshift flame flower from a lighter and an aerosol spray can. The group makes it back into the supermarket with quite a few less members than they left with. Things get worse and worse. As I said, this film is a very grim affair and their are deaths (and suicides) galore! As the movie unspools, the viewer is left with the sickening sensation that maybe nobody's going to get out alive. And there is quite some justification in this feeling. As things look bleaker, Mrs. Carmody's followers grow more numerous until the saner group led by Thomas Jane decide to leave before their resident Jim Jones starts doling out the kool-aid. Mrs. Carmody's Stepford shitheads discover they're planning to leave and try to stop them. Mrs. Carmody even demands they throw Thomas Jane's young son to the monsters in order to save themselves.
Aside from the top notch writing and directing by Frank Darabont, the acting of the entire cast is universally excellent. Thomas Jane (an actor I'm completely unfamiliar with) makes a great leading man; he has a screen presence which makes him quite watchable and the actor deserves more high-profile roles. Andre Braugher is terrific as usual as the skeptical neighbour; it's only too sad that he's gone from the picture before the first hour of screentime is up. Laurie Holden plays Amanda -- a young schoolteacher who may be a potential love interest for Thomas Jane. . .if they all survive, that is. Holden is also extremely well-cast and does a fine acting job demonstrating both strength and vulnerability. The smaller roles are filled with a bunch of fine if little known actors lead by the always wonderful Frances Sternhagen. While I'm still not much of a fan of CGI, the copious special effects are rather well-done (especially considering the film's relatively low budget) and veteran "head exploder" Greg Nicotero is also on hand to provide the appropriate grisly gore. Particularly impressive is the special effect of the mist itself rolling into town. Things like mist or fog or water etc. are notoriously hard to pull off effectively in CGI but here the mist rolls in very realistically over cars and buildings. The monsters are also fairly convincing. I mentioned H.P. Lovecraft earlier and there is, in fact, a little bit of a Lovecraftian feel to both King's original novella and this film. The "government project" nearby which apparently caused all this mess opened a portal to another dimension through which came the mist and these monsters. Other dimensional cosmic creepies is a very Lovecraftian concept and, toward the end of the film when our small group has left the supermarket and is driving through the mist they see a huge, tentacled monster stomp across the landscape which can ONLY be described as "Lovecraftian". This is a nice touch -- although the CGI monster should've been MUCH huger, I think. As I said, THE MIST is a grim and downbeat movie which makes it more of an ordeal to watch than a funfest. And just when you think things CAN'T get any worse or more depressing. . .there's the ending of the film! However, it is an extremely well-done adaptation of a great Stephen King story and for that -- while it's probably not a movie to watch over and over -- it is still probably the best screen adaptation of any of Stephen King's horror fiction.

Monday, March 09, 2009

PREPARE. CPHV IS COMING. THE BIG EVENT OF 2009. WATCH FOR IT! It's coming for one of you. . . .

Saturday, March 07, 2009

IN REMEMBRANCE Philip Jose Farmer 1918-2009

Friday, March 06, 2009

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US! But not for very long. Universal-International's 1956 sequel to the sequel to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON has never exactly set the critical world on fire (even though they manage to set the Gill Man himself on fire) and I have always basically written it off. When the wonderful Legacy Collection DVD came out -- ooh, 5 years ago or so -- I of course watched it once again (as well as the original classic and the first sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE -- which, if you think about it, is just a retelling of KING KONG). Naturally the original CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a stone cold winner; REVENGE and WALKS AMONG US have always been "also rans" as far as I was concerned. Especially the third film which frankly pissed me off because of what they did to the Creature in it. For those not in the know, they basically pseudo-castrate the Gill Man; in other words, they mutilate him so that the familiar Creature we love is gone and we get some "more humanoid" version which, besides eliminating the iconic look of the Gill Man also makes the Creature look positively ordinary.
For those not in the know, a group of scientist (once again) decide to head out to the Gill Man's stomping (or is that splashing) grounds in order to capture him and generally piss on his cornflakes. Why the hell can't they just leave him alone?!? This goes a long way toward making the Creature very sympathetic (as in the first CREATURE film which took its cue from Boris Karloff's sympathetic performance as the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN). Among the busybody scientists are Dr. & Mrs. Barton (Jeff Morrow and Leigh Snowden), good guy he-man Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) and oughta-get-slapped-upside-the-head he-man Jed Grant (a slimy Gregg Palmer). You know the drill. The group of scientists head out on a boat, hunt down the Gill Man, shoot milk (OK they call it "rotonone" or something) to drug the Creature and capture it. Of course, they fail. Then, as the Creature quite impressively jumps out of the water and into the group's boat, somebody throws a gasoline torch at him and the poor Gill Man is on fire once again. The Creature collapses and the scientists grab him and take him back to civilisation (didn't they learn anything from the LAST movie?!?!). The poor Creature is so badly burned that his gills etc. are singed away and the scientists have to operate in order to convert the Creature's lungs so that he may breath air instead of water. Of course, this effectively cripples the Gill Man (in my eyes, anyway -- sure, he'll probably die if they DON'T operate but, since we know the monster's gonna die anyway by the end of the film, it might've been kinder. Actually, it WOULDA been kinder if they had just left the poor Creature the hell alone in the first place). Anyway, through bits and bobs of the plot involving Dr. Barton's intense jealousy of anybody even glancing at his wife, the Creature gets framed for various mayhem he really doesn't have anything to do with. Jed Grant gets a little too "attentive" to Mrs. Barton so Dr. Barton decides to bop him on the head and throw him to the caged Creature so that it'll look like ole Jed was killed by the vicious monster. The Gill Man, meanwhile, justs wants to be left alone in his damn cage and decides he's having none of this noise so he busts out and rampages through the house -- eventually killing the unbalanced Dr. Barton -- freeing up the now-widowed Mrs. Barton to make kissyface with Tom Morgan. Then it gets REALLY sad as the poor Gill Man walks to the ocean, stands looking at it for a moment and then walks into the sea -- effectively committing suicide because the humans messed up his life so much! There are truly few more heart-breaking moments in horror movies.
Luckily for the Creature, there were no more sequels -- GOD knows what worse tortures they could've had in store for the Gill Man if they had continued. THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, as much as it pisses me off, ain't actually THAT bad of a movie. It's not GOOD, by any means! But it's probably watchable -- as long as you're not looking for too much action (which there ain't) or a good script (which there ain't). The principals in the cast are really excellent. Classic monster fighters Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, of course, can also be seen in the much better film THIS ISLAND EARTH. Little known actress Leigh Snowden is also superb; the scene in which the Gill Man rampages through the house and corners her and Rex Reason in a closet finds the actress really selling hysterical terror; not over the top but believable. Gregg Palmer is also good as the slimy creep; the actor excelled in villain roles later in his career. In WALKS AMONG US, the actors really save the film as they are eminently watchable. God knows the script ain't helping. Sadly, by this time Universal had let go most of its "under contract" character actors as the studio system was facing tough times -- so there aren't the usual sea of familiar and beloved faces populating the lesser roles. John Sherwood's direction is fairly pedestrian and doesn't do much to up the horror quotient but the beautiful, crystal clear photography by Maury Gertsman in exemplary. The entire film looks quite nice while the underwater photography is even better than the original film. Particularly nice is the sorta "underwater ballet" scene when Leigh Snowden gets "the rapture of the deep" and twirls deliriously among millions of sparkling air bubbles -- each one showing up distinctly. Ricou Browning can be seen once again as the "swimming" Gill Man -- in fact, a lot of unused footage from the first CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON film is employed as well as a brief snippet re-used from REVENGE. The "land" Creature -- after he has been mutilated and operated upon -- is played this time by Don Megowan; no stranger to monster movies Megowan starred the same year (sans makeup) in THE WEREWOLF with Steven Ritch as well as later appearing as the Frankenstein Monster in the Universal/Hammer co-production pilot episode of TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN with Anton Diffring as the batty Baron. Megowan here manages to convey emotion even through the rigid and undemonstrative new Creature mask.
There are a few good scenes in the film; even though it mostly consists of scenes between "talking heads". A LOT of talking heads. The aforementioned underwater scenes go on a little too long, it must be admitted, however the "rapture of the deep" sequence aforementioned is a stand-out. Also mentioned before was the terrific scenes where the Gill Man leaps out of the water onto the boat as well as a truly exciting final sequence involving the Creature's rampage through the house; the Gill Man crashes aggressively through a door in order to get at Jeff Morrow. Frankly the cast and cinematographer deserve a better movie to be in. Not to mention the viewer deserves a better movie to watch! However, an EXTREMELY forgiving and patient viewer will probably find something worthwhile in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US.