Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Around the World in Eighty Movies - number 2

Country: Italy
Title: La Mashera Del Demonio (The Mask of Satan, aka Black Sunday)
Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrini, Arturo Dominici
Year: 1960
Running time: 87 minutes
Genre: Horror
Notable for: Being banned in the UK until 1968

1960 saw a trio of horror films released that broke new ground in the genre, generated varying levels of controversy and have since gone on to be regarded as classics - Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Italian director Mario Bava's The Mask of Satan. Whilst Powell and Hitchcock's movies were contemporary in both theme and style, Bava's official directorial début took classic themes - vampirism/witchcraft/resurrection - and updated them for the modern era with healthy doses of onscreen violence. Containing scream queen Barbara Steele's breakthrough role as the vampire-witch Asa Vajda, The Mask of Satan was banned in the UK until 1968 and often censored in house before screenings in the US due to its gruesome scenes. Bava, who began working as a cinematographer, including a stint working for Roberto Rossellini, had unofficially directed or completed direction on seven previous films, but it was The Mask of Satan and its critical and box office success that brought him international recognition.

Undeniably atmospheric and shot through with memorable imagery, The Mask of Satan may appear tame to modern audiences used to torture porn but it made Bava the Godfather of Italian horror movies and paved the way for his son Lamberto and fellow countrymen Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci's later careers in the horror and Giallo genres. Italian film-making is rightly lauded for giving the world neo-realism, but their contribution to horror cinema is not to be underestimated.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Big Picture - new article

Over at The Big Picture magazine we have an ongoing section called Screengem - which features iconic objects from film history. My latest addition to the series is the bucket of pig's blood as seen in Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's début novel Carrie. All horror movie fans will know this scene like the back of their hands and it's rightly enshrined as one of the most iconic sequences in the history of the horror genre. Follow the link at the end of this article and celebrate this bloody marvellous moment.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Watched - no 20 - Everywhere & Nowhere (Menhaj Huda, 2011)

The trials and tribulations of a young British-Asian, Ash (James Floyd), involving familial tensions, traditional versus contemporary lifestyles, uncertain futures and peer pressure take centre stage in Menhaj Huda's London set coming-of-age drama. Huda, responsible for directing Kidulthood (2006), as well as racking up various television directorial credits on Holby Blue, The Bill and Eastenders amongst others, both writes and directs this familiar tale of urban angst, generational divides and clashing cultural mores. With his humourless and over-bearing brother Ahmed (Ally Khan) dictating that Ash should follow him into the family retail business the young second generation British-Asian is desperate to break free of his pre-determined future and follow his dreams of becoming a successful DJ. With the likes of Kidulthood, Adulthood (Noel Clarke, 2008) and Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, 2004), as well as the 'gritty' urban movie spoof Anuvahood (Adam Deacon, Daniel Toland), cornering the market in 'edgy' youth oriented movies Huda was taking a gamble in churning out another film in this sub-genre, and it's a gamble that hasn't paid off.

There's nothing in Everywhere & Nowhere that we haven't seen many times before, the characters are stereotypical in the extreme and the screenplay packed full of tired clichés that leaves the whole thing sadly lacking in dramatic tension due to the staleness of the plot. Huda throws a variety of well worn themes into the mix - hypocritical family members, friends going off the rails, love across a cultural divide, Islamophobia and Anglophobia and Ash's struggle for independence from his family and the friends he is growing weary of. That these themes aren't explored in any great detail gives the whole narrative an 'issues 101' feel, where a deeper exploration of one of the themes or something vaguely unfamiliar in general could have been a whole lot more satisfying. The cast give it their all and Huda's direction is solid enough, but Everywhere & Nowhere has the feel of a late night television drama instead of a big screen experience. British cinema is riding the crest of a wave at the moment with the likes of Steve McQueen's upcoming Shame (2011), Andrea Arnold's take on Wuthering Heights (2011) and Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) all garnering critical acclaim as well as smaller scale or genre offerings such as Ben Wheatley's Kill List (2011) capturing audiences imaginations. Unfortunately for Huda the paucity of originality on show either behind the camera or in front of it when compared to those other releases exposes his need to pass on the writing duties and broaden his repertoire in terms of thematic concerns if he's going to have a chance of any long term recognition.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Around the World in Eighty Movies - number 1

Country: Australia
Title: The Story of the Kelly Gang
Director: Charles Tait
Cast: Frank Mills, Nicholas Brierley, Elizabeth Tait, John Tait
Year: 1906
Running time: 60 Minutes (approx)
Genre: Crime / Drama
Notable for: Being the first feature length film

You would be forgiven for thinking that the first feature length film would have come from the US, France or Britain given their status as the three leading countries in the development of the moving image and the fledgling film industry. Surprising as it may sound though, that honour goes to Charles Tait's Australian shot bio-pic of Ned Kelly, The Story of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906 and originally running at just over an hour in length. Made just 26 years after Kelly was hanged The Story of the Kelly Gang was written and directed by Charles Tait, whose showbusiness family were the owners of the Athenaeum Hall, a Melbourne concert venue. Filmed in and around the city Tait's film, which ushered in a wave of 'bushranging' movies, was long thought to have been destroyed or lost until some remaining sections came to light in the late 70s and early 80s. Digitally restored by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive the remaining pieces of Tait's film, around 14 minutes in total, have been released on DVD and can be seen on YouTube -

Technically rudimentary they may be, with close ups, camera movement and editing not yet fully developed as stylistic techniques due to the still basic nature of the equipment available, but these remaining scenes from The Story of the Kelly Gang are vital fragments of moving image and the impact of Tait's work on the development of cinema cannot be understated and it remained in constant circulation for ten years after its initial premier in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1906.

The first of many subsequent big and small screen takes on the famous outlaw and his fellow accomplices The Story of the Kelly Gang is Australia's entry into the Around the World in 80 Movies series, showing as it does the beginnings of what we know as feature length film-making today.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Around the World in Eighty Movies

Coming soon - A new feature where I'll take a trip around the planet in 80 movies. Recognised classics, cult oddities, fictional visions and powerful documentaries from all genres and all eras will be covered. This is not intended as a project to represent individual national cinemas - Italian neo-realism, the French new wave, German expressionism - but more of a smorgasbord selection designed to give people a taste of the wonderful world of cinema. The individual films discussed will hopefully form an all encompassing whole that will make audiences look anew at films they love and broaden the interest in some lesser known entries. Classic scenes, controversial political discourse, technological advances, the uses of genre conventions, censor baiting directors, memorable location work and career making performances from the iconic and the long forgotten will be addressed in a whirlwind cinematic tour around this place we call home.

In the next couple of weeks the first entry into my 80 movies collection will make its appearance, and what better way to begin than with the first feature length movie - Charles Tait's The Story of the Kelly Gang, from 1906, the Australian entry

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Watched - no 19 - The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park, newly released in a widescreen version, is one of countless gems to come out of America in the 70s, the decade that for me was Hollywood's real 'Golden Age'. This fruitful period gave us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Conversation, Chinatown, Deliverance and Badlands to name but a handful. Schatzberg's realist junkie drama, which deserves to be mentioned alongside those other films, features a performance of such eye catching intensity from a young Al Pacino that it landed him the plum role of Michael Corleone in Coppola's The Godfather. Banned in the UK on its initial release due to the stark portrayal of narcotics abuse, including the first scenes of actual drug injections to be seen in a mainstream movie, The Panic in Needle Park is a tough, unsanitised and fittingly bleak representation of a wretched way of life.

Pacino stars as Bobby, a charismatic small time hustler and hopeless addict alongside Kitty Winn as Helen, the unsettled and impressionable country girl who falls for Bobby's dubious charms. This is no ordinary love story though, with Heroin an added ingredient making for a decidedly unstable and increasingly abusive menage-a-trois. Shot in a verite fashion by Schatzberg and cinematographer Adam Holender in and around 'Needle Park', the nickname at the time for the area covering Verdi and Sherman Square in New York's Upper West Side, the movie unfolds as a series of loosely constructed narrative vignettes charting the lovers' disintegrating relationship. With no soundtrack to manipulate audience emotions, or to distract from the unrelentingly squalid events shown onscreen, Schatzberg's artistic decisions are fully justified as the resolutely unvarnished images speak for themselves. Pacino, a riveting, roller-coaster mixture of nervous energy, wisecracks, melancholy, violent outbursts and increasing desperation is the undoubted star of the piece, though Winn's depiction of Helen's slide into addiction, prostitution and betrayal is well worthy of a mention. The other 'star' of the movie is New York itself, captured as it is in the faux-documentary style that the cinema- verite style evokes. New York in the 70s may have been an artistically creative hotbed but as Schatzberg's movie clearly shows it was also a run down, economically ravaged concrete jungle; over-populated, garbage strewn and inhospitable.

As Bobby and Helen collapse into mutually dependent self-destruction Schatzberg allows for no easy resolution or liberal conscience salving respite. The final images of The Panic in Needle Park, in which the fresh out of jail Bobby hooks up with Helen, whose informing put him there, leaves the viewer in no doubt that the pair are about to climb right back on board the train that will lead to more misery, more abusive bust ups and eventually death for either or both of them. Where Trainspotting brought humour to drug addiction and Pulp Fiction brought an air of stylised glamour, The Panic in Needle Park brings realism, and what a grimy, unpalatable vision it is. Recommended.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Rogue Cinema review - September

This month's review for Rogue Cinema is of the low-fi,
independently financed documentary The Death of Andy Kaufman.
Follow the link at the bottom of the post to check it out.