Split Screen: Dogtooth (2009)/Split (2017)

In an interview with the AV Club around the time of Split‘s release, director M Night Shyamalan pointed to the influence of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth on the film’s cinematography:

Well, then you remember how the frame is so irreverent to the characters. They stand up, and they’re just cut off. It’s doing its own thing. So if you watch our film through “Dogtooth eyes,” you can see how often we did that: a character just standing up out of frame or walking out, or you see just their shoulder. It feels like a window.

The connection between both films is perhaps most explicit here, to the point where it feels like a handshake between the directors.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

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This is so unlike anything else Eastwood has ever directed that it feels borderline experimental for him. In adapting a famously populated true crime novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil works best as a document of an entire oddball town rather than a traditional narrative. It eschews any sense of immediacy and plot movement in favour of tangents anchored by strange conversations or character introductions and explorations. I actually wish it carried on in this mode for the entire runtime instead of digging into the sluggish courtroom drama that bogs down the last hour, meaning most of its characteristic charm eventually fades away. The closest we’ll ever get to seeing Clint Eastwood’s Slacker.

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray.

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The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

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Even when working to create a silly horror mystery full of campy entertainment value, as he is here, Ken Russell can’t help but transform it into A Ken Russell Movie. Lair of the White Worm works best when it’s explicitly dabbling in Russell’s deranged subconscious; the hazy VHS-shot visions and nightmare sequences, indulgences in the kink of the occult and the weird, Amanda Donohoe slinking around as a snake-worshipping dominatrix vampiress – this is the stuff you will walk out remembering forever. There’s also a gloriously batshit ending that goes exactly where the film’s title promises. Russell reassuring you in the final stretch that, yes, you did sign up for a monster movie and he’s going to give it to you. Also, Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi are the Holmes and Watson we deserve.

Watched on Vestron blu-ray.

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Not Fade Away (2012)

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“When you’re singing the blues, the lyric line often starts “Woke Up This Morning”. Life just comes and fucks you right over, right?” – Pat, Not Fade Away

“Woke Up This Morning, got yourself a gun” – Opening theme to The Sopranos

Revisiting this I paid closer attention to Chase’ work, how he holds the film together and transitions from one scene to another, as well as how he uses music to incite emotional momentum or juxtaposition. As a major fan of The Sopranos, I know these are things he is especially good at but the choices can often be so subtle as to not be immediately apparent in their complexity. True to form, this is where Not Fade Away‘s real brilliance shines through.

This is film as memory bank, closer to Terence Davies’ portraits of upbringing than, say, a Scorsese rock n’ roll pic, which is probably what most people expected and/or wanted. The key is in the scenes of domestic turmoil – themselves a cornerstone of Sopranos‘ success, and often more violent and fraught than the pure mob stuff – in which Gandolfini challenges his son’s progressive values and changing image, ultimately building to furious outbursts over the breakfast table in much the same way Pete Postlethwaite explodes in Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives.

The story spans multiple years throughout the 1960s and yet Chase rarely signposts the jumps in time, instead relying on mixed in signifiers to clue the audience in: the changes in lingo, hair length and attitudes of its characters as well as the flow from one season into another and, ofcourse, the music.

Rock n’ roll is this movie’s Lord and Saviour. The opening meld of a broadcast test merging into the initial blasts of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones is truly sublime and the constant presence of music from there on out provides the film with a necessary spine. It works as a document of this era of popular music in America and tracks the development through eyes lit by the glow of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and various other TV appearances. It lights the fuse which leads to armies of teens picking up instruments and jamming in their garage for the first time. All this stuff has been heavily documented elsewhere, naturally, and the bands and needle drops aren’t exactly from a playlist of deep cuts, but through Chase’s eyes it all flows through an autobiographical lens. This isn’t about the formation of a seminal band, but by one of the countless bands that went nowhere and how that chapter in their lives led to the boys finding their true callings elsewhere.

One last thing: I love Chase’s penchant for constantly stopping to grab the reactions of people on the periphery of the main characters – Magaro’s younger sister earwigging on her brother’s plans, a gardener stopping to interrupt a conversation as he passes – showing that Chase never loses sight of the bigger picture and the other stories and developments constantly in motion elsewhere. It’s these witnesses to progress that will often turn out to be their ultimate gatekeepers: the storytellers. A group of which David Chase is surely a seasoned member.

Watched on blu-ray.

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The Game (1997)

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The one Fincher flick everyone agrees is underrated, right? Every time I return to The Game I’m struck by the level of craft Fincher applies to an otherwise dopey idea. It’s not hard to imagine the various, sensational ways this material would go in lesser hands (this year’s Game Night is a solid variation though it never transcends genre as Fincher’s take occasionally does). It definitely wouldn’t be discussed and re-assessed the way this is, nor would it likely be in the Criterion collection.

Under Fincher’s meticulous eye, The Game becomes a sombre dark night of the soul, one man looking into the murky depths of his own mortality and vacuous lifestyle. It’s almost Cronenbergian in its steeliness; an autopsy on cold metal rather than the lurid, messy investigations of Se7en. Given that I often cite Cronenberg as my favourite filmmaker, it should go without saying that i’m completely down for this kind of character dissection. Douglas gives an all timer performance as Nick van Orten too, expertly modulating his restraint with escalating paranoia and eventual frenzy. Also, whatever happened to Deborah Kara Unger? She joined this hot off of Crash (Cronenberg again) and as far as inverted 90s femme fatales go, she’s certainly up there with the best of them.

Maybe everyone hesitates to equate this with Fincher’s more revered work because of its foundations in popcorn theatrics but it is thrilling to see the director revelling in the trickery of pure plot. You question everything you see which frees him up to be the film’s unreliable narrator – the director as prankster – allowing him to indulge in nightmare plotting, free of traditional logic. I especially love the moment when an ambulance car park suddenly becomes deserted and is cloaked in dark shadow thanks to a sudden blackout. What an image. The film is full of moments like that. A truly beautiful film to squint into and a nocturnal odyssey that ranks among the most underrated mainstream movies of the 90s.

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The Gate (1987)

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While clearly forged in the age of Spielberg and Dante, The Gate is easily one of the better attempts at achieving that ghoulish tone. From the evocative opening dream sequence – young Stephen Dorff wakes to find his house ransacked and abandoned – through to the barrage of physical effects which give the film’s more fantastic ideas flight, The Gate is more or less everything you’d want from this kind of thing.

It retains a childlike sense of wonder and excitement throughout with key totems emblematic of American youth – air rockets, metal LP’s – scattered about, often using those same totems as gateways into more madness. A downed treehouse, for example, gives birth to a portal to a demonic netherworld, here represented by purple light shining up through the ground, while elsewhere the leg of small doll is repurposed as a stabbing implement.

The special effects are awesome, combining stop motion effects with sculpted rubber latex infused ghouls, with some incredibly effective forced-perspective shots being particularly effective, to the point where I found myself scratching my head wondering how they were achieved. Like Gilliam’s Time Bandits, the film isn’t too protective of its young cast to get nasty either; where it counts, it puts a lot of effort into being genuinely scary. Imagine Joe Dante remixing Fulci’s The Beyond and you aren’t far off. I like it more than The Goonies. Wish I’d seen this as a wee lad.

Watched on Vestron blu-ray.

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Mom and Dad (2018)

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Being that this is directed by one half of the Neveldine/Taylor dynamic duo, it’s not surprising to find that Mom and Dadfeels like a Neveldine/Taylor sensory attack, just one that lands only half the damage. It’s fine though!

The film’s primary novelty is to turn domestic banality into a kill crazy battle royale. Kitchens, garages, cellars, toolboxes and any household items with blunt corners or sharp edges are transformed into an implement of harm or self-defense. Nic Cage, teaming with Taylor for the second time following Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, is great. His nutty choices are given free reign with one speech delivered amidst the destruction of a pool table being a real highlight. The film is constantly living in the moment, scenes start late, finish early with momentum rarely halting. The one instance of backstory is dropped in only when it needs to be, quite late into the last act and is a welcome instant of character building.

It’s enjoyable enough but movies of this nature, that seem to exist solely to revel in untapped mass hysteria and ferocious explosions of comic violence often have a numbing effect on me. Even at 85 minutes this feels overlong and I kept tuning out. Fans of Taylor will enjoy it as an MTV-like burst of hyper genre activity – it achieves what it sets out to achieve – but if you want lasting impact, look elsewhere for a bite in the jugular.

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