Domestic Turmoil in John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”

John Cassavetes’ most revered film, “A Woman Under the Influence”, is one of cinema’s exemplary works of realism. The title refers to an urban housewife who is gradually losing her sanity. As this intense film unfolds, Cassavetes slowly shifts his focus to the eccentric husband. This subtle switch of the viewer’s gaze is absolute genius. Just like that, Cassavetes tells us everything we need to know about this particular case of domestic turmoil.

Plunged into a misogynistic household, Mabel finds herself victim to the restrictions of a gendered role. In many ways, “A Woman Under the Influence” plays like a psychological horror film. The protagonist falls victim to her surroundings. Her sadness, insecurities, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health is caused by her failure to fulfill a role that society has assigned her. In this remarkable work, we witness two unpredictable human beings act incredibly out of norm, yet only one of them is perceived as unstable by the surrounding family members.

Cassavetes film is about the toxicity of gender roles in society, but there are no villains or heroes in this household. Characters are depicted with incredible complexity. We watch two frustrated individuals struggling to deal with one another, but never does it feel like the director is judging either one of them. Cassavetes’ tender approach makes you empathize with real people who have fallen victim to the faultiness of society. This is cinema at its most intimate and personal.

Paranoia in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”

⁣“Man is the warmest place to hide.”

“The Thing” is John Carpenter’s greatest work; it is also a strong contender for the most entertaining horror film ever made. The film takes place on a remote base camp stationed in Antarctica. Life gets disrupted when the scientists spot a helicopter chasing and attempting to shoot a sled dog on the run. The Americans take the dog in, and before you know it, all hell breaks loose. We get introduced to one of the most memorable movie monsters to ever grace the screen, the thing – a shapeshifting extra-terrestrial being that can assume the shape of its victims.

The practical effects used in this picture are second to none. Almost forty years after it was originally conceived, the wild and gruesome practical effects are more impressive than anything that we’ve seen since. In fact, the animatronic effects are worthy of purchasing this masterpiece alone. But what separates Carpenter’s film from every other gorefest out there is what it says about the human psyche. The most nerve-racking aspect about “The Thing” has nothing to do with the creature, but how the characters react to it.

As soon as the scientists discover the nature of the creature, heightened paranoia begins to feed the ever-growing presence of mistrust. The claustrophobic setting puts us face to face with mankind at his most dangerous. The thing is nothing but a catalyst that brings out the monster inside of us. This film is about the internal conflicts that arise when paranoia penetrates the psyche; it is about what happens when suspicion disturbs the sanity of an entire group. Ennio Morricone’s iconic score plays like an eerie heartbeat to the impending doom lurking inside. John Carpenter’s reimagining of “The Thing from Outer Space” (which was made shortly after World War II when Cold War paranoia was sweeping the United States of America) is the most blood-curdling version of John W. Campbell Jr. short story out there.

Reevaluating Humanity in Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP”

There is absolutely no way anyone can watch Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP” without getting deeply affected by it. That said, it is not an easy film to watch by any means. “Goodbye CP” documents what it is like to live in Japan while suffering from cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy are often mistreated by the general public. Bystanders either look away or give them change, even when they’re not begging. Some do it because they feel sorry, others simply want to feel better about themselves.

At the beginning of this powerful work of art, we learn that many parents commit suicide when they find out that their children will be born with this condition. It causes permanent movement disorders due to brain damage detected at an early stage. But Hara doesn’t concern himself with the medical side of things, instead his film is more interested in showing viewers an intimate perspective of how they live their lives. We learn who they are, what they do and how they feel about various topics including sex, work, and marriage. Much like Werner Herzog’s “Land of Silence and Darkness”, Hara takes us to a world very few people have seen.

What I admire most about this type of filmmaking is that the filmmaker does precisely what everyone else shies away from. I think the majority of people rarely make contact with people with such extreme conditions, not because they don’t want to deal with them, but simply because they don’t know how to deal with them. So when a filmmaker like Kazuo Hara tackles a subject as specific as cerebral palsy, the whole world is forced to understand them. If there is one film that I think everyone should see, it is this one. “Goodbye CP” is gut-wrenching and in your face; it makes you ponder whether you’ve been living life selfishly. It forces you reevaluate your own humanity. It is a film that will change anyone who chooses to see it.

Film as a mosaic in “Dawson City: Frozen Time”

⁣We tell stories that are worth sharing every single day. We do it in the form of a conversation at a dinner table, through a joke, a riddle, or even through news reports. But the best stories are told through an artistic medium such as film, music, theater, or literature. Those who practice storytelling for a living are often on the lookout for a good story to tell, and I believe no one could have told the story in “Dawson City: Frozen Time” better than Bill Morrison. The only other filmmaker that comes to mind is Guy Maddin, another Canadian filmmaker who likes to tell stories by piecing together footage from old film reels.

In “Dawson City: Frozen Time”, this technique has a hauntingly beautiful effect, because traditional documentary re-enactment has been replaced with footage from long lost silent films. Seeing all this lost footage for the first time will entrance viewers with the awe and wonder of the movies. The music by Alex Somers (a member of “Sigur Rós”) compliments the visuals perfectly. I was reminded of the iconic kissing montage in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”. Andrei Tarkovsky once famously claimed, “Film is a mosaic made of time.” These words never rang more true.

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” links two storylines. The first covers the gold rush of 1896, and how an estimated 100,000 prospectors flocked to the northern city in search of gold. The other story is that of film itself. Cellulose nitrate was first used as a base for photographic film rolls. The problem is, nitrate made it highly flammable, and as a result, a lot of film theaters went up in flames all over the world. It is estimated over 75% of all silent films were lost in fires.

When this started to happen in Dawson City, which was located at the end of the distribution line for silent films, the townspeople panicked and buried the film reels in a swimming pool. Almost seven decades later, the unearthing of silent films has rewritten the city’s historic significance. Once known for its gold, today it is immortalized in artefacts, films and photographs. Like the buried gold and the lost films, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Identity Crisis in “A Brighter Summer Day”

“A Brighter Summer Day” is Edward Yang’s ambitious crime epic about Taiwanese street gangs in the 1960’s. Seeing this film reminded me of the first time I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”, or Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”. It is a mammoth work of art that deserves its place among the greats of the genre.“A Brighter Summer Day” swept me away into a world of juvenile delinquency and rock and roll. Politically charged and boasting with energy, Yang’s novelistic vision is something to behold. 

The four-hour film revolves around a fourteen-year-old kid who falls in love with a troubled girl. The young girl used to date a feared gang member who has gone into hiding. When he makes a return to the village, things quickly escalate to violence and despair. In this true story about a crime that shook the nation,emotions run very high. Growing up and falling in love in the midst of a gang rivalry is too much to deal with for anyone. But this major work of Taiwanese cinema is so much more than a coming of age film about kids engaging in street fights. Beneath the surface, it’s about an entire nation in search for its identity. 

Rejected by the Chinese regime, a huge wave of immigrantswere left in the dust fighting for their dignity. Having fled communist rule in mainland China, the grown-ups struggled to make ends meet amongst the native Taiwanese people. They spent their days looking for the next hustle and longed for the good old days when the economic situation was stable. However, their first-generation kids didn’t share this nostalgia for the homeland. The film argues that since they never felt like they belonged anywhere, the lost youth started forming gangs in order to claim territory they could call their own. Shakespeareanin scope, “A Brighter Summer Day” will captivate you with itsgrittiness and dreamy lyricism. I can’t wait to revisit this time and place in the near future.

Reincarnation in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” defies written description. The experience is more akin to that of music or painting in that it operates on a subconscious level. It communicates its complex concepts and abstractions through otherworldly sights and sounds. This is magical realism at its most spiritual; the characters inhabit a world that is just as ethereal as anything we’ve seen in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

When asked to describe his film, the director explained, “it’s about going back to the roots of things, what we have in our bodies, the primitive energy,”. But the film is not just about the past, it’s also about the future, and what happens to us after we pass away. Stricken with kidney failure, Uncle Boonme is convinced that his time has come. During his last days, we see him surrounded by his relatives, but he is soon visited by the ghosts and spirits of loved ones who have long passed away. On paper, this all sounds very frightening, but when these spirits made an appearance it had the opposite effect on me, their presence was soothing and comforting.

Weerasethakul’s vision is not for everyone. I’ve heard many people call it extremely slow, but I think a better description would be meditative. The film creates its own entrancing pace, and you just have to fall into it. There’s no use to linger on what any of it means, just let the film wash over you, and your patience will be rewarded. The film explores the transmigration of souls between human beings, animals, ghosts and mythical creatures. It left me with a heightened awareness of everything that we don’t know about the strange world we live in. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is a gateway to another world; it exists in the space between life and death, between past and present, between reality and fantasy.

The Dark Side of Humanity in “Häxan”

Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan” is a Danish film about witchcraft from the silent era. It features dramatized horror sequences that will send chills down your spine. The film is split into four parts. In the first segment, Christensen walks us through some disturbing diabolical artwork from the dark ages. Where does it all stem from? The film plainly states that “the belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” But the real horror that the film presents has nothing to do with demonology. What man is capable of doing when clouded by superstition and strict religious beliefs is far more sinister than anything that witchcraft brings to the table.

In the second part, we are exposed to a series of vignettes demonstrating medieval practices, beliefs and superstitions. The purpose of this film’s first half is to put viewers in the mindset of someone who was brought up before the enlightenment age- a time when divinity ruled over reason, and people believed in all kinds of wicked superstitions. But the second half of this macabre masterpiece is when things get very interesting. First, we get a demonstration of a typical witch accusation. We then learn of the torture methods used against the accused by religious authorities of the time. The only way the torture would stop was if they confessed and gave up twenty names of other accomplices, and the rest, of course, is history.

The witch-hunt reached epidemic levels, and over eight million were burnt alive in one of mankind’s darkest chapters. But the film argues that modern times are just as horrific. Torturing people into confessions is still practiced to this day, only the church has been replaced by the law. The modern hysterical woman inhabits all the behavior traits of what people back then would consider the devil’s work, and the way we treat the insane today is just as upsetting. We may not burn them on stakes, but we surely give them hell in mental institutions. When I first heard of this magnificent film, I thought it would illustrate so called witches as “the evil ones”. Instead, the film portrayed perfectly normal human beings with everyday professions- priests and policemen- as the true villains. “Häxan” is the most fascinating horror documentary I’ve ever seen; a haunting document of a time when the practice of medicine was considered sorcery. This thesis film is a scholarly dissertation of one of the most horrific chapters in human history, and it hasn’t aged one bit.