Yearly Archives: 2014

Review of Saturday Night: The James Franco SNL Documentary



“So I’ve got this idea…” interjects a writer in the Monday morning pitch session to Lorne Michaels from a scene in Saturday Night, the James Franco directed-documentary that details the anxious, frenetic, and arduous process of the week leading up to the final live airing of an episode of Saturday Night Live. While the nearly two-hour long documentary indulges in all the behind-the-scenes pleasures sure to satisfy die-hard SNL fans hoping for a glimpse into exactly how the iconic show operates on a day-to-day basis, the dynamics between the cast, and the integration of the host into the show, Saturday Night also examines a creative process between the cast and crew that has allowed the show to evolve into perhaps the premiere comedy institution throughout the decades.

With John Malkovich hosting the episode in question, the documentary opens behind the host’s back and follows his entrance to the main stage. For any dedicated viewer, it’s an disorienting but compelling experience that simulates the host’s point-of-view, especially as the exclamatory “Live form New York, it’s Saturday Night!” is heard as a distant echo through the walls. The structure then jumps back to the previous Monday and follows the agonizing, adrenaline-fueled writing days shared between the cast and writers as they prepare for the Wednesday table read. Some of the writers appear almost overwhelmed by panic, others energized by it, some of the veterans almost annoyed by it, but it becomes quickly clear that the camaraderie of the experience is as fundamental to the cast’s chemistry as the material over which they are funneling their energies within this difficult timeframe.

Immediately, an evident sense of fraternity becomes apparent amongst the writers. At somewhere between three and four in the morning, Mulaney, Hader, and Jorma Taccone are still stationed before their laptops with a beautiful New York skyline limned by a descending moon in the office window behind them. And yet, the three are exchanging ideas, laughs, and impressions as rapid-fire and enthusiastic as a bunch of twelve-year-olds cracking up in a tree house. Other writers almost seem ready to collapse with exhaustion; others (in a scene with Kristen Wiig) are vigorously attempting to calculate whether the farting sound produced by an electronic keyboard “outstays its welcome”.

Next, after intermittent naps between dawn and lunch, the writers send in their preliminary sketch scripts to the producers, who then sort through nearly fifty sketch ideas for the Wednesday table read. Here, the writers present the material to the host and producers for initial review. The performers sit around a large conference table and act out the sketches—some on the last legs of their caffeinated fumes from the night before.

And yet, as soon as they begin reading the scripts, the cast comes to life as effortless as ever. Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Sudekeis, and the like imbuing their idiosyncratic characters with such an astounding level of natural perfection that they risk intimidating those who have recently joined the ranks or need more time to fully prepare. After one sketch between Samberg and Malkovich absolutely electrifies the room, poor Casey Wilson’s not completely yet realized impression of a Liza Minnelli sketch leaves the room bored or cringing. It’s a brutal scene, but yet another fascinating glimpse into how mercifully the cast of this show must be constantly ready to produce the best they have to offer without any chance for artificial acting. More than anything else, a spirit of inevitable competition also becomes discernible amongst those involved. Will Arnett analogizes something similar to cheerleading try-outs, and the metaphor doesn’t seem far off.

After the Wednesday table read, a printed sheet informs the cast whose sketches have been made the cut, in what again feels very analogous to high school students hoping to be selected for the lead role of the school play. And yet, there is no time for heartbreak or regret, as the cast is already quickly on their way to blocking out scenes or rapidly editing each sketch to milk out every single second for the maximum amount of laughter.

In between this round-the-clock rehearsal and preparations for the show, James Franco—serving as director—interrupts with interviews from producers and certain cast members. The most interesting are undoubtedly from producer Steve Higgins and creator/exec producer Lorne Michaels, who shed light on their realizations about the demands of the job from a creative standpoint, as well as how they’re able to cope when the show fails worse than they had expected, to which both more or less reply that next week show’s is already just a few days away.

By actual Saturday, there’s a palpable sense of tension to ensure that there are no small mistakes that may lead to catastrophe. Costumes, set-dressing, final sketch cuts, and constant fine combing over certain dialogue soon consumes every minute of the cast and crew’s lives. In one of Bill Hader’s funniest sketches, he and Fred Armisen are figuring out the best version of screaming out their incoherent Italian dialogue down to the last minute, determining when exactly would be the funniest time to be interrupting one another’s nonsensical Italian language. It’s an incredibly impressive demonstration of how meticulous these performers, even the most naturally gifted, remain under joyful duress to ensure that their output exemplifies the absolute best of their capabilities, for as Lorne Michaels reiterates to Franco: “You’re only as good as your last show”.

And by the actual live airing, we’ve returned to Malkovich’s disorienting entrance to the main stage. At this point, the charge of the audience and knowledge of the live broadcast seems to have revitalized the cast and crew back to their manic Monday enthusiasm. The show carries on successfully, and seemingly without a hitch (despite Hader’s complaint backstage that he and Armisen missed a cue [which no one else, including a head writer, seems to have noticed]). More interestingly, there are other interesting behind-the-scene glimpses like a woman specifically designated to make sure that the host’s path is cleared in between set-ups, as they are frantically whisked from sketch to sketch.

After the show, the doc cuts to black before a final return to the next Monday morning, where Lorne Michaels introduces the next host, before another writer pipes in with the familiar “So I’ve go this idea” line. The cycle continues, and another week of sleepless nights, fruitless perfectionism, and the childlike joy of performing for the laughter of millions begins anew. While Saturday Night is certainly worth seeking out for even the most casual SNL fan as an intimate backstage glance into the machinations that allow for a new show every week, the doc also offers a thought-provoking introspection into how the creative process of these performers has distilled itself into a very unique style of performance art through the decades.

The cast and crew must negotiate between impossible deadlines, a constant demand for innovative, yet broad comedy, and still deliver a quality show that demonstrates professional production values and the natural ease of its gifted performers. By the arrival of the next Monday morning, the doc illustrates how fluid the creative process must remain, and that no matter how successful or abysmal the previous production may have ultimately proved, that the show must go on, and that they truly are only as good as their last show. Nonetheless, if the long and popular history of SNL has proven anything, it’s that their last show—no matter whether it was filled with constant laughter or an assortment of misfires—is populated by skilled creators who are determined to perform with everything they have to offer…live on television…every Saturday night.

TV Review: Black Mirror, Season 1


As a very dark descendent to shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the arrival of Black Mirror—an hour-long television series anthology hailing from Britain—delivers three of the most compelling and disturbing episodes to address similar issues of human nature through the prism of the sci-fi genre. While other shows have admirably attempted to replicate the memorable twists and horrors of the most famous Rod Serling episodes, Black Mirror distinguishes itself from such imitators by creating incredibly thought-provoking scenarios that demand the viewer engage with morally ambiguous questions, where no resolution lies without serious consequences, and exceptional writing that further separates the material from its sci-fi siblings.


The first episode “The National Anthem” announces very loudly exactly how this show will differentiate itself from its predecessors (and most of the current television landscape) with a premise that involves the Prime Minister receiving a call from terrorists demanding that in order for the princess to be released, he need answer only one demand…

A demand that involves him and a pig—intimately—on live television.

While most shows would immediately crumble upon such an ostensibly crude premise, by either winking at the audience or failing to adequately construct a wall of realistic approach around such an absurdity, this is where Black Mirror delivers in spades. As the series successfully steers in exactly the opposite direction: by maintaining a tone as deadly serious as possible. Every conceivable question, short-cut, or excuse as to how the Prime Minister may wiggle his way out of the horrific situation is addressed and then dismantled—and not through plodding, expository scenes—but rapid-fire dialogue amidst the myriad sociological levels detailed in the story: newsrooms, the government, the bars of everyday citizens…

As a result, the episode intensifies with an unyielding sense of urgency and anxiety. Where so many shows would narratively deflate, or undermine such attempts maintaining a serious tone, Black Mirror refuses to let the viewer off the hook until the end of the hour run-time. And even then, the episode is not finished. In true Twilight Zone fashion, the consequences of the Prime Minister’s choice deliver an ambiguous resolution: one that appears to have succeeded on the surface but has irreparably damaged his interior psychology—and most especially, his wife’s. While some have argued that this episode is not indicative of the show’s overall agenda, this episode actually better exemplifies the extreme nature of the plotting created by the writers and remains an episode that—for better or worse—evokes discussion and cannot be forgotten. Moreover, “The National Anthem” addresses our modern attitudes toward certain omnipresent technology (specifically social media/texting) through a very extreme, though altogether believable, depiction of current technological consequences.


            “Fifteen Million Merits”—episode two of the trio—establishes a more allegorical, futuristic setting than any of the other episodes to discuss a multitude of similar modern-day issues: fame, social media, human connection, and how modern technology has disrupted the most human elements in each. The episode opens with Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakening within a small, prison-like cell of four walls that are also video monitors. Day-to-day life in this futuristic setting is presented in similar, suffocating technological parameters: every single decision is made by tapping a wall-sized monitor, exercising on a bike before another monitor which earns one “merits” to purchase whatever they made need, and constant sexual advertisements that intrude through these omnipresent monitors from which citizens cannot escape without being penalized (even placing your hands over your eyes causes the video to freeze until the eyes are freed).

Although the weakest of the three episodes, the production values are incredible. Every single detail of this world of literally inescapable electronics is specifically realized and believably presented. While the writing remains much, much, much smarter than most television would ever have the ambitions to approach, it also addresses its themes and larger ideals more on-the-nose and less subtly than the others (with Bing’s histrionic speech yelling/spelling out these themes above in an apoplectic monologue serving as perhaps the most indicative example).

Moreover, the episode discusses such a multitude of issues: from skewering the hollowness of fame, of the virtual competition of social media, of society’s shaming the obsese, of the unavoidable presence of contemporary technology, of the loss of human connection from technology—not to mention the various echoes of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and similar bleak, dystopian settings—that the more successful aspects of the episode are marred by these less successful executions. Nonetheless, the episode still delivers some very thought-provoking ideas and remains compelling in its continual unfolding of consequences and futuristic setting that undeniably mirrors our modern-day era.


Finally, the last episode—“The Entire History of You”—offers the best episode of the season and similarly works as a stand-alone scenario that presents a very disturbing portrait of delving into specific scientific advancements. The episode revolves around a future where a technological device allows users to record and replay their memories; and more specifically, the premise revolves a husband who begins to suspect his wife is having an affair after replaying his memories of a dinner party over and over.

The episode succeeds so well in its execution by conjuring a futuristic setting that is not altogether too removed from our own—despite the existence of such a revolutionary technology. Additionally, the plot is not weighed down by tedious explanation and constant overanalyzing over how such a device would filter into the lives of ordinary citizens; but instead, the story plunges into a premise that would not be out of place in a contemporary soap drama centered on themes of mistrust in marriage, while the technology merrily serves as the catalyst of the plot.

Furthermore, as seen in the best of hard sci-fi, “The Entire History of You” uses the feasibility of the technology to illume profound issues of human nature. The episode delves into issues of trust, memory, and time, through a very well-plotted and deceitfully simple premise of a man who believes his wife might be in love with another man. Like the other episodes, the writing allows for a constant escalation of stakes and sense of urgency that—accompanied with the incredible acting between Toby Kebbel and Jodie Whittaker—generates a compelling vision of the ramifications produced by such a technological consequence. And also like the other two, the episode concludes on a very ambiguous note—one that satisfies the reality of such a scenario but also devastates the viewer with the emotional aftermath of abiding by such authentic storytelling—and should be applauded for doing so.

In all three episodes, Black Mirror develops a haunting and thought-provoking tapestry of the consequences that arise from our current forays into technology and ambitions beyond the horizon. As a result, the series stands up to its namesake—reflecting a genuine, creative depiction of how such viable futures may be realized by both the best and worst qualities of human nature. Similarly, such an anthology format allows for numerous issues to be explored: from fame, to an overwhelming technological presence, to the loss of human values in the face of each, and the redistribution of humanity’s connection spurred by such oversight. As a result, the first season concludes as an unforgettable collection of original sci-fi: one that shatters former boundaries found in the television medium and ascends to rank alongside one of the best offerings in the genre.

The Apartment Trilogy by Roman Polanski



“I’m sorry to bother you, I was told about an apartment.”

So Roman Polanski asks in the opening line of The Tenant, in what feels like a not-so-subtle wink at an audience preparing to watch the last in his trilogy of horror films known as his unofficial “Apartment Trilogy”—a trinity of horror films linked by their shared setting of an apartment as the feature setting for the horrors of the premise to unfold. As different as the three films remain in scope and story, the trio that consists of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant each use the confined apartment setting as a vehicle to explore larger allegories of the horrors at hand, with each film also depicting a main character battling the possibilities of mental illness and a supernatural terror threatening the safety of their sanity. In doing so, Polanski’s trilogy successfully manages to push the parameters of the horror genre while also exploring larger thematic issues of gender, identity, and mental illness.


Released in 1965, Repulsion marks the first of the trilogy and remains a tour-de-force character-study into the troubled psychology of a young woman named Carol (a doe-eyed Catherine Deneuve). The paradoxical Carol works as a manicurist in a beauty parlor (despite constantly biting her own nails) who is left alone in her sister’s apartment after she leaves with her boyfriend for a vacation. With amazingly wide-eyes, a demure voice, and constantly uncomfortable body-language, Deneuve portrays a woman in a constant battle to reciprocate the basic human emotions provided through social interactions—especially with men. For reasons that will become clear by the ending, Carol has been traumatized by a rough relationship with men since childhood and the experience has left her a shattered shell of a human being—a woman barely capable of holding conversation and driven to near mental collapse by the smallest imperfections.

Early in the film, her sister’s boyfriend has left his toothbrush within Carol’s space, and she lashes out at the violation. This seemingly small intrusion of boundaries marks the beginning of Carol’s trouble with those (again, especially men) trespassing her private space (most especially within the bathroom [the most private possible room]) that will only worsen within this very confined setting of a small Belgian apartment.

While many filmmakers often believe a larger space intimates a more powerful scope, Polanski uses every possible cinematic technique to demonstrate how unbelievably horrifying a simple apartment can transform itself into the most hellish domain imaginable when filtered through the warped psychology of young Carol. Polanski uses the power of repetitive sounds to maximum distortion and discomfort: the incessant ticking of the clock, the torturous dripping of water, the creaks and groans of wooden floors to methodically construct a tortuous glimpse into the everyday life of this traumatized woman. These sounds so representative of mundane life—the ticking clock, the knock at the door, of passersby on the city streets below—no longer reflect the harmless consequence of suburban life, but the chaotic and disorienting noise heard by a woman suspicious of these formerly benign objects that have now transformed into totems representing the terror of her haunted mind.

Polanski further amplifies this heightened, unnerving reality through the use of innovative visuals and cinematography: shadows, unwarranted reflections, uncomfortable close-ups, and optical illusions are all employed to create an even more literal deconstruction of the classical comforts of the home. Whether it be through the jump-scare of the sudden reflection in her dressing mirror, or the visual illusion of decreasing the dimensions of the room to heighten Carol’s accelerating mental suffocation, Polanski repeatedly demonstrates how even the most conventional objects and spaces can suddenly serve as the most horrifying representations of abject terror.


Besides these cinematic tools used to usher the audience into her horrifying psychology, the film also repeatedly depicts Carol’s crumbling mindset through an assortment of symbolic imagery. Cracked surfaces serve as the most obvious example and are seen multiple times both within the apartment and Carol’s very limited outer world. On a sidewalk, a deep fissure spider-webbing upon the pavement causes Carol to completely still—her eyes magnetized to the crack as though hypnotized. As days go by, she continually hallucinates more cracks spreading across the apartment—fracturing upon the walls in tandem with her increasing neuroses—the apartment now acting as a material manifestation of her warped mental state.

Wall hands

Later, as her hallucinations grow more intense and vivid (a man molesting her becomes repeated multiple times), male hands literally emerge from the wall to claw and grasp her. In credit to the relentless atmosphere of dread, this striking visual becomes a perfect metaphor for how terrifying Carol’s world has come to reflect her poisoned inner-psychology. Even within what should be her most private and secure space—her apartment—Carol’s mind conjures up an unyielding demonstration of her interior psychology and how the traumatizing horrors of her subconscious have transformed into her tangible reality.

Lastly, Carol’s character demonstrates the painful reality of a woman battling this constant war of a collapsing psyche against the horrors of her past. Opening with a close-up of her big brown eye, constantly gazing about the space and studying those around her, Carol’s neuroses become quickly apparent: she constantly bites her nails, brushes her hair, speaks meekly…Her appearance and cleanliness moves past the point of concern and into obsession. As a woman who works in a beauty shop—an establishment literally made to emphasize beauty—Carol can no longer function in society while struggling so drastically with her own mind.

From the ceaseless hounding from men, to enduring the sounds of her sister having sex through the thin apartment walls, to living across from a convent of ostensibly “pure” nuns in the neighboring courtyard, to the endless badgering from men who refuse to accept “No”—Carol finally breaks. The apartment landlord arrives to collect the rent and Carol allows him into the apartment from which she has lived in seclusion and squalor. The landlord makes a number of references to her nightgown, which escalates into an attempted rape, only for Carol to stop the attack by killing him.


When Carol’s sister finally arrives home, she and her boyfriend find both the dead body of the landlord, along with Carol—though she remains in an apparently catatonic state. The other tenants filter into the crammed space suddenly concerned for her well-being. While Carol’s ultimate fate remains ambiguous, her last actions are shown to be combing her hair, ironing a dress (the camera takes careful note of the iron’s unplugged cord) and finally in bed—she begins floating toward the ceiling in hallucinatory freedom. One could certainly make the argument that this represents Carol’s attempt at suicide—as woman overwhelmed with repulsion for the world around her—and needing to leave this world behind her so she can finally escape from the relentless deluge of her traumas.

And while this final fate may remain ambiguous, the last shot certainly shines some light toward what may be the initial catalyst that contributed toward Carol’s utter mental breakdown. After being carried away from the apartment, the camera pans across the room until finding an old family portrait from Carol’s youth. Mirroring the opening close-up of Carol’s eye, the camera zooms uncomfortably close upon the eye of a much younger Carol—her gaze filled with repulsion and directed toward what appears to her father seated directly beside her.

This final shot leaves a haunting, disturbing final impression upon the viewer to fill in the blanks about Carol’s family life and why she has been so psychologically damaged by men. Moreover, the fact that this specific explanation does not appear until the final shot addresses how universally understood this overall psychological struggle can be related upon women at large. As a result, Polanski demonstrates how profoundly the devices of the horror genre can be used to address these larger thematic issues, and even more impressively, uses an atmosphere of persistent dread to transport the viewer into such a troubled psychological mind.


The middle installment—Rosemary’s Baby—would prove to not only be the best of the trilogy, nor just one of the best horror movies ever made, but one of the greatest entries into the film canon at large. The premise revolves around a woman named Rosemary Woodhouse, and her husband, Guy, who have just moved into the Bramford—an older New York apartment building. And immediately, the apartment reeks of ominous details: the previous owner went senile, an enormous wooden secretary has been strangely positioned in front of a closet door, legends of witchcraft are reported to have occurred at the same address, an unnerving chant echoes through the walls…

But worst of all, they meet the Castevets: an elderly couple named Roman and Minnie that live down the hall and make excessive efforts to ingratiate themselves into the lives of the new tenants. Soon after, another series of suspicious events start to surface: a young woman living with the Castevets commits suicide just after meeting Rosemary, Guy’s career skyrockets after a secret conversation with Roman, Minnie insists on Rosemary wearing a “good luck” charm of a mysterious herb within a pendant, and finally—Rosemary suddenly finds herself pregnant. The pregnancy arriving, of course, after a horrifying nightmare in which she is raped by the devil.


Immediately upon hearing the news, Roman and Minnie seize upon the situation to become an unavoidable fixture in the couple’s life: referring Rosemary to an exclusive doctor, delivering daily supplements of their specific herb, and essentially isolating Rosemary from any other contact with outsiders beyond the apartment. As weeks go by, Rosemary pieces together the horrific evidence directly related to her pregnancy—and correctly suspects that she is now pregnant with the son of the devil.

While much of Repulsion’s power relies on Polanski’s deft manipulations of cinematic techniques to highlight the extreme psychosis of the protagonist, Rosemary’s Baby works so successfully through an approach of complete contrast in presenting the narrative as objective, removed, and stylistically distanced as possible. While there are two dream sequences and a rapidly edited climax following Rosemary’s attempt to escape her captors, Polanski shoots the vast majority of the scenes without the aid of the stylistic flourishes that made Repulsion so distinct. Whereas the weight of dread in the former film became constructed through such a singular glimpse into this particular female’s point-of-view, the dread of Rosemary’s Baby emerges through a command of unwavering reality.

Indeed, what has allowed for the film’s reputation and unique nature compared to most horror films relies in the slow descent into the horror of the premise—rather than through shock, jump-scares, and moments that may veer too far from reality as to break the barriers of verisimilitude. Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of Minnie Castavet serves as perhaps the best example of how this particular portrayal of a monster can remain so disturbing. Rather than a performance that hinges on leering, creepy machinations, Gordon’s casting presents an affable, grandmother-like figure whose ostensibly good-natured demeanor diminishes any doubts toward obvious malevolent intentions that she may harbor.

Furthermore, the narrative’s greatest strength comes from repeating this effect throughout almost every turn of the plot. The actions of those surrounding Rosemary—from her husband, to the Castavets, to the tenants—all present themselves with an outward appearance of those with the best intentions for Rosemary.

Consequentially, a frustrating urge arises within the audience—an insuppressible cry to reach out and help Rosemary as those around her cast doubts upon her sanity. Nonetheless, Polanski never releases the audience from this plea to help the pregnant protagonist. Instead, he raises the stakes at every possible point: as Rosemary is manipulated by the malicious forces around her, as Rosemary complains of a horrific pain in her stomach and prohibited from seeing any other doctors, as she grows abnormally thin and pale despite her pregnancy…Polanski refuses to release his suffocating grip upon the viewer, demanding their anxiety to rise in equally uncomfortable parallel with Rosemary’s.


In effect, Polanski positions the audience directly within Rosemary’s psychology, much as he did with Carol in Repulsion, though through incredibly different methods. While Polanski frames the claustrophobia of the apartment in Repulsion as a means of discomfort, the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby is used for exactly the opposite effect—to comfort. The tenants of the Bramford apartment building suffocate Rosemary with their unending help and insistence that she need not leave the apartment. When Rosemary escapes their clutches and tries to find another doctor for a second opinion, the tension rises to an almost unbearable weight of dread. She has finally fled the imprisonment of her own home, and every second grows fraught with the fear that she will again be caught and returned back to her apartment for good.


And of course, this is exactly what happens. After delivering the baby, Rosemary sneaks into the Castevets’ apartment, only to find that her baby remains alive and under the care of the cult composed of the apartment tenants. While her initial reaction is one of absolute horror and shock, the film ends on a semi-ambiguous note as Rosemary cradles her child (conceived by Satan) and seems at a sudden peace. As the camera pans out for end credits to roll, over a wide shot of the expansive apartment complexes that mirror the opening, Rosemary’s fate appears sealed. Rather than fight the oppressive rule of her captors, she appears to have finally surrendered—content to be a prisoner of the apartment if it means being with her baby—consequences be damned.


The last in the trilogy—The Tenant—explores yet another intensely psychological character study, though this time with a man taking center stage. That man is Trelkovsky, as played by Polanski himself, serving as both director and star. As with Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant opens with a similar, ominous foreshadowing with the owner introducing the new apartment and explains that the previous tenant—a woman named Simone—committed suicide (with Trelkovsky noting “I’ll never understand suicide”). Though Trelkovsky seems suspicious of the incredible austerity of those surrounding the apartment, and the circumstances of the previous tenants death, he accepts the terms and agrees to move into the apartment.

Yet very quickly, these suspicions that start out as simple inconveniences become realized as the true horrors. The neighboring tenants’ dislike for noise grows into an outright contempt, and Trelkovsky’s own identity slowly dissolves into one that he no longer recognizes. As the neighbors begin subtly pushing Trelkvosky into living a life not unlike Simone—the previous tenant—Trelkvosky recognizes that he is slowly transforming into the identity of the woman who previously tenanted the apartment.


Watching the film with ideas of its own historical context in mind—coming after the Manson murders of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate—and with Polanski starring as Trelkvosky, one can’t help but watch the narrative without projecting certain ideas about Polanski’s own individual troubles of his personal life upon his fictional one. While The Tenant negotiates between these various themes—identity, paranoia, privacy—and there are certainly some memorable moments that mirror the best in Polanski’s career, the levels of dread and are not as strong as the former two of the trilogy. While they don’t necessarily need to be compared, as they are very different films with very different ambitions, The Tenant stands as a very different film, not only within the Apartment trilogy but Polanski’s overall filmography.

Still, The Tenant wrestles with these ideas in an ever-compelling manner. The escalating sense of terror remains, though not as singularly focused, and the final shot before Trelkovsky stares out the window in a full embrace of his changed identity into Simone—with all the other apartment tenants clapping and urging him on—remains one of the most gorgeously haunting moments in all of Polanski’s work.

Through each film, Polanski illumines dark corners of human neurosis and psychological trauma as few horror films have ever so successfully managed. Whether through the resurrection of past traumas in Repulsion, the spiraling paranoia of Rosemary’s sanity for herself and her baby in Rosemary’s Baby, or the crumbling sense of disillusionment within The Tenant, Polanski’s apartment trilogy uses the power of the horror genre to profound effect as comparative allegories of the true horrors of human psychology. In doing so—and by isolating the characters within the most confined and pocketed corners of an apartment landscape—Polanski demonstrates that the most terrifying ideas are often not the fictitious and supernatural, but that the most horrifying of all evils are those that can be found within the darkest corners of the human mind.


Interstellar and The Resurgence of Hard Sci-Fi


Under the wide umbrella of science fiction, the specific subgenre of “hard sci-fi” has remained a particularly difficult endeavor for most filmmakers to successfully translate to the silver screen. Coined in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller within Astounding Science Fiction magazine, the subgenre separates itself by exploring premises with scientific underpinnings that explore both the wonders and potential consequences of these fictional—yet plausible—scientific advancements. Hard sci-fi delves deep into a world not too different from our own—one in which the characters are often just as horrified or amazed by the scientific concepts that serve as the catalyst of the narrative’s conflicts. This definition distinguishes hard sci-fi from a recent film like Edge of Tomorrow, or even something like the Alien franchise, where the narrative resembles something closer to an action movie set within futuristic worlds (or otherwise), than one interested in examining characters faced with the ramifications of scientific achievements.

Though some of the best films in the genre fall under this specific definition—Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Duncan Jones’ recent Moon all standing as stellar examples of scientific scenarios filtered through fictional settings—but perhaps with Moon as a starting point, the genre seems to have suddenly flourished within cinema at large. As seen in Her, Gravity, and most recently Interstellar, and despite the vast differences of scope found in each, the recent surge in hard sci-fi has allowed an opportunity to investigate exactly how and why this specific genre has remained so relevant and powerful within the modern film landscape.


In Spike Jonze’s Her, the film examines the possibility of a man named Theodore falling in love with an AI operating system represented through a female voice. In the hands of most filmmakers, this simple premise could easily be doomed for the worst—portraying the bond between man and machine as anything other than cringeworthy, laughable, or silly. Jonze, however, uses the simplicity of the premise and the subtle hinting of scientific advancements in a near future to explore ambitious questions of human emotion and relationships that raise thought-provoking questions into the nature of what may be considered genuine emotion from both man and machine.

Though the surface scope of the film can be considered comparatively small against something like the vast space of Gravity and the epic cosmic exploration of Interstellar, Jonze uses the simple premise to profound effect. While Theodore (arguably) represents the everyday man—one struggling with issues of loneliness, guilt, and increasing isolation against a world of almost omnipresent socially connectivity—Samantha stands as the opposite: a paradoxical being of infinite knowledge and evolving emotions. In the era of Apple’s Siri and advancing AI across all digital platforms, Jonze depicts the dissolving barrier between human and AI interactions to both and beautiful and devastating conclusions. Familiar concepts of intimacy, compatibility, friendship, and love are all filtered through the prism of the genre to illumine these wide-ranging consequences—both wonderful and terrible—made possibly by such scientific foundations. Moreover, as seen through such an ostensibly small and digestible premise, the film allows a broader understanding into ideas of human behavior and the binding human connection in a world of infinitely expanding science.


Nonetheless, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity travels to a terrain even more isolated than that lonely landscape occupied by Theodore: space. The film revolves around astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone—stranded in space after the destruction of her space shuttle—and her impossible endeavor to return to Earth. While the film’s scientific inaccuracies have been widely reported and nit-picked to death, Gravity still successfully manages to construct a setting both eerily realistic and unnerving for the common viewer. Cuaron utilizes the power of sound to its maximum potential—allowing sequences of stultifying silences to drown the viewer in the dread of the limitless abyss of space. And in those moments of chaotic confusion, both the mix and the soundtrack are amplified toward a similar, disorienting effect—positioning the viewer directly into Stone’s own anxious feelings as she fights a battle on all fronts of the human condition—physical, mental, and psychological—to overcome this hostile habitat and return home.

More to the point, Gravity remains firmly rooted in a narrative that satisfies criteria of belonging to the hard sci-fi pantheon. The basic premise of being lost in space, Stone’s application of scientific principles to help resolve her situation, and the consequences of these choices made through grounded science all work toward establishing a story that simultaneously displays the absolute horror and amazements allowed by such advancements into the uncharted frontier of deep space. And while Cuaron ensures that the casual viewer can understand the how and why of the principles in play, the director wisely never overburdens the viewer with unnecessary facts or wasted screen time merely for the point of proving their validity.

Instead, the technological reality demonstrated throughout only helps further transport the viewer into the cold blackness of outer space—conjured through an array of impressive special-effects and subtle acting that enhances the experience rather than distract for the sake of special attention. As a result, Cuaron’s able to use this story filled with scientific underpinnings as a vehicle for further enlightenment: to explore themes of isolation, fear of the unknown, and the power of human resistance against what appears to be an impossible conclusion.


Finally, Christopher Nolan’s recent foray into hard sci-fi through Interstellar proposes a voyage even more ambitious than either of its former sci-fi peers: offering an opportunity beyond the limitations of Earth, beyond the undiscovered domains of space—and into realms that challenge current conceptions of the observable dimensions. Set in the very near future, a multitude of human-induced blights now threaten the globe: ravaged crops, violent dust storms, and an attitude of defeat that has left the future of humanity in doubt. Led by Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a team of astronauts travel through a wormhole outside Saturn toward three potential planets that may allow for human colonization.

Like Gravity (and other Nolan films), a number of critics seem more concerned with finding potential plot holes than grasping the bigger point of the fiction encapsulated through the narrative. For all its faults in certain aspects of overall storytelling, Interstellar—perhaps even more so than the others—uses these characters to demonstrate the power of science in the face of insurmountable odds. Though repeatedly hammed over the head throughout the beginning, Interstellar portrays a future world that has given up on the idea of progress and taking chances. Within a world of scarce resources, the bureaucrats challenge Cooper’s indomitable spirit and reiterate their focus upon time-tested methods of stabilizing demands—only exacerbating any chance of defeating the problems in the process—and consequentially relegating his son to a life of farming, rather than the opportunities offered by education.

But when Cooper’s daughter soon begins receiving signs from “the ghosts”, and Cooper manages to find NASA now literally working underground, he is quickly recruited as captain to the team tasked with traveling through the loophole and determining which of the three planets beyond the wormhole may serve as humanity’s next home. Finding that two of the three inhabitable, and with too little fuel for both investigating the third planet and returning to Earth, Cooper journeys alone into a nearby black hole to gather data beyond the event horizon—allowing NASA to launch a massive space craft carrying the world’s population.


While, of course, much of this narrative is driven by speculative science-fiction—exemplified by Cooper’s ability to transcend time within the tesseract created by a future version of himself—the principles of powerful science-fiction remain in full force. The climax is determined by the hero utilizing principles of plausible (if speculative) scientific underpinnings that illumine aspects of human emotion through this fictional premise. Though certainly the most hypothetical of the three, Interstellar attempts to explore the consequences of these scientific propositions while (less successfully) engaging in thematic, emotional ideas of love, sacrifice, and exploration.

Nonetheless, throughout each of the three films, the filmmakers have ventured forth into a genre that embraces the intellectual and thematic capacities as best offered through the genre. Rather than merely using the disguise of sci-fi under the mask of an action movie or a futuristic setting, the narratives fully incorporate aspects of plausible science fiction filtered through narratives of cinematic allegory. Although Kubrick’s 2001 remains the genre’s apex, and a scattered few have successfully emerged over the years, the recent resurrection of hard sci-fi into the genre forefront signals the possibility of audience’s desire for material that matches the criteria found within hard sci-fi: smart, creative works that evoke possibilities of the future to explore the best and worst of immortal truths found within human nature.

Book Review: The Life and Times of Charles Manson


     Most biographies of famous historical figures often seem to start at an immediate compromise with the reader—struggling to negotiate between the subject’s public reputation, contextual history, and yet still deliver an entertaining read without resorting to sensationalist storytelling that may distort the reality of the events. In biographies of infamous figures, especially, authors often have a tendency to present the subject not unlike a bad horror movie character—delivering cheap scares and newsreel highlights of a criminal’s life that exploit the gore of the crimes, rather than breaking down the intertwining events of the subject’s historical backdrop that may have nurtured their life choices. In this respect, The Life and Times of Charles Manson separates itself from the vast number of works written not only about such notorious figures, but one of the most notorious of all—Charlie Manson—by delivering an incredible read that still breaks down in clear contextual detail the confluence of this particular time in history and Manson’s own life that paved the way for one of the most bizarre, shocking, and perplexing crime waves in American history.

Starting even before Manson’s birth, Guinn describes the Kentucky backwoods and Manson lineage that the troubled Charlie would be born into with clear atmospheric detail. While it’s easy to just describe Charlie’s birth as the result of another troubled, unmarried teen pregnancy, Guinn’s deep historical research into the entire family’s personalities, financial, and religious history better help explore the early seeds of potential trouble that would plague young Charlie for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Guinn peppers in anecdotes of Charlie’s early behavior and constant need for attention that laid the groundwork for the troubled psychology that would blossom to disastrous results in the near future

The next few chapters further describe Manson’s perpetual path of self-destruction; specifically, his inability to stay out of institutional life and propensity for manipulating people around him. Manson’s modus operandi quickly reveals itself, and a looming dread expands over the next few chapters as the early formation of the Family grows with ostensibly innocent beginnings. Guinn continually parses in just enough description of the popular movements, incidents, and cultural attitudes that parallel Manson’s own nightmarish distortions of such historical hallmarks.

More importantly, Guinn populates Manson’s narrative with rich characterization and similarly detailed background history of the supporting cast that were as responsible, if not more so, as the catalysts for the crimes often solely attributed to the Family figurehead. In doing so, Guinn demystifies so much of the false propagation of Manson as the calculating, conniving mastermind that has ballooned beyond control in the eyes of the public. Instead, with impressive aplomb, Guinn manages to simultaneously describe Manson’s: unbelievably outlandish teachings filtered through a distorted logic of current events, the fear-based tactics employed to ensure his followers’ unwavering loyalty, and the insatiable impulse for fame that compelled his motives since childhood. As the best biographies are capable of achieving, the reader finishes the narrative with a starkly different understanding of the figure in question. While all of Manson’s horrific inclinations and commitment to his grotesque world vision are not shied away from, Guinn helps deconstruct Manson’s sometimes incomprehensible line of thought, mostly involving either fear for his own personal safety, almost child-like fear for being ignored (in terms of his failed musical career), or just plain racism that charged most of his plans—and how it was the confluence of all the above that concluded in the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Nonetheless, Guinn’s actual writing remains compelling as ever. The chapters detailing the Tate murders are wrought with palpable tension and incredibly vivid descriptions that situate the reader directly into the horrific setting with an oppressive sense of verisimilitude. While my understand was quite murky into the actual machinations of how the Black Panthers, Helter Skelter, the Beach Boys, and Sharon Tate all exactly played their part, Guinn’s writing helps propels the reader through Manson’s puzzling thought process and convergence of these seemingly separate elements that all aligned for one of the most infamous crimes in American consciousness. As a result, The Life and Times of Charles Manson weaves an incredibly compelling narrative that manages to both deliver a page-turning read and succinctly explain the various elements that composed the Manson myth, while also dispelling so much of the mystique previously constructed in the public image of the man.

Album Review: Uncle Acid’s Mind Control


Unlike almost every other musical genre, one of metal’s biggest strengths has always lied in its distinct ability to conjure up creative, atmospheric realms that invite the listener into a specific world constructed by the artist. Doom metal, even more so than other metal subgenres, relishes this opportunity to create an oppressive, heavy atmosphere that filters the familiar instruments of rock music through the prism of distorted vocals, lyrics, and supporting instruments that open a portal into fictitious sonic worlds. And it is within this specific aspect, that Uncle Acid & the deadbeats separate themselves from their doom peers with an incredibly innovative and distinct approach to the genre as heard on their album Mind Control.

Taking their cues from a mix of Black Sabbath and a nightmare-version of the Beatles, Uncle Acid meld their riffs into atmospheric productions that are reminiscent of the former bands, but also add a very familiar sense of melody. Melodies that if isolated may sound like some undiscovered gem from the Beatles, yet when strained through the creative machinations of Uncle Acid—produce a haunting and unique tone that so eerily reminds the viewer of some digestible pop-rock song, yet also calls to mind an unearthly quality only recognizable in doom.

Mind Control’s basic album concept revolves around a Charlie Manson-like figure that descends from the mountain with song titles and lyrics that evoke the major motifs of the period, such as: “Valley of the Dolls”, “Follow the Leader”, “Desert Ceremony”, “Death Valley Blues”, and “Devil’s Work”. The album oscillates between heavy, thumping riffs like in “Devil’s Work” and the slower, sixties-infused feelings of a song like “Follow the Leader”. Although a song like “Devil’s work” utilizes a heavy riff that will satisfy metal heads looking for a more propulsive charge, songs like “Follow the Leader” offer a more interesting contribution the genre. “Follow the Leader” and “Death Valley Blues” both sound like the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” strained through an acid trip led by Charles Manson to his Followers in their final days on Spahn Ranch, but without ever calling unnecessary attention to any of such recognizable elements. Instead, eerie tunes somehow both nostalgic and otherworldly wash over the listener’s ears to create a very creative and transportative effect to both the sound and world constructed within this concept album—as only found in the best of doom.

Boardwalk Empire and the Beginning of the End

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     Although never as successful as its HBO gangster predecessor, the Boardwalk Empire finale is the best concluding television finale since its HBO sibling cut to an ambiguous black in The Sopranos nearly seven years ago. Ascending from the ranks of David Chase’s number two on that previous show to show runner of Boardwalk, Terrence Winter devised a series—exemplified in the finale—that commented not only on the nature of the gangsters populating this specific period in Prohibition, but whose sins would trickle down to later generations of Americans as imbued in Tony Soprano at large. Though shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, etc., remain masterpieces in their own right, Boardwalk’s ultimate sixty minutes demonstrated to devastating effect its mastery of long-term setups, own contextual history within the genre, and themes that illumine the dark nature of these particular-Prohibition gangsters through a beautiful collusion of storytelling.

As will be seen repeatedly, the opening shot of the finale works on multiple levels of setup and payoff in both narrative and theme. Cleverly eschewing the opening credits segment, Nucky’s clothes are crumpled on the beach—their owner swimming out past the ocean’s surf line— and away from the eponymous Boardwalk in contrast to the opening title bottles that always threatened to drown him toward it.

“What you leave behind. That’s all anyone’s going to remember you for”

The finale then cuts to the series of flashbacks that have been presented all season, where the Commodore delivers the above dialgoue to an eager Nucky hoping to finally achieve his dream of becoming Atlantic City Sheriff—and after having passive-aggressively hinted at the Commodore with his keeping the latter’s relationship with young girls a secret. A moment later, a group of young girls arrive to croon the Commodore with a rendition of Longfellow’s “The Secret of the Sea” to almost nauseating effect–the lyrics foreshadowing Nucky’s doom ahead: “Pleasant visions haunt me/ As I gaze upon the sea/All the old romantic legends/All my dreams come back to me…”


            The next sequence wraps up Al Capone within an unbelievably poignant, human glimpse into perhaps the most legendary gangsters seen throughout the series. Following a scene of his usual fist-pumping bravado and outward ignorance of his arrest, Capone returns home to confront his son. Unlike almost every other iteration of the man, the real estate of television allows for a heartbreaking look into one of America’s most infamous gangsters. Calling back to an earlier episode teaching his deaf son to fight, Capone shares a final conversation with his disabled son—aided by sign language that he’s clearly been practicing over the years—and begs for Sonny to make something of himself. The veneer of bravado melting, and adding with shades of Walter White logic, that his crimes were for Sonny’s well-being and that “that can’t be for nothin’”. The deaf son then raises his fists in a tragic payoff to that earlier scene; but instead, Capone—a man so far apparently incapable of responding to bad news of any kind without violence—crumbles in his son’s arms for a final hug goodbye.

A bit later on the boardwalk, a beautiful woman proclaiming to be from the future leads Nucky into a dark room to show him an early version of television. The scene drips with tension due the mislead of the New York gangsters announcing minutes earlier that they would murder their “friend” in public, but a more thematic tension arises from the eeriness of the newfound technology represented in the television. As the figurehead in a series depicting the archetypal gangster—the type to wear a pin-striped suit and a red carnation upon his lapel every day—a more haunting dread arises out of watching Nucky watching this revolutionary technology in an America that he will not be a part of moving forward. The television will soon become a mainstay in the American household—one that will eventually lead to a narrative television revolution depicted in The Sopranos built on de-constructing the type of gangsters that were established by Nucky, Capone, and Luciano—those initial godfathers to organized crime, who found their outlet and catalyst to build their empires through Prohibition.

Afterward, Nucky and his brother Eli share their own final farewell. More importantly, Nucky speaks to his swimming out past the surf line in the opening—detailing in more explicit virtue the foreshadowing metaphor of death that will soon meet him:

“Keep going until you can’t turn back. That’s where…there isn’t any choice…you don’t know where that is, you can’t know, until you pass it”.


     Meanwhile in New York, Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel have assembled the major mob figures that will form the Commission. Earlier in the episode, Luciano reminisces on his time with Nucky and Jim Colosimo—not so subtly reminding viewers of his incredible ascension to the top of the organized crime food chain. Alluding to King Arthur, Luciano notes that their meeting table is round, signifying a new equality amongst the mobsters. Despite his total destruction of Nucky’s Boardwalk empire, Luciano and the Commission are now moving in more ambitious terms—disavowing heritage squabbles (amongst white-looking gangsters at least) and intending to form a true empire of organized crime on a national level. With Capone is heading to jail and Nucky to the grave, the Commission—led by these once young crooks into future criminal kings—signals the end of the Prohibition gangster. Gangsters no longer slaves to the heritage of their ancestors—the Sicilian, Jewish, or Irish gangsters intent on dominating the other—nor the “half-a-gangster” represented by Nucky, Rothstein, and the Commodore in their constant battle between being a powerful public figure yet more powerful gangster behind closed doors—but an American gangster.


            Yet, Nucky’s ultimate fate returns to where it both began and will soon end—with Gillian. In another unbelievably heartbreaking scene, Nucky visits the source of his original sin and subsequent downfall. While fighting back tears in his speech, Gillian remains distracted by a ladybug. It’s worth noting that Gillian wears a pink dress with black dots, not unlike the insect upon her fingers. The viewer wonders whether she is ignoring him, confused, or waiting for him to finish…until the ladybug finally flies away. She tries to stand, but grips her stomach in pain—meaning that Nucky is too late, as Gillian has already met with Dr. Cotton, effectively sealing both their fates.

In the next scene, Nucky returns to his club for his belonging but is stopped by Luciano’s goons. After gesturing to one of the tassle-clad dancers catcalled on stage, the lead goon remarks: “These dancer look hot to trot. Start talkin’ to ‘em, you realized they’re all fucked up.” After having just come from his farwell talk with Gillian—literally a former dancer with severe mental problems (even before her meeting with Dr. Cotton)—Nucky understandably casts the henchman an incredibly sour look before going to retrieve his possessions. During this endeavor, however, he receives a call from the Ritz…


            This call revolves around “Joe Harper” becomes beautifully edited in a masterful cross-cut with Nucky’s flashback that echoes something along the lines of the original Godfather. In the flashback, Nucky has returned to the Neptune Parade on the boardwalk. (A mythological legend of note for the series both for his controlling the sea and his rape of Caenis.) Attentive viewers may remember that this parade was set to be Gillian’s goodbye with her first kiss James (who she would later her name her son after) before his family left Atlantic City, but James never showed. On the eve of Nucky’s ultimate sin, both Gillian and the Commodore offer words directly to Nucky’s face evaluating his nature:

“Mrs. Thompsons says you want to be good but you don’t know how”—Gillian

Then between Nucky and the Commodore:

“You think you deserve something…for trying hard…What are you in the end anyway?

“I am what I need to be.”

“How’s that make you anything at all?”

This is almost directly cross-cut in the present with Nucky’s attempt to help out “Joe”, to which he offers a stack of money, only to have Joe respond:

“You’re answer to everything”

“No. Just the best one I’ve got”


The correlation between these lines is remarkable—an astounding commentary both on Nucky’s nature and that of the American ideology. Paraphrasing much of this as though responsive of one another: “You don’t know how to be good…you think you deserve something for trying hard…I am what I need to be”—all ultimately answered in the form of money explains everything about Nucky’s character—a man believing that through an ethic of hard work and his deserving of money that his destiny can best be answered.

This idea is further cemented through the visual metaphor previously set-up throughout this episode, this season, and the series. In his last stroll along the boardwalk, Nucky notices a Neptune sign advertisement in a nod to the flashback of the intercut Neptune parade. (One might also note that he entices Gillian to meet the Commodore by asking if she would like to see the world—a callback to her reading the novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” earlier within the Thompson home). However, strolling along the boardwalk and being carefully watched by undercover Federal Agents, Nucky is stopped by drunk college kids that sing out Robert W. Service’s poem “The Spell of the Yukon”:

“I wanted the gold/and I sought it;/ I scrabbled and mucked like a slave./Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;/I hurled my youth into a grave./I wanted the gold, and I got it–/ Came out with a fortune last fall,–/yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,/And somehow the gold isn’t all”

“Joe” subsequently reveals his true identity—Tommy Darmondy, son of Jimmy Darmondy, and grandson of Gillian—and fires upon Nucky. As the sound distorts into something incomprehensible and murky—like the sound of drowning—Nucky’s final flashback resorts to his days as a youth and the opening shot of the season. In that shot, Nucky was unable to catch the coin, which motivates his never ending hunger for the “nickel…and then the dime…and the quarter”, as he explained to Margaret earlier in the episode, but the series ends with his finally being able to seize the gold. In doing so, he has done everything described in the above: he has fought for the gold, hurled his youth into the grave, came out with a fortune, and finally—dying beneath the boardwalk that he’s built but that no one will remember his name for leaving behind—realized that the gold was not all.

His death—coupled by Rothstein’s death, Capone’s arrest, and the construction of Luciano’s Commission—signals the end of the early days of organized crime. These were men, who believed that through hard work and the unique opportunity presented by Prohibition, that they deserved the gold. But ultimately, these were men of the past. Men who wanted to be good, but did not know how, their morals guided instead by a nightmare version of the American dream ahead. Though Luciano and the Commission would ultimately usurp them, the seeds of organized crime that flourished Prohibition would be passed down for many generations to come. Nucky’s legacy in the pursuit of gold will only be remembered as a footnote in the grander narrative of organized crime, along with his moral compass in being “what I need to be”, as American marches forward without him. And as Narcisse portentously remarks to his Harlem congregation before his assassination: “One generation passeth away, another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever”.

The Game of Funny Games


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In the day and age of countless prequels, reboots, sequels, and indistinguishable blockbusters, no remake stands out quite as curiously as Michael Haneke’s return to his 1997 film Funny Games with his American remake ten years later. Despite the relocation to America with American actors, the two films written and directed by the same filmmaker remain largely identical. For a premise that includes home torture invasion filled with some of the most savage and brutal acts committed to film, one must consider why this subject matter bears such close reexamination and recreation, not just by the filmmaker, but by his audience.

Funny Games revolves around a family—a husband, wife, and son—who arrive upon their vacation home only to be confronted by two upper class, white teenage boys that take the family hostage for a very long and horrible night. The boys engage in a series of eponymous games with the family, forcing their complicity in acts of humiliations, torture, and increasingly repulsive choices which culminates in a cycle of violence that not only comments on the repetition of the horror genre but of the audiences’ desire to seek out such horrors.


Starting with the family’s drive to their new lakeside vacation home, the husband and wife play a game of guessing the title and composer of the classical tracks on their cassette player. This is the first “game” to be played by the couple. As the audience settles into the opening credits, the two tease and joke with one another about their knowledge of these classic musicians. The guessing game plays out slowly, realistically, and arguably—boring. Then, suddenly, the clashing and overbearing heavy metal song “Bonehead” by Naked City plays over this idyllic and peaceful moment. The screaming, discordant vocals of the heavy metal over this smiling family within the comfort of their location (the car) can be befuddling, yet demonstrates exactly what Haneke will prove throughout the rest of the movie—that as much as the audience may wish to identify with this innocent and endearing family, as much as the appeal and elitism of the classical music may delude the audience into believing this is the same type of entertainment that they too enjoy, it is only with the intrusion of the unbelievably loud and attention-seeking heavy metal music that the audience finally starts to truly pay attention…for better or worse.

Haneke leads a small, diminishing group of filmmakers confident enough to play out not just a scene or two, but long sequences out in real-time—allowing the audience to observe the family as they pursue their daily and mundane activities. The father and son prepare their boat for sailing, the mother prepares meat for dinner, the family dog tries stealing food out of the refrigerator—for about fifteen minutes, the audience abides these uneventful and monotonous routines of familial life.

And then, it begins.

While preparing the meat, the first of the two teenage boys—Peter—knocks on the door. Almost instantly, a wave of tension rises over the viewer. These sequences of quiet, familial life suddenly interrupted by a chubby, affable looking teenager asking to borrow eggs. Thinking nothing of it, the mother—Anna—proffers a handful of eggs that the boy accepts. But on the way out, he “clumsily” drops them. Again, he asks for eggs. Though annoyed, she again hands him more of her eggs. But, again, he “drops them”—this time, knocking the house phone into the sink. With her suspicion rising, the second of the two boys—Peter—enters the home looking for his companion. If Paul’s presence weren’t enough to grab both Anna and the audience’s attention that something is wrong, Peter’s introduction wastes no time confirming it. The two boys continue to demand the eggs from Anna, while Peter claims a golf club from her husband’s bag. When she asks the two boys to leave her home, they polite refuse. When she demands that they leave…

They politely refuse.

When the husband and son—George and George J.R.—reenter the home, Peter wastes no time breaking the latter’s kneecap with the purloined golf club—disabling any hope for the family’s escape. And with this, the film enters the very long night of “funny” games perpetuated upon the hostage family. In the first of many gut-punching moments to come, Anna notices that the family’s constantly barking dog has gone quiet—absolutely silent. Fear flashing in her eyes, Peter smiles and escorts her outside and plays a game of “hot and cold” with the distraught mother as to where the dog may be. In between his shouts of “hot” and “cold” as Anna’s nears the inevitable, he turns and winks at the camera—at the audience.


Like with the music in the opening, Haneke again ensures that the audience cannot remain unengaged with this destruction of the fourth-wall. Like it or not, the audience must now understand that they are not a passive observer in the politics of this violent narrative but playing an active—albeit removed—role in the games to follow. Peter has dismantled any illusion that the audience is not a secondary participant to the “entertainment” at hand, and he intends to deliver what is expected in the conclusion of this type of genre entertainment. A moment later, Anna opens the car door and shrieks, as the corpse of the murdered dog falls from the trunk to her feet.

Following up from this, Peter and Paul decide to propose a bet with the family: considering whether or not they will survive until 9:00 AM the next morning. Peter then again turns directly toward the camera to ask: “Do you think they’ve a chance of winning. You’re on their side, aren’t you? So who will you bet with?” Again, Peter digs into the heart of the audience’s question of entertainment. The audience has arrived with certain expectations for a horror/slasher movie, and even in choosing to watch the movie, the audience is essentially “betting” with the filmmaker as to whether or not the characters will survive.

After a few more games—one that includes stripping the mother down to consider whether she is fat while stuffing the son’s head inside a pillowcase—Peter leaves Paul in charges of the family while he returns to the kitchen to make a snack. In the interim, as the young man casually makes his snack, a gunshot is heard off-screen. And then, the horrible shriek of one of the parents, followed by sobs and hysterical tears. When Peter moves back to the living room, the image we are confronted with is bright red blood across the television set. Over this, Peter screams at his companion:

“You’re an idiot, fatty. You don’t shoot the person you counted out, but the one that’s left over! What’s wrong with you? He tried to escape! So what! That’s no reason to get trigger-happy! Have you no sense of timing? It’s only midnight. We’ll get nothing from the others now.”

As the wailing of the mother and father are heard through his tirade, the audience comes to the horrific realization that it is the blood of the small child seen upon that television set. The blood upon the television set of both our literal screen to watch the movie, and the “fictional” set within the living room of the family. Enraged more by his companion’s breaking of the rules than by the death of the child, Peter and Paul decide to leave the home.


With her deceased son at her feet, Anna crouches across the floor in shock. She turns off the TV and—simultaneous with the departure of the boys—the film returns to the feeling of “real-time”. The couple sits. Crying. Nearly catatonic. For the next few long, agonizing minutes, the couple must absorb the fact that their child has died. This long, uncomfortable sequence further demonstrating the gut-wrenching consequences of the sadism so reveled in by the horror genre, but that is usually ignored by the urgency of the plot in so many other slashers and home-invasion movies.

The horror audience (and specifically the slasher subgenre) has come to the film with a certain expectation that have been cleanly setup by the premise. A normal group of people are terrorized by the monster from beyond, some will live, but some will most certainly die. Whether it be Freddy, Jason, or Leatherface, these monsters have created million-dollar franchises on this promise—on this bet with the audience—to see who will make it out alive by the end of the picture’s run time. As body counts escalate with each progressives sequel, the filmmakers seem increasingly less interested in the pathos and possible consequences that arise out of these killers taking a life, rather than exploiting the gore and jump-scares that are promised by the premise.

Moreover, this long sequence between the couple brings the rising horror of the film’s former minutes into a stark and unmistakable reality. For all the viscera and compelling filmmaking that has led the audience to engage with film—to be entertained by it—this family has lost their child. While the viewer may attempt to distance from this death by labeling it fictional, Haneke will addresses this problem through philosophical theory in the following scenes.

After recomposing themselves in the wake of this tragedy, Anna and George summon whatever will is left inside them to try and find help. George blow-dries the phone to call the police, while Anna takes to the streets—literally screaming for help. And of course, this glimmer of hope is quickly shattered. While the slasher’s return to the screen is normally presented as a source of excitement following a interim period of following a group of bland teenagers, the return of Peter and Paul into the home—and holding Anna hostage—the viewer is only left with a feeling of dread and that the worst has yet to come.

Despite killing the child, the teenagers return determined to conclude the bet. The final game involves Anna choosing whether a knife or gun will be her weapon of choice for death. After asking her to choose, with the duct-tape still wrapped around her mouth, Peter releases the tape to remind her:

“It’s boring when mutes suffer. We want to entertain our audience, right? Show them what we can do. We’re gonna play another game. This game is “The Loving Wife…Otherwise, known as whether by knife, or whether by gun, losing your life can sometimes be fun. Come on, don’t fall asleep. You have to play the game or otherwise I have to gag you again.”

Just after the audience has settled into some feeling of normalcy following Anna’s escape, Haneke refuses to let the audience off the hook. Even though Anna, standing in as the audience surrogate, continues to ask why they insist on completing the bet, that they’ve suffered enough. Peter stares at the camera and delivers: “Do you think it’s enough? You want a real ending, right? With plausible plot development, don’t you? The bet is still on.”

Indeed, with the boys’ disappearance following the child’s death, one wonders how the film could possibly continue. With so much running time left and the main agents of “plot” progression through the boys, Funny Games does not have much “entertainment” to pool from moving forward. What if Anna were to find safety? To find police that would resolve the situation? Would the audience claim afterward that this were as anticlimactic as Peter suggests? As the game reaches its climax, with Peter continuing to mock Anna and her husband, she finally does it—Anna grabs the shotgun and shoots Paul in the chest to kill him. Distraught, Peter grabs the shotgun, flips over the pillow couches, looking for…..the remote.

He finds the remote, clicks rewind, and then the film literally begins to rewind—reversing to the moment to just before Anna fired the gun. This time, however, Paul manages to reclaim the weapon and stop her from killing his companion. Although there have been a few fourth-wall breaks listed above, even as intense as Peter directly confronting the camera, this moment is arguably the most destructive and unbelievable. For the second time now, a moment of plausible escape has occurred for Anna. She seizes the moment, killing the film’s agents of violence…

…but it’s taken from her.

As though embodying the very soul of the film, Peter grabs the remote and changes the narrative’s course. He rewinds the timeline, seizes the shotgun, and uses the weapon to kill George. Like a viewer of the horror film, if given the opportunity, Peter is determined for the viewer to be entertained by this premise to maximum degree. In the most extreme version of this scenario imaginable, it means literally taking the film’s narrative into his own hands and changing the actions of the protagonist to ensure that there may be no outcome possible other than the one that causes viewers to be as “entertained” as possible. Though this exact definition remains up for debate, its consequences do not, as detailed in the final scene.


With Anna now the family’s sole survivor, the boys take her out upon the family’s fishing boat. While sailing out to the middle of the vast lake, the boys debate a particular philosophical discussion in a casual manner that may easily slip past the viewer due to its casual delivery and camera’s focus on Anna’s attempt to retrieve a knife in one last hope for escape. The conversation even begins with Paul in mid-sentence, exclaiming:

“And so everything is it’s mirror image, but of course, all these predictions are lies to avoid panic…but the problem isn’t only how to escape the anitmaterial world to go back to the real one but how to communicate between the two worlds…”

Peter then realizes that Anna has seized the hidden knife, and after applauding her “Olympic Spirit”, the two pause their philosophical discussion, check to find that it’s only 8 AM…before then Peter nonchalantly throws Anna over the boat for her to drown in the middle of the lake. The two appear to give little care toward Anna’s quick demise, especially with so much time left in the “bet”, under the excuse that they’re hungry. Docking the boat upon the other side of the lake, however, the two resume that previous discussion:

“Where was I?”

“You were discussing the difference between communicating with the material universe, and antimaterial universe, right”

“It turns out that one universe is real. And one is fiction…it’s a kind of model projection in hyperspace.”

“But where’s your hero now?”

“He’s in reality and he’s in fiction”

“But the fiction’s real…you can see it in the movie right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then, its’ just as real as reality, ‘cus you can see it, too.”


Here, again, the conversation plays out so seemingly out of context, quick, and cursory that the dialogue may slip past the viewer. However, it holds the key to much of Haneke’s thesis for the violence within not just this movie but horror in a broader context. While the discussion is clearly ambiguous, it also hints toward a theory of fiction that supposes much of the fiction—while existing in a different reality than our own—can still be believed to hold some level of truth. While one may easily scoff at such a theory, perhaps spouting Paul’s reaction: “Bullshit”, Peter/Haneke answers with the simple question of “Why”.

Though answers exists to such an esoteric and abstract theory, the point is to at least consider the consequences of distancing ourselves from such fictional horrors. Numerous times throughout the film, Haneke confronts the viewer about “rooting” for such heinous acts to occur, about accepting such tragedies in the name of entertainment, or attempting to distance ourselves from playing a removed role in the progression of these atrocious acts that occur on the “fictional” screen. Though there will always be violence in fiction—often times playing to discover a larger emotional truth about human nature, but used in equal measure for the shlock value of cheap entertainment thrills—Funny Games is a rare film that uses the genre to both the push the boundaries of such thrills and simultaneously comment on the larger issue of violence in fiction at large.

The film ends with Peter knocking on the resident’s door at this house on the opposite end of the lake. When the woman opens the door, he asks if he can borrow some eggs. She allows him inside the house to wait, and after she leaves, Peter stares directly into the camera for a final look at the audience as the heavy metal of “Naked City” ramps up to full volume again—suggesting the repetitive nature of this fictional cycle of violence. In Haneke’s decision to even repeat making this movie—in painstaking shot for shot recreation—Haneke is challenging repeat viewers for their compulsion to seek out this violence yet again. And not just of this remake, but of this level of violence in a broader fiction.

While many genre fans are often annoyed by movies like this, one as subversive and challenging about the very elements that a viewer has paid to see, Funny Games proves to be one of the most exceptionally crafted and inventive pieces of horror filmmaking to simultaneously push genre boundaries on a narrative level while confronting viewers’ desire to seek out this specific type of “entertainment”. Furthermore, Haneke’s decision to recreate his own movie through a shot-for-shot remake with American actors and setting serves to not only reproduce the entertainment for a new audience but also works as commentary on the continuing cycle of violence within the genre. As usual, Haneke has raised the bar for filmmakers to examine the principles of their work, genre, and purpose of the entertainment in their hands. Going forth, one wonders when other filmmakers may seize the opportunity to examine such a particular, prominent genre through both the narrative and medium as masterfully as Funny Games. As Peter would remind us: “The bet is still on”.