Tag Archives: Film Criticism




Like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, or David Chase’s criminally underrated Not Fade Away, the 2013 Swedish’s film We are the Best! occupies the small subgenre of coming-of-age films filtered through the joy of music. And while the former two are American classics in their own right—exploring the importance and influence of music to a specific generation of teenagers in the midst of small-town suburbia, Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! portrays an even further removed class of characters navigating their confused adolescence through their love of music during a country’s time of transition: those adolescents being an ostracized trio of thirteen-year-old girls, the country in transition being 1982 Stockholm, and the music genre in question being bombastic punk rock.

Similar to how Almost Famous imbues its sensibilities with that of a teenage-fever-dream, evoking those same emotions found in the best of the era’s seventies rock bands, and Not Fade Away replicates those same feeling of angsty, raw, and manic rock-and-roll found in the best of The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, We are the Best! injects its own sensibilities with all the primal and explosive power found in the best of the era’s punk rock.

The three girls composing this anomalous punk band are Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig. The former two complete tomboys and androgynous in appearance, growing up in homes distinctly different yet similarly dysfunctional, and complete outcasts at school for their stubbornly nonconformist attitudes. These thirteen-year-old girls have no one but each other: misfits within their family, amongst their classmates, and amongst larger Swedish society surrounding them—except through their one outlet of punk.

In an spur of the moment decision to start a band to spite a rival band of bullies, these two teenage girls demonstrate their level of actual musical prowess in a memorable debut performance—that is to say: they are terrible.

They bang on the drums and strum on the guitar like children let loose with toys, belting out non-sensical lyrics with little goal toward tune or harmony. Yet, that same childish glee radiates off the screen to powerful emotional effect upon the viewer. And as the two find an undeniable bliss through punk—a channel to funnel their angst, anger, and alienation—the two make a pact to try and make this music thing work, despite their obvious limitations in talent.

In spite of this description, the most important quality bestowed upon the film is a sense of authenticity and earnestness that could not be farther away from the phony qualities shared by so many genre features bearing similar aesthetics. These kids are true-blue goofy, often mumbling dialogue under their breath or struggling to look adults in the eye, yet are never written with a forced sense of affectation. In credit to the young actors (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), the girls are never portrayed as characters in a movie seeking the audience’s approval but as free-spirited youngsters who happened to be caught by the camera. Aided by a documentarian lens to the cinematography, the filmmakers portray the girls’ life in appropriate cinema verite fashion—as the three scream, shout, and argue with local authority figures as can only be found in the blissful ignorance and carefree attitudes of kids left to their own devices.

Moreover, the movie manages to perfectly capture the array of ambiguous feelings associated with these formative teenage years, especially for those on the fringes of their adolescent peers. Perhaps only as equally well captured as seen in television’s Freaks and Geeks over a decade ago, We are the Best! delineates a distinct portrait of these outsiders struggling to come to terms with their identity. Desperate to be liked and yet resentful of everyone around them, the two teeter between a confused adolescence of wanting relationships and friends and wanting to uphold their idiosyncratic identities as the school misfits and proud punks. Later, as the two charge ahead in forming their punk rock band, they quickly recruit a third player into their party: Hedvig.

Hedvig is a misfit of a different sort—one having grown up in a strict religious household and raised to perform classical music. This final band member finds friendship with the two in the fact that she literally has no other friends—she is known as the girl that eats alone at lunch. Quickly, she realizes that as strange as these two punks might be—it’s better than sitting alone. Joined by Hedvig, the trio finally formalizes their band’s identity and solidifies their friendship for its future.

Again, as corny and phony as that sounds in description, the actual scenes are anything but. Despite having one (terrible) song with hilariously bad lyrics as only two teenage girls could cook up (“Hate the Sport/Hate the Sport/Hate Hate Hate The Sport)”, the two begin to fall for all the classic trappings of a great rock band: clashing over egos, boyfriends, and the breakings of their initial bonds of friendship. The film wisely uses the catalyst of their forming a band to explore these perennial issues plaguing any adolescent and fully engages in their triumphs and consequences to sequences of raw, emotional devastation or heart-thumping cheers.

In short, this is a movie with a pulse. That makes palpable those poignant moments of childhood—friendship, heartbreak, creativity, competition, social anxiety, familial misunderstanding, and rebellion—and services these wide-ranging emotions in a swift two hours: all through the deceivingly simple premise of three talentless, teenage girls forming a punk band in early eighties Sweden.

Review: Mary and Max




Separated by continents, by decades of age, by gender, by ethnic background, by religious upbringing, the eponymous characters of Mary and Max—an eight-year-old Australian girl and a forty-four-year-old morbidly obese atheist in New York—should have as likely a chance of forming a life-long friendship as a clay-animation movie depicting this friendship should have a chance at being such an amazing piece of work. And yet, this anomalous movie forms a powerful, lasting impression: a poignant, and emotionally resonant exploration of human connection that flies in the face of standard storytelling conventions and works in superb fashion on every emotional level.

The story focuses on the unusual friendship formed by two misfits trapped in hellish domains that are as distant geographically, as they are psychologically similar. A narrator first introduces Mary: an eight-year-old Australian girl living an isolated existence amongst an alcoholic mother, depressed father, and unable to make friends after being relentlessly mocked for a brown birthmark across her forehead. Peppered with an assortment of distinct, creative character traits that help compose a portrait of Mary’s upbringing in compelling and memorable fashion (her love of concentrated milk, Australian chocolates, a pet rooster, her unmistakable birthmark), Adam Elliot’s writing immediately hypnotizes the viewer through a confident and peculiar tone that instantly announces that the following feature will be a ride through tour-de-force storytelling.

This precedent becomes further solidified in the next sequence, when the narrator introduces the second of the two titles characters: Max. After Mary has the bizarre idea to write to a random American she finds in the phonebook, she lands upon Max’s information and writes to the misanthrope in the hopes of finding answers to her everyday question about American habits. (In one of the few, and ultimately minor, weak moments of writing; however, this incredibly random way of initially connecting the two never sits quite right compared to the other surreal moments that flow much more organically). Max write back, although (even compared to Mary), he recounts an upbringing of heartbreaking consequence. Born to Jewish parents and raised in destructive circumstances (a father that left him, a mother that abused him, relentlessly bullied for his Jewish upbringing), Max has aged into a man sharing a parallel existence of isolation as Mary. He is depressed, agoraphobic, anxiety-ridden, extremely overweight, and on the verge of mental collapse.

Immediately, as the premise suggests, the idea of life being rekindled by their friendship has the potential to be an opportunity for cloying, indulgent sequences that resolve these existential problems through predictable, indulgent, or manipulative storytelling methods typically applied in the world of commercial animation…But that is not Mary and Max.

Instead, filmmaker Adam Elliot eschews such expectations by taking the story into difficult, ambiguous, and often very dark places. Moreover, this friendship goes through ups-and-downs, over long periods of time, that chart the successes and descents of both characters’ emotional lifetimes to imbue a feeling of raw authenticity. Max is eventually revealed to be suffering from an acute form of Asperger’s syndrome and his struggle to relate to the larger world around him descends into touching and moving realms that never treat his illness as a sideshow attraction (e.g. Rain Man) but as a means of imbuing insight and point-of-view to the audience into how this man has succumbed to such a devastating, hermetic lifestyle.

Additionally, the use of voice-over vis-à-vis the narrator, then the letters between the characters, may appear gimmicky on the surface, but the technique is used to exemplary effect as a means of further immersing the audience into the characters’ heads. With Barry Humphries as the narrator, Toni Collette as older Mary, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, the trio form a unified sense of tone that successfully transports the viewer into specific moods and habits of the characters in question.

Although some stretches certainly resonate stronger than others, the movie remains compelling in its entirety. The epistolary format feels closer to chapters of a novel than a typical film plot, and certain digressions into various aspects of the characters’ psyche help further demonstrate how character-driven this story remains above all else. Though numerous plot set-ups are paid off to powerful effect by the conclusion, the two title characters remain at the film’s center in a commendable application of the medium’s capabilities. The film confronts a number of formidable topics—abuse, mental illness, loneliness, suicide, depression, anxiety—without ever being shackled by the intensity of these themes and never flinches from the severity of their consequences within its Claymation setting. By its finale, Mary and Max concludes in similar, applause-worthy fashion. An ending both ambiguous and honest without any hint of dishonesty or undeserving of its ability to evoke such charged, wide-ranging emotions. Though operating with very different intentions and styles, the films of the Quay Brothers, Ralph Bakshi, or Miyazaki may bring to mind similar filmmakers hoping to expand the horizons of animated potential. Still, Mary and Max remains in a class as unique as the characters of its premise. A movie that sidesteps obstacles of conventionality and succeeds for finding that human connection between different worlds to ignite a genuine bond between both the characters and the audience.

Review: Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

While the subjects of adoption, foster homes, child abuse, and troubled teenagers have been almost exhaustibly explored in film, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 occupies the very unique space of a group foster home to examine the lives of those troubled teenage residents and their equally troubled supervisors that reside within this limbo space between the streets and a future home. The movie mainly follows two teenagers—Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver)—while also focusing on the relationship between their two supervisors: Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) Though a unique ensemble of equally interesting characters populate the cast, these four anchor the narrative—providing a clear focus into the major issues that plague the principals at play and illuming the dense problems that lie beyond the ignored doors of the group foster home that is Short Term 12.

Brie Larson’s Grace centers this confusing and chaotic world shared amongst her and these problematic kids that she tries to protect—made equally difficult by the ambiguous definition of her role. She is not their parent. Not to their psychologist. Not their friend. Not their guardian. And yet she and the other supervisors are forced to simultaneously play all these parts—made doubly worse by the fact that these kids are aware of the supervisors’ limited power in the form of any legal title—and often turn their ersatz guardians into the targets of their roiling emotions.

Grace and her fellow supervisor Mason are in the midst of a secret relationship that has reached a moment of crisis in the wake of Grace’s sudden pregnancy. The two are similar broken souls, coming from distinct but troubled backgrounds of their own, and determined to see that those kids under their care do not suffer from the same difficult upbringing that perhaps irreparably marks their own lives. Moreover, Grace’s difficult youth has led her down an often self-destructive path toward those intimate relationships in her life—namely those with Mason, her father, and what she worries will come to a breaking point upon the arrival her own upcoming child.

Still, while navigating this new world of being both expecting parents at home and substitute parents at work, the two employ every strategy in their arsenal to comfort one of the group home’s longest residents: Marcus, a troubled black youth on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, meaning that he will soon have to leave the safety of the foster home and return to his abusive mother, in the midst of his increasingly erratic behavior. As amazing as Larson’s performance stands as the true lead of the ensemble, Stanfield’s performance remains the most resonant and heartbreaking. While many others in the cast are given the explosive and “loud” moments that many confuse with great acting, Marcus’ character is clearly one of inner-turmoil made manifest within Stanfield’s big brown eyes that pour out emotion with a single, unforgettable look. His mumbled voice, slouched posture, and outbursts of rabid rage all combining to compose a compelling character often difficult to convey in the visual medium of film but managed to be stirringly embodied through powerful performance. In a movie filled with scenes of such raw emotion, those belonging to Marcus are perhaps the most unsettling and tragic through the remainder of the piece.

The second youth of the supervisors’ principal focus is Jayden, a young girl in the midst of her teenage years with an abusive father and similarly resentful of her surrounding world. Although she starts her storyline as the expected teenage girl filled with comebacks and snark at every turn—and due to the same nuanced writing that Cretton filters into the rest of his storytelling—Jayden matures into a distinct personality that offers a much more subtle version of this typically cliché ridden character and allows for a more memorable one as a result. Sometimes her story veers into obvious territory for the sake of mirroring much of Grace’s own childhood, and though this is still handled with deft in a way that never damages the emotional center, this should be attributed to Kaitlyn Denvers’ searing and devastating performance. Unlike Marcus, Jayden is prone to explosive fits of rage—anger that has been visibly bubbling beneath the surface and erupts with volcanic fury—at one point almost on par with Linda Blair and The Exorcist for the sheer, unearthly quality to her shrieks of hate and confusion.

Nonetheless, Cretton always ensures that Grace, her fellow supervisors, and the limbo of this foster home location remain the narrative focus. These digressions into certain subplots are mostly interesting for helping to complement the characters’ emotional trajectories, but Cretton wisely never forgets that the most distinguishing fact of this feature remains in the consistent chaos of the foster home. Though the role of Rami Malek’s Nate—a newbie supervisor whose role as the audience’s surrogate into this surreal setting is abandoned fairly quickly (and thankfully) after his initial function of orienting the audience into the day-to-day of the foster home—the narrative helps demonstrate in nuanced fashion how the emotional extremes of this world must be constantly monitored by the quiet strength of these social workers.

Though moments of the third-act steer the plot into what feels like a different movie, the eventual conclusions found for Grace, Mason, Marcus, and Jayden are all served to very powerful final effect. As someone who actually worked in such a group home for at-risk teens following his graduation, Cretton imbues an authentic impression into this world pushed both to society’s wayside and the fictional world of film, as well. Consequentially, Cretton paints a haunting portrait of a group home populated with humanity and horror for both those short term residents and long time supervisors found within the eponymous Short Term 12—and one unlikely to be forgotten for an audience allowed a glimpse past its doors that have been ignored for far too long.

Review: The Bad News Bears (1976)


Not half an hour into the 1976 classic The Bad News Bears, one of the little league players describes his teammates as: “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron”. As if the opening shot of their new coach sneaking whiskey into his beer before introducing himself to the kids wasn’t loud enough—the audience has now been warned to strap themselves in for an unforgettable comedy quite unlike any other they may be accustomed to. The new coach in question is Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau): a former minor league player turned alcoholic, professional pool cleaner. To scrounge up some extra cash, Buttermaker agrees to coach a newly formed little league composed of the most unathletic kids to be found in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, some of which include: two Mexicans brothers unable to speak English, a constantly cursing shortstop, a smart-mouthed catcher, a near-sighted pitcher, and a very shy boy named Lupus picked on by his teammates.

Modern audiences (parents in particular) may find themselves shocked by the amount of vulgarity and utter disregard for political correctness on display. Besides the surfeit of racial epithets that fly out of the kids’ mouth, almost every scene with Buttermaker has him drinking (in one scene, drinking and driving with a broken windshield and the car filled with kids). Nonetheless, this is part of the film’s undeniable charm—a sheer refusal on the part of screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Mike Ritchie to portray adolescence with any hint of phoniness, as though challenged by the audience. The movie revels in this tone: a dogged determination to eschew what is perhaps the most predictable genre outside the rom-com—the sports genre—by depicting both kids and adults as rounded human beings with flaws and attributes that make their final game a triumph of teamwork, despite whatever the final score may read.

Buttermaker’s story begins about as pathetic as possible—a washed-up ball player who shows up to collect his checks and exert as minimal coaching effort as possible. Beer cans are glued to his palms, and he passes out in a drunken stupor over the pitcher’s mound in the midst of an afternoon practice. After the kids demand a team uniform, and the other teams are shown to be wearing the logos of local, reputable business, the Bears are hilarious revealed to be wearing an advertisement for “Chico’s Bail Bonds” across their backs. As the series begins, and the team is continually humiliated in their outstanding losses, Buttermaker finally takes a stand—determined for this team to reach the championship. He recruits an all-star pitcher in the form of a young girl named Amanda (Tatum O’Neil), daughter to one of his former girlfriends, along with local bad boy Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley) to help bolster the team’s comically weak roster. The addition of these unlikely—yet significantly more talented—misfits to this team of oddballs allows their steady rise through the league, as well as a change to the team’s dynamics for the worse.

Buttermaker transforms into a demanding coach that no longer interacts with the kids as a friend or father figure but a power hungry and uncompromising dictator. During the final game, however, Buttermaker realizes in stark horror how badly his recent behavior has changed both his identity and feelings for the team. The alcoholic coach returns to his position a humbled man, who despite the parents’ protests, insists on making sure every single player—from the pansy, to the “booger-eating moron”, to the near-sighted pitcher, to the all-too-shy Lupus—finally get their chance to play ball.

By the final whistle, the boys reject whatever outcome appears on the scoreboard in favor of their victory as a team—splashing one another with Buttermaker’s beers, telling the rival team to shove the trophy up their ass and wait for next year, as they celebrate the joy of winning even in losing. Moreover, the movie delivers this unquestionable victory without any schmaltz or dishonest tone—the irreverence as unwavering and confident as from its opening frames with Buttermaker pouring whiskey into his Budweiser before meeting these equally irreverent kids.

Matthau’s performance as Buttermaker is of noteworthy delight—perpetually slouched, drunk, and puffing his cigar—but refusing to quit. His character arc is not one contrived to dishonestly pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but a broken man hoping to help these kids have some fun and learn something along the way. In a genre often guilty for gearing its narrative to the most obvious results—coaches pushing their players to an inevitable victory if they can overcome their differences—The Bad News Bears is as an anomalous winner as much as the goofy team that gives the film its title. As brash as it is brave, this is a movie whose story stands the test of time—its humor and heart as funny and moving as when it was released. And like this team by the final score, the movie understands that its victory with the audience is through the camaraderie of a genuinely shared experience. An experience that, despite any faults in craft, cannot be criticized for refusing to compromise and delivering all the best it has to offer.

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.

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.