The Apartment (1960)


In 1959, Billy Wilder (The Lost WeekendSunset Blvd.Stalag 17) directed the funniest film in history, Some Like It Hot, about violent gang activity, misogyny, and the dangers of toxic masculinity. The next year, he made another very funny movie about another topic that doesn’t easily lend itself to comedy, sexual harassment in the workplace. His male characters in Some Like It Hot are like the creepy but harmless old men that stare at young women too long, but his male characters in The Apartment are the entitled predators who use and abuse women out of power to boost their grandiose self-image (think Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, or Donald Trump). Fred McMurray plays the most powerful man in the office and the most dangerous to the women who work for him, giving one of the greatest, most sinister villainous performances of all time.

The Apartment was made more than 50 years before the #metoo movement, long before anybody talked seriously about workplace harassment. It was a societal norm that was rarely questioned, but Billy Wilder took a wildly innovative approach to making this movie that would begin discussion about workplace ethics and be extremely entertaining at the same time. If he would have made the abused woman the lead character, it wouldn’t have the impact in 1960 that did, so he creates a labyrinth of corruption and deception all surrounding the key to a male, submissive employee’s apartment. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) is the victim that we see all the workplace sexual harassment through. He’s promised raises and promotions by higher-ups if he’ll let them use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. He never really agrees but sees his job on the line if he doesn’t let them have their way. No never mean no for these creeps, and that’s not just true as far as women and sex are concerned, but no doesn’t mean no for Baxter and the use of his apartment either.

Once Fred McMurray’s character, Jeff Sheldrake, begins to develop, so does the romance between Baxter and and Sheldrake’s current victim, Fran Kubelik. They meet daily on the elevator she works on, always referring to each other as Mr. Baxter and Miss Kubelik even after their romance develops. It’s not just a result of their workplace relationship but its a symbol for their genuine respect for each other and for people in general, something that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere beyond these two characters in their place of business. They share respect for each other and for the abuse they both face at the hands of Sheldrake. They share something unique to them in that office. Each of them is a “mensch.”

When Baxter’s neighbor thinks that Baxter is responsible for all that he hears going on in Baxter’s apartment, he tells him to start being a “mensch,” a human being. This line is the heartbeat of every second of the movie. As Billy Wilder shows us the devastation of workplace sexual harassment, he shows us the dehumanizing nature of such abuse. Yet at the same time he introduces us to two people who, though subject to that dehumanization, are able to recover and regain what had been stolen of their humanity through respect and love, through being a “mensch.”

It’s remarkable to notice how much love Billy Wilder had for his female characters. In Some Like It Hot, Sugar (Marylin Monroe) talked about how she always got “the fuzzy end of the lollypop”, but because of the genuine changes Tony Curtis’ character made in his treatment of women, we’re sure that in the end she didn’t get the fuzzy end of the lollypop. For Miss Kubelik, we know she just wants to find someone who will treat her well. We know that Baxter is that person but also that she needs time to recover before entering a relationship that can be healthy. So when Baxter tells her he loves her during a game of gin rummy, and she responds hilariously by saying, “shut up and deal,” it’s Billy Wilder’s brilliant way of saying they eventually lived happily ever after, but in a way shows the love he has for the character of Miss Kubelik without any of the triteness that usually comes from a happily ever after.



Mary Poppins (1964)


Hidden behind what on the surface is a delightful fantasy comedy with catchy songs is a very powerful and even confrontational movie about empathy and responsibility. The movie opens with the melody of song we hear much later in the movie, “Feed the Birds.” The lyrics of the song are the heart of the whole movie. Just before Mary sings the song, she tells the kids that some people just can’t see past the end of their news. In that brief line, she gives a perfect assessment of their father whose priorities are entirely monetary and self-centered, yet he’s diluted himself into believing that he does everything he does for his family. When the kids express their belief that their father doesn’t love them, they’re right. But Mary’s job isn’t to get their father to see past the end of his nose and learn to love, it’s to teach the kids to learn to see their father who he is and accept him regardless so that he may be the way he learns to love.

The kids’ father isn’t the only one with priority problems that don’t allow the kids to feel loved. Their mother is well-intentioned with her fight for women’ suffrage (Glynnys Johns who gives the film’s best acting performance). Some of the movie’s funniest moments come because of her hypocritical attempts to fight a great fight in private with her friends while keeping it from her husband, since “the cause infuriates Mr. Banks.” She’s willing to tie up the prime minister and get a large clan of women arrested, but she won’t take any chances of confronting her own husband’s sexism. All this shows that she’s just as blinded by her own priorities as her husband is, even though they’re more well-intentioned and less self-centered. While she’s kind and caring to the kids on the surface, she can’t see past the end of her nose either, and all that she thinks she’s doing for her kids is really for her cause and actually hurting her kids.

Through Mary Poppins and Burt, the kids learn how to avoid the materialism, hypocrisy, and indifference that surrounds them. They learn that by looking around and seeing the people and the needs of people that nobody else recognizes (the “bird woman” that “Feed the Birds is about), they can learn to meet the needs of others, to empathize, and to love in ways their parents haven’t been able to demonstrate. At the end of the great “Chim Chim Che-re” scene, Burt gets the opportunity to deal with the father directly, singing some very harsh words that bring the healing the family needs: “And when your little tykes are crying, you haven’t time to dry their tears and see their thankful little faces smiling up at you, ’cause they’re dad he knows just what to do.”

When Mr. Banks hears these words, he tries to interrupt Burt to make a defense, but Burt just keeps singing and won’t let him off the hook. Through this confrontation, he realizes how blind he’s been and how much he’s hurt his children. This scene is the reason the more recent film depicting the making of Mary Poppins was called Saving Mr. Banks. Mr. Banks is saved from himself, from his wrong priorities, from his indifference, and from his lack of empathy. The film ends with one of the most joyful scenes ever in any movie I’ve seen with Mr. Banks showing the results of his awakening all symbolized through flying a kite. And the great song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” shows how George is not the only one saved through his decision to listen to Bert’s words. The whole family, those who work for the family, and even the heads of Mr. Bank’s bank all receive a new outlook on life that changes everybody around them.

Mary Poppins may be a great movie for kids. But it only gets better, deeper, more profound, and spiritual as we grow up. It’s still a sweet and delightful fantasy but it is far, far more than that. Multiple viewings don’t just increase an appreciation for the filmmaking but for the timelessness and the power of its message for people of all ages.


Mrs. Miniver (1942)


The sounds of William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver assist the story in ways so profound that they actually tell a lot of the story. The first half hour or so shows the pre-war Miniver family full of materialism and vanity. Every time we hear a war siren, it’s not just the simple sound we’re used to hearing in WWII movies. Each siren is a warning to the Miniver family to denounce their ways of materialism and vanity. Each siren connects in an important way to a car, an expensive hat, or some other luxury that the family has come to depend on.

Along with the sounds of war, some of the more usual sounds of life send important messages to the Miniver family. Several scenes occur during church services. When we hear one of the Minivers sing along with the voices around them, we know from the tones in their singing what’s going on inside of them. The first and the last church scene both involve the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” The first time, the sounds of the Minivers singing tell us that they’re in church only because the Minivers have always gone to church. But the last time, they’re a family that has recognized their deep for help, and the sound of their singing expresses a willingness to receive the divine help that they didn’t express the first time we heard them sing it.

Before the war begins the only challenge the Minivers experience to their vain lifestyle comes from their son. After a year at university, he recognizes a need to stop living only for himself. He doesn’t have a clue how to do this since it has never been modeled for him, but his newfound desire to see justice done around him confronts their status quo. Once the war starts and he joins the air force and the family has started to grow out of its self-centeredness, we hear planes all the time but there’s a special cue their son gives through the sound of his plane whenever he flies over the Miniver house. The sound of his plane further confronts them to leave their lives of selfishness, but much more than that it gives them a reason and desire to that. It gives them an example of what it means to sacrifice and to live for others.

Director William Wyler is the star of Mrs. Miniver, even more than Greer Garson who plays the title role, wonderful as she is, as is the rest of the cast. His attention to the smallest of details shows the growth of the story’s characters in a genuine, believable way without ever giving way to emotional sensationalism or cheap sentiment. Along with all the sounds that William Wyler uses to accomplish this, the name of the Miniver’s cat is another important detail that tells us so much about the family. The Miniver family was real, so I don’t know if they actually had a cat named Napoleon, but if they did it tells us a lot about them, and if they didn’t then the screenwriters did something brilliant (among many brilliant acts) to communicate the truth of the Miniver family.

They had Napoleon before WWII started. They never discuss why they gave the cat the name they did, but the name communicates more of the vain presumption the family lived on before the war. They named their pet after one of history’s most destructive tyrants apparently seeing it as a cute name for their pet only to having to endure the destructive tyrant of their own time. The cat’s name is also important for the irony that in the movie’s greatest scene it’s Napoleon the cat who gives them a picture of what it means to really live. This great scene with Napoleon the cat, who is named after a destructive dictator, gives them an example of where true joy comes from, much different from how they had been living their lives before.

This scene where they learn about joy takes place in a bomb shelter. They learn how to love through the hate that has attacked their country. They learn how to find peace during war. They became a family of heroes through the most ironic and contradictory of situations. Kay Miniver became a war hero on the homefront when German soldiers surrounded her home while both her husband and oldest son were in battle. The family that was once so stuck inside itself was able to become a family of heroes that made great contributions during WWII because they were willing to listen to the sounds and voices that all originated from God himself to lift them out of their self-centered vanity and into life, joy, sacrifice, and love. Because they were eventually open to hearing the voice of God in all the ways that it presented itself to them, they even experienced the greatest irony of all, abundant life while surrounded by the constant death.


Ikiru (1952)


Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a perfect movie for New Year’s Day. It’s all about a new start. The word “ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese. Kurosawa is known for his great samurai epics loaded with action and suspense where even the courtroom scenes in Rashomon and the dialogue, relationships, and personal growth in his medical drama Red Beard have a very fast pace about them. Ikiru couldn’t be more different than a usual Kurosawa film. Its story is told at a very slow pace and actually isn’t that much of a story at all. It’s more of a meditation on what it means to live.

The film opens with the x-ray picture of a stomach with a cancerous tumor. A voiceover narrator tells us that the stomach we’re looking at belongs to our protagonist. The protagonist is Watanabe played by Takashi Shimura. Watanabe has never lived. He worked, obsessed over money, believed that his work was for the benefit of his son, but his son didn’t appreciate it at all. His son was not ungrateful, he was unappreciative because his father gave him only material things and never invested in their relationship, what he really needed.

When given his diagnosis, Watanabe is told that he has no more than a year to live. He admits to a man he meets that he has wasted his life and wants to live but doesn’t know how. His new friend tries to help him live through expensive wine, parties, and strippers. Watanabe comes to see through his friend’s attempts that he is not the only one who doesn’t know how to live. He interrupts a party when the musician offers to take requests. Watanabe requests a song called “Life Is Brief.” We see Watanabe grieve as he accepts this reality not only for himself but confronts others to search their own lives as Watanabe’s health crisis has forced him to do. Through his eyes, he shows both a lost look of confusion not knowing how to live along with hope from a newfound desire to help others learn how to live, even though he doesn’t know how to do it himself yet.

Watanabe moves on in a pursuit of a new guide to teach him how to live. He ran into a girl who worked for him before the diagnosis. He hadn’t quit his job but his long absence was very puzzling to his co-workers. The girl tells him that everyone at work is excited for him not showing up at work since he was clearly a workaholic, they see it as his transformation. She’s right, but he can’t realize that transformation until she tells him. She teaches him how to have fun, enjoy life, to create, and to give willingly to others, giving what they really need instead of what is easy to give as Watanabe had previously done with his son. She encourages him to reconcile with his son, and she is the way he learns what it means to live.

After a bitter meeting with this girl that ends their friendship, he leaves a restaurant while all we hear is the sound of other patrons singing “Happy Birthday” to someone else. I don’t think this is an ironic contrast between the celebration of a birthday and the dejectedness of a man losing even more while already knowing his life is about to end as many think. Even though the relationship ended, she is the reason he knows how to live which is exactly what he leaves that restaurant to do. It is a birthday of sorts for him. The last hour of the movie takes place in flashback after Watanabe’s death, showing with absolute certainty that he did learn to live, that he did experience a new birth through that decision, and that he taught others to do the same. By the end of the movie, Watanabe has taught even those of us watching the movie 65 years after the film’s release, what it means to live.


Now, Voyager (1942)


2017 is the 75th anniversary of the film that Bette Davis gave her greatest performance in. Like Whoopie Goldberg’s Celie in The Color Purple, Bette Davis’ character Charlotte is transformed from victimhood of years of abuse and deprivation of love and kindness into a confident woman who is able to experience the reality of goodness in the world and to be part of that goodness, giving of herself to others and healing the brokenness in others, helping them experience the same transformation she has gone through. The story of The Color Purple is overtly religious while Now, Voyager‘s is not, but the process we see in Now, Voyager is just as much of a spiritual transformation.

Charlotte’s existence is controlled by her mother. She makes no decisions on her own, has no friends of her own, and thinks of herself as incapable, ugly, stupid, and completely dependent on her mother because that is exactly how her mother has groomed her. The psychological abuse Charlotte endured is almost unbearable to watch at times, and we see enough flashbacks to know that it has been going on her whole life. But the story begins at a breaking point in Charlotte’s relationship with her mother where she meets a psychiatrist (Clause Raines from Casablanca and Notorious playing one of the rare upstanding characters of his career). He helps her see that there is more to herself than what she can see and that the only way to discover that is to have some separation from her mother.

After her psychological treatment, the doctor encourages her to travel apart from her mother. As she does that, the transformation becomes real. She has to fight with the lies she’s heard from her mother for so many years that she’s too ugly and stupid to be lovable. When a man expresses romantic interest in her, she has to learn to accept herself as worthy of that kind of love. She has to know that she is capable of giving any kind of love. As the transformation unfolds, Now, Voyager becomes one of the most romantic movies ever made, but since this man who she falls in love with is married, her transformation is complicated. She learns to love Jerry (Paul Heinried, also from Casablanca) through his daughter Tina whose experiences mirror her own.

The movie’s most famous scene includes the line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Her transformation is complete because she has been able to love another. Charlotte and Jerry both have too much respect for Jerry’s commitment to his wife to let their attraction to one another tear his family apart. That would be to ask for the moon. But they truly love each other in a way that allows Tina to escape the abuse she endured from her mother by becoming like the daughter of Jerry and Charlotte, even though it’s separate with Charlotte as her caretaker. That’s what it means for them to have the stars.

These characters experience spiritual transformations that make them able to receive and to give love. They are empowered to no longer be trapped by the effects of abuse they’ve experienced and to heal others through the love they’ve been shown. While Now, Voyager is one of the most romantic movies ever made, its view of love is much fuller than that. The expressions of love are life-giving and sacrificial. They empower others to be transformed as they have been.



The Immigrant (1917)


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest short length film. Like most of Chaplin’s movies, he balances on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy in The Immigrant. The film opens on a ship headed for the U.S. Its occupants are mostly Russian Jews seeking refuge from the oppression of the tzar. On the ship, Chaplin accomplishes some of his greatest physical comedy including the results of seasickness and a choreographed scene with a fish that must have inspired Monty Python’s obsession with fish slapping. But Chaplin does all this surrounded by grief, poverty, hunger, and desperation.

Chaplin’s character doesn’t seem to have the same amount of physical and emotional distress as those with him on the ship. The movie doesn’t explore why that is or give any of his (or anyone else’s) backstory. We just know that he’s surrounded by hurt and sees himself as a way to make things right. Chaplin’s characters are often unintentional heroes that do great things for other people but only by accident. His character in The Immigrant is no “little tramp.” This may be his only true heroic character.

Most of the movie is set on the ship. Through what happens on the ship, we see that the story is set in a time where immigrants are unfairly labeled “bad hombres” just like the world we live in in the U.S. right now. An older woman on the ship realizes she has lost the money that will make her able to enter the U.S. legally. Without that money, she gets sent back. Chaplin’s character has compassion on her and has a very funny scene where he tries to sneak money into her pocket without her knowing it. But an American guard on the ship sees and accuses him of being a pickpocket. When they reach the border, things just get worse.

Everywhere he goes, he’s treated like he doesn’t belong, like he’s ruining the country, and like he’s a “bad hombre.” Nobody is willing to show him the same compassion that he is so willing to give others. Chaplin’s usual characters would fight over this, but not this one. Chaplin’s immigrant character is always willing to fight, but only for other people that he sees being wronged. In less than a half hour, we see a story that vividly shows the themes of justice, compassion, and mercy, something so sadly missing from the America of its time.

It’s been 100 years since The Immigrant was made, and in the last few decade, much progress has been made to avoid the type of treatment of people seen in this movie. But ever since Donald Trump decided to “make America great again,” he’s shown that his vision of American greatness looks a lot the anger, oppression, deceit, and discriminatory behavior that marks how the American characters in this great Chaplin film treat immigrants. That is a very sad reality, yet Chaplin’s character offers such a contrast to all the harm by being a source of healing. So the movie shows us that we can fight against these cultural swings towards hatred and indifference by giving love and compassion.


Other Chaplin movies I’ve reviewed:

The Gold Rush (1925); Modern Times (1936); The Great Dictator (1940)


Paths of Glory (1957)

“Sometimes I’m ashamed to be a human being. This is one of those cases.” Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas)


Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is centered around a German attack against the Anthill in WWI France. But Paths of Glory isn’t a war movie. It’s a courtroom drama without a physical courtroom. Col. Dax is both a French military colonel and a highly skilled defense attorney. He is commanded to lead his men in a suicide mission that he begins to carry out but eventually hinders. This command is the first event that leads him to be ashamed of being a human.

As the highest military officials learn that many men backed out of the suicide mission and didn’t obey the orders, trials begin. Col. Dax is the center of that trial but only because he’s a lawyer, not because he did his duty of leading his men to retreat when the mission became impossible. In doing so, he was the only one who disobeyed any orders. But the political corruption and blackmail that directed the military officials wouldn’t allow a colonel to be tried for insubordination. Everybody knew that Col. Dax did what he needed to do and that his men did what they were ordered to do and that Col. Dax saved many lives. But all the officials cared about what political expediency, so they demand a court-martial where the decision of the death penalty has already been made before the trial even starts.

Through most of the movie, we watch this farce of a trial with its defendants knowing they’re condemned long before any sentence is issued. But most of all we watch Col. Dax fighting a suicide mission. He refused to let his men fight in the suicide mission he was ordered to lead, so instead, he fights a suicide mission that ends his career. Even though he knows the results of the trial just as well as the accused do, he’s more motivated by his knowledge of what’s right and wrong, by his sense of duty to preserve justice, than he is by the corruption that controls the case.

Col. Dax is completely alone in his fight for truth and justice. He is the only person with any compassion for the people wrongfully accused. Through his defense of the accused, he is punished for his own actions that caused the trial. He is punished for seeking justice while at the same time seeking more justice for the three men chosen to pay for his own actions. He even offers himself to be executed as the officer who gave his men orders that disobeyed the orders given to him. But the “court” wouldn’t hear it. They wouldn’t hear any council or any argument that presents truth or demands justice.

Col. Dax is one of the greatest movie heroes because he never backs down on his pursuit of justice no matter how impossible his situations are. The impossibilities are always caused by corruption and indifference to the lives of troops coming from the commanders over him. And they always lead him to a sense of shame about being human, because he knows what is right but being completely alone in his attempt to carry out what is right, he is never allowed to do so. But as ashamed as he is, that shame is always of those associated with him. He remains unshaken in his commitment to truth and justice, so regardless of how horribly things turn out, we are inspired and motivated by this man who cares so much about the people under his command, that he is willing to sacrifice everything of his own career and life to protect them, to grant them justice, and to stand up for what is right and what is true.

Other Stanley Kubrick Films I’ve Reviewed:

The Killing (1956)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)