Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


“An audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write about monsters?” Actors portraying Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron introduce the second installment of her Frankenstein story (something she never actually wrote). Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the monster’s bride), asked question I just quoted. This is the mindset that undoubtedly has guided director/screenwriter/producer Guillermo del Toro’s career, leading to his passionate and sensual (but definitely not pretty or little) love story about the relationship between a deaf-mute cleaning lady and a sea monster that just won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

In James Whale’s first Frankenstein film, he produced a perfect retelling of Mary Shelley’s masterwork for film. Just as Shelley did, that film emphasized the horrific results of playing God. But Bride of Frankenstein goes even farther to condemn the actions of the mad scientist while finding empathy, and even humanity, for the monster he created. The evil actions committed by the monster are not the monster’s fault but the creator’s fault. Beginning just where the earlier film left off, Dr. Frankenstein is about to be married, and his bride reminds him of just that. She will not allow him to continue a life that does not take responsibility for his destructive creation. Wanting to please her, he tries to turn from his ways until an even madder scientist, Dr. Pretorius, convinces him to return to his former ways and to build a wife for the first monster.

Our empathy for the monster is built through his desperate pursuit of connection. As he’s being pursued by all the people of the town who wrongfully blame him for the murders that have occurred instead his maker, he is marginalized to the point of feeling invalidated and dehumanized, much like Sally Hawkins’ character and her sea monster in The Shape of Water. But the monster begins to gain a sense of humanity not initially through romance but through the sound of a violin. As he’s drawn to the beauty of the music, we see something that the monster has a soul, something that the first movie only hints at.

As the monster follows the sound of the violin, he meets an old, blind hermit who welcomes him and teaches him to speak. His first words are “bread,” “drink,” and “friend.” He is now becoming human as is finally experiencing the fulfillment of the most basic human needs. Through this first taste of humanity, he learns to embrace his desire for mate all while his maker and the even madder scientist are trying to make that happen without even knowing he wants or needs it. They’re motives of course have nothing to do with the monster’s humanity or the safety of the community but with their own insatiable lust for power over things no human has power over. As they proclaim the beginning of “a new age of gods and monsters,” they continue to dehumanize both their creations and the rest of the world around them. But for a brief moment, the monster has the opportunity to embrace life and to be a human, making this monster, as played by Boris Karloff in both films, one of the most profoundly moving character in cinematic history.


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.


Pulp Fiction (1994)


Pulp Fiction is known for its gruesome but stylish violence, pitch black but goofy sense of humor, and especially the many ways Tarantino’s storytelling so brilliantly messes with our minds so that even after seeing the movie several times (I think I’ve seen it about 10 times), we’re still not quite sure we just saw. Yet behind all this is a strangely profound movie about faith. Every twist and turn, every intentional chronological confusion, every character that seems unrelated to Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in some way or another all center around Jules’ professed experience of the miraculous that leads him to leave his life of crime and become a Christian.

Near the end of the film we see an act of repentance where Jules begins to put his past life to death so he can begin his new life. He describes the miracle he claims to have experienced, during a hit, when bullets should have killed him and his partner Vincent (John Travolta) but instead ricochet onto the wall, many times throughout the movie. Because Tarantino organizes the story without any traditional sense of chronology, we see him explain his story in several different times and contexts as well as the results of that experience from people that don’t even seem related until everything unfolds in the final scene.

As we see the impact that Jules’ newfound faith has on himself, we might get confused whether we’re seeing a scene before or after the miracle the first time seeing the film, but once the movie’s over, this all become clear (even if little else of the story is after the first viewing). With repeat viewings, we get to know that Jules’ transformation is clarified throughout the movie, not just in the last scene. The first time seeing the movie, we might think he’s crazy or just telling the story as part of a brilliant criminal scheme. But the way he uses a prophecy of destruction from the book of Ezekiel as a tough-guy line before killing people is how we know we’re seeing a pre-Christian Jules.

Most of the time we see Jules actually is after the miracle, so when he says at the end of the movie how he’s trying to be like Christ, we can see that in the rest of the movie with repeated viewings. We see the genuineness that he tells his story with. We see a desire for others to experience what he has. We see lots of confusion, lots of anger, and lots of uncertainty of what it means to live this new life, so many of the old things are still there. But we do see through all of these things that he means what he says at the end when says “I’m trying, I’m really trying.”

With the exceptions of a few film portrayals of great real-life saints and church leaders like Monsieur Vincent and A Man Called Peter, Jules Winnfield is probably the most lovingly and fully created developed character in film history to represent repentance and conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. This is admittedly an extremely strange thing to say about a character in a movie so filled with actions of brutality and perversity, but that’s precisely what makes all the complex and divided puzzle pieces Pulp Fiction come together. It is a depiction of how in the places and situations of the world where evil and darkness are the most visible, light still shines, and goodness still pervades. Repentance like Jules’ is turning point that can make everything different in the world around the genuinely repentant person.

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.


The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


One of the best things about The Shawshank Redemption is its story’s faithfulness to its title. The word “redemption” is so often misused in our culture with connotations that the word has never carried. It’s used in sports and other competitive situations meaning to make up for a missed opportunity and often the word is even used to imply revenge. But these two uses of the word are exactly the opposite of what the word actually means: freedom that someone receives at the cost of someone else.

There are two redemptions that happen at Shawshank. The first is when Andy begins to get favor with the prison guards, offering tax advice in exchange for a beer given to everyone else on his work crew. He doesn’t even take one, he watches the others enjoy what was done for them so they could, for that moment, feel free again. It happens early in the movie and only reaches a small portion of the prisoners, but it’s Andy’s first taste at giving others the redemption that he (as an innocent man who has the legal and moral right to freedom) will never be able to receive in this story’s context.

Then there’s the big one, the redemption that affects the whole prison. Even though Andy was almost killed in the first redemption, he knew that he’d be able to get out of that situation and the risk wasn’t as great as looked for a split second. But at the second one, he risked everything. He just became aware that he might have a way out of prison and the warden is key to making that happen, yet he jeopardizes his favor with the warden. He breaks into the warden’s office and plays a Mozart piece on the loudspeaker for the whole prison to experience the freedom of the soaring voices singing to them to help them forget their incarceration for the few minutes that piece lasts.

Buying back the freedom of others always cost Andy his own freedom. Even though he was innocent and should’ve never been in Shawshank to begin with, he gave his life many times and in many ways for his fellow prisoners so that even the two events I described are only a portion of the Shawshank Redemption. Actually Andy’s very presence in Shawshank and his constant willingness to give sacrificially is the full Shawashank Redemption.

Andy knows he was treated unjustly and of course he’s right to never stop fighting that, but he cares even more about fighting for others who don’t deserve to be fought for. His love for the unlovable and his recognition of the humanity in people who have given themselves to inhumane acts is Andy’s highest priority.  Offering redemption to others is his own way of finding freedom, whether or not justice will ever be done for him resulting in his own rightful release from Shawshank.

When he delivers the classic line, “get busy living or get busy dying” this is exactly what he means. Andy shows that he’s a person full of hope because he’s willing to offer that sacrificial freedom to others when it’s in his power to do so, no matter what the cost might be to himself. He shows that he’s a person full of hope because he’s always busy living by giving his own life and freedom for the sake of others. And as he brings hope to his fellow prisoners, it is even more those prisoners (especially Red played by Morgan Freeman) than Andy himself who give the very same hope and the very same encouragement to get busy living to those of us watching. They help us see how to be people who recognize where others have lost or given up freedom and how we can buy it back for them, putting their own needs ahead of our own even when, or maybe especially when, they don’t deserve it. When we live this way, we are busy living. When we don’t, we are busy dying.


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.