Thursday, December 19, 2013

Uncanny X-Mas

Merry Xmas, jerks. In a special holiday post, we have compiled three different Top 5 lists of Christmas movies for your enjoyment. We're critique-light this time around, so this would be a great time for you to chip in in ye olde comments sectionne. Here we go!


5. Trading Places (1983)
4. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
3. Batman Returns (1992)
2. Gremlins (1984)
1. Black Christmas (1974)

Honorable Mention(s): The Apartment (1960), Die Hard (1988)

Most Overrated: It’s  A Wonderful Life (1946)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


5. The Family Stone (2005)
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
3. Die Hard  (1988)
2. Home Alone (1990)
1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Honorable Mention(s): National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1989)

Most Overrated: The Santa Clause (1994)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


5. Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
4. March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
3. A Christmas Carol (1951)
2. Batman Returns (1992)
1. Die Hard (1988)

Honorable Mention(s): Gremlins (1984), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Most Overrated: A Christmas Story (1983)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


Next: Dawn of the Dead (1978). Get Psyched!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Evan's Pick: The Apartment


Occasionally I’m guilty of taking my analysis of films beyond the relatively benign realm of interpretation and into the nasty realm of projection. I don’t mean to force my views onto the movies I watch, but sometimes I have a hard time filtering out what I’m bringing to an experience and what the experience is supposed to be bringing to me. This gets more complicated when I encounter ambiguous messages that I disagree with upon deciphering. This might be the case with The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film examining the interwoven lives and aspirations of three New Yorkers occupying different rungs on the ladder of American capitalism.

The Apartment centers its story on a white-collar single yuppie (a neurotic Jack Lemmon) named CC Baxter who works for Consolidated Life, a sprawling insurance firm in Manhattan. Aspiring for more than his decent but meager salary, CC frequently allows his supervisors to use his apartment after work, without compensation, so they can engage in extramarital affairs. Although this arrangement inconveniences CC—so much so that he falls ill at one point because of his exile in the rain—he acquiesces to it in hopes that his supervisors will put in a good word for him with, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the man in charge of hiring and promotion at Consolidated Life. Meanwhile, CC hits it off with an elevator girl at his office named Fran (a young Shirley MacLaine), whom he pursues romantically. However, his pursuit faces complications due to the affair Fran is having with a coworker—Mr. Sheldrake, to be precise. It soon becomes clear that Mr. Sheldrake routinely goes through girls like Fran, leading them on with tall tales about how he plans to divorce his wife and marry them. The naïve Fran soon falls into despair, while CC endures utter torment as his boss uses CC’s apartment to shag the woman CC loves.

Fran, a recent transplant to the city, is relatively poor (by American standards), and although CC is middle-income (but upwardly mobile), they both willingly give what little they have in life to people who are already much better off than they are. After long days of (to quote Cher Horowitz) earning minor duckets at a thankless job, CC works late or drinks by himself at bars until he’s allowed to return home to his dingy apartment. At home, he supplies his inconsiderate employers with liquor and appetizers, for which they conveniently refuse to reimburse him. Even his apartment is depressing: it’s dimly lit and looks cold, and he really only gets to enjoy an impersonal TV dinner and sift through annoying advertisements on his television before returning to bed, reading Playboy and starting the whole routine over again.

The film seems to present this bizarre relationship between CC, Fran and Mr. Sheldrake as a metaphor for the class divisions within capitalist economies, specifically the way this economic framework pits its various participants against each other. Not only do Mr. Sheldrake and his buddies already occupy a better position in life than Fran and CC, but they routinely “exploit” their inferiors by misleading them with the promise of a better tomorrow. Depressingly, both Fran and CC are eager to comply with this arrangement. The working-class characters in the film place themselves in self-sacrificing, disadvantaged positions purely because of their aspirations of achieving some version of the American Dream. For CC, it’s promotion, and for Fran, it’s married life. And yet, they both bear this mistreatment with smiles, because they need these people, above all, to like them.

This film’s critique of the American Dream depicts the working life of Americans as an impersonal, unfulfilling ritual that they slog through in the hopes of someday having it a little better. Even CC’s job at Consolidated Life seems empty and meaningless, consisting of him crunching insurance numbers in a cavernous, sterile office that stretches far beyond the horizon. Despite CC’s upbeat demeanor, the film doesn’t present us with anything in his life that seems worth living for, other than his career (something I find rather cynical, and not in a good way). Fran’s story, meanwhile, takes on a decidedly darker tone once she discovers the extent of Mr. Sheldrake’s deception, at which point the film begins delving into themes despair and even suicide.

For a movie as depressing as this one gets, though, The Apartment is awfully charming.  I’ve actually never seen an early Jack Lemmon performance and was totally enthralled by his goofy, idiosyncratic performance. He’s just so likeable: not only is he “a real cutie,” as his doctor neighbor puts it, but Lemmon delivers a manic, high-energy (but never annoying) performance that instantly endears you to his character. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine embodies that charming, girl-next-door archetype with her pixie haircut, coy mannerisms and straightforward affect. Not only is the budding relationship between CC and Fran both believable and enjoyable, but their chemistry is palpable as well. As a viewer, you want to see them end up together. The wit woven into every scene keeps this film from becoming a depressing chore.

For as cynical as the movie is at times, it leaves us with a somewhat hopeful vision of two people shirking the frustrations of the world they inhabit and starting to care about what matters most: that which they can find in the present, immediately before them—not some promise dangled in front of them in a far-off future. It’s certainly a nice takeaway message, even if it means conceding to the film’s mutually exclusive premise of having to choose between a decent career and self-respect. Others may disagree, and perhaps I read too much into it, but regardless of whether my analysis is valid or not, The Apartment is an excellent film: funny, charming, timeless, and—most importantly—stimulating.


Between the Hays Code and the Hollywood Blacklist ensuring every movie made in America stepped up to the plate with two strikes against it, it’s a wonder our fine nation was ever able to produce anything enjoyable aside from the pitch black crime melodramas that swarmed the screens after the second World War. Despite the extreme censorship and unfavorable labor conditions for Red Fascists, Hollywood somehow managed to squirt out a dramedy about infidelity and loneliness that neither pulls punches nor rots teeth. And they called it The Apartment (1960).

Jack Lemmon is one of those actors (along with Michael Caine) whom I was familiar with exclusively through roles from his golden years, so it is refreshing and exhilarating to see him in his prime as the romantic/comedic lead, CC Baxter. Shirley MacLaine is perfect in her role as the modern yet vulnerable single woman Ms. Kubelik, and while it can be hard to take him seriously as a sleaze, Fred MacMurray does a commendable job as the corporate big shot Mr. Sheldrake, conducting an extramarital affair out of a lackey’s apartment. While Lemmon’s delivery isn’t quite as dry as his lines sometimes demand, this is an excellent script that has an innate understanding of how loneliness and need can drive people to do unethical, unfortunate, and sometimes absurd things. Though the subject manner and its execution would be considered somewhat tame by today’s standards, there is no hint of Haysian interference (Although a Jewish doctor tenant straight off of Dropsie Avenue* administers the most un-Tarantino adrenaline shot I’ve ever seen).

My favorite part of the film is perhaps the first thirteen minutes, which serves essentially as history-porn: The technology, habits, values, and cultural-isms of 1960 are on full display as Lemmon goes through a typical night alone in his pad. Baxter mentions the staggering of work shifts to accommodate nineteen stories of office workers through a handful of elevators. Rent has gone up recently due to one of those new air conditioning units being installed in his place. The gas stove has to be match-lit with every use. His television utilizes a remote control, but it’s built in to the table sitting next to his couch. He frustratingly flips through the scant few television channels available to him over a frozen TV dinner, thoroughly disgusted by the glut of advertisements, which features a cigarette commercial urging him not to buy into the hype concerning those newfangled filters. There is an interesting intertextuality present in his television choices, which are confined to Westerns and high Hollywood Glamor from the Golden Age of American cinema. It’s interesting to see Lemmon, an icon of American film, get revved up to watch talkies made thirty years before the film he’s acting in. There is even a Tiki bar set used in the film.

One last bit of enjoyment for me was the fact that the film’s premise was already well underway before the opening credits roll: modern filmgoers may be thrown by the lack of plodding lineality that has come to occupy a place somewhere beyond the quotidian in newer movies, but the fact that Baxter is already sick of the primary plot device when he shows up was refreshing for me. The short of it: The Apartment is a great film. A+

*Secret Will Eisner Reference!


With The Apartment, director and co-writer Billy Wilder leads us into a world where the comedy and humor we were advertised, while present, isn’t the full package. The proverbial pied piper he is, Wilder squeezes his meat hooks around our skulls and forces us to confront ideas and themes we may not have seen on the Silver Screen before. The road we take with this feature is indeed a dark one. Loneliness and suicide are very present, and we’re confronted with these demons in a grimmer Hollywood world that more closely mirrors our own. It’s uncomfortable at times, painful and gripping and heartfelt, but The Apartment’s not without its charm, either.

Jack Lemmon is the cohesive ingredient that glues this layered package together. He’s our sense of comedic relief, our over-the-top eccentric man thrashing with his own problems in a way that carries some comfort, carries some sense of hope that everything will be all right in the end. It’s very difficult to construct a film that works well as both a drama and a comedy, but with Lemmon as his one-two punch, Wilder found something that ensnares us as much as it socks us in the gut.

What’s more interesting to note is the setting of this film. Casting away fear of being labeled a communist by the powers that be of the era, Wilder takes aim at the corporate world—the soulless realm of insurance, to be specific. We’re tossed into Lemmon’s race to the top of the corporate food chain, a seedy game where hearts are broken, coworkers are used and the grimy tingle of emptiness is forefront. And in this slice of life, this Sears Catalog aspiration, we’re confronted with an intense level of pain. It’s the forced look inwards—Wilder’s meat hooks holding us steady.

And what’s to be won? In the final few minutes, the director would have you find your humanity again. He’d ask that you take heed from Lemmon’s neighbor. Be a mensch.

Next: Dawn of the Dead. Get Psyched!