After I finished watching Her, I was fucking pissed. Okay, that sounds a little misleading. That sounds like I hated Spike Jonze’s story of a deeply lonely man who begins a relationship with a female OS, but I didn’t. I loved every single moment. It was a complex story brought to life with well-balanced portions of humor, satire, and sadness. It brought out the best in its cast, particularly Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (using nothing but her voice), and Amy Adams. It might be the best thing Spike Jonze has done up to this point.
So the anger that left me almost paralyzed at the end of Her wasn’t a response to anything about the movie’s writing, visual style, acting, or other elements. At first, I didn’t really understand why I was so angry in the first place. I had connected to the movie on some emotional level, but I couldn’t define the particulars of that connection.
And I’m still not sure I can. Her resonated, in a confrontational way, with my own loneliness. The film tapped strongly into my own experiences with dating, falling in love, falling out of love, and the desperate thoughts that are cruelly emphasized by unexpected and unwanted feelings of isolation. In short, I loved Her, but I hated the way I responded to it.
My initial response to Her still bothers me a little, but that’s mostly because I’m still not sure why it happened. I can’t say if I ever will know. Her contained a screenplay and performances that spoke to things I hold close to the chest. I couldn’t tell you why it did that so effectively. I also can’t really tell you why Her succeeded in doing this where other films have failed. There are plenty of I enjoyed more than Her, but most of those did not leave me feeling as though I had no control over my feelings. Most of those have not split wide open the memories I try not to think about very often.
While I’m not fond of being left helpless like that, I do love the fact that movies are capable of hitting me in such a fashion. It’s also interesting to me how just about anyone who watches movies has at least a couple of titles that are capable of generating the kind of response I’m talking about. These are not comfort movies. These are the kinds of films that make your bones feel as though they’re experiencing memories from a past life spent entirely on fire. Some movies have elements (sometimes unintentionally) that are profoundly triggering for certain individuals. Other movies simply draw something intense and meaningful from the person watching it (not necessarily something that qualifies as an emotional trigger), and that can feel like enough of a physical act that you can only pause and wonder what happened.
These reactions can come from things the movie is doing on purpose—for instance, watching two crazy, stupid kids in love who are parting ways can make you remember when the same thing happened to you. It can also be caused by something the movie never set out to do to you, like a house in the movie that reminds you of the childhood home or a place where someone you loved died suddenly. I’m sure there is a small city’s worth of psychology papers on this subject. I’d love to read those papers sometime, but I’m too busy watching movies.
The Monuments Men (2014): D+
“I really can’t imagine this movie failing to be good” I said to at least two or three people. I’m usually not wary of admitting I was wrong about a statement like that, but with something as disappointing as The Monuments Men, I hate having to realize that I got excited about a film for nothing. When you look at the cast of The Monuments Men, when you consider the story and keep in mind that George Clooney has directed some very good films in the past, it’s hard not to wonder what in the hell went wrong. A few people described the story of a group of allies trying to reclaim the art stolen by the Nazis during World War 2 as an Ocean’s movie with a slightly different cast. Even if you think about it under those terms, The Monuments Men still had everything in its corner to back up the belief that it should have been at least a good deal of fun. It isn’t.
There are beautiful shots of ravaged European locales and glimmers of brilliance from Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and other members of one of the best all-star casts assembled in recent memory (every single scene with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban is a treasure), but nothing that resembles a cohesive, interesting movie. Simply put, The Monuments Men is a goddamn mess, which makes its self-indulgence and intentional naiveté obnoxious instead of charming. While it’s possible for a complete mess to at least remain entertaining, too much of The Monuments Men is divided between being pointless or boring. The stories and pictures from the film’s production are a lot more interesting than the vast majority of the film itself.
Dogtooth (2009): B-
Incest, savage psychological abuse, and deeply ingrained Stockholm syndrome are just some of the fun, fun themes covered in Yorgos Lanthimos’ violent, disturbing family drama Dogtooth. It is indeed a family drama that depicts a father (the frightening Christos Stergioglou) and mother who have kept their young adult children completely isolated from the world for all of their respective lives. But calling Dogtooth a family drama is a lot like calling Blue Velvet a love story.
As you watch this Greek film that never ceases in twisted satire or unsettling imagery for a second, you’re probably going to wonder what it’s all about. Dogtooth covers a number of themes in its surreal, haunting story, which I won’t discuss here. I would rather you watch the film and see which ones leap out towards you with the most vicious urgency. I can’t promise that you’ll love this movie, but I can promise that you’re not going to forget it.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): B+
For most of the people who hated the third X-Men film (I’m in a very, very small minority of people who was at least entertained), X-Men: First Class got things back on track. The go-big-or-go-home mentality of X-Men: Days of Future Past continues that momentum. Yes, there are faults in this cinematic realization of one of the most famous comic book plotlines of all time, but it’s hard to dwell on those. Perhaps the return of Bryan Singer is why Days of Future Past works. That’s one strong factor behind a film that juggles a horrific, hopeless future with an uncertain past while keeping several important characters in constant play. Another is Hugh Jackman, who, at this point, has been playing Wolverine for fourteen years and counting. He knows the character, and manages to be a centerpiece that never distracts from the complex story or wide array of supporting characters. Evan Peters as Quicksilver is a scene stealer that will probably leave you wishing he had a bigger role. X-Men: Days of Future Past does a pretty phenomenal job at all of those things.
Seeing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return was more than enough for my particular interpretation of geekdom. The past and present Sentinel designs were better than I ever dreamed, with the film itself making their status as thinking instruments of mass devastation a potent one. If you loved the movie, it’s easy to go on about the things in Days of Future Past that clicked. My one major complaint (besides a poorly executed after-credits scene)—not enough Peter Dinklage. There is no such thing as too much Peter Dinklage.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933): A+
As Joseph Goebbels became the Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi Party, one of his acts involved banning this film. It was his belief that Fritz Lang’s sequel to his silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler had the ability to erode in anyone who saw it confidence in government officials. That bit of trivia alone makes The Testament of Dr. Mabuse worth a look, if only for its historical conflict in relation to how the Nazis tried to utilize the film medium in various ways. If you enter the brooding, ghostly world of the film on those terms, that’s fine. You’re almost certainly going to stay for one of the most inventive, visually intoxicating films Lang ever conceived.
Watching the constantly focused, eerily amused Dr. Mabuse manipulate the various individuals who populate the movie as chaos threatens to rip the world in two is a joy that has not dulled through the decades. There are moments in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse that may ring a little awkward to contemporary audiences, but they will hopefully be too sucked into the spell this movie is still capable of weaving to really care. The scenery and atmosphere of the movie were unique in their day. In 2014, they feel like a sudden, dreamy vacation into an alien world. Once you’ve seen The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (you don’t need to see any of the other films in the series to enjoy it), you won’t be surprised that the movie was a significant influence on Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s treatment of The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Godzilla (2014): B-
I’m aware that a number of people didn’t like this first attempt by an American studio at telling a Godzilla story (if you try to talk to me about a movie called Godzilla that was released in 1998, I’m going to stare at you blankly until one of us either leaves or dies). For the most part, I was pretty fucking thrilled with the 2014 Godzilla. When I found out the movie had some vocal critics, I went back and watched several of the classic Godzilla films. I was jonesing to do that anyway, but I realized something else after watching the first five over a period of several days: I’m not entirely sure what people who hated the latest Godzilla film were looking for. Someone reading this is welcome to tell me, but for now, I get to remain ignorant. I’ve read bad reviews. I just can’t make the connection from those reviews to the movie that all of us apparently saw. Godzilla sought to retain as much about the original films as it possibly could. The film succeeds in this endeavor on an impressive scale.
While the movie definitely needed more of the grandfather of monster movie mayhem (it’s called Godzilla, not Shitty Meat Puppets Who Make Bad Decisions: The Motion Picture), everything good about a franchise that has survived a number of bad movies and baffling decisions is here. The moral of Godzilla the film and Godzilla as a general concept is that you just can’t keep the big, green bastard down. While Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston are good, and the story continues the tradition of the series just fine, the thing about Godzilla that we all came to see is the monster on the marquee. Godzilla doesn’t deliver on that as much as it could have, but when it does, the spirit of the lives again in the icon’s trademark roar.