I was a tween and teenager in the 1990s. I remember Ryan White‘s funeral on TV (1990), I remember the AIDS quilt traveling the country, I remember Magic Johnson‘s announcement (1991), I remember getting a lot of AIDS education in school. I do not remember the cultural and political struggles our country went through as it figured out how to fight the disease. I was too young and too naive.
By the time I reached the age of activism, the focus of the AIDS fight had shifted to getting medications to underdeveloped countries. I joined the grassroots lobbying group the ONE Campaign, and I helped convince the company I work for to partner with (RED), which promotes products that give back to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria. But while I participated in the movement to get AIDS medications to underserved areas, I didn’t understand how those drugs owed much of their existence to early AIDS activists in the U.S.—many HIV+ themselves.
Enter Dallas Buyers Club, a fictionalized version of a true-life HIV+ cowboy, Ron Woodroof, who helped get life-saving (and illegal) medications to Dallas’s AIDS community. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Young Victoria) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the film stars an emaciated Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof; Jared Leto as Rayon, his unlikely business partner; and Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doc.
The second installment of The Hunger Games franchise is on a lot of people’s Thanksgiving schedule. My sister and I have already planned our Hunger Games night for next weekend, and I’ve talked to quite a few friends who have made it part of their holiday plans as well. I’m glad to report that it’s a solid choice for a post-turkey outing for the 13-and-overs—heck, wild poultry even shows up in the first few minutes of the film. Catching Fire follows Katniss Everdeen as she tries to live a “normal” life post-games back on District 12. Fallout from her faked-or-was-it-faked romance with Peeta, her Panem-wide celebrity, and the machinations of President Snow all hem her in and threaten her (admittedly depressing) status-quo.
12 Years a Slave is a faithful and bold adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name. British director Steve McQueen gives us an unblinking account of Northup’s abduction into slavery in 1841 and his attempts to “not just survive but live.” McQueen’s style is assured and minimalist—this period of American history needs no dramatization. The truth is harrowing enough.
In one of the better scenes in The Counselor, a wealthy lawyer (Michael Fassbender) buys an engagement stone from a monoglogueing dealer. Many of the characters a Cormac McCarthy protagonist encounters are philosophical, and this diamond seller is true to form. He holds up a beautiful specimen and declares it a “cautionary stone,” and speaks of humans’ hope “to partake in the stone’s endless destiny…At our noblest we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives. That we will not thereby be made less.” But this story is not about people at their noblest. Oh, no. It’s about people who choose see the diamond’s price but not its lesson…and the inevitable, bloody consequences of those choices.
The Counselor is also (unintentionally) about the consequences of filmmaking choices that, oh, let’s say, decapitate a film’s chances for singularity, for hypnotism, for depth.
Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique
The temps just drastically dropped here in Kansas City, and all I want to do is curl up under a quilt and get the good kind of movie shivers. I’m a sucker for screen suspense. There’s nothing like getting so caught up in a story that you find yourself clutching the person/dog/pillow next to you and yelling at characters who never take your advice: “Don’t! Go! In! There!”
That said, I’m pretty picky about my sources of celluloid scares. I like my goosebumps delivered artfully. I’d rather be creeped-out than grossed-out. And I want there to be a why behind the whoa. Put simply, I want horror with a heart and suspense with a story. Here are several examples you can stream right now over Netflix or Hulu Plus. And if you’re too scared to watch alone, come over to my place. I’ll have a quilt waiting for you.
Prisoners, the first studio flick from indie helmer Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) is a taut crime thriller that allows for deeper interpretations. The script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband)slithers and twists, solidly satisfying who-done-it genre rules. The film follows the case of two missing girls, the frustrated officer trying to find them (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their increasingly desperate fathers (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard). The deep-bench cast also includes personal favorites Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Maria Bello.
Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon
Funny, frank and ultimately beautiful, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon argues for a sexual ethic of connection. Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed the smart send-up of sexual consumerism and also stars as the title character: a tanned, muscled and gelled New Jersey player with a porn problem. Don Jon lays (very) bare the shortcomings of one-sided sex, whether it’s Jon’s cyber-habits or his girlfriend Barbara’s lust-tooled manipulation.
The Way Way Back is by no means a perfect movie, but it is a good movie, and one worth spending a summer afternoon savoring. Named after Duncan’s spot in the not-quite-blended-family station wagon, the film is a coming of age tale, set in a chummy seaside town that seems to have no use for an an awkward teenager with bad posture and worse jeans.
Writing team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) make their directorial debut with The Way Way Back and do a good job with the scale of the story. Duncan’s big moments are all small but intensely meaningful to him…and to me, as a viewer, as the film went on. Faxon and Rash are also great at subtext: One scene has Duncan, his mom, his mom’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s daughter playing a extremely tense game of Candyland in a charade of family togetherness. I’ve never seen so much said with a few slams of a plastic gingerbread man.
You’ve probably noticed I’ve cut back on posting movie reviews lately. That’s because I’m trying to focus my extra time on actually writing and making movies, not just writing about them. I’m deep into another draft of a weird feminist Western I’ve been working on for years and in pre-production to direct a sci-fi short written by one of my friends. But I promise to keep reviewing long-discussion-provoking films. And in between those reviews, I promise to give you a list of what I’ve been watching just in case you, like me, are nosy about your friends’ movie and TV habits.
To the Wonder is a deeply spiritual film: A meditation on human and divine love, and the place where those two things meet.
I won’t waste any time on the plot; some viewers will be frustrated by the lack here’s-what’s-happening clarity. I’d suggest going in without expectations for understanding the logistics and instead feel your way through the film. The emotions are made clear through the eye of the almost-always-moving camera, expertly controlled by Terrence Malick and his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.