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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is an unapologetic, over-the-top kinetic fantasy. Everything is big (Klipspringer plays a castle-sized organ, not a piano), loud (the deservedly much-hailed soundtrack delights), and bursting with color. The camera zooms, twitches, leaps and dances through a roaring feast of 1920s decadence and despair. It also relentlessly pushes in on the titular character: self-made myth Jay Gatsby. And that is the reason you should see the film.
In the midst of all the swooping 3D (meh) and exquisitely detailed sets (woot!), Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of Gatsby is sensitive and real. Just as Fitzgerald introduces us to the mask Gatsby presents to the world then peels it away page by page, DiCaprio and Luhrmann start with Gatsby’s facade (that famous smile, lit by fireworks) and then let it fall away scene by scene. We see the longing, the panic, the joy (what’s this? DiCaprio laughing on screen?), the fear, the anger, and most importantly, the hope. In short, they get Gatsby, and they get him right.
A nuanced coming of age story with a few epic bends, Jeff Nichols’s third feature, Mud, is both the story of every kid and this one kid: Ellis, played with remarkable vulnerability by Tye Sheridan, whom you might recognize from Tree of Life. Ellis is a 14-year-old river kid who faces troubles both common (crushes and domestic uncertainty) and uncommon (a sunburnt island-squatter—Mud—offers Ellis and his pal Neckbone a deal they can’t refuse).
It’s been a week since I saw writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, and I’ve been puzzling out how he created such an immersive film ever since. With my notebook and constant (over) analysis, I tend to watch and deconstruct movies at the same time. But this film pulled me under fast, leaving me to figure out why after the lights came up.
Cianfrance’s background is the first clue: Documentaries outweigh fiction on his resume, though he’s most well-known for 2010′s heartbreaker Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The non-fiction practices of gathering moments as they happen and storytelling by way of context (as opposed to highly constructed dialogue) served The Place Beyond the Pines well. We get to know these characters by their clothes (oft unflattering), their houses, their sad tattoos, how they move, how others react to them. And in a story that unfolds over almost two decades, we only see the needed moments. There’s no fat to distract, only one loaded look, layered interaction or can’t-be-unmade decision after another.