Tag Archives: death

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart begins in 1981, as a ferry pulls in to Fire Island Pines, the nexus of social life for well-off gay New Yorkers who prize sunshine and sexual freedom. Stepping off that boat is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer from New York who seems simultaneously titillated and disturbed by the buff, barely dressed men who suddenly surround him. Weeks, it turns out, is a notorious buzzkill. He wrote an infamous novel criticizing promiscuity (“All I said was having so much sex makes finding love impossible,” he objects when called on it) and he resists joining the party with his sexually active friends, watching from the sidelines once their dancing gets dirty. Still, he’s human, wandering into the woods in search of more ephemeral, and anonymous, companionship. As he leaves the island, a newspaper headline draws his attention: “Rare Cancer Is Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals.” And so it begins.

Ned is the alter ego of pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who chronicled the early days of the crisis in The Normal Heart, an autobiographical off-Broadway play that debuted in 1985 with the force of reportage. Nearly 30 years later, Kramer’s screen adaptation can’t match the urgency of the original production, but it covers the same history: the earliest inklings of tragedy in the gay community as otherwise healthy men grew weak, developed purple lesions on their bodies, and eventually died of what was then a completely mysterious illness. It depicts Kramer’s establishment of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an advocacy group raising funds and awareness of the dire situation, and it shows how a fundamental difference of opinion — Kramer favored the activist tactics of confrontation and agitation, while his closeted comrades insisted on a more low-key approach — got him drummed out of his own organization even as he watched his lover waste away from the disease.

Kramer’s screenplay is a bit problematic in its relentless self-aggrandizement. It elevates his role to that of fearless, blameless truth-telling crusader in the company of cowards. It doesn’t help that Kramer is so preoccupied with the distribution of Important Messages that other characters sometimes feel less like human beings than two-dimensional mouthpieces for the necessary expression of a given point of view. Julia Roberts is cast as the only character who is perhaps more righteous even than Kramer’s alter ego — Dr. Emma Brookner, a polio survivor who rails so convincingly from her wheelchair against incompetence and inaction that she convinces Weeks to become an anti-AIDS spokesman. Interestingly, Kramer gives Brookner the script’s juiciest, most misanthropic line. “If having sex can kill you,” she asks, “doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?” If you’re Larry Kramer, that’s a key question. Even if it’s true — and it may well be — that Kramer singlehandedly led the struggle to fight the disease against staunch resistance from all corners, it’s hard not to wonder about the reliability of his narrative, or to figure Ruffalo’s performance naturally downplays more abrasive and offensive qualities that may have been genuinely counterproductive. After all, Kramer already had a reputation as a sexual scold in the 1970s. When the AIDS crisis blossomed, it gave him an argument for outright abstinence — but is it surprising that people who knew him well would bristle at that kind of fervor? The Normal Heart sort of shuffles quietly past all that.

Director Ryan Murphy’s expansion of the original play bears the burden of its staginess, despite a hyperactive camera that sometimes makes The Normal Heart feel like an episode of American Horror Story (this guy can make a scene showing a few men shaking hands feel like a goddamned Tilt-a-Whirl ride, and he seriously overvalues ostentatious overhead shots). But the performances are uniformly on point, and that means a lot, especially since pretty much every major character is tasked with a speech. A couple of them are very moving — Joe Mantello damn near steals the whole show when he breaks down weeping in a fit of despair and self-doubt — and that’s because the actors have invested heart and soul in this story. Matt Bomer, playing Weeks’ lover Felix, even went so far as to drop 40 pounds partway through filming, the kind of stunt that isn’t really a necessary component of great acting. As long as Murphy shoots the actors documentary style, letting us just watch their faces, there’s a dreadful gravity there. Despite my misgivings, I admit that it all comes together. If it were only an educational tool for young activists it would have real value, and it actually does quite a bit more than that. Kramer’s screenplay reveals facets of a genuinely important personal experience with real horror, and Murphy’s film captures a suffocating dread at the sudden merging of sex and death at a cruel moment in history — complete with a climactic romantic gesture that finally, heartbreakingly, insists love matters most.

Shot on 35mm film, The Normal Heart gets a lovely Blu-ray transfer with a fine, velvety layer of film grain just visible in most shots. The picture is perhaps a teensy bit soft by contemporary standards, but certainly the BD outclasses cable when it comes to reproducing the film’s lush color palette, which runs the gamut between the straight-up surf-and-sun glow of the early scenes on Fire Island and a cooler, desaturated look in the film’s latter half. A flashback set in a bathhouse is saturated orange and teal; a street scene outside a GMHC fundraiser is lit all in blues and purples just because. They all look terrific. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix is most active when the disco music is pumping, but it’s engaged in subtle world-building for the duration, with the surround tracks carrying everything from ambient sound effects in hospital scenes to ringing telephones inside the GMHC offices. Special features are limited to a single HD featurette, “How to Start a War” (9:40) that combines typical EPK contributions from actors Ruffalo, Roberts, Bomer, Mantello, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina and Jim Parsons and screenwriter Kramer, who probably gets the most screen time. That’s right; the director didn’t show up. Much more could have been done, but it’s a fine, pithy effort as far as it goes, aimed at giving casual viewers crucial background info as quickly as possible.

Sleepaway Camp

Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak’s kitchen. There’s a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There’s a bit of business with a curling iron that’s probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher’s hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?

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The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage, a seminal achievement in silent filmmaking from that other great Swedish auteur, Victor Sjöström, is a stern, supernatural moral drama that rails against social problems of the day by enlisting an emissary from the Great Beyond to lecture the feckless, abusive protagonist on what a rotten shit he is. Sjöström remains best known internationally for his later Hollywood films, made with the likes of Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, but The Phantom Carriage already testified to genius behind the camera as well as in front of it. When the movie finished playing, I picked up the disc’s keepcase and squinted at it, in all my ignorance, to determine who so expertly essayed the central character of the alcoholic David Holm. When I read the answer (Sjöström himself), I wanted to fling the box across the room. Show-off.

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The Tree of Life

As films go, The Tree of Life is a huge thing — a movie by a man with the audacity to take as his apparent subject all of human existence. “I know something about the cosmos,” Terrence Malick seems to declare, “because I grew up with two brothers under the parentage of a gruff father and a beaming, adoring mother in sun-dappled environs of Oklahoma and Texas.” He’s not wrong. The greatest filmmakers have shown us again and again that there is no story that cannot, in the right hands and with the right gestures, be spun out to dimensions that encompass questions of love and faith, life and death, regret and longing.

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Confession: my only previous exposure to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who’s one of the most lauded auteurs currently working, was a DVD copy of Tropical Malady, which frankly bored my pants off. Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the big screen at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall, it occurred to me almost immediately that waiting to see anything by Weerasethakul on DVD is a terrible idea. For Uncle Boonmee, the large theater screen works like a window onto a bigger world populated by larger-than-actual-size memories and myths. And the photography is not the kind of crisp, high-contrast work that translates well to home video (though Blu-ray might do OK by it) — shots taken within the Thai jungle, for instance, are unfailingly dense and moody, with different and ever-darker shades of green layered on top of each other like thick brush strokes in an oil painting. Sometimes it feels as if the whole film were shot at twilight, or using day-for-night shooting and processing trickery. When one of Weerasethakul’s rare bright daylight exteriors hits the screen, you feel it like waking up at noon.

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Sunshine Cleaning

729_sunshine-cleaning.jpgI stared at a blank screen for a long time before I started typing this review, mainly because it was hard to think of how much I could possibly say about Sunshine Cleaning that would make it sound any different from or more substantial than the hundreds of other quirky American indie dramatic comedies and comedic dramas that clog the festival circuit each year. And it’s true this sounds deadly precious on paper. It’s the story of a single mom, dreams dashed, who’s having a tough time making ends meet while taking care of her impulsive, socially awkward son and keeping tabs on her lovably dotty father. She eventually pools resources with her sister to start a business dealing in death, which leads to a whole new perspective on life. It all sounds pretty banal. And then I had a realization: It’s the performances, dummy.

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Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood has been a force of nature in the movie business for longer than I can remember. By the time I was cognizant of something called the movies, Inspector Harry Callahan was already, some three films on, getting long in the tooth. The largely anonymous gunslinger he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns seemed like ancient history. And by the time he played either of those great roles, he had paid his journeyman dues, appearing to a greater or lesser extent in a string of undistinguished pictures with titles like Escapade in JapanAmbush at Cimarron Pass and, of course, Francis in the Navy.

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