Tag Archives: history

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.

The White Ribbon

Roxane Duran in <i>The White Ribbon</i>
My review of The White Ribbon is online at www.filmfreakcentral.net:

The White Ribbon is executed at an incredibly high level of craft and with an off-putting degree of self-confidence. While it is, at times, a movie of preternatural beauty, Haneke is confident that he’s shining a light into the dark corners of recent human history, and he comes on like a preacher reading from the Book of Revelation.

Vincere

Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi in <em>Vincere</em>
In the first scene of Vincere, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), addressing a small gathering, borrows a watch, then declares that he is giving God five minutes to strike him dead. To Mussolini, God’s failure to do so is proof that He does not exist. It’s possible the film’s writer and director, Marco Bellocchio, agrees with him on this point at least.

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Hunger

In the opening shot of Hunger, a small army of protesters — hunger-strikers, perhaps — is bringing the noise by banging empty soup bowls loudly against the ground. That scene is followed, lyrically, by a scene depicting an older, staid-looking gentleman eating his breakfast, tiny crumbs tumbling from his fork onto the napkin tucked away on his lap and then getting brushed away. He heads out to his car, looks up and down the street, and then falls to his knees and peers carefully at the car’s undercarriage before opening the door and getting in. His wife watches from the front-room window, the tension on her face easing slightly as the car roars to life and her husband drives away. This man turns out to be a guard at a prison in Northern Ireland. We see this man washing blood from his knuckles, which have been torn raw by the force of some blunt impact. It’s only later that we’re shown the sadistic behavior that earned him those scars. In a scene that toys with an audience’s mounting sense of dread, we see him taking a smoke break outside the prison walls, enjoying the tactile sensation of a light snowfall before heading back inside to do, we suspect, his worst. It’s a tense, expertly fraught study in contrasts that dramatizes the difference between the haves and the have-nots — the fed and the hungry.

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Untamable Angélique

An Angélique pirate movie sounds like great, trashy fun, but Untamable Angélique is nowhere near as imaginative as Angélique and the King, and given Angelique’s status in earlier films as a beautiful, strong-willed female it’s dispiriting to see her thrown to the wolves in this fourth installment of the five-film series. The title is translated from the French Indomptable Angélique, partly because “indomitable” is roughly as unfamiliar to U.S. audiences as, well, “Synecdoche,” but also because “untamable” suggests an altogether more torrid affair. Indeed, this is arguably the raciest film in the series — not only does star Michèle Mercier offer more peek-a-boo nudity, but this film’s events are almost completely outside the control of poor Angélique, who is captured and raped by pirates, tortured by a pack of angry strays, stripped naked for sale at a slave auction, and eventually abducted again. Not only is Angélique a frustratingly passive character, but the film ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that promises more misery to come. By far the shortest Angélique film, Untamable Angélique is sufficiently energetic and compulsively watchable — the sea-faring scenes, including some ship-to-ship combat, are intriguing enough — but it’s odd to see how abruptly this popular series exhausted its emotional capital.

Angélique and the King

Angelique and the KingAngélique (Michèle Mercier) roars back to life in this lively third installment in the five-film series, which sees her becoming a crucial instrument in the affairs of Louis XIV, and thus the subject of much palace intrigue. When Angelique accepts a diplomatic assignment to the Persian ambassador Bachtiary-Bey (Sami Frey), she’s rewarded with Peyrac’s estate — now she has two manors — but ends up as a kind of political prisoner, the captive of Bachtiary-Bey, who intends to rape and perhaps murder her. Rescued in the nick of time (by a Hungarian prince!), she returns to the king’s court, where she’s regarded with dismay by the king’s wife and actively scorned by the king’s current mistress, who senses impending obsolescence. The second half of the film is the most brashly inventive part of the series so far, including one recurring character’s death, another’s return from the grave, multiple attempts on Angélique’s life, and even a black mass.

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Other Boleyn Girl, The

480_boleyn.jpg

My review of The Other Boleyn Girl on Blu-ray Disc is online at filmfreakcentral.net:

I don’t think much of The Tudors, but at least it boasts lots of sex

and scandal, with [Jonathan] Rhys Meyers reliably chewing up the scenery. The Other Boleyn Girl

is just a soap opera without the suds, a melodrama without much drama.

Although the (cheesy, Photoshopped) video cover promises a

bodice-ripper, this is at best a skirt-tugger, a button-fiddler.

The Prestige

<em>The Prestige</em>

Christopher Nolan helped refine the gimmick thriller with Memento, in which Guy Pearce starred as a man with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife’s killer in a story that unfolded entirely in reverse. That film was all about disconnects between perception and reality, mind and the material world. Nolan has made a couple of more conventional genre pictures since then (Insomnia and Batman Begins), but his engrossing, fascinating The Prestige marks a decisive return to form. It’s a film about two magicians, once part of the same act, holding a mutual grudge. Each goes to extraordinary lengths trying to disrupt the other’s career in a story that is, itself, full of illusion and misdirection. The result, revamped substantially for the screen from a novel by Christopher Priest, goes deep, using its source material as an excuse to ruminate on identity and obsession in a turn-of-the-century milieu that’s cocked slightly to one side of actual history. The despair Nolan finds at the heart of his story is positively existential, but the film is still a lot of fun. It’s that rare thing in multiplex movies, an entertaining star vehicle with lots of flash and style—and a philosophy.