Tag Archives: period

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.

Inside Llewyn Davis

My Letterboxd review of this one, written while I stood at the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, waiting to grab some chicken and rice directly after a screening, reads like this: “The Ballad of the Unlikeable Protagonist: Coen Brothers’ Greatest Hits (CBS 2013).” I couldn’t figure out on short notice what else to do with Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s maybe the first Coen Bros. film that seems to settle into sampler territory — it has the frustrated creative protagonist from Barton Fink, the Odyssey references and period-music revivalism of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the John Goodman character role from, well, several of ’em. And its folk-singing wannabe title character really is a piece of work. Abrasive, overly serious, and a mite noxious in his sense of entitlement and estimation of self-worth, frustrated New York folkie Llewyn Davis is the epitome of problematic artistic temperament — a lost cause from square one.
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Argo

Ben Affleck does it again, with this tense, exceptionally well-made alternate-history time capsule. It’s lacking in flavor, yes. (The harmless in-jokes about the movie business are the film’s most personal element, since the Affleck character’s rote estranged-dad role is utterly generic.) It embellishes history, yes. (On reflection and some research, the film’s elevation of the derring-do of feisty CIA agent Tony Mendez way beyond the apparent facts of the historical matter seem a bit gauche.) But, boy, is it a cracking story while it’s up there on the screen. It does just exactly what it has to do for two straight hours, and its period trappings have the strength of sense memory. Hell, I was ready to stand up and applaud the old-school WB logo. It’s not remotely the best film of the year. But it is a ton of fun.

Django Unchained

Still chewing this one over, and I suspect it’ll take a second viewing before it starts to come into focus. It obviously plays as a variant on Inglourious Basterds, but I miss that film’s ferocious set pieces and, especially, its strong central female character. But what Django Unchained does even better than Basterds is show up the essential timidity of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. Django is singular in large part because nobody else is making bigtime narratives that deal with the history of race relations in America. I like Lincoln a lot, but it’s telling that when Spielberg turns his attention to roughly the same period in history, he comes up with Congress: The Motion Picture. And I’d love to see Spike Lee make a Django answer film, but I doubt he could get the funding.

A Dangerous Method

I almost spat Coke into my popcorn when I saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method. Biopic? check. Costume drama? Check. “A Film by DAVID CRONENBERG,” huh? I knew Viggo Mortensen’s main man had a new film coming out, but a Knightley-Fassbender period romance was hardly what I expected. It’s not that the subject matter — Freud, Jung, and the birth of psychoanalysis — is a bad match. More like a redundancy. Cronenberg’s body of work can already be partly understood as a compendium of his feelings on Freud and a century of psychoanalytic thought. What’s to be gained from a straight take on material that he’s twisted and transformed, so imaginatively and elegantly, time and again? I know it’s obnoxious for a critic to insist that a movie should be something it isn’t, but I can’t fight the feeling. The English major in me is impressed by the intellectual ambition and writerly craft that went into this careful portrait of Jung, Freud, and their lesser-known sidekick Sabina Spielrein. It catches in the periphery of its gaze the plight of the Jews, the tragedy of the World Wars, and something about the mood of the 20th century. But it’s more educational than compelling. The cinephile in me longs for a real Cronenberg screenplay, which might have made something odd and truly majestic out of this historical triangle.

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Public Enemies

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Simultaneously a tough guy and a sap, a realist and a romantic, director Michael Mann has for decades now been making movies about what it means to be a man. He chooses to tell these stories in familiar settings, setting his fairly measured character studies in the kind of testosterone-soaked milieu that has been favored by a century of manly filmmakers. Mann has made movies about cops and robbers. There’s one about a cab driver and an assassin, one about a whistleblower and another about a great athlete. He’s even made a supernatural horror movie set among Nazis. But he keeps returning to the subject of heroes and villains, about the role-playing that takes place when good guys go head-to-head with bad guys, and about what happens when the line between antagonist and protagonist gets blurred.

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Tony Manero

Surely one of the more repellent creations to inhabit arthouse screens this year, Raúl Peralta is a glowering brute of a man. Unemployed and undistracted in Pinochet’s Chile, he’s one of those desperate characters the movies are drawn to, nursing big, illusory dreams about turning his life around through a stonefaced, stiff impersonation of Tony Manero, the working-class Brooklyn dancer played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He sits through mostly empty matinee screenings at the local cinema, then rehearses his moves on the old, rotting stage at a squalid little nightclub while putting the make on the three women in his life: the club’s owner, Wilma (Elsa Poblete), his girlfriend, Cony (Amparo Noguera), and — why the hell not? — Cony’s nubile daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus). And he’s a rank opportunist who, as often as not, sees his countrymen each as minor obstacles between him and his next little stab at happiness.

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