What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.
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.
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?
Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone. Continue reading
Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.
Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.
I’m pretty much on board with a horror movie about a creepy landlord who stalks his college-aged tenants, waging a low-level terror campaign against them by deliberately releasing pests into their living spaces. If he’s a sadist and a serial killer who keeps souvenirs of his victims (by which I mean body parts in jars), that just seems to go with the territory. If he’s also a hardcore Nazi sympathizer with a daddy fixation and a concentration-camp victim locked up in the attic, well, that sounds like it might be a little over the top. But if that creepy landlord-sadist-sociopath-Nazi is played by Klaus Kinski? Now you’re talking.
Brainstorm will always have a reputation–among those who are familiar with it at all–as a film maudit. Casual film buffs know it as the sci-fi picture Natalie Wood was shooting when she drowned at the age of 43, under circumstances that remain clouded by mystery. Some of them know that it was one of only two narrative features (Silent Running being the other) directed by special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, whose work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner is the stuff of legend. Real movie nerds remember that Brainstorm was intended by its director to be one of those landmarks that forever changes the future of film–like The Jazz Singer debuting sync sound, Becky Sharp employing three-strip Technicolor, or The Robe introducing CinemaScope. As a movie partly about the afterlife, it is a weird kind of eulogy to Natalie Wood, yes, but it also memorializes Trumbull’s enduring dream of a new breed of cinema that would make moving images more likelife, and more mind-expanding, than any photographic process that had come before.