Friday, May 23, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Rage and Devastation

Its official: Ryan Murphy is the new Barbra Streisand. I don’t know if Murphy can sing although, given his success with Glee, I expect he can at least carry a tune. But the producer-director has finally succeeded, where previous rights owner Streisand failed, in bringing Larry Kramer’s celebrated 1985 play, The Normal Heart, to the screen. It premieres this Sunday, May 25th, on HBO.

Kramer, in addition to being a playwright and screenwriter (including the derided 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon), became one of the loudest and angriest voices in New York City during the initial years of the AIDS crisis. While watching his gay friends die at an exponential rate, Kramer formed the pioneering Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization in 1982. He and his associates raised money for medical care, pushed for greater research into the then-mysterious virus, and agitated against local and national government leaders to have them recognize HIV/AIDS for the epidemic that it was.

The Normal Heart largely recounts Kramer’s experiences from 1981 to 1984. Lead character Ned Weeks (a superb Mark Ruffalo) essentially serves as Kramer’s surrogate and viewers’ tour guide through the devastation. The movie opens during a typically hedonistic holiday on Fire Island, where by weekend’s end AIDS has begun to rear its ugly head. More deaths follow and Ned is led to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts, still in de-glammed but effective August: Osage County mode). The compassionate, polio-afflicted Brookner is seemingly the only doctor at the time to even care that gay men are suddenly dropping like flies, and she reserves a private wing for the stricken at a nearby hospital. Finding nurses and others willing to enter the quarantined wing and care for them, however, proves a battle.

Convinced by the good doctor that gay men are spreading the virus through unprotected sex, Ned sets out to “scare the shit” out of his friends in an effort to stop them from having sex until the disease’s transmission can be better understood. His pleas fall on deaf ears at first but, over time, abstinence and the newly-coined “safe sex” prove themselves to be life-saving precautions. Ned also gains the opportunity to practice what he preaches when he unexpectedly falls in love with Felix, a closeted newspaper editor (played by openly gay Matt Bomer). Sadly, however, the precautions prove to be too late for Felix. The stakes become personal for Ned as he watches his lover waste away, which only makes Ned angrier and more aggressive with his frequently alienating tactics.

Murphy apparently enlisted nearly every out gay actor of the modern era for his lovingly-realized version of The Normal Heart, which was adapted by Kramer himself. In addition to Bomer, parts are assumed by Jim Parsons, BD Wong, Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare and, in a thoughtful nod, Angels in America veterans Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello. The only out performers conspicuously absent to my eye are Neil Patrick Harris and Richard Chamberlain. Straight actors Taylor Kitsch, survivor of the big-screen debacles John Carter and Battleship, and Alfred Molina are strong in other roles.

Kramer’s screenplay powerfully retains Ned’s anger but the scenes where Ned exhibits it tend to get repetitive on film. The script also adds some superfluous characters and moments that make the film a tad overlong at 135 minutes. It boasts great performances though and lovely directorial touches that make this Normal Heart movie well worth the nearly 30-year wait, even as more than 36 million people worldwide (most of them heterosexual) have died of AIDS. Kramer & Co.’s anger remains thoroughly justified.

Godzilla is back in a big way, no pun intended, and seems at once more wrathful than ever yet more zen-like in his latest incarnation. The ancient, radioactivity-charged beast is awakened by a pair of prehistoric parasites dubbed MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) by intrigued scientists and incredulous military leaders. Themselves roused from their hibernation by Filipino miners, the initially separated MUTOs set a course for San Francisco in order to mate. A military squadron, powerless against them, is tracking the creatures but so is the big G. A climactic, city-squashing smackdown becomes inevitable.

Young British director Gareth Edwards proves to have been a good choice to helm this “rebirth,” as he prefers to call it, given the similarly thoughtful treatment Edwards gave to the massive alien invaders in his last (and first) feature, Monsters. But relatively new screenwriter Max Borenstein wasn’t as inspired a pick to write the new Godzilla, given its protracted and largely disconnected first act involving a nuclear plant meltdown survivor turned conspiracy theorist played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. Cranston is great and becomes sorely missed once the bulk of the movie is handed over to hunky but dull Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the long-alienated soldier son of Cranston’s character.

Of course, the real star here or in any Godzilla movie is its towering namesake. Once he appears in his entirety for the first time during an initial fight with one of the MUTOs at the Honolulu International Airport, the movie catches fire and hardly lets up. The special effects are stunning, especially in IMAX 3D, and the opening weekend audience I viewed the film with went wild and cheered when Godzilla first displays his famed radioactive breath as well as at the film’s conclusion. I also admired the film’s take on the title monster as “nature’s balance” who charges to the fore whenever that balance is disrupted. Despite his advanced age and what some Japanese fans are decrying as his “pudgy” appearance (although the new film hasn’t yet opened in Japan), Godzilla clearly has a lot of life left in him.

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Normal Heart (HBO): B+
Godzilla (2014): B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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