Tag Archives: Friday Night Lights

HBO’s Normal Heart beats strong and true

'The Normal Heart' on HBO.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo (from left) head a stellar cast in ‘The Normal Heart,’ a devastating HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York.


Larry Kramer’s shattering play The Normal Heart opened Off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago, yet this blistering indictment of public and bureaucratic indifference during the early years of the AIDS crisis had to wait until this Sunday to make its transition to the screen, via HBO’s star-studded new TV movie.
Maybe Kramer’s play – part poignant personal drama, part furious polemic – was deemed too hot to handle by most film and TV producers, although some power players including Barbra Streisand tried to get Kramer’s Heart transplanted long before now.
At any rate, HBO’s stunning adaptation – directed by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) from a screenplay by Kramer himself – was worth the wait. To some degree, watching this story at such a remove from the actual events of the play diminishes some of the piece’s power and urgency, but the human drama that remains is riveting in its own right.
Drawn primarily from Kramer’s own personal experiences, The Normal Heart opens in 1981 as gay writer Ned Weeks (Kramer’s alter ego, played by a very fine Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers) and his best friend, Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights), arrive on Fire Island, a gay vacation mecca, for a weekend of partying. Although spirits are running high among most of the participants, we quickly notice that Ned is odd man out, his presence evoking outright hostility from several visitors. Turns out Ned recently wrote a very controversial book that was, among other things, a scathing denunciation of the promiscuity that was embraced by many gay men in those early days of gay liberation.
Ned, a schlubby, socially awkward 40-something who never has had a successful relationship, is regarded as a sour party-pooper by many of his gay peers, so when he starts trying to call attention to a mysterious new disease that seems to target homosexuals, much eye-rolling ensues.
His curiosity piqued, Ned turns to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a flinty physician who is one of the few doctors treating most of this syndrome’s early victims. She admits that, while she suspects the disease is contracted during sex, she can’t prove it.
Taylor Kitsch, Jonathan Groff and Joe Mantello

Closeted gay New Yorker Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, left) and his friend Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello, right) desperately seek medical help for Bruce’s critically ill boyfriend (Jonathan Groff) in ‘The Normal Heart.’


After Bruce’s current boyfriend (Jonathan Groff, Glee) falls ill, Ned persuades Bruce and several other closeted gay men in the upper echelons of New York society to help him form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but Ned is dumbfounded to discover that many of these “discreetly gay” gentlemen are so paranoid about their personal lives being made public that they don’t even want the name of their new organization to appear on the outside of fund-raising envelopes.
As Emma struggles in vain to raise public awareness and receive more – or, indeed, any – financial support to study what is starting to look terrifyingly like an epidemic, Ned, Bruce and their stressed-out inner circle are chronically at odds over how to be most effective, exacerbated by Ned’s tactless, confrontational style. It’s here that The Normal Heart really soars, making tangible all these years later how chaotic and acrimonious the early ‘80s were for the New York gay community, as a dearth of reliable medical information and a surfeit of public and governmental callousness left those at ground zero to fight relentlessly among themselves, when they weren’t attending memorial services for young, talented friends cut down in their prime.
“We’re losing an entire generation,” sighs GMHC executive director and hospital worker Tommy Boatright (Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory, in the TV movie’s most endearing performance). “Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors: all those plays that won’t get written now, all those dances never to be danced. … I keep screaming inside, ‘Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us?’ “
The seamless ensemble contributes one remarkable performance after another. Ruffalo, best known as a romantic leading man in other movies, doesn’t shy away from Ned’s often abrasive, in-your-face personal style, while Matt Bomer (White Collar) reveals new depths as Felix Turner, the patient New York Times reporter who falls in love with Ned. Roberts, strenuously glammed-down, gives an appropriately testy and vanity-free performance as Dr. Brookner. Kitsch also shows unexpected range as a golden boy and former Green Beret forced by fate to become a completely different kind of hero, and Joe Mantello – who played Ruffalo’s role in a recent Tony-winning Broadway revival of Kramer’s play – has an unforgettable scene in which his character, GMHC board member Mickey Marcus, suffers a complete breakdown from the relentless pressure he and his peers are enduring.
If you were lucky enough to see The Normal Heart during its original 1985 theatrical run in New York or, as I did, in one of the many regional theater productions that quickly followed, you probably remember feeling that you were witnessing something historic, an artistic event firmly plugged into a chilling and still-unfolding real-life crisis that had no resolution on the horizon.
Watching the same story at home, three decades later, with AIDS now regarded as a somewhat manageable health condition, The Normal Heart no longer screams with quite the same unfettered rage. As a time capsule of a truly harrowing time in recent American history, however, it’s close to perfect.
Julia Roberts

Oscar winner Julia Roberts stars as the beleaguered Dr. Emma Brookner in ‘The Normal Heart’ on HBO.

You’ll want to check out ‘Bates Motel’

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In the opening scene of Bates Motel, the compelling new “contemporary prequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 horror film Psycho that premieres tonight on A&E Network, 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) jerks awake in his bed as, behind him, a 1940-ish black-and-white Rosalind Russell movie plays on an old-model TV set. Norman seems disoriented, even drugged, as he hauls himself from his bed and staggers unsteadily down the hall. In the kitchen, an unattended steam iron hisses in disuse, while a meal on the stove simmers messily on the brink of burning. He makes his way into the next room, a garage/work space, to find the bloody and lifeless body of his father lying on the floor.
As a freaked-out Norman races down the hallway to the bathroom where his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), is taking a suspiciously leisurely shower, we share his disorientation. Where are we? No, more to the point: WHEN are we?
Flash forward six months from wherever the heck we are. Norma is driving Norman from their former home near Scottsdale, Ariz., to the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Ore., where Norma has bought a ramshackle motel for the two of them to manage. The property, as well as the adjacent house looming above, are virtual clones of the buildings from the Hitchcock film, so it’s only as Norman sits waiting for the bus to take him to school on his first day and we see him listening to music on his smartphone that we realize we’re really in the present day.
It’s an interesting creative decision and one that some critics already have jumped on as a flaw in an otherwise provocative series, but that sense of time being out of joint seems to be very much by design. How else to explain why that distinctly non-digital TV set in the original Bates home in Arizona is tuned to a classic movie channel or, even more striking, there are vinyl LPs playing on a ’60s-style hi-fi console in Norma and Norman’s sinister abode adjacent to the motel?
Given that the show’s two executive producers – Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin – hail from such Emmy-winning shows as, respectively, Lost and Friday Night Lights, I’m inclined to cut them some slack for now, especially since Bates Motel is anchored by two absolutely spellbinding performances by Highmore and Farmiga.
In terms of degree of difficulty, I have to award points to Highmore, the former British child actor who tore your heart out as the little son of doomed Kate Winslet in 2004’s Finding Neverland and took the title role in Tim Burton’s uneven 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now lean and lanky at 21 in real life and managing a credible American accent, Highmore is inspired casting in a role that previously has been inextricably associated with Anthony Perkins. The show’s creators have indicated in interviews that they hope viewers will grow attached to Norman and his mom in a way that de-emphasizes the grisly events that will, eventually and inevitably, follow and Highmore does a splendid job of playing a younger Norman Bates who is both already seriously damaged yet heartbreakingly salvageable at the time the events in this series play out.
The reason his sad fate is sealed is spelled out by Farmiga’s uncompromising and multifaceted portrayal as a woman who wants to be all things to her son: protector, companion, confidante, even surrogate lover. Watching her scenes, you get a sense that this actress, who has been plugging away for so many years without the appreciation she deserves, recognized a career-changing role when she saw it, because she delivers an utterly fearless performance. Her Norma is determined to keep Norman bound to her in a you-and-me-against-the-world dynamic, and what she does to assure that is one of the creepiest things about Bates Motel.
By the end of the premiere episode, we’ve seen (probably) two murders, a violent attempted rape, plus evidence of a sex slave ring, with hints to follow that this Pacific Northwestern community is so kinky that somewhere there’s a diner that serves a damn good cherry pie (Cuse has freely acknowledged that Twin Peaks is an integral part of the show’s DNA).
This early 2013 TV season includes such other serial killer projects as the popular but probability-stretching The Following on Fox and NBC’s upcoming and very bleak Hannibal, but it’s Farmiga and Highmore’s dazzling double act that will keep me checking into Bates Motel week after week. It’s wonderful to see A&E, once a front-runner in terms of original dramatic programming, raise itself out of the muck of low-budget reality shows to deliver such an audacious new original. Bravo.