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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.

A ‘Hollow Crown’ brimming with wonders

RICH00690RichardII
Ben Whishaw
One of the big events of the fall TV season arrives tonight with the PBS premiere of The Hollow Crown, a Great Performances four-week miniseries featuring lavish adaptations of a quartet of Shakespeare’s most gripping history plays.
Cast with some of Great Britain’s finest classically trained actors, Crown chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of three English Kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V – and how their reigns helped shape British history.
Tonight’s premiere features Richard II, a lesser-known play here in the States, but absolutely gripping in this film directed by Rupert Goold. Ben Whishaw, who played gadget guru Q in the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, stars as the vain, capricious and self-centered monarch whose penchant for acting on spiteful whims is revealed almost immediately, as Richard is petitioned by a cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), to settle a dispute with Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy from Fox’s The Following).
Ultimately, Richard renders a judgment that pleases no one, banishing both men from the kingdom, although he rewards Henry’s past loyalty by sending him away for “only” six years. That’s more than enough, however, to break the heart of Henry’s elderly father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), who dies soon after his son departs. Wasting no time, Richard seizes the family’s property and possessions that are Henry’s birthright, then heads to Ireland to put down a rebel uprising.
In the king’s absence, a furious Henry defies his banishment, returning to reclaim his inheritance. With the heartfelt support of allies Northumberland (David Morrissey, The Walking Dead) and the Duke of York (David Suchet, Poirot), Henry readily takes Richard prisoner and lays claim to the throne as King Henry IV.
Whishaw, who won a BAFTA Award (the British Emmy) as best actor for his role, gives a fascinating performance as this rather effete and aloof monarch, a portrayal that is mildly off-putting in his early scenes, but builds in intensity and tragic stature as Richard’s destiny takes a series of appalling turns. At two and a half hours, Richard II is the longest of these films, yet it feels the shortest, because Goold keeps things moving at such a nice clip.
H4_080212_JB0020Prince Hal
Tom Hiddleston
On Sept. 27, Henry IV, Part I finds a much older Henry, now played by Jeremy Irons, beset by myriad troubles as his reign moves into its twilight years. What really has him most worried, however, is that Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers) is sowing his wild oats with a drunken old knight named Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale, who won the BAFTA as best supporting actor) at a tavern run by Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters) instead of dutifully preparing to assume the throne. In fact, Hal’s misbehavior is causing such a scandal that a challenger to the throne, Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), is having no trouble building a coalition of supporters.
With rebels threatening the succession, Hal ultimately returns to his father’s side, but not before one of the most unforgettable comic moments in the miniseries, as Hal makes fun of his father, giving Hiddleston an excuse to show off his absolutely pitch-perfect vocal impression of the great rumbling drawl Jeremy Irons seems to favor in most of his roles these days.
In Henry IV, Part II (Oct. 4), the king’s ministers step up their efforts to drive a wedge between Hal and Falstaff, and they get their wish after Hal overhears Falstaff belittling him and catches the boozy knight in a series of lies. After Henry IV dies, Falstaff is convinced his ship finally has come in, but he is in for a rude awakening as Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. In both films, director Richard Eyre brings to vivid life the uproarious medieval messiness of Falstaff’s world, although every now and then a scene gets so busy that we lose track of the story.
The miniseries concludes on Oct. 11 with director Thea Sharrock’s moving treatment of Henry V, which previously was adapted into critically acclaimed feature films starring Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Hiddleston continues in his regal role, looking every inch a king as Henry faces a series of challenges from the French monarch (Lambert Wilson). The first hour or so feels elegiac, including as it does the deaths of both Falstaff and his ne’er-do-well companion Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), but as events lead us inevitably to the high-stakes battle of Agincourt in France, the mood becomes more stirring. In the climactic moments, when Henry and his small, exhausted and bedraggled army must confront a well-rested French force five times its size, Hiddleston delivers his rallying speech to his troops thrillingly, while Sharrock frames the battle action in such a way as to make us believe there are far more soldiers on the battlefield than was actually the case.
Production values are absolutely top-notch, and the supporting cast also includes Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey), Maxine Peake and Tom Hughes of Silk, Clemence Poesy (Fleur from the Harry Potter films), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By), among many others. Needless to say, I highly recommend The Hollow Crown. Be careful, though, to check your local listings, because some PBS affiliates carry their own local programming on Friday nights and will schedule Crown in a different time period.
H4_230112_JB_0121Falstaff
Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale