erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2012 posts

Saturday December 29, 2012

Movie Review: This is 40 (2012)


I laughed a lot during “This is 40,” Judd Apatow’s comedy of middle-aged angst, but he needs to rein in his performers. Or himself. Too many times it felt like people were doing bits, for which they had commitment, for which their commitment to the bit was the whole point, rather than simply being characters in a story that was moving forward. As a result, the story didn’t move forward. It stalled. The movie clocked in at 134 minutes. You could watch “Annie Hall” in that time and still have 40 minutes left over for pizza.

poster of Judd Apatow's "This is 40" (2012)Here. At one point, Pete and Debbie’s daughter, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow), has a dust-up on Facebook with classmate Joseph (Ryan Lee), which Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) become aware of. Debbie subsequently runs into Joseph at the school when she’s having a bad day and lets him have it. She calls him a little hairless wonder, compares him to Tom Petty, says his hair looks like a Justin Bieber wig on backwards. Then she adds:

So next time you think about writing something nasty on my daughter’s Facebook page, just remember me. Remember me. I will come down here, and I will fuck you up.

A few days later, when Pete is having a bad day, he runs into Joseph’s mom, Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), things escalate, and we wind up with this:

If he insults my daughter again, I’m going to hit him with my car. Got it? In fact, if you insult my wife again, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to show up at your house when you’re sleeping, and I’ll take your iPad and your iPod or your iMac and I’ll shove them up your fucking iCunt.

Eventually everyone is called into the principal’s office, where Pete and Debbie play dumb, or sweet, or innocent, or all three. Now it’s Catherine’s turn, or Melissa McCarthy’s, to push the envelope. She threatens Pete and Debbie:

I’d like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the jaw with my foot bone.

She insults the principal:

Fuck you, Jill. You’re a horrible woman. This is why everybody hates you. This kind of shit. Ineffective. Bullshit hair. And I’m glad your husband died. Because you’re a fucking asshole. He probably killed himself.

As a result, Pete and Debbie get away with it, leave with smirks, and it momentarily draws them closer together. I like that idea, the awfulness of grown-ups, but none of it feels real. It feels like performers trying to outdo each other at a celebrity roast. It feels like comedians pushing the envelope.

During one of his denials, Pete says this: “That’s ridiculous. Who talks like that?”

People in Judd Apatow movies.

People like us
Let me add that it is a pleasure to see a movie about a couple who shares the same bathroom. They’re tired of each other. They know each other’s bad habits. She sneaks cigarettes, he cupcakes. She shaves off years, he hides bankruptcy woes. His father (Albert Brooks) keeps asking for money, her father (John Lithgow) is rich and distant.

It is a pleasure to see a movie where parents argue with their plugged-in children over screen time. Where they get rid of the Wi-Fi. Where they take away the iToys. Where Sadie, arguing with her father over her obsession with J.J. Abrams’ “Lost,” brings up his obsession with “Mad Men,” and how stupid that show is, which the father momentarily defends until he realizes how absurd the whole thing is and makes a frantic hand-washing gesture before ending the discussion.

A lot of it felt like life. But it felt like life as viewed through a privileged L.A. prism. Which it is.

Debbie is turning 40 and feels unattractive, but she’s only unattractive because she’s working next to Megan Fox, the real Megan Fox, who plays Desi, an employee in Debbie’s clothing boutique. That’s an L.A. problem. That’s a consequence of living in and working among stars in Hollywood. People like Fox don’t exist anywhere else. They may grow up in South Dakota or Minnesota or Tennessee but they all wind up in the movies and away from the rest of us. They turn two-dimensional. Anywhere outside of L.A., Leslie Mann at 40 is the hottest girl in town.

Every one of their complaints, in fact, their “real life” dilemmas, could be followed by a “fuck you” from the rest of us.

  • Debbie’s turning 40 and looks like Leslie Mann?
  • She’s stuck with a husband who looks like Paul Rudd? And who cheats on her with cupcakes?
  • They have financial woes but live in that house?
  • They have financial woes because he loaned $80,000 to his father?
  • They have financial woes because her boutique business, at which we rarely see her working, is only breaking even?
  • They have financial woes because in the middle of the global financial meltdown he left a well-paying job at Sony to start his own record label, at which he signed favorites from his youth, like Graham Parker, who never sell anymore, even though he knows that the entire music industry is going through the digital toilet? And we rarely see him even working at this place? Or breaking a sweat? Or going to clubs to check out new acts?

All together now: Fuck you.

Apatow calls this a sequel of sorts to “Knocked Up,” which grossed $148 million in 2007 ($171 million today), because Pete and Debbie showed up there as cautionary tale to Ben and Alison (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl), and because a few other folks from that universe make it into this one. Not Alison and Ben. They’re referenced, but vaguely.

Instead we get the soft-talking Jason (Jason Segel), who is now a personal trainer, creating “Bodies by Jason,” and who soft-talks Megan Fox’s character into, we imagine, bed. There’s also Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who also works at the boutique, and who blames the missing $12K on Desi. Turns out she’s the thief. During the big reveal she gets to overcommit to her own bit. Another 30 seconds down the drain.

Despite these overcommitments, Apatow gets good performances from his actors. Both Mann and Rudd feel natural and effortless—although Rudd’s late-movie anger didn’t do it for me. Albert Brooks has most of the funny lines that feel like lines someone (someone funny) might actually say. Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel do a lot with small moments. Even Megan Fox, now seemingly relegated to playing the hot, obtuse girl in middle-aged comedies (“Friends with Kids”), gets off some good line-readings. I was impressed.

I was also impressed with the acting of Apatow’s daughter, Maude, who totally seems like a semi-privileged, somewhat smart teenage girl here. This is her third movie. She played Sadie before in “Knocked Up” and Mable in “Funny People.” In each, her sister plays her sister, and her mother plays her mother, and all three are written and directed by her father, who always inserts a handsome dude into his role as husband and father: Rudd here, Eric Bana, whom the “Knocked Up” boys talk up as the great Jewish hero of “Munich,” in “Funny People.” It’s got to be a joke around the Apatow household. Who do we get next time, dear? Hell, it might make a good idea for a screenplay.

Again, I laughed out loud at “This is 40.” It’s a movie that tries to cut through the shit. But Apatow overindulges. He needs greater commitment to his characters and less to their bits.

Posted at 10:17 AM on Dec 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Thursday December 27, 2012

Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)


I cried during Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen filmed beautifully in a single shot, uncut, like in musicals of old, with a close-up on her face, her distraught face, singing live. The story of Fantine may be the most miserable part of “Les Misérables,” and Anne Hathaway breaks your heart in the telling. It’s the pinnacle of the movie, really, and the most representative moment of its themes, and it comes too early. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is full of anger and intensity, then guilt and fear, and he’s certainly beaten down by life, particularly in the beginning; but he’s not beaten down the way Fantine is beaten down. She loses her job, her child, her place, her hair, her teeth, her virtue and finally her life. She is the true symbol of les misérables. When you have nothing, the world still keeps taking what’s left.

That’s the problem I had with all the talk of revolution and “the people” in the second half of the film. Sure, the authority figure, Javert (Russell Crowe), is an unsympathetic, bootstraps type, who expects, and maybe even hopes for, recidivism out of every convict, since it reaffirms his narrow worldview. But the worst things that happen to Fantine and Jean Valjean result from the actions of other people. No wonder they don’t rise up on cue. They’re too busy pulling teeth from the poor and deflowering the destitute. Do I hear the people sing? Yes, and it’s not pretty.

"Les Miserables" poster“Les Misérables” is full of such mixed messages. Jean Valjean, after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, can’t get on his feet, and, despite his massive strength, he’s beaten down and resorts to stealing again. He’s taken in by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), fed, kept warm, and he responds by stealing silver. Of course he’s caught and brought back. But the Bishop lies for him. He says he gave him the silver. The Monsignor adds that in his haste Jean Valjean forgot the silver candlestick holders. Please take them, he says, and make a new life.

Jean Valjean does. The next time we see him, nine years later, he’s successful, a man of the world, respected, a mayor of a small town even. But what is he really? He’s the owner of a sweat shop that employs a foreman who sexually abuses his female employees and allows poor Fantine to be tossed out into the street. Surely not what the Bishop, let alone God, had in mind.

Love love love, money money money
Victor Hugo’s story is a bit of a jumble this way. It’s 19th-century storytelling. It sprawls. It contains an eight-year jump and a nine-year jump. The first third of the story belongs to Jean Valjean (one of the great names in literature), and then increasingly to others: Fantine for a time, then her daughter, Cosette, who becomes ward of Jean Valjean, and then to the revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt), particularly the former, who becomes Cosette’s lover and eventually her husband. It starts out about the poor, becomes a tale of would-be revolution and sacrifice, and turns into a story about love and marrying up. It gives the people, which is us, what we want: mixed messages.

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel. I’ve seen two film versions of the novel, both French: the classic version from 1934 starring Harry Baur; and a 1995 version starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and set during the first half of the 20th century. I’ve only seen parts of the musical. My nephew Jordy, then 9, was in an award-winning version put on by Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and I saw parts of the DVD of that show.

In other words, I’m not as steeped in the source material as some and I’ll leave it to them to grade Tom Hooper more eruditely for his version. But overall I was impressed. Hooper kept the story moving, gave us sweeping shots, overhead shots, many close-ups. There’s criticism for the close-ups, but why? It’s the human face. As John Ford said, it’s the most interesting thing that can be photographed.

Best of all, Hooper had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback, and that, to me, has made all the difference. There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie.

There’s been criticism of Crowe’s singing but I thought he was a perfect Javert: stolid, thick, relentless. If his numbers were stiff, well, Javert is stiff. Crowe’s major failing, for me, was in the final number, the suicide number, where you want greater emotion. You want to feel the reason he jumps. You don’t.

Really, all the actors impressed. Aaron Tvelt feels like he could be a budding star. Ditto Samantha Banks, owner of the world’s tiniest waist, as Éponine, the poor girl who loves the rich boy, Marius, but loses him to the would-be rich girl, the cosseted Cosette. In a smaller role, just a few lines, George Blagden as Grantaire impressed.

Prisoner 24601
Meanwhile, post-Fantine, Jean Valjean keeps doing the right thing. Another man is being tried as Jean Valjean? He admits his subterfuge and saves the man. Fantine has a child? He cares for her, keeps her from harm, and away from Thénardier and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). When he learns of the love between Cosette and Marius, he storms the barricades to save Marius. There, he also saves his enemy, Javert, then pulls Marius through the muck of the sewers of Paris to safety, only to be faced with Javert again. But he refuses to bend. He walks away. Unable to kill, Javert is left to kill himself for his true crime: lack of sympathy.

Valjean keeps doing the right thing, in other words, he keeps putting others before himself, and for his trouble he dies aged and alone. No, wait! Cosette and Marius show up on their wedding day. They’ve found him, and greet him with tears and joy and gratitude, and he is able to bask in this warmth at the moment of his death, where, in the afterlife, he is greeted by Fantine, cleaned up and happy. And among the living, as the music rises, we return to the barricades, and the waving flags, and the red and the black, as if this, revolution, were the lesson of Jean Valjean’s life. But it’s not. It’s not even close.

The lesson of Jean Valjean’s life is the lesson of Jesus: do the right thing and get crucified. The rest (resurrection, basking in Cosette’s warmth) is just prettying up around this story.

Sorry to be a pain in the ass. “Les Misérables” is worth seeing. It has moments of incredible power. I enjoyed it for most of its 158-minute runtime. Musicals are worth making. Please star Anne Hathaway in the next one, please.

Posted at 11:24 AM on Dec 27, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday December 26, 2012

Movie Review: Barbara (2012)


“Barbara” is so quiet and hushed it’s as if the movie is afraid someone is listening. It is. It’s set in East Germany, 1980, and we don’t know whom to trust, and we wait for information that never comes. Our title character, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a Berlin doctor, now lives and works in a provincial town near the Baltic Sea because of something that attracted the attention of the Stasi, the secret police. She probably tried to escape but we never find out for sure. She’s not revealing much—to us or to the other people in the town. She’s a bit distant, a bit Deneuve. One of her patients tries to kill himself by jumping out a three-story window and the fear is he’ll lose his memory; but his memory turns out just fine. It’s his emotions that are lost. He feels nothing. One assumes he’s a symbol for the country.

That Catherine Deneuve reference isn’t tossed off lightly, by the way. Hoss is stunning, distant, sexy. I could watch her neck for hours, which I get to do here. I also wondered to what extent the film’s accolades owe to Hoss’s looks. Would we care as much about Barbara’s story if she were fat and dumpy, with dark, straggly hair? And would we agree with the ending if the West German lover she decided to abandon was the handsome bearded man with amused eyes (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the East German doctor she returned to was the bland company man with the receding hairline (Mark Waschke)? Just how shallow are we?

Separate, unequal
The movie begins with Barbara being jostled (on the bus) and then being watched (from the second-story window of the hospital) by two men, one Stasi, the other Barbara (2012), starring Nina Hossbearded with amused eyes, who turns out to be André, the chief of pediatric surgery at the hospital. It’s her first day but she’s smoking a cigarette on a bench outside the hospital. “She won’t be one second too early,” the officer says. “If she were 6, you’d say she was sulking.”

André tries to inculcate her into the hospital life but she trusts no one. The others think she’s stuck-up, Berlinish. “You shouldn’t be so separated,” André warns her, driving her home one day. But he fails to ask for directions to her place, which she picks up on. “You’re groomed,” she tells him. “And here’s where I separate.”

No one trusts anyone. The Stasi keep showing up, led by the bland, bored Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), to turn her room and search her body cavities. The apartment manager, Mrs. Bungert (Rosa Enskat), is abrupt and suspicious and domineering and put-upon. At night, imperious and annoyed, she leads Barbara into the basement storage facilities, where Barbara finds a bicycle tire, flat, which she fixes in her bathtub. The bike gives her a degree of independence. It allows her to stay separate.

Where is she going? We have no idea. At this point we’re just following. She takes the bike to a train, and then walks to a restaurant. She asks for the restroom and spies, on the way, all the waitresses on their backs with their legs elevated against the wall. It looks absurd but they’re just fighting varicose veins. One of the waitresses then gives her a thick package, money it turns out, which Barbara hides in a gravestone near her apartment. The Stasi soon return to toss the place.

In this manner we piece together her plan to escape to West Germany, but many things escape us—or at least me. We’re supposed to know that her lover, Jörg (Waschke), is already in West Germany, but I didn’t. The have a rendezvous in the woods, with an official standing by his Mercedes, fending off the interests of a local. How did this come about? How does a West German schedule a rendezvous in East Germany? Money, I suppose. Money greases all wheels. But initially I didn’t pick up on this, so I mistook the local’s interest for mere nosiness. Maybe it was. Maybe he was less interested in a whiff of the freedom and riches of West Germany than in wondering how a bit of West Germany wound up so near his home.

Helping the dying
During this waiting period, Barbara draws closer to André. She demonstrates her medical prowess by correcting him on a meningitis case; then she demonstrated her well-hidden warmth by caring for a girl, Stella (Jasna Fritz Bauer), and reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her by her bedside. Is André smitten or spying? He shows up at Barbara’s apartment, laments the poorly tuned piano she was requisitioned, sends her a tuner to fix it. During a night shift he lets her sleep, then wakes her with coffee. He tells her how he wound up there. A woman covering his shift in Berlin misread the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales on an incubator for premature babies. Pressure built up, the babies’ retinas became detached, they were blinded for life. This was the deal he was offered. She questions him about the incubator: the make and model. “Was my story too long?” he asks, sensing her skepticism. “Is the story true?” she asks later. Neither answers the other. Everything hangs heavy in the silence between these shorts bits of conversation.

But his small acts of kindness wear her down. She begins to trust him. She becomes attracted to him. When she searches for him in town, she finds Schütz of the Stasi there. Turns out he’s caring for Schütz’s wife, who’s dying of cancer. We get this exchange:

Barbara: Is this usual for you?
André: Helping the dying?
Barbara: Helping assholes.
André: When they’re dying, yes.

Throughout Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” I was reminded of the Iranian film “Goodbye” (2011) by Mohammad Rasoulof. An attractive professional woman (lawyer in Iran, doctor here) is involved in the slow machinations of escape from an oppressive regime, and hearing, too often, those loud knocks on the door. It doesn’t work for the pregnant Noora. At the end of “Goodbye,” she’s caught and arrested. It could’ve worked for Barbara. But at the end, she sends Stella, pregnant, across the Baltic Sea in her place. She gives up what she’s been striving the entire movie for. To be with André? To help with the dying.

Nina Hoss in "Barbara" (2012): A bit distant, a bit Deneuve

Hoss: a bit distant, a bit Deneuve.

Posted at 09:58 AM on Dec 26, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Monday December 24, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)


It took me weeks to drag myself to this movie. It just didn’t appeal. Maybe it was the trailer: He’s off, she’s off, now it’s on. It’s like what Rocky says about his relationship with Adrian: I got holes, she’s got holes, together we fill holes. That was my thought even before I knew “Silver Linings Playbook” was set—pungently—in Philadelphia.

It starts out OK. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is in a psychiatric facility in Baltimore. He’s been there eight months and we see him involved in various activities: group therapy, where he enthusiastically talks up silver linings; pill taking, where he hides his medication under his tongue and spits it out later like Randle Patrick McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” He exercises all the time. That’s good. He has the word “EXCELSIOR” taped to his wall. That’s his mantra. He tells us, in voiceover, “What, are you kidding me? I love Sundays.”

Right back where he started from
Then his mom (Jacki Weaver) shows up out of the blue and discharges him. At this point we get a bit of backstory. He was a substitute history teacher, bipolar Silver Linings Playbook posterapparently, overweight apparently, who came home early one day to find his wife and another history teacher (full-time) in the shower together. Beat the shit out of the dude. For a long time, his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), had wanted him to lose weight and get psychiatric help, and now he’s done both, kinda sorta, so after he leaves the institution he expects them to get back together. Despite the restraining order. Despite the fact that he’s not taking his meds. Despite the fact that he’s living in the very facility that created him and his problems in the first place. He’s living with his parents.

Mom has a tendency to lie to avoid confrontations. Dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is basically a rung below the son. He’s OCD: about his envelopes, about the TV remotes, about his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. He bets on them, too. He used to work at Eagles Stadium but got into too many fights there. Now he’s banned from the place. Just as Pat is banned from Nikki.

That’s one of the things I liked about “Silver Linings Playbook”: You see why Pat is the way he is, and you see that others aren’t much better. His brother, Jake (Shea Whigham of “Boardwalk Empire,” destined to play brothers), is a bit of a dick: listing off how well his life is going compared to Pat’s. His pal Ronnie (John Ortiz) lives in fear of his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles); at times, he says, he can hardly breathe. Veronica has a sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband recently died. Their sex life dried up so he was coming home with some lingerie from Victoria’s Secret when he stopped to help someone with car difficulties. He got hit by a car. Now she’s fucking everybody. To make up.

But meds are meds, and without them, things fall apart quickly for Pat. He tries to see Nikki, meets up with Tiffany, desperately searches for his wedding video in the middle of the night. As things escalate, he accidently elbows his mother in the face and punches his father in the face. In his shrink’s waiting room, his trigger song, “My Cheri Amour” by Stevie Wonder, is piped in. It’s a test. It was his wedding song. It was also the song playing when he found his wife in the shower with the history prof. Pat doesn’t pass the test.

To be honest? Pat’s the most interesting guy in the room … and he’s not that interesting. But Tiffany likes him—likes likes him—since after eight months in the stir he looks like Bradley Cooper. So she cons him into partnering with her for a dance contest at the Ben Franklin Hotel. She dangles the prospect of connection with Nikki and he jumps. We watch them practice, talk, argue, practice, yell at each other. It’s not bad.

Then it all falls apart.

Pat schmat
Pat doesn’t fall apart. He’s actually taking his meds now. It’s everyone around him. Particularly his immediates.  

Pat Sr. wants to start a restaurant—something about Philly cheese steaks—and he bets all the money he’s been saving on an Eagles-Giants game, to which, for good luck, he sends Pat. That’s why Pat and brother and friends are tailgating, having a good time, when a busload of Indian-Americans, including Pat’s shrink (a face painter), shows up, and the party grows. But some racist clowns can’t deal, a fight ensues, Pat gets involved, he’s banned from the place, the Eagles lose. Pat Sr. blows up. It’s one of those scenes where half the neighborhood is in the house, and everyone’s yapping about stupid shit, and I wanted to get out of the place. Can’t imagine what Pat felt. And we can’t. He’s suddenly the sanest man in the room. Then the movie doubles down on Pat Sr.’s disease. Tiffany encourages him to go double-or-nothing on Eagles-Cowboys plus Pat and Tiffany have to get a “5” in the dance competition. If both things happen, Pat Sr. gets his money back.

Right there I lost all interest. For most of the movie, the thrust is Pat and his problems, which the film acknowledges. For the last third, the focus becomes Pat Sr. and his problems, which the film doesn’t acknowledge. Plus, a “5” in the dance competition? You think you have to attach a number to dance to get us interested?

Long story short: Nikki shows up at the dance, Tiffany drinks, but they dance OK for them. The numbers come in: 4.8, 4.9, 4.9 … 5.4! For a grand total of 5! Pat Sr. gets his money back! (Which he’ll lose again next week?) Tiffany runs away when she sees Pat with Nikki! But, wait, he’s only whispering to Nikki! We know he loves you! And he does! And he runs after you to say so! And you kiss! And you kiss at the end of the movie, on a Sunday, football Sunday, which Pat tells us he loves! Like he said at the beginning! Full circle!

Earlier in the movie, after Pat read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and lamented the sudden sad ending and its lack of a silver lining to his parents, he said the following:

The world’s hard enough as it is. Can’t someone say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Someone does say that. They say it all the fucking time.

Posted at 07:51 AM on Dec 24, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Friday December 21, 2012

Movie Review: How to Survive a Plague (2012)


At first you think it’s Dan Savage even though you know it can’t be Dan Savage. He’s too young for this time period and since when did Dan live in Greenwich Village? But there he is. That’s gotta be him, right? No. It’s not him. Dude turns out to be Peter Staley, who went from being a closeted Wall Street broker in 1987—with a homophobic mentor who tells him fags get what they deserve for taking it up the ass—to an AIDS activist and member of ACT-UP, who in 1988 argues with Pat Buchanan on CNN’s “Crossfire” about access to AIDS drugs. Pat Buchanan winds up agreeing with him.

Then there’s the other dude, Bob Rafsky, the PR exec with a young daughter, and an ex-wife he calls the greatest romance of his life, even though, you know, he’s gay, and out now. He came out at 40. We see him in the low-def video of the day, a T-shirt-wearing activist who seems more serious than the noisy folks around him. His every word, his every action, says: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. It’s as if his life depends upon the outcome.

Final poster for "How to Survive a Plague" (2012)How about that third dude, the snob, the one with the nose almost literally in the air, who can’t make an internal PSA without lighting a cigarette and taking a deep drag on it? Mark Harrington. Of whom Larry Kramer, a talking head in the doc, says, “Right away Mark digested [the scientific literature] as if by osmosis and within a few weeks he had come up with a glossary of AIDS treatment terms.”

Kramer, famously pugnacious and controversial, is one of the first talking heads we see in “How to Survive a Plague.” We also see a few scientists and doctors, and a few other activists. But slowly it dawns on us who we’re not seeing: Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, and Peter Staley.

That’s the tension for the viewer in David France’s documentary. In this way it’s as suspenseful as any war movie. We’re worried about the characters on the screen. We’re worried about who lives up to the film’s title. We’re worried about who lives.

And you behave like this
“How to Survive a Plague” is less about the AIDS crisis than it is about the gay community’s reaction to governmental indifference to the AIDS crisis. The Reagan and Bush administrations ignored and played down. The gay community acted up.

The doc reminded me of my own indifference to the direct actions of ACT-UP back then. I remember watching on the news (ABC World News Tonight, kids) one of ACT-UP’s protests outside of NIH or FDA headquarters, in some Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and thinking, What are these people protesting? That cures don’t exist? I thought it was silly. I seem to remember conversations with smarter friends that went something like this:

She: No, they’re protesting that the FDA isn’t releasing AIDS drugs.
Me: Which don’t exist.
She: They exist. You can get them in Canada.
Me: Really? Canada has a cure for AIDS? I’m surprised we haven’t heard about that.
She: They have drugs that help some people slow down the disease. But the FDA won’t release them.
Me: I assume because they’re not safe.
She: Safe? When the alternative is dying?

That was the early struggle that “Plague” documents. How do you get the drugs? Why were drugs available in Canada but unavailable in the U.S.? Didn’t anyone care?

The U.S. government certainly didn’t. One wonders all over again what would’ve happened if the AIDS crisis had exploded during a more sympathetic time with a more sympathetic administration. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!” Larry Kramer shouts during an internecine battle between ACT-UP and its offshoot organization, TAG (Treatment Action Group). “And you behave like this!” His words could just as easily have been directed at the Reagan and Bush administrations. At Jesse Helms. At me.

This schmuck behind a curtain
The doc starts in 1987, Year 6 of the crisis, and updates us annually on worldwide AIDS deaths: from 50,000 in 1987 to nearly 10 million in 1996. But they’re just numbers. We’re interested in the people.

There’s Staley getting arrested outside NIH headquarters. There he is giving a big speech in San Francisco to scientists and researchers. He’s putting a human face on the disease.

There’s Rafsky in 1992 confronting then-candidate Bill Clinton during the U.S. presidential campaign. He shouts, “What are you going to do about AIDS? We're dying!” Clinton strikes back. At the next ACT-UP meeting, hands in the air, Rafsky admits a kind of defeat. “Never get into an argument with a Rhodes scholar,” he says. But their exchange made headlines. It brought AIDS back into the headlines. For a day.

Their protests and their speeches bring movement. The scientists agree. A direct action in Bethesda gets the FDA panel to change its mind and approve the drug DHPG. Harrington is nonplussed. Off camera, he says something that reminds me of what Deep Throat said about the White House in “All the President’s Men”: these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand:

It was really an amazing encounter, but it sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz. Like you’ve got to the center of the whole system, and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.

It’s no surprise that things diverge. Direct actions only do so much. Too many voices invariably dilute the message. Not enough people of color on the FDA panel? Really? Who do you want on there and how smart are they? Because meanwhile people are dying.

The internecine battle between ACT-UP and TAG, unfortunately, takes place off-camera, and, save for Larry Kramer’s outburst, in sotto voce. It feels almost swept under the rug. Afterwards, we lose track of the TAG fellows and get a bit too much of Bob Rafsky. That’s awful to say. He dies in 1993, ’94. He has an extended monologue at the funeral of another AIDS activist that goes on too long. That’s awful to say, too.

Then TAG asks the FDA not to approve drugs too quickly? Isn’t that the opposite of their original message? There’s a sense of floundering. There’s a sense that every early victory was counterproductive. “1993 to ’95 were the worst years,” says David Barr, ACT-UP’s lawyer. “It was a really terrifying time. Then we got lucky.”

It happened in 1996. Oddly, I don’t remember the news. Maybe I was confused by it. Maybe I thought it was like AZT and simply delayed the inevitable. But the triple drug therapy that scientists came up with saved millions of lives. Including….

Life during wartime
It’s at this point that David France gives us, one after the other, silent at first, the rest of the talking heads: Staley and Harrington and Barr and Jim Eigo and others. They lived. It’s a glorious moment but there’s no real celebration in it. Staley, whose first words in the doc were, “I’m going to die from this,” now has survivor’s guilt. “Like in any war,” he says, “you wonder why you are here.”

Shouldn’t there be more of a celebration? Shouldn’t there be a party, a disco, some foolin’ around? At a Democracy NOW conference about the doc earlier this year, Staley said the following:

Triple drug therapy in 1996 saved my life. And those therapies came about because the government spent a billion dollars on research, starting in 1989, 1990. And that all came about because of pressure from advocacy. So I’m alive because of that activism. And I hope people will see this film. It’s about how when—it’s about people power being able to actually create change and to change things for the better. It’s not just an AIDS story. Anybody who’s involved in the Occupy movement should run to see this film. Anybody that wants to change the world should run to see this film.

That message is slightly undercut in the doc—if it was even David France’s intention. We don’t get enough about the unbroken line from activism to policy change to cure. That line feels broken here. “How to Survive a Plague” is winning year-end awards but it didn’t blow me away. Once again, as with many of the documentaries I’ve seen this year, I thought: great subject, OK film.

Posted at 07:01 AM on Dec 21, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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