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Angels in America

A movie directed by Mike Nichols

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On the Threshold of Revelation

  • Sep 21, 2004
It turns out that while my wife and I watched "Angels in America" on DVD, it was winning a huge pile of Emmy awards. Frankly, it doesn't take watching the award show to see why it got so much notice this year, and I'd rather watch the series itself than the Emmy Award show any day of the week.

"Angels in America" is by turns funny, touching, whimsical, serious, and most of all surprising. I wasn't too surprised to learn that it was adapted from a stage play, as it has the feeling of a play at several key points in the story, but it's not distracting or annoying, and even adds to the effect in some ways.

"Angels in America" is essentially the story of several people of different backgrounds in New York City in 1986. This is the time of Ronald Reagan, the advent of AIDS, and a time of great uncertainty for many people in America. The characters of "Angels" are several gay men, a Mormon husband and wife, a mother, an angel, a ghost or two, and perhaps most surprisingly, McCarthy-era lawyer Roy Cohn. How these people's lives touch one another, how they weave together to form the tapestry of America, is the real theme of "Angels in America."

The performances in "Angels" are all memorable, especially when you keep in mind that several of the actors play multiple roles (again, as often happens in a stage performance). See if you can spot Meryl Streep's first appearance in the film when you watch "Angels" for the first time! While all the actors were excellent, the performances that really stood out for me were Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Emma Thompson (always a favorite of mine), and Al Pacino, who plays Roy Cohn in perhaps the best performance of his career. It takes top-notch performances to convey this sort of material convincingly, and these actors deliver all that and more.

The direction of "Angels" was refreshing as well, at times lighthearted and at times deadly serious. Mike Nichols gets the point across in each scene with a steady hand, and despite some pretty tricky scenes never falters. The film is brutally honest in what it depicts when honesty is needed, but also whimsical at times when trying to be too serious would come off as outright cheese. I found the scenes with Emma Thompson as the messenger angel especially effective in this regard, as just when it seems like it's getting too over-the-top serious something surprisingly light happens. It's a combination used throughout the film, and always to good effect.

The score for "Angels in America" deserves mention as well, especially as it was the score that originally brought the series to my attention. I'm a pretty stalwart devotee of Thomas Newman's work these days, and couldn't be more pleased with his music for "Angels." It's the perfect accompaniment for the series itself, and like the series the music rides the fine line between heartbreak and hope quite well. The music is lovely to listen to on its own as well, but more importantly, I can't really imagine any other composer's work who would match the emotions and themes of the series as well.

Make no mistake, "Angels in America" is a complex work, much moreso than my simple summary of it would seem. No matter where you come from or what your background is, you are likely to find something in this series which challenges something you believe in -- not in an in your face sort of way, but in a subtle, nuanced way. This is not a presentation which is trying to offend you or change your mind, but it is certainly trying to make you think.

Check your pre-conceived notions of religion, politics, sexuality, and even sanity at the door. In this vision of America, you'll find that they simply don't apply. That revelation is perhaps the most inspiring thing about "Angels in America" -- it is about what America means, in the best sense.

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More Angels in America reviews
review by . July 01, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: outstanding cast, brilliant performances, wonderful visuals     Cons: none     The Bottom Line: "the angels they burn inside for us   are we ever   are we ever gonna learn to fly"   ~ DISHWALLA     This was a surreal and visual experience that crossed between the apocalypse and total redemption. The one point I must make, first thing, is this: if you’ve never colored outside the lines and your outlook …
review by . November 29, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Mainly acting, there were no weak characters. Remains relevant despite new AIDS treatments.      Cons: For some the NYC focus and open Republican hatred may be problematic.      The Bottom Line: Thirty words cannot cover a 6 hour event so packed with talent.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.      I am writing an academic article on the film version of Angels …
review by . January 09, 2005
I honestly didn't know if I wanted to see the quintessential AIDS movie. It seems that so much of the already-scant gay movie/theater aresenal from the 90's focused relentlessly on AIDS and its impact on the community. I needed to grow up.    In the gay community, there are many different forms of 'haves' and 'have-nots' but none more palpable than those living with or without AIDS in their lives. This absolutely beautiful series did what so many others have failed to do - put …
review by . March 27, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
Part One: THE MILLENNIUM APPROACHES  Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA created a major sensation when it was produced in the mid 1980s in New York and Los Angeles (and subsequently in theaters across the country). Not only is this a magnificently written drama whose seed lies in the agar plate of America in the time of Reagan, AIDS, post-Vietnam trauma, and general angst, it is presented in a long, two part production that demands much of the audience - not only in physical endurance, but …
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Rich Stoehr ()
Ranked #18
I often hide behind a pithy Douglas Adams quote or maybe some song lyrics. I guess it makes sense that much of what I share is reviews of things I like (or don't).      People … more
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Tony Kushner's prize-winningplayAngels in Americabecame the defining theatrical event of the 1990s, an astonishing mix of philosophy, politics, and vibrant gay soap opera that summed up the Reagan era for an entire generation of theater-goers. Post-9/11 would seem to be too late for a film version--philosophy and politics don't always age well--but this 2003 HBO adaptation, ably directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate), provides a time capsule of the '80s and reveals the deep emotional subcurrents that will give the play lasting power.

The story centers around Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), a gay couple that falls apart when Prior grows ill as a result of AIDS. But cancer is not the only thing invading Prior's life: He begins to have religious visions of an angel (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility) announcing that he is a prophet. Louis, who doesn't cope well with disease and suggestions of mortality, leaves and starts a relationship with Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a closeted Mormon who works for Roy Cohn (Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon)--the real-life right-wing lawyer, notorious for his ruthless behind-the-scenes machinations. Add in Joe's depressed and hallucinating wife Harper (Mary Louise Parker, Fried Green Tomatoes), his determined but open-minded mother Hannah (Meryl Streep, Adaptation), a fierce drag queen/nurse named Belize (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat, reprising his celebrated performance from the Broadway ...

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Director: Mike Nichols
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 2003
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Screen Writer: Tony Kushner
DVD Release Date: September 14, 2004
Runtime: 5hr 52min
Studio: Hbo Home Video
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