Thursday, June 14, 2007

Angels in America

Angels in America was a six hour mini-series produced by HBO several years ago. Adapted by Tony Kushner from his early nineties play of the same name, "Angels" is a deep and meandering parable about falling from grace and redemption, revealed through several stories of New Yorkers affected by the 1980s AIDS crisis. This work is powerful, if a little convoluted, off the wall, and even a bit preachy.

The cast is wonderful, with Emma Thomson and Meryl Streep both playing several characters (one of which is an elderly Rabbi). Al Pacino lends his talents to legendary sleazy lawyer Roy Cohn. Jeffrey Wright, Mary Louise-Parker, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and Patrick Wilson fill out the stellar cast. There are three primary story lines, yet they are all intertwined, with characters associating in unexpected ways.

Prior Walter (Kirk, is dying of AIDS, and his partner Louis (Shenkman), has to struggle with his love for Prior, but his inability to handle sickness. Meanwhile, Joe Pitt (Wilson), who is a devout republican Mormon lawyer is wrestling with his own sexuality, at the expense of his wife, Harper (Parker) who has become a Valium addict- experiencing constant hallucinations, and his mother (Streep) who just cannot understand homosexuality. During all of this, Cohn, who is trying to recruit Pitt for his agenda, is secretly dying of AIDS. In one of my favorite scenes, Cohn rants to his doctor (played by James Cromwell) about homosexuality not describing sexual preference, but instead describing a lack of clout.

All of these stories are interwoven as Louis and Pitt meet to try to find themselves and run from their sins, while Jeffrey Wright (who plays Belize, a friend of Prior and Cohn's nurse; also playing one of Harper's imaginary friends), provides not only connective tissue between the stories, but also an external criticism of everything that's going on. He is one of the few genuinely sane people in the series.

Oh, did I forget to mention the Angels? You can't have a series called Angels in America without there being angels can you? During all of this, angels are in a way guiding interactions between the characters. Harper and Prior meet each other in mutual drug induced hallucinations, while Cohn has many hilarious run-ins with Ethel Rosenberg (again played by Streep). By far, Prior has the most interaction with an angel (Thomson), actually communicating with her. Without giving to much away, it turns out that the angels themselves even have their own motives for using the characters.

There are many ways this movie could be interpreted. The angels may be real, or they may be simply a manifestation of drugs and disease. Whichever case may be true, it doesn't matter. The end result is the same either way (though this end meaning can also be up for debate). Perhaps the polarizing of society is tearing apart heaven itself, leaving an absence of God- or maybe it's a story about inevitability, and how nothing can slow progression and change, good or bad- or maybe it's simply a story about redemption and absolving of sins. It's probably a combination of all of the above.

The movie is beautifully shot, with light and color playing major roles in character and plot. It goes from scenes with a sweeping scope, to other scenes that seem to be taking directly from the stage. Regrettably, however, some of the visual effects did leave some to be desired. It's divided up into two parts with three chapters each. I watched it in two three hour sittings, which seemed to be how director, Mike Nichols intended it. It sounds terribly long, but it's really not.

There are only a few complaints I had with the movie. Some of the over the top parts were almost laughably outlandish. A scene where Justin Kirk and Emma Thomson wrestle made me cringe, while some other of the slow dialog heavy scenes seemed repetitive and dragged on and on. Many of these sequences were a bit convoluted and cryptic, almost bordering on being preachy. These scenes, however, were few and far between. Generally speaking, the series was fantastic, with each character being interesting alone, and even more interesting with their interactions. This is a wonderfully crafted series and well worth the six hours to watch it.


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