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HBO presents
Angels in America (2003)

"Does it make any difference that I might be one thing deep within? No matter how wrong or ugly that thing is...so long as I have fought with everything I have to kill it?"
- Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: September 12, 2004

Stars: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright
Other Stars: Patrick Wilson, James Cromwell, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Brian Markinson
Director: Mike Nichols

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, nudity, sex, language)
Run Time: 05h:51m:32s
Release Date: September 14, 2004
UPC: 026359229923
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Tony Kushner's two-part play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika burned up the Broadway stage in the 1993, going on to win Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for the first half. Turned into a film by director Mike "The Graduate" Nichols, the broadcast pulled in more viewers for a made-for-cable movie than any other when it was initially shown in 2003. Now HBO has brought out a beautiful (if bare-bones) edition of the film on DVD.

Set in 1985, during the early days of the AIDS crisis, Angels in America recounts the interlocking lives of two couples and the real-life Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), notorious for aiding Senator Joseph McCarthy during his Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s, and for successfully prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenburg for spying. Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a good Mormon boy, has been taken under Cohn's wing, and is struggling with some long-suppressed feelings, as well as dealing with his Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker). Meanwhile, stoical Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is becoming increasingly ravaged by the HIV virus, but is dealing with the emotional side-effects better than his longtime boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman).

Much of Angels in America is realistic, with some almost unbearable scenes of violence and heartbreak. There's a rejection that's painful to watch, as the extremity of emotion carries over into physical violence, and one of the characters is repeated punched and kicked. And the portrayal of Cohn—profane, abusive, and bullying—is entirely believable, given what we know about the man. Kushner doesn't stay entirely in the realm of the "real" world, but mixes in grand, overblown fantasies, dream sequences, and hallucinations, which intersect with the real lives of the characters, and it's this combination of realism and fantasy that gives the play much of its richness.

And how amazing some of the fantasy sequences are. In the very first episode, there's a nod to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast as we see Prior, in black and white, walk down a long corridor illuminated by candelabra held up by arms extending from the walls, into a room with statues whose eyes move. But suddenly Prior's seated at a dressing table, in full drag as Gloria Swanson (although he looks more like Joan Crawford), as the film switches to beautiful color. Things only get stranger when he's joined by Harper, they talk about wanting to escape the ordinariness of life, and Prior tell Harper something about her husband that she'd rather not hear. Suddenly Prior awakes, and we realize it was a dream...or was it? At this point in the story, the two characters haven't met, and there's no way they could possibly know each other.

As Prior's mental state becomes less and less stable because of his illness, Kushner ups the ante with even more extraordinary hallucinations. Prior's visited repeatedly by an angel (Emma Thompson), whose arrival is announced by light shining from the ceiling of his bedroom, which then shatters and reveals the night sky, as the angel slowly descends, lit brightly from behind. But this is no ordinary angel—she's as much a devil as anything holy—and Joe becomes increasingly convinced that he's some sort of prophet. There's an amazing scene of the two copulating, fire gushing from their loins, and the angel's disappearances are almost as spectacular as her arrivals.

With these overblown sequences and their themes of abandonment, escape, and personal religious mythology, there's a danger that the film could become pretentious, or so weighted down by its own seriousness as to be unenjoyable. But nothing could be farther from the truth—Kushner lightens the proceedings with humor, much of it black as the night that the angel descends from. In one of the final visitations, Prior's joined by Joe's mom Hannah (Meryl Street), who's stunned by the apparition. The screeching, harpy-like angel wants Prior to wrestle her, but instead Prior and Hannah spend most of the time squabbling over who's going to fight her, and the effect is quite humorous.

Over the course of its six-hour length, Angels in America covers an astonishing number of themes and subjects: Jewish assimilation and identity, public politics versus personal life, the shame of AIDS, abandonment, the desire to escape everyday life, and the truth of religious visions, just to name a few. This complex mix would be nothing more than a muddled mess unless the acting were up to it, and thankfully that's the case. Al Pacino is entirely convincing as the foul-mouthed, abusive Cohn, denying that he's gay because "homosexuals have no clout." Patrick Wilson does a great job as the confused Joe, struggling with his long-suppressed feelings and the fallout once they're revealed. Ben Shenkman and Mary-Louise Parker acquit themselves well, as does Jeffrey Wright (from the original Broadway cast), playing Prior's campy-yet-tough-as-nails friend Belize. Many of the actors play multiple roles, and Meryl Streep is a hoot as an aged (male!) rabbi. But Justin Kirk must be singled out for his bravura performance as the AIDS-ravaged Prior. In the most complex and demanding role in the entire film, he's simply amazing as the self-doubting and self-deprecating Prior, struggling not only with his illness but his visions of Heaven and his potential status as a prophet.

In translating Broadway to the small screen, director Nichols has opened up the play beautifully, and at no point is it obvious that the movie started out as a stage play. During the realistic scenes, his framing and camerawork are mostly functional, rather than showy, but in the fantasy sequences the camera takes off, appropriately echoing the bizarre visions. Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography is quite good, and Thomas Newman's haunting score adds greatly to the effectiveness of the film.

Angels in America started out as a great play, and with its excellent performances and complex visual beauty, Mike Nichols has turned it into a great film.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In two word, "great transfer." Colors are rich and full, and are especially striking during the many fantasy scenes. Black levels are good, and there's quite a bit of differentiation in the darker portions of the image. Most scenes have excellent detail, although one or two are slightly soft, and there's a bit of grain here and there, but it's never distracting.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio's on par with the image. The sound is rich and full, with great dynamic range and clarity. The 5.1 mix envelops the listener with environmental sounds such as rain and thunder, and Thomas Newman's score sounds simply great. The English two-channel mix is predictably less interesting, and the French and Spanish dubs are about on par with the English version.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The French and Spanish dubs sound quite realistic, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The two discs come in a cardboard box, the cover of which opens up to reveal the disc holders, and it's quite attractive. One minor annoyance is that the entire six hours have been given only six chapter stops (mirroring the episodes as originally shown on HBO), so it's difficult to locate individual scenes.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Tony Kushner's sprawling, hallucinatory story of AIDs in the 1980s comes to the small screen in visually lush, beautifully acted version. The transfer is great, and although this is a barebones edition, it comes highly recommended.


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