Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Angels in America by Mike Nichols (2003)



It was a cold, rainy night in 1995; I was feverishly watching Monique Wilson in a Philippine theater production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, the 1st part of a 2-part, 6-hour epic. Angels in America is set in 1980’s America as it deals with living, and ultimately dying, with AIDS. The story revolves around Prior and Louis, a gay couple torn apart due to AIDS, Louis’ cowardice and Prior’s hallucinations. They are surrounded by friends, lovers, bosses, and families whose lives are intertwined more than they know or would like them to be. I was captivated for three hours and I vowed to come back the week after for next 3-hour installment. But, alas, my bronchopneumonia got the better of me and I, instead, languished in bed wondering what happened to Louis, Prior, and the rest the Angels in America.

After a decade of wondering and waiting, I would like to thank HBO for finally completing my Angels in America experience. HBO produced Angels in America in 2003 with Mike Nichols at the helm with a dream cast including the triumvirate of Al Pacino (playing Roy Cohn, a powerful homophobic gay lawyer), Meryl Streep (playing multiple roles as a mother, a ghost, and a surprise unrecognizable character), and Emma Thompson (as an angel and a nurse). This marks Pacino’s first foray on the television and the first time Streep and Pacino work together. My 10 years of waiting finally ended on December 1 and 2 as HBO aired the Philippine cable television premier of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.

Millennium Approaches, though, was a bit of a disappointment as it rambles aimlessly through prophetic pronouncements, AIDS-induced hallucinations, middle-class depression, and closet gay Republican nightmares. Uneven, uninspired, incoherent and confused, it badly needs an editor. Bordering on boring, it wallows in its own decadence and excesses. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, at its worst, plunges to the depths of narrative purgatory. Part I is truly a test of patience.

But I suggest you sit through it faithfully. For the faithful shall be rewarded with the full force of Perestroika, the 2nd installment, packed with the full might of Tony Kushner’s pen, Mike Nichol’s deft directorial touch, Pacino’s last tremors and gasps, Streep’s subtle yet seamless character transformations, and Thompson’s angelic apparitions. The less popular but equally brilliant actors such as Mary Louise Parker (as Harper, depressive wife of Joe Pitt), Justin Kirk (as Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS and proclaimed as a prophet), Ben Shenkman (as Louis Ironson, a guilt-ridden Jewish gay guy), Jeffrey Wright (as Belize, a flamboyant drag queen yet compassionate nurse to Roy Cohn), and Patrick Wilson (as Joe Pitt, a gay Mormon Republican Mr. Clean reincarnate and husband to Harper), do not let the triumvirate of Pacino, Streep and Thompson eclipse and overpower them.

All the characters shine brightly in Perestroika, each one of them getting the compassion and closure they needed and deserved. Perestroika makes me forgive, and unfortunately, forget Millennium Approaches. Perestroika is engaging, thought-provoking, intense, and totally captivating.

Angels in America: Perestroika is a riveting, exhilarating and unforgettable cinematic experience on television. Like the angels, it soars to the heights of narrative redemption.

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