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    Angels in America
    HBO/Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 337 mins . MA15+ . PAL


    The name HBO is synonymous with high-quality. From its brilliant TV-drama series’ The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, to its high-octane epic war production Band of Brothers, HBO certainly never disappoints. Their latest multi-award winning mini-series Angels in America is no exception to the rule.

    Angels in America maps the lives of five main characters during their struggle with homosexuality and AIDS, set in 80s America. These five very different characters respond to the situations they’re thrust into with remarkable realism, and all in a three dimensional manner. Featuring stunning performances from a remarkable ensemble of fantastic actors, as well as production design to rival most of this year’s big-budget films, Angels in America does not fall down in any respect. Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Justin Kirk present some of the finest three performances to date. An excellent score from the highly accomplished composer Thomas Newman supplements this spectacle of cinema.

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    The Angel America

    Without revealing the intricate narrative, it must be told that the Angels in America experience is highly personal. Your political affiliation, religious beliefs and moral standpoints will all be often called into question, and will heavily influence your interpretation of the film. Tony Kushner, writer of Angels in America, clearly holds a heavy left-wing liberalist political ideology, which is reflected in the constant cynical and negative view on conservative government. The character of Louis (played by Ben Shenkman) voices most of Kushner’s opinions on politics, often referring specifically to the conservative Republican Reagan administration in an extremely negative light. This allusive reference appears very frequently, and is definitely not a specific take on the Regan administration, rather a questioning of all conservatism in general – which subsequently leads to much debate over the Christian religion, portrayed as a medium of this conservative style of government, again in a negative light.

    Most of Kushner’s views on ‘the church’, or the Christian religion are implied or subtly referenced; meaning that those with a strong religious background or interest will click to what is being said, where as this will usually go-over those who don’t understand the inner-workings of Christianity. Patrick Wilson’s character, Joseph, is the key religious character within the film, stereotypically portrayed as a Mormon. He differs greatly from Louis, acting as a foil to balance the films character-base. Joseph tries desperately to uphold his strict faith, by not caving in to his sexual desires and remaining faithful to his emotionally scarred wife. However, as we watch Joseph slide down to finally meeting Louis, he completely turns his back on his beliefs – representing a somewhat hypocritical or two-faced nature of his religion. This is symbolically referenced when he violently rips off his scared Mormon undergarments, which are traditionally never removed.

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    The Angel Antarctica

    Kushner’s main two points of debate come from the areas of politics and religion, but all directly relate back to his view on homosexuality and the social stigma surrounding it. It is obvious Kushner feels strongly that Christianity, and its benefactor conservative government, has created this cloud that covers homosexuals – forcing them to ‘live in the closet’, ashamed of their way of life. From a moral standpoint, homosexuality was quite fiercely looked down upon on 80s America; much more than it is today. This is perhaps one of the key reasons Angels in America is set in the 80s, rather than in the present day.

    Hand in hand with homosexuality is AIDS, the terrifying epidemic sweeping the globe claiming millions of lives each year. In the 80s AIDS was the ‘big unknown’, right up there with the Cold War and nuclear winter. Two of the five main characters within Angels in America have AIDS, and clearly do everything they can to cover up their illness. Roy Cohn (played by Al Pacino), is a right-wing lawyer whose superficiality runs down to the bone. On the surface he presents himself as a strong, confident and noble citizen; when it is clear that he is anything but. As the frightening, very real and apparent nature of his disease becomes visible, he hides himself deeper and deeper under a mask of acceptance, when it is clear that he is afraid. The character of Prior (played by Justin Kirk) is the second of the two to have AIDS, and the same message of insecurity is portrayed within him and his partner Louis. Upon hearing news of Prior’s illness, Louis runs away feverishly – clearly representing society’s ‘turning away’ from AIDS, desperately trying to ignoring (or run away from) its presence.

    As you may have already ascertained, Angels in America is written for a very specific audience. Tony Kushner, a homosexual himself, has tried to break some of the stigma surrounding AIDS and homosexuality, and has definitely succeeded to a certain degree. For those with strong liberal values and a general acceptance of homosexuality, this film will sit perfectly and will prove an entertaining experience. Conversely, those with a strong moral and religious background will probably begin, but not finish this film as it will seriously conflict with their beliefs and values.

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    The Angel Bethesda

    However, one of Angels in America’s most positive attributes is its ability to challenge, but not threaten, your personal ideals and values. Its audience will be forced to think over issues they probably will have never given any thought to, and this will often lead a strengthening in their moral standpoint on issues pertaining specifically to homosexuality, or subliminally issues of politics and religion. If you’re prepared to consider every facet Tony Kushner opens, Angels in America will prove a worthwhile experience. If you’re one who takes a text or film at face-value, this is definitely something to be avoided.

    This film will also assume its audience is well educated and relatively intelligent; as many symbols and intertextual references lay dormant in seemingly superfluous dialogue or set design. To compare Angels in America to a regular drama is folly, however a comparison can be called between this and a Shakespearean tragedy. This is not specifically a tragedy, but it contains elements inherit within a Shakespearean text, that are often only properly comprehended on subsequent viewings. Structurally, Angels in America is divided into six chapters, or acts, with each chapter containing a relative small number of scenes; similar to a Shakespearean text of typically five acts. Visitations from ghosts and angels frequent the film, often there to reveal key character traits or feelings as well as there to give guidance and advice. Every line of dialogue has a richness in meaning, whether it relate to the issues of homosexuality and religion that are presented, or simply there to represent the specific nature of the character at that point in time – similar again to a Shakespearean text.

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    ... and then Al Pacino

    If you feel you’re one to tackle this fairly epic series, raising controversial issues and challenging thought then I cannot recommend this enough. Angels in America deserves every single one of its plethora of awards, as it is a monumental piece of filmmaking – never to be ignored.


    Angels in America is a highly dialogue-driven, and apart from the odd clap of thunder or the occasional flight of an angel there isn’t really much available to fill all six channels of your home theatre. However, much to my surprise, this 5.1 soundtrack makes full use of all six channels, including a heavy sub presence. All dialogue is audible and clear, and is rarely dominated by other sound effects or the score. Surround channels are used primarily to provide ambient sounds, or Thomas Newman’s brilliant score. HBO have certainly not spared a cent on this excellent soundtrack.

    The video transfer isn’t nearly as impressive. Relatively low levels of detail and a fair amount of unpleasant grain invade many different scenes, primarily those either at night or in dimly lit surroundings. Fortunately the transfer is very clean, with no artefacts present. Colours are reproduced in their natural, vivid state, with no evidence of bleeding or otherwise. I was very thankful that Warner released this DVD in its original widescreen format, instead of doing the normal 4:3 trick with TV movies or serials.

    There are no extras at all on either disc, which I believe is fairly appropriate. This film is a highly personal experience that may lose impact on repeat viewings if you’re provided with the filmmakers’ perspective on the film. An audio-commentary track from Tony Kushner and Justin Kirk would have perhaps been the only worthwhile special feature, as it would be interesting to hear their views on the characters and events portrayed.

    The DVD is very good considering this is essentially a TV-movie (well, a US$60 million TV-movie). I was a little disappointed with the video transfer, but the dynamic 5.1 soundtrack certainly made up for it; and unless you’re an incredibly picky viewer, you won’t notice the lack of detail a few scenes.

    Overall, I’d thoroughly recommend this mini-series to anyone who is interested in a slow-moving, heavy-handed drama. As I’d mentioned earlier, Angels in America is written for a very specific audience, and it’s no surprise that many will become bored or frustrated when watching this. This film is written to challenge its audience, not to be an empathetic sob-story. The brilliant ensemble of actors featured in Angels in America will add to this films marketability, and will definitely suck in the odd unweary customer.

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  •   And I quote...
    "This epic production is not to be missed. Angels in America challenges and inspires, offering insight into the lives of five characters, living and dealing with homosexuality in the 80s."
    - Nick Watts
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Onkyo DR-S2.0
    • TV:
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    • Speakers:
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    • Centre Speaker:
          Onkyo HTP-2
    • Surrounds:
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    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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