Tonight in Seattle:  

Angels in America, Big Fish, Mona Lisa Smile

Playwright Tony Kushner won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his brilliant two-part play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Set in 1985, it is what its title implies: an exploration of the issues confronting our nation during the Reagan years, and at the start of the AIDS epidemic.

On 12/1/03, World AIDS Day, the Intiman co-presented a fundraiser screening of Millennium Approaches, part I of the new HBO adaptation, which will air December 7 (to be followed by part II, Perestroika, on December 14) and repeat on various dates through January. Mike Nichols directs from a script by Kushner, and a gaggle of big Hollywood stars make appearances in the film.

I was absolutely blown away, dumbfounded, mesmerized, terrified, delighted. Even knowing nothing of the conclusion, I can say with confidence that this is one of the best films of the year, and three of the best and most original hours of television I've ever seen.

And now I find myself at a loss. This is a work of art so rich with significance, so packed with plot, so fantastic and heart-wrenching and profound, that a pithy embracey review couldn't hint at even a glimmer of its luminescence. I'm reduced to offering you key points, and for this we'll return to those big Hollywood stars:

  • Al Pacino gives one of his finest performances as Roy Cohn, a real-life right-wing powerbroker attorney who refuses to acknowledge his AIDS diagnosis (let alone his homosexuality).
  • Meryl Streep plays three roles, all stunningly: a (decrepit, male) rabbi; a middle-aged Mormon momma fretting about her married son's (Patrick Wilson) sudden proclivity for ding-dong; and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, another real-life figure, who was executed after Roy Cohn illegally intervened in her McCarthy-era espionage trial.
  • Emma Thompson, also in three roles: the Angel of America, who descends from Heaven to bestow prophecy on a gay man (Justin Kirk) dying of AIDS; a nurse who attends to him in a hospital; and a homeless person whose vision extends far beyond her partial blindness.
  • Jeffrey Wright, in a dual role: a sassy and wise ex-drag queen nurse, and the imaginary angelic creation of a Valium-addicted agoraphobe (Mary-Louise Parker) trapped in a failing marriage.

Again, this barely scratches the surface. But what more can I say? If you have HBO, don't forego this experience. If you don't have HBO, be nice to a friend who does. Angels in America simply cannot be missed.


Big Fish

Director Tim Burton more than makes up for his overblown Planet of the Apes remake with this exquisitely-acted and remarkably imaginative film, another of the year's best.

Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is an infamous teller of tall-tales about his oversized life as a young man (my boyfriend Ewan McGregor). Edward manages to charm almost everyone he encounters... except for his estranged son Will (fantastic Billy Crudup), who'd already grown weary of the yacky yarns by adolescence. When his mother Sandra (Jessica Lange, doing her best work in years) tries to reunite father and son after a three-year estrangement, Will must learn how to separate fact from fiction as he comes to terms with his storytellin' daddy's true past.

Big Fish's brilliance lies in the sublime juggling act of two movies going on simultaneously:

  • A highly amusing, extremely Burtonesque fantasy about an imaginary world inhabited by witches and giants, freaks and outcasts. It's giddily surreal, and takes place in the blissfully peculiar realms of an unencumbered mind.
  • A straightforward Southern family drama about a 30ish son (living overseas with his stunning European soulmate) who's grown apart from his family, and sees little of himself in his father, but feels a profound need to connect with his history.

The fantasy charms and delights. The drama moves me in ways I can barely fathom. (OK, so I don't live overseas... yet. And I haven't secured the Euro-mate... yet. And as much as I identify with his character, I'll never look like Billy Crudup... ever.) I'm utterly amazed at Burton's ability to separate -- and, eventually, integrate -- the two worlds. And by the time we reach the satisfying (but not quite expected) conclusion, Big Fish has become a moving multi-generational saga, a fascinating piece of oddball Americana.

{By the way, how happy am I that someone cast Alison Lohman as a young Jessica Lange? I made the comparison months ago. Thanks for listening, Hollywood! And thanks for the beautiful film, Tim.}


Mona Lisa Smile

Julia Roberts stars in and co-produced this new chick-flick. It's called Mona Lisa Smile. Need you wonder what's it about?

Well, technically it's about the character Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a fiercely independent UC Berkeley grad who accepts a position at Wellesley, where the women are torn between the repressive values of their time (the mid-'50s) and their own keen longing for intellectual freedom.

It's also about Julia Roberts' teeth. Believe me when I tell you they are all over this movie. I'm surprised they weren't awarded an associate-producer credit.

But I really liked Mona Lisa Smile. The supporting characters (not those famous superstar chompers gleaming brilliant and big in most every scene) won me over:

  • Betty (Kirsten Dunst): Privileged but bitter editor of the school newspaper who uses her position to write bitchy know-it-all articles railing against the "subversive" influences -- especially Julia and her teeth -- that threaten the precious status quo.
  • Joan (Julia Stiles): Smart and talented young woman who decides to forego the privilege of a Yale education and get married instead. Neither Julia nor her teeth are happy about this.
  • Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal): Another student of Julia's, she's a sensual sophisticate who defies the mores of the time for the sake of good booty. Too bad about her pesky obsession with the hunky lothario Italian professor (Dominic West) who Julia's teeth are also a lil' bit sweet on!
  • Nancy (movie-stealer Marcia Gay Harden): A freakishly, hilariously repressed professor of Domestic Economics, single at a time when unmarried women are referred to as "spinsters" and universally pitied -- a fact of which she is agonizingly aware. She shares a house near campus with dykey Dr. Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson, from Bend It Like Beckham) and Julia. Oh, and Julia's teeth.
  • Charlie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach): Betty's cousin, a cute, dorky-sexy, good-humored young Harvard student who dates a chubby non-blueblood (Ginnifer Goodwin), much to Betty's chagrin. But who cares about Betty, because Julia's teeth approve.

    Really, though, those prestigious pearly-whites don't distract from the well-drawn characterizations, excellent performances, and fab period art direction that beautifully evoke the time. Seeing hip young'uns like Stiles and Dunst as characters who actually aspire to housewifery makes the conventionalist '50s seem even more baffling. "I think you should take a look back to see just how far we've come," says one character late in the film. See? That has nothing at all to do with celebrity dentistry.

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