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City of Angels

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: City of Angels

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan
Director: Brad Silberling
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: April 1998
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Andre Braugher, Dennis Franz, Colm Feore, Robin Bartlett, Joanna Merlin, Sarah Dampf

Review by MrBrown
2½ stars out of 4

Brad Silberling directed the 1995 live-action version of Casper; Dana Stevens wrote the 1994 Madeleine Stowe thriller Blink. Both of those films are competent entertainments, but it takes something more than mere competence to successfully pull off a redo of Wim Wenders's 1988 German classic Wings of Desire. In translating Wings into the film known as City of Angels, Silberling and Stevens have turned a fresh, unique cinematic work into a standard-issue Hollywood romantic fantasy.

Although Wings told the story of Damiel, an angel who decides becomes human after falling in love with trapeze artist Marion, Wenders was more interested with the day-to-day work of these celestial beings. His angels were unseen, trenchcoated observers of the human race, wandering about, listening to unsuspecting people's thoughts, but mostly just watching the earth from above, below, and beyond. These angels did not perform miracles, become visible to people in need, or engage in any of the actions that one typically associates with them; the angels simply watched and took notes.

In the dismaying opening scene of City of Angels, it becomes clear that Stevens and Silberling's vision is far more ordinary than Wenders's. When we first meet this version's Damiel, Seth (Nicolas Cage), he is on the job--he's by the side of a dying child to lead her spirit into the great beyond. No more simple observation; in this City dwell Americanized angels that act upon the human world, collect spirits, sometimes shape events, and somehow make themselves visible to people dying or in despair, such as surgeon Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), City's Marion. Seth falls in love with her at first sight, and he is further drawn to her after she loses a patient on the operating table. One night, without any explanation (reasonable or otherwise), the distraught Maggie is able to see Seth, and she falls instantly in love. All this _before_ Seth makes his big fall into humanity's ranks. Long live Hollywood.

Even though Stevens and Silberling maintain a few of Wenders's touches (the black trenchcoats, the angels' library hangout, the cacophony of human "thought voices") and touchstone lines (such as "I can't see you, but I know you're there"), City eventually veers from the source material and settles into familiar Tinseltown convention. Observation and thought-reading, which took up a lot of Wings's running time, falls by the wayside in favor of a more prominent romance. Not necessarily a bad move, but Stevens inexplicably shoehorns the love story into the Meg Ryan romantic comedy formula. As usual, Ryan's character has a boring, barely-exists-as-a-character boyfriend (Colm Feore) from whom the more exciting love interest (in this case, Seth) must "rescue" her. Shouldn't the celestial divide between Seth and Maggie create enough dramatic tension in itself? Dennis Franz has the Peter Falk role as an angel-turned-human (Franz doesn't play himself, however), but unlike the original, Franz's heavenly past is explicitly spelled out rather than implied, and his character becomes nothing more than a walking vessel of angelic exposition.

Cage and Ryan turn in admirable performances that are matched by the rest of the cast, which includes an effective Andre Braugher playing the only character to survive the translation with his name intact, Seth's angel pal Cassiel. But Cage and Ryan's chemistry, while not completely frigid, does not ignite as it should, making the finale oddly lacking in emotional punch. But that is not quite as odd as the general direction of the film's final act, which is entirely different from that of the original. In taking such a radical turn, City goes against the very spirit of its poetic source material; the true magic and profound inspirational uplift of Wings is sacrificed in favor of sap and weepy manipulation. To be fair, on stand-alone terms, City of Angels is watchable, but even from this standpoint, it is still just a conventional and only moderately involving love story wearing angel's wings.

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