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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Americans have a habit of prettifying movies which are taken from classics and from European-made films. Not all, mind you, but think of what Hollywood Pictures did to Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"--gave it a happy ending and then some. And remember the remake of the Dutch movie "The Vanishing," in which the studios erased an ending (a man and wife are buried alive, the villain getting away) and substituted one that has the hero saving the woman just before she suffocates. "City of Angels," which insists that it is not a remake of Wim Wenders' wonderful "Wings of Desire," changes the German picture somewhat, keeping the lines of the original story but failing to capture its ambiance. And atmosphere is what you most want in a movie which is at heart a meditation on love, death, and the meaning of being human.

The film which inspired this one, "Wings of Desire," deals with an angel (Bruno Ganz) who is transformed into a human being to satisfy his curiosity and to chase a female acrobat. Where the European art work is as rambling as its angel is rumpled, "City of Angels" exchanges a meandering narrative for a more tightly structured line. Out with the weaving of black-and-white with color, out with the refusal of the German to find a simple, conventional conclusion to his search for human love. In with easy sentiment, kitsch, and two performers--well, maybe one--who has endeared herself to the American public by being the all-American woman she is.

The same philosophy that informed "Wings of Desire" instructs us in the American version. As Win Wenders wrote after directing "Wings," "To live for an eternity and to be present all the time. To live with the essence of things but not to be able to raise a cup of coffee and drink it, or really touch somebody...that would be terrible." In "City of Angels" which takes place, of course, in L.A., Nicolas Cage plays the part of an angel in a pickle. Sure he has stuff going for him. He will live forever. He cannot get sick; if he cuts himself he loses no blood; he can fly, can sit on steel girders high above the city, and he can look at women undressing from two inches away without their noticing him. Ah, so, you like the last option? Unfortunately voyeurism does him no good. He feels...nothing. He cannot taste a rich blend of cappuccino, make love to anyone, smell the roses. It's no wonder that when he runs into an angelic human being, Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), he wants to experience all the joys and sorrows of the human condition.

Maggie is a cardiologist who feels guilty each time she loses a patient, a remorse that makes her wonder whether she should even continue in a profession in which she holds people's hearts in her hand and sometimes let them down and must face the sufferings of their families. Each time the hospital loses a patient, the sufferer's soul is conveniently escorted away by an angel, as Seth (Nicolas Cage's character), obliges a very young girl who dies of a strange fever. Though Seth is able to transform himself to a corporeal shape which can be seen by others, he still cannot feel. Transmuting into a physical presence, he flirts with Maggie who falls almost instantly in love with him, despite his scruffy appearance and her near-engagement to a handsome fellow surgeon. Seth is advised by a fellow angel that he can, by the use of free will, renounce his status and become a mortal person, subject to pleasure, pain and death. Wildly in love with Maggie, he makes the ultimate choice, literally falling head over heels for her.

The film has comic scenes particularly those involving Nathaniel Messenger (Dennis Franz), who, we later learn, had also been an angel and made the choice of spending some years raising a real family. As we watch the band of cherubs standing like pod people from Dark City in black garb on the beaches of L.A. or gathering cheerlessly around the hospital lobby, we have little doubt that Seth has made the correct choice. No matter that a host of unpleasant circumstances befall him from the moment he becomes a person: love conquers all.

Unfortunately, "City of Angels" cannot match its predecessor for the reasons stated above, nor does it break away from the most typical features of its type such as "The Preacher's Wife." Cage, with droopy face and dejected demeanor, is meant to project either a sticky sympathy for the newly dead he is to escort to heaven or an existential sadness for his own plight. In either case he is miscast in a film which, despite the spiritual nature of its theme, is a by- the-numbers bit of commerce.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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