Tuesday, May 17, 2011

City of Angels Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 17 April 1998.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

Try and imagine a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Except you take away the poetic language, the depiction of Berlin as a city divided, and the discussion of the meaning of giving up immortality as a celestial being in order to experience love and you have City of Angels. It is a watered down remake of the 1987 film. It mainly extracts the love story aspect of the original, but still manages to hold onto a bit of the rest. This version of the story can barely stand on its own, and as a remake doesn’t even come close to measuring up.

One major difference between the two is in the dialogue. It lacks the subtlety and imagination of the original. For example, the angel Seth (Nicolas Cage) tells his friend and fellow angel Cassiel (Andre Braugher), “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss from her mouth one touch of her hand than eternity without it – one.” In Wings of Desire the angel says, “I learned amazement last night.” The latter is much simpler, allowing the viewer to imagine for himself what the amazement was rather than spelling it out. In all honesty, to compare the two films is almost pointless. Wings of Desire exists as a wholly original and visionary piece of work while City of Angels is pop culture for the masses.


Cage plays an angel who, along with countless others, roams around Los Angeles, floating in and out of hospitals, listening to people’s thoughts and guiding the dead to heaven. Seth and Cassiel sit on highway signs comparing notes for the day that they keep in journals. At sunrise and sunset, all the angels gather on the beach to hear the music which comes from the sun’s magic. What does that mean? Who knows?  It’s one of many things that is never explained.

Seth falls in love with a heart surgeon named Maggie (Meg Ryan) after watching her in the operating room and believing for a moment that she has looked right into his eyes. She loses her patient in that operating room and begins to ponder its significance. As a person who doesn’t believe in a spiritual life, she can’t grasp his death because the surgery was a by-the-book procedure and she did nothing wrong. So for her this means what? That she won’t be a surgeon anymore? No, she’ll fall in love with a fallen angel. The significance of the existence of angels in her life is never explored at all. She just suddenly accepts the belief that angels are all around her and sometimes they come to take people away for no reason.

When Seth starts making himself visible to Maggie everywhere in her life, it’s a wonder that she doesn’t get a little nervous that a stranger in a black overcoat is stalking her. Instead she accepts it and takes him for a kind man and begins to fall in love with him. Cage and Ryan give solid performances, granted they’ve certainly done better, but the two have a very nice romantic chemistry about them. Cage plays the entire movie with the romantic charm any woman would fawn over and he has such a set of sensitive eyes, you wonder if he’ll ever keep the women off of himself.

Ultimately, the film tries too hard to be perfect. To once again make a comparison to Wings of Desire, it doesn’t do the same interesting things with people’s thoughts as the original film. Not one person in this film has a bad thought in his/her head. Wings of Desire displayed several scenes involving stream of consciousness thinking from one person to another in which each thought was different and could be either good or bad. City of Angels also has too many pauses in the dialogue allowing for reflection that effectively ruins your taste for the movie. Add a star if you’re a big dramatic romance fan and have an undying passion for unrelenting sappiness. Subtract one if you’re looking for a dead-on remake of a classic work.

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