The major flaw in Brad Silberling’s “City of Angels” (1998) is that it is an American remake of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987).
There is no manner, let alone any point, to compete with or try to outdo Wenders’ picture, a masterful depiction of the angels among us and how life is a sequence of joyous and depressing moments.
Even now, the serious meditation on angels in the presence of individuals feeling joy and grief in late 20th-century Berlin makes Wenders’ movie an authentic original, both in presentation and tone. The Los Angeles of the late ’90s is the setting for “City of Angels,” a work that is undoubtedly more accessible and approachable yet is surprisingly good and has aged better than anticipated.
Seth, played by Nicolas Cage, is an angel who, like the others we see in the movie (but not the human characters), is dressed entirely in black. Seth is a silent, watchful presence over Los Angeles who provides invisible consolation but minimal direct touch. Although the “rules” are frequently broken, it is established that these angels don’t experience any emotions like a human would and remain invisible.
Maggie (Meg Ryan), a surgeon who tries and fails to save a patient, and the infant in the NICU who is continuously uncomfortable particularly touch Seth. Even though Maggie and Colm Feore, a fellow surgeon, have an amoral, on-again, off-again relationship, Maggie can feel Seth’s presence and eventually see him.
A unique representation of Berlin’s unseen population and their capacity to be present but inert with the people they witness may be found in Wenders’ film. The flaw of Silberling’s picture is that it focuses too heavily on the love story; if anything, this aspect of the plot should have been handled better. This flaw is due to Dana Stevens’ screenplay.
While both actors swoon and the wildly iconic ’90s song soundtrack begins to play, we see Seth stealthily slither around Maggie without actually making contact. These instances of a watcher or stalker who is unseen remind me of Edward Cullen’s inappropriate presence in Bella Swan’s bedroom in “Twilight.”
In “Wings of Desire,” a love tale between an angel (Bruno Ganz) and a trapeze performer (the late Solveig Dommartin) has a gradual build-up and fairly beautiful emotional payoff; in this case, because the love story is the main focus, the commercial components are also important.
The subplot about a former angel who offers knowledge is another reworked idea that doesn’t quite work. Silberling puts Dennis Franz in the part, who does his best, but the quality of his performance is all he has to make up for the miscasting. Wenders cleverly cast Peter Falk as himself in the role.
Although this is a very American adaptation of a German fantasy/social parable, Silberling aims to recreate the earnest, awe-inspiring meditative tone of the original and mostly succeeds; the contrast of life’s natural splendour and emotional detachment is conveyed in the surprisingly rich imagery.
Silberling’s production has two outstanding strengths: the stunning score by Gabriel Yared and the stunning cinematography by John Seale. Yared adds a sad desire to the proceedings, and Seale captures unusually artistic and spooky sights for a mainstream film.
Take note of the close-up of Seth’s eye as he enters a new universe, the angels watching beach sunsets or sunrises, or Ryan’s breathtaking beauty as she sits calm and alone in a changing room bathed in the sun. After all, Seale is the same person who directed “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Last but not least, there are the two leads. Ryan excels in the kind of plain, frequently unpolished dramatic performance that was all too frequently missed in favour of her more well-known comedy roles (her significant supporting role in “Hurly Burly” was also from 1998).
Going in directions that were unfamiliar to him, Cage is just fantastic in this role. Prior to the self-parody stage of his filmography, Cage was already doing exciting work as a leading actor in comedies and action films after winning the Oscar.
His portrayal as Seth is not only restrained but also admirably controlled, with the exception of one moment in which he dances around a street in a fit of pleasure. Cage is frequently quiet and inward but yet innocent and sincere.
The shelved “Superman Lives” was slated to debut the same year as “City of Angels,” thus we were never able to see Cage’s interpretation of Superman. As the actor’s willingness to tone down his more theatrical acting tendencies allows for compassion and reflection to come across in his performance, this is probably as close to seeing Cage as Clark Kent/Kal-El as we’ll ever get.
Nicolas Cage Recalls a ‘Beautiful’ Interaction with City of Angels Fan Whose Daughter Died https://t.co/Udc4S4twjl
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Seth’s life story is quite Superman in that he is a superhuman person who sacrifices his existence for love. As Seth prepares to literally plunge into humanity (one of the film’s most breathtaking moments), Cage even strikes a few Superman-like poses.
In addition to showing glimpses of what Cage might have brought to the role of Man of Steel, “City of Angels” also has one of the actor’s best and most underappreciated performances.
Some of the character information doesn’t make sense, such as the fact that Seth has no idea how to use a loofah, let mind a shower. Then there’s the dramatic twist that happens right at the end. I’ll confess that it made me cry, but I’m not proud of it.
Accepting that Ryan doesn’t know how to ride a bike properly is necessary for the viewer to accept the great reveal in the third act (even though Seale’s interpretation of this scene is, like every other scene here, done with a brilliant touch).
“City of Angels” frequently dazzles and lingers in your memory after it is over. Silberling’s picture is less a complete triumph than it is a close second, and it falls short of the wonderful “Wings of Desire.” To be fair, Wenders himself followed “Wings of Desire” with the lighter, sillier, and excellent sequel “Faraway, So Close!” (1993) and has even admitted to enjoying “City of Angels.”
Aside from “Faraway, So Close!” and pretty much every other mainstream American film about angels (mostly cheesy comedies like “Michael” and “The Heavenly Kid”), Silberling’s movie has emotional gravity and integrity that makes it even gritty.
The truth is that “City of Angels” is a fantastic companion piece to Wenders’ films, and the three are worth viewing as a trilogy, despite the criticism that Silberling’s movie is inferior to “Wings of Desire,” which was the main criticism of Silberling’s movie.
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