City of Angels

City of Angels ★★★★½

Dave and Mike's Infinite Re-Watch-a-Thon, Ch. 2

Not everyone cared for this weepy '90s romance - real critics will tell you it's no "Wings of Desire", the acclaimed Wim Wenders fantasy on which it's based, but rather just another waltz of Hollywood schmaltz - but in a theater in 1998, it moved me immensely, and though not quite in the same way 22 years later (back then I thought it was a stunningly stylized work of art; I now see it's not quite so lofty an achievement), I return to it at last and find that it continues to hum through my heart and soul. Let me explain!

It's a movie about how deeply we feel, basically. An angel observes with curiosity the human condition until something stirs in him (the power of love; for more info consult your Huey Lewis) and beckons him to abandon the realm of God and heaven in order to become a person himself and experience every single sensation that life has to offer. An allegory for stopping to smell the roses, taking stock of our time here on earth, carpe diem, cherish every moment, don't let mortality bum you out because any chance we get to be alive, long or short, is miraculous and special. With blunt yet purposeful narrative irony, the movie muses that fortune doesn't last, but feelings do. Like another movie about The End that I saw recently, "Dick Johnson is Dead", there's a philosophy here that even if we can't hold on to the people we love for as long as we want to, we can at least carry the love we shared with them for the rest of our own days, and know and embrace within ourselves how it's enriched this one turn we got to be alive.

"City of Angels" basks in this melancholy yet uplifting spiritualism in a number of interesting ways: first through its well-chosen stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, both of whose light has dimmed in the years since (he's crazy and treating his career like a homeless bum, she's semi-retired but probably mostly just neglected by an industry that's unforgiving toward aging actresses) but in '98, no one was more luminous for quality studio romances than Meg Ryan, and Cage was still savoring an especially eclectic love affair with full-blown fame - he did this movie immediately after winning an Oscar for grueling alcoholism then starring in 3 back-to-back-to-back wild action classics (funny note: he talks about describing a pear in this, inciting flashbacks to Castor Troy's line about "eating a peach for hours" from the previous year), and yet his quiet, doe-eyed sensitivity here doesn't seem at all out of place for his talent (though for those interested, he does have one brief moment toward the end where he indulges in what later came to be described in other films as his Mega Acting). Given the mixed results of his over-the-top efforts throughout his career, it's admirable and refreshing to see that he can power down and acclimate to a meditative simmer. And Ryan has never gotten enough respect for the expressive nuances she performs in all these movies where we have to study her face and body language for one transformation into true, blindsiding love after another. She's not just beautiful, she animates the process of romantic epiphany beautifully as well.

And on the sidelines, there's Andre Braugher, turning an aloof angel into something far more tender, and Dennis Franz (another '90s TV cop) imbuing the story with rambunctious joie de vivre and begging the question, what happened to his movie career? He is a great actor, and yet when I think of him, all I can come up with is "NYPD Blue", this movie, and "Die Hard 2" (I know he's done other memorable stuff but I'm less familiar with it). Apparently he retired (this was his last movie!) a few years later when the show concluded and has just been enjoying his personal life ever since, kind of exactly like the former-angel-turned-blissfully-domesticated-mortal-guy he plays here, so to the act of life imitating art and finding your next groove in life instead of feeling beholden to the same thing forever, cheers to Dennis Franz. I miss you but I'm happy for you.

There's also the matter of this movie taking place in L.A., not exactly the go-to metropolis for ethereal wonder. But that contrast feeds into the themes - even in such a loud, blindingly sunlit, hectic, cynical, and typically unromantic landscape (aka life), there is beauty in a sunrise at the beach, in an art museum, in an afternoon picnic at the park, in sweeping pans across the top of the city, in that perpetual tint of sunshine, in perches overlooking it all - director Brad Silberling and cinematographer John Seale construct a real mood piece from striking images and a current of sensuality.

And then the music - this was when soundtracks could be vital to a movie's success. If Sarah McLachlan's heart-shattering "Angel" is too on the nose (or just too emotional to bear), there are a number of other big artists, original recordings, and radio hits on the soundtrack, whose massive popularity I'd forgotten all about. Alanis with that haunting "Uninvited" over the end credits, the Goo Goo Dolls taking flight as top selling balladeers with the then-way-overplayed-but-now-nostalgic-and-still-pretty-good "Iris", a U2 track and a Paula Cole track and a powerful one by Peter Gabriel I never noticed until now ("I Grieve"). Got me dwelling on how far we go in life, that a handful of these songs were such a big deal back then but that was over 20 years ago, and now you rarely get movies whose mix-tape-like pop-song soundtracks outlive them.

When I wrote that this movie doesn't play as flawlessly to me as it used to, I was referring to its somewhat dated approach to the male-female bonding ritual, and a couple of clunky "what's it like to be human" lessons. In any other context, Nicolas Cage would come off as a total stalker to Meg Ryan; that she's so willing to get to know him despite his mysterious identity, refusal to give straight answers about anything, and lurking presence in hospitals in the middle of the night for no clear reason is pretty weird, but I suppose we just gotta believe that she's attracted to him and these were safer times. Also again, there's a bit of a cheesy and didactic "the Terminator learning about humanity" feel to Cage's interaction with people, but it's not all bad. Just an overused trope.

Hard to tell at this point if the connection I feel to this movie is legit with some objective merit (it's a lovely and underrated romantic drama!), or entirely personal (it pushes a lot of my taste buttons and arrived during a formative time in my life!). Whatever the answer, it's one I'm taking with me down to the end of the road.

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