Sunday, August 28, 2011

Falling Into Life

Not much chance that Hollywood stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan have escaped the attention of even rare moviegoers. Between the two, they’ve made something like 111 movies, most of them in starring roles. They have only co-starred in one movie during that time, the 1998 fantasy romance City of Angels, a remake of the 1987 German film by Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire. Despite lukewarm reviews at the time of its release, and comparison to the earlier film by Wenders, City of Angels has a lot going for it, standing up well in the thirteen years since 1998.

Apart from one or two missteps and indulgences by director Brad Silberling and writer Dana Stevens, the screenplay and direction are solid, and the two actors, deviating from their usual screen personas show another side of themselves and their craft. But the real strength comes from an original screenplay by Wenders, Der Himmel über Berlin, a thoughtful and intelligent story of angel and mortal. It’s an old story that angels watch over us, that somewhere on the periphery is a guardian angel to nudge us along the better path, to protect us, but more often to be merely a comforting presence. But this time one angel wants to cross the line.

Seth and his buddy angel Cassiel, are two among hundreds of other black-clad angels in modern day Los Angeles who gather on beaches to listen to the music of sunrise and sunset when they aren’t hanging out at the library. Mostly their job is hovering in the background to observe the mortals around them, and when duty calls, ushering dying humans into the next existence. They mostly live in the library (filmed in the impressive main branch of the San Francisco Public Library) and hang out on freeway signs or skyscrapers under construction. Seth has a new soul to usher out of life, a husband and father undergoing heart surgery at the hospital. Inside the operating theater he observes a surgeon fighting desperately to save the patient he himself has come to meet. Struck by how the man’s death affects this doctor so strongly, he begins to invisibly follow her, intending to soothe her distress. Not as easy as he anticipated, he decides to make himself visible as a kindly hospital visitor. Pretty much after that first meeting the two are mutually drawn closer and closer. In a new experience for him, Seth is falling in love with Doctor Maggie Rice (Ryan), and he is soon wondering what it must be like to experience taste, touch and smell. He wants to be human, to love this woman and to feel the joys and pain of mortal life. And so he does…

Both Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan are good as angel and surgeon, and are helped by their obvious chemistry as actors. For the most part, Cage is as soft and quiet as a new born mouse in his approach to Ryan, while her emotions and realities are shaken by this odd but compelling stranger. This combination of softness and puzzlement plays well and helps us attach our feelings to the developing relationship. Meg Ryan is an actress who has unfortunately done too much cutesy romantic comedy, but still proves every now and then that as an actor she has some appealing depth, and is a little more well-rounded than she lets on. And that’s where she is as Maggie Rice in City of Angels. She is impressive in playing this troubled but love swept surgeon.

Not familiar with other work of director Brad Silberling, it’s difficult to surmise what stage he is in, filmmaking-wise. He handles the subdued quietness of the film effectively, never letting it weigh the story down, or preventing the viewer from getting involved. His way of handling the film’s frequent crossovers from the spiritual to the material world makes those shifts easily believable. His best fortune in this film was in the casting.

In a supporting role, Dennis Franz steals every scene he’s in, hands down. Whether he’s paired with Cage or Ryan, in front of the camera our attention sways to his marvelously realized heart attack ex-angel hedonist. Wonderful. We first meet him hiding his pint of Ben & Jerry’s under the sheet of his hospital bed.

Probably not an award-winning movie, probably panned by many of the mainline film critics, still City of Angels is a movie to get comfortable with. The story works. Dish of ice cream, bowl of popcorn, cup of coffee, lean back and allow Hollywood to work its mildewed magic for a short time. You might just end up with a teary eye and a catch in your throat.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America