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What happens if an angel yearns for the most everyday mortal experiences: to taste a pear, to feel the touch of a hand, to fall in love? Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan star as two souls, one mortal and one celestial, who must struggle with their willingness--and finally, their need--to sacrifice everything familiar for the sake of love.

Brad Silberling
Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz, Andre Braugher
Screenplay: Dana Stevens based on Wings of Desire

She didn't believe in angels until she fell in love with one.
Box Office:
Budget $55 million.
Opening weekend $15.369 million on 2212 screens.
Domestic gross $78.745 million.
Rated PG-13 for sexuality including language, and some nudity.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Digital Mono
French Dolby Surround
English, French

Runtime: 114 min.
Price: $24.98
Release Date: 9/28/1998

• Audio commentary by director Brad Silberling
• Second audio commentary by producer Charles Roven and screenwriter Dana Stevens
• Selected scenes with audio commentary by director of photography John Seale and production designer Lilly Kilvert
• Isolated music-only track with audio commentary by composer Gabriel Yared
Making Angels behind-the-scenes documentary
• Deleted scenes with commentary by the director and editor Lynzee Klingman
• Special effects documentary featurette
• Goo Goo Dolls' Iris and U2's If God Will Send His Angels music videos
• Alanis Morissette interview
• Theatrical trailer

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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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City of Angels (1998)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 30, 2003)

(Note: some major spoilers appear in this review. I normally avoid them like the plague, but to discuss my feelings about the film, it became necessary to address major plot points. If you’d rather not hear these, skip to the portion of the review that discusses “The DVD”.)

When City of Angels came out theatrically in spring, 1998, I felt virtually no desire to see it. The film looked like your standard dull, weepy "chick flick" and the reviews didn't dissuade me from that viewpoint. So why did I buy the DVD? Back in late 1998, Internet retailers battled each other for attention and almost literally gave away the things; you could easily buy new DVDs for $5 or less. Heck, one site even offered a three for a dollar deal, with shipping included!

With those prices and the inclusion of a U2 video, I decided to give City of Angels a look. My initial viewing of City of Angels left me fairly unimpressed with the film. No, it didn't seem as weepily sentimental as I'd feared, but I found little of great interest in it. It felt like a pretty banal love story and offered a somewhat dull time. My then-girlfriend liked it a little better, but even she – a very weepy, sentimental female at that - didn't think it was anything special.

For the purposes of this review, I gave City of Angels another viewing. Much to my surprise, I appreciated and enjoyed it substantially more the second time around. I'm not completely sure why this is, though I have some theories. For one, I've taken in all of the supplemental materials by now, and that knowledge allowed me a different perspective on the film. For another, I was able to absorb a lot of the subtle bits that slipped by the first time, and this clearly is a film that thrives on the small moments.

Key to the film’s success is the performance from Nicolas Cage. I once was in the bag for him, but that status became endangered by his apparent embrace of any cinematic paycheck. For every good Cage film like Face/Off, he appeared in a number of clunkers like Con Air or Snake Eyes, and his work started to suffer.

My initial impression of Cage in City of Angels mirrored my thoughts on the film: dull and lackluster. However, my second appraisal differed greatly. I now see his performance as being wonderfully subtle piece of work. He manages to create a character who all at once seems both wise and naive. When Seth makes his transformation from angel to human, Cage truly lets you see the wonder and amazement that he experiences as he can finally feel and taste. As much as I love it when Cage goes over the top and plays his trademark nutso types, it's also gratifying to see the tremendous subtle and feeling he brings to this very difficult role.

As Maggie, the mortal with whom Seth falls in love, Ryan does fine. I'm not and never have been a fan of Ryan; truth to tell, I usually can't stand her. Thankfully, she restrains her naturally bubble and spunky tendencies for this part; had she offered her normal cute routine, the film would clearly have been ruined. As it stands, she neither adds to nor detracts from the movie. Ryan lacks the skill to really create a character of substance in Maggie, but she offers a reasonable enough foil for Cage and she manages to create some interest in the character. Surprisingly, I felt somewhat sad when she died at the end; based on my normal feelings about Ryan, I thought I'd rejoice in her demise.

Ah, that ending. The conclusion of City of Angels actually raises it to another level. It was a shockingly ballsy move on the part of the filmmakers to kill off "America's Sweetheart" and to deprive the audience of a happy ending, but it gives the film a much greater level of meaning and impact than otherwise would have occurred. To be sure, a happy ending in which Seth and Maggie ride off into the sunset together wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing; City of Angels would still have been a pleasant diversion.

However, the death of Maggie really added to the film's overall message of the joy to be found in the human condition. The movie tries to be thoughtful and philosophical as Maggie gradually opens herself to the possibility that worlds exist beyond our senses, but this basically amounts to the cheap, dimestore philosophy found in movies like Contact. The ending, in which Seth expresses that even though his transformation seemed all for naught since the object of his passions was gone, dramatically illustrates to the audience the beauty and meaning that can be found in everyday life. The film tells us to value every moment and every experience because they may not last.

Thankfully, the filmmakers demonstrate a fair amount of restraint while positing its ideas. Once again, Cage deserves much of the credit for keeping the movie from sinking into a sea of cheap sentiment. While fierce with rage over the bum deal he received, he nonetheless brims with determination that he made the right decision, that one touch of Maggie's hair beat the extraordinary powers he possessed as an angel. He made a tremendous sacrifice to be with her, and he has no regrets, for one blissful moment with her certainly overruled the eternity of yearning he otherwise would have felt.

I normally genuinely dislike films that attempt these kinds of uplifting endings; heck, Se7en is my favorite film of the 1990s, so what does that tell you about my tastes? But City of Angels kind of has its cake and eats it, too. It offers a very uncommercial ending by killing a beloved main character, but it also manages to leave the audience with a positive feeling. The filmmakers and actors composed their tale with such subtlety that it all works effectively and memorably. Usually when I think something's dull, I don't change my mind at a later date, but further review of City of Angels showed that the film's apparent lifelessness actually enclosed some quietly powerful moments.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio B / Bonus A

City of Angels appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this double-sided single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture seemed acceptable, almost five years after the disc’s release, it seemed to show its age.

Sharpness varied. Most of the movie came across as reasonably concise and detailed, but definite exceptions occurred. A moderate number of shots looked somewhat soft and ill-defined. No concerns related to jagged edges appeared, but I saw a little shimmering, and some light edge enhancement also showed up at times. Other than some noticeable compression artifacts, the picture generally seemed clean. I noticed a little speckling occasionally, but otherwise the movie seemed essentially free from flaws.

Colors remained restrained throughout the film, and they mostly looked fine. The hues occasionally were somewhat thick and murky, but they usually seemed reasonably natural and clean. Black levels appeared good but a bit muddy on occasion, while shadow detail was fairly distinct overall. Some low-light shots were slightly dense, but they usually seemed solid. Angels didn’t present a weak image, but it could use an overhaul to match contemporary standards.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of City of Angels was subdued but fine for this sort of film. The front spectrum dominated the film, and the movie’s score was its main emphasis. The music demonstrated good stereo imaging throughout the flick. Effects mostly tended toward the ambient domain. Angels wasn’t a picture with many slam-bang sequences, so the mix preferred to feature light environmental cues. These combined well to create a quiet but natural sense of place. The surrounds stuck largely with gentle reinforcement of the music and effects. They kicked in with more of an impact on a few occasions, but those remained rare.

Audio quality appeared positive. Speech seemed natural and distinct, and I noticed no issues related to intelligibility or edginess. Music sounded warm and smooth, with crisp highs and fairly rich lows. Effects also appeared accurate and concise. Low-end response lacked great power, but bass response was acceptably tight and deep. City of Angels sounded good enough for a “B”, but it didn’t demonstrate the breadth necessary for a grade higher than that.

Back when City of Angels hit DVD in 1998, we considered it one of the most packed DVDs on the market. Others have surpassed it in the interim, but it remains chock full of extras. We begin on Side One with two separate and full-length audio commentaries. In the first, we hear from director Brad Silberling, who offers a running, screen-specific chat. He provides a very good synopsis of the production. In addition to many general notes, he covers topics such as the score and its integration into the film, visual design and effects, comparisons to Wings of Desire, and doubts related to the movie’s ending. Silberling provides an informative and likeable track that gives us a great look at his film.

In the second track, we get remarks from coproducer Charles Roven and screenwriter Dana Stevens, both of whom sit together for their running, screen-specific piece. Actually, the latter’s not really accurate, as they almost never discuss the on-screen action. Instead, this personal piece covers the acquisition of the project, how Stevens came onto it, her ideas for the adaptation, various themes, character insights, and production details. Since Roven was married to producer Dawn Steel – who died during the filming – and Stevens apparently also was close to Steel, the commentary takes on an unusually emotional and moving quality. It seems very engaging and useful, and it measurably added to my appreciation of the movie.

Composer Gabriel Yared offers some insights in between music on the isolated score track. However, don’t expect a lot from him. He shows up only 11 times during the film and usually speaks briefly; only occasionally do his comments last more than maybe 30 seconds or so. Via his obviously scripted remarks, he gives us a general look at his work on the film and follows his efforts in chronological order. The commentary lacks much interesting material, but the isolated score should be useful for fans, especially since Yared never speaks over the music; he comes close a couple of times but avoids any overlap.

Angels in the Movies gives us text about that topic. It briefly covers Wings of Desire plus its sequel and other flicks that feature celestial beings. This seems like a decent but perfunctory assessment of the subject.

Side One concludes with Cast and Crew. There we find short biographies for actors Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz, and Andre Braugher as well as composer Yared, director of photography John Seale, screenwriter Stevens, producers Dawn Steel and Charles Roven, and director Silberling. (Note that both “Cast and Crew” and “Angels in the Movies” appear on both sides of the DVD.)

Now we move to Side Two of the DVD, which includes many more pieces, mostly in an area called “Building Paradise”. The “Select Scenes” domain features two mini-commentaries. Director of Photography John Seale chats for 17 minutes, 30 seconds, while Production Designer Lilly Kilvert gives us about the same amount of content. Both of them cover logical topics. Seale tells us about things such as the chosen aspect ratio, his camerawork, and lighting, while Kilvert discusses the various visual elements of the film like matching different locations, dealing with natural settings, and the general job of a production designer. Both conversations add some nice material about their subjects.

Next we get a documentary called Making Angels. The 29-minute and 20-second program mixes movie clips, behind the scenes footage, and interviews with Silberling, Roven, Stevens, Seale, Kilvert, costume designer Shay Cunliffe, and actors Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz, and Andre Braugher. A general look at the production, “Angels” progresses in a somewhat scattered manner as it examines the flick. It covers subjects like visual design, character choices, the film’s ending, and locations. While we’ll hear most of the information elsewhere, the show merits a look just for the great material from the set. We see lots of choice images of the cast and crew at work, and these make “Angels” a keeper.

Another documentary examines one specific topic. The Making of the Visual Effects lasts 10 minutes and 15 seconds. It shows images from the film as visual effects supervisor John Nelson explains the work they did on the scenes. We watch the sequences in various states of completion while Nelson gives us the details. Like most of these kinds of features, it's informative but dry. Still, it illuminates different aspects of the production in a useful way.

This DVD presents seven deleted scenes, all of which can be viewed with or without commentary from director Silberling and editor Lynzee Klingman. Five of these scenes appeared in the film in no form, one is an extended version of an existing bit, and one actually consists of many short edits made from the film as a whole. All in all, they run a total of 12 minutes, 38 seconds. None of these scenes seem mind-blowing, but they all are worth watching, especially if you turn on the commentary and learn why the scenes were omitted.

Given the popularity of the movie’s soundtrack, it’s not surprising that the DVD emphasizes the music. We get two music videos. U2’s “If God Will Send His Angels” also appears on the band’s video compilation. It shows funky time lapse photography. Bono lip-synchs in a diner booth as the patrons around him rapidly change. It uses splitscreen, with Bono’s side of the booth on the top and the other bench on the bottom. The concept seems creative and interesting, but the piece doesn’t go much of anywhere.

We also get a clip for Goo Goo Dolls’ hit “Iris”. Less interesting than “God” as a song and a video, this one intercuts movie snippets, lip-synch footage of the band, and some shots with lead singer Johnny Rzeznick as he spies the mortals. It’s not a bad video, but it’s not a good one either.

Next we get interviews with two soundtrack contributors. We get a 50-second clip with Peter Gabriel, while the piece with Alanis Morissette runs 135 seconds. The Gabriel snippet is pretty much a waste of time, as he tells us little, but Morissette gives us a smidgen of decent info about her song. Meg Ryan also briefly pops up to comment on “Uninvited” as well.

(Footnote: during Silberling’s commentary, he mentions that Gabriel was chugging away on a new album ripe for delivery as they made Angels. As it happens, the album in question – Up - wouldn’t hit stores until four and a half years later! Old Pete works slowly. His “I Grieve” appears on that record as well as the Angels soundtrack, but in a different rendition.)

Lastly, the DVD provides two trailers. We get the original theatrical promo as well as one for the soundtrack. Reel Recommendations also provides ads for Addicted to Love, The Bodyguard, Fallen, and Michael.

I purchased the DVD of City of Angels with a great deal of skepticism and doubt, but in the end, it won me over. It's a fine film that produced a very good DVD. Picture quality showed its age, but the audio remained solid, and the set included a simply terrific package of supplements. Don't already own this title? Do yourself a favor and rectify that situation soon. The City of Angels DVD comes with my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3275 Stars Number of Votes: 58
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