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To Live and Fly in L.A.

Gorgeously shot, "City of Angels" moves Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" from Berlin to Los Angeles -- and something crucial's been lost in transit.

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The great Australian-born cinematographer John Seale, who gave The English Patient such a luminous, sexy glow -- Seale’s images managed to be crystal-clear and erotically textured at the same time -- is back in action in the beautifully photographed City of Angels. The movie is set in Los Angeles, a very horizontal city, but Seale, working with the director Brad Silberling, gets his camera up in the air -- on rooftops, at the top of skyscraper construction sites, on the hills looking down into the city. The images are very crisp but slightly spooked. This is a movie about angels -- real angels. The seraphic presences, who dress in long dark coats, like somber gangsters, stand silently on the successive balconies of a rotundalike library. One of them pitches himself down from way up high, his arms outstretched, like a giant bird making a slow sweep to the ground. The movie is occasionally on the verge of breaking into surreal fantasy. Though I wish I could say that it amounts to more than a few startling images, it doesn’t. City of Angels is the brainchild of the late producer Dawn Steel, who fell in love with Wim Wenders’s 1987 classic Wings of Desire and decided to make an American version of it. The movie has its affecting moments, but the drearily inevitable has come true -- an original and rather haunting poetic conception has been turned into a literal-minded love story. Take a chance on love: Fall for an angel.

Wenders’s movie, elegantly written in collaboration with Peter Handke, was set in Berlin when the Wall was still up -- a divided city, somber and scarred, with its war memories, its distinctive melancholy and bittersweet humor. Two very serious angels (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) wander about, listening in on the thoughts of ordinary people, offering a slight touch of reassurance -- a breath, a tiny pressure -- in moments of anxiety. For better or worse, the movie had a super-earthly delicacy -- it breathed the spirit of German poetry and chamber music. Shot in silvery black-and-white, it shifted to color only at the end, when the angel played by Bruno Ganz falls in love with a female trapeze artist and decides to give up immortality for eros.

City of Angels, which was written by Dana Stevens, is a love story right from the beginning. Nicolas Cage plays an angel named Seth, invisible except when he wants to be seen, who hangs around the operating rooms of an L.A. hospital, waiting to take away the patients who die. He doesn’t kill anyone; he executes orders, presumably from above, and he sits there looking on with tender sympathy, his eyes wide open. No one can be more beseeching than Nicolas Cage -- he’s like a dog who hasn’t eaten for a week. Yet there’s now something creepy about the story. It’s no longer a poetic conceit: This angel is a sweet-tempered death junkie.

When a wired-up surgeon, Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), loses a patient on the operating table, Seth falls in love with her, comforting her with an invisible hand as she weeps (it’s a lovely moment, equal to anything in the original). Meg Ryan gives one of her best performances; her Maggie feels the strange, consoling presence, and when Seth makes himself visible and stares right into her soul -- he’s an angel, boy is he an angel; no “boorish” advances here -- Ryan, stunned, disbelieving, struggles to understand what’s happening to her.

But the movie quickly takes a tumble -- it becomes an argument for life, for sensuous experience, for not living in the vacuum of immortality. Ah, to feel that water on your back when you jump into the Pacific! To taste some real food! But this is a movie set in Los Angeles, not in shattered, soulful, guilty Berlin. It is set in the narcissists’ capital of the world. Could anyone possibly argue against pleasure in the sunlit paradise? There might have been an element of dramatic tension if someone had, but nothing so witty as that happens. The movie becomes a compellingly photographed advertisement for the good life, and nothing, in this setting, could be more redundant or banal. Will Nick accept love -- and death? Will Meg take a chance on this strange guy? In other words, Hollywood has made the idea more realistic, more emotional, more communicative, more plausible. But how can it be plausible? The material is entirely fanciful. Silberling, whose only previous feature credit was the kids’ fantasy Casper, has some talent, but he directs with too confident a belief in his own banalities. The movie is physically beautiful, but the ideas are kitsch -- it’s a New Age love story, the latest version of the doomed romances of 50 years ago.


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