Nearly half a lifetime ago, a 17-year-old version of me took a girl to see 'City of Angels' – not just any girl, but the girl. The one that I'd known since I was five and had a crush on since I fist realized that females were attractive. From what I remember, it was a great date. I was on cloud nine afterward. I remember loving the movie. Reviewing this Blu-ray now was the first time that I'd seen 'City of Angels' in over a decade. I was either blinded by teenage romance or completely uneducated in movies – I like to think that it was the blinding crush – but I now realize that it's hardly the great movie that I thought it was.
Re-watching 'City of Angels' made me embarrassed for having loved it long ago. The story is sappy and manipulative. The concept is decent, but fluffed. The romance is flimsy and unfounded. And the overall filmmaking style is excessive and wasteful.
Nicholas Cage stars as Seth, one of God's angels sent to Earth to console and comfort the afflicted and troubled; to accompany the dying to the Great Beyond; and to … stand around? There are countless shots of angels gazing into the distance, often times sitting or standing on building, freeway sign, billboards and landmarks. Why? Who knows. One random plot point is that angels like to hang out in libraries and read books over people's shoulders. Why? Beats me. It's never explained. We're told that they like to feel the different emotions that humans go through, but aren't there better places to do that than public libraries? I imagine that this setting was chosen just because the architecture of the library used was an ideal location to show these angels do what they do best – stand around and blindly stare at things. Each morning and evening, they gather at the beach to watch the sun rise and set. If that's true, lock yourselves indoors at sunrise and sundown because no angels have your back at that time!
While all angels appear to have interest in the human condition, Seth's interest seems more like obsession. Every event that he witnesses earns a classic longing glance like only Cage can deliver. When he witnesses Dr. Maggie Rice's (Meg Ryan) intense grief after losing a patient on the operating table, his personal desires are pushed over the edge. In this movie, angels can be seen by humans if they choose to be. When Seth is around Maggie, he can't keep himself concealed because his desire to be with her is too grand. Ultimately, the two meet and she appears to be just as obsessed with him as he is with her.
Before long, Seth learns a truth about angels that he didn't know before, that they have the ability to give up their celestial status and switch to mortality. As Seth and Maggie's oddly rocky and unbelievable relationship unfolds, he has to weigh the scales to see if mortality would be worth it just to grow old with Maggie.
This time around, I noticed that 'City of Angels' plays out like a trash novel. The relationship is overly complicated, but not from the main angel-human dichotomy like you would expect. You would assume that Maggie's hold-up with dating this guy is that, one, he's and angel, and two, he simply shows up here and there like a mysterious stalker – but that's not the case. Instead, she's hot and cold for absolutely no reason at the flick of a switch. He comes to see her, she's happy and treats him well; he shows up the next day, and she walks out on him mid-conversation. And just as crazy as she seems for expressing any interest in this stranger who claims to be a messenger of God, he's just as crazy to fall for her all-out craziness. If anything, she manipulates him into thinking that he should be mortal for her. Perhaps I'm reading into this too much. After all, they both seem like nut jobs, so maybe they're perfect for one another.
My favorite aspect of re-watching 'City of Angels' is getting to watch Nicholas Cage turn into the wacky and twitchy Cage that I've come to love and hope for. Sadly, it's too little too late. For me, 'City of Angels' is now nothing more than the movie that gave us Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has transferred 'City of Angels' to a nice BD-50 and placed it in an Elite keepcase that has the "recycle" symbol cut into the inside covers. Although this is the first time the movie has been available in HD, aside from the clean 1080p transfer, the release is identical to its DVD counterpart - cover art, special features, etc. When you pop the disc into your player, it goes straight to the main menu.
This new transfer of 'City of Angels' presents the 2.40:1 film with a decent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The video quality is far from perfect, but it's not too shabby considering it's a late '90s chick flick. The strongest aspect is the overall cleanliness of the image. Very few specks of dust and debris make an appearance. No lines, scratches or other age-revealing flaws show up. My biggest complaints are the inconsistencies within sharpness and the crushing black levels. I recall 'City of Angels' being shot with a soft feel, but the bouncing back and forth between seemingly soft focus scenes and sharply detailed ones is a bit of a nuisance. Bright settings offer the best details – pores, textures, the tiniest of hairs, a nice depth to the image – whereas dark setting falter. Dressed in a black trench coat, if Seth sits in a dark room, his coat is completely camouflaged, making his head appear to float in the middle of the room, unattached to a pair of shoulders. Almost all dark scenes suffer this same fate. Details are lost within the crush.
The picture carries an overall dusting of celluloid grain, but nothing distracting or over-the-top. Evidence of DNR is left behind in some scenes, but not constantly. If you pay very close attention, you'll notice slight side-to-side juttering throughout the film. Noise is featured in a few scenes, typically in the bright skies. Aliasing, bands and artifacts are absent and I didn't notice the use of any edge enhancing software.
'City of Angels' now carries a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's better than I expected, although not constantly being take advantage of.
The movie's intro ends with Seth accompanying the spirit of a little girl to heaven. He literally walks her into the light. As he does so, the light gets brighter and the music seamlessly spreads from the front channels to the surround, as if emitting from the brightness. Before the sequence is through, the angelic music is beaming from all speakers. What surprised me the most was how much creative mixing was used during unique scenes. For example, as Seth walks through the library, we hear the inner thoughts of seated readers. These voices seem to emanate from all over the room, some of them even imaging as the camera tracks through the space. Unfortunately, not all settings warrant this great mixing. Extra love seems to have been placed in these scenes, but not the entire mix. Some settings carry the standard generic front-and-center mixing that we've come to expect from romance flicks. The music is the only element to always emit from all channels.
The only flawed portion of this mix is the occasional vocal problem. At times, voices can have a "tin" sound like an overly compressed MP3. A blown-out effect (like high-end distortion) can arise when the levels get too high. The most noticeable instance of this is when wacky Nic Cage is seen and heard stomping and singing down a city street a few minutes prior to going to Tahoe.
All of the special features from the original DVD release have been ported over to the Blu-ray. All are still in standard definition.
Have you ever watched an old film that you once enjoyed, only to realize that it's hardly the great movie your memory has tricked you into remembering it as? That's what happened with me and 'City of Angels.' I recall this being one of the worthwhile romance flicks, but I now realize that its a sappy, manipulative and overly dramatized trash novel put on screen. Fortunately, those who still find it a worthwhile picture will be glad to know that the new high-def transfer is superbly clean, although somewhat inconsistent with its sharpness and detail. The new lossless audio track shines at times, but is also inconsistent with its greatness. A load of special features are included, but none that weren't already found on the original DVD release. If you recall 'City of Angels' with fondness, but haven't seen it in a decade, you might want to reconsider not watching it again and ruining whatever nostalgic moment it may be connected to - but if you've watched it repeatedly over the decade-and-a-half since its theatrical release, you ought to be thoroughly satisfied with this transfer.