Immortality or Meg Ryan? You Can’t Have Both

Brad Silberling’s City of Angels , from a screenplay by Dana Stevens, based on the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire (1987), strains to achieve the enchantingly sublime, but ends up sinking to the depressingly ridiculous. I must confess, however, that angels (with or without wings) in the movies have always made me nervous. Curiously, considering I am such a nice person, I am more susceptible to Satan’s cinematic little helpers. After all, doesn’t Satan have all the best lines in John Milton’s Paradise Lost ?

In this latest manifestation of supernatural whimsy, Nicolas Cage plays Seth, an angel of death based in Los Angeles, but a gentle angel of a reassuringly gentle death. Seth is not a Bergmanesque grim reaper with world-class chess wizardry, but a nice guy with soulful eyes that are featured in endless close-ups of limitless compassion for everyone on earth.

One day, he gazes into the eyes of Meg Ryan’s Maggie, a crackerjack heart surgeon, as she labors in vain to save a patient, who is foredoomed by the presence of Seth. Death with Seth consists of the “spiritual” body rising from the bloody mess on the operating table and walking peacefully with Seth out through the lobby to who knows where, since we are never shown the final destination. We only see the initially amusing spectacle of hordes of black-robed angels parading around like penguins through various Los Angeles landmarks, along with John Seale’s scenically adventurous camera sweeping and swooping with all the presumed spatial freedom of all the heavenly messengers in our midst.

Seth’s modus operandi is disrupted by his instant eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the tearful Maggie, distraught over the loss of her patient. The problem for Seth is that he can see her, but she can’t see him. That doesn’t stop either of them from staring in close-up with such frequency that Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond would have been embarrassed by all the camera-worship. “I can express anything with my eyes,” the amusingly narcissistic Norma declares at one point, but she has nothing on Mr. Cage’s Seth, whose supposedly mesmerizing gaze becomes tedious by sheer repetition.

As angels go, Bruno Ganz in the aforementioned Wings of Desire projected much more humor and irony than Mr. Cage, and in a grungy West Berlin that was packed with struggling humanity instead of the comparatively sanitized and depopulated settings of City of Angels . Not that City of Angels is entirely bereft of stylistic and thematic concepts of its own. The usual Dracula and Death Takes a Holiday formulas have the male immortal imploring the female mortal to die so she can share eternity with him. In City of Angels , Seth is willing to abandon immortality to partake of the mortal essence of Maggie, much of which he has witnessed in voyeuristic sequences in which she has partially undressed, unaware of Seth’s adoring gaze fixed upon her. I heard more than a few giggles over this leering subterfuge disguising sneaky lechery as spiritual love. The camera in this instance makes no distinctions.

Heaven knows why I don’t give the show away by describing in detail the tragic consequences of Seth and Maggie finally making it in earthy concert. Perhaps an angel is looking over me. Suffice it to say that Dennis Franz, veteran star of television’s NYPD Blue , provides a breath of fresh air and boozy realism to this oppressively manipulative fantasy as Messinger, an ex-angel who abandoned eternity for true love once upon a time.

Japan’s Goodfellas

Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine gives us a tantalizing glimpse of a remarkable career still in the making. Mr. Kitano, reputedly a Japanese renaissance man of all media, seems to be a combination of Orson Welles, Noel Coward and Sacha Guitry. Think of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune fused into one man, with a dash of the suicidal Yukio Mishima thrown in for good measure, and you have some idea of the impact Mr. Kitano has had in and on Japan. Sonatine was made before Fireworks , which opened earlier this month. There are striking similarities in the two films, though in Fireworks he plays a world-weary cop, and in Sonatine a world-weary yakuza or mobster. Sonatine is slightly more nihilistic than Fireworks , which may suggest a subtle shift of emphasis from learning how to die with style and nobility to learning how to live with humor and creativity.

Mr. Kitano’s films are not all that easy to follow unless you are accustomed to his abrupt shifts of moods, from playfulness and tenderness to violence and cruelty. His camera style is ritualized, his framing precise. It is said that when he started making movies, he observed that Japan was too small and crowded a country for panoramic shots, and so he focused on small groups in small spaces with a camera almost as still as Yasujiro Ozu’s. This places a heavy burden on his editing, for which he takes full responsibility in the credits.

What is striking in Sonatine are what François Truffaut once designated as the “privileged moments” in a film when the plot seems to stand still while a character’s soul is penetrated. Such a moment occurs when Mr. Kitano’s Murakawa, a betrayed yakuza, is preparing to end it all with a climactic slaughter of all his enemies, to be followed by his own suicide. A very casual girlfriend asks him playfully to let her fire his automatic weapon. As she blasts away on a deserted Okinawan beach, the camera cuts to Murakawa’s sadly fatalistic expression, as if he is gazing beyond the girl to his own eventual extinction. There is no macho bravado in his face, only a rueful acceptance of the world with all its treachery and deceit, mixed in with its innocence and affection. When the slaughter actually occurs, it is all red flashes in the darkness, the moment of massive revenge transfigured into an estheticized fireworks display. Mr. Kitano is clearly a filmmaker to be kept in mind for future reference.

You Must Meet

Francie Brady Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy , from a screenplay by Mr. Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based on the novel by Mr. McCabe, is one of the best movies of the year so far, but it will probably be avoided by many people despite or perhaps even because of its many rave reviews. There is a rumor that a newsmagazine actually postponed its critic’s favorable review because of its proximity in time to the recent massacre of children by other children in Jonesboro, Ark. The word used most often to describe the film is “upsetting.”

All I can say is that despite all that is chilling, dismal, dysfunctional and downright demented in the subject matter of The Butcher Boy , I was thoroughly exhilarated by the insightfulness of the acting, writing and directing for this long journey into a demon-ridden mind encased in a joyously exuberant boy who refuses to accept the awfulness of things as they are.

Forget about the Oscars in this breathless blurb. Eamonn Owens in the role of Francie Brady, the ever-cheerful son of a drunken and abusive father, played by Stephen Rea, and a sweetly addled mother, played by Aisling O’Sullivan, gives a performance for the ages. His performance should remind anyone with a reflective memory of how it is when the world collapses around a child, and the child has to invent his own logic to explain the situation and then stick to it through thick and thin. I winced a few times myself when I recalled the idiotic idées fixes in my own childhood mind, though, fortunately, I was only half-crazy, whereas poor Francie is completely bonkers. But Mr. Jordan and Mr. McCabe avail themselves of the magical richness and evasiveness of the Irish-English language to sweep us along through all the brutishness of the lives they describe. The film itself remains indescribable. See it despite your worst fears. I am as squeamish as anyone, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Hong Kong in Limbo

Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box , from a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and Larry Gross, from a story by Mr. Carrière, Paul

Theroux and Mr. Wang, is clearly a labor of love for Mr. Wang. This is a very casual, free-form meditation on the future, if any, of his native Hong Kong in its reversion to Chinese rule after a century and a half. His nominal protagonist is John, a journalist played by Jeremy ( Decline and Fall of the West ) Irons in his most desiccated manner as the terminally ill lover of a Chinese beauty with a shady past and an uncertain future, played by Gong Li, an Asian enchantress who seems capable of making the jump into the English-language cinema a fruitful one for all her admirers in the West. A remake of Shanghai Express could then be cast with Ms. Li in the Marlene Dietrich role, rather than in the previously stereotyped Anna May Wong part. In the anything-goes ethnic mix of Chinese Box , Maggie Cheung as Jean, a Chinese victim of Anglo prejudice, and Rubén Blades as an international journalist at home anywhere and nowhere, fit right into the loosely scripted proceedings. Ultimately, Mr. Wang’s real protagonist in Chinese Box is Hong Kong itself, an endless maze of contradictions and a timeless repository of all the virtues and vices of an ever more transient humanity.