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Blu-ray Reviews

Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate Blu-ray Review



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#1 of 48 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted November 19 2012 - 11:42 AM

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is an epic film without a center. Using the Johnson County War of 1892 as its backdrop, the movie at its heart tells a fairly uninteresting and uninvolving triangle love story where emotions are highly contained and character development stifled to the point of irritation. The historical backdrop which frames this inert tale is often beautifully and moodily represented and is most handsomely and expensively mounted, but it’s difficult getting inside the skins of any of these characters and even more problematic caring about what happens to any of them.







Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (Blu-ray)
Directed by Michael Cimino

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1980
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1   1080p   AVC codec
Running Time: 216 minutes
Rating: R
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles:  SDH


Region: A
MSRP: $ 49.95



Release Date: November 20, 2012

Review Date: November 19, 2012




The Film

3/5


The Wyoming Cattle Growers Association headed by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) has drawn up a death list of 125 immigrants, people who the association feels aren’t worthy of occupying their territory with their thieving ways and with the government’s authorization plans a systematic annihilation of the poor area ranchers. Nathan Champion who begins the skirmish on the side of the WCGA (Christopher Walken) has something of a change of heart when he learns that the woman he loves, brothel madam Ella Watson’s (Isabelle Huppert), name appears on the list, but she resists his proposal of marriage and also the offer of her other suitor, territory marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), to leave with him once the town mayor fires him thus leaving him with no good reason for staying.


Michael Cimino’s vision for his western epic is certainly captured on film in often lush, atmospheric, and awe-inspiring visuals (cinematography by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond), but there’s no denying he’s often indulgent to the detriment of his film’s efficacy. The entire twenty-minute opening sequence featuring the graduation of Harvard’s Class of 1870 accomplishes nothing of significance (we’re introduced to John Hurt’s cryptic Billy Irvine character who’s the film’s most ineffective enigma) though it gives the director a chance to stage an exquisite waltzing sequence on the green after the ceremony. Elsewhere he allows his camera to focus often too leisurely on moments of loveliness or frontier barbarism (cockfights, Ella bathing in the nude, an evening of music and roller skating, a solitary dance between Ella and James, and numerous murders often in close-up) that slow the film’s momentum to a crawl, and the dialogue scenes (Cimino wrote the script himself) are often piddling and writerly. The film’s climactic war sequence runs about forty minutes in two waves. The staging is again impressive especially when Cimino takes his camera high to see the swirling bands of fighters or capture the battle strategies in their widescreen magnificence, but details in the battles are often obscured by excessive dust and gun smoke thus limiting their effectiveness by frustrating the viewer.


Kris Kristofferson gives his role a mighty effort trying to establish relationships with other actors who often aren’t giving him much in return. Key among those is Isabelle Huppert whose monotone, inexpressive performance is a black hole in the center of the movie. To be fair, the French actress was attempting to act in English, but she seems so lost and so uncommitted to the role and the film that her lack of chemistry with both Kristofferson and Christopher Walken is palpable. Walken himself must play a character who undergoes a change of heart without being given much in the way of scenes in order to make it convincing, and he’s never been an effective physical brute which he must also play here. The number of fine actors basically squandered in inconsequential roles is quite large: John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis. Sam Waterston has some juicy scenes as the movie’s central villain which he plays without overdoing it, and Richard Masur, almost alone among the immigrants, makes much of his few scenes as the immigrant Cully who’s holding down a responsible job with the railroad that doesn’t in any event seem to cut much slack with the WCPA.



Video Quality

4.5/5


The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 is faithfully reproduced and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film’s clarity and sharpness are never less than accurate, sometimes featuring hazy contrast for the Harvard scenes and later on with crisp imagery showing an outstanding faithfulness to the original look of the movie (though Isabelle Huppert has been given some customary glamour shots in softer focus). Color is rich and superbly realized with believable flesh tones throughout. Black levels aren't the deepest possible, but that is the transfer’s only small lapse. Age-related scratches and dirt have been dealt with beautifully. The film has been divided into 53 chapters.



Audio Quality

4/5


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix has an excellent stereo spread across the front soundstage but rarely ventures into the rear channels. The effectively atmospheric score of folk songs and classical tunes arranged by David Mansfield is spread through the entire soundstage and has been masterfully recorded. The audio track’s most problematic feature is caused by Cimino’s tendency to occasionally stage dialogue scenes amid the furor and din of crowds and background sound effects. There are several sequences where dialogue is partially obscured by background sound, and you may find the subtitles especially helpful during these moments. Whether this is part of the original intentions of the sound design or if it’s an artifact of this transfer is a question others will have to answer.



Special Features

4/5


All of the video featurettes are in 1080p. All of the extras are contained on the second disc in the set.


Director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli share memories and opinions on the film for 31 minutes in this audio conversation with stills and film clips played as background. (Cimino does by far most of the talking.) He discusses his approach to writing without any formal training, his attention to making the film as accurate as possible, his directorial techniques, and the editing team he assembled for the film.


Star Kris Kristofferson shares memories of the movie in a 9 ¼-minute interview. He talks about the appeal of the movie for him, the personal problems he was going through during its making, his trust of the director, and his most difficult scene to shoot.


Musician David Mansfield shares memories of his time on the film in this 8 ¾-minute interview conducted in 2012. He talks about his career up to the time of making the film (at age 22), particular vivid memories of certain scenes (roller skating while playing the violin), and his approach to arranging the folk tunes for the movie.


Michael Stevenson who served as second assistant director is interviewed for 8 minutes. He talks about previous directors he had worked for and how they all prepared him for working with tough taskmaster Cimino, his jobs on the film, and why the excesses of extras were so necessary for several of the scenes in the movie.


A restoration comparison shows many before and after shots with interspersed text pages explaining the restoration process which runs 2 ½ minutes.


A teaser trailer runs 1 ½ minutes. A TV spot runs 1 ¼ minutes. Both are presented in 4:3.


The enclosed 41-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, numerous color stills from the film, film historian Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan’s appreciation of the movie, and a vintage interview with Michael Cimino which appeared in American Cinematographer magazine in 1980.


The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.



In Conclusion

3.5/5 (not an average)


Fans of the often vilified Heaven’s Gate can now have a sparkling edition of the movie to watch courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Though the bonus features only barely hint at the enormous problems and backlash the film generated and thus don’t give an accurate picture of the entire story surrounding Heaven’s Gate, the film itself is the most important thing, and few should find reasons to grumble with this excellent Blu-ray edition.




Matt Hough

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#2 of 48 OFFLINE   Vincent_P

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Posted November 19 2012 - 12:04 PM

A fair review, Matt, even though I disagree with you as an unapologetic lover of this film. I am surprised, however, that you come down so hard on Huppert. Even United Artists executive Steven Bach expressed his appreciation of her performance in his book FINAL CUT chronicling the turbulent history of the making of this film (which ended his Hollywood career). Vincent

#3 of 48 OFFLINE   Virgoan

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Posted November 19 2012 - 01:34 PM

Congratulations, Matt, on suffering through this extraordinary mess of celluloid. The BD sounds like it would be a major improvement over the director's cut VHS I wasted four hours of my life watching many years ago. Never again, however.

#4 of 48 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted November 19 2012 - 02:11 PM

I'm not exactly a big fan of the movie but have watched the long version twice this year. once on MGMHD and once on netflix streaming. The roller skating sequence is one of the strangest things I';ve seen in a movie. Anyway ordered the CC versio from BN when it was only $25 a FEw weeks ago so I'll get to see it again soon. I wasnt bothered by Huppert's performance in this, she seemed fine to me for what she had to work with.
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#5 of 48 OFFLINE   Brian McP

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Posted November 19 2012 - 02:25 PM

"Final Cut" -- one of the alltime great Hollywood books, period. If you can find it, the abridged audiobook version, masterfully read by Roddy McDowell, is also sensational. I love "Heaven's Gate" as to me it is all eye and ear candy -- I just sit back (admittedly, for a long time) and let it wash over me, some of it is rather strange, but a lot of it is just plain beautiful -- I'm looking forward greatly to the bluray. I'm sorry that all the history that surrounded it is not included, but I can understand why it isn't included -- I guess this will be left to the film historians and scholars. My favorite section is the Oxford University sequences -- it is great seeing Joseph Cotten in this, his last movie (from "Citizen Kane" to "Heaven's Gate", a 40 year career) and John Hurt making very animated speeches -- and to this day, I have no idea what the hell either of them are talking about.....God only knows what the first night audience thought they were in for after that, back in 1980.

#6 of 48 OFFLINE   Vincent_P

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Posted November 19 2012 - 03:02 PM

... -- it is great seeing Joseph Cotten in this, his last movie (from "Citizen Kane" to "Heaven's Gate", a 40 year career) and John Hurt making very animated speeches -- and to this day, I have no idea what the hell either of them are talking about.....God only knows what the first night audience thought they were in for after that, back in 1980.

Cotton is espousing the social responsibility of the rich in his speech to the graduating class ("It is not great wealth alone that builds a library..."), while John Hurt's Billy Irvine character gets up there and basically ridicules what Cotton has just said ("We disclaim all intention of making a change in what we esteem, on the whole, well-arranged.") This sets up the character of Averill- a wealthy, privileged easterner- going out west and "serving the people", while his good friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) stays firmly entrenched "in his class", even as he comes to feel that what they are doing is wrong. Vincent

#7 of 48 OFFLINE   Richard V

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Posted November 20 2012 - 01:14 AM

Cotton is espousing the social responsibility of the rich in his speech to the graduating class ("It is not great wealth alone that builds a library..."), while John Hurt's Billy Irvine character gets up there and basically ridicules what Cotton has just said ("We disclaim all intention of making a change in what we esteem, on the whole, well-arranged.") This sets up the character of Averill- a wealthy, privileged easterner- going out west and "serving the people", while his good friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) stays firmly entrenched "in his class", even as he comes to feel that what they are doing is wrong. Vincent

Perfectly summarized.
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#8 of 48 OFFLINE   Billy Batson

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Posted November 20 2012 - 01:38 AM

I tried to like this movie, but ended up being bored by it. It didn't help that I couldn't hear some of the dialogue (around that time a lot of films were like that, movies were winning Oscars for sound mixing where you couldn't make out half the dialogue!). Final Cut is a great read. If a director mucks a studio around like that, his only hope is that the film is a massive money making hit, otherwise he's history.

#9 of 48 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 20 2012 - 03:24 AM

Blind bought this one out of curiosity and look forward to spending the day with it. thanks for the great review!



#10 of 48 OFFLINE   theonemacduff

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Posted November 20 2012 - 05:22 AM

I should begin by saying that I really love this film, in spite of its problems; and I particularly appreciate Matt's review, which is spot on, in a number of ways. But my own take has always been that Cimino never solved the structural problems of his film, that it's a classic case of being too close to material you love to be able to whip it into shape. What do they teach you in writing class? Kill your babies. Cimino never did that with this film. The opening Harvard scenes are intended to set the ideological tone of the film, in particular the sense of entitlement to a world, to make it as one wishes and to serve one's own needs. The president, Cotten, delivers a muted warning about this; and the Irvine character essentially ignores it. The difficulty in grapsing this simple idea comes partly from the language used; it is a good imitation (realistic imitation) of nineteenth century rhetoric, which, typically, was overblown and sentimentalized. Some have said the scene goes on for too long, but I think it could probably only be cut by a few minutes. What could be cut are the following dancing scenes. If memory serves, we don't ever get to see a full orchestra, and yet that is the music that swells on the soundtrack, so there's a disconnect there for the audience, especially given that for the rest of the film, music is motivated from within the scenes. As well, it is extremely unlikely, rich as these young people are, that they could afford the kind of grad bash that the movie depicts them as having; it's pure movie bogusness, which again, plays oddly with the realism the rest of the movie insists on. The rest of the party does serve a narrative point, if only to show that the competitions these young people engage in are, quite literally, child's play, and nothing like the challenges which face them as they move into the real social world. But again, it's too long, and the point could be established much more quickly, and with arguable fewer resources. Flash cut twenty years forward and we go to Johnson County. Okay, yes, a lot of extras were needed to create the vision of the Wyoming town, the train station, etc etc., but the narrative in this central part of the story is bogged down by a couple of loops, wherein the story seems to advance, only to stutter, and then go right back to where it was about 10 or 20 minutes earlier. Again, I'm relying on my memory of the DVD here, which I've seen several times, but it seems to me that when the citizens of Heaven's Gate assemble in the roller rink to debate what to do, they don't at first come to a decision, even though the talk goes on for a long time. And then, some time later, they have another long chat at which they do reach a decision, and off they go in their wagons etc., to fight the bad guys. So why is the first scene necessary? To show the messiness of democratic process as opposed to the Board Meeting style of the upper classes? Another example of scenes that could be cut is the long dance sequence opening the roller rink. As I recall, one of the points of that scene, besides showing us some of the folks who will later speak up at the meeting, is its ending, with Ella and Kristopherson. But you don't need that long a sequence to get to that point. Why is it so long? Because structurally it's a counterpoint to the Harvard ball sequence. Presumeably it tells the audience that the working classes are just as capable of having fun as the upper classes. But that is a trifling point, and in retrospect, only amplifies the mistake Cimino made in allowing the first sequence to go on for so long. I don't think it's easy, artistically speaking to have both realism and stylization and hope to capture them in a single aesthetic frame, unless you deliberately set it up to work that way. Julie Taymor's Titus does it well; Heaven's Gate, by insisting almost everywhere on its realism, does it poorly. Why, for example, do we have those crowds of immigrants on a dusty trail heading out of town, but to who knows where, hundreds and hundreds of them? It's a great shot, and it sets up Walken's initial character quite well; but it's hardly realistic. Immigrants typically arrived out west by train in this era, and then would disperse to whatever section or homesteading place they were slated for, or had heard about, most often as individual families, or groups of families. The image Cimino gives us, however, owes much more to the refugee-crowded roads of Europe at mid-century, and very little to the west of the 1890s. Played for effect, it undercuts the realism. Cimino loves the working class immigrants, but he only shows them to us, for the most part, as an undifferentiated mass, with their voices only heard towards the end of the film, where they die heroically in defense of — what exactly? Or again, the portrayal of the villains as unrestrained murderers and rapists (with Sam Waterson as an almost Bondian bad guy, personally executing a bound prisoner, and yet suffering no consequences of any kind for doing so), strikes me as an aesthetic flaw, operatic and unrealistic, and again fighting against the realism of presentation of the rest of the film. Well, enough is enough, as they say. I have always felt, and have said before on HTF, that inside the rather obese movie of Heaven's Gate, there is a much slimmer one struggling to get out. Make no mistake, it would still be a long movie; and perhaps Cimino at this point in time, lacks the materials to fully create that version. Nevertheless, it's disappointing that for his director's cut he chose to recommit himself to the original flawed version rather than to slim down, straighten out the narrative kinks, reduce some of the roles – in particular Jeff Bridges' role, which really should be a minor one. Do that, and he would have given us a classic vision of the real west – the west that was made by immigrants, rather than men on horses with guns.

#11 of 48 OFFLINE   andrew markworthy

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Posted November 20 2012 - 07:36 AM

Thank you for the review, which I think is fair. I am, alas, not tempted to buy it. If I want a beautifully photographed film set in roughly the same period but with a vacuous plot, I can always watch Days of Heaven, which must be the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Before anyone flames me, ask yourself if you could sit through either Heaven's Gate of Days of Heaven if it weren't for the cinematography. ;)

#12 of 48 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 20 2012 - 07:43 AM

Originally Posted by andrew markworthy 

Thank you for the review, which I think is fair. I am, alas, not tempted to buy it. If I want a beautifully photographed film set in roughly the same period but with a vacuous plot, I can always watch Days of Heaven, which must be the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Before anyone flames me, ask yourself if you could sit through either Heaven's Gate of Days of Heaven if it weren't for the cinematography. Posted Image

You say that like it's a bad thing. :P



#13 of 48 OFFLINE   Peter Neski

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Posted November 20 2012 - 08:07 AM

"If I want a beautifully photographed film set in roughly the same period but with a vacuous plot, I can always watch Days of Heaven, which must be the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Before anyone flames me, ask yourself if you could sit through either Heaven's Gate of Days of Heaven if it weren't for the cinematography." Days of Heaven is all substance!! could you watch a film without Visuals ?? film is film !!! whats the point if you don't care about visuals,

#14 of 48 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 20 2012 - 08:12 AM

Originally Posted by Peter Neski 

Days of Heaven is all substance!! could you watch a film without Visuals ?? film is film !!! whats the point if you don't care about visuals,


Those Quatsi films I've never seen are probably way better without the over done cinematography everyone blathers on about. Posted Image



#15 of 48 OFFLINE   Peter Neski

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Posted November 20 2012 - 08:26 AM

Only saw the first of those films ,Never thought that director knew what to put in front of the camera ,and hardly in the league of a talent like Malick or Cimino

#16 of 48 OFFLINE   Richard V

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Posted November 20 2012 - 08:40 AM

Thank you for the review, which I think is fair. I am, alas, not tempted to buy it. If I want a beautifully photographed film set in roughly the same period but with a vacuous plot, I can always watch Days of Heaven, which must be the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Before anyone flames me, ask yourself if you could sit through either Heaven's Gate of Days of Heaven if it weren't for the cinematography. ;)

I know it is heresy around here, but I'd have to agree with this. I've never cared for Malick, save Badlands, a film he's made that I believe has both style and substance. Days of Heaven, IMHO, was one of the most boring films I've ever seen. Photographed beautifully, yes, but just a crashing bore. Once again, JMO.
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#17 of 48 OFFLINE   owen35

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Posted November 20 2012 - 09:05 AM

Well, enough is enough, as they say. I have always felt, and have said before on HTF, that inside the rather obese movie of Heaven's Gate, there is a much slimmer one struggling to get out. Make no mistake, it would still be a long movie; and perhaps Cimino at this point in time, lacks the materials to fully create that version. Nevertheless, it's disappointing that for his director's cut he chose to recommit himself to the original flawed version rather than to slim down, straighten out the narrative kinks, reduce some of the roles – in particular Jeff Bridges' role, which really should be a minor one. Do that, and he would have given us a classic vision of the real west – the west that was made by immigrants, rather than men on horses with guns.

Well said. I once had a friend ask me why I like this film so much, I said that "I like trying to figure out how to make it a great film, because there is one in there." I also saw the shorter version when it was released and, as my frail memory recalls, there were excellent moments in there that never made it to the full version. Scenes need to be shortened and shifted around to help build the dramatic narrative. Like Ciminio did with "The Deer Hunter," he asks the viewer to help fill in some of the missing pieces. This can often be done with great acting--one part that is really missing in HG. I especially find Kris Kristofferson to lack any real screen charisma or serious acting chops to carry this epic. This is not to say that this film is without merit. It really isn't the horrible slop that many people seem to proclaim. It's far from a perfect masterpiece either. But it is a film worth viewing and giving it some thought. Cimino is not a terrible director, but, as you so perfectly put it, he was too close to the material to give it the chopping it needed. And, like you, I was really hoping that he would have taken the time to give it a more thorough edit this time around, rather that the subtle trims he seems to have done with this, his final director-approved, release. Missed opportunity if you ask me. Regarding the disc itself, I am a little disappointed that Criterion didn't also include the shorter version. Technically, that also was a Cimino approved edit as he had asked UA to pull the film so he could re-edit (not the other way around as had been stated). Like Brazil, the shorter version is also part of its history and should not have been so easily discarded.
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#18 of 48 OFFLINE   Richard V

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Posted November 20 2012 - 09:28 AM

I'm finding it kinda unusual that many posters here are saying that the "long" version should be edited down to make a better film, when the whole "re-discovery" of this movie and the noteriety (both from critics and the public) it has received decades after it's inital disasterous release, is due to restoration of the scenes removed from its' initial NY opening. That is a rambling sentence, so I'll try to be more succint. Wasn't the whole point of releasing a bluray, to release the "director's cut"?
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#19 of 48 OFFLINE   Peter Neski

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Posted November 20 2012 - 09:36 AM

I of course don't agree with your review
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#20 of 48 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 20 2012 - 09:39 AM

Originally Posted by Richard V 

 Wasn't the whole point of releasing a bluray, to release the "director's cut"?

It was and is. In this case most seem to think the director was wearing his crazy pants and that over-indulgence sunk the film and that some tighter editing could help.


Which is just as valid of an opinion as any.







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