Monthly Archives: July 2014

Rental Corner: “Wolf Children” is more than what it seems

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Hana holds her two “Wolf Children” in one of the most beautifully done anime to date

“Wolf Children” is very much a movie that proves what is missing in today’s animated venues. Not just originality but subtly placed messages of deeper meaning. On the surface, it seems like a typical “coming of age” story but that’s only scrapping the surface. I’d go as far to say its more compelling and dynamic than “My Neighbor Tortoro” or if not, at least on par with its mystical wonder and multiple morals that can give viewers their own interpretation of what this movie is about and what its trying to say. But yet, it all connects and gives something everyone wants in the end.

The story concerns a young college student named Hana who falls in love with a new student. But when he tells her the secret that he is a werewolf, she looks past the fur and fangs and sees him as who he is; someone to love. No sooner they have two children and upon unfortunate fate, her lover gets killed while giving into his animal instincts. Leaving behind their two kids who can shape shift into wolves at any given will, Hana finds that being a mother to her strange children is not easy at it appears. But with a bit of luck, she stays every step of the way to make sure they are given the care and love of a mother but then things get harder when they have to learn exactly who they truly are and how they fit in the world.

I should probably talk about the small elephant in the room at this point. Some might be turned off by the questionable nature of “Wolf Children” as the main character develops a son and daughter with a half-human/half-wolf. However, this is only for the first 15 minutes of the movie and if you can get past that, things really get rolling when Hana has to deal with how to raise her canine children. This element didn’t bother me that much seeing this is a Japanese anime and I took it as more of a modern day fair tale as well as the popular mythos of werewolves and kitsune tales. But I probably should address some viewers might take this as a form of bestiality and I can see why. But they never show anything explicit or heavily imply seeing Hana’s lover can form between human and wolf. Some sensitives might be bothered by this so this is just a fair warning.

But after that, the story becomes a cross between a coming of age fable and one about motherhood as well. Hana’s kids Yuki and Ame have some interesting scenes that range from basic cuteness to elements never questioned in some animated films. Like the idea of finding where you truly belong or how to accept what you are and try to balance that. Or even the choice being what you want while struggling against what others think. Yeah, these are elements done before like in Disney’s The Little Mermaid but I feel they are executed better here. It knows when to have its cute and moments of awe before delving into dramatic tension.

On such example is Ame wondering what he should be in life. At first he is unsure but he grows an appreciation of the forest more than living a normal life. This works best because we see development of that choice over time. At first, Ame is frightened of the wide world and its things but then begins to understand the value of nature so well that he wants to live in it. Even his sister Yuki starts to understand the hardships of trying to be normal as she tries to hide her secret from classmates and even the new kid who seems suspicious of her odd actions like avoiding him at every angle. Yuki wants to be a person but knows her animal instincts can be dangerous or even risk relationships with her friends. So is it best to chose the life of an animal or the life of a person? “Wolf Children” brings this in different perspectives with Ame trying to break from his life with people to be more of a wolf while Yuki wants to distance her animal life to be a normal person. Never have a seen a movie that presents this perspective in two different ways. And considering we spend so much time with their progression from child to adult, we feel like we want to see them make the right choice they feel best fits them in the end.

But what holds this movie together is their mother Hana. We see her difficulties trying to raise her unique kids while also trying to be a mother they can depend on. One notable scene is when Yuki gets ill and she has a hard time deciding if she should consult the hospital or the vets for help. Its a humorous but very smart scene. Hana doesn’t treat her kids like the animals they can transform into but there are times when she questions the appropriate time to raise them like children and sometimes like a zoologist. Regardless, she sees them as her own despite the fur and fangs. I was even surprised to see how far she would go to protect her kids from the dangers of the world and even give them the life they deserve. Even in the final 30 minutes, she puts her own life on the line. I won’t say how but its a gripping and intense climax that ends satisfying but yet sad at the same time.

The animation in the first half didn’t feel that spectacular to me until the later scenes when Hana moves to the countryside. At that point, it starts to show what it can do removing itself from flat urban designs to beautiful forest backgrounds. The highlight of the movie is the three chasing each other in the snow as the kids delight in having fun for the first time in the winter season as their mother tries to catch up with them. Even through there is little to no shading on the characters or even things like snow, it still feels amazing. Even the score by Takagi Masakatsu powerfully complements the scene with a piece that is fast and powerful but yet has the whimsical charm of John Williams. In fact, the score of this movie is so well done that I’m nearly close to finding a copy of it to listen to. It is that good and rare has there been a musical score to give me joy and goosebumps at the same time while knowing when to play it dramatic and subtle.

And that’s the key word here; subtle. On paper, “Wolf Children” sounds like it has elements that may either turn off viewers or even make them feel its a typical picture with the usual cliches of prejudice and knowing your place. But yet, it goes deeper than that. We get well developed characters, spell-bounding sequences that feel like art pieces coming to life and by the end you feel like Hana did her job well as a mother as both kids go off to become what they truly wish. At the end of the day, you will get something satisfying but yet moving at the same time. Its unlike any anime I’ve seen to date that successfully blends the elements of a fairy tale and realistic elements. Never have I seen a story about the importance of growing up and when its time to let your kids know what is right for them. If you look pass the elements of werewolves and some of its questionable content, there is a truly remarkable picture here that will leave you breathless.

Rental Corner: “Heaven” lacks heart

The following reflects only the narrative and structure of “Heaven Is For Real.” Having not read the book, it was decided to base my thoughts on the movie only. I understand it’s a non-fiction piece but sometimes a film can take certain liberties. Wither or not these things are true, the thoughts and opinion will be judged on the movie only and not the source. This is not a discussion about religion or a question of beliefs. This is a movie review. 

Greg Kinnear plays Todd Budpo who questions the faith in his son's vision during his appendicitis. Inspired by a true story but sadly has no inspiration in it...

Greg Kinnear plays Todd Budpo who questions the faith in his son’s vision during his appendicitis. Inspired by a true story but sadly has no inspiration in it…

The story goes is that four-year old Colton Burpo had a near death experience during surgery on his appendicitis and saw a vision of Heaven and Jesus talking to him. A questionable but yet extraordinary event that later lead to the publishing of Christian book documenting the experience he had.  Many have questioned the nature of this experience while others have been inspired by these visions. And like all best-sellers, Sony Pictures bought up the rights and made a movie out of it like the standard way of book adaptions these days. Don’t get me wrong. A near-death experience is serious to consider. But the problem with this adaption of “Heaven Is For Real” is the depiction of the attitude towards what some keep saying is a miracle.

If the movie keeps relating to this being a miracle, then how come we spend less time with the community and more with the family? I understand how much it can impact a Christian family but what about those outside? And here is one of the problems with this movie. Most of the time we see the Burpo family teeter back and forth about question the nature of their son’s vision and I can see why its the focus of the film. But what lacks is the social pressure that acts against this. A moment like this feels like it should be questioned to others and we do see a newspaper article circulate through the town and a scene when Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo, the father, lead a sermon on his son’s meeting with Jesus with some skeptical attendants trying to make sense or question the honesty behind it. After that, there isn’t much a big impact. Nothing feels remarkable or sensational as the depicted reaction feels close to a typical shrug as opposed to awe or growing curiosity.

Even more disappointing are the scenes depicting Colton’s vision which I personally feel would have gained more effect if it was told and not shown. We see a set of CGI angels in bright lights and an actor playing Jesus with his face obscured. The awe is ruined by the visual depiction of Heaven that should have been more mysterious and left to the viewer’s imagination. Telling it would have been more effective than showing a CGI heavy sequence that feels incomplete in appearance and execution.

Even more perplexing is the first 14 minutes that starts off like a real-life parable that feels out of place with the theoretical “Heaven” tries to set up as Colton’s dad Todd is shown to be a man of many occupations ranging from pastor to volunteer fire-fighter and even a coach for high school wrestling. And then Todd gets hit with a series of events ranging from a shattered leg injury during a baseball game to the passing of multiple kidney stones.  I guess this is supposed to feel like a parallel to the story of Job but it feels out of place here. I understand also its supposed to show the hardships the Burpo family went through but I feel this information is too much.

Is there any good to say here? Well, there are moments that do have an emotional impact like Colton going through surgery and you see all the people praying and hoping. They work well and feel decently executed but the rest of the movie has that feeling of those Disney sports dramas from the late 1990’s where one’s spirit would be broken and they would have to try and gain it back. Its that with a pinch of basic melodrama in the acting that makes the execution more dull. I normally don’t criticize child actors but if I had a near death experience and saw these images, I would be moved and amazing by it. The way the kid actor Connor Corum delivers his lines feels flat and uninspired talking about this amazing experience like it was another walk in the park.

Another problem I had was the mode of parenting depicted in this movie. Again, regardless of it being true or not, the Burpos act like their son’s event in the hospital was just another casual dream with the exception of the dad who grows curious to the point we are not sure if its out of questioning what he is preaching or what he believes in. There’s even a subplot where its revealed they had a miscarriage off-screen and Colton talks about how he met the sister he never had that even the parents didn’t tell him about. OK, I can see how the idea of explaining that to a child is difficult even at the age of 4 but early on, the boy gets sick fast and they don’t bother to bring him to a hospital immediately and it takes them a few days to finally decide to bring him to one. Even when he has a temp of 104 and is out like a burned-up light bulb. I have no words.

I can see what “Heaven Is For Real” is trying to do but nothing comes together. All we get are some nice scenes here and there; some of which just feel added in for either manipulation or just to add something to the pot for interest. A better example of a movie like this done right is 1996’s Phenomenon where John Travolta is an everyday man that gets turned into genius with telekinesis powers. Even more strange is how the reactions of the community on Travolta’s new found power with awe and fear is depicted more realistic than those in “Heaven Is For Real.” Funny how a film of fiction is more accurate when it comes to how a miracle can shake things up compared to this recent flick. Maybe if it was done as more of a documentary, there would be some interest going deep into the story behind the vision and perhaps the attitudes of the family. But as a film from Hollywood with starts and told with some creative liberties, I unfortunately found it to be less inspirational and more of a bore.

Rental Corner: “Machete” sequel is all bang and no effort

Machete returns but his presence feels lackluster

Machete returns but his presence feels lackluster

The first minute and a half of “Machete Kills” begins with a fake trailer for a Machete  movie set in space. The entire trailer promises a lightsaber wielding Danny Trejo, an assortment of celebrities including a Justin Bieber robot and plenty of heavy CGI effects. I didn’t feel pumped but kept asking myself through the rest of “Machete Kills” why we didn’t get that sequel when we got this one. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the first film and its commentary on immigration while stuffed in great fight scenes. But this follow-up does have the ideas and makings for an explosive feature but it feels sadly hollow.

Danny Trejo returns as the ex-Federal agent Machete Cortez, as the President of the United States (performed by a strange Charlie Sheen cameo) wants him to stop a nuclear missile being aimed at the White House by a supposed psychopath with intentions of blowing up the world as well. My thoughts were OK with the story at first  but then things got really out of hand about midway. Upon meeting Marcoz Mendez, he learns the trigger to the bomb is in a pacemaker he has that will go off if he dies. As a result, Machete kidnaps him in hopes to drag him over the border to the technological facility that made the device and defuse it. If that wasn’t enough the stakes get raised when Marcoz reveals that he has a split personality but this doesn’t work when most of Demian Bichir feels villainous and less sympathetic. With the crazy side of him appearing more, it gets really confusing to know when he switches between his Jekyll and Hyde persona even after his first Jekyll moment.

Again, I was fine with this story change but then it start to really get out of control when we are given an assassin that can change any form of his body called the Chameleon (played by a variety of pointless cameos ranging from Cuba Gooding Jr. to Lady Gaga). Another good idea for a Machete sequel but it feels out of place here. And of course, not to mention another story line involving a group of brothel women lead by Sofia Vergara  who try to kill Machete after taking her daughter in the first act and even that subplot goes nowhere after the leader’s daughter gets killed off without any motivation or acknowledgement.

The entire first half of the movie does have promise but I feel like there is too much going on and each subplot doesn’t have enough shared focus to feel fully developed. Again, there are great ideas for a sequel here like a Terminator-style parody with the Chameleon character and a Mad Max-style parody with the vengeful brothel women but they are tragically laid to waste. Even more confusing is how the Chameleon keeps changing face by removing one layer of masks after another which only makes me wonder how many disguises does he or she have under that stuff. Even Sofia Vergara refers to herself as a “Man-eater” because of a bit of exposition where she gnawed off a man’s family jewels but nothing about it  pays off in the end.

And you know your sequel is desperate when it attempts a bait and switch for the last 40 minutes that makes “Machete Kills” feel more uneven. After Machete gets over the border, the movie goes into a bizarre science fiction parody as he meets up with a corporate business man named Luthor Voz, whose only notable element is that its the first villain Mel Gibson played. Luthor is a big Star Wars fan as his huge line of weaponry shows even down to crafting laser blasters, a mock version of Luke Skywalker’s land speeder (on wheels) and cloning his henchmen a lot. And its here that I completely give up with this movie. Much like the other subplots, it has promise but feels greatly lacking as they cram in Luthor being a super villain to the point he can predict the next event but again, this too has no pay off when we never get an explanation of how he got this element or even see it come full circle.

“Machete Kills” has a lot of promise but really crams so much in that it loses focus on what is the true story. And when we do find out what its been building to all this time, its obvious to us that this sequel is nothing more but a waste of space leading to a better movie that will never happen. Plot lines come and go without well-developed set up or flare and the climax rushes so much to the point we feel like we don’t care as one Star Wars reference gets tossed after another. It feels like director Robert Rodriguez really wants that Machete In Space sequel but please save that for the next movie instead of ruining it here.

Even the whole sequel feels effortless with action scenes clumsily shot with unneeded wide shots and scenes that feel the need to require establishing shots to show the direction of the action feel missing. A good example is a scene where Machete is about to fight off some baddies at a drive-in theater and yet we don’t have any long or wide shots to show the entire map out of the place or even get the feeling of being there. There’s a  scene where a henchmen getting his entrails being latched onto a helicopter’s blade and being tugged in that is filmed in so far away that we feel no impact of the action or even get a feel it really happening. The effects and blood are obviously CGI and cheapen the ordeal and stunts. Worse of all is the endless film grain and specks that made Machete feel like a throwback to the 1970’s exploitation films is gone. We get a clear nice looking movie that doesn’t feel nitty and gritty like its predecessor. An even bigger crime is in the opening scene between Machete and the President when he promises to clear his record and make him a US Citizen.  This deal wouldn’t make sense seeing at the end of the last movie, he got his green card thus defeating the purpose to all this. You know your sequel is not going to do well when it throws continuity out the window.

I admired “Grindhouse” and still do as well as enjoying what they did with the spin-off film, but what makes it different from those movies and this lame sequel is how “Machete Kills” is missing that timeless charm the other movies had. Sure the tone was 1970’s exploitation but it had this luster and charm tossing in veteran actors without it. “Machete Kills” tosses in big names but ones that sort of date the movie while others like Mel Gibson and William Sadler feel side-lined.

Even with a budget that is literally twice the amount “Machete” was made for, it feels like “Machete Kills” was made for less with the movie being executed and feeling like a direct-to-DVD feature and less of a big screen venue. Robert Rodriguez can make really good movies and this one shows a lot of promise. But unfortunately nothing comes together and it all feels like stuff tossed in to keep viewer’s interest and it doesn’t stick. “Back to the Future Part II” at least had a better way of handling its ideas and story with visiting the future and past all in one stroke with the focus being on Biff and the Sports Almanac from 2015 making it easy to follow. “Machete Kills” tosses stuff in but there is no driving force to keep it together.

“Apes” conquer the summer…so far

The war between apes and humans begin...but its battle at the box-office is different...

The war between apes and humans begin…but its battle at the box-office is different…

When watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with an actual audience, there was something I noticed. Right from the opening, there was nothing but total silence throughout the entire movie. And to me, that was a good thing. I feel the viewers easily understood the kind of film “Dawn” is. Intense and all-out spectacle. Sure they did laugh at moments that were meant to be funny and enjoyed the cute moments of Ceaser’s baby curiously looking at the humans in camp. But everything else was so thrilling and suspenseful, that the only thing you could hear was one person eating popcorn or a pin drop. Perhaps that is a good thing seeing how explosive and remarkable this entry in the Apes series truly lived up to being.

The story continues where “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off as apes of all kinds were getting a testing drug embellished into them as the miracle fluid acts more of a virus to people as it does to animals. Years later, the Earth is overcome by the genetic virus so much that the remains of humanity are greatly questioned as Ceaser (Andy Serkis returning once again in his motion capture role)  ponders this while trying to control his tribe in the woodlands of San Francisco. As luck may have it (or unluckily seeing how things progress), a colony of humans surviving from the virus remain in the city and are placed in a struggle to power on the city lights and electricity. The good news is that the city is connected to an electric dam and some tinkering is needed to get it up and running. The bad news is the location. The dam happens to be on Ceaser’s property and after an early encounter that doesn’t go too well, he declares all humans are banned from his territory.

A small band heads to the forest led by one person named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who not only wishes to get power for the city but even hopes to establish peace between humans and apes. Something that even Ceaser secretly wants but unfortunately is unsure if humans truly want to co-exist or wage war considering the fear the simians establish. One of them named Koba (Toby Kebbell taking over the role) still has a hatred for humans noting the medical experimentation he was given in the previous film and only wishes to exterminate and conquer humanity than make peace.

A mirror image of that is Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus who is the leader of the surviving people and his trust with the ape-kind is extremely low. On top of that, he is very much a figure that makes speeches for huge crowds to send hope when at the same time fears anarchy among the group. In the first scene where he is talking down a group of people, Dreyfus looks like he’s ready to break down as he pulls out of hopeful message to the folks which feels off the top of his head and only says hopeful things to null the crowd. His character becomes more clearer later on for his fragile and nervous personality as his leadership skills feel that of the reverse Commission Gordon. Instead of provoking order and hope for the sake of pursuing to restore them, he hides behind a megaphone and says things to keeps the spirits up even when they are close to loosing electrical power for an eternity.

What works the best about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is how you really can’t pick a side as humans and apes are given a purpose and reason to go against each other or try and make contact. The people fear the outside considering the amount of loved ones they lost as the apes do considering the chaos they created and how negative humanity sees them now. There is no “one-sided” conversation as both have their reasons for why they want to butt heads with each other or hope to make a form of treaty. Does it all work out in the end? That is something I unfortunately can’t ruin seeing its the heart of the movie. And to expose all that goes in the rest of the movie or even in any portion of it would be like taking a child’s Christmas gift two weeks before its due, rip it out of the box and plop it into his lap with a cynical drop. And that is something I wish not to do.

But what I can say is how slick and well-done the production vales are compared to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” While “Rise” was all set-up, “Dawn” is more fueled by story and emotion. You really want to see where things end up and at the same time feel bad for both sides and their bitter prejudice which doesn’t feel tossed in for manipulation. Again, there is support for this instead of “Avatar” that felt predicable and uneven. Even more so are the action sequences that are intense and  beautifully filmed to the point where you feel like you are there. The one shot takes and stylish camera moves enhance the battles to feel like all-out war instead of a basic shootout. Even the way the movie is played out in tone and atmosphere that its arguably the most quiet summer blockbuster I’ve seen in a way. Yeah the apes talk in sign language and speak in broken English, but since has there been a movie that tells its story through more visuals and less dialogue. Since when as there been a blockbuster that conveys emotion with no words and just one scene that describes a character. “Dawn” succeeds in that angle as it almost feels like “The Crow” of batch relying a lot on visuals and atmosphere and less focus on characters standing around and speaking their feelings.

What’s more is the evolution of WETA Digital as their special effects for this one have easily one-uped “Rise.” The texture of the fur and skin is so realistic that it almost feels like your seeing actual apes interact with people or ridding around on a horse in a battle scene. Never have I seen a film where its creatures are rendered so well that it feels like they are truly there and not a cheap graphic image. Another positive is the way the movie ends that I sadly can’t spoil. It concludes on a note that is neither high or disappointing and leaves enough room to set up another entry. Without giving too much away, there is no resolution and the message is well-delivered. There is no victor or good thing to war between two races as we know fighting is just one big circle we can’t break from and “Dawn” does its job well addressing that without feeling like our heads were sledgehammered with the message.

And Michael Giacchino’s score feels like they brought Jerry Goldsmith back from the dead to score this episodic and grand feature. Michael nails every beat to a tea to the point it feels like the original score from the 1968 film with little to no enhancements for a modern audience film. In fact, everything about this movie feels like the lost “Planet of the Apes” sequel we never got. The aspect of apes living in  a colony of their own as humans fight to keep out of the dark almost feels reminiscent of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and if not, a superior remake in a way that washes away the flaws of “Battle.”

While “Rise” felt like it was taking elements from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” “Rise” also had the distinctive problem of placing little Easter eggs that felt like nods to the series but more distracting (most notable in “Rise” is the Statue of Liberty puzzel Ceaser plays with at one point and Tom Felton fouling up two iconic lines that are used there). On the other hand, “Dawn” not only takes these “Easter eggs” but also respect them. They are performed to the point it feels subtle and not forced and even unnoticed at times (like how the final shot reminded me of the ending to the unrated cut of Conquest or the underground tunnel looking vaguely like the one from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, or that Ceaser’s son is named Blue Eyes, the orangutan from the first movie is named Maurice, the fact that the first law they have is close to the one in Battle and the list goes on). Instead of feeling like moments that take fans of the original series out of the movie, they feel essential to the film and cleverly written.

Being an die-hard Apes fan, I can safely say this entry really brings it back to its roots. To compare, it reminds me a of scene from the fist movie when Charlton Heston’s character digs through some discovered artifacts from long ago to prove the connection between humans and apes. After rummaging through false teeth and eye glasses, he concludes he was a weak being. That scene alone sums up this movie. Its not trying to prove who is the better species but how frighteningly similar they can be. The franchise for years has been asking viewers to hold up a mirror to them and see how flawed we truly are. And this latest entry does that very well.

Why The Hate: The verdict of “Heaven’s Gate”

The version being reviewed is the recent 216 minute “Restored” cut which can been seen on its Criterion DVD and will be the only version examined here. 

Before I get into my thoughts about Micheal Cimino’s lost magnum opus, let me explain some history I learned after seeing a

The film that sank United Artists

The film that sank United Artists

documentary on the making of the movie and Steven Bach’s account on not just the making but even what was going on during the production. Once upon a time, United Artists was a studio were filmmakers could have next to  free reign in making movies. But in the late 1970s, their popularity dwindled as studios turned to having more even films with explosions and less art house pictures. This left UA with being only noted for the Rocky movies and the James Bond films but they wanted better notification. They wanted to be up there with 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios; and it didn’t help either that some of their head people left to form Orion Pictures.

The solution? Find a suitable picture and a director to go with it to show the studio still had legs. While managing every project on the block from Woody Allen’s Manhattan to Moonraker, executives were curious in a new form of talent by the name of Micheal Cimino whose movie The Deer Hunter was getting much acclaim and Oscar talk. UA got curious, brought him on and learned his ambition to make a movie based on the Johnson Country War. The funding started at $ 11 million but then ended at $ 35 million (before advertising costs and additional budget funds for a prologue and an epilogue). How was this possible?

As it turns out, Cimino had a different way of directing as he normally took things with a patient but snails pace. This didn’t sit well with the executives at UA as Cimino started to spend more money and go over-schedule while perfecting and fine tuning his “Oscar worthy” Western. At one point, the executives even considered firing him and replacing him with a different director but felt it would be unethical and go against Michael’s rights of making a movie. Unfortunately, news leaked to the public, the press had a field day constantly reporting about the “crazy things” going on, but Micheal was positive his movie would change all that.

Now a Criterion release...and yet we still haven't questioned why Armageddon got one?

Now a Criterion release…and yet we still haven’t questioned why Armageddon got one?

On November 19, 1980, the first cut of the movie premiered in New York to a near four hour length. And considering the bad publicity it was getting, and the attitude Cimino had towards it believing it would change much like with The Deer Hunter and seeing UA was starting to have a bad year, things didn’t work out so well. The film was left with dead silence upon its audience, critics who saw that movie on its premier were polarized and even left one to quote it as an “unqualified disaster.” What solution came available? After its New York premier, Cimino requested to pull the film before it even hit anymore theaters and chopped it further to a 149-minute cut and even that didn’t fair much better. As a result, critics savaged it even more and United Artists was

sold to MGM. A once prosperous studio is second banana to another.

Over the years, Heaven’s Gate has been back and forth some viewers with those feeling it was misjudged to those feeling it deserved its status as a flop at the box-office. But more recently, Heaven’s Gate has been deemed a “lost masterpiece” and been giving a Criterion DVD release. So now, it comes to this. How does Heaven’s Gate fair up to my expectations after three attempts to sit down and watch the movie in one full sitting? Well, I understand what Michael Cimino wanted to do as well as the film’s target audience. But I’m unfortunate to say this is not my kind of movie.

Heaven’s Gate influence comes from the Johnson Country War as foreign immigrants took cattle from rich farmlands causing wealthy ranchers to try and settle things by gunning them down. They form an origination with plans to kill over 120 settlers for

Looks nice...but where's plot?

Looks nice…but where’s plot?

stealing their cattle and causes an uproar with the newcomers who wage a battle with the high-powered people. Odd enough, this paper thing idea takes about 2 hours and 56 minutes until the action goes into high gear. Within that time frame, we see Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) trying to romance Ella Watson (portrayed oddly by Isabelle Huppert) who is the owner of a bordello and accepts stolen cattle as a payment for the service.

Now in any historical drama, there is some form of center. The romance of Averill and Watson is the element that tries to hold the film together but something about it seems off. Upon first watch, I didn’t see the bordello connection nor get the impression of Watson being a prostitute. In the first scene they share, Watson tries to hint the idea of getting intimate but Averill complains of hunger. What does Watson do but offer a piece of pie she made and after a few bites, she strips her dress off and heads to the bedroom while Averill tries to finish his slice with eagerness. Again, these are our two leads and the chemistry feels not very interesting. I respect the performance of Kristofferson and Huppert (seeing she had to learn a bit of English at the time for this role), but nothing click “on-screen couple” to me.

I think the problem comes from the Averill character who just feels forgettable. He doesn’t do much aside from visit bars and act distant and sad. I guess you can make the argument that he misses the good old days of being a young college student at Harvard

From the opening prologue that feels more cheery than that rest of the movie

From the opening prologue that feels more cheery than that rest of the movie

University. But the transition from his youthful appearance to his tough beard and stern attitude feels like a jarring transition as the character doesn’t share similar traits with his prologue counterpart.  Even the opening prologue in Harvard, which are present in the first 18 minutes of the movie, appear shot in a different tone and style that it clashes with the melancholy tone as peasants work the field in miserable conditions, mishandled by on-walkers in the city and even some get shot down. The violent tone might upset many viewers as much as the rape scene with Eill Watson that serves purpose for Averill to show his care in the foreign love interest. Even that moment fails because we are distracted by the shock and tasteless nature to even care about her savior to come in and shot up the accused offenders.

Even a second love affair is added in the form of Nate Champion who is played by a surprisingly straight forward performance by Christopher Walken. I’m not kidding. Christopher Walken is in a Western as a man who is part of the alliance to take down some

In his most "serious" role yet, Christopher Walken decides to try and act!

In his most “serious” role yet, Christopher Walken decides to try and act!

“rustlers” and yet has a heart for the bordello owner. So much so, he asks her for her hand in marriage but because that element is played off-screen and because of there isn’t much of an implication of the relationship between Champion and Averill as friends, this plot element feels tagged on for conflict that doesn’t amount to much. They share some scree time but like the relationship between Averill and Watson, it doesn’t feel well established. They don’t acknowledge how close they are or even set up the connection between the two. It got lost in translation to the point I felt they were bitter rivals more so than two pals competing for the affection of a woman.

I feel this would have made more sense if Billy Irving (John Hurt) was in this affair and not Champion. And its not just because of my fan appreciation for John Hurt, but the whole love triangle aspect would make more sense. We see Averill and Irving together having a good time in the Harvard prologue, we have a moment where they talk to each other during a game of pool and discuss how much time has gone by and even come off as long-time friends. Instead, they don’t go in this direction and have Hurt’s Irving leave the movie for a good 70 minutes until the climax showing he is with the association of wealthy organization set out to hunt the cattle thieves and yet, his character is very much laid to waste. Shame seeing a good actor who gives it his all in what could have been a bigger part get sidelined for duller and uninteresting characters. Supposedly, John Hurt was left with nothing to do and went off to work on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man; but when he came back, he was just in time to film his scenes. Good move, Hurt. Good move.

I can’t say everything in this movie is completely bad. I do admit that Cimino has a good attention to set design and cinematography as we see gorgeous landscapes and amazing wide shots of Casper, Wyoming in the 1890s. Just looking at these sets alone feels like one is moving through a series of paintings in an art museum showing the past in its atmospheric beauty and grace. In fact, the sets and camera work try to make it look like a dramatic sweeping epic like Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. But there is a problem. There are times when a scene is delivering important dialogue and the camera work will be lost in the wide shot its placed at that we find ourselves lost in the scenery more than the story on the screen. One example is when Averill is being told he is fired from the Mayor as we see huge interiors of the room and barley get a close-up of the Mayor. We see an over the shoulder angle from the Mayor’s perspective but during the scene, we only see the Mayor’s reactions reflected on the mirror in the background. Wouldn’t it make more of an impact to have a close up instead of holding on one shot to see the reaction of both characters?

Another example of a mishandled moment is the shoot out at Champion’s cabin in revenge for not participating with them. We cut between shots of the organization firing away at the small log cabin and cut back to the inside of the cabin as we see Nate’s friends get gunned down one by one. We cut back and forth between the guns outside firing to Nate trying to evade the bullets that we don’t know where the placement for this or even where they are firing from. Or even how close they are to the house. They even have a shot of a group of people moving a burning wagon towards Nate’s cabin and it cuts back to inside the cabin without an establishing shot or wide shot showing where the action is being directed to. Stuff like that is important to establish even if it is small but it means a lot to show what position your gunmen are and what side of the house being blasted at.

Even the last 30 minutes showed signs of wear as the first battle scene felt like a confusing array of dust and smoke as the peasants circle around the caravan of baddies and try to shoot them down. There is so much confusion in the direction and so much smoke and chaos builds that I had a hard time trying to figure out who was winning and who was losing. Word to filmmakers, adding cloud

Chaos, Confusion and Too Much Dust!

Chaos, Confusion and Too Much Dust!

and smoke doesn’t add intensity. It only makes it harder to see the action on the screen. Even the climax feels anti-climatic as Averill and a group of peasants take on the remaining cold-blooded ranch owners with a shied made out of logs as they toss sticks of dynamite but get gunned down one by one. The slow moving pace doesn’t help either as the group trudges closer and closer as each one of the gunners on both sides gets shot down one by one like fish in a barrel.

More strange is how the action is played out where even if you are in front of the line of fire, you still won’t get hit. In one scene, Averill and his friends are ambushed by a group of people and as the hail of bullets his his pals, Averill comes out scratch free even if he is in front of the carnage. Even during the destruction of Nate’s cabin, I wondered why the raining bullets from outside managed to eliminate his accomplices and yet leaves him standing with close to nothing but a scratch on him. Call it a nitpick but it just kept pulling me out of the moment.

Even odder is the way certain scenes play out like they are meant to have some historical context but its execution feels dated and silly. Case and point is the roller skating rink scene as tons of people gleefully roll about on wooden floors as they experience “the next big thing” as the moment itself feels oddly executed and akin to something from a 1970s movie where people are at a disco/skating rink. It just felt that way to me for some reason experiencing my days of going to an arcade and roller skating rink with groups of people flying around the wooden floors.

I could excuse Heaven’s Gate for any of this, if it wasn’t for one thing. The main story (or what ever there is of it) doesn’t work. And believe it not, its with the romance plot that tries to be the center of attention. We don’t see Averill and Watson until 67 minutes in when they start to develop their relationship but it doesn’t even feel like one due to Kris’ cold performance and Huppert trying to act with her French accent getting in the way. I would be fine with Huppert but her chemistry with Kristofferson feels cold and heartless. They act like a couple at times but nothing feels really there. My guess is that Kris is trying to channel actors of the great Western genre like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood but I can’t see Kris Kristofferson doing this kind of role. He channels it but it feels like an intimation as opposed to naturally acting his own way in a Western. And I’m not saying he’s a bad actor. I’ve seen him in Big-Top Pee Wee, Blade and even an appearence on Saturday Night Live when the show was still fresh. So I don’t blame this on acting but more on limitation of what Kristofferson can really do.

Even the final message feels off and uneven. One minute, its about remembering the days of youth but then it becomes Citizen Kane and asks what is the true meaning of happiness and then its a love story but then its trying to tell a struggle story and it all doesn’t come together. I can see why critics and news press had a field day as the premier in New York didn’t do well because of how polarizing and unsure it was. But does it deserve this continuing negative reputation even if its starting to wear off? No.

Films are made to entertain or simply enlighten but we all have a certain taste that will subject to what we think is funny or not. We know the difference between a mindless blockbuster and an art house feature. And obviously, Heaven’s Gate is trying to be more of an art house feature than a mindless blockbuster. My theory is that with all the bad press going about viewers were disappointed to see all that negative hype was nothing but over a movie that critics on its premier couldn’t make heads or tails of. As a result, some went by those harsh reviews while others tried to view it on its own terms but couldn’t resist referencing those who bashed it.

"Where is fancy bread? In the heart? Or in the head?"

“Where is fancy bread? In the heart? Or in the head?”

Unfortunately, this is a practice that is still going on today and it all started with one movie that tried to captivate audiences but instead got them annoyed at the price tag. While I don’t think it deserves being labeled the worst movie ever, I still didn’t enjoy it. When the only good thing about your movie is the production designs, some of the performances and the mis en scene of the picture, the only thing missing is a good story, good characters and at least a better handle at the pace. At 3 hours and 36 minutes long, it trudges at a snails pace to the point you really feel its meandering too much or hope that it all pays off in the end. Sadly, it didn’t for me but yet others harbor it as a masterpiece and a lost spectacle. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m glad I finally saw it to voice an opinion but I don’t have the sudden urge to buy its Criterion release or watch it again to marvel at is beauty. Its just a movie with beautiful images that doesn’t have much else riding on it.

Rental Corner: Young Indy’s First Uneven Adventure

Before the Ark, Indy was a kid! Go figure

Before the Ark, Indy was a kid! Go figure

In 1992, George Lucas produced a TV series that filled in the “missing gaps” of Indiana Jones’ life after much questioning from his crew about what did that famed adventurer do in his youth. The result was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles whose soul purpose was to not just present what Indiana Jones did growing up but also educate at the same time. In all honesty, I feel this is a good concept seeing the role Harrison Ford made so famous have his origins revealed while learning about the decade or time period. It was a big gamble for ABC and while it was a not a huge hit, the “Chronicles” of Indy’s life never made a big impact.

As a result, 44 one-hour episodes were re-edited into 22 films that were syndicated about on television and made available to DVD a while back on three massive volumes. Right away, I know I shouldn’t be reviewing one of these seeing its only two episodes stitched together to make a 90 minute feature length flick but curiosity got the best of me and I had to say something about this. Its more than just reviewing a “telefilm” (where TV episodes are edited “seamlessly” together) but just to describe how this method doesn’t work in my opinion.

Re-titled “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones,” the “Chronicles” are now a long story that follows Indy’s childhood all the way to how far it can into his teenage years. The reason for this reediting was to show the chronology in Indiana’s progression and show the history of the character. That I can understand but the idea of re-editing the episodes into one movie still doesn’t work. “My First Adventure” is a good example as it takes the first portion of the pilot “Curse of the Jackle” and pairs it with an unused episode titled “Tangiers, 1908” (as the show was canceled material for other episodes were left unaired or even unused.)

In the first half of “First Adventure,” we briefly see Indy in his New Jersey home having fun with his unnamed friends and learning things from his own surroundings. And considering the amount of technology experiments he performs from homemade hot-air balloons to railroad track ships, it makes me wonder why we didn’t get this as an entire episode. Then the Jones family moves about the world as his dad decides to do some expeditions and give some lectures on the way (to be fair, Lloyd Owen’s portrayal matches that close or if not on track with Sean Connery.)

First stop is in Egypt where young Indy gets the chance to see a real mummy in its tomb and at first, it starts to have the feel of an adventure like the first films where a bit of treasure is missing, suspicion of a curse comes underway and even the way Indy thinks is akin to his older counterpart but sadly that is underused. Unfortunately, the story itself feels unfinished as the resolution of the missing Jackal headpiece that starts this whole tirade  never gets found. I heard originally the “Curse of the Jackle” pilot aired as a two-hour event and perhaps, its better to view it in that context seeing how confused I felt thinking this plot element would carry over into the next story.

Tangiers, Morocco takes up the second half as this surprisingly was an unaired episode used here for chronological purposes but after the confusion of leaving one story unresolved, it doesn’t feel like much is accomplished by the end credits seeing one mystery is left opened. The other part deals with Indy befriending a slave named Omar who learns in return the hardships of such a low life. In the tradition of rich kid meets the voice of poverty, this is not that bad of an idea and at least it goes somewhere. Indy and Omar later run about the Tangiers marketplace where they are kidnapped and tossed right into the slave trade as tensions rise during an auction where young Indy realizes that being a servant is not a cup of tea.

I can’t fault this one too much for its unresolved first half but I was so invested in the mystery and mythos that I really wanted it to have a proper conclusion. The Tangiers story is not bad as I have a soft spot for these kind of tales where the rich gets to see a new view of the world and learn its not all a perfect world and at least it has a conclusion. I liked the chemistry between Indy and Omar as it felt close to that of Johnny Quest and Hadji but more in the view of leaning each other’s goals and seeing life views from their own perspective.

But at the end of the day, I want to watch the actually TV series not for reasons of preservation but to see how it all differs from the edited down films and the missing resolution of “Curse of the Jackal.” Even cut from these movies is George Hall introducing the series as a 93 year old Indiana Jones with an eye patch who gives set up to each episode and story. Unfortunately from what I researched, some of the unaired episodes didn’t have the old Indy introductions which might explain why they bunched them into their own separate flicks.

But looking at the series on its own terms, I think kids and teenagers will enjoy the adventure aspect and gain something in return while older audiences will respect the pulp fiction/action feel in the dialogue and characters. I didn’t even get to mention how for a series shot on 16mm film this looks beautiful even with the on-location stuff giving that extra push for a matinee serial feel. Unfortunately, Indy’s first adventure didn’t feel like a grand start and while I do respect how much it doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience, I still feel like more could have been done. Or at least let us see what these episodes looked like in its original context before the re-editing. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this one seeing how engaged I was but I do hope later episodes (or films in this case) don’t feel this off balanced.