The New Old: Robbin’ and Stealin’

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) – After decades of hate that claimed the film killed off Hollywood’s golden auteur period of the 1970s, Heaven’s Gate debuts on Blu-ray through the folks at the Criterion Collection. In a way, it feels like a statement. The end of a long journey for a legendarily mocked film that at least theoretically positions Heaven’s Gate as a misunderstood masterpiece, but that isn’t quite right. Looking at the film now, it’s clear Michael Cimino was onto something more than spending obscene amounts of money and sinking a Hollywood studio. Heaven’s Gate is definitely an interesting movie worthy of reevaluation. It’s not a lost masterpiece like many European critics claimed when the restored version of the film debuted, but it is far better than anyone gave Cimino and co. credit for at the time. If you’ve got four hours to kill on a single Blu-ray and already watched the incredible Lawrence of Arabia Blu-ray, you could certainly do far worse than this.

Believe it or not, Heaven’s Gate isn’t a four-hour documentary about a crazed director spending money; there is actually a plot. Kris Kristofferson stars as a Sheriff who strolls into a bustling Western town and quickly learns about something rather disgusting. The movie takes place at the end of the classic cowboy era, when Western expansion had reached a point where there were actually thriving cities. Trouble is no one was telling recent immigrants so they were flooding the area hoping to develop land that already belonged to big business. Some of these immigrants get so desperate that they would kill one of the cattle roaming the plains for meat. Unfortunately, all those cows belonged to a collection of land-owners and cattle barons who don’t take to kindly to losing profits. So they hire Christopher Walken and the other few remaining Western mercenaries to murder any immigrants killing cattle. Kristofferson doesn’t take too kindly to this and rallies the community into having a war against the hired guns. And then over the course of the four hours it takes to get to that point. Kristofferson and Walken form a love triangle with Isabelle Huppert’s recent immigrant/Madam and Kris makes friends with Jeff Bridges wealthy local tycoon who creates a massive roller-skating rink called Heaven’s Gate. So…yeah, there are issues with focus.

The problems with Heaven’s Gate are so obvious and have followed the film since it’s release that they almost aren’t worth mentioning. It’s simply too long by about an hour and meanders through subplots with the narrative thrust of molasses in space. The trouble is that it would be damn hard to cut down (as United Artists attempted and failed on re-release) simply because that’s part of Cimino’s storytelling style. Heaven’s Gate is designed to flow very much like The Deer Hunter and they are the only two films in his troubled and truncated filmography that play this way. There’s very little narrative drive in either movie. They movies flow between carefully orchestrated massive set pieces and rambling Altman-esque observational dialogue scenes between characters. It creates a remarkable sense of place and character that can then be ripped apart by tragedy.

The massive sequences that Cimino stages like the Jackson Country War, the Harvard Graduation ceremony, or shots of trains with hundreds of immigrants clinging to the roof are remarkably evocative. The performances he gets out of the likes of Kristofferson, Walken, Huppert, Bridges, and John Hurt are touchingly naturalistic. The presentation of big business free trade as a class warfare that would make it illegal to be poor if given the chance is cynically insightful. The violence cuts deep, the relationships feel genuine, and all the money spent on meticulously reconstructing the past is evident onscreen. Everything that works about The Deer Hunter works in Heaven’s Gate. The only problem is that Heaven’s Gate is too long, slow, and Cimino couldn’t come up with an ending so he did three instead (each more frustrating than the last). These problems hardly kill the movie though, they just downgrade it from an epic masterpiece to an intriguing and impressive achievement. The film was clearly mangled by critics at the time because of the production excess, while audiences never would have flocked to it in huge numbers anyways. Heaven’s Gate certainly deserves re-evalutation as does Cimino in general (everything he made from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to Year of the Dragon was impressive. The Sicilian is his actual shark-jump movie), just with reasonable expectations. Cimino is not a poetic genius like Coppola, but he is an underrated talent who was allowed to thrive in the 70s and should be remembered for his accomplishments and not just one industry-crushing box office failure. Thank god Criterion is kicking around to provide just that service.

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It’s oddly appropriate that Heaven’s Gate debuts on Blu-ray just a few weeks after Lawrence of Arabia. These are both epics that demand the HD treatment and only Criterion would be willing to step up for the flop. Previously available in muddy non-anamorphic transfers made for television, Heaven’s Gate looks astounding on Blu-ray. Not only has it been color corrected to ditch the inappropriate sepia, but every shot is filled with details from massive mountain backdrops to hundreds of extras competing for attention. I’m still not sure if it was worth the money, but there are definitely few American films with this kind of scale and detail. Being able to see and appreciate that properly is worth the price of the disc alone. The special features are brief, but insightful. There’s a restoration demonstration that’s a jaw-dropper, as well as ten-minute interviews with Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield, and assistant director Michael Stevenson (who also worked on David Lean’s epics) who all provide kind and insightful comments. Cimino also chimes in with a 30-minute interview that’s just as eccentric as you’d expect and he never appears on camera (if you want to know why, google “Michael Cimino sex change” and/or a recent picture of him). An epic booklet also comes in the package, featuring a critical reevaluation by Giulla D’Agnolo Vallan and a vintage interview with Cimino that shows how harsh the press were on him at the time. Sadly, there’s really nothing on the disc about the wild production troubles and impact of the film, so you’ll have to seek out Steven Bach’s Final Cut or his documentary of the same name for all the dirty details. There’s plenty of that out there already, so I suppose its kind and appropriate of Criterion to provide a straight faced adoring appreciation of a much-mangled movie that deserves it.

 

Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002) – Even though it was a huge Christmas hit ten years ago, Catch Me If You Can is one of those Spielberg flicks like Empire of the Sun that unfairly disappeared into obscurity shortly after release. That’s not common for a movie that brought in $350 million over its theatrical release on the backs of two superstar actors and a director, but it happened. If you didn’t see Catch Me If You Can in theaters, chances are you haven’t seen it at all and that’s a pity. The film just might have been the best to slip out of Steven Spielberg’s billion dollar brain in the 2000s and offers his trademark experience of a ludicrously entertaining romp backed up by emotional heft. The film has aged remarkably well and while the bubbly cover featuring a smirking back-to-back Leonard DiCaprio and Tom Hanks (a la every Jennifer Aniston movie ever made) is unlikely to bring in new fans, this is an ideal Blu-ray to pick up for big smiles family viewing over the holidays…provided that your bank account has anything left in it following the Christmas rush.

The film is about the deeply strange and wonderful life of Frank Abagnale Jr., who grew up to be a conman, posing as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer, and ripping off the US government for millions of dollars before turning 19. Abagnale (DiCaprio) was a pretty normal kid (albeit one who would successfully pose as a substitute teacher from time-to-time) until his parents (Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye) got divorced and he ran away from his broken home. The kid quickly figured out how to cash fraudulent cheques and was soon hobnobbing around the country while pretending to be a wealthy young man of various professions. Of course, the US government didn’t find his fraudulent adventures quite so amusing and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) was quickly on the kid’s case, chasing him around the country. Spielberg gives the film the tone of the heightened, gentle adventures of the movies from the 1960s setting (complete with a dead one Saul Bass opening credits homage) and his flick is one of the most purely entertaining until sneaking up on the audience with an emotional wallop in the last act. Abignale was always going to be caught and get a chance to enjoy his 20s in a prison. The fact that the actual guy ended up being sprung by the FBI to become a high-priced bank fraud consultant softens the blow, but this is still on of those movies that’s a like Behind The Music special and the laughter simply must turn to tears.

In a way, Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg’s sequel to E.T. Sure, there’s no lovable alien in need of a phone card, but both films are thematically about the pain of divorce. Spielberg was crushed by his parent’s separation as a child and escaped through an obsessive devotion to the movies. Both Eliot and Abignale go through a similar experience, their escape just came in an alien buddy and conman adventure instead. That aspect gives Catch Me If You Can a harsh heart to compliment the fun and also offers the actors something to chew on. DiCaprio delivers what might be his finest performance as Frank. While he’s an undeniably talented actor, Leo’s physical presence tends to hurt and harm him as much as it gave him a movie star career. I always have trouble buying him as a hood for Scorsese (he looks like a 12-year-old playing gangster), but cast him as an emotionally scarred teen who charms his way through millions of dollars and you’ve got a role he was born to play. Hanks is just as strong as Hanratty and gets almost as much screentime once the film turns into a chase movie about ten minutes in. The character allows Hanks to focus on the gentle comedy he does best, while also creating one of the rounded and touching characters that defined his post-Oscar career. You might consider these two guys amongst the blandest and overexposed of movie stars, but a quick spin of this Blu-ray will explain all the fame.

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Possibly even better is Christopher Walken, who Spielberg casts against type and a loving loser father. Walken ditches all of his creepy baggage and will rip your heart out with a few tearful monologues that deservingly earned him an Oscar nomination. Jeff Nathason’s (who wrote/directed The Last Shot off of the success of this movie and you desperately need to see that inexplicably ignored gem) script is a really underrated piece of screenwriting that juggles all of Spielberg’s pet themes, light comedy, suspense thrills, and painful tragedy with such ease that you barely notice the gear shifts. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Spielberg was in charge, turning the tale into a gorgeously glossy adventure movie, but Nathason really should have gotten a big writing career out of this, and no Rush Hour 3 and New York, I Love You don’t count.

Catch Me If You Can was really made for Blu-ray. The rich colors and subtly exaggerated wide-angle photography of the film never really translated to DVD. Spielberg perfectly recreates the aesthetic of stylized 60s Hollywood through flowing camera moves and colors so bright they require sunglasses. All of it comes through the gentle haze of Janusz Kaminski’s house lighting style, which makes the entire tall tale appropriately feel like somewhat of a cinematic dream (even though it’s based on Abignale’s autobiography, you can’t ever really truest the truth of a conman, now can you). Predictably, the disc offers nothing in the way of new bells n’ whistles other than the incredible technical presentation. However, all of the features from the decade old 2-disc DVD are ported over, and given that they are directed by Spielberg’s DVD specialist Laurent Bouzereau, you’ll get some incredible insights to the making of the film and true events that inspired it through candid interviews with everyone involved. Selfishly, you always want something new to pop up on a Blu-ray re-release, but this is a case where the original package was so good that you can’t really complain. Overall, it’s a loving presentation of a forgotten Spielberg masterpiece that’s screaming like a madman on The Twilight Zone for rediscovery. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat…actually that’s true if you haven’t seen it since theaters as well. Sometimes great movies get lost in the cracks. This is one of them.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) – Stark photography, implied sexuality, double crossing, murder, greed, tragedy…you gotta love film noir. While gangster movies were a big hit for Hollywood in the 30s, something about the noir seemed to elevate the crime genre in the 40s. Whether it was the introduction of film censorship that enforced implied violence and sexuality along with harsh moral punishment for those fun activities or the influx of European filmmakers like Fritz Lang into Hollywood during the war years (who brought their expressive brand of cinematography along with them), something changed about crime movies in the 40s that took them out of the B-movie slums. The genre was one of only ways to explore dark themes about humanity during the early Hays Code years and given that those stories tend to be more complex than musicals about chorus girls and strapping gents falling in love, film noir provided some of the greatest films of the era. The Postman Always Rings Twice was one of the most iconic films of the period, instantly making a star out of Lana Turner for her portrayal of a seductive murderess. Slapped onto a Blu-ray in time for Christmas, the film holds up well today and is a perfect way to share wholesome infidelity and bloodshed to your special someone during the holidays.

Despite not featuring a singe postman, Tay Garnet’s 1946 film features one of the most classic set ups in the genre. A lonely drifter played by John Garfield stumbles onto a crumbling roadside restaurant and is instantly taken by the absurdly beautiful cold blond (Lana Turner) sitting behind the counter. From the start, they communicate entirely in backhanded flirtation and instantly fall in love. The only trouble is that Turner is married to the restaurant owner (Cecil Kellaway). Of course that doesn’t stop Garfield from taking a job at the restaurant or the two lonely and attractive souls from having an affair. Eventually they decided to murder Kellaway and keep the business. But, obviously that goes all wrong and soon the pair are arrested, charged for murder, and pitted against each other by sleazy lawyers. The movie is undeniably (and wonderfully) dated to the 40s, but the soft sensuality and dark deceit still play today. Based on a novel by legendary crime writer James M. Cain, the film is a perfect balance of Hollywood sheen and hardboiled grit. This is one of those movies that makes people say, “they don’t make em’ like this anymore.”

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There’s no getting around it, the key reason for the film’s success at the time and today is the twin lead casting of Garfield and Turner. Their chemistry is palpable and believably illicit within the strict content restrictions. Turner is a devil in a white dress, irresistible, mysterious, and terrifying. The film made her a legend and despite the occasionally distracting old timey big eye acting, her work holds up. Other folks like lifelong character actor Hume Cronyn’s slick double-crossing lawyer are equally entertaining, but Turner’s harsh femme fatale and Garfield’s boy-toy clutz feel like the definitive takes on the character types. The only downside is that the film is directed by faceless studio drone Tay Garnett. He crafts a handful of excellent dark set pieces (particularly the murder), but for the most part shoots the film fairly flatly. The usual studio craftsmanship ensures the film works, it’s just a shame that the project didn’t fall into the hands of one of the great noir directors like Lang, Huston, or even Billy Wilder (although, to be fair he essentially did his own version of the same story in Double Indemnity). The story and performances are enough to make the film an undeniable classic, the only thing lacking is a little of the show off directing so crucial to the genre. But hey, with something this good, nitpicking is the only criticism possible.

The new Warner Bros Blu-ray has been as lovingly-crafted as you’d hope for a film of this stature. While Garnett’s camera set up might not be particularly dramatic, Sidney Wagner’s black and white cinematography boasts with expressive shadows and deep focus that pop in HD through a pleasing film-like transfer without any obvious digital manipulation. The disc is also packed with fantastic extras. Hollywood historical Richard Jewell offers up a 5-minute introduction packed with more detail and insight that normally slips into full epk featurettes. There’s nothing else specifically on the making of the film, but there is a nice hour long doc on John Garfield and an fascinating feature length documentary on Lana Turner (which is cheaply made, but has far less unjustified hero-worship than most docs of this type, featuring Turner’s daughter discussing her mother’s well-worn bed, neglectful parenting, and late-career involvement in the death of Johnny Stompanato). On top of all that, you’ll get two vintage MGM shorts that would have played in front of a film like The Postman Always Rings Twice theatrically. Both are pretty hilarious. The first is a camp-tacular morality play called Phantoms, Inc. worth watching for the hysterically arch narration alone and the second is a genuinely hilarious Tex Avery take on Little Red Riding Hood that’s filled with self-mockery and features a horndog wolf scene that was directly parodied by Jim Carrey/CGI in The Mask. Finally, there’s a vintage radio play version of the story starring Garfield and Turner for those of you who love film noir, but hate visual storytelling. It’s all been ported over from the DVD, so if you have that you’ll be buying for the transfer alone. If you never picked up the movie and love film noir, you really need to stop reading this article and buy it right now. This is one of the most famous noirs for a reason. It’s a fantastic feature…now let’s hope Warner get around to re-issuing the underrated 1981 remake as well. That sucker is in need of some long overdue rediscovery.

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