Sunday, June 22, 2014

Heaven's Gate (1980) Review:

Several real life 1800 based stories have been adapted into films. Most have focused on the American Civil War or stories that take place during that time but not directly involved. As for western films that are based between 1870s and the early 1900s, doesn't feel all that popular of a time zone. This story however is a real life based event. Sadly, as much as I’ve heard and read about how terrible it was and how badly it performed at the box office, I still wanted to enjoy what was given to its viewers. IT IS a movie that is exceptionally and competently made. The actors are convincing, the music is appropriate, the realism is explicit and the story has an interesting premise. Yet, the writing and direction is what makes this film almost unbearable.

It's beard land!
The story is about lawman James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who learns that a group government officials have decided that the immigrants of Averill's county are nothing but leeches that pillage the loyal citizens cattle for money. This is what they believe, when in fact, these judged immigrants are in fact just people trying to get by in life. To help these people, Averill makes it his mission to help these wrongfully accused individuals. This premise is great. Seeing civil unrest is a different concept that not many people see enough of now a days. At least in the movies. Along with Kristofferson, the cast includes Christopher Walken (as Nathan Champion), Brad Dourif, John Hurt, Richard Masur, Jeff Bridges and even Mickey Rourke. And they all put in very good performances. Here is where it fails though.

The writing is all over the place. Even though the actors perform well, the characterizations of their roles are either misguided, unclear or confused. Here are some examples; Kristofferson's character goes through a series of flip-flops and its not just about the main plot. Bridges' character seems to have no motivation other than to faithfully follow Averill blindly. He just hops on the bandwagon. John Hurt's character opposes the government officials’ plan, yet later on is spectating the whole set of events. Also he's drunk half the time saying, silly things about Paris. Then there's the main girl named Ella (Isabelle Huppert) who Averill and Champion both love. And I'm sure most viewers know how that turns out since it's a love triangle. It's because of this that the screenplay makes these characters not extremely likable. Again, they were well performed but the charm is barely there.

On top of that, the direction is very, very slow. Long running time films are not a problem if they are tightly woven and the story has substance. Gettysburg (1993) by Ronald F. Maxwell is one of those films and mind you, that it's even longer than this movie. Sadly, the way the story of this conflict plays out, could've been condensed into a much shorter running time, if the story was going to move at such sluggish pace. The assumption behind all the time wasted, was that there are numerous scenes where either nothing is being said or done that has doesn’t have any relevance, or the scene may just contain what looks like background shots of everyday life of that particular time. Of course, viewers want to get an idea of what life was like back in that time but it doesn't need to drag on and on and on.

Adding to that "never ending" feeling are the actors who play the immigrants. The fact that they are playing immigrants isn’t the problem because they too act very well. Viewers may have problems with the fact that subtitles aren't used. Just watching a bunch of people arguing and speaking gibberish to most is boring and uninteresting. If you don't know the language, would watching a movie spoken entirely without subtitles entertain? Probably not. And to sit through that for almost four hours is really pushing people's patience. Having immigrants speak their native language is realistic yes, but to watch it give no purpose to the plot is flat out silly. The only thing that helps it bring it to a bearable status is the production value.

Look at that cinematography!
The set design, props and realist conflicts that take place are noteworthy. Complimenting that is Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography. Holy hannah does Zsigmond get some amazing shots. This guy gets everything from fields, mountains and forest backgrounds. Even the town and train station set pieces are amazing to look at for how enormous they are. Zsigmond was also the cinematographer for Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and later also worked on Maverick (1994). Then there's David Mansfield's music. This is Mansfield's first theatrical score and although there is no main theme or orchestra to match the film's large scope, he ironically still makes the music work by using a single guitar like instrument. The contrast of the singular music one string tunes vs its big scale match, even though they are polar opposites. It's not memorable but it did work.

The grandiose production value and talented cast is its strongest asset. Sadly its not enough because everything gets squandered from slow pacing and an under whelming script that fails to develop its characters properly.

Points Earned --> 4:10

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