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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 2 Discs
FEATURES
  • Cimnimo's cut of the film
  • New illustrated audio interview with Cimino and producer Joann Carelli
  • New interviews with actor Kris Kristofferson, soundtrack arranger and performer David Mansfield, and second assistant director Michael Stevenson
  • Trailer and TV spots

Heaven's Gate

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Paul Koslo, Richard Masur, Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke
1980 | 216 Minutes | Licensor: MGM Home Entertainment

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $49.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #636
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: November 20, 2012
Review Date: November 20, 2012

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SYNOPSIS

A visionary critique of American expansionism, Heaven's Gate, directed by Oscar winner Michael Cimino, is among Hollywood's most ambitious and unorthodox epics. Kris Kristofferson brings his weathered sensuality to the role of a Harvard graduate who has relocated all the way to Wyoming as a federal marshal; there, he learns of a government-sanctioned plot by rich cattle barons to kill the area's European settlers for their land. The resulting skirmish is based on the real-life bloody Johnson County War of 1892. Also starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken, Heaven's Gate is a savage and ravishingly shot demystification of western movie lore. This is the full director's cut, letting viewers today see Cimino's potent original vision.

Forum members rate this film 8/10

 

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

Criterion presents Michael Ciminoís latest cut of his infamous film Heavenís Gate, which has been given a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer, presented in its original aspect ratio of about 2.40:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set.

Judging by previous releases Iíve seen, the restoration demonstration found in the supplements, and Roger Ebertís review of the film, Heavenís Gate has always had a dirty, brownish look, which I think did hurt the film. Whether that dirty look was intentional or not I canít say for sure, but Criterionís presentation of Ciminoís new 216-minute cut drops that look completely and I think the film actually comes off better because of it. Colours are far more vibrant, the grass now a deep luscious green instead of that dead brown from before. The sky is also a brighter blue, and flesh tones come off more natural. Heck, even the browns and grays look better. The photography, which is certainly the filmís strongest aspect, comes off looking so much better now, and the film is just beautiful to look at.

The length of the film is a bit of a hindrance on the digital transfer but Criterion has wisely devoted the entire disc to the film, giving it as much room to breathe as possible. For the most part it does look very much like a film, with a nice dose of film grain. The grain looks pretty clean and natural most of the time, but pixilation can be obvious at times, specifically darker scenes. The image is generally sharp with a strong amount of detail, finer details coming through nicely, but there are some fuzzier moments that appear to be a byproduct of the photography and nothing to do with the transfer.

The print has been nicely cleaned up, many marks, scratches, and tram lines removed. Some damage remains, limited primarily to slight marks and dirt, but there is one rather large imperfection that caught me off guard: at around the 1:27:43 point a large blue mark appears, almost covering the whole frame. At first I thought it was an encoding problem but going through it frame by frame it looks like it could be a chemical stain that has spread across a few frames of the film. I was surprised to see this, especially considering the pristine condition of the rest of the film. But I assume the damage was too great during this moment and that there was a lack of decent material for this cut. The restoration demonstration explains that the only decent print(s) were the YCM negatives, three strips of film that each preserved the yellow, cyan, and magenta colour information. Since this three-strip process was used it does explain another noticeable if insignificant issue in places: minor colour separation.

But past any of these imperfections I was still incredibly pleased with the filmís new presentation. The film looks vastly better and the transfer, despite some slight compression, is still very film-like. I never thought Iíd see the film look as good as it does here.

8/10

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AUDIO

The film receives a new lossless DTS-HD 5.1 surround audio track that works as well as it can. Despite the mix (which Iíll get to) the track itself does sound like it was newly recorded and it is never a product of its time. The score sounds absolutely stunning, filling out the environment nicely, and some of the more action-oriented scenes are loud and have quite a bit of power to them. Range is excellent and volume levels are, for the most part, very good. The surrounds get some decent use but dialogue and most effects are focused to the fronts.

The problems that exist have more to do with how Cimino has mixed the track. Most of the time dialogue is easy to hear and natural, but there are a number of sequences where background noise, which spreads to the surrounds, actually drowns out dialogue. This can be incredibly frustrating at times and required me to turn on the subtitles. I remember this being an issue with the film previously on VHS, even on a stereo TV, so itís nothing new, but itís probably worse here simply because itís now been mixed for a 5.1 environment. Iím sure itís Cimino thinking heís delivering some realistic effect, but itís more of an annoyance than anything else and probably the only issue with the track.

8/10

SUPPLEMENTS

As a majority of film buffs know Heavenís Gate was a financial disaster. After Michael Cimino won several awards for The Deer Hunter, United Artists gave him go-ahead for his western epic, originally titled The Johnson County War, with a budget of over $11-million. The film fell far behind schedule after Ciminoís desire for perfection caused sets to be torn down and rebuilt, waiting around for hours for the perfect amount of natural light, or apparently even the perfect cloud, to enter a shot, and general problems with extras, animals, and so on. Cimino also took a large number of takes, over 60 in a certain cases according to rumour, even for some of the more mundane scenes. All of this mixed in with what was apparently a chaotic set caused the budget to balloon to well over $40-million. When the film was released it was met with one of the most horrendous critical backlashes in recent memory, with only a handful of critics not calling it a disaster of epic proportions. The film was pulled, partly by Cimino, re-edited down to less than 150-minutes (from 219) and re-released in theaters, only to meet further scorn. The film bombed with a little over $2-million in returns, and itís still in the top ten box office flops.

In turn the film caused a major shift in Hollywood, though in fairness it wasnít the only one to play into it. It is also blamed for being the reason that United Artists disappeared, though again this is an exaggeration as it didnít hurt the studio as much as some would suggest (in the end it was sold to MGM only because the owners, Transamerica, just decided they didnít want to be in the movie business anymore.) But it played a part in the direction Hollywood would go, and it led to directors no longer having the free reign and large budgets they once did, with even successful directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola feeling the sting.

Of course youíll hear nothing about this in the supplements of this release. A topic that should have been a no-brainer to cover in any special edition release of the film is pretty much ignored. At worst, the supplements make it sound like the film just had a disappointing opening weekend, and wasnít the disaster it actually was. Instead we get barely an hourís worth of material about the film, and none of it, other than maybe the restoration demonstration, is particularly interesting.

I think part of the issue is that Cimino more than likely had final say in this release (itís ďdirector approvedĒ) because Criterion needed/wanted him to participate and deliver his preferred cut, and his ego wonít allow him to accept entirely what happened, or at the very least acknowledge it happened. While I still believe Cimino brought it all on himself, I can understand not wanting to focus on the filmís tumultuous reception to an extent: the film was unfairly maligned by the critical community, the majority of whom more than likely went into that film ready to hate it, thanks to horrific press that appeared beforehand related to its astronomical (for the time) budget. Iím not one to say the film is a masterpiece as it still does come off far too long in my opinion, but itís nowhere near the disaster many said it was. Iím sure Cimino does want to move on, and does want the film to be seen for what it is. But at the same time not addressing the filmís production troubles or reception, or not even offering an alternate perspective on the events, seems ridiculous, as it ignores what I still think is an incredibly important time in Hollywood's history.

Because of this we get some unfortunately mundane supplements that are all pretty standard material for any kind of film. The second single-layer disc presents all of them, starting with an illustrated audio interview with Michael Cimino and Joann Carelli, running about 31-minutes. Basically itís an audio interview with photographs displayed over it. The two, or I should say just Cimino (Carelli, who is there with him, shows up for maybe 3-minutes of the bit) talk about the filmís development, but with only mild references to some issues that arose; Cimino surprisingly doesnít even complain the fact United Artists sent people out there to reign him in. He concentrates on the influences and how he came across the subject matter. He talks about his writing process, and then gets into detail about the costumes, sets, and music. Itís fine for what it is but pretty run-of-the-mill, and sometimes it feels like itís here just so Cimino can toot his own horn. Iím also bewildered as to why Carelli is even there as all she contributes are compliments towards Cimino and some information about the filmís music.

Following this is an interview with Kris Kristofferson, which I had more hope for but itís also a bit of a bust, featuring the actor talking about how he came to be involved in the project and what attracted him to it. He does offer some information about the real person his character is based on, James Averill, and what actually happened to him, also giving his thoughts on why Cimino took the liberty with history (one of many, Iím sure.) He does also talk briefly about its reception but doesnít offer too much insight. A bulk of the 9-minute interview, though, has Kristofferson talk about Ciminoís attention to detail, even mentioning the infamous whip scene, which took anywhere from 30 to 60 takes, depending on who you talk to.

The next two interviews donít offer much of an improvement. Musician David Mansfield talks about the music in the film and its score, which he was hired on to do after John Williams apparently dropped out. He goes over some of the performances within the film as well as the score, also touching on the instruments used. It runs 9-minutes. Assistant director Michael Stevenson recalls the production but judging from him it was a pleasant experience. The bizarre part of the feature is that it sometimes feels like more a puff piece about how great a filmmaker Cimino is, since he keeps praising him and comparing him (constantly) to Kubrick, Lean, and Mann, all of whom he has previously worked with. Neither interview is particularly great.

The most interesting aspect of the supplements would probably be the restoration demonstration, which runs two-and-a-half minutes. Though it doesnít go over any of the differences between this new cut and the original theatrical cut (theyíre teased at in Ciminoís interview) it just looks at the vigorous restoration. The original negative was pretty much destroyed when the film was re-edited down to the 149-minute version but the three-strip YCM negatives remained. Interestingly youíll see how the dirty brown look the film is known/infamous for has been completely obliterated in the series of before-and-after shots. You also get to see the damage that has been removed, some of it surprisingly heavy. Pretty standard but it proves to be particularly fascinating.

The disc then closes with a teaser trailer and TV spot. The included booklet then contains a strong essay by writer Giulia DíAgnolo Vallan, who does get into more detail about its initial release, but in the end it comes down to ďAmericans hate it but us Europeans recognized it as the masterpiece it obviously is.Ē This is then followed by a reprint of an interview with Cimino done in 1980 for an issue of American Cinematographer. In it he talks about the making of the film but keeps it down to the technical details.

And that covers it. What makes the supplements so frustrating, other than itís barely an hourís worth on what is really an expensive two-disc set, is that the supplements are just fairly mediocre. If they were better I would probably be less aggravated by the missed opportunity of the set. As it is all I can think is how much more there could have been. Where is the critical analysis, either for or against the film? Wouldnít some sort of round table discussion about the film from both defenders and detractors prove to be of any value? What about all of the information about its production? There was the book The Final Cut about the filmís production history, and there was even a 80-or-so-minute documentary with the same name, which was actually more fairly balanced, and in the end actually defended Cimino and his film. There have been a few cuts of the film, including a 149-minute version that premiered after the initial one week run of the 219-minute cut. Thatís never been released on video and I think would be a fascinating document. Thereís even intriguing promotional material for the film, including posters and newspaper ads that tried to play off of the negative press the film received. Heck, even a supplement about its premiere on the specialty cable station Z Channel would have some value.

Also, why is there no historical supplement on the actual Johnson County War? Criterion originally announced a supplement featuring Bill OíNeal talking about the event but it was then dropped a couple of months later. Even the inclusion of that would have added more value to this release.

As it stands what we have here is probably the biggest missed opportunity I can think of. I can understand wanting the film to stand on its own, but I think you can still do that while exploring its infamous past, possibly adding critical analysis as to why many now consider it a masterpiece. It also would have helped if the supplements we did get were a little more worthwhile as a whole. This was just such a wasted opportunity.

4/10

CLOSING

As it stands the transfer really looks great, and I think many will be shocked by just how good it looks. For the transfer alone I think itís worth it for admirers of the film to pick it upóif they can find it cheap enough. Unfortunately this $49.95 (MSRP) release doesnít have much value in the way of supplements, delivering some standard, mediocre extras I think any studio could stick on a release. Despite the transfer and the new cut of the film, the lack of anything about its production, release, place in film history, or any sort of critical analysis makes this edition one of the most disappointing releases in Criterionís entire 600+ list of titles.


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