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DVD Reviews For 11/25: It's Getting Dangerous To Be Poor In This Country."

by Peter Sobczynski

Be still your beating auteurist heart--the latest round-up of new DVD/Blu-Ray releases contains several new releases by some of the cinema world's most acclaimed filmmakers, led by the long-awaited special edition of one of the most talked-about (if comparatively little-seen) films ever made. Enjoy.

More than 30 years removed from its controversial debut, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" is still one of the most infamous titles to emerge from its filmmaking era, though for reasons that have relatively little to do with its intrinsic artistic qualities. This was, as you will recall, the film in which Cimino, then riding high on the critical and commercial success of "The Deer Hunter," shot his wad--not to mention a budget reported to be a then-astronomical $36 million dollars--on a illustration of the never-ending struggle between the bourgeoises and the proletariat presented in the form of a long, dark revisionist Western that defied practically every single expectation one might reasonably have from a offering from that normally intractable genre. Okay, maybe you don't remember that so much as the fallout that resulted when the film finally premiered in November, 1980 to poisonously bad reviews and minuscule box-office grosses--after yanking it from release and trimming more than 90 minutes from its near four-hour length before reissuing it to continued viewer apathy, it not only all but killed off Cimino's career (it would be five years before his next film, "Year of the Dragon," and would only work sporadically since then--his last film, "Sunchaser," barely came out in 1996) but actually was a chief factor in the near-simultaneous downfall and collapse of United Artists, the studio that was founded decades earlier by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith.

Although summarily rejected in America, the film did, perhaps not surprisingly, receive a somewhat better reputation in Europe, where it was released in its full-length version. Later on, the original cut was aired on the legendary Los Angeles cable network Z Channel and it began to develop a following among viewers who knew it only by its reputation or by the drastically reduced version that had briefly appeared in theaters. In 1985, its notorious past became public fodder once again with the publication of "Final Cut," an enormously entertaining but cringe-inducing look at its production authored by one of the studio executives in charge of the project who, not surprisingly, laid all the blame solely at Cimino's feet without properly acknowledging the failings of himself and his colleagues in regards to the whole affair. In recent years, however, the film's reputation has improved considerably as people have finally begun to judge it on its own merits rather than on the circumstances surrounding its production and release. And yet, its initial failure continues to resonate so strongly that when it was announced that Criterion planned on releasing it on Blu-Ray and DVD via a long-overdue special edition that would replace the indifferently produced DVD that was released several years ago, there was some snickering and questions as to why a company whose name is synonymous with cinematic quality would want to include such a film among its ranks. Those naysayers have presumably never seen the film for themselves for if they had, they would have no problem understanding its inclusion.

To sum it up briefly, the film stars Kris Kristofferson as a Harvard graduate (an event illustrated during an extended 20-minute prologue that was, somewhat obviously, filmed at Oxford instead of Harvard) who turns his back on a life of privilege to serve as the sheriff of a small Wyoming town largely populated by immigrants who have been working the land for years in order to own it outright to build homes for themselves. The local cattle ranchers, led by evil Sam Waterston, aren’t too thrilled with what this could mean for their plans to own the land for themselves and hire a band of “deputies” (i.e. mercenaries) to hunt and kill 150 of the immigrants. Also caught up in the events, which culminate in a full-scale battle between the mercenaries and the immigrants (in which the cavalry appears to save the day in the nick of time, though it wouldn’t be fair to tell who they save), is conflicted mercenary Christopher Walken (in a fine performance) and Isabelle Huppert as the frontier madam that they both love.

So what makes this film such a treasure to behold despite its somewhat questionable reputation? For one thing, this is one of the last so-called "epic" films that is truly deserving of the title--shot in Montana and Idaho and inspired by photographs of the period, Cimino and his army of technicians created a movie that looks and feels more true to the period than virtually any other Western one could possibly imagine. With the possible exception of Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs Miller" (with which it has much in common), there is a lived-in feel to the locations that practically oozes authenticity and that sense is brought out even further thanks to the stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond. At the same time, this is the rare epic film that is as grandiose in its dramatic ambitions as it is with its purely cinematic ones. Most epics tend to have very simple stories at their center but with "Heaven's Gate," Cimino presents a view of a cherished part of the collective American experience that is distinctly at odds with how the textbooks have chosen to depict it. And lest anyone think that this is simply a dated bit of history with nothing to say today's audience, I suspect that with tensions between the haves and have-nots boiling once again in our current Occupy world, the angry and defiant story that Cimino has chosen to tell is even more relevant today than it was when it was first released.

Finally, taken simply as a piece of pure cinema, the film is filled with moments of stunning beauty and power. For example, there is an extended sequence in which we view the locals visiting the roller rink for a brief period of celebration before the bad times hit. From a narrative standpoint, the sequence (which runs about 10 minutes or so) does nothing to advance the story or the characters but from a purely formal position, it is absolutely ravishing and I cannot imagine the film without it. Sure, there are flaws to be had throughout its extended running time--the climactic showdown does run a little too long here and there, some of the romantic byplay between Kristofferson and Huppert is a little silly (I say you can have either an extended buggy-riding scene or a bit in which the hero tries to eat his lover's practically inedible pie but not both) and the brief epilogue is pretty embarrassing--but when a film takes as many genuine risks as this one and pulls off as many as it does, such minor lapses of judgement can easily be forgiven. Love it or hate it--there appears to be no middle ground--"Heaven's Gate" is a stunningly ambitious work of cinematic art and once seen--especially now that it is available in the form in which it was meant to be viewed--it will never be forgotten.

A special edition of "Heaven's Gate" has been rumored for years and those who have been making do with the bare-bones DVD will instantly snap this new release up. If there is a drawback to the package, it is that none of the three possible elements that might have made it essential--a commentary from Cimino, a presentation of "Final Cut," the 2003 making-of documentary inspired by the book of the same name that appears to be in some rights-related quagmire and the 149-minute recut version--make an appearance here. Their absence prevents this from being the ultimate presentation of the film that fans may have hoped for but this version does have its share of goodines. For starters, the visual and aural elements have been fully restored under the supervision of Cimino and the result is a film that looks and sounds better than it has since its initial debut and maybe even better than that. Cimino and producer Joann Carelli (who was also given a large share of the blame for the film's failings for her reported inability to reign in Cimino) sit down for an audio interview while Kris Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield (who created the magnificent score and who can be seen in the aforementioned skating sequence as the fiddle player) and assistnat director Michael Stevenson turn up in front of the cameras to discuss the project's colorful history. In addition, there is a restoration demonstration that shows just how much work went into cleaning up the film, a trailer and TV ad that shows how it was sold to a presumably skeptical public and a booklet featuring a reappraisal of the film from Italian critic Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan and an extended interview with Cimino that originally appeared in the November, 1980 issue of "American Cinematographer" magazine.

The Criterion Collection. $49.95.


2 DAYS IN NEW YORK (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Proving that the indie film world is just as capable as Hollywood of cranking out disappointing and patently unnecessary sequels to perfectly good movies that needed no continuation, writer-director Julie Delpy follows up her wickedly entertaining relationship comedy "2 Days in Paris" with this glum and strained farce in which she and new boyfriend Chris Rock struggle to maintain their sanity during a visit from her nutty father and sister. Outside of some of the dialogue being in French and a couple of cultural references, there is nothing on display here that couldn't also be found in one of those "Meet the Fockers" movies and watching the likes of Delpy and Rock struggling to make something out os the sitcommy material they are working with is downright depressing.

BRAVE (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99): Marking their first attempt at telling a story with a female protagonist, the latest offering from Pixar centers on Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a spunky young Scottish princess whose desire to break free from the life laid out for her by her tradition-bound mother (Emma Thompson) could lead to disaster for her entire kingdom unless she can lift the curse that she unwittingly unleashed. Coming on the heels of the massively disappointing "Cars 2," this is definitely an improvement and had it come from anyone other than Pixar, it might have seemed more impressive. However, not even the admittedly lavish visual style can quite make up for the thin characters and the ridiculous plot twist that the entire story hangs upon. Little kids will probably love it--especially little girls--but this is the rare Pixar effort that really doesn't have much of anything to offer to older viewers. A far more entertaining release is "Pixar Short Films Collection 2" (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99), a delightful collection comprised of 12 recently made shorts that have either played theatrically or appeared as DVD extras (with the "Toy Story" spin-offs "Hawaiian Vacation" and "Small Fry" being the best of a strong bunch) along with the early student films of top Pixar animators John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor.

A BURNING HOT SUMMER (MPI Home Video. $24.98): In this drama from acclaimed French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, a young couple (Jerome Robart and Celine Sallette) go off to Rome to spend the summer with another couple--a depressed painter (Louis Garrel, Philippe's son) and his movie-star wife (Monica Bellucci--and get caught in the crossfire when their friends' marriage falls apart in front of them. Beautifully filmed but dramatically inert, the central problem here is that while all of the actors are as attractive and charismatic as can be, none of the characters they are playing are particularly compelling and as a result, it is nearly impossible to care about what happens to any of them in the end.

DARK HORSE (Virgil Films. $24.99): The always-whimsical Todd Solondz returns with his latest cinematic downer, this time chronicling of a flesh-and-blood version of Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" (Jordan Gelber) who decides to end his extremely prolonged adolescence by wooing an overmedicated basket case (Selma Blair), much to the consternation of his increasingly annoyed father (Christopher Walken) and overly indulgent mother (Mia Farrow). As with every other Solondz film, things go spectacularly wrong for our hapless hero but unlike those other films--which, while rarely good, at least managed to get under the skin and provoke viewers--Solondz now seems as bored with his increasingly reductive schtick as his viewers and the end result is the dullest work of his entire career and not even a strong performance by Blair as the unfortunate object of the anti-hero's desire is enough to save it from terminal mediocrity.

THE DEFINITIVE DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD (Synapse Films. $19.99): Back in 1978, indie filmmaker Roy Frumkes made "Document of the Dead," an uncommonly fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary that captured maverick moviemaker George Romero while he was making "Dawn of the Dead," his follow-up to the ground-breaking 1968 horror masterpiece "Night of the Living Dead." Obviously, "Dawn of the Dead" became an instant classic and while the documentary would have a somewhat choppy release history, it would also go on to be a favorite amongst horror buffs. For this new DVD, Frumkes has produced a new cut of the film that furthers the story with additional interviews with key players and footage of Romero at work on the subsequent "Land of the Dead," "Diary of the Dead" and "Survival of the Dead" and the disc also includes a new commentary with Frunkes that covers its entire history. This is obviously a must-see for genre buffs but for the poor deluded fools who are convinced that zombie entertainment begins and ends with "The Walking Dead," this film is absolutely essential.

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): The 2010 shoot-em-up extravaganza featuring the dream team casting of several generations of action film icons (including Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger) was a surprisingly entertaining bit of fenderhead foolishness and made enough money to warrant a sequel but this reunion of most of the gang (Rourke is absent and Li disappears after his contractual obligation cameo), with Chuck Norris and Liam Hemsworth along for the ride and Jean-Claude Van Damme as the bad guy, is a tepid mess that is schlocky without being fun and serves as a reminder of why these films eventually fell out of favor with audiences. Yes, there is some kind of giddy thrill to be had at the sight of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger sharing the same frame but not even their combined charisma is enough to save this one from terminal mediocrity.

THE INCREDIBLE MEL BROOKS (Shout! Factory. $89.93): Following on the heels of its wonderful set dedicated to the television work of Steve Martin, Shout! Factory does it again with another multi-disc collection of rare TV appearances--ranging from sketches to talk show panels--and other ephemera from one of America's great comic minds. Even though most of this stuff was originally designed to be as disposable as possible, much of it is as funny and certainly more consistent than Brooks' own cinematic output and is a must-own for any student of comedy. Other TV-related titles now available include "Diff'rent Strokes: The Complete 4th Season" (Shout! Factory. $29.93), "Dragons: Riders of Berk" (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $14.98) "Duck Dynasty: Season 1" (A&E Home Entertainment. $19.95) and "Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl" (PBS Home Video. $24.99).

SAVAGES (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): After a string of comparatively subdued films produced largely to reestablish his commercial credibility in the wake of the massive failure of his screw-loose biopic "Alexander," Oliver Stone makes his long-awaited return to the kind of cheerfully audacious filmmaking style that made him famous with this lurid drama about two idealistic pot growers (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) who go to war with the leader of a violent Mexican drug cartel (Salma Hayek) who responds to their refusal of her offer to take over their business by kidnapping the girl they both love (Blake Lively). Yeah, the heroes are kind of dull, especially in contrast to the flamboyantly entertaining performances from veteran performers like Hayek, Benicio del Toro (as her right hand man) and John Travolta (as a corrupt DEA agent), and the ending is likely to piss a lot of people off but the combination of stylish superviolence and dark humor is a potent blend indeed and the end result is Stone's liveliest work in years.

SCHOOLGIRL REPORT #9: MATURE BEFORE GRADUATION (Impulse Pictures. $19.95): The long-running series of German-made soft-core erotic films takes a decidedly dark and dour turn, even by its own standards, in this 1975 installment. This time around, the characters all meet up at a house party orgy to relate their own grim individual stories--a virgin is terrified about the prospect of losing her virginity, a man sexually assaults his step-daughter after catching her indulging in lesbian byplay and is then all flustered when she discovers that she is pregnant, one is frigid after encountering a flasher brandishing a. . .uh, never mind. . .and much much more--and at the end of the night, they all get involved in a tragic car accident from which not all of them emerge unscathed. Even more so than its predecessors, this is pretty strange and those looking simply for a silly nudie-cutie are advised to look elsewhere. However, for those of you with a taste for Seventies-era Eurosleaze, this combination of extravagant melodrama and even more extravagant nudity should be right up your dingy, dirty alley.

TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING (Olive Films. $24.95): With a filmography including such in-your-face efforts as "Kiss Me Deadly," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and "The Longest Yard," no one ever accused director Robert Aldrich of being too subtle and restrained and that certainly is not the case with this 1977 political thriller. Burt Lancaster stars as a possibly nuts U.S. Air Force colonel who, with the help of a trio of fellow prisoners (Burt Young, Paul Winfield and B-movie legend William "Big Bill" Smith), breaks out of military jail, commandeers a nuclear missile silo and threatens to launch unless his demand--that the President (Charles Durning) reveal to the world the top-secret reason behind the Vietnam War--is met. Like its central character, the film constantly teeters between being politically volatile and just plain nuts and it is therefore not too surprising that it didn't do very well upon its original release and has been difficult to see in the ensuing years. That said, it is still a solidly constructed thriller filled to the brim with strong character actors (including Richard Widmark as the general charged with saving the day) and as a large-scale stab at political drama from pre-Oliver Stone Hollywood, it remains a fascinating curio.

VAMPS (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $22.98): Or as I like to call it, "Don't Trust The B---- in Plot 2-B." Current It Girl Krysten Ritter and former It Girl ALicia Silverstone team up for this comedy in which they play a couple of comely vampires whose eternal nightlife is thrown into turmoil when both of them unexpectedly fall in love--one with the son of a notorious vampire hunter and the other with a guy from her extended past. Despite the considerable presence of the two leads and the long-awaited reunion of Silverstone and writer-director Amy Heckerling for the first time since a little thing called "Clueless,' this only received the most cursory of theatrical releases before being dumped on home video--a shame, really, because while it is no classic by any means, it does have a certain wit and charm to it and I would vastly prefer to sit through it again than any episodes of the misbegotten "Twilight" franchise.

THE WATCH (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill play a bunch of bored suburban dolts who take it upon themselves to form a neighborhood watch unit and quickly find themselves in way over their heads when they discover that their sleepy little burg is about to be overrun by aliens. It sounds like a promising idea, I suppose, but in the journey from concept to execution, something went terribly wrong and the end result is a grimly unfunny raunchfest that fails on pretty much every imaginable level with all the grace and dignity of an "SNL" sketch haphazardly thrown up at the end of a less-than-inspired episode running short on material at air time.

WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (Oscilloscope. $19.98): Although now venerated today as the auteur behind such cult classics as "Johnny Guitar," "Bigger Than Life" and "Rebel Without a Cause," director Nicholas Ray burned a lot of bridges in Hollywood due to his drinking and combative nature and after making "55 Days in Peking" in 1963, he was officially on the outs with the studios. A decade later, he turned up teaching film at a state university in Binghamton, New York and, deciding that his students would learn more about making films by actually doing it rather than simply reading about it, he collaborated with them on this highly experimental work that would prove to be his last feature film. Like most films of its type from this period, the mix of radical politics and radical stylistic techniques will prove to be a chore for most contemporary viewers but fans of Ray's will no doubt find it fascinating. Besides, you always hear about big-name directors who idly talk about returning to their roots and doing something a million miles removed from the constraints of commercial filmmaking--here is a rare example of someone who actually did it. Also included in the package are "Don't Expect Too Much," a 2011 documentary from Ray's widow, Susan, chronicling the history of the project and an array of interviews, archival documentaries and "The Janitor," his contribution to the 1974 anthology film "Wet Dreams."

WEEKEND (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Jean-Luc Godard concluded one of the most astonishing bursts of sustained artistic achievement in the history of cinema with this 1967 feature (his fifteenth full-length film since making his debut only seven years earlier with "A Bout de Souffle") following the increasingly surreal misadventures about a deeply unpleasant bourgeois couple who venture across the countryside to collect an inheritance from an unloved relation while society literally crumbles around them--one eventually goes with the increasingly radical flow while the other. . .well, see for yourself. Brutal, complex, horrifying and hilarious in equal measure, this is not merely a time capsule of the radical politics of the the day but a film as fresh, vibrant and audacious as anything being made today and remains one of Godard's greatest achievements. Out of print on DVD for a while, the film makes its Blu-Ray debut via a long-deserved Criterion special edition that includes a beautiful digital restoration, archival interviews with co-stars Mirelle Darc and Jean Yanne, cinematographer Raoul Coutard and assistant director (and future filmmaker in his own right) Claude Miller and an excerpt from a French television program on Godard featuring footage of him on the set directing the film. Like all the other Godard Blu-Rays from Criterion, this one is a must-have.


THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.99)

THE BIG TRAIL (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.99)

BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.99)

D.W. GRIFFITH'S ABRAHAM LINCOLN (Kino video. $34.95)

EMPIRE OF THE SUN (Warner Home Video. $34.99)

FRIENDS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video. $279.98)

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Sony Home Entertainment. 26.99)



THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (Warner Home Video. $19.98)

TARANTINO XX (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $119.99)

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originally posted: 11/26/12 09:56:12
last updated: 11/29/12 13:04:40
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