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Heaven's Gate (1980)
By the time it opened, "Heaven's Gate" had become, to its detriment, more a cultural phenomenon than a motion picture. At a time when concern about excessive budgets and directorial arrogance were growing, it was a convenient target, as it was a far-over-budget work by the latest "auteur" to hit Hollywood, who had not yet established the track record that would have given him the benefit of the doubt among critics and the industry alike. As someone pointed out at the time, no one was going to jump on Warren Beatty's even-more costly and dark "Reds," because Beatty was "one of us," while Michael Cimino had not achieved that status.
But "Heaven's Gate" was also affected by a cultural change taking place at that time, the political move rightwards and toward a more unquestioning patriotism and enshrinement of the myth of the West (and the Western). A few years earlier, Cimino's demythologizing of the frontier might have seemed timely, fresh, and a necessary corrective. But by 1980, in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, it was thought of as nearly un-American.
Which is a shame, because the film, seen from the vantage point of several decades away, is a fascinating and thought-provoking look at that particular time and place as a world where life was, in Hobbes's words, "nasty, brutish, and short." Kristofferson plays James Averill, an upper-class Easterner who, in search of adventure, becomes a sheriff in Wyoming, where he finds himself having to lead a resistance by the settlers and squatters against an attack by a mercenary death-squad hired by wealthy landowners, including Averill's lifelong best friend. In a more innocent time, Averill and his rag-tag "army" of poor farmers would emerge triumphant; but this is anything but a traditional Western, and when the U.S. Cavalry joins the fight here, it isn't on the side of the "good guys."
Much like "The Deer Hunter," Cimino's previous film, "Heaven's Gate" spends a great deal of time building up the details of the lives of its principals, giving the film an at-times leisurely pace that nevertheless leads to a gripping conclusion. With excellent acting, a fine musical score, and the visual texture that makes one believe one is actually seeing the "Old West" through new eyes, "Heaven's Gate" is a film that rewards repeat viewings. I only wish that MGM would put out a new DVD, with an improved transfer and a commentary by Cimino. Nonetheless, the current version is satisfactory enough to let viewers see what critics in 1980, possibly blinded by the film's cultural subtexts, managed to miss...that "Heaven's Gate" is a great film.
Minority Report (2002)
Spielberg jumps the shark!
Despite the expectedly fine visual-design-cum-special-effects, I knew this film was in trouble when the two leads admit to each other that they decided to devote their lives to fighting "pre-crime" after close family members were murdered. Gee, how many times have we heard THAT one?
And so it goes. At the heart of it, "Minority Report" is a very routine crime thriller in the guise of a futuristic vision. Predictable plotting, hackneyed dialog, and embarrassingly poor acting (most of the exaggerated secondary characters almost seem to be in a different movie from the deadpan performances by Cruise, Farrell, and von Sydow) can't be redeemed by the multitude of we've-seen-it-all-before action sequences and chase scenes. And the obligatory Spielberg nods toward the importance of family and the near-holiness of children are only dreary reminders that he seems once again (as in his "fallow period" of the late 80s) incapable of keeping Hallmark-card sentimentality out of his work. Maybe he needs to go back to making WWII movies?
The Hired Hand (1971)
Practically the definition of "neglected masterpiece"...
I saw the last half or so of this film many years ago, on a small black-and-white television. Even then, I was impressed by a film I had only heard described as a commercial flop and a come-down after "Easy Rider." Maybe people were expecting another "counter-cultural" demythologizing of America's past, as was common in those days, and didn't know what to make of a surprisingly traditional and sensitive drama about loyalty, love, and the desire for new horizons versus the call of home.
Finally, thanks to the 30th Anniversary restoration, I was able to see the entire work, and was not disappointed. Not only is this a well-told and -acted drama, it's easily one of the most stunning-looking films I've ever seen. Nor is it merely "pretty photography," but key to the inner life of the characters, in that you can see how one could be drawn by such beauty into either wandering off through the world in search of new wonders, or returning to those which you've already known.
It's a shame, to me, that Peter Fonda only went on to direct two more (relatively obscure) films. In a decade now recognized as one of the greatest in American filmmaking, "The Hired Hand" is worthy of being considered among the classics.
Strange Days (1995)
A breakthrough in the action-film genre.
The first time I encountered Strange Days was at a home-theater demo, where the section revealing what happened to Jeriko-One was shown. I was fascinated by both the film's plot and its visual style, and finally had the chance to see it in its entirety on DVD.
This film is a gem -- a true "thinking person's" action movie which doesn't center around a big man (Ahnuld, Sly, or Bruce) with an even bigger gun blowing his way through the bad guys. Instead, we have characters with complexity and a storyline that keeps the viewer breathless, and guessing, from beginning to end. Compared to this, a recent success like The Matrix (which some might compare it to) seems merely like a rehash of the tired old shoot-em-up papered over with a gimmicky sci-fi plot premise.
I was shocked to see that James Cameron wrote the script. Considering that I think Titanic has one of the worst-written screenplays ever, it amazes me that the same author could turn in work of this caliber. Kathryn Bigelow provides direction that is slick, assured, and stylish. This should be enough to bury the old notion that action films are "guy things" which need a male at the helm.
Also notable is the performance turned in by Ralph Fiennes. Anyone who typecast him (after The English Patient, Schindler's List and others) as an upper-class Brit actor should reconsider. He convincingly creates a Southern Californian character on the seedy side of civilization. The other members of the cast, by and large, are up to Fiennes's standard.
This is, without question, a graphically violent film, with some scenes of sexual violence that may make the viewer quite uncomfortable. But that's the point. In Strange Days, violence and brutality are shown for what they are, as actions that are repulsive, and not "prettified" for public acceptance.
My only concern about this film is that it may well seem dated in the future. After all, December 1999 has arrived, and we still have no "virtual reality" recording devices, nor are there the outbursts of social breakdown portrayed in the film's future. I can easily imagine some people seeing this film in 2000 or later and dismissing it as the prediction of a future that didn't, in fact, occur. But, if we can still appreciate Orwell's 1984 some fifteen years after the supposed time of that novel, there seems to be no reason why not to enjoy Strange Days well into the next millennium.