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Harvard graduate James Averill relocates to Wyoming and becomes a federal marshal in the late 19th century. There, he learns of a government-sanctioned plot by cattle barons to murder the area's population of European immigrants and steal their land. The resulting conflict is based on the real-life Johnson County War of 1892, also known as the War on Powder River.
For more about Heaven's Gate and the Heaven's Gate Blu-ray release, see Heaven's Gate Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on November 3, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 5.0 out of 5.
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert
Director: Michael Cimino
» See full cast & crew
Heaven's Gate Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, November 3, 2012
Nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" (1980) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The supplemental features on this release include original promo materials; new audio discussion with director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli; video interview with Kris Kristofferson; video interview with actor and musician David Mansfield; video interview with second assistant director Michael Stevenson; and a restoration demonstration. The release also arrives with an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic and programmer Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan. In English, with optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature. Region-A "locked".
The film opens up with a spectacular graduation ceremony. The year is 1870, the place is Harvard, and the characters followed closely by the camera are young idealists. One of them, Billy Irvine (John Hurt, The Osterman Weekend, Scandal), everyone's favorite orator, delivers a memorable speech. He praises knowledge and wisdom and then eloquently questions the morality of those who have educated him. James Averill (Kris Kristofferson, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy), one of Billy's closest friends, looks enormously pleased.
Twenty years later. James, now a man of the law, arrives in Casper, Wyoming. The place is full of European immigrants who have come in search of the American Dream. Most of them look different and barely speak more than a few words of English. They stay in small groups and only occasionally mingle with other immigrants. A few have managed to purchase land outside of the city, but many are poor and waiting to get work, save, and then purchase a piece of land.
The wealthy cattle barons are not pleased with the immigrants that have flooded Casper. Some see in them future competitors, others simply don't like foreigners. To get things back to normal, the barons have organized themselves and decided to effectively clean up Casper. Their leader, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston, The Great Gatsby, The Killing Fields), and a few of his associates have put together a Death List with the names of 125 immigrants, the overwhelming majority of them men, and hired a gang of mercenaries to kill them. The only member of the Association that does not like what is underway is Billy, but he is rarely sober and no one pays attention to what he has to say.
In Casper's busiest corner, James meets John Bridges (Jeff Bridges, 8 Million Ways to Die, Blown Away), an old friend who has turned his bar into a gambling saloon. His best customers are immigrants trying to get rich quick who often lose their last savings there, either to him or local scammers. When James reveals to John that he is soon going to lose the majority of his customers, he decides to help him stop the barons.
Soon after, James also meets Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken, King of New York, The Deer Hunter), a fearless immigrant and assassin who has started working for the barons. With the money he is getting paid, Nathan hopes to soon have enough to marry Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert, La Cérémonie, Going Places), a French beauty running a tiny brothel just outside of Casper and James' on-again, off-again lover.
Inspired by a true story and one of Hollywood's most ambitious epics, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is a film of startling poetic beauty. There are numerous sequences in it that could easily be compared to some of the greatest sequences from David Lean's Doctor Zhivago. The emphasis on detail also astonishes - from the costumes to the weapons to the dances and even the unique Slavic expressions the immigrants often utter, everything in the film looks and sounds incredibly authentic.
Those who have spoken against Heaven's Gate or outright dismissed it as a grandiose failure must have their heads checked. Or admit that they are idiots. Because Heaven's Gate is easily one of the most straightforward films about the dark side of the American Dream, the one that pro-American films, and especially westerns, rarely, if ever, mention. This isn't to imply that Heaven's Gate is a political film, rather to say that it is an honest film that condemns greed and violence, which unfortunately some Americans still worship.
Most of the events in the film are seen through the eyes of Kristofferson's character, but Cimino never allows the viewer to get too comfortable with him. There are endless other characters that enter the story and then disappear without a trace. This makes the film look rather chaotic at times - but only if one ignores the big picture, which is about the sea of immigrants that are never identified until their names appear on the Death List or the mercenaries begin killing them. Until then they are simply "The Mob", nameless men and women who have come to Heaven and suddenly discovered that its self-appointed guardians do not want them there.
It is difficult to watch the newly restored director's cut of Heaven's Gate and not think about the various events that have rocked America in recent years. The rise of civil disobedience targeting and involving immigrants, the abuse of power by the wealthy, and the desire to justify extremism with patriotism are some of the many serious issues modern America faces. Isn't it sad to see that they are some of the same issues America struggled with more than a century ago?
Heaven's Gate Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.
The following text appears inside the booklet provided with this Blu-ray release:
"Because the original negative of the film was cut down to 149 minutes during its theatrical release in 1981, it could not serve as the basis for this restoration of director Michael Cimino's preferred 216-minute version. Fortunately, the long version had been preserved in the 35mm YCM color separation masters (protection elements capable of precisely reproducing the color in the negative film). Supervised by Cimino, this new digital transfer was created at Colorworks in Culver City, California, by scanning each separation element at 2K resolution on a Scanity, then digitally recombining them to reproduce the color of the original negative. In addition, slight trims and alterations were made to certain scenes and the intermission was removed, allowing the filmmaker to finally have his vision presented as he originally intended. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
Transfer supervisors: Michael Cimino, Maria Palazzola.
Colorist: Sheri Eisenberg."
The new, restored and supervised by director Michael Cimino high-definition transfer is a thing of beauty. Anyone who has previously seen Heaven's Gate only via the R1 DVD release, which MGM produced back in 2000, is essentially going to experience an entirely different film now with the Blu-ray release. Not only are detail and clarity dramatically improved, but the film's color-scheme is very different. There are major adjustments and corrections practically everywhere. In fact, the original negative of Michael Cimino's preferred version of the film, which was severely cut for the film's 1981 release, was apparently very seriously damaged and thus could not be used for the new 2K restoration. However, the colors in the original negative were restored under the direct supervision of the director and then used to regrade the new master. Needless to say, many of the panoramic sequences which the great Vilmos Zsigmond lensed now look simply stunning. The film's unique dreamy look is now also far more consistent. The darker sequences, in particular, convey a type of depth that has always been missing from the various poor DVD releases the film has had in different regions. There are no traces of excessive sharpening or degraining. There are no serious compression issues to report in this review either. All in all, considering the condition of the elements Criterion had to work with, this new restoration and reconstruction of Heaven's Gate is indeed a tremendous accomplishment. (Note: This is a Region-A "locked" Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you must have a native Region-A or Region-Free PS3 or SA in order to access its content).
Heaven's Gate Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. For the record, Criterion have provided optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature. When turned on, they appear inside the image frame.
The following text appears inside the booklet provided with this Blu-ray release:
"The new 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered and restored at 24-bit from a 6-track magnetic mix, under the direct supervision of Cimino, with an emphasis on improving the audibility of dialog. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and him were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated station."
The new lossless track, which was also supervised by Michael Cimino, also impresses. There is an excellent range of nuanced dynamics that open up the film very well. The music as well as the shootouts all get a tremendous boost. The massive battle at the end of the film, in particular, should raise some eyebrows -- not because the dynamic movement is likely to test one's audio equipment, rather because from the gunshots to the sound of falling horses to the burning wood, everything sounds incredibly real. The dialog is crisp, clean, stable, and easy to follow. Most viewers, however, will likely want to use the English subtitles as various characters speak with thick Slavic accents.
Heaven's Gate Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Note: All of the supplemental features are placed on Disc 2.
Heaven's Gate Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
In one of the supplemental features included on this Blu-ray release, Michael Cimino states that Criterion's new restoration and reconstruction of Heaven's Gate is a miracle. I wholeheartedly agree. This is indeed a spectacular presentation of the definitive director's cut of Heaven's Gate, a glorious film and a true masterpiece of American Cinema which has been misunderstood and undeservedly dismissed by different people during the years. If you are going to experience Heaven's Gate for the first time, I urge you to ignore reading old reviews of the film. See it, think about it and form your own opinion. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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Heaven's Gate Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate Heading Back to French Cinemas - February 14, 2013
The newly restored version of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is heading to French cinemas thanks to local distributors Carlotta Films. Fans of Cimino's controversial epic film will be able to see it starting February 27th.
• This Week on Blu-ray: November 20-27 - November 17, 2012
One of the week's most highly anticipated Blu-ray releases is also one of its most notorious: Heaven's Gate. In distributing director Michael Cimino's epic follow-up to his Academy Award-winning The Deer Hunter, the Criterion Collection is giving viewers a chance ...
• Criterion Blu-ray in November: Godard, Pasolini, Kurosawa, Cimino - August 15, 2012
The Criterion Collection has announced four titles for Blu-ray release in November. On November 6th, the independent studio will release Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950). A week later, on November 13th, it will release Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) and Trilogy ...
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