One of the week's most highly anticipated releases is also one of its most notorious: Heaven's Gate. Director Michael Cimino's epic follow-up to his Academy Award-winning (and equally epic) The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate' suffered production and post-production travails that are the stuff of cinema legend. Cimino went wildly over schedule and over budget (former United Artists executives insist Cimino spent $44 million instead of his agreed-upon $7.5 million budget; Cimino argues the movie only cost around $30 million), and the film's disastrous New York premiere resulted in a series of crippling cuts to Cimino's original vision and an anemic domestic gross of under $3 million. The critical consensus is equally harsh - Roger Ebert famously called Heaven's Gate "the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen" - but this new Criterion Collection Blu-ray gives viewers a chance to re-examine the film afresh.
In his Blu-ray review, Svet Atanasov positions himself as one of Heaven's Gate's defenders, writing that the film "is [one] 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...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."
Another high-profile new release is Lionsgate's The Expendables 2, the sequel to Sylvester Stallone's surprise action hit The Expendables. For fans of the first movie, Part Two offers more of the same: more explosions, more action icons (Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme are the most notable additions to the cast), and more so-bad-they're-funny verbal gags (Dolph Lundgren, in particular, gets saddled with some real clunkers). It's isn't as meaningful as Rocky Balboa or as jaw-droppingly brutal as Rambo, but it gets the job done, and Con Air director Simon West (who replaces Stallone behind-the-camera) actually improves on the coherence of the on-screen chaos.
Jeffrey Kauffman's The Expendables 2 Blu-ray review appreciates the movie for what it is, how "what really elevates this second film is its self knowing sense of humor, one which readily trades on the "past their prime" dishevelment of several of the leading players. There's relatively little time spent in hand wringing or emotional explication, which is all to the good. The film catapults from one very well staged set piece to the next with nary a character beat in between. It's as if Simon West took a good look at the first Expendables, cut away all the dead meat (no pun intended), and delivered an unambitious but hugely entertaining free for all."
Lionsgate is also distributing the Tarantino XX box set. This ten-disc retrospective bundles together eight films from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's much-lauded career, beginning with 1992's landmark thriller Reservoir Dogs and ending with 2009's Academy Award-winning Inglourious Basterds. The package isn't perfect - one wonders why Lionsgate included True Romance but not the similarly Tarantino-scripted-but-not-directed From Dusk Till Dawn, and the omission of the long-awaited Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair is near-unforgivable - but for those cinephiles who have yet to collect Tarantino's works, the box set makes for a good start.
Jeffrey Kauffman makes a case for Tarantino in his Blu-ray review: "There are quite a few people who can't stand Tarantino for one reason or another: he's too self-conscious, he's too arch, he's too derivative, he's too original, he's just too. And in a certain way, all of those epithets are true, but they don't really address the central issue that Tarantino is one of the protean creative forces in film, one with a completely unique and distinctive voice. In a world of cookie cutter entertainments and prefab moviemaking, I'll take Tarantino's particular brand of genius happily, despite its excesses."
Far more serious is the Blu-ray release of Grave of the Fireflies. Director Isao Takahata's wrenching, moving anime focuses on Japanese orphans Seita and Setsuko during the last days of World War II; it eschews forced uplift and comic interludes in favor of honest and unforced sentiment. Seita and Setsuko's struggles become almost unbearably devastating over the film's eighty-eight-minute runtime - this is one of the greatest animated films ever made.
Finally, we end with another example of TV-on-Blu-ray: Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl hits the HD format on Tuesday. After covering such topics as the Civil War, baseball, the development of jazz, World War II, and America during Prohibition, Burns turns his attention to the impact of the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history. Burns covers this event from a variety of perspectives, such as documentary film and photographs, contemporary historical analyses, and interviews with people who survived the Dust Bowl.
Brian Orndorf praises Burns' handling of the material, that he "maintain[s] a firm grip on the uniqueness of the testimonials and the potency of the subject. The Dust Bowl remains as valuable as anything Burns has created before, only here there's a message of hubris woven into the finale, placing emphasis on a return to these frightening conditions if current irrigations methods continue. With all this evidence and passion on display, it's difficult to doubt the chilling final analysis."