Kris Kristofferson

Criterion Files

Sometimes the greater cinematic spectacle ends up not being the film itself, but the ability to watch the film crash and burn. And Hollywood history has arguably seen no greater spectacle of failure than Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western, Heaven’s Gate. Credited as the film that destroyed United Artists, the bloated-for-its-time production has come to represent for some the last hurrah for a New Hollywood whose challenging artistic visionaries eventually stumbled over their own escalating egos. But decades after the hype, damage, and demonization of the film faded away, audiences can finally see Heaven’s Gate’s depiction of the Johnson County War for what it really is: a gorgeously realized, largely misunderstood, admittedly far from perfect but heavily underrated film. The Criterion Collection’s addition of Heaven’s Gate is a significant step in complicating the story of the film’s overwhelmingly bad reputation. But unfortunately Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray packages make for a strange release that doesn’t go far enough in recontextualizing a movie whose tattered history always threatens any potential appreciation of it.

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You know what sort of movie you’ve gotten with Joyful Noise long before Dolly Parton announces, apropos of nothing, that “I know what to do, yodel lee hee hoo.” You’ve already seen Parton grab spaghetti off a diner’s plate and throw it in co-star Queen Latifah’s face. You’ve seen Keke Palmer lead a rousing gospel choir rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” You’ve experienced the ups and downs of the wild, inconsistent shifts in tone and the perils of Todd Graff’s loose-limbed direction. But that unprompted half-a-yodel is a litmus test. Perhaps you’ve bought into the schlock Graff is slinging, shut off your mental faculties and embraced the Latifah-Parton show, in which case it’s just Dolly being Dolly. Alternatively, that avalanche of vomit that’s been amassing inside your throat with each inane, lazy moment finally finds its way onto the floor. I found myself somewhere between the two extremes throughout this exceptionally mediocre film, which only benefits from the fact that it’s never boring. The story of a small-town gospel choir prepping for a singing competition is singularly uninteresting, even if things pick up when they perform their pop covers (Usher and the Beatles are among those victimized alongside Michael Jackson).

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This week, Fat Guy Kevin Carr decides he’s going to learn history from Hollywood. After all, why not when three out of the four major releases are based on or inspired by a true story. He learns about the true history of baseball with Moneyball (and was sorely disappointed it wasn’t called Monkeyball because a movie about monkeys playing baseball would have been awesome). Then he learns all he needs to know about marine mammals and depressed children in Dolphin Tale. Finally, he faces the cadres of screaming tweenage girls to see Taylor Lautner in ABduction. That’s based on a true story, right?

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Michael Cimino has gone over budget, beyond his schedule, and generally through hell for Heaven’s Gate. Now his cut is 5 and 1/2 hours long. Is artistic freedom really what Hollywood needs?

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