25 January 2011

Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978); Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

I recently watched some truly "heavenly" films, if you catch my drift (and my ridiculously obvious pun). It seems my Netflix viewing has become oddly patterned. First off, I watched Gattaca and then Dark City, a pair of dark, serious, almost convoluted sci-fi movies. Then, I watched two great (albeit for completely different reasons) French movies, The 400 Blows (which earned an immediate spot on the best-of-all-time list) and Caché (which thrilled me even more the second time around -- I had seen it before, a while ago). And now, two movies in the same day with "heaven" in the title. And not only that, but both were released in 1978. My mind works in mysterious ways, sometimes, my friends.

Gates of Heaven was a quirky documentary from Errol Morris about the owners and customers of a pet cemetery. Despite this completely not-promising-at-all set-up, the movie is profoundly philosophical and moving, with plenty of points to make about life and death, companionship, the relationship of pets and their owners. Strangely captivating stuff that could have been played for laughs, yet remains sincere throughout. Roger Ebert famously went nuts over this movie, at times including it in his ever-changing lists of the 10 best movies of all time. While I think Hoop Dreams has this one beat over all, Gates of Heaven is still one of the best documentaries I've seen in quite some time. A

Days of Heaven is pure Terrence Malick, and probably the finest, loveliest, simplest distillation of his trademark style (reliant on poetic narration and eye-popping, nature-oriented cinematography) out there. It's an easygoing story about pioneer/farm life and a particularly strange yet strangely beautiful love triangle. I loved the crap out of The New World and The Thin Red Line, with a few reservations, and if you did, then I have no hesitation in recommending this. Richard Gere, who often strikes me as a bit too smarmy, has rarely if ever been more effectively used than he is here; dare I say, he has a lighthearted charm here that is downright infectious.

I found the film oddly distracting, though, for a couple of silly and personal and esoteric reasons. (Hey, I told you up there that this blog could be esoteric sometimes.) It was filmed right around where I live, and throughout much of the film, I was taken out of the narrative, through no fault of the director's, by seeing things and landscapes with which I was intimately familiar. Particularly distracting were the final scenes, featuring the High Level train bridge in Lethbridge which I drive past everyday on my way to work, and Heritage Park in Calgary, which obviously negated some of the historical impact of it for me. I mean, I know it's supposed to be set in 1910s-era Texas, but gosh-darn-it, I know it's not really there because I know these places too well. (I mean, look at that still up there. Seriously. Those are the god-damned Foothills in Alberta with the god-damned Rocky Mountains off in the distance.) It ruined some of the otherwise magnificent flow of the film and, especially, the temporal and geographic reality it tried so hard to create.

But this is really an odd problem for someone to have with a film, and I fully admit my bias here. This is still a wonderful film, probably the best introduction someone could want to the particular cinematic genius of Malick. A-

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