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Days of Heaven

Review Written by: William Grady
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: C/D/F

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Produced by: Bert Schneider and Harold Schneider
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert Wilke
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it

Recently I saw a screening of this at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA. The 70 mm print quality wasn't very good (in fact, it was plain crappy - some of the frames were so messy it was hard to see what was going on) but it was worth seeing the film a second time, this time in the theatre. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros' stunning visuals deserve to be witnessed on the big screen. This is one of the best photographed films of all time. It should be noted that Haskell Wexler, who is credited in the end credits with "Additional photography" claims he did much of the film and as told by Roger Ebert, has pointed out to him at least 50 shots which he claims were his. The Oscar went solely to Almendros.

The film is like a dream. After leaving it, you stumble around sleepily not sure what to think. You can't remember much of it unless you really concentrate. I'm not sure how this is done. The actors voices drift in and out and don't always align with their mouths. It could be a flaw but it could be deliberate. Almost the entire film was shot at "magic hour" which is just after a sunset or before a sunrise. The choice to have Ennio Morricone score the film was a stroke of genius - the "wheat fields" theme is one of the most haunting ever composed. This was Morricone's stage in transition from his spaghetti westerns, now moving on to his more traditional (yet still exceptional) scores for films like The Untouchables, The Red Tent, The Sicilian Clan, Excorsist II, The Mission and Cinema Paradiso. In showing his remarkable flexibility Morricone has revealed himself to be one of the greatest composers of film or otherwise in the New Age.

It's the earlier 20th century, sometime between 1915 and 1930. In Chicago, a landscape is covered in soot, trash and coal. Hundreds of people out of work continually pull in and out of trains, always looking for new jobs that will only last them a couple months. One train goes to the Texas panhandle, where wheat blows in ocean like waves and silhouettes of workers shuffle past the skyline of sunrise, pulling locusts out of the wheat. This is how we are introduced into Terrence Malick's incredible Days of Heaven, which is really, really good. To say the least. When I occasionally am asked to make a ten best list I find myself quite often listing Days of Heaven as the best film of all time. It could be.

It's not likely you'll find it in most video stores and if I were you I'd do what I did and just buy it off Amazon.com. Unless your idea of a great time at the cinema is Star Wars: Episode II or Pirates of the Caribbean (not to offend Pirates, Depp is a great comedic actor and its entertaining enough) then I doubt you'll regret it. Even the meanest of critics eventually warm to its stunning tapestry of visual and poetic beauty. And yes, if you've seen a Malick film before (like The Thin Red Line and The New World) then its much the same style, slow, elegant, much of the dialog in voice over. This time, however, A) it's considerably shorter and B) all the narrating is done by a girl named Linda (Linda Hunt), whose brother and his lover are the centre of the film.

They are played by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, who were shockingly enough both neglected by the Oscars that year (the only Oscar that film would pick up was for Cinematography - it remains the only Oscar a Malick film has ever won). In the first scene of the film, we catch a glimpse of Bill (Gere) getting into a fight and running away with Abby (Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz). They board a train for the country and work in the wheat fields. There, a rich, shy and dying farmer (Sam Shepard) who lives nearby sees and falls in love with Abby. Bill, who is posing as Abby's brother, suggests they get married so when the farmer dies they will be able to live on the plantation. I don't like to reveal a film's sypnosis, so I will continue no further.

Instead, I shall describe one of the best scenes in the film, one where a plague of locusts floods the farm. The farmer sends all his workers out to try and kill as many as possible in a bonfire, which eventually catches to the fields. The fire spreads out in a circle and the field, which, once beautiful, has turned into hell. The frame is filled with fire and smoke and we see the silhouettes of the workers trying to find a way out of the fire, looking for a place they might be able to jump through. Finally the camera cuts back and we see the entire field, a large portion of the middle blazing furiously. And a horse carried cart wagon runs around in circles, the back ablaze, spreading the fire wherever it runs. Malick's Christian socialist themes are noticeably at work here, especially in a horrifying shot of a machine that has lost control and caught fire, plowing forward over terrified workers. Once a symbol of agricultural produce and technological advancement, it has betrayed the species that created it and is bent in destroying them. You could die in a freak accident tomorrow, so please make sure you see this film as soon as possible.

The video quality of the DVD is iffy and definetely needs a restoration. The sound is awful. The narration suddenly dips in and out of being almost inaudible to suddenly loud. No one who worked on the DVD transfer was working very hard. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. As a whole, a terrible, sloppily put together DVD of agruably the greatest film of all time.

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