Friday, April 27, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - Scott Reynolds' HEAVEN

Stuck inside all day thanks to the Nor'easter of 2007 from two weeks ago, I looked upon my frighteningly vast DVD collection (it's like a fungus, it just keep growing) and tried to figure out what I wanted to watch. When ever this happens I usually start with my Criterions, since there are still many I've yet to watch, and works its way into various different sections, like the box sets and the like. Then it occurred to me that there was a title I wanted to watch again because I was thinking of writing about it for the site. A film I saw back in 1999, purchased and loaned out a few times and then never watched it again, like much of my collection. I'm not one of those who will watch a film on DVD obsessively again and again, although I'll sample a scene here or a chunk there, mainly because I feel that if I'm going to devote my time to watching a film, it should be one I've never seen before. But there is a steadily growing list of films I liked very much that I want to revisit again, especially films I watched when the DVDs were new back at the start of the decade. One such film was Scott Reynolds' HEAVEN, a victim of the Miramax dump bin that played one contractually obliging week in L.A. before it was shunted off to video. The film probably would have stayed under my radar if it wasn't for my friend Mitch Davis, programmer for Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival and a longtime supporter of Reynolds' work. Despite the dumping, he was able to schedule the film at the 1999 edition of Fantasia and my friends who attended agreed that it was a film worth seeing. Once I did, later in '99, I found that I couldn't agree more and now, 8 years later, I'm glad to say it holds up very well.

In a sense, I can understand why HEAVEN got the treatment it did, because if you put it in front of a test audience full of normal folk in Clifton, NJ (one of Mirimax's old testing grounds), they're probably not going to take too kind to it. The story is sometimes told out of sequence and the characters are not always likable. There's a certain amount of violence and unpleasantness to the material, and on top of that, it requires the viewer pay attention and take several leaps of faith. To use one of my favorite expressions, this is not a movie for dumb people. But for everyone else, HEAVEN should prove to be an intriguing entertainment and the kind of movie that movie lovers like to love. To give you a basic rundown (while not giving away too much), it's the story of a nasty divorce between architect/gambling addict Joanna Going, perpetuated by her psychiatrist/lover (Patrick Malahide). Thrown into the mix are a strip club owner (Richard Schiff), a bouncer (Karl Urban) and a transvestite stripper named Heaven (Danny Edwards) with the power of second sight. While it's a small movie, it's a big story and Reynolds deftly juggles a lot of plot lines in the air all at once. Personally speaking, I never once lost track of what's going on, but at the same time when I was conditioning myself to expect the odd jump cuts in the narrative I often found the film surprising me by what was and wasn't going to happen. Actually, HEAVEN is full of surprises, which is what's so good about it. I wouldn't think that the character of Heaven would be so compelling (or so well played by Edwards, who hasn't done much since) or that the film's fits of humor and violence would be as impactful as they are, but they are.

In a way, HEAVEN looks like a prototypical indie movie of the 1990s, a sort of PULP FICTION meets THE CRYING GAME, but instead of being yet another tired example of its genre it turns out to be the last work of real substance. Credit this to writer/director Reynolds, adapting Chad Taylor's 1994 novel, for taking material that could have floundered on the screen and making it exciting storytelling. Setting the film in his native New Zealand, the fact that the three leads are all Americans in New Zealand (no efforts are made to disguise the location, thank goodness) is a little off-putting at first, but quickly brushes aside as the story progresses. This is one of the few films about divorce that lets things get really ugly and Donovan and Going are both sensational, never better, in fact. Schiff is likewise terrific as a sleazy nightclub owner, funny one moment (he has a great monologue where he describes his dream movie called "Chairman of the Board"), convincingly psychotic the next and, again, Edwards is excellent as Heaven. Reynolds' games with the narrative never once loses focus on the characters; he wisely keeps them the focus so that when he tells the story out of sequence we're still caught up in their plight. Knowing this was a Miramax release, I can't help but wonder just how much the Weinsteins tried to fuck with it and how much of Reynolds' vision actually survived. Considering that the film's running time in New Zealand is the same as it is here, I'm hopeful that it survived completely intact.

Reynolds has only made one film since HEAVEN (the slight but effective thriller WHEN STRANGERS APPEAR) and outside of some work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy for pal Peter Jackson (whose partner Frances Walsh gets a script consultant credit here), he's still M.I.A. and I'd love to see him come up with something new. Just as good, I'd love to see HEAVEN finally find an audience and get some recognition, because it's a good fucking movie.

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