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Heaven & Earth

Twilight Time // R // December 9, 2014 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Neil Lumbard | posted January 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Heaven & Earth is a 1993 dramatic film from acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone (Salvador, JFK, Nixon). Based upon the memoirs written by Le Ly Hayslip (along with Jay Wurtis) entitled: "When Heaven And Earth Changed Places", Stone adapted the memoir as screenwriter and director.  Starring Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly, Heaven & Earth is a sweeping epic spanning the years from Le Ly's childhood, to during the War in Vietnam, to Le Ly's stay in America, and lastly to her eventual return home to Vietnam.

Stone directed three films about the war in Vietnam and these efforts became known as Stone's Vietnam Trilogy. The first in the trilogy was Platoon (which was based on his own experiences in the Vietnam war). The trilogy continued with Born on the Fourth of July, which was about the way American soldiers were often ignored and forgotten after returning home from the war (and with deep personal scars carried with them). The trilogy concludes with Heaven & Earth, which presents an account of a Vietnamese woman's experiences during and resulting from the war in Vietnam and of the ordinary people of Vietnam who struggled to survive amidst the chaos.

Heaven & Earth presents a series of events both as the war proceeds and following events of the war. It focuses on what happened to Le Ly as a result of the Vietnam war, with one horrifying tragedy happening on top of another for her. The horror and tragedy she faced while living in Vietnam as a result of the Vietnam war was significant. After the American involvement in the Vietnam War begins, Le Ly is brutalized by every participant in the war. She struggles to even survive. Eventually, Le Ly and Mama (Joan Chen) come to stay with a rich Vietnamese family. Le Ly is seduced by the father in the household, who she believes to love her. After becoming pregnant, her Mama tries to keep them in the household by offering up her daughter as being a "second wife" to the man who Le Ly slept with. Both Le Ly and her mother are thrown out of  the house. Penniless and without work, Le Ly struggles to find work and she eventually gives birth to a son. Her hardships become even greater now that she must try and take care of her child.

Eventually, Le Ly meets and falls in love with a United States Marines Corps. soldier named Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones). Though she finds him to be charming and sweet and their relationship is initially positive for both of them, things start to complicate when the couple marries and moves to America together. Upon leaving Vietnam for America, Le Ly is greeted with racial insensitivity (a character named Eugenia (Debbie Reynolds) even says to her "aren't you just a little China Doll!"), and finds that Butler is controlling of her and that he doesn't want her doing anything besides being a house-wife. Le Ly wants to work and live outside the home. Their relationship begins to have problems and is filled with highs and lows. The one positive element keeping them together is the children they raise together.

The only work Butler knows how to do relates to his service in the military. He knows no other form of work. In order to earn a better wage for the family he accepts a promotion helping the US military sell weapons to other countries and factions, including those involved in the war in Vietnam (where countless were being killed). Enraged that her husband makes a living off of something that leads to violence and death for those in her country, Le Ly threatens divorce, Butler becomes violent, and a sequence of events shows things spiraling out of control. Le Ly's husband is haunted by his past in the military, where he was given lists of people to kill without any explanation. As events unfold, Le Ly faces more trauma. She eventually leaves America to come back to Vietnam (along with her children).

The film's ending carries a note of hopefulness with a poetic grace. As explained in the film, the real Le Ly managed to return to Vietnam, helping others in her home country and eventually starting a non-profit organization which provided aid to others. Her story was one of great survival and of overcoming the harsh cruelty of the world that surrounded her in her life. Unquestionably, Le Ly is a survivor. She is someone with a strong spirit who worked to eventually find peace for herself after the terrible atrocities she suffered. As she became a successful leader helping those in Vietnam one can't help but hope that maybe someday a production can be made that explores these years of Le Ly's life.

The acting in the film is uniformly effective and impressive. Hiep Thi Le delivers a remarkably bold and powerful performance as Le Ly. Her brilliant portrayal of the character is one which carries with it great empathy, passion, and skill. Viewers will be able to tell that Hiep Thi Le delved into the role with dedication to the performance as she clearly wanted to help tell the important story of Le Ly by presenting her as fully formed and as effectively as she could. It certainly is a terrific performance: easily one of the best to ever come from a Oliver Stone production (which is especially noteworthy given that Stone is known for helping actors to deliver powerful performances). Tommy Lee Jones also gives one of his career-best as the troubled husband of Le Ly.

The cinematography is astoundingly realized with some of the most beautiful and sweeping shots in any Oliver Stone feature film, with great color hues of green and blue amidst the environment. These moments demonstrate the sheer power of landscape shots with the right cinematographer as there are many powerful scenes captured with photographic beauty by Richardson. When it comes to showing the beautiful naturalism of earth through Vietnam's landscape, the film has succeed at showcasing a rich beauty that feels epic in scope and highly personal. It's a smart counterbalance to the horrors of the story: Richardson shows the land with a keen eye for a positive view of God's land. Of course, the cinematographer also managed to portray the horrifying moments with dark color palettes and a sort of claustrophobic, dreary world realization which makes the film's photographic element highly fascinating to behold. Richardson, most famously known for his collaborations with Oliver Stone (including productions like the other Vietnam Trilogy films Platoon andBorn on the Fourth of July), impresses with one of his best efforts.

The production design for Heaven & Earth was done by Victor Kempster (JFK, Nixon). As a regular Oliver Stone collaborator, Kempster continued to bring forth high quality production values to the films of Stone. Kempster succeeded at helping the effort to look expensive (and because the film had a 33 million budget, it seems the production benefited greatly from that attribute) . Kempster's value as a production designer shines through throughout the film. The look created for the homes and buildings in Vietnam were highly detailed and elaborately done. Kempster also impresses with a effective job at presenting a view of American grocery stores: highlighting both the beauty of a seemingly endless array of neatly packaged and lined up grocery items while painting a horrific contrast to what Le Ly experienced while living in Vietnam (which was a lack of access to foods in such a manner).  Stone's directorial style emphasized this effectively with an almost fish-eye lensing of the sequence of Le Ly in the shopping center.

The original score for the film was composed by Kitaro. The score is hauntingly beautiful and is a masterpiece of film composition. At the 1993 Golden Globes Kitaro took home the award for "Best Original Score". The score manages to succeed at feeling richly layered: beautiful while deeply sad at the same time. It's an impressive score which was terrifically composed and it's melodic beauty added a great deal to Heaven & Earth.

The costumes were designed by Ha Nguyen (Super 8, The Mask), who provides authenticity to both the Vietnamese attire and the classic American style of clothing from the time-period. The clothing was always something that seemed to blend seamlessly into the rest of the high quality production merits. From the villagers attire in Vietnam to the soldier's outfits, Nguyen created a impressive array of costumes for the actors and their parts.

The editing was done by David Brenner (Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Doors) and Sally Menke (frequent collaborator of Quentin Tarantino, having edited all of his films from Reservoir Dogs to Inglorious Basterds until her passing in 2010). Both Brenner and Menke are highly capable editors who created strong collaborations with the director's they work with. In utilizing two highly skilled editors, Stone's film has a strong pacing and flow which seems to allow adequate time to each sequence. The ebb and flow of the filmmaking excels because a strong editorial presence is felt throughout the effort.

Oliver Stone did an exceptional job making Heaven & Earth. Stone is easily one of Hollywood's most unique and gifted filmmakers. Every film he makes has his personal stamp on it and with his Vietnam films, Stone was likely never more personal. Stone lived a life which was directly connected to the Vietnam war because of his own experiences. His filmmaking reflects that abundantly. He wants the message of the film to succeed and he always strives to make an elaborate production as a result so that his filmmaking can come to life in an effective way.  Stone also does a terrific job of bringing out exceptional performances from his actors, who anchor the filmmaking with their contributions.

Stone's ultimate message of his Vietnam trilogy is clearly to show that the war hurt everyone involved in it. Heaven & Earth is meant to show the atrocities that were committed against the ordinary Vietnamese people, but it is also a film that Stone intended to end on a positive and hopeful note: showing that even amidst great evil and horror good can still overcome. This message makes Stone's Heaven & Earth one of his greatest accomplishments. Even though Heaven & Earth was largely ignored on release (with film critics giving mixed to negative reviews), and despite poor box-office this film strongly represents Stone at his absolute best. Heaven & Earth is a masterpiece.

The Blu-ray:


Video:

Presented with MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p video, Heaven & Earth finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time. There are two things that immediately spring to mind about the new Blu-ray edition: firstly, it no doubt presents the film with a substantial upgrade in quality as the colors, clarity, and richness of depth are all genuinely impressive. Secondly, that the release was made from an older master struck and is not representative of a complete restoration of the film's original elements. The print used for the presentation is somewhat worn and dated, which means specks of dirt and debris can be seen from time to time. There is also minor print wear which is a tad disappointing given Oliver Stone's epic scope of filmmaking. Even so, the cinematography is astounding on  this new high definition release, with the vision of Robert Richardson kept intact. Viewers will find the majority of the presentation impressive and the release is certainly one that has great merit and worth (even if it has some minor imperfections). The transfer is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and does not appear to have been tampered with as imperfections such as DNR, edge enchantment, and other distracting modifications are not on this presentation of the film. This is a naturally filmic presentation with a wonderful layer of fine film grain left intact.

It's great that Heaven & Earth has even received a upgrade to Blu-ray high-definition standards. Reportedly, Warner Bros. did not plan to release the film on Blu-ray themselves. The film was considered a box-office flop when it was originally released. Oliver Stone wanted the film to be released in high-definition (alongside Salvador and U Turn), so he became involved with Twilight Time and a three-film deal was struck to release the trio on Blu-ray through the label. This is wonderful news for fans of Stone's filmography. There is no doubt in my mind that this new Blu-ray edition of Heaven & Earthprovides the best presentation that the film has ever received on home media.

Audio:

Heaven & Earth has received a nice upgrade in the audio department as well with a impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound presentation encoded in 24 bit depth. The audio is involving and richly nuanced in the surrounds. Though the film uses sound effects in surround channels with relative moderation, the score composed by Kitaro provides the film with a great vibrancy.  The clarity present on this release will please audio enthusiasts primarily because of the wonderful score and it's immersive contribution to the filmmaking. The dialogue in Heaven & Earth also sounds crisp and clean throughout the presentation.

English SDH subtitles (for the deaf and hard of hearing) are also provided.

Extras:

As per the norm, Twilight Time includes a printed booklet featuring an essay written by critic Julie Kirgo.

On disc supplements include a feature length commentary track featuring screenwriter/director Oliver Stone, Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary by Stone), and an alternate opening sequence featuring music composed by Kitaro.

Lastly, the original theatrical trailer for Heaven & Earth has been provided.

Final Thoughts:

Based upon the memoirs of Le Ly, Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth is a powerful film with an important message about the ways in which the war in Vietnam affected those it touched. With a stunning performance delivered by Hiep Thi Le, the film manages to be one of the most effective and important films in Stone's filmography.

Twilight Time has released a quality Blu-ray with impressive PQ/AQ and a decent assortment of extras. Both the film and the Blu-ray release by Twilight Time come with a strong endorsement. Fans of the film should consider this a worthy purchase, as should those who are fans of Stone's other Vietnam films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.   

Highly Recommended.

Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.

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