From CG maestro to producer on [i]The Animatrix[/i] to director of the acclaimed [i]Tekkon Kinkreet[/i], Michael Arias has hit some dizzying high notes in his career thus far – his latest film is his first live-action feature, a remake of the 1997 German road movie [i]Knockin' On Heaven's Door[/i]. Two terminally ill misfit kindred spirits set off on a road trip to take a look at the ocean together before they die; slick, formulaic tearjerker, gritty arthouse miserablism or something in between? Find out after the break.
Everyone dies. Barring some fairly drastic scientific advances in the next few years, most of the Earth's population won't last the century. This simple truth has provided filmmakers with creative inspiration (of a sort) for decades now; given actors and actresses their big Oscar moments; made writers' names; served as a ready source of thematic material, or an easy button to push if there's any moment in the script the audience absolutely [b]must[/b] be in floods of tears. Nonetheless, so much of death as it's played out onscreen is about the Big Moment, the bold statement, and whether these grand gestures are supposed to be worthy or just treacly schmaltz they're largely something that happens to [b]other people[/b]. Even the grittiest piece of [i]cinema verité[/i] frequently seems to assume there's some grandiose nobility to the human spirit that would probably escape most of us were we to get the bad news.
Michael Arias' [i]Heaven's Door[/i] is as mundane a film about death, in one sense, as there's been in some time. This is the American-born Japanese native's sophomore feature – his first attempt at live action, his second film after the hugely under-rated [url=http://screenanarchy.com/site/view/fantasia-dispatch-1-tekkon-kinkreet/][i]Tekkon Kinkreet[/i][/url]. The story begins with Masato (Nagase Tomoya, [url=http://screenanarchy.com/site/view/review-for-kankuro-kudos-yaji-kita-midnight-pilgrims/][i]Yaji and Kita[/i][/url]), a layabout mechanic who's just been hit with the announcement he has an untreatable malignant brain tumour so advanced it's left him only a few days to live.
Resigned to his fate, Masato is admitted to hospital, where he meets Harumi (child actress Mayuko Fukuda, [url=http://screenanarchy.com/site/view/affd-review-l-change-the-world/][i]L: Change the World[/i][/url]), a young girl who's almost as badly off as he is, fighting a losing battle against terminal cancer and congenital heart disease. Bonding over their shared sardonic worldview, Masato discovers Harumi's been confined to the hospital for most of her life and – it turns out – has never seen the ocean. On a whim, Masato decides he's going to put this right, but when the two steal a car outside the hospital and head full tilt for the beach, things don't go quite as smoothly as they'd hoped.
It's impossible to criticise the film effectively without mild spoilers as regards one of the main plot points (mild in that most descriptions of the film online give it away regardless); soon after setting out, Masato and Harumi discover the car they're driving has a very large sum of money hidden in the back, something that leads to a three-way pursuit with the police tailing the duo, bad guys after the money, and the police slowly realising perhaps they ought to be chasing the bad guys also.
[i]Heaven's Door[/i] becomes a film of two halves, therefore, a journey of self-discovery and a (relatively) light-hearted caper movie, a split which leads to some of the strongest scenes in the film as well as numerous moments which simply don't feel as if they quite come off. To be blunt, the caper movie is by far the weaker element of the narrative, entertaining enough but vaguely superfluous with an ending that seems horribly perfunctory and overly dependent on dramatic convenience.
On the other hand, the journey to the beach is a flawed gem; an under-developed but hugely affecting and mostly importantly fantastically [b]human[/b] story, beautifully observed in a way that eludes many similar yet far more critically lauded projects. Masato is hardly a bad person by any definition, yet he's purposefully written as a cipher, a non-entity, someone perfectly average who's breezed through life barely affecting anyone around him. The film is quite clear he's done arguably nothing with himself in almost thirty years – no faux-nobility here – and that his was a poorly-thought-out snap decision that's put a thirteen-year-old girl in mortal danger (never mind she barely has any longer to live than he does).
Yet [i]Heaven's Door[/i] is ruthlessly objective enough that conversely Masato's clumsy attempts to do something meaningful with his last days on Earth, or to reach out to another human being for the first time in years, have a quietly emotive power far beyond most films with similar plotlines. One high point is a sequence where the two of them spend the gangsters' money in a lavish hotel, where the script repeatedly cuts from this to the police turning over Masato's pitiful apartment – it plays out like a deeper, richer version of similar scenes in Luc Besson's [i]Leon[/i], minus the didactics and queasy adolescent sexuality. All Masato's best efforts are childish, emotionally stunted and ultimately pointless, but in his trying regardless lies something far beyond the melodramatic posturing of something like HBO's [i]Six Feet Under[/i]. Arias avoids obvious moral pronouncements or predictable dramatic beats over and over again, with one expected confrontation near the climax almost entirely avoided and the finale left as a wordless coda instead of any opportunity for emotional grandstanding.
All of which makes it so much more frustrating Arias is repeatedly sidetracked by the need to return to the police and the bad guys hot on the duo's trail – [url=http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/michael_arias.shtml]in a recent [i]Midnight Eye[/i] interview[/url] he talks at length about his fascination with their journey through rural Japan and how it echoes the ramshackle cityscapes of [i]Tekkon Kinkreet[/i], a perfectly valid aim which unfortunately seems to have hamstrung great stretches of [i]Heaven's Door[/i]. Critical response in Japan seems to have focused heavily on the film as some kind of airy, stylised last-ditch crime spree, which is both doing it a mammoth disservice and an understandable reason to pan it. No-one involved seems that interested in anything beyond the main plot thread – while it's never less than watchable and many of the key scenes could not exist as they are without it, every moment Tomoya and Fukuda quietly confront their imminent deaths comfortably eclipses everything else.
[i]Heaven's Door[/i] is a great film regardless of this one crippling flaw – Arias is an extremely talented director, more comfortable with his live-action debut than could reasonably have been expected. The two leads turn in sterling performances, and Arias' decision to enlist UK electronica duo [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plaid_(band)]Plaid[/url] for the music (they also scored [i]Tekkon Kinkreet[/i]) proves a wise one. It's simply infuriating how close it comes to being a masterpiece – the high points linger a long, long time after the credits, but so do far too many key moments that could have been done much better or even excised entirely. Nonetheless, with that caveat – any prospective viewers should be prepared to end up rolling their eyes more than once – it still come hugely, hugely recommended.