-Michael Arias is a patient man. He fought a
very long time for a chance to prove his worth as a director, grabbing
it with both hands when it finally came along. And with success, as the
world took notice. And yet, for his second feature film interest seems
rather limited. Completely unjustified in my opinion, as it's easily
one of the best films of 2009 (so far).
With only two feature films to his name, Arias' career is already
worth a bunch of studies and books. He was the first American ever to
direct a film at Studio 4°C and almost beat them at their own game.
Tekon Kinkreet is one of the greatest animes to have come along in the
last couple of years, displaying a sense of style and energy not often
seen beyond the Japanese borders.
Perhaps fans of Tekon are still awaiting Arias' next animation
project, but in the mean time he took some time to direct a live-action
film. Again he traveled to Japan to make a film that feels very
Japanese. Heaven's Door is wildly different from other outsiders'
attempts at capturing Japan, most notably failing efforts of Gondry
(Tokyo!), Carax (Tokyo!) and Coppola (Lost in Translation). Arias' film
still differs from the locale cuisine, but succeeds in adding something
other than a failure of cultural understanding.
Heaven's Door contains serious nods to Kitano's oeuvre, especially
Kikujiro and Hana-bi, though the story leans closer to Kazushi
Watanabe's 19. Heaven's Door, a rework of a German film, brings
together two dying souls. Both of them are terminally ill and decide to
enjoy their last breaths together. Somewhat oblivious of the law they
start their trip in a stolen car to catch one last glimpse of the sea.
When they find out the trunk of the car is loaded with money, they let
their inhibitions slip while being chased by the police and the rather
shady owner of the car.
Arias already showcased a very keen eye for visual glamor in Tekon
and confirms his talent in Heaven's Door. Though more down to earth and
a bit more sober, the camera's movements are meticulously planned, as
is the use of color. While the film doesn't really contain wild flashes
of visual brilliance, the overall effect is mesmerizing and very
stylish indeed. Add to that some wicked editing tricks and you have a
film that knows how to seduce.
For the soundtrack Arias turned to Plaid once again. I must admit
that their sound works way much better in film than it does on CD. I'm
not a big fan of Plaid, but as gentle background music or soft leading
score it works miracles. All of this comes together in the hotel scene
around halfway through, creating a rather perfect blend of visuals and
sound. Acting is solid too with Tomoya Nagase reminiscing Odagiri's
style of acting and Fukuda making sure her part is believable, even
within the somewhat strange and unnatural setting.
Though the film features a series of strange side characters and
has a rather elaborate subplot centered around a criminal businessman,
the film's main focus is the young couple's blossoming friendship. As
the film progresses Arias inserts something touching and real, and when
at one point the much younger Fukuda takes Nagase in her arms in
assures him he need not be afraid, that everything will be alright, set
to the dying notes of Plaid's piano, Arias hits the spot with the
biggest emotional sledge hammer you can imagine. It's a key scene in
the film demonstrating that Heaven's Door is more than a simple
feel-good, hip and funky road flick.
Arias' sense of humor is considerably different from Kitano's, but
Heaven's Door could be mistaken for one made by a Kitano apprentice.
Arias has a more modern sense of style and direction, giving the film
its very own face, but there's just something very familiar about the
couple reaching the beach in the final scene of the film. Arias is nice
enough to serve the audience the ending they've been longing for, which
in this case is the least cruelest way out and totally justified. So
for all fans of Tekon and Kitano out there, give this one a chance.
Chances are Arias won't disappoint.
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