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Heaven and Earth

Heaven and Earth is one of Oliver Stone's best films, but it is also one of his least seen. The movie seems to have made only about $5 million in the U.S., and presumably American viewers at the time had had enough Vietnam, from Oliver Stone and other directors. Or perhaps Stone's tale of a Vietnamese woman struggling to survive the war, and then coping with a new culture, just didn't appeal to them in 1993. Based on two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth chronicles the life of this remarkable woman, who is played by newcomer Hiep Thi Le. The story follows her from a bucolic village life, where the encroaching war disrupts her close-knit family, and then on to Saigon and America. Her mother (Joan Chen) is a typically cruel mom (in the Stone manner), sending her boys off to die much as Ron Kovic's did in Born on the Fourth of July. In the country, Le Ly spies for the Viet Cong, then is tortured by the South Vietnamese army. Released through the intervention of an uncle, she finds herself spurned by both sides of the conflict. Ending up in Saigon, Le Ly is at first a maid in a wealthy man's household (before being thrown out after he impregnates her), and then briefly a prostitute. Eventually, she meets Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones, in a role formed from a composite of several men), who takes her and her kids to America. There, she finds it difficult to adapt to American customs — or to exploitation by other refugees — as well as the collapse of her marriage. But Le Ly prevails, eventually developing the East Meets West Foundation; and later she began to visit Vietnam. Heaven and Earth is superbly acted, and Jones gives one of his very best performances, alternately kind and tortured by memories. Warner's DVD release offers a beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and the greens of the rice fields are especially lush. The soundtrack is effective in Dolby Digital 5.1, with a Dolby 2.0 Surround track in French. The audio commentary by Stone is a gentle, scene-specific account of how he came to make the movie, covering how he met the real Le Ly, what she is doing now, how he cast the film, and the difficulties of shooting in Thailand. Most interesting are nine deleted and expanded scenes with optional commentary, amounting to about 48 minutes of material. The most significant is a 20-minute alternate opening sequence — with different music, it changes the film quite a lot, emphasizing the agricultural peasant life of the village where we first meet Le Ly. These deleted scenes shade a little red in color, but otherwise are surprisingly clean. Talent files on Jones, Haing S. Ngor (who plays Le Ly's father), Chen, and Le. Theatrical trailer (in 2.35:1), snap-case.
—D.K. Holm

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