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Region 4 DVD Reviews: Gangsters and betrayal - darkness rules

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, June/July 2004, v.35#3

Miller's Crossing cover Miller's Crossing
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Steven Buscemi and Albert Finney
Road to Perdition cover Road to Perdition
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Liam Aiken, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Daniel Craig
Movie: A, Picture: A+, Sound: A, Extras: C Movie: A, Picture: A, Sound: A, Extras: B
The Coen brothers (O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo) went dark after the hilarious Raising Arizona. Miller's Crossing was the last collaboration between them and their Director of Photography, Barry Sonnenfeld (as Director: Men in Black I & II); a collaboration which had endured since the first feature film for all three, Blood Simple, in 1984.

Sonnenfeld changed his style from the razor sharp wide-angled shooting of Arizona for this tight-rope of a gangster movie. Walking the tight-rope is Gabriel Byrne, whose character is full of contradictions. It's the 1930s. He works for a mob boss (Albert Finney) and is steely and smart, yet hopelessly addicted to gambling. He switches sides--or does he?--to rival gangsters, manipulating his way through several beatings and tense near-revelations of his lack of obedience to their demands.

Darkness also characterises the photography. Think Rembrandt. The shades are mostly browns with the golden highlights of incandescent lighting. The effect, in these post-industrial times, seems 'natural'. There are beatings and shootings and stabbings, bodies and blood, and double crosses in business, in friendship and in love. Yet the plot, though convoluted, remains coherent, and for all this is one of the most conventional produced by the Coens. But still it keeps you guessing.

The rendition on DVD is excellent in all regards. The picture is beautifully presented (thanks in part to the generous 6.32Mbps video bit rate), but demands a darkened room for viewing even on a conventional TV, or much of the dark detail (and there is an enormous amount of this) will be lost. The sound is fine, although it is in the rarely used 4.0 format (three front channels, one surround). Extras are adequate, although a commentary track by the Coens would have been a nice addition.

What's a director to do? Sam Mendes' debut feature film, American Beauty, still scores 29th place on the Internet Movie Database's (imdb.com) generally sensible list of best films (it sits between Goodfellas and Sunset Blvd as I write). Inevitably his next movie would be a disappointment.

Except that it wasn't. Okay, it scores 247 on IMDB (not far above Hitchcock's The Birds) and well below the 197 for Miller's Crossing. But that's still very high. In any case, Mendes achieves the feat, as he did in his previous work, of making you care deeply, intensely, for a deeply detestable man (played by Tom Hanks).

Again it's classic gangster time, with prohibition era cars, the depressing city surroundings, and Hanks working for his father (Paul Newman) in his illegal activities. But unlike Miller's Crossing, except for his line of work, the central character does indeed appear to have solid middle-class family values. Until most of his family is taken from him.

Then it is seeking revenge, achieving success in the endeavour, and having it all taken away again.

There is more colour in this movie than Miller's. Some actually occurs in daylight. And it is skillfully managed to manipulate the viewer's emotions, especially as the end nears and, despite oneself, the switch to a beach scene engenders calm and closure. Prematurely.

The photography is magnificent and the DVD transfer excellent (5.95Mbps for the video). The audio is fine too, although the music is more conventional than our other dark movie. There are enough extras to help your understanding, and to wind down after the credits have rolled by, with the commentary track by the director especially welcome.

Just remember the title as you're watching. It may seem like the road to Redemption, but it isn't.

Running time: 110 minutes
Aspect: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Sound track: English: Dolby Digital 3/1.0, 384kb/s; French, German, Italian, Spanish: Dolby Digital 2/0.0 (Dolby Pro Logic encoded), 192kb/s
Subtitles: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish
Features: Featurette: 'Shooting Miller's Crossing: A Conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld' (17 mins); Soundbite interviews, Stills
Running time: 112 minutes
Aspect: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Sound track: Dolby Digital 3/2.1, 448kb/s; Russian: Dolby Digital 3/2.1, 384kb/s; Commentary: Dolby Digital 2/0.0, 192kb/s
Subtitles: Bulgarian, Croation, Czech, Dutch, English, Estonian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Latvian (Lettish), Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, English Commentary
Features: Audio commentary, Deleted scenes,'The Making Of' featurette, Photo gallery, cast and production notes

© 2002-2011, Stephen Dawson