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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/30/03

Two Early Films by the Coen Brothers

review by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Miller's Crossing Miller's Crossing
20th Century Fox - 1990 (2003)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C

Specs and Features

115 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered, keep case packaging, Barry Sonnenfeld featurette, cast interviews (with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden and John Turturro), still gallery, theatrical trailers, animated film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 4.0), Spanish and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Barton Fink Barton Fink
20th Century Fox - 1991 (2003)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/C-

Specs and Features

116 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered, keep case packaging, 8 deleted scenes, still gallery, theatrical trailers, animated film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), Spanish and French (DD 1.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

It is arguably these two films (released a year apart from one another in '90 and '91 respectively) that firmly established the voice and place of the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Fargo) in Hollywood - somewhat on the fringe, yet breathing down its neck. Their two previous films were both wonderful in their own right, but it was with these films that they began to show a greater maturity and confidence in their abilities. It was these films that also made the world, particularly the French (Barton Fink took the top three prizes at Canne, the first film to do so if my memory serves me correctly), take notice to a much greater degree.

In Miller's Crossing, a prohibition-era gangster film, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is the right-hand-man to Leo (Albert Finney), an Irish mob boss. When an ambitious Italian gangster (Jon Polito) asks Leo to give up a two-bit grifter named Bernie (John Turturro), who has been leaking information about fixed fights, Leo refuses and the fun begins. Leo can't give up Bernie because he's in love with Bernie's sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), unfortunately so is Tom. Needless to say, things start getting messy as Tom tries to stop a gang war, save his own neck, and get the girl (not necessarily in that order).

Crossing is a fine film, with plenty of narrative twists and turns, and explosions of violence that flirt with the horror genre not necessarily in the level of gore, but definitely in tone. As a side note, look for the Coens' friend and ex-horror director Sam Raimi in a cameo as an all too excited gunman late in the film. The film is not without its faults though, primarily in Marcia Gay Harden's performance. Verna is supposed to be a tough-as-nails con-artist and seductress, but Harden's performance is so flat that, although she comes across as tough, she shows little in the seduction realm. It's difficult to see how Tom and Leo get pulled in to her (especially Tom, who spells out exactly what she is early in the film) and the film falters a bit because of it. The rest of the cast, however, is fantastic, as is the film's look, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Get Shorty), who does probably the best work of his career here. All in all this is a near perfect film and one of the Coen Bros. Most accessible, recommended highly all around.

Before I even begin to talk about Barton Fink, let me say one thing: I have seen this film a lot. It is one of my favorite films, and it never ceases to entertain and confound me in new and interesting ways upon each viewing. I also understand that there are people out there who can't stand this film; it is definitely a love it or hate it experience, but I do feel that it truly necessitates multiple viewings for it to begin to take shape.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a populist New York playwright who decides (at his agent's request) to relocate to Hollywood and write for 'the pictures' for awhile, hoping to earn enough money to live off of so he can return to writing for the theater back home. There is one problem, when he gets to Hollywood the heat is sweating the wallpaper off the walls, there's a mosquito in his room, one of his idols is a belligerent drunk, he knows nothing about wrestling pictures, and he can't write more that an opening sentence. Feeling isolated from the 'common man' (one of which Barton certainly isn't) he turns to his gregarious neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman) for inspiration. That's about as comfortable as I feel going as far as a plot summary is concerned. It's a simple beginning to a film that is anything but, and is still the crowning jewel in the almost sickeningly impressive Coen Bros. catalog. It is also worth noting again that this is also probably the most divisive film in their career, probably due to the film's shift in tone about halfway through. The only thing I will say about this point is that I feel this shift occurs in order to increase our empathy with Barton, who's move to Hollywood, it could be argued, has a similar effect on him. Anyway, the cast and crew uniformly do a superb job. Every bit-part, walk-on, just plain everyone is firing on all cylinders. Overall, it's a difficult film, but one that I feel is infinitely rewarding to those who get in to it.

As for the discs, I must say that I was initially disappointed in the relative lack of extras, but it is such a pleasure to finally have these discs available that I'm not going to complain too much. Visually the discs are decent, with a pair of solid new transfers with great color and shadow detail. There is a bit of haloing and print damage during the opening credits of Barton Fink, but they soon seem to fade away (thought not completely, there is a little dirt here and there) once the film proper gets going. Comparatively, Miller's Crossing (the older of the films) fairs better with a print that is in much better shape, even the Fox logo is substantially cleaner. Regardless, I must say that Fink looks better than it did when I first saw it in the theater and both transfers manage to retain a film-like feel to their presentation. Sound is a mixed bag. There are no new surround mixes, which is fine since big-budget action spectaculars these are not. However, the voices do seem to be buried a bit too low in the mix causing some leveling issues, but the sound is clean and adequately represents the original theatrical sound experience.

Supplements are lean, but fairly decent, with a series of interviews for Miller's Crossing (the featurette with Barry Sonnenfeld is the clear stand-out) and a few deleted scenes on the Barton Fink disc, which are nice, but nothing earth shattering. Both discs also contain small still galleries and theatrical trailers (including one for Raising Arizona). There is one major issue that I must raise with the Barton Fink disc, however, which concerns the menus. Is it too much to ask to not have the film's ending ruined by the menu? In this case, the menu is composed entirely of a scene from the last 10 minutes of the film! Talk about major spoilers, this is an enormous disappointment and if you're going to sit down to watch this film for the first time, or are with someone for the first time, stop the disc as it is loading and just press play, avoid the menu at all costs.

Overall, it is difficult to be too disappointed with these discs because the films are so strong. Caveats about Barton Fink aside, I recommend both discs highly, with Miller's Crossing being your safer, but not as rewarding, bet.

Rob Hale
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Miller's Crossing

Barton Fink

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