Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Reagan in "Miller's Crossing" now streaming on Disney+.
Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Reagan in "Miller's Crossing" now streaming on Disney+.
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Like many of us in recent weeks, I’ve spent hours exploring the vast amount of previously unavailable content that’s now on offer to Disney+ subscribers. 

Hidden among all the family-friendly, classic children’s entertainment, animated cuteness, superhero and Star Wars-related offerings there are also some discerning, more adult, cinema titles to be found — if you have the patience to look and, of course most importantly, control of the remote.

THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL:

Bringing out the Dead — Disney+

After the somewhat uncharacteristic, aesthetically reserved but politically correct examination of the life of the Dalai Lama in 1997’s Kundun and before the baroque epic of his 2002 passion project Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese reteamed with his 1970s right-hand man,  screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, for this dark, expressive adaptation of a novel by Joseph Connelly that heavily recalls in theme, content and structure their classic 1976 trailblazer Taxi Driver.

Starring Nicolas Cage, it’s the story of three ruthlessly relentless high-drama nights in the life of Manhattan ambulance paramedic Frank Pierce who is haunted by the ghosts of the patients he’s lost and burning out spectacularly in a haze of booze, pills and PTSD.

Though received a little on the lukewarm side by critics at the time, it now stands as perhaps the last great example of the freewheeling, frenzied Scorsese style that was such a vital part of what made previous films such as  Goodfellas and Casino such singular masterworks of late 20th-century American cinematic art.

It’s also a reminder of a time when Cage was still a serious actor with serious acting chops who had a particular penchant for dark, broody characters on the edge of madness that would later be translated into a long line of self-parodying cliches in too many films of questionable quality.

Beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson and fuelled by a manic, nihilistic energy in performance and execution, it’s a hellish vision of a man and a city on the edge of a precipice that offers plenty of opportunity for complete annihilation and slim opportunities for some sort of redemption.

Schrader’s melancholic preoccupations with the struggle to maintain one’s soul in the face of social breakdown and existential paralysis are as evident here as they were in the story of taxi driver Travis Bickle. Even though the job and the outward façade of the city have changed, the inner battle remains as urgent and tumultuous as it ever was. 

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THE STONE COLD CLASSIC:

Miller’s Crossing — Disney+

The Coen Brothers’ distinctively eccentric homage to classic gangster films is a fast, smart-talking, ever-twisting and blackly comic noir gem.

Gabriel Byrne’s dark Irish charm and blue-eyed stare were never better than  here. He plays the Irish mob’s second-in-command Tom Reagan whose relationship with his ruddy faced, cigar-chomping boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney in fine form) is intricately complicated by the fact that they’re both seeing Leo’s girlfriend, Verna Bernabaum (Marcia Gay Harden), whose pathetically snivelling brother Leo (John Turturro) is about to get them all into a bucket-load of trouble with the Italian mob and its leader, the cartoonish but also ruthlessly unplayable Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito).

This, their third film, is one of their best and remains endlessly rewatchable and rewarding

The stage is set for a wildly inventive and blood-soaked adventure that’s breathtakingly designed, tightly plotted and stuffed with memorably eccentric characters in a uniquely Coenesque package. It’s impressively shot by Barry Sonnenfeld and perfectly attuned to the spirit of its other major influence — the complicated plot expert and dark side of human nature master observer, pulp legend Dashiell Hammett.

The brothers may have recently announced their separation as directing partners, but their long and productive career as the most innovative and inventive two-headed beast in recent cinema history has been firmly cemented. This, their third film, is one of their best and remains endlessly rewatchable and rewarding both as a brilliant tribute to the classics of 1930s gangster films and a shining example of all the things that have made the Coen Brothers a genre unto themselves. 

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THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:

Ed Wood — Disney+

Before Johnny Depp became a bloated caricature of himself in a very public, nasty and messy libel suit with his ex-wife Amber Heard, and long before he chose the massive pay cheques  for easy work in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise over meatier, more emotionally challenging roles,  the actor enjoyed a particularly productive creative partnership with his weirdo spirit twin Tim Burton.

Their 1990 collaboration on Edward Scissorhands gave Depp his breakout role and launched him on the road to overblown ego superstardom and this second collaboration proved even more creatively fruitful.

Depp plays cult-legend director and unofficial “worst filmmaker in history”, the frustratingly optimistic but always charming and sometimes cross-dressing B-movie, low-budget creator Ed Wood.

Featuring an Oscar-winning performance from veteran screen legend Martin Landau in the supporting role of cult-horror actor Bela Lugosi and a peak-form ensemble that includes Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette, it’s a tender story of a group of misunderstood misfits and the man whose enthusiasm drove them to infamy, elegantly filmed in nostalgic black and white, lovingly dedicated to the B-movies, which so strongly influenced Burton and featuring one of Depp’s most committed and memorable performances.

Burton and Depp would go on to  a string of further collaborations marked by uneven tone and excessive caricature, but this still remains an all-round brilliant film about creative struggle and the madness of the movies and the people who dedicate their lives to making them.

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