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Warner Home Video presents
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
DVD ReviewThe DVD and Extras Reviews are by Jon Danziger.
It's easy to run out of superlatives when you're talking about a movie like GoodFellas. Before it came out in 1990, the first two Godfather pictures were unquestionably the gold standard for mob movies, and served as unintentional training films for a generation of Mafiosi—even just a cursory glance at the wardrobe of John Gotti yields the obvious conclusion that the Dapper Don went to school on Michael Corleone. And for close to twenty years, Coppola's movies were our prevailing image of the cosa nostra, organized crime's image of its best self.
GoodFellas, among its many other accomplishments, demonstrates that The Godfather is opera. (Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.) In Scorsese's movie, we've moved a number of rungs down the criminal food chain, and we see the petty thuggery and thievery for exactly what it is: guys grabbing as much as they can, because they can, because they've got the threat of violence to back it up. (You got a problem with that?) And as with Coppola's films, Scorsese's is a story told with such a high level of craft that it's hypnotic—at first, it taps into our love of gangster movies, and getting to the root of their appeal, for we get to participate, vicariously, at least, in the transgressions of the characters. Then it all gets unraveled, not in a grand, top-of-the-world-ma moment, but through avarice and stupidity, which with violence form the triangular underpinnings of the ways of made men.
In writing his bestselling book, Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi had unfettered access to Henry Hill, who poured out his life to the journalist; Pileggi and Scorsese collaborated on the screenplay based on the book, and it's a whole lot more than just straw for Marty to spin into gold. It's rich with detail, both about the intricacies of the obvious criminality, and about the relationships between these guys, their families, their customs, their codes, and particularly their food. At times, watching the picture, you can almost smell the gravy. (Think about cooking before you pop in the DVD; a harried call to the pizza guy is a poor substitute.) Henry, half Italian, half Irish, grew up worshiping the local mobsters, and soon inured himself into their world; this movie is the story of his rise and fall, and of the journeys his buddies take along the way.
Chief among them is Tommy De Vito, perhaps the most fully rounded psychopath in the history of cinema. Joe Pesci gets at both his mania and his charm; he's dangerous and he's crazy, but he loves his mother, and as long as you don't look at him the wrong way, he can show you a hell of a time. (Pesci's character intro—"Funny how?"—is one of the great arias in all of movies.) Robert De Niro plays Jimmy Conway, in a less showy part, but he still exudes menace; and Paul Sorvino as the boss of the family is a lumbering intimidator, his focus on his sausage and peppers never detracting him from the business at hand.Home life isn't any cheerier for Henry—we see his courtship, wedding, and deeply problematic marriage to Karen (played smartly by Lorraine Bracco), who starts out as a sort of audience surrogate, getting enticed into the life. Actors love Scorsese, and it isn't difficult to see why—with the exception of De Niro, this film marks the unquestioned high onscreen watermark for just about all of them. De Niro gets top billing, but Ray Liotta as Henry carries the story—he had been memorable in other roles previously (as Melanie Griffith's psycho boyfriend in Something Wild, for instance, or as Shoeless Joe Jackson, batting from the wrong side of the plate, in Field of Dreams), but he's so astonishingly well suited to this role that he'll always and forever be Henry Hill.
At least as good as the actors are the usual behind-the-scenes suspects on a Scorsese picture, and this movie seems to have brought out the very best work from all of them. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing provides the taut, frightening pace, and there couldn't be enough praise for director of photography Michael Ballhaus, whose sinuously moving camera consistently sets the tone and provides us with glorious visual information. It's a movie that's respectful of its audience, too—we aren't spoonfed information, we aren't told what to think and feel; unlike so many other movies, this one treats us like adults. And the technical accomplishments of the film aren't show-offy for no reason, but are all in service of the story.
Perhaps the best instance of this is one of Henry's first dates with Karen, when he takes her to the Copacabana. We start outside the club, with Henry parking his car; and the whole scene is done in one extended Steadicam shot, following the couple into the Copa basement, through the kitchen, up the stairs to be greeted by the maitre d', and then led to their table down in front, in spitting distance from the evening's entertainment, Mr. Henny Youngman. Technically, it's an amazing piece of work; fluid, active, always appropriately framed. And in story terms, we're soaking up information about Henry, his world, and his standing in that world; we can feel what's so alluring about mob life. (Contrast this with, say, Brian De Palma's pointlessly long subway shot in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and you get a sense of what happens when form is divorced from content.)
And if GoodFellas was in some ways Scorsese's inevitable reaction to The Godfather, it's easy to see how this movie spawned The Sopranos, and informs every mob movie made since. David Chase's series is peppered with GoodFellas vets—not just Bracco, but also Michael Imperioli and, fleetingly, Tony Sirico—and the HBO show is obviously informed by Scorsese's storytelling style. (Chase has referred to the movie as the Koran; The Godfather remains his Bible.) But the influence of the movie and its slew of pale imitators do nothing to dim the accomplishment of Scorsese and his team; on the back of the DVD case, Roger Ebert is quoted as calling this "the best mob movie ever." He's right, and that might not even go far enough; it's one of the best movies ever, period. That's the flavor.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The HD transfer is stunning, with extreme amounts of fine detail (you can see exactly how bad Liotta's skin is), vivid color, deep, deep blacks and lovely texture. The closeup of Liotta's eye during the credits is amazing in its quality on the 1080p rendition included here. Scorsese's many long steadicam pans are clean and without motion artifacts. There are some high-contrast moments that suffer from ringing (whether compression artifacts or ill-conceived edge enhancement is not clear), but on the whole it's gorgeous. There is one nasty red scratch down the center of one short shot of De Niro, but the source is otherwise flawless. While the SD version of this same transfer got kudos from Jon, the HD version makes it look sad. Very attractive.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The period music really makes the film, and the mix brings the tunes far forward and pulls the viewer right into the time period. The directionality isn't overwhelming, but when it's there it definitely gets the viewer's attention. The 5.1 DD+ audio track has nice vitality and is quite clean. There's a nice presence that has some subtleties to it, though it's never intended to be a showpiece of audio.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu
Scene Access with 47 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Martin Scorsese, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; 2) Henry Hill and FBI agent Edward
Extras Review: Except for the trailer, which thankfully is presented in HD, all of the other extras are presented in standard definition.
Aside from the feature one finds two commentary tracks. The first is crammed with the filmmakers, and it's crowded; there are some interesting bits here, but less might have been more. Anyway, Pileggi talks us through the genesis of the project; producer Irwin Winkler confesses that he was opposed to casting Liotta, but came around; and Schoonmaker and Ballhaus provide invaluable technical insight. Scorsese presides, and as usual, he's very good. The track has been set up to jump ahead to scenes with commentary, so there are no annoying blank patches; it runs just about two hours. On the second track, Henry Hill himself chats with Edward McDonald, the FBI agent who oversaw the case against Hill, and who plays himself in the movie. McDonald becomes the de facto interviewer, and Hill's stories have been trotted out a lot; still, they're worth listening to. And lest you think that all of this is nice and fancy and safe, occasional names are bleeped out, no doubt for legal reasons.
The disc also features a trailer and a quartet of documentaries. Getting Made (29m:34s) features almost all of those heard on the first commentary track, and repeats some of the same anecdotes; footage of Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci is from the film's theatrical release, while the rest seem to have been shot for DVD. The Workaday Gangster (07m:57s) features more of the same, and more of Hill, comparing low-level wiseguys with Corleone-style royalty. The influence of the film is evident in Made Men: The GoodFellas Legacy (13m:32s), interviews with directors paying homage; they include Antoine Fuqua, Richard Linklater, and Frank Darabont. Finally, Paper is Cheaper Than Film (04m:27s) compares and contrasts Scorsese's script notes and storyboard sketches with the final product; it's just enough to make you hungry for more.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsCritical consensus frequently puts Raging Bull ahead of GoodFellas in the pantheon of all-time great films, but choosing between them is like asking a parent to choose between children, and it's time to show Henry Hill and la famiglia some love. It's hard to imagine Scorsese or anyone else making a film that is more accomplished, more entertaining or more influential than this one, and no picture could be more worthy of this full-boat special edition DVD treatment, with a sparkling HD transfer. Nobody does blood and pasta better than Scorsese. Now go back and get your shinebox.
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