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Category:    Home > Reviews > Gangster > Classical Gangster > Crime > Drama > GoodFellas (1990/Warner HD-DVD)

GoodFellas (HD-DVD)


Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: A-



Why has Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas remained the standout Gangster genre film of 1990 when so many great such films like Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace, The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Stephen Frears’ Scorsese-co-produced The Grifters, Peter Medak’s The Krays and others received major release, attention and usually critical praise?  Joanou’s film is remarkable and Miller’s is as great a film as The Coens will ever make.  The Grifters is as true Noir as you can get, even past Tarantino, while The Krays anticipated the cycle of British Gangster hits like Snatch and can hold its own against any film from that current cycle of Brit crime actioners.


Front and foremost, it is energy.  Scorsese is able through the screenplay he authored with Nicholas Pileggi; based on Pileggi’s novel Wiseguys, not just capture the violence, language, events and even implications of the crimes involved.  He once again goes a few steps further by capturing the ethnic culture surrounding the events, the reasons why this might be exciting or sexy and how once you get into this fastlane, it is addicting enough to not want to stop no matter how likely you could get killed in a flash is.


Ray Liotta is Henry Hill, who we join as a very young pre-teen man.  In the Kubrick tradition, we join the character at the beginning of where their exceptional story will take off and follows it to the end of the ride.  This also often means the end of individual freedom and real living.  For Hill, the ride was a long and strangely glorious one.  In an Old Italian neighborhood, he (played by younger Christopher Serrone with a subdued joy that he never gets enough credit for) quickly becomes the “good kid” local Mafia guys decide to embrace and take in.  This does not sit well with his family, but his socio-economic class and other fringe benefits outside of easy; dirty money eventually leads him to grow into this new family.


Flash forward (literally, if you know the film well) to his early adult period and he (Liotta) is hanging with Jimmy Conway (another great, understated Robert DeNiro performance), Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci in a performance so brilliantly dynamic that it still is underappreciated nearly two decades later, even though he got the Oscar for it!) in what will be an unbeatable “crew” like few in the annals of crime.


The FBI will be hot on their heels, but through lack of technology, underestimation and other factors, they will go onto some crazy crime misadventures that are as stark and disturbing as they are funny, turning pretentious ideas of morality and appropriateness upside down.  As each scheme happens, the stakes seems to rise incrementally.  The men also bond as conflict and distrust grow around them.  In another great irony in the film, they become more successful as the counterculture movement sets in, but it also brings new risks that leave them more vulnerable in the long run.  However, their activities seem to almost forerun the Civil Rights movements they get to take advantage of and as Italians, always get to walk a strange line between prejudice, assimilation and respectability.


The result is a film so real it is palpable, so real it is as if you took a time machine back to the time and with the swift-yet-rich pace that remains totally coherent and well-rounded, moves along at a breathtaking speed that is not just all movement and no substance.  It is a living history untold and hidden until this film brings light to it.  Few films are that good, but few filmmakers are as important or talented as Scorsese.  Few filmmakers have made as many classics in the first 100+ years of cinema, but he has and GoodFellas is one of them.


Be on the lookout for other great performances by Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s girlfriend Karen Hill, Frank Vincent, Debi Mazar, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Imperioli, Robbie Vinton as Bobby Vinton, Illeana Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Vincent Gallo and even Scorsese’ parents!


The 1080p 1.78 X 1 digital High Definition image is a mixed bag, but any trouble is not from the new format’s hardware or software, but from the strange transfer first seen in the standard DVD set recently issued separately and in a Scorsese box from Warner.  A popular title, it was a key widescreen 12” LaserDisc and early DVD release, so it is no surprise Warner would make it one of their first HD-DVDs.  Though this transfer is better than previous editions, there are issues with detail and depth in many scenes, which was the case with the new DVD set.  The transfer is just a bit odd in its limited flatness and the same HD master looks like it was used for both.


The cinematography by the great (and longtime Scorsese collaborator) Michael Ballhaus, A.S.C., is constantly amazing, creative, clever and one of the great artistic achievements in the cinema as Scorsese digs into Gangster genre history visually like no one ever had before.  Think of the famous tracking shot into the restaurant that Henry takes Karen to for special front seat privilege.  With such detail, we still expect that later HDTVs and HD-DVD players will yield better playback results despite an indifferent transfer source, but some shots still shine with the impact intended.  Note the red early on glowing on DeNiro, Pesci and Liotta from their care in the pre-credit sequence, a Video Red not possible in standard DVD.  When a young Henry Hill blows up some cars and the film goes into a freeze frame, the still shot is much better than anything since the 35mm print.  Color is pretty good and editor Thelma Schoonmacher’s (A.C.E.) work is amazing, but the lack of detail can get “filled in” by the superior Video Black.  We’ll revisit this one and see if Warner does a Blu-ray version, which would make an interesting further comparison.


The Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix is a better version of pretty much the same mix from the standard DVD in standard Dolby 5.1, but here, you get back some of the richness and fullness first heard in the theatrical analog Dolby SR (Spectral Recording) sound apparent too in the old widescreen 12” LaserDisc’s PCM 2.0 16bit/44.1kHz Stereo tracks with Pro Logic surround.  It was too bad the standard DVD did not have DTS, but now with HD-DVD, Dolby Digital-Plus is around DTS 96/24 or so in quality depending on the mix and DTS HD promises to maybe be a bit better.  No matter what the format, the use of classic Rock and Pop music is among the most masterful ever.


Those classics include Rags To Riches, Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, Jump Into The Fire, Gimme Shelter, Syd Vicious’ ironic version of My Way, George Harrison’s brilliant What Is Life and Layla.  In the case of Layla, the Derek & The Dominoes classic recently was issued in the SACD format (reviewed elsewhere on this site) in a 5.1 mix that blew away how good it sounded in this film.  That SACD is reportedly going out of print, but Scorsese and Warner have not gone back and worked in that version into the soundtrack of this film, nor do they necessarily need to since it is a period piece.  However, it draws out some of the sonic limits of this film, but retains its character as intended.


Extras are the same as the recent DVD set, including the original theatrical trailer, storyboard/film composition comparison, three strong featurettes (Getting Made, Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy, The Workaday Gangster) and two outstanding audio commentary tracks.  If it was not enough that the cast/crew track has almost every major person in front of and behind the camera, a second hilarious track reunites former rivals Edward McDonald and writer Hill.  McDonald was the FBI agent on Hill’s case figuratively and literally when the events of the film took place.  Even if you have seen the film as many times as this critic, watching it with this track is a revelation and brings out yet another layer of this classic, for which the cable TV hit The Sopranos would not be possible.


GoodFellas endures and with only a few reservations, will go down as one of the key early HD-DVDs, even if the picture has issues.  For more on Scorsese, especially on HD-DVD, try these links:


Casino (HD-DVD)



The Departed (HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format)



Martin Scorsese Collection (MGM)




-   Nicholas Sheffo


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