"As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
Martin Scorsese had already directed at least two great movie classics (Mean Streets and Taxi Driver) and one bona fide masterpiece (Raging Bull) as well as many others with strong artistic merits beforehand, but his 1990 gangster opus Goodfellas is to date still his best film and arguably second only to The Godfather as the greatest crime movie in American cinema. Scorsese's pictures have never made huge box office, but with a track record of quality like that, his films will live on for generations.
Based on the true story of gangster-turned-federal-witness Henry Hill, the movie provides a thorough overview of the history of American organized crime from a street-level perspective. These characters aren't grand high-ranking Mafiosos living luxurious, operatic lives and pulling the strings that will shape American history. The Godfather films had that angle covered well enough. Goodfellas is about the working stiff gangsters on the street, the men who provide the muscle and keep day-to-day operations running, stealing and unloading merchandise, bumping off troublemakers, and eventually working their way up to bolder heists. The picture begins in the 1950s, depicting the romanticism of crime that lured in young boys like Henry (the tough men in flashy suits raking in money hand over fist and burning through it just as quickly), and ends with the cocaine-fueled paranoia of the 1980s that eventually caused Henry to burn out and roll over on his former family.
The genius of the picture is all in Scorsese's filmmaking. The script is brilliantly structured and edited, but it's Scorsese's flashy directorial pyrotechnics that keep the story on track as it weaves through decades of plot developments and dozens of important characters. Everything about the film feels totally authentic down to the last period detail, and Scorsese plows through the narrative with a sense of burning immediacy. He uses filmmaking techniques that would cripple other movies and reworks them to make them his own. He gives us not one but two streams of voiceover narration from competing characters, each one crucial to providing perspective to the events. He routinely freeze-frames the action to allow the narration to fill in details, a device that would seem cheap if it weren't done so exactly right that the story really feels like it couldn't be told any other way.
And has any other director ever used period music as well as Scorsese? There are usually two competing schools when it comes to choosing classic songs for movie soundtracks. You've got the likes of Quentin Tarantino who picks songs because they sound cool and the rhythm propels his scenes to the right pace, or you've got the likes of P.T. Anderson and Richard Kelly who over-analyze the literal meaning of the lyrics and try to fit them to the content of their scenes. But Scorsese really drills down to the emotional truth of the songs, regardless of what the lyrics are saying or how incongruous the tempo fits to the action of the scene. Who would think to use Donovan crooning "Atlantis" as two thugs beat a man to death, or just a single line of Muddy Waters' blues classic "Mannish Boy" segueing into George Harrison's fizzy "What is Life" during a frantic, drugged-out race across town while avoiding police helicopters? And yet every song is perfectly placed and could not possibly work any better.
Goodfellas is an astounding movie. It has a hugely ambitious, engrossing story told with power, urgency, and no small amount of dark humor. Martin Scorsese's stylish direction always works in the service of that story, not just to show off. It's one of the best American films of the past few decades and only gets better the more times you watch it.
The HD DVD:
Goodfellas debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Goodfellas HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame, with negligible impact to the composition. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.
Of all the movies released thus far on the HD DVD format, Goodfellas shows the least difference over its comparable DVD version. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD released in 2004 had a pretty good transfer for that format, but the movie's photographic style doesn't offer a whole lot of latitude for further improvement. Much of the film is dark and drab, without razor sharp imagery. Selected scenes, more so in the second half of the film than the first, are very detailed and benefit from the High Definition format, yet in direct comparison the DVD holds its own pretty well. Both discs have a scratch on the source elements at 1hr. 16min.
The Goodfellas HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, which offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD.
The movie doesn't have a very showy sound mix, and the DD+ track sounds about the same as the regular Dolby Digital track on the DVD. Dialogue is very prominent, perhaps a bit too much so, but is reproduced clearly and intelligibly. The period songs offer some stereo dimensionality to the front soundstage, but the movie has little to no surround activity or deep bass. Gunshots have a little kick when needed, but many of the other sound effects are a bit thin. This is a satisfactory soundtrack that probably won't knock anyone's socks off.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish Dolby 2.0.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Future releases may offer more advanced features. The interactive menus have a handy feature that allows you to view a still from each of the supplements before you watch and provides the running time. The menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
All of the supplements from the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD appear to have carried over.
No interactive features have been included.
- Cast & Crew Commentary - This track has been stitched together from separate interviews by Martin Scorsese, author Nicholas Pileggi, stars Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The commentary offers very good coverage of the movie's production from scripting through to editing and release, but the fractured nature of it is a little disappointing. I would have preferred a solo commentary from Scorsese or at least a dual interview with he and Pileggi recorded together. Also disappointing is that there is a 22 minute gap in the commentary from the 1hr. 15min. point until 1hr. 37min. The DVD was programmed to automatically skip over parts of the movie without commentary, but the HD DVD does not offer that feature and just plays through with the movie soundtrack instead.
- Cop & Crook Commentary - Henry Hill and former FBI Agent Edward McDonald (who brokered the Witness Protection deal for him) are interviewed together in this very intriguing screen-specific commentary. The two men have a surprisingly genial relationship. Hill watches the picture not as a movie but as his real life story and gets very nostalgic or emotional during parts of it. The track has some gaps, and Hill is not the most articulate of men, but this is a fascinating look at the movie from a different perspective.
- Getting Made (30 min.) – This making-of documentary features vintage behind-the-scenes footage and interviews mixed with a handful of new interviews. It's fairly informative, but doesn't offer too much new insight.
- Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy (13 min.) – Filmmakers Jon Favreau, the Hughes Brothers, Joe Carnahan, Richard Linklater, Antoine Fuqua, and Frank Darabont offer tribute to one of their favorite movies. This piece is a little fluffy and doesn't delve into much of substance beyond fawning praise. Some of the participants are also strange, unlikely choices.
- Paper is Cheaper than Film (4 min.) – This is a rather boring storyboard to film comparison. The storyboards in question are usually crude sketches or notes scribbled in the margins of the screenplay. I can't imagine anything less informative than this featurette.
- The Workaday Gangster (8 min.) – A brief look at the lifestyle of the average mobster. The movie covered this pretty well on its own.
- Theatrical Trailer - I swear to you, this is really one of those trailers with that cheesy "In a world…." voiceover.
Goodfellas is a fantastic movie, and for that reason alone the HD DVD merits a high recommendation. The picture and sound quality are decent, and the selection of bonus features is pretty good, though honestly this disc is only a marginal improvement over the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. Those who already own that version may not necessarily need to upgrade, but anyone who doesn't own a copy of this movie really ought to.
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