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GoodFellas
Special Edition - 1990 (2004) - Warner Bros.

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

GoodFellas: Special Edition

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B-

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
146 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, dual-disc keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 74:53 in chapter 26), cast and crew audio commentary (with director Martin Scorsese, writer Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and actors Ray Liotta, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent and Robert De Niro), cop and crook audio commentary (with Henry Hill and Ed McDonald), awards summary, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (47 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - The Extras
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), 3 documentaries (Getting Made, The Workaday Gangster and Made Men: The GoodFellas Legacy), Paper Is Cheaper Than Film storyboard featurette, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0)


Martin Scorsese has often been described as the greatest living American filmmaker. The two qualifiers in that description suggest that the title has been bestowed by film snob critics. People who, if pressed to pick the single greatest filmmaker, would probably choose someone who was either not living or not American or both. Now while there are probably those who would suggest that I am myself a film snob critic, I don't know that I'd rank Scorsese quite that high. There are other directors that strike me as being more consistent and more in tune with the dizzying array of specific attitudes and values that comprise America (personally, I've always considered John Sayles to be the quintessential great American filmmaker). But I would definitely concede that Scorsese belongs in the top ten. Maybe even the top three.

Certainly one of Scorsese's great strengths as a filmmaker is that he seems to actually see life as a movie. He always knows exactly where to put a camera and how to use it for maximum impact. He's a walking film school textbook but unlike so many other directors, he seldom allows his technical acuity to overwhelm the story he's trying to tell. You can point to scenes in any number of his films to demonstrate this skill but the most recent film to perfectly blend Scorsese the technical stylist with Scorsese the storyteller is his 1990 Mob drama, GoodFellas.

GoodFellas, as you undoubtedly already know, traces the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a relatively low-level (i.e., not Italian and therefore not a made man) soldier in the Mafia turned Federal informant. Like The Sopranos (which is so influenced by this film that it had might just as well be called GoodFellas: The TV Series), the movie is more interested in the regular everyday details of the Mob life than with the broader strokes and spheres of power as in the Godfather trilogy. So we see weddings, birthday parties, late night poker games with the boys and, naturally, food. Lots and lots of food. But a lot of what passes for a regular everyday occurrence in the Mafia would seem fairly extraordinary to most of us law-abiding types. Things like floating into the Copacabana via the side door and immediately being given a table right up on the floor or shooting a guy for not bringing you a drink fast enough. This dichotomy of details comes to a head in the undeniably brilliant "last day" sequence as the law closes in on a coked-up and strung-out Henry Hill. Every detail of the day, no matter how mundane, is given the same sense of urgency and importance, whether it's delivering guns or picking up drugs or making sure the sauce for the evening's dinner is just right. If you had to pick just one sequence in all of Scorsese's work to demonstrate his mastery of the medium, this would be one of the finalists. Everything jells perfectly, from Michael Ballhaus' cinematography to Thelma Schoonmaker's editing to Scorsese's musical choices to the performances.

Speaking of the performances, the large ensemble cast of GoodFellas could not have been more expertly chosen. Joe Pesci quite rightly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here and Scorsese favorite Robert De Niro is a perfect Jimmy Conway, exuding just the right combination of power, charm and menace. But despite De Niro's top billing, this is Ray Liotta's movie. Liotta is an often brilliant but usually underutilized actor and his performance as Henry Hill should have catapulted him to the very top of his game.

GoodFellas is a long movie but it never feels overlong or padded. After all, this is a man's life we're dealing with here and there's a lot of story to tell. If anything, I may prefer The Sopranos to GoodFellas simply because the luxury of an extended television run allows David Chase to stretch his legs and dwell on the details that so fascinate both him and Scorsese. Scorsese had to focus his story to fit comfortably in the running time of a feature film. In fact, the only real criticism I could level at GoodFellas is that your appreciation of it may depend largely on your level of interest in the Mafia. There have been dozens, possibly hundreds of movies that deal with the Mob on some level and inevitably they end up covering some of the same ground. If you are endlessly fascinated by the subject, you'll likely give GoodFellas an "A" or even an "A+". As for me, my interest only goes so far. Scorsese definitely succeeds in convincing us that the world needed another Mafia movie. But as much as I admire and get interested in GoodFellas every time I see it, I remain a bit distant from it. I'm sure I'd probably feel the same way about The Sopranos if I didn't have a week (or between seasons, over a year) between episodes to rekindle my interest in the subject.

GoodFellas was another of Warner's earliest DVD releases and a full-fledged special edition has been eagerly awaited pretty much since that first disc hit the shelves. While it would have been nice to see the studio hit this one out of the park, it isn't quite a home run. Technically, the disc is excellent. The image isn't flawless (I detected at least one instance of what appeared to be source print damage) but the transfer itself basically is. It does a solid job with a palette of bright reds, shadows, and heavy contrast. The 5.1 sound is pretty good, though certainly not the immersive experience you'd expect from a more recent movie.

The first disc provides two audio commentaries. The first is a "selected scene" audio commentary edited together from separate interviews with virtually all of the key players. I was a little worried when I saw that it was not a full-length track but it almost is. The commentary skips over only about 20-30 minutes and the participants are all interesting and informative. Although they're not credited on the packaging, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro also turn up on this track, although I suspect that their comments were taken from interviews done at the time of the film's release. The second commentary is by Henry Hill himself and former FBI Agent Ed McDonald, the man who brought Hill into the Federal Witness Protection program. This track is a little better in concept than in practice but when it's good, it ranks with one of the most interesting commentaries I've listened to. The reality of Scorsese's picture is driven home during a scene introducing a number of wiseguys. Hill comments that virtually everybody in the scene is now dead and you realize that while you're just watching a movie, Hill is seeing something else.

Disc Two, unfortunately, is a little anemic. Getting Made is a half-hour long documentary on the making of the film. It's a good piece and I don't begrudge the relatively short running time considering that there's little repetition between the documentary and the commentary on disc one. The Workaday Gangster runs only about eight minutes and focuses on Hill's story. Again, considering that Hill provides a commentary, I can accept the running time.

Much, much less interesting is Made Men: The GoodFellas Legacy, a 13-minute feature interviewing filmmaker fans such as Frank Darabont, Richard Linklater and the Hughes brothers, among others. It's not really clear how GoodFellas specifically influenced these guys other than they sure like it a whole lot. That's fine. Good for them. I like it too but you don't see me interviewed on this disc. If you're not going to bring anything to a discussion about a film's influence other than it's great, well... let's just say they make a very convincing case for the necessity of serious film criticism. Finally, the disc includes a trailer and Paper Is Cheaper Than Film, a storyboard-to-screen comparison featurette. In this case, the "storyboards" are often just scribbled notes in the margins of Scorsese's shooting script. It's interesting but at only four minutes, it seems there's a lot of ground not being covered here.

At the end of the 1980's, I saw several critical surveys of the best films of the decade and Scorsese's Raging Bull almost always came out on top. I don't remember seeing anything similar for the 1990's but I'd be interested to see where GoodFellas would wind up on such a list. I doubt that it would be number one. It isn't quite the unqualified masterpiece that Raging Bull is but it should almost certainly be on the list somewhere. I hope that MGM's upcoming special edition of Raging Bull has a bit more meat on the bone than Warner's GoodFellas. If a movie's length dictates that a special edition will have to have a second disc out of necessity, I don't understand why studios don't make every effort to stuff that second platter with as much as possible. The GoodFellas: Special Edition is good but not great. It won't make you want to whack somebody at Warner Bros., but you might be disappointed enough to shoot someone in the foot.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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