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DVD Review: Martin Scorsese Collection

By Glenn Abel

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photo No one messes with "The Godfather." It's safely enshrined as the great American gangster film -- Francis Ford Coppola's dark epic even seems to be muscling in on "Citizen Kane's" turf these days.

Martin Scorsese's scrappy "GoodFellas," on the other hand, could use more respect -- dating back to 1990, when preview audiences scrawled obscenities on their response cards before hurling them at the screen. Even one of the stars thought the movie was crap.

"It seems to have gotten a lot more important over the years," says producer Irwin Winkler, one of the many key participants who line up to pay tribute in a killer new special edition.

Brutal, stylish, hypnotic and addictive, "GoodFellas" remains Scorsese's best film. Director Richard Linklater, a major fan, dismisses those who champion "Raging Bull." With "GoodFellas," he says, "You are in the hands of a master. Enjoy the ride."

"GoodFellas" anchors Warner's "Martin Scorsese Collection" of five films, including the gangster film's thematic predecessors "Mean Streets" and "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" (The set retails for $59.92; titles are available separately.)

The double-disc "GoodFellas" ($26.99) offers two worthy commentaries -- one with the actors and filmmakers; another with Henry Hill, the movie's real-life anti-hero, played with considerable verve by Ray Liotta. Others in the ensemble cast included Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino and Lorraine Bracco.

Hill shares the commentary with the lawman who turned him into a federal witness, but the semipenitent mobster does most of the talking. Hill is a great storyteller in the Italian street tradition -- it's fascinating watching the movie with him. The film "was all based on the rhythm of Henry Hill's language," Scorsese says.

Nicholas Pileggi was equally captivated when he wrote the source book, "Wiseguy: Life Inside a Mafia Family," and then co-scripted the film with Scorsese. The director says he was drawn to the material because of its depiction of workaday mob life. "I was interested in minutiae -- through minutiae a reflection of (their) whole world."

The cast-and-filmmaker talk includes almost all of the key talent, whose comments are carefully placed and tightly edited. Some chapters are automatically bypassed during the commentary.

"GoodFellas" fans love to cite some of the film's jaw-dropping scenes: Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker dissect three of the best.

Scorsese used a lengthy Steadicam shot to introduce his wiseguys as they gathered in a cocktail lounge. Characters such as Jimmy Two-Times and Frankie the Wop turn to the camera and greet the audience. Scorsese says he copped the device from Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni." The idea was "to be really open with the audience. ... You take up too much time (bringing in the characters) conventionally."

Schoonmaker says detail-obsessed Scorsese didn't like the Steadicam because its operator inevitably made framing decisions, as in the remarkable unbroken take in which Liotta and his date enter the Copacabana through the kitchen. The scene was rehearsed with military precision and shot eight times only because funnyman Henny Youngman kept blowing his lines, including "Take my wife, please."

Nowhere is Scorsese's love of popular music more apparent than in the paranoia-drenched scenes in which Liotta's character tries to run mob errands, cook dinner and hoover cocaine while a DEA chopper flies overhead. Scorsese "has a deep sense of how music should go," Schoonmaker says. "Sometimes it's a shocking choice, but it works like crazy."

The sequence opens with Harry Nilsson's frantic "Jump Into the Fire" and never lets up. Each shot was designed to work with specific bars of music, Schoonmaker says. "We just jumped around and experimented and violated every rule there is."

"Talk about music and editing ...," Liotta marvels today -- for the moment, just another "GoodFellas" fan watching the "total madness" unfold.

Disc 2 includes a quartet of freshly minted featurettes, but most of the action is in the commentaries.

Audio and video are superb, blowing away the previous Warner DVD, which dates back to the format's Stone Age. Aspect ratio is 1:85.1, as shot.

"In my mind, 'Mean Streets' is not really a film; it's kind of a statement of who I was and how I was living," Scorsese says of his 1973 study of young men lost in their own Italian neighborhood in New York.

Scorsese credits John Cassavetes with giving him the courage to make the film, which came after his shaky Hollywood debut, "Boxcar Bertha." Cassavetes urged the young director to return to the gritty style and attitude of his student film "Who's That Knocking on My Door?"

Harvey Keitel starred as Charlie, a small-time operator torn between the church and the streets. Robert De Niro was his lame-brain friend, known for blowing up mailboxes and blowing off creditors. The actors helped Scorsese develop his technique of recording improv during rehearsals and then writing and editing the results.

"It was truly independent filmmaking before there was a category for that," says Scorsese's lead actress Amy Robinson, now a producer.

Warner's new version of the film includes commentary from Scorsese and Robinson, as well as a new featurette.

Keitel was a court stenographer and Scorsese was an NYU grad student when they began the film that became "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" It took a good chunk of the 1960s to finish.

Low-budget? "We talking about pennies," says Scorsese's directorial assistant and classmate, Mardik Martin.

The black-and-white film concerns a young man's inner turmoil as he tries to reconcile religion and romance while boozing it up with his pals.

The new DVD does what it can, but the movie looks like hell, with persistent wear and contrasts that threaten to simply fade to black. Fuggedaboutit. It's a compelling little film, crawling with tension and filled with creativity.

Other films in the Scorsese collection are "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "After Hours," both making their debuts on DVD. "I Vitelloni" has just been released by Criterion.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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