Mean Streets/Raging Bull/GoodFellas

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Mean Streets: Warner, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: English, French, Spanish, single side-single layer, 33 chapters, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast & crew bios, rated R, 112 min., $24.98, street date 8/25/98.

Raging Bull: MGM, widescreen 1.85:1, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Stereo [CC], French & Spanish Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, Spanish, double side-single layer, 31 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated R, 129 min., $24.98, street date 3/25/97.

GoodFellas: Warner, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, French, Spanish, double side-single layer, 34 chapters, 2 theatrical trailers, production notes, cast & crew bios, rated R, 146 min., $24.98, street date 3/25/97.

Studio Line

Mean Streets: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova.

Mean Streets heralded Martin Scorsese's arrival as a new filmmaking force - and marked his first historic teaming with Robert De Niro. It's a story Scorsese lived, a semi-autobiographical tale of first-generation sons and daughters of New York's Little Italy.

Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, working his way up the ranks of a local mob. Amy Robinson is Teresa, the girlfriend his family deems unsuitable bacause of her epilepsy. And in the starmaking role that won Best Supporting Actor Awards from the New York and National Society of Film Critics, De Niro is Johnny Boy, a small-time gambler in big-time debt to the loan sharks.

Raging Bull: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty.

Academy Awards: Winner of Best Actor-Robert De Niro, Best Film Editing. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Supporting Actor-Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actress-Cathy Moriarty, Best Cinematographer, Best Sound, 1981.

Robert De Niro gives the performance of his career as "Bronx Bull" Jake La Motta, a boxer whose psychological and sexual complexities erupt into violence both in and out of the ring. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are compelling as the brother who falls prey to Jake's mounting paranoia and jealousy, and the fifteen-year-old girl who becomes his most prized trophy. Raging Bull is filmmaking at its riveting best. You won't be able to take your eyes from the screen.

GoodFellas: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino.

Academy Awards: Winner of Best Supporting Actor-Joe Pesci. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Supporting Actress-Lorraine Bracco, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Film Editing, 1991.

Robert De Niro received wide recognition for his performance as veteran criminal Jimmy "The Gent" Conway. And as the volatile Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci walked off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Based on the true-life best seller Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, and directed by Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas explores the criminal life like no other movie.

Picture/Sound/Extras Mean Streets (D+/D/D) /
Raging Bull (C+/C+/D-) / GoodFellas (B/B/D+)

Martin Scorsese has maintained a fantastically successful career over the last nearly 30 years, and his work has popped into the DVD spotlight with the recent release of the terrific special edition of Taxi Driver. As such, the time seemed right for a mini retrospective of his work, starting with Mean Streets, the first movie of his that had a critical impact, and continuing through his two most famous films of the last two decades, 1980's Raging Bull and 1990's Goodfellas.

At this point in Scorsese's career, Mean Streets evokes interest mainly due to its position in history: this was Scorsese's first collaboration with Robert De Niro, and it also foreshadowed the themes the two would explore in later films. Unfortunately, since each one of those later films is much better than Mean Streets, I had a hard time maintaining much interest in it.

In many ways, Mean Streets reminded me of a smaller-scale Goodfellas. They both focus on local mobs and they both feature serious "loose cannon" characters who complicate matters for everyone else. De Niro takes that part here, as Johnny Boy and it's very interesting to see. Since that time, De Niro's focussed on characters who are more tightly controlled; they lose it from time to time, but for the most part, they at least attempt to keep themselves under control.

That's not the case with Johnny Boy; he's about as careless and irresponsible as they come. De Niro opens himself up more than usual and creates a rather broad characterization of Johnny Boy; while this is interesting to see, it makes him less believable, since one would assume someone would have dealt severely with this jerk quite some time ago.

The only real explanation for why Johnny Boy hasn't yet been handed his lungs stems from the fact that Charlie (Harvey Keitel) seems to feel the need to act as Johnny's guardian angel; he spends most of the movie struggling to extricate Johnny from his self-created jams. It never appeared very clear to me why Charlie was so dedicated to Johnny, and that vagueness spills over to Keitel's performance. Charlie's the main character in Mean Streets but it never feels that way; in fact, every role seems to be supporting. I thought Keitel's work here was rather flat; he's not bad, but there was never anything compelling about his acting.

Ultimately, I felt the same way about the movie itself. Yes, it's fun to view it as a novelty and see how it foreshadows Scorsese's style and later work - one scene when Johnny Boy walks into a bar accompanied by Jumping Jack Flash really stands out in that regard - but as a film, it simply doesn't hold up very well after all these years. The film lacks focus and conviction; it seems to be more of a random assemblage of moments than a concrete story, and most of those moments aren't terribly interesting. Mean Streets offers little for anyone who's not a Scorsese fanatic.

The same cannot be said for the next film in my little marathon: 1980's Raging Bull. I hadn't seen it in a while, and though I always thought it was good, I never quite agreed with the tremendous critical hype that accompanies it. Best movie of the 1980s? I don't think so!

Anyway, since it's been a while, I was interested to see what I'd think. Now that I've watched it again, frankly, nothing much has changed. While Raging Bull is clearly a very well made and effective film, it still really doesn't do much for me.

Raging Bull resembles Taxi Driver in that both films were basically character studies. Neither had much of a plot - that wasn't the point. Instead they focussed on giving us a living portrait of individuals. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver provided a much more interesting study, however; Jake La Motta (De Niro) just doesn't do all that much for me.

As with Taxi Driver, Scorsese does not offer any attempt at historical context for La Motta. By that I mean that we see both La Motta and Bickle as fully formed (and pretty screwed up) men; we don't receive any information about how they came to be who they are. Bickle's more obviously mentally problematic than La Motta, but that doesn't mean that Jake's not pretty bad off as well; he spends the entire movie apparently trying to decide who he hates more: himself or everyone else.

Bickle is a study in self-hatred as well, and both men frequently project their negativity outward by seeing the world as a filthy, horrible place. The main difference is that Bickle's world WAS pretty seedy, whereas La Motta is more of a tragic figure; he literally had it all but he blew it because he couldn't cope with the demons that haunted him.

De Niro does an excellent job of fully portraying La Motta. At this point, he gets most of his recognition for this part due to his willingness to gain or shed weight for the role. It's like the time that Nicolas Cage actually ate a cockroach as part of his role (Birdy, I think? Not sure!). Unfortunately, that notoriety overshadows what is a masterful, full-blooded portrait of a man in constant pain.

Admittedly, we rarely get much insight into Jake's thought processes or his inner workings, but that's really how it should be since it doesn't appear that La Motta was much of a thinker; I doubt he spent a whole lot of time exploring his "inner self," and that radical lack of self-awareness comes through clearly in De Niro's performance. Jake doesn't act, he REacts, and he torments himself for the consequences later, such as in the scene where he beats his bare fists against a concrete wall and cries, "Why?!" repeatedly. La Motta obviously doesn't want to behave the way he does, but he lacks the simplest concept of how to change, so by the end of the film, he's left a faded shadow of himself.

In addition to De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty round out the main cast as Jake's brother Joey and wife Vickie, respectively. Both are very solid but overshadowed by De Niro, something that was probably inevitable. Both characters spend much of the movie suffering, although both also abandon Jake when his abuse gets to be too much. Joey's a somewhat more believable character just because he has lifelong ties to Jake; it makes more sense for him to continue to take the abuse for such a long time.

Obviously, many women stay in destructive relationships as well, but it's harder to understand why Vickie stays as long as she does because we never see much indication about what enticed her into the relationship in the first place. There's very little depiction of the "good times" so we never really understand why she got involved with Jake at all. I also had a hard time believing Moriarty as a 15 year old, but that's just because I don't think EVER looked younger than 30; she was only 19 when the movie was shot, but she appears at least a decade older. She must've popped from the womb full-formed!

In the end, Raging Bull is much more a movie that I respect than one I enjoy. This has nothing to do with the fact that it's somber and a "downer;" I love plenty of films that not only don't end happily, but they offer virtually no joy along the way.

No, there's just something about Raging Bull that turns me off. It's a tremendously well-constructed and executed picture, but it lacks a certain spark that might otherwise involve me in the story.

Such is not the case with Goodfellas. Interestingly, that film almost completely issues all of the concerns that I had about Raging Bull. No details about how the characters became what they are? Not here! Goodfellas spends a great deal of time setting up the story, as we see young Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta as an adult) experience the enormous allure of the "wiseguys" up close. It's made so abundantly clear why Henry chose such a path that I'm sure many a viewer wishes they'd taken the same route.

Scorsese manages to both glorify and condemn organized crime all at the same time. For certain, the many perks of that life become abundantly clear throughout the film. We see just how high on the hog these folks lived, just as if they were American royalty.

On the other hand, Scorsese clearly depicts the prices that have to be paid. Some of these are rather obvious - jail, death, etc. - but some didn't seem so apparent to me until I'd seen the movie a few times. Throughout mafia films, the concept of loyalty is frequently bandied about and made to seem central to that way of life. Goodfellas makes it obvious that loyalty only goes so far; throughout the movie, virtually every character does whatever he needs to do to get by - screw the other person, no matter who they are. Shared history and past allegiances mean nothing to these people; it's all "survival of the fittest" with them.

It's ironic to consider just exactly how amoral and reprehensible these gangsters are, since they seem much more overtly "well-adjusted" than characters like Bickle or La Motta. Their demons clearly became demonstrated throughout the film, whereas we never see any evidence that the characters of Goodfellas recognize just how inhuman they are. These are people without any shred of self-awareness, since they apparently require absolute self-confidence to survive. More egocentric characters you will not find; each gangster clearly believes that the world revolves around him.

When I said "he" and "him" in the previous paragraphs, that wasn't a politically incorrect error on my part. Women haven't played much of a role in most of Scorsese's films; Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Raging Bull all clearly play from a male perspective in which women generally reside in the background.

Goodfellas doesn't exactly shatter that image - the focus clearly resides mostly on the males - but Scorsese does make a much greater attempt to demonstrate the female side of things and their perspective. Most of this comes through Karen (Lorraine Bracco), Henry's wife. Just as we learned what interested young Henry, we very clearly see what intoxicated Karen: the money, the power, the sheer ENERGY of the entire lifestyle. Such a situation would really need to be intoxicating, because it seems unlikely that anyone who objectively views the situation would honestly believe such a life to be worth the risks. It's apparent that most of the women involved with the other gangsters essentially came from similar situations, so they really don't know any better; Karen, however, is an outsider, so she would have less pre-investment.

That's why it's good that Scorsese does demonstrate to us just how giddy Karen's experiences with Henry were and why she bought in to the life. This perspective was missing from Raging Bull, and though Goodfellas could have succeeded without it, the female point of view makes it a much more complete and fulfilling movie. Rarely do filmmakers try so hard to illustrate why people - men and women - remain in damaging situations, but Scorsese attempts this and succeeds.

For once, De Niro doesn't offer the strongest performance in the cast. To be sure, he's very fine, although at that point, he had started to ever-so-slightly degenerate into self-parody; at times, he seems just a little too comfortable in his role as Jimmy Conway and he seems to coast. Still, he's very good, and whatever faults occur in his performance are minimal.

However, Joe Pesci's Tommy is clearly the best realized performance in the group, one for which he won a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In a group of amoral characters, none are more so than Tommy, one nasty little piece of work. What makes Tommy and most of the others so chilling, though, is the fact that they reflect so little recognition that they're messed up. In fact, Tommy seems to delight in his psychotic image; he's the little guy who's determined to scare all of those who intimidated him when he was younger. Pesci plays Tommy with relish and tears apart the screen with his vicious energy.

As the Hills, both Liotta and Bracco are fine. Liotta is frequently cited as the weak link in the cast, but I don't really agree. He has the most difficult role since he's the focus of the film, and he's also a comparatively milquetoast character; it's very easy for him to get upstaged by the multitude of flashier gangsters we see throughout the film. Liotta could have been better, I suppose, but I thought he did just fine.

My opinion of Bracco's turn as Karen has modified over the years. Initially, I had a hard time getting past her vocal style; she spoke in such an odd cadence that the whole thing seemed oddly forced. Since then I've gotten used to it and I've been able to see what an open, honest performance she gives. It's not a showy role, but Bracco does a terrific job of demonstrating the emotional rollercoaster Karen seems to ride on a virtually daily basis.

As of 1999, Goodfellas stands as Scorsese's masterpiece. While many of his other films are very strong, I don't think any really compete with it. From start to finish, he demonstrates such complete self-confidence that it's astonishing. Goodfellas is a bold, daring film that uses every tool at the director's disposal to create a true epic. Is it "the best mob movie ever," as the DVD case touts? Maybe, maybe not; if not, it's a close number two to the first Godfather.

Since the inspiration for this Scorsese-fest was the new special edition DVD of Taxi Driver, it would be nice to report that these three DVDs compare favorably with it. Unfortunately, none of them come close.

In regard to picture quality, only Goodfellas does pretty well for itself. Many times it's near reference quality; it can look crisp and clean, with vibrant colors and solid blacks. However, it's an inconsistent image, and those hues sometimes crossover from "vibrant" to "oversaturated;" red lighting especially runs into problems. A vague murkiness also mars the picture at times, and occasional spots of grain or print flaws also hurt its overall score. It's a solid-looking movie, on the whole, but it has enough problems to knock it down to a "B."

Mean Streets offers easily the weakest picture of the three, which shouldn't be a surprise since it's both the oldest and the least expensive of the batch. It occasionally looks clear and bold, but for the most part, the image appears flat, hazy, and murky. I saw many flaws; white spots, scratches, hairs, and grain all enter the screen on far too many occasions. Colors also seem weak, with little strength to their reproduction. The picture isn't terrible, but it's pretty bad.

The image of Raging Bull falls roughly in between these two, though it's closer to the highs of Goodfellas than to the lows of Mean Streets. Since it's almost completely black and white (a brief montage of "home movies" is the only color segment, and it's intentionally faded color at that), I didn't need to worry about the strength of the color reproduction; sharpness, print quality, and contrast were really the only issues at hand.

Overall, the image of Raging Bull looks generally pretty sharp, with usually good focus. Contrast is strong, with solid distinction in the black and white tones. The main issue I had with the picture regarded the quality of the print itself. It often seemed weak, as scratches, hairs, spots and grain often marred the image. Granted, I didn't really expect Raging Bull to look spotless - I think some of these faults were intentional - but due to the inconsistency with which they manifest themselves, I can't assume that, so it gets a lowered rating because of these flaws.

All three films follow the same pattern in regard their audio mixes. Once again, Goodfellas offers easily the best sonic experience. Although the DVD doesn't specifically say it, it appears to be one of those "remastered for Dolby Digital 5.1" deals. Don't get your hopes up; this sucker isn't going to compare with Godzilla. Still, the mix is pretty good, which is important for a film that uses music as such an integral part of the action. All portions of the audio sound good, with natural and clear dialogue, effects and music. It's not a very wide soundstage, though; for dialogue and effects, the center channel dominates. Music appears in the other front speakers, and it also pops out of the surrounds on occasion. Very rarely do we get anything else from the rears, but it does happen at times; unless I was hallucinating, I even detected some split surround usage (check out the scene toward the end where a helicopter chases Henry to see if I was right). All in all, the audio of "Goodfellas" works fairly well.

The same definitely cannot be said for the music mono soundtrack of Mean Streets. I'm not carping because it's mono - that's not a big deal for such an old film - but the abysmal quality of said audio is the real problem. Mean Streets was something of a precursor for Goodfellas in the way pop music was integrated into the action. Neither film has a composed score; both use a variety of pop or rock songs to underscore the action. As such, it's damned important that these tunes sound good.

In the case of Mean Streets, the music sounds horrible! Occasionally a song sounds decent - the Stones' Tell Me being one of the more acceptable examples - but most of the tracks are harsh and distorted all to hell. Check out the Ronettes' Be My Baby at the start of the film - it's a grating disaster. I hoped it would be an exception, but it was the rule.

The rest of the audio mix of Mean Streets doesn't work much better. Dialogue and effects are generally flat and tinny and can often be hard to understand. This film also features some of the most poorly integrated dubbed speech I've heard; the lopped dialogue is so jarring that I often felt I was watching a bad Japanese monster movie. Audio mix: one more strike against the Mean Streets DVD.

Once again, Raging Bull occupies the middle ground between these two films. The Dolby Prologic 2.0 mix generally tends to be somewhat tinny and thin, but not terrible; while speech doesn't sound especially natural, it's acceptable and easily intelligible. Music plays much more of a background role in Raging Bull; the classical accompaniment is never nearly as prominent as the pop tunes in the other two movies. It's often so soft that it's somewhat hard to rate, but I heard nothing wrong with it.

Really, the only significant fault I found with the audio mix of Raging Bull stemmed from the accidental use of the surround channels. These speakers only got used intentionally for the fight scenes; we'd get crowd noise and some other ambient affects at those times, and they worked pretty well. Unfortunately, dialogue and effects from the front channels occasionally seeps through to the rears; this makes for a distracting effect and sounds pretty weak. This doesn't happen too frequently, though, so I found the soundtrack to offer a fairly acceptable experience.

Two of these films are from Warner Brothers (Mean Streets and Goodfellas) and the other is from MGM, but all three offer similarly weak supplemental features. Here's the list:

Mean Streets: theatrical trailer, decent cast and crew biographies, and some very brief production notes;

Goodfellas: two theatrical trailers, fair cast and crew biographies, short production notes, and a listing of awards for which the film was nominated and/or won;

Raging Bull: theatrical trailer - that's it!

Pap like Lost in Space gets full special edition treatment but these films get bupkus? Something's wrong with the world if that's the case. Raging Bull and Goodfellas clearly deserve the same quality work devoted to Taxi Driver, and even the mediocre Mean Streets should get a special edition if just because of its historical significance. Here's hoping that eventually these DVDs get reissued with a much more full complement of extras.

As they stand right now, Goodfellas is the only DVD of the three that I can recommend without much reservation. It's the best movie of the bunch and it offers pretty good sound and image. Raging Bull certainly is widely regarded as a classic, but it doesn't do much for me. Still, if the DVD wasn't so mediocre, I'd recommend it. Add a few supplements and I'd say go for it, but right now it's a "take it or leave it" tilter; get it if you find it at a nice discount (something in the neighborhood of $10, I'd say). Mean Streets is the only DVD of the three I'd definitely avoid. It's not much of a movie, and the DVD pretty much bites. At least the Goodfellas and Raging Bull warrant consideration.

Related Sites

Current as of 8/15/99

Roger Ebert--On Mean Streets: "In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies." On Raging Bull: "Raging Bull is the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema--an Othello for our times." On GoodFellas: "No finer film has ever been made about organized crime - not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable."
The Robert De Niro & Martin Scorsese Tribute Site--The site contains great bios on De Niro and Scorsese, with the latest news, upcoming projects, photo gallery, links, recommended books and videos. It would be terrific if the editor could also provide own analysis and reviews of the 8 collaborated films. the DVD of Mean Streets, Raging Bull and GoodFellas at 30% off. the DVD of Mean Streets, Raging Bull and GoodFellas at 30% off.

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