All five Blu-rays have been previously reviewed at High-Def Digest. Reviews of the movie themselves:
'Mean Streets' by David Krauss (4/5 stars)
'The Untouchables' by High-Def Digest Staff (3.5/5 stars)
'Goodfellas' by M. Enois Duarte (4.5/5 stars)
'The Departed' by Peter Bracke (4/5 stars)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ultimate Gangsters Collection Contemporary' presents all five discs in a multi blue keepcase. Three are BD-50 discs while 'Mean Streets' and 'Goodfellas' are BD-25. A 32-page hardcover booklet offers brief entries about each film and its production.
As these are the exact same discs featured in previous reviews, the original audio and video review portions are included below. Portions of these sections will no doubt seem dated:
'Mean Streets' (4/5 stars)
'Mean Streets' was not a big-budget movie, but this high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner often makes it look like a million bucks. With plenty of low and natural light shots and full sequences bathed in a deep red glow, 'Mean Streets' poses many challenges visually, but this solid effort meets almost every one. Hardly a nick or mark litters the pristine print, and a fine grain structure preserves the picture's film-like feel. Some scenes possess more texture and grittiness than others, but the discrepancies aren't severe enough to seem jarring. Several sequences are almost startlingly crisp and clear, with excellent contrast and beautiful color balance, while others look a bit faded, but the overall effect is one of realism. Whether capturing the characters roaming the streets late at night, brawling in basement bars, or engaging in heated confrontations in cramped stairwells, Scorsese's camera puts us in the thick of the action, and this transfer never breaks the spell.
Black levels are strong and inky, and though crush occasionally creeps in, shadow delineation is surprisingly good. Fleshtones remain stable and true throughout, while close-ups exhibit pleasing details. The color palette tends to be a tad bland, yet accents provide morsels of vibrancy that punch up the image in unexpected ways. Background elements err toward the fuzzy side, one of the few areas where this transfer is lacking.
No banding, edge enhancement, or other digital problems afflict this presentation. Noise is absent, too; quite an achievement, considering the number of nocturnal scenes in the movie. This is by far the best 'Mean Streets' has ever looked on home video, a fact that should delight Scorsese's legion of devoted fans.
'The Untouchables' (4/5 stars)
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (VC-1 on the HD DVD) looks pretty spiffy. The master is in very nice shape, and nearly pristine (only some very minor bits of dirt are visible, plus slight grain typical of the period). Blacks and contrast are a clear improvement over previous video versions. Detail similarly offers more readily visible fine textures, and the film's generally bright visual style lends itself to excellent depth and clarity. Colors are also vibrant, and though some of the deepest reds and darker interiors may stumble every so with a bit of fuzziness, in general saturation is very vivid.
What ultimately keeps this transfer from rating even more highly is that it has clearly been tweaked, and suffers from some edge enhancement as a result. Any film from 1987 is likely to be naturally softer than a modern transfer, but unfortunately, that seems to be a no-no these days when it comes to remaster catalog titles. There are consistent edge halos visible, as well as shimmering. Certainly, 'The Untouchables' looks wonderfully sharp throughout, but the cost is an artificial cast. Still, this is a four-star transfer, so caveats aside it's likely most fans will be more than pleased.
'Goodfellas' (3/5 stars)
'Goodfellas' first made its transition to high definition during the early days of the format wars. And at that time, the gangster flick made an okay impression amongst those looking to buy into the new technology. Side-to-side comparisons reveal no discernible difference between this new edition and the two previous releases on Blu-ray and HD DVD. In fact, it appears to be the exact same disc. This probably wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that after thousands of hours of HD viewing, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1) simply doesn't come close to some of the best catalog titles available. Unless Warner is willing to fork out the money for a serious restoration of the original negative, I doubt this modern classic will ever look any better than this.
On the bright side, the picture quality here is a remarkable improvement when compared to the two-disc special edition DVD. Contrast and brightness levels are balanced pretty well though not great, and the transfer possesses good visibility of the finer objects in the background. When we enter Henry's second house after being released from jail, viewers can clearly make out the garish and tacky wallpaper designs and all the flashy, dated furniture. The image as a whole is much sharper and reveals good texture in a variety of clothing. Especially in close-ups, the camera exposes many wrinkles and defects in the faces of actors. Colors receive the biggest upgrade with primaries looking brighter and bolder than ever while secondary hues are rendered nicely.
Regrettably, the video arrives with more misses than hits. There are several instances of whites coming off a bit too strong and even bloom in some scenes. Blacks are generally deep and accurate, but there are more times when they lose some of their luster and appear either flat or almost dark gray. Shadow delineation also holds up well for the most part, at times even impressively so, but again, there are many sequences when low-lit interiors are poorly resolved, almost cloudy. Several scenes are softer than the rest of the picture, colors dull, and facial complexions unexpectedly appear pale and sickly. And this isn't counting those moments when Ray Liotta is supposed to look that way. Finally, there is one scene (01:16:43) when a line running down the screen suddenly shows up.
Although this is the best 'Goodfellas' has ever looked, the picture quality just can't compete with the studio's own better catalog releases.
'Heat' (4/5 stars)
The Blu-ray of 'Heat' features a newly-restored transfer supervised by Michael Mann, and the 1080p/VC-1 (2.40:1) encode delivers a faithful and respectable presentation.
Mann went with a slightly cool and subdued color palette, which may seem like an odd choice for a film called 'Heat,' but in the end it suits the movie just fine. The rich, dark black levels are always impressive and whites are also bright and clean. The picture is generally sharp and detailing is pretty strong. There's a thin consistent grain field throughout without any unsightly spikes. Textures and delineation in facial features and suits are well defined. Dimensionality is good in exterior scenes, and while there's softness to certain images, particularly the overhead night shots of the cityscape, it shouldn't detract from the experience. Sections of a few scenes have a hint of blurring as well, but I believe that's more to do with the style of the cinematography. Keen eyes will catch some minimal edge enhancement in places, but the picture is free of other common annoyances like artifacting, digital noise, and macroblocking. There also seems to be very little DNR application if any. Nitpicks aside, most should be pleased with this upgrade.
'The Departed'' (4.5/5 stars)
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, both the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions feature identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes. The source is in pristine shape. The image is always rock solid, with a bit of post-processing applied, but still retaining the natural look of film. There is a thin veneer of grain that retains the intended gritty look of Martin Scorsese's vision. Detail is impressive, with excellent depth throughout and shadow delineation superior. Even the darkest scenes reveal fine texture in the backgrounds, and close-ups can be tremendous.
Particularly noteworthy is color reproduction. I must admit that the standard-def version boasts some of the cleanest and most vivid hues I've seen on DVD. However, the high-def versions are even better, with vivid primaries (particularly the wonderful use of deep reds) that are clear reminders of how superior HD really can be. Also a plus is the lack of any edge enhancement, which gives the transfer a very smooth but not artificial look. About the only drawback is some fluctuating sharpness, with the odd shot here or there looking a bit soft. Still, that's a minor complaint. 'The Departed' absolutely lived up to my high hopes.
'Mean Streets' (4/5 stars)
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track serves up surprisingly well-modulated sound that often has the feel of a multi-channel mix. Fidelity is quite good, thanks to a wide dynamic scale that embraces the full spectrum of treble and bass. Accents, such as gunfire, screeching tires, and shattering glass, all come across cleanly, and subtle nuances don't get lost. The soundtrack of '60s pop, rock, soul, and opera selections is especially impressive, as all the various forms of music are aptly reproduced for maximum effect.
Dialogue is generally clear and comprehensible, although some mumbling and over-exuberance occasionally obscure isolated phrases.Distortion is never an issue, however, and no age-related defects (remember, this is an almost 40-year-old film!) disrupt the smoothness of this impressive track.
'The Untouchables' (3.5/5 stars)
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Untouchables' features two audio tracks -- the Dolby Digital Surround EX remaster from the 2003 two-disc DVD, plus an unannounced DTS-HD High-Resolution 6.1 Surround track (matrixed, not discrete). In atypical Paramount fashion, the bitrates on the Blu-ray and the HD DVD DTS tracks actually match this time at 1.5mbps (although the Dolby Digital on the Blu-ray still gets demoted to 640kbps, versus 1.5mbps for the HD DVD).
The mix is quite lively for its vintage, which allows for the difference between the DTS and Dolby EX tracks to be more noticeable than it would be on other older catalogue titles. The matrixed-in extra surround channel, combined with more dynamic sound design, leaves the DTS the clear winner over the Dolby EX mix.
Less gimmicky and obvious than most tracks of its era, 'The Untouchables' was state-of-the-art in 1987. Granted, surrounds are only sporadically engaged for action, but when they do kick in here, they're quite effective. The most obvious example is the Union Station sequence, which features some really nice use of discrete effects. It is not as continually engaging as a modern action blockbuster, but pans are fairly seamless between rear channels, and there is a nice sense of tonal realism to the sounds.
The excellent score by Ennio Morricone is wonderfully bled to the rears, and its swelling strings and deep percussive are certainly a highlight of this track. Dynamic range is impressive for a 1987 picture -- the explosion that anchors the first act features surprisingly hefty low bass, and similarly the rest of the also frequency range has a more open and spacious quality than most tracks of its era, with clean dialogue and a warm, airy feel to the high-end.
'Goodfellas' (3/5 stars)
Three years since the original release of 'Goodfellas', and for some strange reason, Warner Brothers has decided to simply port over the same Dolby Digital soundtrack as before. Considering this is supposed to be the Anniversary Edition - and a double dip for most fans I'm sure - it would have been nice for this crime epic to at least receive the hi-rez audio treatment.
No matter, the complaints of many are likely to fall on deaf ears anyhow. But much like the video, this lossy track will never hold a light to some of the best lossless stereo presentations around. On its own, the sound design is not a complete waste, displaying the occasional splash of sound in the background to enhance the soundfield. While the musical score and period songs make better use of the surround speakers, rear activity is mostly non-existent, and discrete effects are of no concern for this drama. Low bass is surprisingly hefty and adds good weight to action sequences. The front-heavy mix provides a strong dynamic range, clean channel separation, and enjoyable imaging to engage viewers. Though dialogue reproduction is intelligible and precise, there are a few times when whispers are a bit difficult to make out. All in all, this is not a bad track.
'Heat' (4/5 stars)
The first thing worth noting about the Blu-ray's lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is that it seems to be much quieter compared to other discs. I usually set my Onkyo around a certain number most of the time, but with 'Heat' I had to pump up the volume considerably higher, about ten more notches than norm. Not a big deal, but I'm sure it's a detail some consumers would still like to know.
If you're hoping for a very immersive experience, well then 'Heat' delivers in spades. Dynamics and spatial movement are amazingly energetic here. Seamless pans are everywhere--the train during the opening credits, the helicopter flybys, the airplanes landing and taking off at the airport--and adding extra punch to these scenes are extremely powerful bass frequencies. The rears are highly active with a variety of effects, from subtle ambiance in the restaurants and hotel lobby, to of course the heavy gunfire. The "ting" of shell casings hitting the ground is very distinguishable and bullets whiz by and burrow into the sides of vehicles with clarity. The multiple windshields shattering simultaneously during the armored car assault will likely make some OCD viewers vacuum their floor once the movie is finished. Tying it all together is Elliot Goldenthal's original score that pleasingly weaves its way through the sound field.
The only issue preventing me from giving the soundtrack a higher score is that I found the dialogue to be awfully quiet in places. This is a movie with plenty of soft speech and whispers, and even if the volume is cranked then the really loud scenes can be almost deafening. If the vocals had only been turned up just a bit, this mix would be outstanding.
The Blu-ray includes additional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Spanish, French, and German, as well as a Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 track. There's also a long list of subtitle options: English SDH, French, German SDH, Spanish, Netherlands, Castellano, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian.
'The Departed' (4/5 stars)
'The Departed' comes to Blu-ray with a real rarity for Warner, an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (to my knowledge, the only other title from the studio to support PCM is 'The Sopranos: Season Six, Volume One'). The move is even more welcome, since its HD DVD counterpart features a Dolby TrueHD track, a format which so far has been a no-show on Blu-ray. So what an exciting opportunity -- the first title to allow us a direct, head-to-head comparison between the two high-resolution audio formats.
But first, the "bad" news. In all honesty, 'The Departed' is not as involving a soundtrack as I expected. The film's sound design is surprisingly front-heavy. I even dropped in the DVD side of the HD DVD/DVD combo version, and sure enough, regardless of format, there just isn't much surround action going on. Aside from a few key sequences, most of the whiz-bang effects are restrained. However, to be fair, when the rears do kick in, the accuracy of directional sounds is superb, and other elements of the mix, particularly Howard Shore's score, can really fill up the full 360-degree soundfield. I also was impressed with how pronounced yet organic low bass sounded. The film is often punctuated by low tones, which have a powerful tightness rare even in the best modern surround tracks. Dialogue reproduction is also first-rate, with every word crystal clear.
Now, how do the PCM and TrueHD tracks compare? Given this historic opportunity, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I invited a friend over, who is a big movie and music buff, but not particularly technical. He knows good audio when he hears it, yet doesn't know a PCM from an RPM from R.E.M. In other words, he's Joe Six-Pack with a great ear. Anyway, together we conducted a "blind" audio test -- we select ten short sequences from the film, and listened to a compare of each. We took turns firing up each scene, and selecting which one sounded better, with no knowledge of which sample was the Blu-ray and which the HD DVD.
After writing down our answers on little scraps of paper (note that we didn't throw them into a hat -- we aren't that dorky), the results were interesting. Out of the twenty comparisons (ten for him, ten for me), we could only detect differences on four scenes total. But of those four, we both always preferred the PCM track, if only a smidgeon. For example, there is a scene in involving an attempted trade bust between the Costello character and a Chinese gang. There is a sound of a gun firing that we went back over a few times, and as silly as it sounds, the force and impact of the sounds was a shade more realistic in PCM. Also a beneficiary of the uncompressed mix is the music, as this is a film brimming with rock songs. The first scene we picked featured the Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter," and again the PCM track boasted a slightly more spacious feel to the music in all channels -- as if the very highest end of the frequency range was more palpable.
Granted, these are very slight differences and subjective preferences. Had we not blindfolded each other (figuratively speaking, of course) and been flipping back and forth between discs like one of those old Coke-Pepsi commercials, such deviations likely would have been imperceptible. It is also certain that the average listener wouldn't be able to tell the difference without possessing the ears of a dog. Still, in this case I give a slight edge to the PCM track, though a comparison between a single title hardly qualifies as the final word. If nothing else, it made me realize that if all the studios dumped this dueling audio format business and went all-PCM, I can't say I would be likely to complain...
'Mean Streets' (1.5/5 stars)
'The Untouchables' (2/5 stars)
Long one of Paramount's most highly-requested titles to receive the Special Edition treatment on standard-def DVD, the studio finally gave fans what they wanted in 2004 with a well-received Special Collector's Edition. Paramount has ported over all those extras to the high-def versions, although purely in terms of quantity, the set is limited.
Alongside Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, Brian De Palma is one of a handful of well-known directors who refuse to record audio commentaries -- hence, there is no such track included on this disc. Instead, longtime De Palma documentarian Laurent Bouzereau (who seems to do about 75 percent of all DVD supplements these days) has crafted another of his reverential, very classy full-docs on the making of 'The Untouchables.'
Running nearly 60 minutes, the doc is broken into four main parts. "The Script, The Cast" breaks down the film's conception and casting, and includes (relatively) new interviews with De Palma and producer Art Linson. Interesting tidbits included here are the fact that Robert De Niro was not the actor originally cast in his now-famous role of Al Capone, while Sean Connery surprisingly took some enticing to take the part that eventually won him an Oscar. "Production Stories" turns out to be focused primarily on the work of Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, who also contributes a new chat. Though it's hard to imagine the film now as being in anything but vivid color, we learn in this peice that originally he wanted shoot the movie in black and white.
Next is "Reinventing The Genre," which may be the most interesting section. The bravura deaths of Connery and Charles Martin Smith are dissected, as is the setpiece Union Station sequence. But true fans will be most excited to hear about the deleted scenes cut from the movie (although sadly not presented as a stand-alone supplement), including a sequence with the four leads in a Canadian border raid, plus an alternate ending involving Capone. Lastly, "The Classic" is a tribute to the score by Ennio Morricone. The composer needs no introduction, and his work on 'The Untouchables' is undoubtedly a modern classic.
While all of the above featurettes excel in terms of presentation, with a well-paced balance of new interviews, film clips and rare production and still material, unfortunately, the number of participants is crippingly limited. Aside from De Palma, Linson and Burum, there are no other members of the main cast and crew present -- De Niro, Connery, Smith, Andy Garcia and Kevin Costner all only appear in old interview clips and footage. Their presence is sorely, sorely missed, making this set feels more like an extended director interview than a full-fledged documentary.
Rounding out this package is a lone vintage 1987 featurette, titled appropriately enough "Original Featurette: The Men." This dated 8-minute piece interviews all the main cast, including Costner, Connery and Garcia. Unfortunately, it was shot before the movie came out so is of interest only as a historical artifact.
Note that all of the above content is presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only. The only full HD extra on the disc is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is presented as a 1080p/VC-1 encode.
'Goodfellas' (3/5 stars)
'Heat' (3/5 stars)
'The Departed' (2.5/5 stars)
Great video and audio aside, 'The Departed' does feel a bit like a rushed release in terms of extras. Quite frankly, I'm not a fan of today's super-short theatrical-to-video windows. Not only does it cut into a film's theatrical run, but production times for DVD are now so short that there is little time, if any, to pull together a decent supplemental package before a disc's street date. So don't expect any monumental extras on 'The Departed,' at least until the inevitable double dip. In the meantime, however, we do get is a decent enough package.
With no audio commentary from Martin Scorsese, it is up to two featurettes to flesh out the making-of material. Unfortunately, neither is really about the movie per se, but rather its subject matter and genre roots. "Stranger Than fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie and 'The Departed'" runs 22 minutes. Screenwriter William Monahan based much of his script not only on the original Chinese film 'Infernal Affairs' but also on the real-life gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, whose reign of terror over Boston lasted for three decades up until his incarceration in the early '90s. This is a fascinating doc, including interviews with everyone from cast and crew (including Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg) to various cops and journalists who profiled the case, to Bulger's own priest. I love background like this, because it only enhances our appreciation for the film and its characters. This one is well worth a watch.
Also pretty good is "Crossing Criminal Cultures," which runs 24 minutes. Culled from the same interviews used in the above piece, it examines 'The Departed' in terms of Scorsese's other "mob movies," including 'GoodFellas,' 'Mean Streets' and 'Casino.' Parallels are drawn between the films that speak to the director's love for the genre, his penchant for classic film noir, and use of recurring themes, mainly that of the rise and fall of a corruptible character in search of the American Dream. Though again hardly focused on the making of 'The Departed,' "Crossing Criminal Cultures" is still involving throughout.
Next we have a collection of nine Deleted Scenes. Totaling about 15 minutes, each features an introduction by Scorsese. Most are scene extensions, and fairly good as far as deleted material goes, in particular an extended deathbed confession that is rather moving, and some added texture to a few characters. Note that the only disappointment is the quality -- like the rest of the video-based extras described above, all the scenes here are presented in 480p windowboxed video only.
Rounding out the supplements package is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is the only extra in full 1080p high-def.
(Note: The standard-def DVD release of 'The Departed' also includes an 85-minute documentary, "Scorsese on Scorsese," which has been dropped from both the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions. However, this extra was produced in 2004 for the Turner Classic Movies network, long before the director started work on 'The Departed.' It also still plays on cable, so its exclusion here is hardly fatal.)
Warner Brothers has put together a very good collection of gangster films from the past 40 years, though surely those who don't know Oscar history will wonder how 'The Departed' is the film here that earned Martin Scorsese his Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director.
While our regular readers likely have some of, if not all these Blu-rays already in their collection, the timing of this repackaged dip makes it best suited for dads and grads who are just starting their collections.