The third and deciding HD DVD bout is gang-related: Assault on Precinct 13 vs. Goodfellas.
The main strength of Assault on Precinct 13 (Universal; Movie •½, Picture/Sound ••½) is its very active soundtrack, which sends gunfire from the front, more bullets from behind, and lots of musical drumbeats bouncing all around. Despite this cacophony, dialogue still manages to come through clearly, with warm tones. A DTS 5.1 track is included that seems louder and possibly fuller than its Dolby Digital counterpart. The picture, however, is soft, flat, and lacking detail, most noticeably in facial close-ups. Badly lit shots have dull skin tones and inconsistent color. All this is not a failure of the format but of the filmmakers, who rely on the audio to keep you involved in dramatically uninteresting action sequences. When director Jean-François Richet claimed in his commentary that the movie is more like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo than John Carpenter's original Assault, I could only wonder whether it was chutzpah or self-delusion.
Since this Assault was made just last year, with all the advantages of improved film stocks and newly developed technologies, I assumed that it would make for a better quality HD DVD transfer than a smallish Martin Scorsese crime drama from 1990, but nothing could be further from the truth. Goodfellas (Warner; Movie ••••, Picture/Sound ••••) looks terrific. Skin tones are natural, while the wives' outfits and furniture burst with a vast array of bizarre, super-rich colors, which do not bleed at all. Blood itself looks vivid and real, and fancy cars are extremely black and bathed in dazzling washes of highlights. Detail is so fabulous that you can see the veins on a tobacco leaf in a cigar. There are a few moiré patterns on the gangsters' silken ties, but I'm not sure any format could tame something that garish.
Goodfellas' soundtrack is equally impressive. Although the surround channels aren't used much, the terrific pop-music score, taken from three genres - bubblegum girl bands, lounge, and loud rock music - comes at you from all across the front in thrilling waves. Riding on top of them, dialogue is full and crisp. Low-frequency effects are good throughout, but you really feel the bass during loud blasts of the Who, Rolling Stones, and Cream, and when Henry blows up all the vehicles in a parking lot simultaneously.
A knockout win for Goodfellas, which means that this first HD DVD tournament goes to Warner. For me, though, the biggest champ is HD DVD itself. Previously, I had seen Goodfellas only on DVD and wasn't as impressed as most other critics, but this screening changed my mind - now I love this film - and what more could you ask from a new format than that? What's really clear is that the talents of both the director and the cinematographer will have greater impact when a film enters the HD DVD ring of your home theater.
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