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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt (with Todd Doogan) of The Digital Bits

Barry Lyndon (Blu-ray Disc)

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Barry Lyndon
1975 (2011) - Warner Bros. (Warner)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 31st, 2011
Released previously on DVD
Also available in the Stanley Kubrick: Limited Collection


Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 17.5
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: D-

Barry Lyndon is an unlikely epic story. It's unlikely, because most such epic films use a much wider canvas and more vivid cinematography - think Spartacus, which was also directed by Stanley Kubrick. But Spartacus was not typical of Kubrick's style. Barry Lyndon is, thus making it an unusual epic film, at least by Hollywood standards.

Barry Lyndon is the story of a man's life - at least the most important parts of it - the rise and fall of an 18th century Irish scoundrel, named Redmond Barry. Barry (played by Ryan O'Neal) starts the film a mere boy, who is in love with his cousin. When she attracts the affections of a British gentleman and soldier, Barry is hot with jealousy. He challenges his cousin's suitor to a pistol duel, and finds no reward in winning it. Murder is murder, and Barry is forced to flee his home to escape the law. Before long, Barry finds himself enlisting in the British army and fighting against the French in the Seven Years War. But, as with many things in his life, he finds this situation not to his liking, and takes the first opportunity to desert his post in search of better things. Over time, Barry takes advantage of a number of unlikely twists of fate - and his uncanny ability to lie, cheat and steal his way out of difficult situations - and eventually climbs into the highest levels of society. But as Barry eventually learns, what fate gives, it can also take away.

Barry Lyndon is a fascinating film. Certainly, better such epic tales have been told before and since. And better looking films have also been made. But Barry Lyndon still holds a certain fascination. Kubrick and O'Neal have crafted a central character that it is very hard to like, and yet you can't quite dislike him either. Raymond Barry is brooding and crafty. Much of what he does is downright despicable - taking advantage of even those who would love him to make himself more comfortable in life. But he shows genuine feelings for others too, especially his own son later in the story. You can't quite help but think that, had Barry had better role models in his life (he grew up fatherless) and a few more friends (his only real friend dies early in the story), he might have turned out differently. Still, this is a rare film that dares to make you dislike its central character, even a little bit.

Its look is also unusual. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott developed a special process for shooting film in natural light settings. The result is a very subdued but natural look to the film, which creates a cool atmosphere for the story. Very little depth of field is apparent - the image looks flattened by design. It's as if you're looking at an elaborate, live-action Victorian painting. There's also very little visual warmth found here, from the overcast skies of battlefields to the ornate, but emotionally-barren, chambers and corridors of high society. The effect is to visually reinforce an aspect of Barry's character that we begin to realize as the story unfolds - Barry is never truly happy, no matter where he is, what he has or what he does. His is a restless soul, with no place to call home.

Warner originally released this film on DVD back in 1999 and then again in 2001 with a remastered transfer. The A/V quality of the original DVD was disappointing, though the remaster was somewhat better. Barry Lyndon has been a long time coming on Blu-ray Disc, but finally Warner has given the film its due in high-definition with a new and truly worthy HD master. Presented in widescreen at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the image is nuanced and lovely. [Editor's Note: The previous DVD was presented at 1.66:1, but the Kubrick estate has now decided that the film's originally intended aspect ratio was 1.77, so the film appears at 1.78 on Blu-ray. See this interview with Leon Vitali from 5/25/11 on the matter, as well as the aspect ratio clarification below, which is reproduced from Taschen's 2004 The Stanley Kubrick Archives book. Be aware that the disc's packaging notes the aspect ratio as 1.85 - this is an error. It's confirmed 1.78.] Remember, this film has a glowing softness to it by design, yet all the clarity and detail Kubrick intended is readily apparent here. The colors were never meant to look lush, but they're vibrant compared to the previous DVD transfers, and they're always accurate. There's light grain, but not a hint of artificial scrubbing or other digital enhancement. The image is not quite reference quality, but it's as good as this film has ever looked and is very pleasing to the eye. Audio is included in remastered 5.1 DTS-HD MA in English, with standard Dolby Digital tracks in French and Spanish. Though its 5.1, the mix accurately represents the soundtrack's original mono tonal quality, but adds more ambience, particularly with the music and certain sound effects (the rapport of gunfire, for example). The soundstage is somewhat wider up front, while dialogue takes on a smoother, more natural flavor. Subtitles include English SDH, French and Spanish.

Like the original DVDs, the only extra included on the Blu-ray is the film's theatrical trailer in widescreen. It's very soft and certainly looks its age, but Kubrick trailers are always unique and it's cool to have it on here. This also means you can safely sell your previous DVD copies with no fear of losing any content.

Barry Lyndon has long deserved a better A/V presentation on disc, and Warner's new Blu-ray finally offers it. Yes... the film also deserves a true special edition. It celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015, so it's not hard to imagine Warner adding the appropriate bells and whistles then. Meanwhile, when you consider that this disc is available for just $13.99 on Amazon (as an Amazon exclusive) is hard to get too worked up about it. (Note that the disc is also available as part of Warner's new Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection on Blu-ray.) For most Kubrick fans, picking up this disc should be a no-brainer.

Bill Hunt, Editor

Stanley Kubrick Archives book - aspect ration listing

Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray Disc)

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Once Upon a Time in the West
1968 (2011) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 31st, 2011
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: A

"People scare better when they're dying..."

In the history of cinema, there are films that define who we are. There are films that define the careers of the people who made them. And there are films that purely and unabashedly define the genres they rest in. Very few films ever achieve all three of the above. But then again, very few films are as glorious as Once Upon a Time in the West.

Sergio Leone has always a fan favorite filmmaker, but with this work he became a film legend. If you're not familiar with Once Upon a Time in the West, we only have one piece of advice for you: Stop what you're doing, go get this Blu-ray and watch it right away. Yes, this film is that good.

Once Upon a Time in the West isn't a wholly original film. The story has been told before (most notably in the cult western Johnny Guitar). But it's never been told this well, which is why Once Upon a Time in the West ends up being THE definitive Western. The story, such as it is, goes like this: A power hungry railroad baron named Morton wants the land of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) for his empire. Morton's hired a henchman named Frank (Henry Fonda, as one of cinema's definitive villains) for just this sort of occasion. In comes "Harmonica," a.k.a. The Man with No Name (played by Charles Bronson). Harmonica's got a not so secret desire for revenge against Frank, and therefore a willingness to help Jill in her plight. He's soon joined by a competent but rough around the edges gunslinger named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who's also been wronged by Frank. Together, they work to protect Jill and foil Frank and Morton's plans. Though that plot is hardly original, this film's quality is all about the execution. Extreme close-ups, sweeping camera moves, incredible use of the full widescreen image, and the casting of unlikely actors as some of the best characters in any Western ever - these are just a few of the reasons this picture works on so many different levels.

As much as we love the film, our fears were that it was unlikely to reach Blu-ray anytime soon. Paramount has been cautious with their classics, and Once Upon a Time in the West didn't seem the most likely candidate for catalog release in HD. Fortunately, someone at the studio championed this title and took a risk, so a Blu-ray is now in hand. (And from all of us at The Bits, a BIG thank you!) Even more remarkably, the film looks and sounds EVERY bit as good as we would have hoped.

Flat out, this film looks as good as we've ever seen it, even in the best theatrical projections. Paramount has just done beautiful remastering work on this title. These are some of the deepest, most rock-solid blacks we've ever seen, with abundant shadow detailing. Textures are nuanced and gritty, with just the right amount of print grain visible to preserve the film's original look. Leone's direction is such that you're often seeing extreme close-ups of the actors - every wrinkle, blemish and bit of stubble is accentuated - and you'll miss none of it in this transfer. Colors are accurate and warm, as originally intended. This Blu-ray just offers a big, glorious, ultra-widescreen film image that's sublimely easy to get lost in.

If the Blu-ray's picture is good, the English 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio mix is even better. (Note that you also get restored English, French and Spanish mono in Dolby Digital format, along with English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.) The soundfield is big and wide, matching every inch of the on-screen vistas, and the clarity is exceptional. The mix is subtle and atmospheric in quiet scenes, easily rendering the squeak of a windmill and or whispering wind, and absolutely thunderous during moments of explosive gun-play. Just as critically, composer Ennio Morricone iconic score is perfectly layered in the mix.

You should know, at this point, that the Blu-ray includes BOTH the original, 165-minute American theatrical release AND the restored, 166-minute Italian cut of the film. The former cut alone was included on the previous DVD release in the States, so the Italian cut is new here. For those who haven't seen it before, it features an added scene where we're first introduced to the character of Cheyenne at a way-side livery and inn, along with a brief scene at the end of the film involving the same character.

Paramount went the extra mile with the supplements on the original special collector's edition DVD. Thankfully, ALL of that content has carried over to the Blu-ray. The original SD features are here in anamorphic widescreen and the film's theatrical trailer has been upgraded to full HD. The extras begins with a very good audio commentary with film historians (Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall), a trio of directors who admire Leone (including John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox), actress Claudia Cardinale and other select members of the cast and crew. The track begins with Frayling, the author of the biography Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. It's got a scholarly feel, but is very easy to listen to. He'll give you a ton of anecdotes about the making of Once Upon a Time in the West, and lots of interesting historical information, including comments on the many intentional references to classic Hollywood Westerns in this film. The other participants appear at selected moments to make their own contributions. Each was recorded separately and edited together for this commentary. The result could be distancing or disjointed, but is instead a fascinating listening experience, despite occasional pauses in the track. These people know Leone and this film well, and their love of both is obvious.

Next up, a trio of documentaries features many of the same participants. An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something to Do with Death are basically three parts of a whole, which in total runs for a little over an hour. Combining interview clips with historical photos and footage, we learn about Sergio Leone's origins as a filmmaker, the conception of Once Upon a Time in the West arising from his love (and disdain) of Hollywood Westerns, the development of the production (including the casting of American Western film regulars in roles completely opposite to what they'd played previously), the actual filming itself, the ultimate reaction to the film, and its eventual place in cinema history. There are fascinating moments with Bernardo Bertolucci talking about the unlikely way he became involved in the writing of the film (along with fellow writer and filmmaker Dario Argento), and Leone admirers Carpenter, Milius and Cox talking about their reactions of the film. Cardinale reminisces about her experiences on the film, as do actor Gabriele Ferzetti and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. There's even an amusing moment of archival footage featuring Henry Fonda talking about his having been cast in the film as a bad guy, and trying to figure out how to approach the role. It's all great stuff for fans of this film, and well worth your time.

The Railroad: Revolutionizing the West featurette is a strange piece of work, but it's no less interesting for this fact. The short features relevant film clips and historical photos in a window in the upper right portion of the frame, along with the entire narrator-spoken text at the bottom. It cuts away to interview clips occasionally, featuring the participants talking about how the subject relates to the film. Again, also includes is the film's original theatrical trailer (now in HD), as well as video galleries of location photos (seen then and now) and production photos set to music from the film. Now as much as when it was first released on DVD, it's a great package of special edition material to support the film.

In crafting his homage to the great Hollywood Westerns, Sergio Leone honored those films while also turning the conventions of the genre on end. At a time when Westerns were considered passe, Leone not only made them cool again, he managed to create what is arguably the best Western ever. Fans will be thrilled to know that Paramount's new Blu-ray is worthy of the film's achievement. As we said of the DVD before it, this is one of those discs we live for here at The Bits. Once Upon a Time in the West - now in stunning HD - is absolutely not to be missed.

Bill Hunt, Editor

(Adapted from an original DVD review by Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan.)
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