Barry Lyndon 
Image courtesy of Warner Brothers 

Movie classics worth seeing again in remastered digital

Still shuttling through your shelf full of VHS tapes for your favorite movies? Have you converted your entertainment room or TV area to Blue Ray? Devices are available out there for less than $200 that will play both Blue Ray and DVD, and as the technology advances, the prices are dropping even further. Remember, your VHS tapes are not like fine wine: they don't get better with age.

In the meantime, here are just a few re-mastered film classics--in no particular order--worth seeing on Blue Ray or DVD, as part of our latest Thursday Essentials List:

Manhattan; Director, Woody Allen. Paired with the classic Annie Hall, this is Woody at his very best--exulting in the grit, glamor and glitz of New York City. There was no better match-up as his comedic opposite than Diane Keaton, though she plays a substantially more complex character in Manhattan than her previous role as Annie. Shot entirely in black and white and scored to the classical American sounds of George Gershwin, Manhattan is a visual masterpiece, brought to a wide screen caliber equal to the movie screen experience even on a small high definition TV (not an oxymoron). In addition to Allen and Keaton, the film also stars Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, and a very young Meryl Streep. The beauty of some of New York's most iconic locations gives this film a special feel, whether one has traveled to New York or not, and the opening montage of compositions--culminating in the famous fireworks scene over the night skyline--makes it worth the price of the Blue Ray disc.

The Godfather Part II; Director, Francis Ford Coppola. Always considered one of the greatest films ever made--exceeding in many ways the original Godfather--this epic tale positively shimmers in Coppola's carefully restored re-mastering. The story, which spans much of the Twentieth Century, tells the parallel tales of the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and that of his sometimes reluctant but duty-bound youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) after he has taken over the family business. John Cazale gives the performance of his life as Fredo, a shattering portrayal of Michael's hapless older brother, and a role that gave Cazale stature as an actor on the same level as co-stars Robert Duval, Talia Shire and Lee Strasberg. The restoration of the film's already legendary imagery is astounding, and breathes new life into what is widely considered a masterpiece of composition and camera movement. A particular treat in high-definition is the series of complex horizontal tracking shots along tenement rooftops and along crowded, turn-of-the-century city streets as the young Vito patiently stalks the imperious neighborhood predator, Fanucci. Also, the deep-focus scenes shot on Lake Tahoe spring crisply to life and come as close to recreating the big screen experience as anything you will see on your TV. This was Coppola at the height of his skills as a filmmaker, and the movie won six of its eleven Oscar nominations in 1974.

Barry Lyndon; Director, Stanley Kubrick. Probably the greatest costume period piece ever shot (though I suppose I'll take some heat from those who would advocate for Gone With the Wind instead). Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the story follows the life of Redmond Barry (played by Ryan O'Neal), who, after a duel with an English officer, must flee his home in rural Ireland. His adventures take him all across war-torn Europe at the height of the Seven Year's War, and into battle and into military desertion, before he lands back in England and finally into great wealth. In the end his hubris leads him to fall from his lofty position. Shot on location in Ireland, England, Holland, Austria and Germany, the film was a stunning groundbreaker, for Kubrick--the legendary perfectionist--fashioned an artistic composition out of every frame of this carefully paced movie. Kubrick also developed and employed special lenses for the many scenes shot only in candlelight, an effort which gives the film's night scenes a sense of period authenticity never before achieved by a filmmaker. Particularly striking on the digitally remastered versions are the elaborately staged battle sequences (see still image above), as well as the meticulously composed scenes of rural Ireland.

Alien; Director, Ridley Scott. Okay, enough of the haughty and pretentious stuff listed above--let's have some old-fashioned fun with a horrifyingly efficient space monster bent on murder and blood-drenching mayhem. In the remastered digital format, this movie is just as terrifying as when we first saw in the theaters back in 1979. Some newer Blu Ray editions include the director's cut, which contains additional scenes. Always a cinematic treat from the first, the film's carefully crafted visuals and sets create a managed-tension: the giant transport ship--at first clean, cavernous and seemingly endless--becomes a muggy, claustrophobic maze as crew members are killed, one-by-one, in grisly fashion by the lethal alien creature. The movie made classical British stage actor John Hurt infamous for the mess hall scene, which, for 1979 standards, was one of the most shocking gross-out scenes ever filmed in an A-movie sci-fi. The movie put Sigourney Weaver on the map, and did no harm to the careers of Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto. A friend once told me the moral of this story: when being pursued by a horrible, relentless alien monster--do NOT go back for the lost cat.

The Shining; Director, Stanley Kubrick. Okay, while we are on the topic of horror, let's get this one out of the way (and for you readers of Stephen King, just relax--and I already know you don't like this version of the story). Kubrick, always the perfectionist, insists on getting these things right every time, and The Shining is another one of those visual feasts that one cannot resist. On Blu Ray (or some DVD versions) make sure you watch it in the wide screen or letterbox version to get the full benefit of Kubrick's careful compositions. Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast as Jack Torrance, a wannabe writer and recovering alcoholic who takes a winter job as caretaker of a huge mountain hotel and ski resort, cut-off from civilization for the months that the property is snowed-in. With his wife (Shelley Duval) and young son (who we learn has an odd gift of "visions") along for the season, Jack begins to slip into madness, little by little, until we discover that there are more sinister and macabre forces at work here than mere cabin fever. Meticulously paced and impeccably composed in Kubrick's trademark visual poetry, every scene is stunning. The groundbreaking use of steadicam equipment gives the movie a strangely fluid, eerily dreamlike feel, and Kubrick's passion for deep-focus shooting makes this horror movie artistically durable--especially in the age of hand-held shaky-cams and tight close-ups. Best watched without interruption, and with the lights in your den turned off.

Once Upon a Time in the West; director, Sergio Leone. Whether you like the genre of the Western or not, this is the story of America's growth toward the Pacific as epic opera. The carefully restored digital versions take this classic and make it again approachable to anyone who enjoys great movies. This is Leone's Western masterpiece, and his most elaborate. Set in a part of the west opening up to rail transportation, the story pits the old versus the new, good-guy gunslingers against the bad guys, and propels forward several parallel subplots of revenge, greed, love and the frontier spirit. The meticulously detailed sets and the famous score by Ennio Morricone add to the allure, and Henry Fonda is mesmerizing in the role of what is arguably the most chilling killer-for-hire performance of any Western. Like Kubrick, but in his own trademark way, Leone is a poet with the Arriflex camera and its compositions, and anyone familiar with the code employed in his so-called spaghetti westerns will find this one the ultimate big-scale treat. The movie is not without its flaws, including awkward moments of obvious post-shoot dubbing to replace the Italian accents with equally stilted American voice-overs. Co-writers include Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. Co-stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Elam and Charles Bronson. Watch it in the letterbox format, and do not leave the room during the carefully paced opening credit scenes, for this is Charles Bronson--inscrutable and icy--at his best as a cryptic good guy who happens also to be handy with a gun.

2001: A Space Odyssey; director, Stanley Kubrick. OK I admit that Kubrick is one of my favorites, but this one deserves special attention for the fact that it became the most influential science fiction film of all time--and its impact remains visible in sci-fi to this very day. A collaboration between Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 is the non-narrative story of the oblique impact on mankind presumably by an advanced alien culture (who we never actually see in the movie). Divided into thinly connected segments, the film makes giant leaps, telling first a tale of primitive, pre-human struggles and their sudden self-awareness, then, tossing us abruptly into a dazzling future of elegant space travel and chilling, sterile technology. This transition--from the dawn of humankind into the distant future--is achieved by way of the most incredible jump-cut ever used in modern cinema, and the subtlety of Kubrick's visual gospel (the pre-humans are more closely bound and therefore more "human" than their techno-dependent descendants of the 21ST Century) fits neatly into Kubrick's always-present theme of de-humanization and loss of spirituality. The third, and next-to-last sequence, explores the struggle between man and machine, as the spaceship's nearly omnipotent computer goes slowly mad in its rising self-awareness and gathering paranoia. The infamous final sequence catapults the ship's lone survivor along a hallucinatory trajectory through time and space, arriving finally to the film's famously ambiguous ending. 2001 is a visual feast for which there are few rivals, and the classical music scoring enhances the graceful, ballet-like scenes of space travel. So profound was the overall effect of the cinematic and scientific canons established here, that hardly any sci-fi film since has escaped its influence even 40 years later. The re-mastered versions are visual powerhouses. Watch this one, if possible, in a mostly dark room.