Monday, July 21, 2014

A Scanners Too Darkly: Criterion vs Subkultur

Criterion Collection Digipack (USA)

It was with no small level of hesitation that I picked up the Criterion Collection release of David Cronenberg's 1981 head-exploding icon of legend, SCANNERS. For one thing, I've always personally found the flick kind of... middling. There's nothing about the film that I would classify as bad, mind you. It clings to the hallmarks of Cronenberg's most visible works - body transformation as a metaphor of some grotesque facet of the human condition, explosions of unpredictable violence, an almost uncomfortable understanding of not-yet-existent technology (in this case, firewall hacking with only your goddamn brain), and an uneasy, oddly methodical tone that quietly rejects the notion that it's a "genre movie". Scanners is technically a Science Fiction film, but every effort has been made to avoid the imagery, soundtrack and dialogue you'd associate with any of its contemporaries; the film is closer in tone and even general aesthetic to a slow boil political thriller that just happens to be about dangerous mutants spawned by... well, if for some reason you're reading this and you still haven't seen the film, I'll let some other asshole spoil it for you. Again, there's nothing explicitly wrong with Scanners, it just isn't nearly as good as Cronenberg's similarly themed titles like Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch, which all have a much more consistent agenda and stronger central performance to get us there. If there's one thing I straight up dislike about this film it's the lukewarm performance of the lead, Stephen Lack, but the language of the film itself is so thoroughly dominated by the handful of scenes that feature Michael Ironsides that I can only shrug it off and call it a wash. I don't hate Scanners, I just think it's a swing-and-a-miss from a director who'd go on to do substantially better work, and I'm amused that - somehow - this is the one that pop culture has kept firmly in its collective memory, mostly for its chance to constantly bring up the iconic head explosion gag as a reaction anything that drives them insane.

Fun fact the Criterion booklet talks about: The head explosion scene was originally going to open the film, but they moved it to the start of the second reel once they realized that most audiences had too short of an attention span to pay attention to the somewhat convoluted plot after watching... well, basically after watching this:

With the pacing being what it is and the decidedly limited screentime that Ironsides has in the film, I honestly wonder if placing this scene back where it was originally planned to go - before the opening credits - might alleviate some of the frustrations I have with it? It'd not only start the whole plodding, poorly focused adventure off with a literal bang, but it would make the bookending sequence that ends the film have a sort of perfect symmetry, as opposed to this just randomly cropping up 20 minutes in. I'unno, maybe I'm just overthinking it... or maybe I just have a new excuse to play around with the raw footage in ways that aren't exclusively related to color grading?

There's been no shortage of discussion about what the hell happened to the overall "look" of the film on Criterion's new Director Approved edition. There's a lot going on with this one, so while I will defer to the good folks over at Caps-A-Holic for their EXCELLENT COMPARISON between the two transfers (plus several others DVD and Blu-ray versions to OCD over!) and simply discuss what I've seen and what I know. Dumping screenshots can be  great when there's a specific error that nobody's covered, but in this case I feel like I'd be chucking plastic pails of water into the Pacific. Everyone who's going to judge these transfers by screenshots has more than enough ammo for whichever side they've already come down on, so consider this an opinion piece.

Subkultur Limited Mediabook Edition (GERMANY)

First off, let's talk about the late-2012 German Blu-ray from Subkultur Entertainment - which we've spoken about before to avoid confusion with the horrendously janky 2011 Koch Media SD Upscale. To reiterate one more time, Subkultur's HD transfer is quite good, and Koch Media's is an upscaled trainwreck.

When the Criterion release came out and looked substantially different from their transfer and German fans were understandably confused, the company rep actually ISSUED A STATEMENT on their forums - translated above, for your convenience - explaining that when they licensed the film they picked up what was listed as MGM's "Protection Master". Knowing they had a shitty inferior transfer on the marker to shame as hard as possible, Subkultur actually got their hands on an original 35mm print shown in Germany during the early 1980s, and decided to compare the MGM tape master master to the vintage print. What they found was that the two were very similar indeed, and they even took flat scans of various scenes to use as a reference; having decided the MGM Protection Master was an accurate reflection of how the film was supposed to look, they used MGM's tape seemingly as-is. When, or how, this master was created they didn't say, but having dealt with MGM archival materials first-hand, I'd be surprised if this wasn't a 1080p Telecine created 5 or more years ago, intended primarily for HDTV broadcast.

Before anyone asks, a "Protection Master" is simply a copy of an original master. It's typically a tape being cloned from an original master tape, and is a cheap, simple way to make sure you still have a perfect copy should a tape ever be lost, stolen, damaged or what have you. It also means you can loan the Protection Master out to a third party and keep the Original Master in your vaults, effectively limiting the chances for anything bad happening to the original. A blank HDCAM SR tape should cost about about $150~250 depending on the length, but that's still a fraction of the price of needing to create a new telecine from scratch.

What's interesting is the Subkultur release has a notably different look when it's held up against various other HD releases, including UK label Second Sight's 2013 Limited Edition BD. I don't have the disc on-hand, sadly, but as you can SEE FOR YOURSELF, this disc generally has a higher color saturation, and the gamma appears to have been pushed to produce a brighter image, which has also visibly increased the level of noise on display. The Second Sight and Subkultur releases have completely different color timing and framing, which again, you can see in the above comparisons. One shot of particular interest is about an hour into the film, when  Lack is looking down at a computer monitor; in the Subkultur version, the scene's color grading is quite neutral, while on the Second Sight release it's been given a visible green cast, emulating the green text appearing from the vintage tube screen. This shot is my personal smoking gun, suggesting that the Second Sight release was color graded scene-by-scene for both consistency and aesthetics. For the record, both the iTunes version of the film and the Paramount Home Video Japan Blu-ray look more or less identical to the UK Blu-ray, suggesting this was the defacto "Restored" master Paramount and MGM planned to use going forward... until Criterion got involved, of course.

Second Sight Limited Steelbook Edition (UK)

What's very interesting is that it says in the booklet that Criterion's new, 2K resolution transfer was supervised by David Cronenberg. It does not say when said transfer was made, or if it was at the behest of Criterion themselves, as plenty of titles they release are essentially the same masters seen elsewhere around the world. Were I to be a gambling man, my guess would be that what actually happened was that Paramount made the initial 2K scan which served as the basis for the Second Sight master, but that said raw scans were kept on a drive array, and brought back into the colorists' sphere when Criterion convinced Cronenberg to be involved with their release. The shot of Lack looking at the monitor has the same green cast on the "Cronenberg Approved" Criterion BD despite no prior reference materials being used, which either suggests that the Criterion scan had access to the color information used on the previous master as a base, or that Cronenberg happens to have the same boner for green monitor reflections as the last guy who graded the film.

I have little doubt that Cronenberg suggested and approved the new color grading, no more than I would doubt that Michael Mann approved the new color grading on THIEF, or that Peter Jackson approved the new color grading for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING... you uh, you can tell where this is going, can't you?

David Cronenberg, bless his black Canadian heart, has gone slightly off the deep end with the color grading here. The short version is the entire film has an unnatural blue push, particularly in the high end, which is reminiscent of the sort of hazy optical effects you'd find on oldschool Day For Night scenes. I'm tempted to say it looks garish, but to be fair it's not as "digital" looking as many of the controversial color grading arguments we've had in the last ten years... hell, it's subtle enough that it could have been done purely on film - it wasn't, but it doesn't have any of those weird digital matte edges like the Blu-ray for Bram Stoker's Dracula or the THX Approved DVD of Halloween. Even so, it just looks... off.

Every time this happens, you get two camps that crop up: Those who argue that a screenshot is 100% representative of the transfer in question, and those who argue that an isolated screenshot on a computer monitor in no way reflect what watching the actual transfer on a large display would look like. The funny thing is that both sides are completely right. So long as the decoder wasn't screwed up at some point, any screenshot will look identical to the source image, and as such any issues - say, "the black levels are elevated" or "the grain has been smoothed digitally" or whatever - will appear on the screenshot. That said, the way the human brain works means that watching a smaller windowboxed image with a white border around it will produce a higher perceived contrast, making dark images appear darker. If you were to full-screen the cap being discussed, there you go, that's the original frame - but the second you're doing A/B comparisons in different tabs, those borders, however small, are going to influence how dramatic those color compromises appear even if your computer screen has been properly calibrated - that's the whole reason professionally framed pieces of art use different colored mattes. Particularly if your whole argument  boils down to "this transfer is tinted blue", then yes, white borders in a Firefox browser window are only going to make those colors pop harder than they would on your ISF calibrated 1080p plasma... but that doesn't mean those colors don't exist, they're just less obvious or distracting in their intended context.

A friend of mine has suggested that the Criterion release is actually quite close in color tone to the old R1 MGM DVD, and while there are times where THAT'S VERY TRUE, there are also times where IT'S NOT EVEN CLOSE. Sure the DVD releases going back several years had a dim, grubby look to them, but the Blu-ray's color grading has tipped even that further than I can accept as looking anything but like an idea that came about in the lab, creating a consistently cold, low-contrast aesthetic that - while perhaps acceptable in the context of the transfer as a whole - never looks natural, or like any film released in 1981 would have. Whether or not the color grading looks "bad", of course, is solely a matter of personal opinion. But it's safe to say it's "new", in either case. If this truly was how the film was supposed to look, it wouldn't be so notably different from the German theatrical print Subkultur compared their materials to. Viewing the screenshots in direct comparison with the other releases available makes the Criterion transfer appear like you're going to be watching the whole film through the blue half of a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses... yet somehow the final result is somewhat less dramatic than all of that. Fact is, neutral colors look weird when their underlying contrast has been undercooked, so it's not uncommon for a blue push to be used to mellow the look out. It's reminiscent of the (far heavier) blue bias on Twilight Time's rage inducing Night of the Living Dead 1990 transfer - most people swear the blue push go away after the opening twenty minutes, which simply isn't true, it just stops looking weird because the scenes are now taking place at night. The blue high end does a surprisingly decent job of making the whole film look intentionally underlit, but as a result the fleshtones are always desaturated, the natural reds in their flushed faces being smeared out by the clever color tweak. It's so simple it's brilliant.

With a comparison between what a neutral version of this film looks like in HD, the intentionally dull, dour look on the Criterion master sticks out like a sore thumb. Turn the lights down and view it on its own merits, and you'll no longer be convinced that they've turned Michael Ironsides into a psychic smurf; it'll just look like they shot the whole thing with lower key lighting, with the wonky color grading cautiously shifting the viewer's expectations to match what it promises is the intended "look" of the film. Honestly, had the film been made today and looked this way I'd have thought it was a bit ugly, but at least it's not the expected high-contrast teal that everyone is convinced is the cancer that's destroying cinematography as we know it.

Another niggle we have to discuss is that of "AutoClean" artifacts. As we've discussed many times on this ol' site, film scratches and particles of dust are removed using a combination of digital tools - sometimes automated, sometimes by hand, but more often than not it's a little bit of both. It's not uncommon for the automatic tools to occasionally glitch out, removing a fast moving object that's supposed to be in frame by effectively mistaking it for a scratch; this can lead to things like sparks, flickering flames, or blowing leaves disappearing, though it takes a trained eye or a direct comparison to typically see the artifact itself. It just so happens that the iconic head explosion scene has Digital Scratch Repair artifacts on the Criterion version, but not on any other commercially released HD copy I'm aware of.

That having been said, the Protection Master released by Subkultur is absolutely filthy with hundreds of instances of dirt in any given scene, and I can only assume the Second Sight release still has some issues if Criterion bothered to use scratch repair filters at all. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing for the film's most iconic scene to be afflicted, but having seen the almost grimy alternative I'm willing to cut Criterion as much slack as I can stomach: They really should have keyed the rest of the fucking shout out, but if that's as bad as it gets, I just can't be bothered to get a hernia over it all. DVD BEAVER has a comparison of the Criterion and Second Sight transfers, so you can easily enough click back-and-fourth between them to watch the fragments of juicy skull simply disappear on the former, replaced by irregularly shaped blobs of nothingness. This begs the question: "Would you ever notice the skull bits blinking out in motion?" Well, I may have - but obsessing over minute details is kind of my job. Would the average person? Probably not, unless it's being pointed out to them... good luck not seeing it now, suckers!

Director David Cronenberg, clearly feeling much the same way I do.

What we have here are three distinctly different masters, each representing a different moment in time from when the film was being appraised, and it's a very unique, and rare, position for any film fan to have access to all of them:

Subkultur Entertainment's Protection Master sourced Blu-ray preserves the film exactly as it always was. That means the film is full of flicker, scratches, dirt, color grading inconsistencies. The grain is heavier than the Criterion edition, and there are some minor trailing artifacts suggesting some DVNR was applied for consistency's sake, but overall it's a decent looking presentation of what's likely an older, less coddled master. Basically, it's a time capsule to experience Scanners as it was seen in 1981, and that's a pretty awesome option, even if it's a "warts and all" affair.

Second Sight's 2013 HD master sourced Blu-ray presents a modern, studio approved version of the film, fixing the majority of the film's obvious defects and giving it a fairly neutral, consistent, if slightly over the top color grade. I can't comment further than that, not owning the release myself, but it's safe to say that anyone who thinks the Criterion Collection master is too dark, but isn't thrilled about the idea of constant flicker and speckling has a third option. This particular master is the only version to include a new 5.1 English surround track, too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Criterion Collection's 2014 Director Approved HD master stands as almost a rejection of Paramount's prior attempt, lowering the contrast and gamma across the board to produce a somber, dank version of the same film. Screenshots may look softer at a glance, but in motion the grain looks perfectly organic, suggesting that a combination of lower contrast and a higher quality scan simply exaggerated it less to begin with; actual detail between the Subkultur and Criterion master seems comparable. If the Second Sight release went slightly too far in creating a brighter, bolder version of Scanners, I can't help but think that Cronenberg himself went slightly too far in reverse just to compensate. Boosting the contrast alone wouldn't "fix" the transfer, however, as the color balance has been subtly pushed towards blue and purple, robbing flesh tones of a natural look. Having now seen the transfer myself, I can't call it bad, just... strange. And not in the way I was expecting a David Cronenberg film to look strange.

Whilst I've come in here to talk about the transfer, I will note that it's extremely disappointing that Cronenberg didn't record a commentary for the new Criterion release. Yeah, I know, he's already said that he's "said all he has to say" about his older films and I guess there's something to respect in him not forever living on his glories of yesteryear, but this is such a fundamentally unusual film that I'd genuinely love to hear whatever Cronenberg might have had to say about it's inception, the difficulties he faced producing the to this day unique special effects - heck, I still want an excuse for why he picked such a dull leading man. Despite having overseen the new transfer, Cronenberg himself didn't contribute to any new bonus content, which is... frustrating, to say the least.

The semi-annual Barnes and Noble sale is still going on as I post this, which allowed me to pick up Scanners for about $20. The disc includes a new interview with Michael Ironsides, Cronenberg's first feature film Stereo, the Stephen Lack interview that Subkultur made for their 2012 BD, an interview with Cronenberg from the film's release on a Canadian talkshow, a booklet with an interesting essay going over the film's original production, and original ad spots. I'd argue a lot of that content alone was worth the $20 I paid. With that in mind it's safe to say that while the "look" given to Scanners is neither the way the film was created nor strikes me as the ideal presentation, it looks somewhat better than you'd expect, while the Subkultur release looks marginally worse in motion than a single frame of any given shot likely will. With all of that in mind, I'd suggest purists who likely don't mind some flicker, gate weave and a whole lot of dust speckling import the German release, and that anyone who isn't upset on principle by the dull, cold image of the Criterion version pick it up for the unique bonus features.

At the very least, I can't spot any obvious color grading problems for Stereo. I have little doubt that being in black and white helps.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sailor Fools

Resized by Blogger to 900p because

First off, dear friends, an apology is in order; while I may not be the biggest Sailor Moon fan on the planet personally, it's still a title that fascinates me on a lot of levels, and as such it was one I always planed to watch in its entirety, eventually. It's also something Mrs. Kentai adores, and as such it was something I should have been keeping an eye on.

Unfortunately, I've been... busy. Very, very, very busy. The Merry Month of May was mostly spent rolling up my sleeves and restoring a series for a particular licensor, a job that basically precluded sleep, sanity and - most recently - was on a hard drive that decided to take a full on swan-dive into a swimming pool full of chainsaws and landmines. I've managed to recover upwards of 80% of my work materials, thank Christ for that, but several hours of work has already been re-done, and several hours more still has to be pulled out of the deepest part of my ass. In short, if the guys I worked with hadn't been like "Hey, Gus Van Sant is supposed to direct Death Note for some reason!", I never would have known. Which seems kind of irrelevant, since ABC's Hannibal is already a remake of Death Note... but that's another post entirely.

And it's with that twitchy state of mind that, nearly two months ago, I shrugged off the notion that Viz Media, the new American overlords of Toei's 1990's version of PRETTY SOLDIER SAILOR MOON/美少女戦士セーラームーン, were going to release a standard definition master upscaled to 1080p as their new "High Definition" master as little more than paranoia over some ugly YouTube trailers. Viz had already started released Ranma 1/2 using a proper HD telecine, Toei Animation themselves have done plenty of honest-to-god HD masters including Dragon Ball Kai and Fist of the North Star. With the massive presence that this show holds in North America, I had assumed that some sort of deal had been struck whereby Viz was going to get their hands on some by that point never-before-seen HD master, at worst... Stranger things have happened, after all; Discotek's Blu-ray of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland remains the only home video release of the HD master for that I'm aware of.

Oh, but how naive insanity can make a person.

This was straight from the horse's mouth, and from a time when I was spending every waking hour fixing up each and every shot of a film that I was forgetting to do things like sleep and eat, much less double check Anime News Network for what I, evidently wrongly assumed, would be pure fluff pieces:

So this show's coming out on Bluray and it's an old show from the 90s, just like Ranma. What kind of restoration are we talking about here?

Charlene: In 2009, there was a restoration done. Those are the very best materials available for Sailor Moon, and it is a 90s shojo anime, so there are challenges there. But we've been working with some companies that are really great at what they do and they've developed a way to not just do the inverse telecine but to really remaster that video. It looks significantly better than any other DVD that's come out, lots of care was put into it. You don't have to worry about any fake-widescreen, it's in a fully uncropped pillarbox, all the original colors are preserved, and a lot of care was taken to go along with our official style guides and official materials to make sure all of the colors are the way they were intended to be. Everything looks nice and crisp and clear, but you still have to understand that season 1 is a 1992 TV Anime. 

There has been no word to refute the notion that this was an upscale since, and with Anime Expo having come and gone, they would have defended that notion if there was anything to defend. 

So yeah. All that comforting talk I gave about how there's no way Viz would be dumb enough to upscale an SD master in a release that already includes as an SD DVD? I'm taking every word of that back, because they are that stupid. For all the shit I've (deservedly) given FUNimation's god-awful "Season" sets of Dragon Ball Z, at least those were an actual HD Telecine from 16mm film - not a good HD Telecine, not by a long shot, but an HD Telecine none the less.

Let's be perfectly clear, without potentially outing any constituents who don't fully approve of the things I do in my spare time: I work with a handful of film licensors from time to time here, and long term friends of the Kentai Blog probably know I've worked on one particular franchise for Toei. There was a time when said licensor asked if we could get an HD master for this title, and we were informed that Toei didn't have an HD tape*, but we were allowed to upscale the Digibeta we were sent if we so chose to. We then asked them if a new HD master could be created; we were told they had no interest in creating one, but would sell us a 35mm print roughly for cost and we could do the scan ourselves. By this point, the licensor I work for had lost all interest; they've never done an in-house telecine, and the costs to do it properly would far outweigh whatever money they'd make on actual sales. Thankfully, he shot down the idea of an upscale, because who the hell wants that? It's not like this was a digital show rendered at SD resolution; there's a 35mm negative for that title just sitting in Toei's vaults, waiting for someone to give just enough of a shit to make a new print for it. Unfortunately, Toei is all out of shits to give, likely based on how their HD masters of titles like Toward the Terra, Mazinger Z and Galaxy Express sold in Japan on Blu-ray.

* I have my doubts that they straight up don't have an HD tape for this particular title... but, that's what we were told.

I can only imagine that Viz had a similar conversation with Toei, realized that Sailor Moon was going to make a small fortune no matter what it looked like on Blu-ray, and took those 2009 Digibetas with little more than a sigh and a shake of the head. Personally, I couldn't be more disgusted that Toei is treating it's number-two money maker like this... but, this is the world we live in. I don't even think it's worth being angry about it, because neither side is willing to take the risk to give the show the quality release it deserves. Why should I be arsed to feel much of anything at that point? The most obvious angry retort is to point out that FUNimation has 16mm prints of Dragon Ball Z... but that's ignoring that they started getting 16mm prints in the mid 1990s, and Toei may not own their own lab anymore, making costs for that sort of work higher or the turn-around slower. Who knows?

Just to make it clear how incredibly awful this shit is going to get, here are SCREENSHOTS FROM THE iTUNES 1080p VERSION. This isn't just a bad upscale, it's the worst sort of upscale complete with edge-warping processing and clumpy, gross DVNR. I could accept this as a 480p DVD if the only masters remaining were analogue tapes, but Toei still owns all the 16mm negatives for this series. The only excuse for this atrocity is greed... and with Slam Dunk, Saint Seiya and Galaxy Express 999 having been given equally god-awful upscaled Blu-ray boxes in Japan this year, it appears this is what we have to look forward to for classic 80s and 90s animation from one of Japan's biggest production studios. Fuck. My. Life.

Caveat Emptor, kiddos: I was out of the loop on this one just a little too hard, and must thank a friendly Anon for pointing out that I had no clue what I was talking about. This is why I've gotten into the habit of talking about discs after I buy them... but, in this case, I wanted to make sure everyone knew NOT to buy them, unless they're fine with pretending it's a DVD set with pre-made upscales as a bonus feature. The sad part is I'm not even shocked at the news... just, incredibly disappointed. If Sailor Moon isn't "big enough" to get a proper Blu-ray release in North America without a proper HD master already existing on the Japanese end, not much else will be.

For those who aren't ready to fist-fuck this set into obscurity on principle, at least the packaging looks nice and purty; an 88 page booklet is evidently included, and the above artwork will have a shiny, foil finish. The price is a fairly hefty $79.99 MSRP for only 23 episodes, which I must remind everyone is 23 out of 200, meaning this shit will be substantially more expensive than the Dragon Boxes. Jesus Fucking Christ. Viz is planning to take Usagi all the way to the bank, and I have little doubt that the numbers of this set - upscaled or not - are going to be astronomical. It's sad, really... they've produced a new, unedited dub, they're doing a DVD/BD combo pack, and they're going for broke on the packaging. I couldn't care less about the new dub personally, but that just further shows that Viz has made this their baby, and that makes the confirmation that this is going to look like butt all the more infuriating. If it weren't for the fact that the HD master is a lying, filthy upscale this'd... basically be perfect. Hell, it reminds me of the Revolutionary Girl Utena sets, but at least those being a DVD didn't necessarily nullify the chance of a proper Blu-ray release coming out down the line! Then again, here I am three years later, and not so much as the movie has been announced... how sad.

$80 for 1/10th of a series from an upscaled SD master. Christ, why do I still buy anime!?

It ships in November, but I'm tempted to say anyone who wanted this should politely tell Viz that they're skipping the set, and will watch the show on Hulu instead. Viz and Toei still make money that way, and the quality difference will be absolutely negligible. If, on the other hand, you really want to see some Magical Girl Goodness in HD Stateside, my recommendation would be to purchase NIS America's Cardcaptor Sakura Blu-ray set. The Japanese remaster had some funky issues involving color-based sharpening and some light grain removal, but the results are dramatically better than any SD master. It ships in early August, and while Mrs. Kentai hates the package design ("Why are there stars everywhere?! STARS ARE NOT THE MOTIF OF THIS SHOW!"), I'm still tempted to buy it for her anyway, if not just to jab the spite-dagger into Toei's side a little harder for this bullshit.

What's sad is that I'm not going to tell you not to buy this show. If you've wanted the complete, unedited Sailor Moon on DVD odds are you've waited for a long goddamn time for this day, and you probably would have bought this with or without the Blu-ray. Hell, if this were a DVD only box set, I'd at least have considered it to sit next to my Dragon Boxes, Fist of the North Star Complete Collection and Revolutionary Girl Utena sets - and I'm sure plenty of people who are no less upset by this fact will come to the same conclusion. I just want everyone to be on the same page and not have to have the aneurism-courting ragedump I felt after they've already paid for it. The Kentai Blog is, at this point in particular, more of a Public Service Announcement than anything, so... The More You Know, I guess.

Thanks to a friendly Anon for not letting me forger this entirely! I owe you a shitty upscale for my prior tomfoolery.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Night Breeders

I'm actually knee-deep in a fun, kaiju-related Blu-ray write-up... but there's a bit of news that needs covering before it's relevance has passed. We'll get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.

"Who's that adorable gay man? And what's he got to do with Hellraiser?"
- Mrs. Kentai, upon seeing Clive Barker for the first time

After his incredibly successful directorial debut with Hellraiser, Clive Barker's goal was to create "The Star Wars of horror films". Clive Barker's 1990 phantasmagorical NIGHTBREED, an $11 million dollar project pushing the limits of creature features, was to be the first half in this singular epic. An adaptation of his 1988 novella, Cabal, Nightbreed was - for better or worse - a one of a kind film that never quite lived up to its potential; a sweet natured horror-fantasy about a clan of sentient monsters who inhabit the dark underbelly of an abandoned cemetery, which - despite their otherworldly or animalistic natures - are ultimately innocent castaways of a cruel world, and are persecuted by "normal" society solely for existing.

Basically, it's Dances with Wolves by way of Barlowe's Guide to Extra Terrestrials, with the most impressive thing about it being not the effects work of the endlessly creative Mark Coulier, but the utterly terrifying human monster played by infamous (then) body-horror director David Cronenberg.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Clive Barker's personal life shouldn't have a lot of trouble putting the allegory back together, but that sense of sympathy and personal connection with the monsters of Midian produced an oddly touching, almost operatic experience... one which producers at Morgan Creek Productions didn't know what the hell to make of. In the end, over 40 minutes of footage was cut before the MPAA even had their say, new scenes to increase the presence Cronenberg's Midian hating psychopath were added to "ground" the film - a decision that actually didn't hurt one bit, and the whole thing was stitched together with some oddly inappropriate noodling by Danny Elfman. The finished film is a Frankenstein's Monster of big ideas that go nowhere, of musical theater intercut with gross-out gore gags, of so many of Barker's sincere affections thrown up on the screen in a menagerie of glorious sound and empty fury... I can't say Nightbreed in any cut is a boring film, but I'm tempted to say that the version that the world ultimately saw in early 1990, after months of delays, is a fundamentally broken experience.

One devoid of color as much as common sense. Apparently.

Not dark and gory enough to be a raucous creature feature in the vein of Hellraiser, and not allowed to be as nuanced and genre-inverting as it was intended, the finished 102-minute film was an almost inevitable commercial time bomb with a cult audience that would only emerge from morbid video rental curiosity. The film isn't awful, exactly, it's just... broken. Malformed beyond expectation that works as a fascinating failure rather than as a sincere work of art. The experience of watching what's clearly a very personal story get contorted into something comparatively trite was a painful process for the author-director, who would go on to direct only one more film (1995's The Lord of Illusions - a film he'd be allowed to release in his preferred version to video a year later, no less!) to focus on the comparatively unlimited world of writing and painting, where he's continued to thrive and grow as a creator, often leaving other talented film makers to try and put his own personal nightmares on-screen as unique adaptations. As I remember it Clive Barker voiced his frustrations around the time of the film's release post-release in horror rags of the period, but had kept more or less silent since about what are clearly old wounds that refuse to heal properly for nearly 20 years. It's a shame that Barker's most unusual and ambitious film project ended up being such a hot, near-glorious mess.

In 2009, Mark Miller, co-head of Seraphim Films (Barker's production company) located a 145 minute workprint, representing the initial rough cut of the film as Barker had once presented it to Morgan Creek producers. They went digging through Barker's things and continued to find longer bits and pieces as they went, eventually compiling every scrap of footage into the 159 minute version with senior film and video production lecturer Russell Cherrington, containing every frame of known footage. Realizing that some of the re-shoots made certain scenes redundant, this was later trimmed down to 155 minutes, and then shown at a handful of special venues, including at the New Beverly theater in Los Angeles - A SHOW I PERSONALLY WROTE ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO. When the show ended, Miller and Cherrington had just gotten word that they'd recieved approval to release the Cabal Cut themselves separate from the 1990 version, but they still needed a distributor. In July of 2013, Shout! Factory made the announcement that they would be releasing the "Cabal Cut" of Nightbreed on DVD and Blu-ray, though the when was still up in the air...

The "For Curious Peasants" Edition.

As of July first, 2014, Shout Factory announced the very tentative details for their Blu-ray edition. Shipping in late October, NIGHTBREED: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT - a refined and re-edited version of the Cabal Cut I myself got a chance to see with Barker and company - will be getting two distinct editions. The standard release will be a Blu-ray / DVD combo set, containing only the Director's Cut. The exact length has not been announced, but as the marketing materials insist "over 40 minutes" of never before seen footage, it's safe to say the length will likely be closer to the initial 1989 workprint Miller unearthed in 2009 than anything. (How much, if any, of the Cronenberg reshoots will be included is anyone's guess.)

For those curious, they're actually distancing themselves from the "Cabal Cut" moniker specifically because the once long-thought lost 35mm camera negatives have finally been located, meaning the dodgy VHS quality prints I myself watched through a haze of analogue hell will finally be rectified and looking no less beautiful than any print of the film seen before. This is an exciting surprise I can't stress enough, as while I can understand the thought process behind including every scrap of footage... let's face it. Putting a letterboxed VHS workprint on Blu-ray was going to be akin to stuffing a filet mignon with cheese whiz... sure  you could do it, but why?!

The standard-edition combo set will have an MSRP of $29.99, and knowing Shout! Factory it'll be available from most third-party retails for about thirty percent less on release, or - if you're the impatient type - can already be had for $23.96, as a pre-order from Shout! Factory proper. It promises new bonus features, but exactly what those features will be has yet to be confirmed. Both editions are due for a wide release October 28th, but pre-ordering from Shout! Factory direct gets you the release two weeks early. Ain't that some shit!

The "Fuck You. You'll Still Pay It And We Know It" Edition.

The no-less shocking surprise of the Limited Edition, however, is the real juicy part of this whole announcement... and it's not for the feint of heart. Available at the Shout! Factory website for the low, ass-reaming price of $79.97, this three disc Blu-ray set - strictly limited to 5,000 copies - will include new, Clive Barker approved artwork, a collector's book featuring exclusive content, the 1990 Theatrical Cut in high definition on disc 2, and a third bonus disc "packed with extras"... and once again, exactly what those extras will be, Shout! Factory isn't letting on. Considering the over the top presentation comparatively less expensive titles have been given on the Scream Factory label I have little doubt this'll be some sort of obscene feature-length documentary, but for now, all we can do is wonder what grotesque surprises this insanely pricey set is going to offer.

Before anyone who hasn't seen the Cabal Cut flips their desk in a fit of joy pre-orders this, remember, the Director's Cut can be had for $26 in the combo pack - the main extra in this limited edition is, so far at any rate, the Theatrical version we've all seen before. We'll get tons of other stuff, too, apparently... but Shout! Factory isn't willing to say what we're getting. Even though this release is supposed to ship in about 10 weeks. Am I the only one who thinks that's... weird? Not skeevy, not nessicarily, but why keep your lip buttoned tight when they're clearly getting ready to replicate these fuckers?

Before anyone lubes up their favorite toy at the thought of 40+ extra minutes of Nightbreed forever changing their lives... well, keep your expectations in check. I've seen the Cabal Cut, and walked away with very mixed feelings. In short, if you liked Nightbreed and thought it never explored its themes of love and responsibility properly, you'll probably love it. If you're expecting to become a fan, or assuming this'll be fourty minutes of grotesque monster bloodpath action, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. This is very much a Clive Barker film, but it's the Clive Barker who would create Lord of Illusions and then retire from the director's chair, not the Clive Barker who blew everyone's mind with Hellraiser. That's not to insult either end of that spectrum, mind - I don't dislike Lord of Illusions. But it's very closer in tone and scope to the latter rather than the former.

There's little doubt in my mind that the Cabal Cut was closer to Clive Barker's mad vision, but the final result is on par with the never-ending Alan Smythee version of Dune, or that five and a half hour workprint of Apocalypse Now: Some of the new footage improves the film dramatically, make no mistake, but big chunks of it was honestly cut for a damn good reason. The exceedingly rough nature of what we've seen certainly didn't help matters either, and it's possible that some clever new editing and ADR could take what looked like ugly, unpolished footage and turn it back into the finished, unique feature that Clive Barker had always intended. The romantic and personal soul may be back where it belongs, but it came with a lot of fat in its arteries. Maybe Barker's all-new and thus far never before seen edit will fix these issues and turn Nightbreed into the Star Wars of Horror Films, but what I saw just wasn't quite there... in the end, all we can do now is wait and see what we get.

Should you, dear friends, purchase the Limited Edition? Probably not, to be perfectly honest. I mean I ordered the fucking thing, and being a Californian these days I had to eat another eight bucks in taxes, but the appeal of the Theatrical Cut - even if it'll likely include some footage missing from the Director's Cut entirely - is kind of in how quaint and bizarre the whole thing is. The TC is a mess that this new DC is seeking to correct, and while I absolutely applaud its inclusion, it ain't worth an extra fitty bones. The bonus features might be worth something, but with Shout! Factory being mum about what the hell we're actually getting, it gets harder and harder to justify the price tag. I mean for fuck's sake, the least Cliff could have done was toss us a fuck'n steelbook...

So why am I doing it? In part because I've bought dumber things. (Like Demons 2 for $45, and R.O.D ~ Read or Die, upscaled, for $120.) But it's really two ultimate factors that are driving me to this madness, one external and one internal. The external factor is that despite this costing as much as three or four other Shout! Factory titles, this thing is selling - and fast! Shout initially said they were selling 1,000 copies themselves at their store front, but those thousand copies sold in about 24 hours. They then bumped the total up to 2,500 for now, but they've already offered a handful to independent distributor Diabolik DVD - a particularly noteworthy addition, as they'll be one of the few retailers sending copies outside of the US. Diabolik's humble store front actually crashed all goddamn day due to the massive volume of traffic they were getting from fans trying to order the set, which is the sort of nonsense you only expect from a Twilight Time release - some of which have sold out of similar numbers in less than two hours. The fans of Nightbreed - indeed, fans of Clive Barker in general - are not balking too hard at the price. Diabolik DVD was offering the set for notably less than Shout Factory, but at least the higher price tag at Shout's own store front offers an exclusive, limited edition print of the new cover art. Not sure if that's worth the $10+ difference, but it's certainly a factor to consider. At worst, this will sell out long before October rolls around, and if I decide I've wasted my money I'm sure I can sell the damnable thing on eBay for at least what I paid for it... probably more, if I were the type to plan ahead.

The internal factor is a much simpler one. Just so we're clear, I neither trust nor respect Shout! Factory, as a general rule; they have a general lack of quality control that consistently produces sub-par transfers, and they've released some really poor product from time to time. Shout! Factory has a lot of great titles and they're not the worst label out there, but they're far from the best, and the love they continue to get - largely for nifty new cover art and interviews I could, personally, care less about - frustrates me on a regular basis. They're no Criterion Collection, and even those assholes are capable of an ugly or an incomplete disc*, so... yeah. Shout! Factory, for all the money I've given them in the last several years, are kinda' on my shit list. Not to the same degree as Media Blasters, god forbid, but they're too close in many ways for me to expect this release to go off without a hitch or two.

* Not sure if it'll get a full post or not, but... short version is Criterion's new SCANNERS BD looks like dingy blue ass on the new Criterion BD. Do yourself a favor and buy the GERMAN IMPORT for the same price.

And yet, Shout! Factory or not... someone fucking did it. After five years of the guys behind Barker's cinematic ends being convinced that the film no longer existed, Shout! Factory were the guys who teamed up to find the footage. They were the guys who had the connections to let Clive Barker finally deliver his magnum opus - warts and all, I'm sure - to the people as he had always intended. Shout! Factory may generally suck, but what they've done here is such an incredible, unexpected, once-in-a-decade thing that I think they should be compensated for it. Hell yes, this is a bullshit cash-grab... and so what? They transferred 140-plus minutes of raw 35mm camera negatives. They're editing the negative from scratch, to say nothing of the musings Barker has made about the possibility of Doug Bradley and Danny Elfman finishing their tasks on the audio end. This is as close to the realization of the version of the film that Clive Barker and his legion of fans have always wanted as humanly possible, and while I may have a laundry list of shitty things Shout! Factory has done... this is one of the things they're doing absolutely right. Clive Barker should be rewarded for this, as should every fucking person who'd profit from this project having come to fruition. I'm buying this set not because the extras or that important, or because the Theatrical Cut is important - because this release IN GENERAL is the kind of thing I want to see more of. So much more. I have little doubt that these sets will disappear before July is through, so arguably my personal contribution means little in the end... but it means something to me. Dumb as that sentiment may be.

That having been said: I'm no fool. Last time Shout! Factory got me excited for some insanely expensive box set, it was that Bruce Lee: Legacy Collection that ultimately had so many layers of problems that the Three Stooges would have been proud - even the corrected had to be traded in! I also have zero doubt that "someone" created a sock-puppet account on the forums to defend its sorry state, too, though with no official word I suppose that's all irrelevant. With that cluster of a fuck in mind I'm keeping my pre-order... but I'm not actually opening it until I see some reviews I can trust. If the release stacks up to be what it promises, fantastic! Money well spent, far as I'm concerned. If it's a steaming pile, fuck it, to eBay it goes where I'll probably make twice what I put into it.

As ever, Cliff MacMillan, it's your move. Don't forget, Arrow Video managed to go from one of the worst cult labels on the planet to one of the absolute best. Tides can change, for good or for ill, and while the titles you purchase are often great, your presentation of the films themselves is all over the map. Stick to Apple ProRes 422, minimum (lossless is better, but a pain on MAC workflows). Use a proper x264 encoder, and for fuck's sake hire someone who knows how to actually use it. Send screeners to A/V junkies who actually care about this movie before you replicate it - hell, I'd happily QC the product for free, if you're willing to take any advice I can offer. If not myself, give it to someone who's criticized you in the past; those are the guys you actually have to convince, not the people who bought Phantasm II and went "Looks great, I dunno' what you assholes expected".

You have every opportunity to forever raise the bar, and finally erase from my mind being that one company that crapped out an upscale of It's Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper. You've bought the golden goose, and you're about to parade it around town. Don't. Fuck. This. Up. Because if you do, at prices like this I'm not the only one who will be there to point and do my best Nelson Muntz cackle... because the only thing people love more than a ridiculously expensive Limited Edition is the schadenfreude that comes from watching one of those very same ridiculously expensive Limited Editions fail.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

They Say He's Got To Go... GODZILLA 2014

Gareth Edwards' 2010 feature film, MONSTERS, was his first feature, and it was an intriguing one, at that; a minimalist travelogue about an American journalist who agrees to escort a young, rich girl back to the Northern side of the border despite the roadways having been cut off to quell an alien outbreak of Cthulhi-esque monsters. The film wasn't entirely shy about showing the aftermath of wanton destruction or about establishing a nuanced, carefully structured world for the creatures themselves, but the bulk of the film was a human drama in which the aftermath of the disaster was very much the same sort of grim, quiet fallout one sees after a natural disaster; it was a film that felt much like the interviews you see on the news after a tornado has whipped through some poor bastard's family home, and he has to remind himself that his family survived, so the fact that they're broke and now homeless sucks, but isn't the end of the world. Monsters wasn't the best minimalist-monster movie ever made, but it was a beautiful, fascinating one, and one that was deemed good enough for Legendary Pictures to hand him the keys to a reboot of the King of the Monsters itself...

It's with mixed feelings that I say Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot of GODZILLA represents a well intentioned and thematically relevant reboot of the title character very much in the style of the earlier Showa period films, with a particular reverence for both the original 1954 Godzilla: King of the Monsters/ゴジラ, and 1964's Godzilla vs The Thing/モスラ対ゴジラ. It does, however, take a page from later entries and casts the creature not as a mindless destructive analogue to the Atomic Bomb, as was his original conception sixty years ago, but has aligns him an alpha monster who's role is protecting his territory, and humanity along with it as a mere side effect, skipping ahead to the shift from the villainous role to one of something resembling chaotic heroism first explored in Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster/三大怪獣 地球最大の決戦 - released the same year as Mothra's first appearance, incendentally.

To put my relationship with Godzilla into perspective, I watched the majority of the Showa Era (1954 - 1975)  while I was still in my single-digits on cable TV. I loved them unconditionally, but haven't revisited much more than the original 1954 film that started it all in the last 20 plus years, though I have re-watched some highlights just to satisfy my curiosity. My experience with the Heisei Era (1984-1995) is limited to one or two titles, largely since getting unedited, subtitled copies of the films were far more of a hassle than I was willing to spend, when I cared enough to try and get them at all. With several Heisei films having been re-released by Universal on uncut, bilingual Blu-ray double features, I expect this to change quite soon. I'm slightly more familiar with the Millennium Era (1999-2004), and seem to be the only person out there who thought Ryuhei Kitamura's tasteless fan-fiction, Godzilla: Final Wars, was a legitimately fun little train-wreck. Perhaps not quite the 50th anniversary send-off Godzilla deserved, I'll give the franchise faithful that, but if you can think of a more memorable giant monster movie, I'm all ears.

I'm exploring all of this because I think there's a curious reaction that happens when people who read reviews think that a review wasn't written by a "real fan". There's this odd, slightly narcissistic undercurrent from people who grow upset - sometimes downright offended - by people having differing opinions, and sometimes those grievances are the simple result of said person not having a goddamn clue what they're talking about. Someone who hasn't actually read the Song of Ice and Fire novels has no valid opinion the TV series A Game of Thrones, because they don't "really" know what the story is about. Someone who hasn't read Knightfall can't talk about the Christopher Nolan film that took many of its core ideas from it, because they won't understand what was re-purposed from it. Someone who hasn't watched the last [pick any arbitrary number] Doctor Who series' can't have an opinion the latest Doctor's adventures because fuck you, I liked it BEFORE it was for sale at every Hot Topic in North America. So on and so fourth. Sure, I've been guilty of this myself, and probably still am from time to time; it's infuriating to see someone who doesn't "get" something you like take a giant, steaming dump on it, not because of what it actually is, but because of what they - perhaps mistakenly - assume it was supposed to be. I bring this up, in part, because I see a lot of people frustrated with the criticism leveled at this film that don't seem to know the history and commonality with previous Godzilla films, and to some degree, I think those concerns are fair - if not, simply overblown. I'm not a die-hard Toho fanboy, but I'd like to think I, broadly speaking, know what a "real" Godzilla movie is... and, for better or worse, that's exactly what I think we were handed here.

Let's get a few things straight before I spend a few minutes complaining like an asshole. Gareth Edwards' 2014 GODZILLA is not a bad film. It's a fascinating film with a lot more potential than it chose to take advantage of, and in a way, that almost makes it more frustrating to watch than if the film were just straight-up irredeemably bad, as was the case of the 1998 Roland Emerich train-wreck that decided Godzilla should, somehow, be the Alien Queen. Taken solely as yet-another-Godzilla-movie, it probably sits somewhere on the better half of the previous 30 or so films. In fact, the first and third act suggest an incredible film unto itself, just struggling to escape the infuriating mediocrity of the lengthy slog that is the second... but, I'm getting ahead of myself. Without spoiling the whole film if you're the one person reading this who didn't see it opening weekend, suffice to say, the film is a very different entry than the disaster-drama the trailers and trying to sell; it's actually a legitimate, earnest throwback to the Toho classics of yore... right down to their structural flaws and reliance on things that absolutely nobody in the audience cares about. Perhaps it's easier to forgive those flaws when the results cost less than one-hundredth what this latest Hollywood revamp cost, and particularly since I doubt a single Showa era films ran longer than 90 minutes total. The problems are much more subtle than that, and that makes discussing them all the more difficult... if, for some ungodly reason you just want to know what I think, I'd say "Go see it on the biggest IMAX screen you can find. Just bring an iPod for the middle of it, 'cause you aren't going to miss anything."

Since it's impossible to discuss why this film doesn't quite work without just flat-out discussing the shit out of it, consider the rest of this SPOILERIFFIC.

To get into the nitty-gritty, let's discuss the biggest non-issue of the film: The actual amount of Godzilla footage on display. The LENGTH of time we see the monster isn't a problem; the original 1954 film likely has even less, and that was literally the film about Godzilla, without a second giant monster to mug for screen time. More importantly, the giant monster battle porn that makes up much of the final two reels is the absolute best of its kind. There's just no comparison. Much as I love giant rubber monsters the weight, the scale and the deafening power exuded by both Godzilla and the M.U.T.O have forever raised the bar for films of its ilk. Watching moments like the male M.U.T.O touch down on top of a skyscraper and every floor sequentially disintegrate is just... oh, my fucking God, that's the stuff that makes he hot. Again, length - even percentage of runtime - isn't the issue.

See, the crime that this film committed in regards to Dai-Kaijuu Battoru was a structural one; you can't show both monsters sizing each other up, cut away, and then not revisit a battle that left one of them defeated. You're not allowed to cock-tease an audience with a massive second-act game changer like "By the way, there's ANOTHER HUNDRED FOOT TALL MONSOON-FARTING MONSTER..." and just shrug it off without at least trying to establish what went down. The sensible thing would have been to have cut to the news footage and pull a brief, minute long montage Cloverfield style that showed Godzilla challenging the male, taking a fall, and then taking flight. It would have established that the M.U.T.O is a badass, and given the audience a more direct, tactile reason to sympathize with Godzilla instead of just assuming he's the good guy because...well, just because, I guess.

Hell, as it stands we have no fucking clue what happened in Hawaii beyond "Godzilla made contact with the M.U.T.O", and what the fuck does that mean? We aren't allowed to observe it. We don't get a chance to make up a meaning for ourselves. All we get are a couple less-than-clear lines from Ken Watanabe saying "something-something alpha predator", which doesn't even make sense, because Godzilla never actually eats the M.U.T.O - he just kind of cock-blocks them and then shits on their corpses. Structurally, it just feels like the scene was held back to artificially tease us, make us ache for the inevitable throw-down... but it would have worked so much better if we'd had a taste of what was to come. A battle is just a battle. A rematch is a chance for revenge, for vindication - and the fact that our "hero" - you know, Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson - was there, watching this happen, the whole fucking time. If they were holding it back so that the audience only knew as much as the main characters themselves, fair enough, but even the hero saw what went down! What justifiable reason is there to keep it from the audience at this point? I understand that Godzilla is trying to cock block the M.U.T.O, but that doesn't mean you need to extend the same to the paying audience.

Perhaps cutting away to remind us that Private McDullface has a family sounded like a good idea on paper - the best monster movies, after all, are human dramas about the presence of monsters, rather than balls-out creature features. Cut the rubber shark out of Jaws or the titular rubbery alien bits from Carpenter's The Thing and you'd still have solid, memorable characters and tension based on the situations they find themselves in alone. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson's military grunt persona is never nuanced or conflicted enough to be anything more than a generic Call of Duty style self-insert soldier; his parents were both killed by the M.U.T.O, but he's oddly dispassionate about the whole thing. He doesn't seem to give a shit if those giant cockroach fucks live or die; he just wants to get back home and use his magical ability to not randomly die with his comrades to protect his equally uninteresting family. Don't get me wrong, I know that Elizabeth Olsen has done great work elsewhere, but she's given nothing to do here; she's a cardboard cutout, given exactly one moment of gravity when she watches the bus with her young son pull away, and otherwise spends the whole film struggling to find anything to do but sound worried. There's no big set pieces for her to showboat in or feel like she's ever in any real danger, nor are there any layers beneath the surface for her to play with. She's just a non-entity, and it makes her bumbling husband look like a fucking Oscar contented solely by default. Sadly, neither of them are half as infuriating as their glorified MacGuffin of a son. Jesus, do they feed this kid Prozac-Os or something? The kid sees a giant dinosaur fighting a giant bug, on the news, and he points it out to his mother with the same dispassionate interest he might have noting that there was a candy wrapper on the side of the road. For fuck's sake, I'm almost 30 and I'd have thrown my coffee table through the window with sheer excitement; how do you think an actual, non-movie child would react to this shit?

Probably similarly to the way I reacted learning that Luigi Cozzi was responsible for a 1977 "colorized" recut of Godzilla, complete with a new theme by Fabio Frizzi, that's basically a funkatronic prelude to his incredible title track for Zombi 2. How the fuck did I never know this existed?!

*Deep Breath* We'll talk about Cozzi another time, honest... back to Gareth Edwards' movie.

I'm probably coming down pretty hard on these poor bastards, but there's a reason for that. The film HAS a fantastic cast to work with, and a completely obvious arc for them to move in. Bryan Cranston is a living legend at this point, and it's infuriating to watch him get killed half an hour in, the mystery of his wife's death - and his failure to protect her - closed. The script didn't see Cranston's angry, wounded, and driven mad scientist/paranoid truther as a potential character, it saw him as a perfunctory character arc, and once that arc was satisfied it let him bleed out. Contrast his character to Ken Watanabe's, a man who lost just as much to the threat of nuclear power abuse but instead chose to embrace and learn to guide those destructive forces... isn't the answer obvious as to what direction the film SHOULD go? Cranston is the M.U.T.O expert, and encourages that the military use their technical might to blow them straight to hell. Watanabe is the Godzilla whisperer, and tries to convince them that they're trying to shoot missiles at the moon to change the tide; all they can do is lead Godzilla to them and let nature take its course.

Cranston and Watanabe butt heads over their differing philosophies... now imagine the scene where he pulls out the watch, and reveals that he's lost just someone, and still believes that what they're doing is right. Imagine how much weight that would carry in that context! WHY THE HELL WAS THIS MOVIE NOT ABOUT THE UNLIKELY BROMANCE BETWEEN BRYAN CRANSTON AND KEN WATANABE?! Can you imagine the flood or erotic fan-art? Christ, I feel like this relationship writes itself... and yet, we never get the chance for that to happen. They're never even in the same room. Instead Watanabe is paired with a slightly less generic military type to whom the concept of both the M.U.T.O and Godzilla are somewhat meaningless; to them they're just targets, and his job is to come up with the plan to neutralize them both with the least mathematical likelihood of human casualties. Watanabe's character makes up some of the more interesting scenes through the second act, but the film seems so obsessed with the non-story of Taylor-Johnson marching back to his boring wide and his zombified son that they don't even try to explore him as a character. Why does he know so much about Godzilla - was his father the man who organized the attempts to put him down in Bikini Atoll in 1954, after somehow surviving the blast in Hiroshima? For that matter, how did his father survive the blast - Watanabe certainly isn't old enough to have been born during World War 2, so what relevance does that actually hold? The answer is none, not directly... his role is just sort of there. Shoehorned in as an appealing looking distraction that doesn't ultimately give us any of the answers we so desperately need about what Monarch knows about Godzilla, and why they're so ready to trust him to - intentionally or not - serve humanity's ends.

Having since learned that Watanabe was added to the cast long after Cranston and Taylor-Johnson, and only mere days before principal photography... well, now we're getting somewhere. This is a film that suffered massive re-writes at the last minute, and that explains why such heavy and interesting ideas never come together; there wasn't time to mesh those concepts into a cohesive whole. Ken Watanabe's scenes takes place on another planet's from Bryan Cranston's, which is tragically the same way Godzilla's scenes happen in a completely different, far more interesting film than Aaron Taylor-Johnson's. I'm actually disappointed that I didn't realize 'till it was pointed out to me that this has a certain odd sense of déjà vu... because Hollywood star Raymond Burr was, quite literally, cut into the already finished 1954 Japanese film in a bid to make it more marketable to American audiences who might have otherwise been turned off by a cheap, black-and-white monster movie from Japan. The irony that sixty years later we're splicing in scenes of a Japanese actor to legitimize a $160 Million dollar Hollywood remake. The karmic irony is simply off the charts.

Say, does anyone remember the San Diego ComiCon teaser, released in 2012 and put up on the internet last year with a longer shot of Godzilla? We saw a curious shot of a defeated giant monster among the wreckage...

What is this pillbug-like monstrosity? I, uh... I have no clue. It sure as hell ain't a M.U.T.O, and thus isn't in the film. While I'm slightly disappointed that, ultimately, the two M.U.T.O are effectively cobbled together using elements from both classic Japanese kaiju - particularly Gyaos, and American monstrosities like Brundlefly and Cloverfield, ultimately the big payoff is "one big mutha-fuckin' cockroach". It has a more functional and well-planned design than most creatures of its ilk, but it's neither a "real" animal nor a balls-out monsters for monsters' sake we saw in films like Pacific Rim and the 1970s Toho output which inspired it.  I do really like the scenes in which the male and female are shown courting, giving each other presents and generally protecting one another... it actually establishes character, something that - for better or worse - Godzilla himself is sorely lacking.

To be fair, that's true of the original 1954 Ishiro HONDA film as well: Sixty years ago, he was a thinly veiled metaphor of the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki some nine years prior, a maniacal warning of the unchecked terror of weapons of mass destruction made downright mythological. Now, nuclear weapons are less terrifying to this films target audience, a generation to whom nuclear power has more or less become a largely stable and viable business model for keeping under-powered microwaves turning delicious, gut-destroying Hot Pockets into the wee hours of the night. Instead, Edwards' Godzilla is a personification of nature's fury - of tsunamis and lightning, of the unshakable and only somewhat predictable realization that all of your plans mean nothing when Planet Earth decides it's time to drop the mutha' fuckin' bass. Watanabe describes Godzilla as an "Alpha Predator", but that doesn't seem to be entirely true; for one thing, despite slaughtering the M.U.T.O he never actually eats them. For the most part, Godzilla just seems to be the personification of doom itself, and for all intents and purposes, he ignores humanity for the same reason the Great Cthulhu does; he's simply too impressive to care what the little squirming ants called humanity do.

Neither did I, sadly. Perhaps the most telling moment in the films greatest weakness is the scene in which Taylor-Johnson comes face to face with a M.U.T.O, and whips out his pistol. Does he fire the bullets with grim determination, knowing all he can do is fight to the death? Does he realize the absurdity and toss the gun aside like the pea-shooter in the face of a primordial beast that it is? Does he put the barrel in his own mouth, crushed by the terror of nature's full potential, only to prevent his own demise when Godzilla returns, triumphant? No. Taylor-Johnson, the most boring leading man possible, literally pulls the gun and sits there, doing fuck all. You're fighting a monster that can level a sky scraper, and your solution is to pull out your miniature side-arm and just, fucking, sit there? The honest truth is Taylor-Johnson is a young, inexperienced performer, and having him carry the film was a huge mistake from day one. He isn't cringe-inducing, exactly, but he brings absolutely nothing to the role, and focusing so much if the movie on him just leaves me pining for even the Saturday Morning Cartoon level of intensity we got from a sleep-walking Charlie Hunnam in Del Toro's Pacific Rim. Yes, everyone's quick to point out that all of the character motivation and dialogue in that film was painfully simplistic, but at least they existed!

I've avoided comparisons to Guillermo Del Toro's 2013 mecha vs kaiju epic to this point, largely because they're trying to accomplish two very different things: Del Toro was trying to make a candy-colored and braindead 70s era monster movie, and succeeded with dazzling efficiency. Gareth Edwards tried to create a legitimately terrifying and brooding eco-horror film, and it stumbles on a regular basis... but man, when it works, the results are incredible. Infuriating a thought as this is, Godzilla has substantially more personality than his human co-star (even if his actual motivation is a bit fuzzy), with body language and a stage presence that brings everything to the screen it ever needed to. Everyone complaining about the fog and fire obscuring the view of Godzilla is ignoring how gross the real-world atmospheric conditions tend to be during a natural disaster, and the way that Edwards pulls the Big G back into a gray haze, denying us the satisfaction of knowing when - or even if! - he'll strike the M.U.T.O next is handled well enough. In short, when Godzilla is being epic destruction porn, it's delivering on every level the audience could hope to ask for. When it's not, oh, boy can it be a big, ugly mess.

Still, for all of these failings I can't hate this film. Anyone who's watched any of the actual Showa era Godzilla films - or similarly themed giant monster pictures from other studios, like the Daimajin and Gamera franchises competing for those low hanging rubber monster dollars - will know that dull human characters and nonsensical writing are just one of those basic problems anyone who watches these films has come to accept as the bitter pill we must swallow to get to that sweet, sweet monster mashing action. Edwards' film isn't structurally any worse than the majority of the vintage Godzilla films it's emulating, but with the increased budget and runtime, those flaws feels somewhat less forgivable. Much like Man of Steel before it, I think trimming a good twenty to thirty minutes out of this would have resulted in a less bloated, tone-deaf action film with far less to complain about... and, yes, since I don't think I've talked much about it here, I happen to think that when Man of Steel is good, it's really good, and when it's not it's little more than a pile of confusing, stupid nothing... in other words, it's Godzilla with a cape. Which is totally a motif someone should find a way to sell.

In the meantime, I'll happily take a Bandai S.H. MonsterArts figure to go. Thanks.

At the end of the day, what we got feels like an imperfect, but perfectly competent franchise starter. And part of me feels like that's enough for only the second Hollywood made Godzilla film. While people love to roll their eyes and talk about how sequels are always worse than the first film in a series, that's often not the case; damn near every trilogy is a trilogy specifically because the second film expanded whatever was good about the first film and made a fortune doing so, while the third film is merely proof that entropy is a part of every cinematic universe. If Legendary Pictures' goal was to convince both Toho and Hollywood audiences that a $150 Million Godzilla picture was exactly what they needed every couple years to keep them satisfied, they've done an admirable job here - the public clearly doesn't care how inherently bullshit the concept of a 106 meter tall tyrannosaurus who feeds on radiation is, and since they've had one film to "explain" all of that away, now they can get to the good stuff, like pitting Godzilla against Mothra, King Ghidorah and (my personal favorite) Hedorha, the Smog Monster. They found a way to update and expand the mythos for a modern audience without completely stripping out the core of what made the Toho movies good in the first place, but in doing so they managed to create a somewhat slow film that establishes a lot of mood and questions without fully realizing its payoff. If the goal is to build Godzilla up as a hero to the public [read: the audience] and then have them rooting for him next time they pull out a bigger, badder monster, mission accomplished. That's hardly as revolutionary as what Ishiro Honda pulled off 60 years ago, but hey, that's a hell of a lot better than anything Roland Emerich pulled off with the same basic premise about 15 years ago.

So yeah. I like Edwards' Godzilla, I just don't think it lived up to its potential. Whether that was the result of behind-the-scenes meddling or intentional stunted-storytelling to promote the growth of sequels (or if these are one and the same), only time will tell. But whatever the case may be, even if you skipped this, do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-ray. If you can't literally masturbate to the final throwdown between Godzilla and the female M.U.T.O, trust me, you're doing it wrong.

Sorry this got posted, like... a month late. Basically every waking moment of free time has been eaten up by a new digital restoration, and I've been Goldblooming like a motherfucker every night over it. Stay tuned when I'll look at an actual DISC for the first time, in like... I don't even fucking know how long!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Name of the Moon, I Boycott You.

Is it weird that I'm sad this isn't a Laserdisc cover?

So... let's talk, however briefly, about a girl I like to call "Bunny". You know, just to rile up both fan-bases at once.

Viz Entertainment has announced, as of Friday, both the upcoming PRETTY GUARDIAN SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL/美少女戦士セーラームーンクリスタル TV show, and the original 1992 PRETTY SOLDIER SAILOR MOON/美少女戦士セーラームーン TV series. Their current plot to Take Over The World involves both re-releasing the original 200 episode TV series completely unedited, both in Japanese and with a fresh English dub, first as a simulcast on Hulu and then later in DVD/Blu-ray box sets. As far as I'm concerned huzzahs are in order, no matter which way you roll.

That said, this is awesome news... for fans of the show. And with all due respect to Naoko TAKEUCHI and the talented bastards at Toei Animation, I'm just not among them. I've seen a dozen or two episodes over the last 15 years, and while I can confidently say that I completely understand why the show is a massive, eternal hit... it's all just a bit too frilly for me. Well, I say that, but I thought Cardcaptor Sakura was friggin' awesome, so I guess the more accurate statement would be that I just don't see why I'd want to invest 200 episodes' worth of my life into the franchise at this point. It's the same problem I have every time I think about watching Saint Seiya or One Piece - I'm sure they're good, but fuck me, I can barely find an hour a week to watch Game of Thrones these days. Maybe the dozen or so original volumes of manga would be the less daunting option? That was the only way I got through the Dragging On of Dragon Ball, after all...

Have I mentioned how generally awesome these are, Mister Popo's lips aside?
 I mean, he's still a fat, uneducated, negro manservant... why did they even bother?

In any case, the big shocker here isn't so much the Blu-ray. Despite "Toei be all Toei 'bout things!" having put dampers on personal projects, they aren't stupid; they know that this will be a Dragon Ball Z level property, and considering how that all-important nostalgic nerd audience has taken to Tumblr and decided that it refuses to spend money on anything without an at-least equal vagina to penis ratio in the main cast, they couldn't have picked a better time to drop this little feminine-empowerment* bomb on North America. Little girls who watched the adventures of Serena and the Sailor Scouts are just old enough to be fascinated by the unaired final season and no longer worry if their parents give a shit that the Outer Senshi are, in no uncertain terms, a pair of lesbian mothers and a second mother (because fuck your rules, man), while an ever-growing audience of young anime fans to whom streaming is just a normal thing have a chance to experience it for the very first time, as if it were any other new program. This also lets them prime the New And Improved Dub for release on any number of cable outlets, and despite Sailor Moon being "old", it's one of the very few anime titles to have had such an impact on its release that I have little doubt these will get some old-school cable action alongside the future of streaming.

* And, yes, that's "feminine empowerment", not "feminist empowerment". One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is that it explicitly suggests that you can be powerful and beautiful, which is a combination so rarely approached in any medium without immediately diving into exploitation territory. I suppose Sailor Moon's successor, Futari wa Precure, took this idea into its ultimate evolutionary state by having frilly, cute magical girls who literally whup evil's ass with DBZ kung-fu... but, yeah, I've never been a Precure fan either. To be fair, I have little doubt that I totally could be, but as with so many things in this world, I just haven't found the time...

Also, this is happening. Just in case you forgot.

In short, it's a damned good time to be a Sailor Soldier. Or Sailor Scout. Whatever. It depends on which version you fell in love with, y'see; fuzzy VHS fansubs of the Japanese original version, or the Carl Macek approved American broadcast release that toned down same-sex romantic relationships, re-worked the soundtrack, localized the show to American sensibilities and went as far as to edit out entire episodes to avoid the occasionally shocking levels of violence and "adult" thematic elements that put Sailor Moon juuuust clone enough to the Impending Apocalypse end of the spectrum that I always suspected I'd love it, if I ever gave it the chance. I don't know anyone at Viz personally, but I know they've done damned fine work with that I-still-can't-believe-it-exists first Ranma 1/2 box set, and with Sailor Moon being the only girls' title in Toei's massive catalog of magical girl anime to get a sizeable English following, I have little doubt that they'll deliver the goods. Obviously the very nature of a weekly-produced anime series from the early 90s shot on 16mm film is going to show its age, but to fans, I say be patient, and have faith. If there's one title Viz would rather eat a bucket of razor blades than released on upscaled Blu-ray, it's this one.

But, see, it's that previous "Whatever" that really forced my hand to say something, though. See, I know that titles which people strongly associate nostalgia with are, by their very nature, a bit of a hot button. We associate things from our youth with warm, fuzzy memories, and the way these things were presented to us play a big role in that. Ask anyone over the age of 30 what their favorite song from childhood is, and there's a chance that they'll tell you the title - and then add "but only on vinyl". Despite crackles and hiss not being an improvement on a clean, digital remaster of whatever the master recording was made on, the Pavlovian response to those bizarre, half-remembered feelings are tied to certain sensations and concepts. That's not to say there aren't, occasionally at least, absolutely legit reasons to want to read 30 year old comic issues versus a modern reprinting, watch vintage films on actual 35mm or even want to have a cracked and peeled-sticker "original" Transformer over a virtually identical (and comparably priced) re-release... but more often than not it's less the thing itself that matters and more the way we remember said thing.

Want a simple example of what I'm talking about? Two little words, friends: Mutha' STAR to the Fuckin' WARS, baby. I'm talk in about GOUT, which hasn't even existed since today's Jedi who cut their teeth on the Clone Wars were just a bunch of rat-tailed Padawan. You feelin' what I'm shootin' first, wookie?

Boom. Done. Everyone reading this just popped an instant hate-boner.

No, I'm not going to get into a big thing about Star Wars because... I don't have the fucking energy to. The last time I legitimately cared about Star Wars enough to be angry that George Lucas had done something incredibly stupid was about 15 years ago, and I have far better things to be angry about. Things like corn allergies, climbing the corporate latter, and how I tend to sleep 5 hours a night because I'm actually a double-sleeper agent being used by Latvian mind-control experts to perpetrate daring, but inappropriately silly jewel heists without my knowledge. See, without getting too deep into it, I'm going to state something painfully obvious, and hope nobody within earshot will stab me for saying it: The original Star Wars Trilogy, even back in 1983, is a wildly uneven collection of fundamentally silly movies (partially!) written and directed by a lovable hack who got incredibly lucky, and accidentally crapped out an evolution of Hollywood film as a byproduct of simply being true to his inner nerd - a decision that, ironically, . Yes, the original Star Wars is fun and The Empire Strikes Back is legitimately a good fantasy epic unto itself, but Return of the Jedi is a hot mess and the trilogy is so full of logical leaps and plot holes that it feels like it was made up as George Lucas went along... because it was. When you get down to it, Star Wars is just a fun hodge-podge of Kurosawa films, Flash Gordon serials and Muppets. None of that makes them bad movies, and I don't think there's any crime in loving them - hell, I still adore ESB, and think that despite the massive overall failure of the Prequel Trilogy, there are moments of a genuine vision lurking in the parts of Revenge of the Sith that don't openly and loudly suck wampa balls through a boba straw. Star Wars is fun and likable, but for the most part, that's as far as it goes.

 Also, this happened during the "golden years".
Takes the franchise credibility down by at least two pegs.

And yet, we fucking love it. We ALL do. We get angry when George Lucas, the only man who has any right to touch these films as creator and franchise-runner, does exactly what's within his right as the God of his own universe. Why do we get angry? Who really cares if the ewoks blink, or if Christian Haydensen gets CGed into the end of Jedi in a weird raised middle finger to Sebastian Shaw? Aren't we all grown up enough to not get upset about if a bunch of midgets in teddy bear costumes get digital dust in their eyes? There's a specific reason, and it's one so fundamentally selfish that it's almost laughable. We get angry because we remember. We remember the first time we saw these films. The first time we realized they were an epic, interconnected saga. The first time we thought, goddamn, I'm a nerd who spends all his time watching dumb shit nobody else around me seems to like... could I be the next George Lucas?

No. You can't. But those feels are still there, and there's nothing you can do to turn them off. For christ sakes, George Lucas MADE THE PREQUEL TRILOGY, and the original three films still have fans. Think about that. That's the sort of love that just happens because there's something innately lovable about it. They don't have to be the Citizen Kane of... anything. They just have to be fun, and stay fun for decades to come. There's no crime in being fun, but that doesn't make them perfect - and it doesn't mean that

Plus it's hard to stay mad at a guy who sold Star Wars,
then donated a cool $4 Billion of it to arts-education charities.

What I'm trying to say is that nostalgia is a powerful little bastard. It makes us wary of reboots and remakes, assuming the worst by default because we already love and cherish our memory of something so hard we can't even comprehend the notion that something else could equal it - forget improve it, that's just crazy talk. Star Wars is one of those unique situations where the entire world shares in that basic nostalgia - Jedi and nerf herders alike - and so we've created this massive echo chamber to agree that not only is Star Wars good, but the changes made to it are bad. It isn't that people are wrong for being upset that Han Danced First or whatever the fuck is up with the latest Blu-ray iteration, it's just that we all feel the same way, so it doesn't feel like externalized nerd rage over someone fucking with our childhood memories. It still is, mind you... we just don't have to feel like we're openly begging a corporate entity to not change something we liked when we still wore Spider-Man underoos under our Sunday best. Assuming, of course, you still don't do that. I assume everyone over the age of sixteen just goes to church wearing a butt plug under their corduroys, but I'm not Catholic or anything so I'm not sure what's considered proper shame-based attire these days.

And I bring all of this up not to trash on Lucas specifically, but because friends, I want you to see something...

Let me read the most important quote anyone has ever typed in the English language aloud for you. In text form. Shut up, I don't do Vlogs. Yet. That you know of.

Now imagine if George Lucas has in addition to making those changes, stated Chewbacca was actually canonically a lesbian and changed the scenes to make that very obvious...

I think we're officially done as a species, ladies and gentlemen. Humanity has reached the zenith of creation. Nothing that you ever say, or do, or think will ever top this "what if" scenario. Just let that sentence sink in for a second. "Imagine if Chewbacca was, canonically, a lesbian." This is an argumet someone used for asking Viz to release the bowlderized, heavily edited, English dubbed DiC version of Sailor Moon.

This person, this Goddess among heathens, is using the name of George Lucas specifically to argue in favor of a heavily modified version of an original work. I can't even I don't understand who and why and where in the fuck holy shit I THINK I CAN SEE THROUGH TIME AND SPACE ITSEL--'s like that moment when you first see the Über Gott peeking through the perception you once had of reality. We've all been there, right? ...right...

What's even more impressive is the fact that this is just the tip of the batshit iceberg. Go up to the top and check out WE WANT SERENA,  which is just... honestly, I can't tell if I'm looking at the most incredibly dedicated aspergers case in the history of fangirlism, or if this is a Level 8 Troll, the likes of which I haven't seen since Andy Kaufman still roamed the Earth. Either way, it's the funniest goddamn thing I've seen in ages, and if I didn't let the world know that people are still so obsessed about the DiC Bastardization of Sailor Moon that they're insisting it be re-released over the unedited original, I wouldn't be doing my... well, I guess "job" isn't the right word. It's more like a higher calling, isn't it?

In any case, all of this rage is rather silly, even in context. The fact is the complete, unedited version of Sailor Moon's original run has NEVER been released in its entirety in North America, so that's getting priority. That's the version 90% of its current fanbase wants to see - and the fact that they're creating a brand new English dub for the unedited version, similar to what ADV did when they re-released the uncut version of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, is nothing short of insane. This is a release catering to everyone who liked Sailor Moon and wants to see what Junichi Sato, Kunihiko Ikuhara and Takuya Igarashi created with Toei Animation, in its entirety. It's a beautiful over the top endeavor, and everyone who ever liked this show and has even a passing fancy to revisit it should be thrilled. Viz is not only doing the right thing, but they're doing it so amazingly above and beyond what they should be doing that it's nothing short of mind-boggling. I don't even want this show for myself, and I'm thrilled to see the level of dedication going into it. That's what you call respect, and the more Viz begins to catch up .

Besides, there's likely nothing preventing Viz from, eventually, doing a "Fighting Evil By Moonlight Collecton" that includes the first two butchered American-broadcast seasons. You know, like FUNimation did with Dragon Ball Z's "Rock the Dragon" collection once they'd squeezed the Dragon Box market for every bloody penny they could. But that's just me being a cynical little fucker again, isn't it?

Anyway, pick through the crazy above and have a good laugh. We'll talk about something a bit less hilarious next time, I promise you that.