Friday, March 21, 2014

Mai-Chan's Daily Movie

So we're all clear that "Japan = Crazy" by now, right?

Oh, don't give me that look. I'm familiar enough with the wide expanse of modern Japanese culture to know that 90% of both the things produced in Japan are perfectly normal, sane, rational and boring just like the rest of the world. Particularly as birth rates continue to dwindle and the median age of the average Japanese citizen only grows older, the country's interest will continue to be less and less interesting to a curious glance from a foreign perspective. No, most people in Japan are no more or less crazy than the average person outside of the somewhat isolated island nation... hell, they might actually be even more dull than the average American, which is perhaps why they don't seem to notice - or at least not care - when their fellow countrymen do stuff like... well, like this, I guess.
 
Laugh while you can... shit's gonna get dark pretty quick.

It's perhaps largely this "out of sight, out of mind" cultural mindset that allows certain subcultures to flourish and at times even thrive, while other countries would try to rally against them solely on principle. One of the most bizarre forms of this is the presence of a market for エログロ/ero-guro, a shortening of the Western words "Erotic" and "Grotesque". Ero-Guro actually dates back to artistic movements going back to the 1930s and was resurrected in early bid for historical legitimacy by director Teruo Ishii for his now iconic "Joy of Torture" period-piece-cum-torture-porn films of the late 1960s with Toei, which started Japan's long history of overstated dramatic stylings with shocking pornographic-skirting exploitation that continues to this very day through controversial directors like Takashi Miike, Takashi Ishii and - most recently - Sion Sono.

Picture Django Unchained, except with way more... Japan. Stuff.

In the realm of comics, Japan was no less curious, with the 劇画/gekiga movement of the late 1950s having beaten America to the punch of renaming childish "Comic Books" to the more contemporary and age-appropriately sounding moniker "Graphic Novels" by about thirty years. Blatantly pornographic manga didn't take hold until the late 1970s, and gained traction with fetish-minded enthusiasts when publishers realized that they could get away with publishing "lolita" books without the pesky laws preventing you from filming underage sex-acts. This, in turn, indirectly gave birth to pornographic Japanese animation, but... that's another can o' worms completely. One I should probably explore when I have more time to do it justice, more sleep on a weekly basis, and less Ground Zeroes to obsess over.

This strong, if not particularly large, market for "extreme" entertainment has left a niche market for artists who's tastes are best described as eclectic: While artists like Junji Itoh, Hideshi Hino and Kazuo Umezz use the imagery of body-horror in a shocking but typically chaste manner, certain creators like Shintaro Kago, Suehiro Maruo and Hirohone Saizou are substantially less afraid to push the boundaries of sexuality and bodily disfigurement, with artists like Henmaru Machino, Takayuki Yamaguchi and John K. Pe-Ta having exaggerated the potential of the human body to their comedic, often horrifying extremes.

One of the less offensive Shintaro KAGO images Google Image Search will provide.

I'm bringing this all up to show to that there's a precedent for the notion of Ero-Guro in comics... where the only real cost is pulp and the artists' dedication. Artists like Mauro and Kago are brilliant fine art skills have been honed to blade-like perfection, to whom the phallic and grotesque imagery are merely a piece of the psychological make-up that drives them. Saizou and Yamaguchi seem to want to use their grotesque and offensive imagery to break down the viewer's emotions in unexpected ways, but the end result is no less fascinating - or, at times, unsettling. Machino and Pi-Ta may be shock jockeys with little more than a fascination for the absurd, but they go so far over the deep end that I can't help but respect what they create on its own ridiculous terms.

Mai-Chan's Daily Life...

And then, there's my man Uziga... oh man, anyone with a fascination for the darkest and most inappropriate parts of the internet have probably heard of Waita "Y-ta" UZIGA/氏賀Y太, who's works of erotic-grotesque fascination have become something of an urban legend made flesh: A talented, dedicated artist who funnels all of his talent and angst into... well, frankly, into fascinatingly constructed snuff themed smut. There's nothing else to say about it - and that, in and of itself, is kind of beautiful. Uziga's works are so thoroughly honest and unpretentious about what they are and what they want to be that it's difficult to say too much about it in the first place. It's really just nightmarish oddities for the personal voyeurism of the viewer, the grim study of body-horror in its most primal state. Mai-Chan in particular, evidently his oldest creation, embodies something so simple and so terrifying it's almost impossible to think of how little the idea is used; a character who's sole role in the universe is not only to die, but to do so on a regular basis, facing the ultimate fear that we all must in a never ending cycle of suffering and torment. Hell in Earth, redefined as the weakness and inevitable destruction of the shell that houses our transient consciousness.

Alternately, you could argue it's sick shit for sick fucks. I happen to think even the sickets of shit for the sickest of fucks serves some sort of basic, universal therapy... but there's only so many people willing to talk to me about Subconscious CrueltyHuman Centipede 2 and Gantz in the world. So your mileage on that train of thought probably will vary.

Sound reasons behind their inception or not, it'd be tempting to compare it to, say, the pointless and schlocky exploitation films of Hershel Gordon Lewis, but - with the explicit disclaimer that Uziga has improved, quite dramatically, on a technical level in the last decade since some of his first works were published - he's simply too good at what he does to be using it entirely as a crutch. His boundless, if morbid creativity suggest that he could, easily enough, have started a full-fledged career outside of vomit-inducing violence wank-material... and yet, he never has ventured too far out of it. He continues to exist on the utter fringe of gore-porn madness, being just opportunistic enough to release blatantly homoerotic Attack on Titan doujinshi, but not quite so desparate for a living wage that he'll go the easy route and show Levi putting his flesh saber down Eren's mutant cornhole: Nope, while that might still happen the only bloody penetration you're guaranteed is the kind that only a very select market wants to see, and baby, if you aren't already in the club, that's just not a door you want to knock too hard on.


真・現代猟奇伝/Shin Gendai Ryoukinden
("True Modern Stories of the Bizarre") - 2005
 
That's not to say that everything he's ever done has been extreme material for the cynically insane (and the cynically insane at heart!) doesn't have any inherent artistic, or even socially aware raison d'etre: The above is, in part, a collection itself is a record of late 20th century "True Crime" tales that gripped Japan, the most notable of which is a stark and unapologetic take on the tale of Junko FURUTA, a schoolgirl who was abused, raped and murdered by her classmates before being encased in concrete back in '89. The "Concrete-Encased High School Girl Murder Case" - yes, Japan really does love long, convoluted titles for shit like that - was an important shock to the Japanese system at the time, bringing to light the rather asinine lineancy that the country's court system places on minors who commit serious crimes and yet remain perfectly anonymous to the public, an issue that haunts Japan to this day. My personal favorite from the collection was Hamburg Steak, a slightly fantastic but half-plausible morality play that puts a young woman in the unenviable position of having to keep the wheels of a corrupt system turning so that she herself doesn't get chewed up and spit out by it. Did I mention it's basically one part Soylent Green and two parts Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

So, why bring up such basic Ero-Guro Author 101 material, when you probably either A) already know he exists and have adjusted all masturbatory habits accordingly, or B) didn't want to know in the first place?

Because, somehow, this happened.

Seriosly, MAI-CHAN'S DAILY LIFE/まいちゃんの日常 is getting a live action film adaptation. It's being overseen by Uziga himself, with directoral duties having fallen to a one "Sado SATOH"/佐藤サド - better known on Twitter as "Blood Fetish"/(フェ血ス). Surprisingly enough, I haven't yet given enough of my black pit of a heart to Satan to have any idea who this guy is, though you bet your ass that now I'm morbidly curious what else "Sado Satoh" has worked on.

The starring role of the immortal house-servant has fallen on the delightful pornstar Ann Koshi/小司あん [Ann's Blog], whom I'm now downloading several hours worth of hardcore pixelated pornography for what I'm going to call "Research Purposes". Which may or may not be what I call violent masturbation from now on.

Considering she's already starred in videos where her throat has been fisted until she puke, this is probably something she's looking at as an easy week at the office, despite Mai-chan being - oh, Christ, what can I even say at this point? If you've been on the internet long enough you probably saw "that" image long ago. Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about... well, just to put Uziga's work into perspective: Mai-Chan's Daily Life is so fucking hardcore that the people behind "A SERBIAN FILM" said "Y'know, that's awesome and all, but we might need to tone that shit down." 


It won't be the first Uziga film adaptation, however... just last month, Uziga's similarly grotesque but not-directly-pornographic RAIN FOR THE DEAD/雨あがりの君 (or, more literally, "YOU, AFTER THE RAIN") was released in Japan just one month ago, despite shooting having been finished sometime in 2012. The trailer above suggests an almost bipolar film that's one-part schmaltzy romantic twaddle and two-parts Cronenbergian social-nightmares, though how similar this may end up being to the substantially more offensive and, dare I say it, unambituous concept of "Destroy Mai-chan Repeatedly", it's too early yet to tell if what we're seeing here is in any way what we can expect from the upcoming Mai-Chan's Daily Life flick.

Be it good, terrible, or simply "meh", Mai-Chan's Daily Life set a certain watermark in the world of thoroughly grotesque art, and while I can't for the life of me imagine how the hell a feature length film of what's, effectively, an endless cycle of cynical and sadistic abuse to a single character without the means to change the punishing life she finds herself in, the fact that anyone would even attempt it has my attention. With any luck, we'll get the Japanese pop-shock version of 120 Days of Sodom... but more likely than not this'll just be a bizarre train-wreck that straddles artistic merit with inept insanity, like Hypertrophy Genitals Girl before it.

I'm not even gonna lie: I loved this fuckin' flick.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ground Zero Tolerance: Price, Value and Video Games

WARNING: Kentai is operating on a few scant hours of sleep, just filed a physically painful tax return, and may have replaced his meds with coffee. Proceed with this long, convoluted and ultimately scattershot post only if you want to hear his ponderous module swap out with his hate-laser on a semi-regular basis.

I've been thinking a lot about video games lately. Not actually playing them, of course - since that would suggest a level of time and energy I simply don't have to dedicate to them right now - but I've been spending quite a bit of time trying to pin down exactly why they mean as much to me as they tend to. And, with the specific oddity of one of the most intriguing acts of marketing hooplah in recent memory, trying to directly quantify what that meaning is worth.

The reasons are as varied as the titles themselves, which makes trying to sift this down to their barest essentials all the more difficult. I adore traditional 2D platformer adventures, ridiculous fighting games, twitchy arcade rail shooters and increasingly convoluted J-RPGs in equal measure. Simply put, games - like any other form of art - are capable of sweeping emotional fulfillment, grotesquely pognographic visceral thrills, and everything in between. It's with that in mind that I don't think loving the ultimately brainless but perfectly weighted custom-combo system of God Hand is any less valid than loving the slow-burn character drama that anchors the intuitive, but never unpredictable gameplay of The Last of Us. I have friends to whom the gameplay is the only factor that matters, and friends to whom the story is the driving appeal; I find myself with a foot in both camps, fully acknowledging that the infuriatingly slow and at times clunky RTS nature of Valkyria Chronicle undermines how much I like watching the goofy drama unfold, but acknowledging that Vanquish could have been written by Michael Bay's erect penis on a coke fueled bender for all I care - and maybe it was! - doesn't make a difference, so long as I still get that sweet ground-slide bullet-time action...


Pictured: An adolescence squandered,
Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time notwithstanding.

To loop these two extremes around, a little context is required: I grew up with Nintendo consoles until the N64 stabbed my hopes and dreams of playing... pretty much anything decent that wasn't a Nintendo made franchise right in the gut. I didn't own a Playstation until the PS2 had become the dominant force in the market, and only then did so with the express wish to hack it to play the Devilman and Fist of the North Star games... because, ultimately, I'm nothing if not a nerd with terrible taste*. PS2 followed in much the same pattern, with me not buying a system until it was far enough along in its life-cycle that I was waiting to see what magic the PS3 would unleash in the following year. With that in mind it's easy to see why there are large gaps in my gaming experience - friends had Sega and Sony consoles, and my fascination with certain designers and publishers have left me to explore the world of even further-flung third party software as a sort of digital anthropology major - but, with very few exceptions, my experience with much of the Generation 5 and Generation 6 games came only in retrospect. In a way, though, this may have been a good thing; it allowed me to side-step a lot of crap that I thought would have been neat, let me catch up on a lot of the good stuff for peanuts, and even now, as we trudge knee-deep into what's sure to be a generation dominated by the monolithic power of the PS4, I'm more than willing to play around with emulator settings until I can get stuff like the Arc System Fist of the North Star fighting game and Silent Hill 2 to render, perfectly, at 1080p with a host of glorious, non-standard post processing options. The future is now, my friends, and it's pretty goddamn bitchin'.

* Truth be told, the story mode on the Kenshiro PSX game is actually a lot more intuitive and interestingly realized that either of the Hokuto Musou games, and the game's voice acting and graphics were above average... for the period, mind. PSX games haven't aged well, if you ask me - they're still fun, but most of them look and handle like a sack of ass, even compared to the previous generation. But that Devilman game is a twitching, steaming pile saved only by the totally arbitrary inclusion of a totally badass opening video, an Aguel/Gelmar/Jinmen fusion demon, and enough atmosphere to almost make up for the fact that the first hour of the game is basically just Resident Evil but a hundred times more shit.

Uh, Quentin Tarantino Presents...?

With this in mind, you'll have to understand that one of the games that most intrigued me when I was gifted a PS3 the better part of 5 years ago was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I was somewhat familiar with the first Metal Gear Solid game - a stealthy, story driven experience that was one of a kind at the time of its release - though it was, technically, a sequel to a pair of 8-bit MXS2 console games, which introduced the notion of "stealth" as a game mechanic simply because the system's hardware wasn't a bad enough dude to render the fast-paced action games the competition at Nintendo and Sega were delivering. I was also vaguely aware that there were a pair of sequels and a growing number of spin-off projects, with Peace Walker being the only notable canonical sequel. Simply put, I knew enough about the concept to know I wanted to play it, but I didn't actually know what the franchise was all about... which is to say it's basically about insanity. Pure, sheer, mind-meltingly impenetrable layers of blatant Anti-Private Military Company propaganda as delivered by a Progeria-Infected Kurt Russell clone who's fighting a terrorist who's been possessed by the ghost of his brother due to an unexpected arm-transplant who plans to use nano-machines to bring the entire world's military populace to a grinding halt... and that's before I get into the latex-fetishist heavy armored goon squad, the rollerblading break-dancing Samurai Robocop who's locked in a one man war against Hot Topic Dracula, or the weird-ass fourth wall breaking "dream" sequences that show that no matter how far off the deep end shit gets, gane creator and executive producer Hideo KOJIMA knows it's all just a joke in the end. Calling it mesmerizing would be an understatement; it's more like falling into a black hole of confusion and emerging out the other side dripping in equal parts fear and exhilaration.

You might think this massive cluster of a fuck would leave me lukewarm to more. You would be very wrong. For everything confounding and seemingly senseless that Guns of the Patriots might have done, because the game itself was kind of amazing. I have to specify the "game part", because when you watch just the cut scenes that piece the story together - literally skipping all of that needless and intrusive "tactical espionage action" gameplay element - THE "GAME" STILL RUNS OVER 8 FRIGGIN' HOURS. See, the whole experience is equal parts literal gameplay and raving lunacy as cinematic excess, playing out sort of like the entirety of 24 if it were written by pasting post-it notes from an unfinished reboot of The Manchrian Candidate, clipped random panels of old Amazing Spider-Man comics and a transcript of whatever it is Steven Segal sees when he closes his eyes and drifts off into the sweet, tangy embrace of Mister Sandman that allows him to wake up the next morning and keep doing... whatever it is we'd call what Steven Segal does in the 21st century.

Hideo Kojima/小島 秀夫: Visionary. Foodie Microblogger. Casual latex fetishist.

It's absurd and it's incredible, but as you can watch the above with only the most minimal of human interaction, we can see that the "game" and the "story" exist in almost totally separate universes. There's a level of connection, sure, but it's more a meta-conduit than anything, a way to convince the viewer that Snake's struggle is both important and never-ending. The game's final boss battle 'breaking' the game's controls completely and forcing the player to struggle using techniques that were only applicable in previous games in the franchise, even changing the soundtrack to match, is a brilliantly manipulative method of forcing the player to feel the weight of the story that's taken nearly 40 in-game years to come to a close. It's that sort of insanity that makes Metal Gear Solid as a series something wholly unique, something that could only have formed in the landscape of interactive entertainment, and leaves me fascinated by the increasingly convoluted  fusion of perfectly polished stealth action, and pulp-action that feels like it was co-written by a paranoid conspiracy-theorist and his excitable 8 year old son. I can't say that Metal Gear is a perfect game franchise by any stretch, but it's absolutely one of the most incredible ways that the notion of combining player interaction with traditional fixed-narrative, even if it feels oddly separated, into something that feels like it's pushing both of them forward, exploring new and uncharted territory... even f it's mostly uncharted simply because it's, y'know... bat country.

That said, I'm saying all of this by way of having just seen the cumulative ends of this journey. I never owned the original Metal Gear Solid, just rented it for a weekend - and man alive, if you aren't ready to unlearn every Rambo fantasy every game before it had fed you from the time it was all about stompin' on turtles, that's no way to get involved in Metal Gear Solid. To make up for my sins I'm currently playing through the full Hideo Kojima Approved canon: The original 1998 Metal Gear Solid, the PS2 follow up Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and its direct PSP follow-up Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. These four games represent an unreal timeline that begins in 1968 (Snake Eater) and ends in 2014 (Guns of the Patriots), which means the year the franchise ends - chronologically speaking - is also the year they begin to drill all the way to the bottom of the barrel, hoping to strike oil when all else is exhausted. An ironic twist, to be sure, but with the final planned chapter not due until 2015, it's perhaps not quite ironic enough to mean anything.

Shockingly enough, there appears to be just enough narrative wiggle-room left for Konami to justify squeezing blood from Kojima's franchise one last time. You see, while Solid Snake was the protagonist of the first and fourth game, and shared the second with a character he specifically made to try and hook ladies onto the franchise(!), the third game - which, reportedly, Kojima made a prequel specifically because he felt the previous story prorgession had run its course - star solid Snake's "Father", a mercenary who, in later games, is known only as 'Big Boss':

He's basically Che Guevara. Just a bit less of an asshole.
Yes, I'm aware that I've just insulted every college dorm room wall ever.

Not possessing the PHD in the theoretical politics required to make total sense of the insanity inside Hideo Kojima's head, I'm going to grossly oversimplify the three decades' worth of character history and say that Big Boss was, give or take, a disillusioned war hero who became a mercenary, amassing a private army in the hopes that he would one day destroy the need for war itself. To do that, he's a man who had to get his hands dirty and play both sides against each other, knowingly sending operatives into traps in the hopes that they'd distract the "real" enemy long enough for him to accomplish his true goals. As the Playstation era spin-offs continued, the shadow of Big Boss quite literally provides the DNA for the subsequent skirmishes, and the game reveals that despite his bloody and unorthodox methods, his ultimate goals were world peace.

In short, Big Boss was a complicated character who never saw himself as a bad guy; he was just the one guy willing to set the world on fire to cleanse it and re-create the world in the image he felt was better for everyone. It's important to point out, again, that his goal was "No More War", which is a more amicable goal than most international terrorist organizations, no?

This is where my curiosity gets piqued: Despite the storyline establishing Big Boss' true intent and goals having been wrapped up in Peace Walker, thereby having shifted him in the eyes of the player from a villain to something of a tragic anti-hero who lived long enough to see him become the villain, the upcoming pair of games in the franchise both being released under the Metal Gear Solid V moniker - the "prologue" Ground Zeroes set in 1975, and the final piece of the puzzle The Phantom Pain set nine years later - fill in the gap between him having shifted gears from a heroic to a villainous character, at least from Solid Snake's point of view. In other words, Metal Gear Solid V is going to be a "Hero's Journey" for a character who's going to become so bitter and jaded that he's willing to go to extreme lengths to get what he wants. It's a Villain's Journey, but neither one soaked in clever irony like Shadow of the Colossus or Spec Ops: The Line, nor played for grimy exploitation like Kane and Lynch or Manhunt. It's got all the potential to be a sincere, nuanced take on a character willing to torch the whole world if it'll make his dreams come true, and something about that is intensely intriguing to me.

The 9 minute long red-tagged "Director's Cut" trailer that premiered at E3 2013 established that Metal Gear Solid V is going to be, by far, the darkest exploration of Kojima's universe yet; even holding aside the brutally realistic torture, dismemberment, impromptu emergency surgery, child soldiers and mining slaves, and the ESRB's confirmation that sexual assault will play a role for one of the characters (if only off-screen), the narration they chose is a brooding, hissing condemnation of the world itself, playing out - even bereft of context - as the closest thing to John Rambo's iconic monologue about Joey's legs in First Blood I've seen in a video game. The divide between Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain of nine years is going to involve some seriously nasty shake-ups, and the suggestion we're left with is that Big Boss' fall from grace of being a rogue operative with the world's future on his mind to a heartless bastard willing to sacrifice his own son to achieve his endgame begins with a quest for vengeance... but against whom, and for what, we still don't know.

"Why are we still here? Just to suffer? Every night, I can feel my leg, and my arm - even my fingers!
The body I've lost - the comrades I've lost... it won't stop hurting. It's like they're all still there.
You feel it too, don't you?"

"I'm gonna make them give back our past."

The fact that Kiefer goddamn Sutherland delivered that line and I still got chills says something profound about Kojima's ability as a master manipulator. Seriously, go ahead, go re-watch Armitage III: Polymatrix and tell me that Jack Bauer is anything but a shitty voice actor... though I guess he's less embarassing than the girls he's sharing screen time with. Good God, Polymatrix sucks. What the hell were we-- right, I got this.

So why do I have to take all of this time to defend my MGS Boner? Because the game hasn't exactly been split in half. For all intents and purposes The Phantom Pain - which isn't due until 2015 - is the "real" Metal Gear Solid V. Ground Zeroes is important to the narrative and takes place in an exclusive setting with a host of details and events that'll  be necessary for following the already convoluted and scattershot storytelling... but it's only a single location. A single base with a campaign that's been suggested takes about two hours to complete... a prologue. Sort of like the tanker mission in Sons of Liberty or the Virtuous Missions in Snake Eater. A short, stand-alone experience meant to teach the player how to play the game and get them on the ground running.

In other words, Ground Zeroes is a demo. A demo you're expected to pay about half the price of the actual game for.

I'd say this is a shocking or at least an original tactic to eek every penny out of a popular franchise... but fans of Metal Gear Solid should be so lucky. Originally the demo for Sons of Liberty - dubbed the "Trial Edition" at the time, and containing the original Japanese voice track with English subtitles - was actually a bonus disc packaged with the unrelated Hideo Kojima game Z.O.E - ZONE OF THE ENDERS. At least then the price tag seemed perfectly justified; not only did you get a taste of the new Metal Gear, but you also got acomplete (if otherwise unrelated) game to go with it. Not to be outdone in cunning dickery, this scheme was repeated roughly a decade later when it was announced that purchasing the HD Collection re-release of Zone of the Enders plus its sequel would net you a demo for the upcoming METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE - a spinoff starring Raiden from the Solid franchise in his own hectic hack-and-slash adventures, sharing a universe with Solid Snake but ultimately little else in terms of gameplay. But again, you get two full games for that price, and the demo was merely a bonus - not the main course. For  $30, at least you got a free burger with your scoop of piping hot demo fries.

The pricing scheme is actually far more convoluted than it should be*: The original announcement was that it would cost $20 for a digital download on the PS3/XBOX 360, or a full $30 for a physical, disc-based copy. The PS4/XBOX ONE release was the same sliding-scale... but with a Next Generation Premium, meaning a digital copy would set you back $30... and a disc-based copy would cost $40. Fourty, fucking, dollars.

 How did the internet react to that bit of news, you ask?

 This. Basically just this.

* These are all North American prices, rounded up from the real-world "29.99" and so fourth, because I'm typing far too much as it is. To everyone in Europe, Australia and basically everywhere else in the world who are already paying $80 ~ 100 USD for a typical console game: You have nothing but sympathy. But Ground Zeroes has comparable pricing world-wide to the local marketplace, if nothing else: About half the price of a "Full" game regardless of what that implies.

It's hard to blame them, either. Even holding aside the precedent that Metal Gear has always had by holding demos hostage to remind you that Z.O.E is also a franchise, we've seen publishers go out of their way to cut content - or even lock it behind a paywall, just to eek a few more dollars out of the paying customers. You want to use those alternate outfits in Street Fighter IV already encoded onto the disc? Better pony up for it, then. Then you have those mind-boggling situations like Final Fantasy XIII-3: Lightning Returns, where the price of the DLC which are literally items that help you play the game are so numerous they actually dwarf the price of the retail game itself! And that Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 game that defied the odds and found a way to be crap? $60 download... plus $80 worth of bonus material to purchase. No joke. The Hokuto no Ken sequel that nobody liked costs more than the upcoming Dark Souls II Collector's Edition that comes with a foot tall fucking action figure. I find that positively inconceivable... and yet, it's all real.

Let's be clear here: I have nothing against developers creating additional content after the fact to keep the game alive and kicking after its initial sales kick by way of effectively offering expansion packs down the road, I can't help but think that the model's useful potential has already been stretched to the limit. Offering a useless character costume for $5? Eh, whatever, that's fine. Offering the ending or half the in-game items for a nominal fee? Now we're clearly getting into bullshit territory. Offering a "Season Pass" that'll include a bunch of as-of-yet-unannounced DLC bonuses? That sounds like Science Fiction to me, and yet it's a very real - even omnipresent option from several different publishers. But nothing is shittier than instances where DLC is offering basic components of the game, like level-up bonuses or extra lives or even nonsense like the "Big Head Mode" in Dead Rising 2. Y'know, for everyone who happens to be somehow nostalgic for the unplayable mess that was Turok. The very idea that cheat codes would be sold to customers instead of hidden as a gag is literally offensive, and makes holding a demo hostage for cash seem like an almost honorable alternative.

Konami has since backpedaled a little and is now quoting a $30 price on physical PS4/XB1 copies, but there's been no suggestion that the digital copies have dropped to match. So we're still talking an estimated $30 average on all systems with a moderate discount for digital copies on last-generation hardware - and hell, for all we know this could change before release date, up or down. That's a pretty hefty hunk of change for what, in context, Kojima has said is "1/200th" the size of the full version of the game looming off in the far-flung year of 2015. In short, he's not hiding the fact that this is at best a teaser... but I'm sure Kojima himself isn't the one insisting that it be a $30 game, either. Heck, I'm sure if anyone bothered to ask him, he'd be fine with including it on an HD remake of Policenauts... Wink-wink? Nudge-nudge?

What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that purchasing Ground Zeroes up front will give the inevitable addition of The Phantom Pain some additional bonus content... but, only for the initial batch of copies sold. You snooze you lose, apparently, and while I have little doubt that some sort of Ground Zeroes + Phantom Pain bundle will materialize in 2015... well, that's a hell of a lot of time to wait for a prologue that's going to be widely available in a mere two weeks. Fans of Metal Gear Solid haven't had a new stealth game from the franchise since 2008, and telling them that they can have a delicious little taste of that Fox Engine they've been perfecting in a hidden underground supervillain lair for the last five years is an allure that makes turning it down pretty damned difficult... until, of course, we remind you that for the same price you could get any number of complete games instead.

This got me thinking, though... is $20 ~ $30 (or even the original $40 price tag!) too much to ask for something that's legitimately good, short as it may be? Hell, I can remember when SNES carts were regularly $60~75 a piece, and that was in 1990s money! Or, to bring up a substantially more recent example, I recently saw the ROBOCOP remake and--


It was such a shallow shit puddle I don't even want to talk about it.
If I had to sum it up in two words: WASTED POTENTIAL.

So just to clear the air on this one, the only reason I subjected myself to the dull sensations in this film I now recognize as trauma was because I had a pair of coupons, knocking $7.50 off the ticket price, which I was given for purchasing both the 4K Remastered Special Editions of the original Robocop, and The Terminator. So I didn't pay full price out of pocket for those tickets, and if I did, it would have been solely to commit seppuku from the balcony and try to stain everyone below with my intense shame. Anyway, the tickets would have been $12 a piece for me and the wife, plus snacks, which even on the cheap-ass end of things will kick it up by another $10~15, depending on how fat you're feeling. In summation, seeing Robocop '14 with a popcorn and a soda - which at this point I simply shrug off as part of the entrance fees of going to see a movie in public - theoretically cost the wife and I just shy of $40... so hey, let's round it off to $35, since I honestly don't remember how hard parking was comped.

Now then, who thinks paying $35 for less than 2 hours of watching Robocop get sodomized by mediocrity and cowardice is a better deal than paying $30 for Ground Zeroes? Anyone? Anyone at all?

But perspective plays a part in all of this, no? I know I'm hardly "typical" when it comes to my video game habits; I pre-order only a handful of titles that excite me personally, and I'm content to play a game a year or two - or hell, five or ten - down the line. Just like music, film and all other popular culture, what's good now is good later, which explains why I'm currently stuck on that mother fucking stairwell level in the original Metal Gear Solid right now... yeah, I was hoping to catch up on this labyrinthine franchise before Ground Zeroes came out, but Max Payne 3 distracted me pretty fucking hard, and unlike MGS, every time I fuck up in that game I feel like it was my fault and not the shit controls. But I digress. I brought this up specifically to say that Ground Zeroes was one of those rare gems that excited me to the point where I was ready to throw money at it, particularly when I saw just how tantalizing the Japanese collector's edition turned out to be... did I mention the game features full English subtitles and menus, meaning you can play the whole thing without a hitch, even if your understanding of 日本語 is total shite? Hot damn... have I mentioned that, in Japan, both Big Boss and Solid Snake are voiced by Akio OHTSUKA, the voice of Amon himself in Apocalypse of Devilman?

A Yamaguchi Revoltech with superior head sculpt and improved paint job?
WHERE DO I RUB THE DOLLAR BILLS, COMPUTER?!?!

Then I realized I couldn't pre-order the Premium Edition anymore, and my boner to "compromise" on the PS3 version until I could justify upgrading to a PS4 was more or less null and void. The thought that purchasing Ground Zeroes leads to more bonus content for Phantom Pain is an appealing one, but I imagine once 2015 rolls around the PS4 will have a few worth-while games that neither the PS3 nor my old-but-still-chugging custom PC can play... at which point I'll look at my PS3 copy, sigh, and feel like a fool for not having gotten the character skins for the 1080p/60 frames-per-second PS4 sexiness. Suddenly, this Revoltech Enhanced Edition just doesn't seem as sexy as it could, and it has less to do with the "stuff" being used to incentivise the part of me that loves toys than the actual game itself. And that's a damned shame - though I have no doubt it'll be a decent enough experience, even on "Generation 7" hardware.

Mind you, I'd buy this on PC in a fuckin' heartbeat, but Konami has - in their infinite wisdom - decided that the Glorious PC Master Race wasn't ready for the Fox Engine. Factoring in that Konami has been advertising "Metal Gear Solid V" for PC from the start, this is a troubling revelation. My PC may not be the beefiest custom build on the block, but near as I can tell it outputs just as much raw graphical horsepower as an Xbox One, and I'm more than willing to turn down shadow detail if it means running at 1080p without any obvious screen tearing or stutter. Mileage is bound to vary, of course, and if a player would rather have super sexy HD tessellation effects and razor-sharp shadows at 30fps, hell, I'm not going to give them shit for it.

With both current generation systems from Microsoft and Sony being glorified PC hardware disguised as stand-alone consoles, it's a shame they don't let the end user decide if resolution and detail, or framerates and consistency are more important... though, of course, anyone with even a passing interest in both of the "new" consoles should know that the Xbox One is set to play the game at 720p/60fps, while the PS4 is set to play at 1080p/60fps. With the PS4 being a hundred bucks cheaper  than an Xbox One, complete with the front-end and controller having been redesigned to the point where some of my 360 faithful-friends say it blows the competition out of the water, it sounds like a no-brainer to me... unless you absolutely need Titanfall or Halo 2: Remastered to die happy, I honestly can't see why you'd pick an Xbone over a Pissa. For those comfortable enough with their PS3 or Xbox 360, the game is set to run at 30fps at a "scaled" 720p, which suggests the actual native resolution the systems will be handling might be even lower.

Also, seemingly just to fuck with us, both Sony and Microsoft systems get completely different "exclusive" bonus content. Sony faithfuls get the Deja Vu Missions in which you complete missions as an old-school PSX era Solid Snake sneakin' around in cardboard boxes, where Xbox players get the Jamais Vu Missions in which Raiden gets to fuck up the small Cuban base with rockets and cyber-swords. Different strokes, but both appealing in their own right

I do wish I'd known about the pre-order incentives...

To help put more of this into perspective, I should probably point out that the last time I spent $60 on a game post-release date without flinching was when I bought Lollipop Chainsaw with some spare birthday card cash. Literally beat the game in one day... and y'know what? Didn't regret a single penny of it, because the game was an absolute blast from start to finish. The fact that I've only replayed a few maps didn't bother me because the weird hop-scotch combat, while better than I think a lot of critics gave it credit for, does get repetitive after a while, and some of the "timed" sections on harder difficulties are closer to pulling teeth masochism than anything I'd call 'fun'. I'd rather blow $60 on a single great weekend with a game than pay $20 for something that's a 20 hour slog that doesn't know when enough is enough - I'm looking at you, Manhunt 2. Similarly the original Katamari Damacy is pure joy in a tightly rolled little ball, and that game was released for $20 from the start. Does the price tag somehow undermine what a weird, wonderful and addictive experience the game is? Or should I be upset that the game wasn't twice as long and didn't cost twice as much to match?

And not to pat the back of the so-called AAA game publishers too hard, but let's face it; games are costing more and more to produce, despite the market not growing substantially to match. Make no mistake, the latest Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto game will always break new records as playing games becomes more normalized in day to day life of the public, but we've somehow come to live in a world where every game is trying to ape these franchises in tone and scale, despite certain genres - for example, survival horror - never having sold in numbers even approaching military shooters and bad-behavior simulators. But there's this strange obsession with every title being a massive seller, which has pushed publishers and developers to go bigger and badder, until we're left stranded with bloated, massive games that ignore the audience that actually wanted them in the first place, but are still "different" enough from the mainstream crowd-pleasers that they're never going to hit the same numbers. For all the critical acclaim and opening world-wide at #1 with over 3 Million Units sold in the first month, the Tomb Raider reboot was still considered less than successful by its masters at Square Enix, even though no previous Tomb Raider game had seen sales on that scale. It was a massive success, just not massive enough for the insane businessmen holding the purse strings.

This is clearly what failure looks like, ladies and gentlemen:
On better hardware, one year later, for $60. Because... reasons?

There's also, of course, the distinct possible that maybe games should scale back on some of their budgetary splurging to focus only on what's necessary... I mean, for fuck's sake, Tomb Raider has an online multi-player versus mode despite the controls being made to make you feel vulnerable and awkward. I OWN the damned game and I still don't believe it!

So short of simply switching the entire industry to a series of indie developers - a change that's happening of its own accord, by all counts - how do you combat this? Well, you try new things, including new pricing. One of the things we have seen are lower prices on "smaller" game projects, usually HD remakes of beloved classics or spin-off entities, like how my beloved Blood Dragon was basically a 1980s' kitsch-filter thrown on top of some left over Far Cry 3 assets. Blood Dragon was a perfectly fun stand-alone experience with a great sense of humor and some decent replay value, and the small $15 price tag made it all the sweeter... but ultimately the game never would have existed had Far Cry 3 not already done its thing and made its money back on what, to be fair, a fairly ambitious new set of game mechanics and a fairly massive in-game world to explore. Blood Dragon was a $15 add-on, but they were savvy enough to sell it as a stand-alone game for those of us who - like me - were far more interested in playing as Cyborg Michael Biehn than they were living out their Stallone vs Somali Pirates fantasies.

With this in mind I firmly believe that if Ground Zeroes were released *AFTER* the main game as an expansion, rather than before it as a prologue, fewer people would be as upset with it as they are. To be fair it's still an unusually expensive taste for a game that isn't even out yet, but it's also a taste that involves the new FOX Engine that Konami's been working on in secret underground bunkers since the late 2000's, and if Tomb Raider's "failure" is any indicator of what sort of insane budgets made a game a game capable of selling over 3 million copies a disappointment, it's doubtful that selling every product at the same set price is going to work going forward.  It seems doubtful that it'd even work if they tried.

That's not to say that $60 was ever unfair - it's actually cheaper than games were 20 years ago, even before you consider inflation. But at what point does a big, expansive and gorgeous game justify its price tag? If Metal Gear Solid 4 cost $60 in 2008, isn't it fair to assume that the larger and more expensive to produce Metal Gear Solid 5 would cost the consumer more seven years later? If we're going to demand that the industry continues to increase the complexity and quality of games, it's at the very least selfish to expect the consumer to continue paying outdated pricing models - that's just absurd. The way they've gone about it so far -by locking on-disc content as "DLC" and so on - has felt like a bit of a dick move, but maybe breaking larger games into smaller pieces like this is a fair way to continue justifying the development of massive "AAA" games without simply doing the inevitable and ratcheting the price up by ten or twenty bucks? That's not to say paying for glorified demos should ever become standard, but, if Konami is giving Kojima and friends a literal fortune to perfect this whole thing, I suppose it's not totally unreasonable to ask that they get more than $60 out of the customer for it.

Sometimes, we don't even need words. Penis.

It's not much different that Hollywood studios demanding that everything be converted to IMAX and 3D after the fact, whether the film will actually benefit from the experience or not; those budgets are going up, but the population isn't changing to match, so those annoying "enhancements" are exactly what makes the difference between The First Avenge: Captain America, and the direct-to-video Albert Pyun Captain America from 1990. Look, I love me some Albert Pyun, but can't we all agree that the over-priced over-hyped excuse-to-let-Joss-Whedon-make-The Avengers is, overall, still a pretty dramatic improvement? Even with the stupid fucking plastic glasses we have to see it with?

This is where the concepts of "Price" and "Value" have to be weighed. Clearly, a cheap game that you enjoy is both a good price and a good value... but a cheap game that you don't enjoy is a waste of money. Much like the endless circle-jerkery that surrounds every single discussion of the Twilight Time Blu-ray label which offers strictly limited editions for the "insane" price of... the very same MSRP most other labels charge minus the expected Amazon discounts, I remind myself that - collectible and being given a false sense of urgency or not - aren't we ultimately just paying for a copy of a film? One that the viewer has probably seen before, and thus knows exactly how much value they personally have vested in it? To put it another way, Twilight Time's release of Night of the Living Dead '90 isn't worth the $35 I paid for it - and not even because of the bullshit color grading controversy, but because the movie is a pile of shit to begin with. Yet I think my copy of Christine was worth every red cent solely because the film itself is great. Same price, same basic item, but one of them held more value to me personally despite the price being exactly the same. Mind you this isn't a perfect example - the actual presentation of NOTLD '90 is a well known clusterfuck, and at least Christine kept its bonus features from the previous DVD - but it only serves to highlight that price and value are not the same concept. Sometimes they aren't even on the same planet.

Case in point in the opposite direction: For as shit as the Albert Pyun Blu-ray of "CA: DIRECTOR'S CUT" may have been, and as miserable as the film itself was, I got a copy hand-signed by the director and the inscription "AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!" written above his noggin'. What price can you even begin to put on something that beautifully absurd?

Is it possible that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has the potential to be a high-priced experience that's "good enough" to justify its high price/short runtime? I guess we'll know in two weeks, one way or another. All things considered, I may roll the dice on the PS3 version's relatively low $20 price point and find out myself. Those of you worried this might be the tip of some Phantom Iceberg ready to split upcoming "big" AAA games into smaller pieces are justified in your concern, but looking over the industry as a whole I think it might be the least offensive alternative to such games either skyrocketing in price as a single piece, or simply ceasing to exist going forward. Something's gotta give, and you think people are pissed off now at a $20 prologue, just wait until they see their first $80 main course...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

There's No More Room In Hell: DAWN OF THE DEAD's New HD Master Explored

Having had a chance to properly dissect the two most interesting discs on the new DAWN OF THE DEAD: 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION box set from Happinet Japan, I have a bit of an addendum to make to a slightly older entry.

The technical merits of this pricey collection have been discussed, well enough on some important levels, by Kevin Pyrtle of Exploder Button. If you want an honest opinion and a massive host of screenshots, GO TAKE A LOOK. While his opinions and my own differ in some very vital ways, it's a pretty fair snapshot of what to expect; a rougher, more raw, and very filmic presentation compared to the digitally manipulated Anchor Bay and Arrow Video releases from several years back, but with their own unexpected, largely analog-based problems thrown in. I think he's done a fair job covering the most obvious flaws and the many strengths this collection offers over the competition, but - seeing as how he largely lets the screenshots speak for themselves - I think a few big stones may have been left unturned.

I don't currently have access to the "North American Theatrical Cut", and I don't think I need it to judge what the materials are, for reasons we'll get into before all is said and done. This is neither a typical review, nor a sweeping condemnation of the 35th Anniversary Box... this is something more akin to a sympathetic, frustrating autopsy. So let's get our scrubs on, pick up some calipers and get this undead show on the road, yeah?



ZOMBIE: DAWN OF THE DEAD
[Dario Argento's 119 Minute "International Version"]

The "European Version" - which I'll henceforth call the ZOMBIE CUT, for simplicity's sake - looks to be the exact same HD master minted in '07 we've seen released in Italy, France and Austria, which... isn't exactly reason to celebrate. Window-boxed on all sides to 1.85:1 and granted a high-bitrate AVC transfer at 1080p 23.98fps, I'll give the devil his due and say that this transfer looks marginally better in motion than screenshots would suggest; the bizarre layer of vertical artifacting and nasty machine-noise that makes it look like you're watching the whole movie through a screen door is always present, but there's just enough noise pulsating  through it that it's slightly less... "icky" until you pause it.

That's not to say it looks good. It doesn't. It just doesn't look quite as bad as COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE OLD FRENCH TRANSFER might leave one to suspect, is all.

The print itself is likely a European Internegative with non-English titles (Italian in origin, if I'm not mistaken) - it's got plenty of scratches, dirt and stains that run through the print like veins through a human being, but these scars - most of them likely baked in during the print's original creation - are never any more distracting than the funky, noisy texture they serve to break up and remind the viewer that, yes indeed, celluloid was involved at one stage or another in the creation of the wonky, video-like presentation you see before you.

Perhaps far more damning than the lousy HD master itself, the first two minutes featuring the opening English credits appear to be sourced from an SD video master, and - as you can imagine - look like a DVD upscaled to 1080p, complete with aliasing and edge-ringing and all those goodies you'd expect from a low-resolution source. Worse yet, the end credits are not only sourced from an SD master, they're still interlaced! Cheese and crackers, guys, why the hell didn't you just leave them in Italian? Once you get over all of that nonsense, the underlying transfer is just, kinda... urgh. It's at least a marginal improvement over any previously released DVD, and looks far less horrifying than any of the poorly-compressed European releases we could compare it to.

You get both a lossless  Dolby True HD 5.1 mix, and a 640kb mono track in the film's original English language. Do yourself a favor and don't waste your time with the former; looking at the levels it's clear that all they did was echo the mono mix to the rest of the sound stage, which means at its best you get a weird, front-heavy mono track, and at its worst you have a gnarly sounding mix full of phasing. Hiss is kept to a minimum, though there is occasional fluttering during dialog heavy sequences; anyone familiar with the "Argento Version" on DVD will know exactly what they're getting into. Disappointing they didn't do a new mix using the original stems to get a cleaner sounding mix of Goblin's fantastic score, but I can't say any of this is a shock.

I am, however, quite disappointed to note that the Japanese dub included on this disc is *NOT* the somewhat infamous "Suspiria Cut" that was shown on Japanese TV in 1980, which now casts serious doubt to its inclusion on the ZOMBI: NEW CENTURY COMPLETE DVD-BOX, as well... suddenly them advertising it as a "Newly Recorded Version" of the Thursday Movie Theater Version makes sense, as frustrating as that is to finally understand. For those unfamiliar, Jayson Kennedy did a NICE WRITE-UP on the existence of the rarely-seen Japanese broadcast version, though again, without the full "Suspiria Dub" appearing in DVD quality on YouTube the day after that box set dropped, I no longer believe that it's been released on video, and exists only as a memory - and occasional bootleg VHS recordings - since it aired nearly 35 years ago. I can only imagine that using music cribbed not only from other vintage Italian period soundtracks, but also completely unrelated Progressive Rock tracks in this day and age was a nasty lawsuit waiting to happen, but its loss to the ages is a frustrating one, perhaps no less infuriating than the loss of Manga Entertainment's bizarrely perfect use of YELLO TRACKS IN SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA. The 2010 Japanese dub is a slightly amusing novelty in and of itself, I suppose, but without the alternate soundtrack I lost my interest after a few minutes.

A disappointing HD master is made even less desirable by the inclusion of SD sourced credits, and a total absence of the alternate score. I'm not quite as furious with this transfer as I imagined I would be, but calling it "disappointing" would be something of an understatement. I honestly can't recommend this one to anyone but the most dedicated of Argento completists.

And yet, somehow this is by far the least interesting disc in the set...



DAWN OF THE DEAD: EXTENDED VERSION
[George Romero's Original 139 Minute "Cannes Cut"]

A quick history lesson: Dawn of the Dead was shot between November of '77 and February of '78. While Dawn of the Dead wasn't released commercially in North America until April of '79, it was first shown in something resembling a completed format at the Cannes Film Market one year earlier in the hopes that they'd entice various international distributors. Dario Argento edited the 119 minute "Zombie" cut of is own accord separate from Argento, and released the film to Italian theaters in December of '78. Meanwhile Romero went back to the drawing board and refined the film as he liked, cutting it down to 127 minutes, which he's stated is his preferred cut. With this in mind, one could classify the 139 minute Cannes Version as Romero's "First Director's Cut", and the 127 minute US Theatrical Version as Romero's "Final Director's Cut".

The 139 Minute Version first surfaced for the general market in the mid-90s, with the two most notable releases being the Elite Collector's Edition Laserdisc marketed as the "Director's Cut", and the Japanese PERFECT COLLECTION box set, which included both - and I quote - "Director's Cut Perfect Version" and "Dario Argento Selected Version". Up until that point only bootleg 16mm prints of the Extended Version had ever surfaced, so seeing a higher quality version was certainly encouraging for fans who'd long loved George Romero's legendary film, and wanted to see what beats - and even entire scenes - wound up on the cutting room floor for the sake of a slimmer, more commercially viable picture. I personally think that plenty of the scenes excised were good, and think that a re-working of the soundtrack would probably create the "Perfect" experience... but hey, at the end of the day it's George Romero's film, and if he says the 127 minute version is the one he's happy with, I'm not going to argue too hard.

[Henceforth, the 127 minute version will be known as the THEATRICAL CUT, and the 139 minute version will be known as the EXTENDED CUT. There's just too much back and fourth on that "Director's Cut" moniker here to keep track of, so this'll help... I think.]

Having asked Don May, who used to run the show at Elite back in the day, I'm sadly no closer to knowing for sure what film elements were used for the Extended Cut. All I know is that producer Robert P. Rubenstein provided D2 masters at the time, and that said materials had been approved by director of photography Michael Gornick - as I've explained elsewhere, the director is rarely invited in to look at a new film master since it's assumed the DP would keep closer tabs on things like stock variances and lighting cues anyway.

This begs the question: What exactly was this "Extended Print"? Was it an Answer Print they vaulted back in '78 as a reference to make the Cannes exhibition prints? If Romero knew this was going to be a glorified work in progress one would assume he'd have made Internegatives of all the raw footage before doing any real editing, which is likely how the "Zombie" print came to be, as well, placing this two generations away from the negative, minimum. Being a second-generational element would help to explain the increased contrast and general lack of stability, though exactly when it was made - and why - will sadly remain a mystery for the time being. The contrast, stability, print damage and so on may not be ideal, but the underlying detail and fidelity of the grain itself is good enough that I'm assuming it's neither one of the 16mm reduction prints private collectors have held onto since the 1980s, nor a well-worn print that ever saw the light of day at Cannes... though George knows, I could always be wrong.

Laserdisc wasn't the only way to see the 139 minute version, of course. In 2004, riding on the wave of interest generated by Zack Snyder's... interesting remake, Anchor Bay released a 4 DVD box set known as DAWN OF THE DEAD: THE ULTIMATE EDITION. It lived up to the name, too, including the 127 minute THEATRICAL CUT, the 119 minute ZOMBIE CUT, the 139 minute EXTENDED CUT - plus a fourth disc dedicated solely to bonus features, including the feature-length 1985 version of 'Document of the Dead' by Roy Frumkes, which has *also* been released in various forms over the years. [I refuse to get into that on the grounds that this post is already too long... and I'm only about half way finished as-is.] Honestly, it's one of the most dedicated and comprehensive collections dedicated to a single film I've ever seen, and if you're a film label and aren't sure if you're treating your film right... well, this should be the standard, plain and simple.

I have only four words: SUCK IT, Criterion Collection!

Anchor Bay actually re-released the Theatrical Cut as a stand-alone disc a few months before the remake hit theaters before the details on their inevitable "Ultimate Edition" were finalized, and released the Zombie Cut a year later as a stand-alone release. Even the exclusive Anchor Bay produced 'The Dead Will Walk' documentary would later appear on the Anchor Bay Blu-ray... but, to date, the only way to get Anchor Bay's release of the 139 minute Extended Version is in that massive box set.

The centerpiece of this collection was Anchor Bay's 2004 remaster, which they promoted as having been restored under their "Divimax" line. Without getting into specifics, that was Anchor Bay's way of saying they'd done a fancy-pants HD remaster and were converting it down to DVD. When it came time to present the Extended Cut, they started with their new 'Divimax' transfer and re-inserted the extra 12 minutes of footage on a scene-by-scene basis. You can actually see the quality of the 'deleted' footage drop with heavier grain, flickering colors, more scratches and a general loss in stability. Here's a few time-codes, should you want to check for yourself:

00:38:58 - 00:39:51 - Francine watches Peter and Roger run down the stairwell, and there's a notably longer scene of the two of them looking over the mall interior from the top floor. It ends when Peter says "Let's check those keys."

00:43:15 - When Roger kills the one zombie that's followed them into the department store, the theatrical version ends with a single gunshot. The extended version shows two shots, and a brief cut-away to the gory aftermath. The extension is less than a second long, but the increase in grain and shift in color are still fairly obvious.

01:00:43 - 01:02:05 - Francine grumps "Nobody care about my vote", leading to an extended dialogue scene between her and Stephen where they weigh the possible dangers of holing up in the mall. It ends with the grim joke "You were the one who wanted to set up house."

01:43:35 - 01:44:40 - The lengthy "shopping spree" was excised completely from the theatrical cut, as the remaining survivors try to ignore the loss of their friends by swiping a large pile of stuff they know they don't want or need, but take anyhow.

Those curious can get a full list of extended sequences on SCHNITTBERICHT, though the comparison uses PAL sources for timecode and the descriptions are in German, so... have fun. I did!

Having compared the Happinet Extended Blu-ray to the Anchor Bay Theatrical Blu-ray, it's clear the prints are completely different - the stability, the color fidelity, the print damage and the framing are simply too different for that to not be the case. I firmly believe that Anchor Bay created a new 35mm Interpositive for their Divimax Master, and used the same "Extended Print" discussed earlier to fill in the gaps for their Extended DVD. However, when you compare just the extended scenes from the Anchor Bay DVD... well, the results are a bit shocking.

The 2004 "Extended Cut" DVD is on the top, the 2013 Blu-ray on the bottom:







Not only are the tight framing, cranked up contrast, print damage and temporal color flickering all exactly the same between the 12 minutes of "Extended" footage on the Anchor Bay DVD and the new 2013 Happinet Blu-ray, but the smoking gun here is the funky, rainbow colored moiré pattern we can see in the first screenshot. It looks like an optically formed gaffe of the film not laying totally flat when the print was struck; it pops up pretty frequently on the 2013 HD master, but never crops up once on the Anchor Bay Divimax transfer. Considering how rife with obvious scratches and dirt the Anchor Bay print was, I find it difficult to believe these were erased manually in the 2004 master, which - in turn - means that this must not only be from a print further down the line, but that the Anchor Bay "Extended Footage" and the 2013 HD master must be from the same exact film materials. In other words this "State of the Art" 2013 High Definition master was created from a film element that was almost surely struck no later than 1996 - a print that was considered so problematic by Anchor Bay a full decade ago that they only used it when they absolutely had to.

While I've yet to see the "American Theatrical" disc from the Japanese box set, Kevin's comparison suggests that the new HD materials for the Theatrical Cut and Extended Cut is identical, and the image quality between the "extra" footage found in the Extended Version and Theatrical Version are totally consistent in terms of image quality on the 139 minute Blu-ray. This leaves me little choice but to assume that the 2013 HD master of the Theatrical Cut was actually made by taking the Extended Cut transfer and trimming it down down to match the Theatrical Cut runtime. That's right, whoever commissioned and organized this print chose not to create a new scan from the original negative, or even go back to the new master print Anchor Bay created in 2004: They used, at best, a second-generation print minted in '96, which easily could have been sitting in a vault for over 15 years by that time and be worse than I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt in terms of analog generational loss.

All of that said, I'm convinced that Happinet Japan have little to no blame for what we're seeing on the finished disc. Producer Rubenstein has given the following interview about the currently in-development DAWN OF THE DEAD 3D project, a boondoggle he's so far spent an estimated, mind boggling $6 Million on, and I'm sure one of the costs built-in to that project was the creation of a new HD Telecine. I have no doubt that a 3D conversion will include some added ambient effects and an increased focus on removing grain and print damage, so what we're seeing on the new Japanese transfer might as well be the "workprint" for the 3D version. You'd think if you were going to do this you'd go back to the original camera negative which would have even less grain and damage to start with, but not being an old school Hollywood producer, perhaps the simple answer involves large gray sacks with dollar signs on them, and is thus way beyond my comprehension.

There's also the question of what shape the OCN is even in these days; Dawn of the Dead was finished in 1979, and Anchor Bay didn't seem to have any major problems creating a new 35mm element a decade ago, but that doesn't tell us everything we need to know. Is the OCN just the 127 minute Theatrical Cut, with the scars of having made duplicates for Dario Argento's version and the Cannes edit baked in at the very core? Is it a collection of poorly-labeled A/B rolls for every version, some sort of nightmare waiting indefinitely to be re-assembled in its proper form by a crack team of Romero fanatics? Has it already rotted away to nothing, and - if Anchor Bay lost their 35mm master print for whatever reason - is this "Extended Print" the only film element left the original owners have access to? This, sadly, isn't information I'm privy to. I'd love to know, since without knowing a sensible reason for why a shoddy-but-longer print would be used for the bulk of this brand new transfer, all I can do is assume the worst behind the producers who decided this ugly mess was "good enough" for the greatest film Richard P. Rubenstein ever produced.

Alright, with the possible exception of Day of the Dead. Maybe Martin? To a lesser degree Creepshow, though I do love me some Creepshow. Yeah, Rubenstein made some good shit happen for a while there. Oh wow, he produced Pet Semetary, too? Love that friggin' movie! But even so, Dawn of the Dead is still the "prestige" title there, no question.

Before I forget to mention it; the last four minutes or so of the 2013 HD master have some frustratingly obvious DNVR. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire film has a subtle layer of grain management, but the scene leading up to the helicopter escape is rife with gnarly, smudged artifacts sure to bother anyone sensitive to temporal processing. (If other processing examples exist, I honestly can't remember them - but suffice to say, my focus has been elsewhere.) While the print damage is consistently a match between the Anchor Bay "Extended" footage and the new Blu-ray, I'll also give the devil his due and point out that the most obvious hairs and scratches have been manually minimized on the new HD master. The problem isn't the size of the damage left over after their restoration work; it's simply the volume. Dawn of the Dead has never been a "clean" film, but it's 2014 for fuck's sake: There's no reason it has to look as bad as the negative the day it was spliced. And yes, as friend of the Kentai Blog, "The Goddamn Zollman" was quick to point out, the black levels are incorrectly set to IRE 7.5 (ie: "PC Levels" instead of "TV Levels"), though as discussed the blown out contrast has less to do with a funky RGB/YUV conversion and more to do with the print itself being problematic. That's why I didn't want to discuss specifics until I had the disc in  hand... and man, that turned into a far bigger project than I thought it would.

As infuriating as it is to think that the curators of one of the most celebrated and important genre films of the 20th century would think so little of it that they wouldn't use the best elements available - or not even the second best, as minted a decade ago! - long time fans with a fondness for organic, film-like images will still be more pleased with the results offered here than by Anchor Bay or Arrow Video; despite the print itself being of substantially lower quality, the scan is infinitely more film-like for the most part, even if - in this case - "film-like" includes baked in scratches, dirt, flicker, judder, splice warping, pushed contrast, faded color, and every other defect imaginable from a less-than-idea element being brought to Blu-ray. At least the Happinet import has a healthy bitrate hovering in the mid-30s, and there's no obvious vertical filtering, edge enhancement or ghosting/trailing artifacts outside of the final few minutes that I'm not willing to give the benefit of the doubt are the result of optical and chemical processing, rather than digital tomfoolery.

The discs's new 5.1 mix, however, is a fucking joke. Hey kids at home, want to know how to make a surround mix out of a hiss-filled optical track? Echo the mono mix fucking everywhere. To be fair the Extended Cut has never sounded particularly good, and it's unlikely that all of the individual audio elements still exist, but still squatting and letting a phony surround mix congeal in a tightly coiled pool doesn't do much to excite anyone. As with the Zombie Cut, we get an adequate-but-lossy 640 kb/s Dolby Digital track, which I'd recommend. The Anchor Bay Extended DVD likely had its audio pulled from the same analog source, but their efforts to de-hiss the damn thing left a hollow, digital sounding echo thats not much better in my mind.

Optional Japanese subtitles are included, as are a few original trailers. That's... about it. There's also a Japanese dub, but I haven't bothered to check if the soundtrack for the "Extended" scenes implied that individual ME tracks for these scenes exist, because I've spent so much time trying to figure out everything else about this transfer it never even dawned on me. Sorry, friends, but I'm at that rare point of Romero Saturation: If I don't turn my attention towards something else for a week I'm going to only be able to communicate by biting people in the throat - and believe you me, I've already got HR up my ass for that "Casual Friday" fiasco.

 If this is the "New and Improved" master for Dawn of the Dead going forward, I say bide your time and get a substantially cheaper release down the road of whatever cut you most fancy. It's not unthinkable that Shout Factory or Anchor Bay might pop up eventually threatening to out-do the previous Ultimate Edition DVD set, and if they can do it with more bonus material for less cash than the Japanese Anniversary Edition, it might be worth springing for. This may be the best HD master of Dawn of the Dead yet, but it's far from the best master possible, and it sure as hell isn't the master the film deserves.

Rubenstein is sitting on a goddamn gold-mine with this movie if he'd just poke around for the outtakes and footage that's never been released in any of the multiple revisions that've been floating around for 35 years; you want to make a fortune on Dawn of the Dead? Offer up an English version of the 145 minute "Final Cut". Hell, render a CGI mock-up of the original proposed ending. Even that sounds far more appealing than a 3D conversion of a print that's probably older than as I am.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Samuel L. Jackson Presents...

"Why does Samuel L. Jackson always play a black guy?"
- Perhaps the single greatest YouTube comment of 2014.

A full-length trailer and an R-rating ready sizzle reel for the long-delayed live action adaptation of Yasuomi Umetsu's 1998 masterpiece, [A] KITE, is finally upon us. I had assumed this was going to sink into obscurity with the death of director David. R. Ellis, the uh... "visionary" behind Snakes on a Plane and Shark Night*, but when Ellis passed away last January it was completed by Ralph Ziman, who's mostly known for Gangster's Paradise: Jeruselama. No word on who'll be distributing the film yet, but with it having been produced by our friends at The Weinstein Company, it wouldn't surprise me if they release it themselves, at least in North America.

* I mean as little disrespect as possible saying that - you guys know I love garbage. But the man did, honestly, make a movie in which all of this happens.

The results look... about how you'd expect, I'm sure. I have no idea what the budget on this project was, or how much of it was shot before Ellis died, but the fact is this looks like a cheap straight-to-DVD movie I wouldn't give the time of day to, were it not for the fact that it's - technically, at least - a new adaptation of one of my favorite pieces of media ever spawned. The acting isn't looking too hot, and while it's clear the cinematographer was going out of his way to try and emulate Umetsu's original anime, it just comes off as dull and uninspired without the hyper-human movement, excruciating tactile pain, and pop-cultural self awareness that the OVA was so damned good at delivering.

I finally own this damned thing, for the record.
Took me nearly a decade to track one down.

I'm also not sure what the hell Samuel L. Jackson's talking about when he says that Kite has a "Graphic Novel". Umetsu did release a single Mezzo Danger Service Agency manga, adapting the TV series of the loosely affiliated Kite spin-off Mezzo Forte, but the closest thing to a "Kite Graphic Novel" I'm aware of was the short pornographic comic Yasai, which was included in the A Kite: Complete Work Book as a point of comparison, since some of the ideas present in that short wound up in the OVA. I'm not trying to give Sam any shit - he's consistently proven himself to be a cool guy, and is a surprisingly competent actor when he feels like turning off his Jules persona, and I have little doubt that he's a big fan of Black Lagoon and Ninja Scroll - I just have no fucking idea what he's on about, and that's... weird.

I'm also just gonna come out and say it: What the FUCK is up all this parkour bullshit set to Matrix color filters? The only time that was remotely acceptable was in Punisher: Warzone, and if you've seen it, you know why. I wish that I was more into the idea of this being a Financially Ruined Dystopian State, as that sort of thing usually tickles my fancy, but this iteration appears to have distanced her from her captor - Akai in the original, now possibly "Ymir" for the movie? - seems like a wasted opportunity.

Part of the main appeal for me in the OVA was the fact that it looked at the premise of Leon: The Professional and asked the basic question "What if Jean Reno's character wasn't an honorable man?" Sawa's life as a weapon was a tragic one, made all the worse by the fact that she's simply tuning reality out to ignore the obvious truth that the man who takes care of her through her formative years not only murdered her family, but has been using her as a sex slave since she was barely even an adolescent. This is why I can't stand the edited version: It has far less to do with "hot loli action" and more to do with the question of why Sawa continues to stay with Akai if she has the power to deny him in the first place. It's certainly gross, but a believable, fascinating gross that puts Sawa in the position of being forced to stand against the man she sees both as her father and her boyfriend. Worse yet, Akai knows how she sees him and uses it against her at every turn. Removing him from the equation makes Sawa's development much less interesting at a glance...

Pictured: A broken doll who's lost all hope, and a Manic Pixie Assassin Girl.
(They're not much the same other than having a similar design, is the point.)

She's hardly the Sawa we know from Umetsu's universe, is she? Frankly with her gaudy hooker gear and neon wig, she looks more like a shittier Hot Topic version Mikura, and her self-serving and violent attitude are a far cry from the cold, lifeless "Welp, got a job to do." persona Sawa exudes in the Kite OVA. Clearly this is a "costume" the heroine wears to attract predators, a bit like the 'transformation' that takes center stage in Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, but... goddamn it, do yourself a favor and don't invite comparisons like that unless you're a Death Wish 2 level entry. I wouldn't be surprised if whoever was overseeing this project's pre-production decided some inspiration from Mezzo Forte was appropriate, but that just calls into question why they're pretending this is an adaptation of Kite in the first place, instead of an original movie that happens to re-use the exploding bullets concept.

Wait a tic... actually, why are Sawa and Oburi "Japanese" if neither character is Japanese, nor is the story set in anything resembling Japan? I know that's a minor thing that doesn't make much difference in a Sci-Fi setting, but it's always a bit weird to see names kept but not locations. Sort of like how it was always weird that Leonardo "White as 2% Milk" DiCaprio was supposed to play a punk kid named "Kaneda". Actually, the 'punk kid' part might be harder to swallow these days, but I'm getting off track...

India Eisley as... waitasec, Sawa?
We're sure that's who she's...? Oh. Wow.

It's ironic, this hot-pink mess of a character design that looks like a stereotype of what Americans think "Anee May" looks like, as opposed to actually looking anything like Umetsu's largely grounded, hyper-realistic visual sense. Hell, it's actually more obnoxious than the crimson haired oiran in Takashi Miike's Imprint, and he specifically requested that over the top choice because he figured that's how Americans think Japan actually looks!

But whatever, context is everything, and I can't say my hopes for this were ever all that high. I can't with a straight face say this looks any worse than the infamously unbearable Tony Randel directed Fist of the North Star movie, and while this looks bad, at least it doesn't look like it was actively trying to take a dump on the source material, which seemed to have been the driving philosophy behind Dragon Ball: Evolution. And I'd say "Don't forget how bad Devilman was!", but seriously, if you ever saw that god-awful turd, you should repress it hard - harder than that time your "uncle" from across the street taught you how to play Butt Ball in his basement, and then promised he'd stab you in the eyes if you ever told anyone about it.

The premise of Umetsu's OVA - when stripped of its psychological nuance and grim atmosphere, is basically "cute girl assassin who lost her family beats the shit out of larger men with explosive results". If we're lucky, the film will be an inoffensive and disposable ode to its source material that can sit alongside not-particularly-noteworthy live action productions like Shamo, Crying Freeman, and The Guyver: Dark Hero. It's certainly not looking like the next Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, Cutey Honey or even The Wicked City - films that found a way to make their absurd source material work in new and perhaps infuriating ways - but we can rest assured that, if nothing else, it'll be far from the worst of these projects we've ever seen. I mean, shit man, do you remember what a mess that live action Perfect Blue movie was?

Yeah, I grabbed the right cover - why do you ask?

Addendum: Despite the release having been cancelled for about a year now due to the film negatives being heavily damaged, Media Blasters now swears that they've got plans to re-release the Kite OVA on Blu-ray to coincide with the new live action film. They also claim they have "big plans" for Kitty Media in 2014, but refuse to give any actual details beyond that... infuriatingly, they won't say if these two things are directly related, which means we might still get the OVA in HD, but only the butchered "Director's Edit" which removes all of the graphic sex entirely. You all know by now how far we can trust anything John Sirabella says, so I personally refuse to get my panties in a tizzy until RightStuf themselves claim the title is shipping.