Monday, December 05, 2016

Dawn of Ultra-High Definition: PSA on DAWN OF THE DEAD 4K, UHD-TVs, and HDR




WHAT THE HELL DID NICOLAS WINDING REFENDO TO THE POSTER FOR DAWN OF THE DEAD?!

No clue, friends. But that aside, we've got some good news!

For those who may not be aware, Italian label Nightmare Factory is releasing several editions of their all new 4K restoration of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Yes, this release is reported to be Region B locked, and yes, rumor has it that the "restored" transfers will all have forced Italian subtitles - but I'll just have to find out when my copy arrives, won't I?

What you need to know is this: The 4K restoration is the first new transfer minted for Romero's 1978 classic since the Rubenstein Company started their 3D conversion back in 2008, which has so far only been shown in a handful of theatrical screenings. For better or worse, the new Italian handled restoration is based on the 118 minute European cut - "Dario Argento Presents Zombie", if you know the film's convoluted and multinational history - but with Rubenstein having funneled a fortune into a 3D version literally nobody asked for, and reportedly holding the home video rights hostage until he's able to make his money back on a fat license fee, this is probably the only viable alternative we're going to see. If you're a Dawn of the Dead fan and you're craving a state-of-the-art 4K release... this is pretty much the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

For those who aren't exactly fluent in Italiano - and that includes myself - here's what the 4-disc edition contains in a nutshell:
  • - Restored HD version (2016 4K master) of the 118 minute European cut of the film
  • - HD version (2013 master) of the 127 minute American Theatrical cut of the film
  • - HD version (2013 master) of the 133 minute Extended Workprint
  • - Bonus BD with 2.5 hours of new content plus vintage trailers
  • - 5 postcards designed by fans of the film
  • - Booklet

I won't get too in-depth on the bonus features here since... well, it's a safe bet that 90% of them will be in Italian with no English subtitles. The 18 minute interview with Tom Savini will likely be in English, as may the 8 minute introduction by Nicolas Winding Refen (who seems to have gotten the ball rolling in this 4K Remaster project) but I'll be shocked if anything featuring Dario Argento, Claudio Simonetti and so on features any English dialog or subtitles of note. That said, if you already own any of the exhaustive, absurdly special-features packed DVD or Blu-ray releases from the last 12 years and you still need more, I... don't know what you're expecting to find... I'unno, maybe that 8 minute restoration featurette will show some cool Before/After footage?

The 6-disc edition contains all of the above, but adds two very enticing extra discs into the mix:
  • - "4K" UHD-BD of the 118 minute European cut of the film
  • - HD "unrestored" 1.37:1 open-matte version of the European cut
You should also know that there's reportedly a fairly major issue with the 4K Restored Blu-ray which I can only describe as "I-frame pulsing". Basically, every I-frame (once a second or so) is much sharper, and noisier, than the B-frames and P-frames that follow, which have something of a softer, more diffuse look. It's not even that the softness is the problem - it's the inconsistency in the middle of a scene to suddenly "pulse" a sharper frame after and to be followed by a string of more neutral, blurred frames. If you're an autistic crazy person who knows what GOP structure is, you'll instantly know (and probably hate) what you're gonna' see in this set... but, it's impossible to know how bad these things are via stills, so I'll just have to report back when I see it myself in motion.

For those so inclined to import - and can deal with the combination of region lock frustrations and possible forced subtitle shenanigans that always crop up on titles like this - the 4-Disc HD Edition can be had for about $36, and when I pulled the trigger on the 6-Disc 4K Edition it was for just over $50 - and that's with standard shipping included! I'm not getting a dime should you follow those links, I just want the world to know that this exists, and that while there's already talk of some compression annoyances, it's still going to blow the similarly themed Japanese box set out of the water - and that damn thing still sells for about $120!

There's also a 2-disc DVD for those who just straight up hate quality. I have little doubt a non-limited edition of the European remaster will be released next year for a lower price - likely without the American and Extended cuts, of course - but for the sheer volume of content you're actually getting in this particular package, it'd be a little crazy to hold out for something better.

SO DOES THIS MEAN KENTAI'SDOING HIS FIRST 4K REVIEW?!

Sadly, no. But having weighed this one out for weeks, I'd rather take the time to explain why I won't be doing it - and why nobody but those with way too much money to burn should bother, either.

This is primarily because I haven't personally made the jump to "4K"/UHD, and while I've been horrendously tempted to pick up an Xbox One S just to review the 4K disc at 1080p... that would be rather pointless on a lot of levels. As such, I'll be doing a write-up on the BDs, which - considering how many things are wrong with all the HD versions of this film - should still be plenty fascinating to dig through on its' own, anyway.

This is a good time to rant about the current state of UHD, though: To be blunt, the display hardware - while absolutely mouth watering on its' own - simply isn't ready for anyone who actually understands what these displays are (and aren't!) capable of doing. I've been tempted to spend a small fortune on an overpriced OLED and lord it over all of my friends as they huddle around their sad, pathetic, peasant-LED's for warmth... but try as I might, I just can't convince myself it's worth it. Not yet, anyway.

Consider the following a primer of sorts for anyone who's about to take the plunge on a new display. My advice is "wait" - but if you're still dead set on being that guy, I completely understand. At least know what the hell you're getting into.

WHAT'S UP WITH THOSE FANCY
4K ULTRA BLU-RAYS, ANYWAY?

Thankfully, "4K Resolution" itself is pretty straight forward* - double the pixels in width, and height, meaning 3840:2160 UHD has exactly four times the resolution of 1920:1080 HD. The standard also allows for up to 59.94fps, meaning that James Cameron's fantasy of people wanting high refresh rates outside of video games and pornography could be a thing... if, y'know, anyone wants to actually produce content that isn't garbage dramas shot interlaced. (Or Hobbits. I guess.)

* Other than the fact that "4K" is referencing horizontal resolution while "1080p" was referencing horizontal, which literally makes fuck-all sense. Also, 4K spec is 4096 wide, the same way that 2K is 2048 wide, meaning that not only is "4K UHD" not by definition 4K resolution, but that "2K" should be "2K HD" - unfortunately people assume that 2K is inherently better than HD as a result, when pointing out "2K SCAN" vs "HD TELECINE" has more to do with how the image was captured and restored, rather than the actual resolution thereof. Because fuck TV marketing.

UHD-BD has some interesting quirks as a format; not only are discs available in single-layer 50 GB, dual-layer 66 GB and triple-decker 100 GB, but each of those discs has its' own maximum bandwidth limit - 82 Mb/s, 108 Mb/s, and 128 Mb/s respectively! Audio has largely been Dolby Atmos encoded, which is basically a 5.1 mix with metadata to "shift" the individual sounds around a grid of tiny satellite speakers; It's actually pretty cool tech, but completely impractical outside of an actual movie theater with a massive array of speakers installed to cover a wide area. Video - the part that interests me the most, I admit - is now handled by 10-bit HEVC, which - having done some preliminary test encodes myself - I can confirm it holds an almost shocking level of efficiency improvements over Blu-ray's most common codec, AVC, and suspect that in most cases, 100 GB is more than enough for an excellent, reference-quality end-user transfer.

Yes, of course, word is that there are already a handful of UHD-BD's with visible compression issues, and I'm sure that bitrate starved Netflix and Hulu streams will always be disappointing when it comes to grain structure - but if you didn't expect that, you didn't pay much attention to the launch of DVD, Blu-ray, or Netflix HD, did you? There are still some minor disappointments in the spec sheets - video is still subsampled to 4:2:0, and for another there's still "Limited" and "Full" color spaces to confuse and annoy everyone who can instantly tell the difference between PC and TV levels - but honestly, chroma bumped up to a full 1920:1080 is probably enough to satisfy even my crazy self.

But by far, the most promising part of this whole process is the introduction of HDR - or High Dynamic Range. In super-simplistic terms, it means two things; expanded color space, and higher peak luminances (whites). The actual colorspace for Rec. 2020 expands red notably to include those glowing, fire-engine-light reds that Rec. 709 HDTV colorspace simply was never designed to acknowledge, to say nothing of the other-worldly greens that... ironically, nobody's ever seen before in a movie. Seriously, the technology to produce them on a digital screen didn't even until recently exist, so unless you insisted on the most amazingly fabulous bright-ass neon green pride float to ever burst info flames in NoHo live, you've probably never seen colors quite like what 2020 is capable of producing once you hit those outer reaches of the gamut.


Thanks for the visual aide, Google Image Search!

It's worth noting that for these colors to even exist as a spectrum of light the human eye can see, there has to be a lot of light being pushed out by the display - considerably more light than we've ever had on consumer or even public exhibition screens until quite recently.

So... where's the problem? Kentai's down for 10-bit color, and this Deep Color stuff is pretty rad, right? Mo' Reds, Mo' Greens, and screens so bright you'll go blind - what's not to love?! Well... there's a couple things really chaffing my HDR boner, and if you've looked into it as long as I have you'll feel thoroughly cuckolded by the mistress of Rec. 2020 yourself.

PROBLEM NUMER ONE:
NOBODY EVEN USES THOSE DAMN COLORS!!

To put this another way; have you ever looked at a movie and went, man, this scene is visually stunning - but if only there were deeper, more vivid greens? Well... I mean, maybe you have.  But to Rec. 709's credit, it's basically covered the overwhelming majority of the blue spectrum humans are capable of seeing, and while red can certainly be improved, the only major gains we get are in the side of the color spectrum that we associate with... golf courses. Dramatic lighting tends to be white, blue or red, and while higher color fidelity will lead to greater visual contrast in some titles and subtle improvements on things like color banding for pretty much everything, this is very much a subtle refinement in 95% of real-world uses.

Arguably, though, Rec. 2020 is a bit less important than DCI-P3, which was a color space specifically made to capture every possible color range of 35mm film. Well, more relevant as far as movies are concerned, anyway - I'm thinking of the obnoxiously saturated colors in games like the DOOM reboot and salivating at what might be with a new HDR profile...

Many titles in the initial batch of UHD-BDs - The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and so on - were all, seemingly at least, re-graded from scratch specifically to show off how vibrant and pretty and magical this new format was. Stuff released by Sony... wasn't. Pineapple Express was hardly the sort of title I expected from the first wave, but a decent one to show that even with all the expanded color in the world, a movie shot with a drab, overcast visual style is always going to be a drab, overcast movie. I imagine the world will be surprised to see that the inevitable UHD-BD release of Caddyshack doesn't glow like the primary heavy hues of an X-rated Ralph Bakshi cartoon, but these are things that people will slowly figure out on their own.

They were all HDR enhanced transfers, make no mistake, and there's a difference in just how vibrant those titles can get in terms of red and green and particularly highlights on the bright end of the grayscale, but the difference is subtle refinements and increased fidelity in things like traffic lights and grass lawns - not show stopping crazy neon explosions. I have little doubt that young and enterprising film makers will make full use of these new expanded colors over time, but for now, this is basically just additional chroma headroom for your favorite movies; nice to have, sure, but the odds of you noticing a huge difference, even during an A/B comparison, aren't that bloody likely.

PROBLEMO NUMERO DUE:
THE DISPLAYS JUST... AREN'T THERE YET

Even if we assume that P3 is more important than 2020, there isn't yet a consumer level device capable of displaying that entire range of color yet anyway. Even when properly calibrated and setup, there will be a point of roll-off where the brightest green simply stops short of the full range of signal. The main reason for this is - assuming the hardware all down the chain is capable of accepting the full signal to begin with - to generate a wider color gamut, you need to produce a brighter peak white to carry the wavelength the color exists in.

TV manufacturers love to talk about wide color and High Dynamic Range and all the amazing stuff their new models can do that the competition can't - yet they're always oddly hesitant to talk about the actual cd/m2 rating -or number of "Nits" produced - because they know even the high-end OLED and LCD screens out there fall damn short of the recommendations by a wide margin. Simply put, if you're watching an SDR screen calibrated to the industry standard of 100 Nits, the brightest, deepest blue is only going to be 7 Nits and be pretty fucking dull - but if you're watching on a high quality OLED screen with a maximum output of 800 Nits, you suddenly have 56 different stops of blue to play with before maxing out. So it's not just the brightest, peak blue - it's all the subtle gradations between the light baby blue of the sky of early morning, and the deep hues of midnight that'll have a new level of depth to them.

For the time being, any OLED TV labeled HDR has to have a maximum output of 800 Nits, while any LCD with the label has to output 1,200 Nits - but even that's only on miniscule highlights, where a full screen of white is notably dimmer for both. The reason they have different scales is because OLED can actually turn individual pixels off, giving it greater perceived contrast than LCD, even with a lower light output. That said, both technology are fudging this stuff - OLED have the Automatic Brightness Limiters the same as Plasma, which means that while a small reflection can have a crazy high light output, a full fade-to-white will be substantially lower, and you can watch the whole screen dim as large, bright colored objects come into frame. LCD uses local-area based dimming, which... well, kinda' sucks, but in a completely different way.

In both cases, however, they all pale to a reference Dolby grading monitor that outputs a terrifying 4,000 Nits! We're likely not going to see that for home use until we come up with some crazy new technology to power it, sadly, but mentioning the word "Dolby" brings up the other big stinker in this new tech:

問題三:
THERE'S AN ALL NEW,  EXCITING FORMAT WAR!

Without delving into I-could-be-compromising-NDA's-here territory, I don't mind saying that my day job consists of a lot of transcoding-server-based wizardry that'd come off as mundane and even disappointing to most readers - developing templates to convert one kind of file into another, automating broadcast friendly audio normalization to different international specs, dumb stuff like that. But the 4K content rollout happening right now has left me to be the front line in telling clients who want to get their feet wet what we can and can't give them, and holy hell, has it been equal parts enlightening and infuriating to follow.

The short version is that because each TV has different color and light capabilities, they've developed what they call "PQ" - or Perceptual Quantization - to make sure every display is capable of displaying the movie as closely as possible to what the graded master was intended to be shown at. In other words, the source media is always encoded as Rec. 2020, but a metadata setting tells the TV what levels it was graded at - so if the movie was graded on a 3,000 cd/m2 (or "3,000 Nits") monitor and your TV can only handle 1,200 Nits, it'll actually shrink the color gamut/dynamic range by 60% so that you keep as much of the color as possible without resorting to clipping and blowing things out of proportion. This includes values for absolute red, green and blue data as well, which means the chroma and luma of the signal are scaled to the appropriate points separately - which means if your TV can't handle the maximum brightness but it can handle the maximum red, it's not going to compromise one for the other.

It's actually a really, really cool idea, and having seen demos of it in action, I can say that PQ is a damn fine thing. Now, my understanding of HDR is that even if the color never falls outside of Rec. 709 (or P3), the contrast between black and white is effectively infinite, and only limited by the display itself. This, admittedly, makes the lack of HDR enhancement on the DotD 4K release something of a missed opportunity, but considering both how niche this title is nearly 40 years later, and how experimental the hardware is, I can almost forgive seasoned professionals not familiar with HDR for not bothering to dive into the new format incorrectly, and instead focusing on delivering the best quality SDR presentation they know how to... particularly when you factor in that, even with current HDR content, the average brightness between an HDR and SDR output is typically comparable - it's just got a lot more dynamic range, which lets you not clip highlights and crush shadows while still staying within the realistic 500~1,000 cd/m2 light output of the average consumer TV.

...SO, WHERE'S THAT WAR, EXACTLY?

The bigger problem is that there's different kinds of HDR Metadata. The two most common right now are HDR10, and Dolby Vision - the former has fixed coordinates, meaning the whole movie has a max output for each color from start to finish, while the latter is a dynamic solution, meaning each scene can be tweaked individually to compensate for low lighting - say, making sure a camp fire is displayed properly alongside the following scene taking place on an overcast afternoon. Adjusting PQ on a shot-per-shot is great, particularly when it comes to downscaling HDR content back to SDR - something you could easily do via algorithmic automation on a Dolby Vision master since it would scale everything right down to the Rec. 709 limit, but would require plenty of hand-holding on an HDR10 source to avoid crushed shadow detail and clipped highlights.

So what's the industry standard? There... really isn't one - and certainly not a permanent one. Oh sure, the Society of Motion Picture abd Television Engineers (SMPTE) put their stamp of approval on HDR10, but Netflix is 100% behind Dolby Vision, which requires hardware on the display that knows how to handle the dynamic metadata outside of apps. Samsung knows that Dolby Vision's dynamic properties are here to stay, so they're currently working on an open-source dynamic equivalent to Dolby's equivalent,.. but whether it'll require all new hardware or be shunned due to partnerships with Dolby is anyone's guess. (There's also rumor that HDR10 Metadata is limited to 1,000 Nits, but having seen it for myself I can tell you that's certainly not true. It is limited to 10-bit, however, while Dolby Vision is up to 12-bit.)

That's before we even talk about Hybrid Log Gamma, a really clever method to make HDR content backward-compatible with SDR hardware without any Metadata at all - it just outputs a fixed (pair of) gamma curves, and trusts that the device it's being fed to is calibrated somewhere in the ballpark of "correct". The downside is that it features no PQ, which means all levels have to be fixed on a static 1,000 Nit scale. That doesn't sound terrible at first, since most displays on the market are only hitting about 800~1,100 Nits anyway, but as it's only being used for what could charitably be called experimental broadcasts in Europe for the time being it's all kind of a moot point... for now.

Odds are there would be more support for it if the only thing that used it wasn't VP9, but word is H265 will be implementing HLG profiles for 2017, so buckle up kids - this shit's just getting started.

Праблема нумар чатыры:
3D BASICALLY FUCKED 4K FROM THE START

Even with all the exciting changes in perceptual contrast and color gamut... there's also the limitation of the resolution itself. Namely the fact that most Hollywood movies finished over the last 15 years or so are limited to 2K resolution.

Let me clarify that for a second: Despite professionals slowly but surely moving towards digital photography as a more cost-effective and (arguably) flexible atlernative to celluloid, movies are still - by and large, at least - shot on 35mm film. These days, 35mm is typically scanned in at 4K and then edited on a digital image sequence called a DI - or "Digital Intermediate". Despite confusing naming conventions surrounding it, 2K 1.78 is exactly the same resolution as 1080p HD - 1920:1080 - and since virtually all 2K sources will ultimately be seen on Blu-ray or HD streaming anyway, the difference between 2K and HD is really negligible, at best.

The only reason it's been sononymous with "Better Than HD" for some time is because of the difference between an HD Telecine - that is a real-time transfer of 35mm to HD video - and a 2K scan to uncompressed DPX image files, which are then graded and assembled on a 2K DI. In short, the "scan" part of the "2K Scan" is the important distinction - not the resolution itself.

Things get more complicated when you talk about a modern movie - something like, say, The Martian. While more or less every shot of Matt Damon was shot on 35mm film, it was then scanned into a digital file, and placed on a DI for digital effects matting, and even for grading and general clean-up on shots filmed entirely on-set. Those scans may well have been scanned at 4K, but the DI itself - which gets differing resolutions from different cameras, post houses and so on - is at 2K. Even if the 2K DI was kept (which may or may not be the case), all of the color grading and effects compositing was done at 2K resolution, meaning the ultimate digital file that represents the final output of the movie is limited to 2K.

"But wait!" I hear some of you thinking. "Isn't THE MARTAIN already out on UHD-BD?" It sure is! But the dirty little secret is that Fox didn't actually re-create the entire movie in 4K. They simply went back to that same 2K DI source and upscaled it by 4X to produce a faux-UHD master. To be fair, upscaling HD to UHD is a much less butt-ugly process than upscaling SD to HD... but it still isn't "really" 4K. And that's what about half of the supposedly "4K" UHD titles kicking around in the market right now are. Crazy, right?

...WAIT, ARE YOU SERIOUS?!
FUCK! I'M SO MAD I'M SKIPPING NUMBERS.

Dead. Fuck'n. Serious.

But it's hard to blame them in some cases, I admit. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD - another early "4K" home video release - was shot entirely on Arri Alexa cameras at 2.8K resolution (2880:1620), and then scaled down to a 2K DI. So even if the 4K transfer was re-rendered from scratch, the resolution shot on location was never full 4K resolution to start with.

It's understandable that all-digital movies would be limited to 2K, but why the limitation on 35mm sourced films? The short answer is "3D". Unless a movie was actually shot using 3D cameras, you're basically having people manually trace and rotoscope individual objects in post to add depth, and that means you need multiple layers of the same footage. And since this is a process done effectively at the last minute, and is also the way most Hollywood blockbusters make guaranteed extra money at the box office, it's seen as a necessary evil... even by directors like Guillermo del Toro and Zack Snyder, who are about as open in their disgust for the process as they're allowed to be before the producers give them a talking-to about shitting on the profit margins.

So why not just use 4K DI's? The short answer is that it's just not feasible to do it for all projects on the sort of turn-around time expected of a feature film - and it will have a sizable impact on budget, even if it's a fraction of the overall cost. It comes down to raw resources, and if you're a Hollywood producer who's trying to maximize profits, and the tech guy in the office says that 2K work is a lot cheaper than 4K work, odds are that's the first thing that's getting axed. This is why despite Sony scanning everything at 4K to get the most out of the raw scan possible, we get full 4K restorations of Taxi Driver but a title like Fright Night is scaled down to 2K for further clean-up and grading - the higher resolution scanning is baked into the cost of having the hardware to do it, but taking the time and bandwidth to continue working in 4K adds up pretty quick. As an example, a feature length 2K master of a 90 minute film will take up about 1.5 TB of disk space alone! A 4K DI has four times the resolution, and yes, will take up four times that space, to say nothing of the added strain on whatever network is forced to decode that much raw bullshit at any given time.

SO, BIGGER FILE SIZES...
SO WHAT? JUST, MAKE 'EM BIGGER?

For better or worse, I spend every day dealing with network latency, side-eyeing mismatched source content and queueing up transcodes for both production and delivery purposes on a server that was effectively built to handle HD material in real-time. Think of it this way: Even when all you're doing is jamming cuts of meat down a conveyor belt into a meat grinder, suddenly cramming four times as much meat into the same sized pipes is gonna' cause all sorts of panic you, and the rest of your team, simply aren't ready for. You've got three seasons of SD content? Beautiful, spread the cheeks on that thing and go to town. You've got THREE 4K source files?! We're basically fucked the rest of the day, and anything not-4K-related that you expect to get out the door by 5 is going to require a very special request.

Even if your goal is simply to take the finished master and convert it to 3D, keep in mind that conversion is effectively rotoscoping, and multiple people are going to be working on the same title at the same time, and the bandwidth required to hit the same 6TB file from multiple workstations is ridiculous. It can be done - native 4K DI's for titles ranging from The Smurfs 2 to Elysium are proof enough - but if 3D is part of the picture, it's barely worth the expense, and allows you to farm work out to multiple, less insanely equipped sub-studios. There is, technically, "4K 3D IMAX" in select theaters... which are always, without exception, upscaled from the 2K 3D masters even if a 4K master for the "Flat" version exists.

The process of rendering a full length movie is often simply too data-intensive (ie: "too expensive") to justify doing at resolutions beyond 2K. The market for higher-quality 3D is already negligible, and quite frankly, the overwhelming majority of consumers are so clueless they wouldn't know the difference between 720p and 2K - forget HD and UHD. Hollywood caters to the lowest denominator with the biggest payout... which happens to be 2K 3D. The saddest part of this reality is that while I'm not thrilled at the idea of purchasing a 2K DI sourced movie in "upscaled 4K", the added benefits to H265 compression, PQ contrast and HDR color are enough to get me to at least consider buying the more expensive version, even if I don't have a fucking display that'd know what to do with any of it yet. The fact that virtually all UHD-BDs released so far include a "Restored in 4K" Blu-ray copy only makes that jump a little easier to swallow.

In short, 2K DI was easy to convert to 3D, which means nobody wants to invest in 4K DI. Weak.

BUT WHAT ABOUT OLDER MOVIES?!
TELL ME OLDER MOVIES ARE OKAY...

Anything finished on 35mm can be re-scanned at 4K. Otherwise I'd be warning you about Dawn of the Dead rather than throwing fitty bones at it. But realistically, the leap between 2K resolution and 4K resolution is probably going to be quite a bit more subtle in most cases. Most sane people don't sit within 6 feet of a 55" TV, and the real-world gains in resolution are going to be pretty subtle. If anything, the most obvious improvements will come from the variable block-sizes and 10-bit refinement of H265 as a codec... but neither of those things actually needed higher resolution to begin with. Much like "2K" vs "HD", the difference has more to do with the mastering process than the actual output resolution. 4K is better, make no mistake, but it's also not why most 4K masters are a dramatic improvement on dated HD scans on its' own. That's why the "Remastered in 4K" versions of Ghostbusters and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man looked so much better than the prior Blu-ray releases, even at 1080p resolution.

Don't get me wrong, you should buy 4K restorations of classic films if you have the money to taste. But the market is going to be even smaller than Blu-ray has already become, and I have a feeling the titles we see are going to be titles that the guys running the labels know will sell, and titles they happen to love personally. Dawn of the Dead is something of an outlier, and I fully expect the majority of 4K movies to be trash nobody would ever actually want to watch outside of penance.


WAIT, WHAT ABOUT THAT NEW PS4...

I may talk about the PS4 Pro in another post. Short version is it isn't really 4K, just clever upscaling and some supersampling for any schmucks buying this for playback at 1080p (complete with frame-drops not featured on the base hardware!), but for $400, it's "close enough" to UHD resolution.

Holding aside the Metadata and Display Gamut nonsense, one of the few times where that crazy expanded colorspace really would be an amazing boon would be video games. Digital creations aren't limited by 35mm exposure, in-camera sensors or available local lighting, and the thought of the boiling reds and alien greens in something like, say, the 2016 DOOM reboot with enhanced grayscale and color fidelity could be absolutely brilliant if done properly - and a handful of PS4 and Xbox One games already have full HDR support, even on the older-model consoles, though of course as displaying HDR samples on SDR monitors is pretty much impossible there aren't many useful A/B comparisons floating around yet...

The issue, however, is how HDTV's handle those signals. Most displays process incoming footage in different ways - upscaling, deinterlacing, color correction and so on - and in the case of movies, it... doesn't really matter. In virtually all cases movies are shot, edited and shown at 23.98fps and play at a locked framerate from start to finish. No problems there. Anyone who plays games - well, anyone who plays shooters, rhythm games, anything where instantly reacting to game stimuli is required - will know that reflexes are important... but also rendered completely fucking moot if your display has any major input lag.

Back in the days of NTSC CRT, there was no delay to speak of - the input was virtually instantaneous to the analog connection - but HDTV's and now, UHD displays, require time to properly process whatever signal they're being fed. Most game consoles and anyone gaming on PC that isn't using a specialty designed high framerate monitor is locked to 60fps (well, 59.94Hz if you wanna get technical) which means there's exactly 16.66ms between each frame. Theoretically. Slowdown and frame-pacing are a thing, but let's ignore that for the time being and just say that a great TV will give you one frame of delay, while an average TV will give you about two frames worth. And, yes, video game mechanics themselves are slower now than they were a decade ago to account for this phenomenon, if you can believe it.

*SMUG SNORT!* PC MASTER RACE HERE, PEASANT!
I GET A HUNDRED FRAMES PER SECOND. ON ULTRA.

Yes, you do. And all of that is irrelevant when discussing delay, because it's based on actual milliseconds going into the display. Desktop style monitors typically have ~15ms delay these days, even on cheap garbage monitors, but you're never gonna' get that sweet, sweet HDR profile for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on a 1440p screen that runs 144hz, now are ya?

And yes, I've recently upgraded to a GTX 1080. Feels good to play 2160p, even if it's currently being scaled down a 1080p. What is aliasing, again?

When you buy a TV and you know you're going to play games on it, you probably set it to "Game" or even "PC" input. Why? Because that disables plenty of the internal processing and lets you get data in as fast as humanly possible. ~33ms is typically as good as a large display is going to get, and is fairly playable at anything that isn't a competitive shooter or fighting game - but anything after that is going to introduce an obvious delay that could be annoying at best, and unplayable at worst. The only monitors with better response times tend to be smaller desktop monitors that forego a lot of the basic conveniences of "TVs" - nothing wrong with that, but if you're sitting 2 feet away, you probably don't want a 55" UHD monitor to start with. (Well, I do. But I also want a three foot erection that breathes fire, so grain of salt there.)

With all that in mind, let's remember that UHD with HDR is not only feeding four times the resolution and an expanded gamut over the same connection as an HD master, but it's also got to equate the HDR metadata so the image is displayed properly. In other words, HDR was designed to be used for movies more than games, and the hardware implementation reflected that... at the expense of games being actually playable. While plenty of TVs have had firmware updates to speed up response times, plenty of sets still have over 60ms of response time - or about  a 4 frame delay - while Sony's current Bravia line - the one marketed as the "Perfect Match" for the PS4 Pro, no less! - has over 100ms of lag on UHD with HDR enabled. In other words, it's fucking unplayable.

To be fair, a lot of current models have had firmware updates that dramatically cut down on input lag once proper diagnostics by third parties. For the love of Pete, always check Rtings.com, though I assume the first generation or two of HDR sets (which'll probably be really cheap if you can find them kicking around) are never going to be updated, largely because people who do play games don't dive in when it's crazy expensive and can burn-in like a mother. Ask anyone

Even so, the fact that this wasn't even a consideration is shocking to me. Truly, if there's one thing I want out of a $1,500~5,000 TV, it's for my natural shitty skill at vidya to be exponentially amplified by a full tenth of a second. I need to respawn in every room six times on Ultra Violence anyway, so the last thing I need is to have the game trailing behind my obvious lack of skill.


I'll stop mentioning Doom 2016 when I'm damn good and ready to.

SO... WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN IN THE END?
IS KENTAI SAYING -DON'T- GET 4K HARDWARE?

Light output needs to improve before the colorspace is ever going to reach P3 levels (with "100% Rec. 2020" being science goddamn fiction for the foreseeable future), and unfortunately edge-lit LEDs - the cheap, lightweight garbage people love to waste money on - aren't capable of that to begin with. Despite being incredibly pretty, OLED isn't as bright as a full on baclit LED (yet). As the tech improves and the price comes down, it'll start to be feasible to have both full-P3 and at least 1,200 Nits - which, from any sane perspective, should have always been the bare minimum for "HDR". Instead it's being used as a gimmick to separate the cheap 4K sets from the expensive 4K sets, which is fucking deplorable.

There's nothing wrong with a 4K SDR monitor, and I've considered getting one myself - but the HDR monitors that are available right now are so bare minimum, it kinda' makes me want to have no part of this shitshow until the 2017 models have locked horns long enough to get at least a 100% P3/1,200 Nit standard. Maybe by then the HDR Metadata will have been figured out, too - though I wouldn't get my hopes up on Streaming and Disc having a single, unified standard, much as that would make
every consumer's life a lot easier.

Unless you get a crazy good deal on something really, really good, I say save your money for another year. The tech has to mature, and it's only going to get cheaper anyway, and unlike Blu-ray and the PS3 a decade ago, the Xbox One S just... isn't an appealing enough console to justify getting as a cheap media player with games. Not for someone with no love for Halo and Gears of War, at least.

As for the Dawn of the Dead box, we'll have to talk about that another day.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Persecution Of The Masses: Kentai Reviews SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

DISCLAIMER: Remember friends, ALWAYS make sure you're signed into the right Google account when combining previous identities into a shiny new one.

As deeply frustrated as I've been at the glacial pace director Hideaki ANNO has taken with the "Renewal of Evangelion" project, I'm not without sympathy; good films take time to create, and love them or loathe them, the new Evangelion films have some of the most spectacular traditional animation the world has to offer. With three out of four films having been released in 2007, 2009 and 2012 - in Japan, anyway - it seemed reasonable that he would spend the next three to four years finishing off the reboot of what's easily his most beloved and viable franchise. In other words, we're due for the final chapter, and at long last Neon Genesis Evangelion can be put to rest alongside Aim for the Top! Gunbuster as "Complete". Which, incidentally, is still more than we can say for the Evangelion manga.


Director Anno HIDEAKI/庵野 秀明, circa 2014.

Things are never quite that simple, though, are they? After a commercial and critical success was found in Gareth Edwards' Legendary Pictures' produced 2014 Godzilla film - a serious, heavy film that seemed to be made to wash away the perceived sins of the self-aware 1998 Roland Emmerich film of the same name - Toho Studios admitted their biggest star ever was coming out of retirement for a 2016 release. What wasn't revealed until several months later was that none other than Hideaki ANNO had teamed up with Shinji HIGUCHI - best known as the director of practical effects for the trilogy of 90s Gamera films, but most recently the director of the live action Attack on Titan films - to direct a full on reboot of the Gojira monster, with Anno himself in full control of the film.

The "International" title given to the project was Godzilla Resurgence, but in typical weeb fashion, literally no-one called it anything but "Shin Godzilla", until FUNimation Films announced they were using the original Japanese title as-is. It's worth noting that the title itself, シン・ゴジラ, is written in simplified, phonetic katakana; this isn't because the film is aimed at children, but because the meaning of "Shin" in the context of a title could mean a lot of things: New, True, and Holy all use the same phonetic reading Anno chose, and the fact that it isn't directly clarified appears to be completely intentional.

Yes, I'm still salty that we're probably not going to see Evangelion 4.444: We Do [Not] Know When To Quit until at least 2018 as a result. But to say my curiosity on the new monster movie  we were getting was piqued would be an understatement...


The non-Legendary Legend.

It's no secret that Anno has always been a fan of kaiju films, or even that Evangelion's core development process revolved around trying to equate the fanciful, physically impossible nature of giant monsters into a somewhat more scientifically grounded existence, and it could be easily argued that the EVA units themselves are some of the most iconic giant monsters in Japan's long and colorful history of animation. The film is in many ways a thematic successor to the action sequences he brought to life in Evangelion over 20 years ago, and it's only fair to acknowledge that one thing likely lead directly back to the other.

It's also worth noting - without delving too far into spoiler territory, of course - that Anno's film isn't "just" another monster mash. While the Toho films are now rightly regarded as silly camp catering to a young audience with over-the-top costumes and silly practical effects, it's worth remembering that the original 1954 film, directed by Ishiro HONDA, is about as serious and grim as a 1950's B-movie about a nuclear dinosaur was ever going to get. Godzilla was such a popular character he became something of a superhero through the 60s - to the point where even the somewhat dour, mostly monochrome Hollywood reboot gave him a grotesque, dangerous insect nemesis, just to cast him as the "good guy" to the audience.

The original film was substantially more nihilistic, suggesting the appearance of Gojira itself was the direct result of the continued testing of the hydrogen bomb in Japanese waters, and the combination of his blistered skin, atomic breath and destructive presence that turns Tokyo into a literal sea of fire all give the original film an obvious, allegorical bend to the monster being a not-too-subtle reference to the atomic bombings that forever altered Japan's culture, politics and identity.

I bring all of this up because unlike every other single Toho produced Godzilla film... this is a total reboot of the concept. This is the first time Godzilla has been seen by the world, effectively allowing Anno to reinstate Godzilla as the force of nihilistic destruction he was initially envisioned as. And if you think Anno's obsession with literal, biblical apocalypses isn't going to factor into his presentation of Godzilla, you might want to stick with Gareth Edwards and his reptilian bear.

Not being a press critic, I was happy to go to a limited theatrical screening of Shin Godzilla on opening night... but how does the film hold up? As always, I'll warn you when MAJOR SPOILERS are coming, though between the combination of familiar framework and very unexpected execution, I'd argue that the less you know going in, the better.

THE LITERAL POLITICS

(MOSTLY SPOILER FREE)


For those who's only live action point of reference is Anno's live action Cutie Honey movie, you can relax; Shin Godzilla has some of the same inappropriate and self-aware humor that defined what was essentially a parody of the Go Nagai character, but Shin Godzilla ultimately has far too much reverence and understanding of what makes a Godzilla movie tick to not get it mostly right. That said, the almost purely political nature of the story places it closer to something like Doctor Strangelove than Pacific Rim, which I can see either confusing or annoying plenty of viewers who just wanted to see a Japanese dude in a rubber suit stomping all over Tokyo for some kitschy fun. Anno's film is a lot of positive things, but taking cues from both the original 1954 Ishiro HONDA film and his own literally apocalyptic fascinations, he crafts a narrative that's more about compromising for the inevitable rather than preventing it, told from the point of view of exasperated and confused people who can't afford to be idealistic. But I suppose anyone who knows what Evangelion or Gunbuster is and expected a "normal" kaiju movie is just being silly.


Sure hope you like conference rooms.
And subtitles telling you which conference room...

It's not a monster movie so much as a disaster movie with a political lens, with the rampaging titan of the title being the disaster itself - Godzilla becomes a none too subtle allegory for Anno's - and indeed, a large subset of Japan's - frustration with their own governmental role, showing politicians moving from room to room during a live emergency strictly on protocol,  and assuring the people everything's going to be okay and their top scientists - who in reality made an off handed thought - that there's no way the unidentified creature can come up on land... only for one of his aide's to come up and whisper in his ear that yeah, he's already on land. The images of flooded streets and ruined buildings are a none too subtle reminder of the Tohoku 3/11 tsunami a little over five years ago, and as if to quell any doubt that Anno's taking a jab at the real-world politics criticized savagely for taking too long to do anything helpful, he even has the Prime Minister don a rescue worker uniform while staying perfectly safe in his office and giving press conferences. The real tragedy is that while the film acknowledges that Japan's current bureaucracy is too bloated and complex to efficiently deal with an emergency situation, it still tries to treat those elected officials as people who are simply out of their depth, rather than full on Kubrickian parodies of political agendas.

One thing that works surprisingly well about the film is that - unlike its' 2014 cousin, in which we're robbed of Breaking Bad far too early to spend most of the film with Kick-Ass - there is no hero here. No self insert for the audience to feel like they're part of the action. The film ultimately focuses slightly-more on Hiroki HASEGAWA, the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary - a particularly fancy way to say "note taker for the clusterfuck", really - who's not quite old enough for his obvious intelligence to get respected, or his solution-oriented mindset to cut through the red tape surrounding him on all sides. Yutaka TAKENOUCHI plays the Prime Minister's Aide, ultimately being the filter from the politics to the audience as much as to our DCC Secretary; he knows it's a ridiculous and infuriating song and dance to get the many to lean in one direction, but he also knows the weight of the bureaucracy will crush itself with a little law and order, leaving him to whisper in the old man's ear about what's what, and ultimately - arguably - wields the ultimate power in most situations.


Pictured: NERRRRRRRRDS!
(Also: Shinya TSUKAMOTO!)

Scientists, soldiers and politicians all share the ultimate course of the battlefield, and it becomes clear the reak schism is not between those who want lure him away versus destroy him outright, but between the young upstarts who just want to find a solution and the elders of the previous generation who are so used to dragging their feet and protecting their positions of limited power, they can't adapt when a real emergency creeps up behind them. How much of any of this will be interesting may well be tired to how little the average non-Japanese viewer knows about Japanese politics - of which, admittedly, my interest is mild at best. Anno's script has been accused of being right leaning, and while that's not entirely untrue, Japan has been a fascinating case study for some time: "Post-War never ends" one character laments, disgusted at Japan's lack of military autonomy in the case of their absolute worst-case scenario, their reliance on other nations for capital and the fact that a handful of young, innovate people will be holding up the cowardly old fogies, potentially for the rest of their lives; It ain't subtle, but it seems reasonable, and the characters are all just aware of their position enough to give it a little levity to keep it from feeling too dire.

Let's not kid ourselves, there's some obvious nationalism going on, to say nothing of the pot-shots taken at Korea, Russia and the States - with the American presence being filled in largely by the lovely Satomi ISHIHARA, who plays Kayaco Anne Peterson, the Japanese Special Envoy to the President of the United States. There's been some rumblings for the film being "right wing", but I don't really see it; if anything the old guard explains that without being open to globalization and allegiances with old enemies in times of crisis, we're all apt to crush ourselves under a lack of capital and resources. Pride in your homeland isn't worth much if it's reduced to a smoking crater. Even the holy rhetoric enacted by Emperor Hideko TOJO is criticized outright, which is the sort of thing you wouldn't expect from blatant pro-military traditionalist propaganda; if anything, I suspect that most American critics who are also aware of Japan's place in the political landscape simply lean left themselves, and are surprised when the film throws ideas from both sides of the aisle in a desperate attempt not to placate any one audience, but to face facts: Japanese Bureaucracy doesn't always work, and nobody has a simple way fix it completely.

Back to Peterson, her role is somewhat more interesting than I expected - a native born American in personality and ambition, but Japanese in both ancestry and culture - which leaves her conflicted as shit starts to edge toward the fan and leaves her torn between the love of her grandmother's country, and her own political gain. I figured I'd hate her the moment I saw her, but in the end she's kind of endearing... unfortunately, her obviously phonetic Engrish is terrible. I mean it's understandable, which is better than some Japanese actors I've watched spew nonsense syllable salad, but an American, who lives in America, in politics? Are you kidding me?

Yeah, I know. It's a nitpick nobody but native English speakers (who are hardly the target audience) are going to be annoyed by, but... it's still pretty bad.


Our leads.
(Mostly. I guess?)

It'd also be unfair to talk about a Hideaki Anno film without mentioning the presentation; the film's cast is constantly moving, being expanded and shuffled from place to place as new details come to light, which means that subtitles are almost always on-screen in Japanese, giving the viewer some new nugget of context. Camerawork get more frenetic as plans come together, or the audience is only allowed to peek out from dense legal text explaining why the plan won't get approved in the first place; for a film in which the majority of the run time are guys in suits grumbling back and fourth over how absurd their suggestions are due to walls of red tape and a lack of resources on hand, the presentation is about as dynamic and engaging as it was ever going to get. It's not as memorable looking as Cutie Honey, sadly, but I try to picture the monster of this film being "2.5D" as Honey herself was and... then I just don't know how to feel anymore.

The soundtrack, composed largely by Shiro SAGISU, is also as eclectic and beautiful as you'd expect, with the operatic original tracks - including "Persecution of the Masses" and "Who Will Know", tracks that can only be described as operatic. It goes another direction, too, which we'll get into shortly, but all of the original pieces - even those fans of Anno will be intimately familiar with - are fantastic. Anno knows how to use a full surround stage to great effect, and if for no other reason, I'd say see this in a theater just to hear how amazing things are when things start to go downhill for humanity.

In short, Shin Godzilla offers fans a very polished and absolutely unexpected reboot of one of cinema's most iconic antiheroes. I don't think everyone will love it, nor perhaps should they, but Anno seems to have crafted an intense and one-of-a-kind film that's best described as a political thriller with a grotesque sense of humor over its' walking disaster. Yes, it's a dialogue heavy movie less about characters than about ever changing conflict, but considering how much everyone and their mother hated the "dumb action" focused Roland Emmerich movie, this may well be the ideal alternative. It's a fine film, and one that's going to be hotly debated and derided by long time fans of the iconic monster - and not without reason.

To be fair a lot of people hated Emmerich for screwing with Godzilla himself, and hey, about that...



THE METAPHORICAL MONSTER

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)


Anno has been making kaiju movies in the form of giant robot anime since the 1980s, so I had little doubt he'd figure out how to make this work. What I DIDN'T expect was for Godzilla, the iconic King of the Monsters, to make his first full appearance as the "Monster A Form" - a bloated muppet impression of a moray eel with stubby legs and pulsating and bleeding gills, dragging his googly-eyed face along the city streets like a literal fish out of water who's had about two drinks too many. 

Dubbed "Kamata-kun" - evidently a pun I don't follow on the legendary Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent referenced later in the film (subtitled as "Hydra" by the official English translation) - it's infuriatingly stupid watching that gore-spewing amphibious turkey terrorize the populace... and I fucking loved it! Plenty of people won't, and while I know the decision was done to be divisive, I just can't comprehend why we expected any different. It's such an inversion of expectations, such a dick move to pull on such an iconic design that it was built solely to incite fury and confusion, and as far as trolling the audience goes, it may well have set the gold standard. The fact that this absurd fever dream of an introduction is set to the powerful operatic score only enhances how gloriously stupid it all is.

Of course, Shin Godzilla doesn't stay this way for long; after realizing that upward mobility and forearms are required for traversing the world of man, he simply reaches a point where his entire body starts to ripple and instantly mutates into a newer, larger, more mobile form. I'm actually a bit disappointed how brief the Tyrannosaurus shape is on screen for, but the mere sight of him changing the shape and even mass of his body at will is such an unexpected and bizarre sight, I'm fine with the execution overall. There's also something to be said about Godzilla transforming from an awkward sea creature, to a literal dinosaur, to a humanoid monster that uses nuclear firepower as its' final and most horrifying form. I won't lie, I'd have been thrilled to see a few additional "in-between" forms just to satisfy my transforming monster lust, but what we have is a largely logical blueprint... and besides, the subtle shift we get in the third act - to say nothing of the surprise waiting for us in the final shot of the film - suggest other directors less concerned with proving their concept a lot of  room to play with going forward.




Awkward or not... goddamn,
this shot was still impressive.

Whatever misgivings fans may have had for the goofy looking first form, or the fleeting images of the second I'm almost surprised were given action figures, the majority of the film features the almost zombified "Shin Godzilla" we've seen in posters and trailers, and I find myself with decidedly mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, the design is imposing, unsettling - a literal and gruesome monster the likes of which Lovecraft would wake up in the middle of the night screaming over, and then try to figure out how to make it the product of the Jews later on. On the one hand, watching Shin Gojira, God Incarnate, emerge on land for the first time is exactly what fans who weren't impressed by the Legendary Pictures' Hollywood-style reboot were waiting over a decade for. It's pure, unfiltered fanservice, and it's exactly what fans who know the difference between the Showa, Heisei and Millennium films wanted...

And yet, after Kamata-kun's clumsy, casually blood-spewing and laughter-inducing drunken rampage, watching his march like a wind-up toy across towards Tokyo just feels too... sterile. His tiny unblinking eyes, shockingly stiff body language, and complete lack of vocalizations make him look like a massive robot rather than the clever evolving beast we were introduced to prior (and will see again later). Mansai NOMURA provided the CGI motion capture, but here it looks like it's simply a statue being wheeled along a track, only his tail allowed to show the slightest amount of character, despite Nomura giving the beast a certain consistent level of curious personality and grouchy determination in every other scene the film has to offer. 



Oh no, they say he's got to go...
Oh no, there goes Tokyo...

Further adding to this sensation of rickety awkwardness is the literal recycling of - at times - 50+ year old mono recordings of Akira IFUKUBE tracks from the Showa era films. They certainly hit the right notes for nostalgic Showa era fans, but they also feel so afraid to go off-model from such a transparent, literal return to form it manages to have even less personality than the original 1954 monster. Rumor has it that Anno was intending to remaster the tracks in stereo for the film, but "difficulties" prevented it, and in the end they simply went with the decades old mono mixes as-is. For a guy who gets new compositions of public-domain classical music for his cartoon about kids shitting themselves with existential fear in robot cockpits, this just seems lazy.

And then it dawned on me: The time before this, we saw Godzilla fully evolve from a wiggling eel into a tyrannosaurus-piranha hybrid, and then he... just, sauntered off. And then when we see him again, he's taken on the "classic" Godzilla form, with no real indication that he had a distinct need to evolve any further, despite his constant exploration of his body in every other scene in the film being the result of him experiencing a threat or hardship, and using his biology to find a solution to it. In that case, why show an interim form at all if the only reason to do so is to prove that he can evolve in real-time? Wouldn't something more drastic - or even some gradual steps in between the "Final Form" on his way to the center of Tokyo - make far more sense from both a pacing and storytelling standpoint?


And, suddenly, all I could think of is this...




Right now there are exactly two kinds of people:
Those who are angry, and those who are confused.

<TANGENT INCOMING>

For those totally lost, the original Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series - which started as a fairly "normal", if overly dramatic and "realistic" take on classic mecha shows like Mazinger Z and Space Runway Ideon - became a social phenomenon when it took an almost Twin Peaks-esque turn in the second half, becoming a fusion of existentialist self-flagellation, overlapping religious iconography, and extreme violence.  The hints of these elements are there in plain sight the whole time, they just ramp up from "Oh, that was unusual" to "NO SERIOUSLY, WHAT THE HELL IS EVEN GOING ON?!" via a sort of frog-in-boiling-water nature. Once the weird hits you, it's far too late to save yourself, and you'll find yourself reading up on the Seraphic Tree and Arthur Schopenhauer just to have a baseline understanding of what's going on. Mercifully, Shin Godzilla never goes that far... but I'm bringing all of that up for a reason.

See, the TV series was simply too big to ignore, and the blatantly offensive content - such as giant monsters literally eating each others' hearts, staining the entire countryside in blood while teenagers screamed and begged for them to stop - became such a big deal that while broadcasters had previously let Gainax deliver the finished video masters just hours before broadcast, they now required a 24 hour window to preview everything. Anyone who knows anything about anime production knows that this shit is always polished and fixed at the last possible second - seriously, go watch Shiro Bako for an idea of what animation production actually looks like, and keep in mind that the lack of technology to quickly fix fuck-ups in the 90s made this even harder - that when push came to shove, Evangelion became a clusterfuck of limited animation, off-screen dramatic, events and - in the final two episodes - one of the most surreal and desperate visions of the apocalypse ever crafted.

The finale was so controversial, yet the series so popular, ultimately a Director's Cut of the final 6 episodes was released on home video, ending with an entire theatrical movie - The End of Evangelion - effectively remaking those controversial final episodes from scratch and splicing them back into the "Complete Version" as episodic experiences alongside the, arguably, more cerebral minimalist finale... but, that's another story.


</TANGENT>

The above sequence with the tiny man in the giant hand? It's actually a minute long freeze-frame as Ode to Joy fades to nothing. In short, when his hands are tied, you can generally tell by the obvious level of pure spite on-screen. And, of course, it's also entirely possible Anno is just an aging pretentious hack and I'm giving him far too much credit... but if it that entire was the result of a little bit of both, I wouldn't be too shocked.

It's also worth noting that the effects crew themselves talked about a "Tadpole" creature that seemingly matches the description of the completely unseen figure lurking beneath the water the whole first act. I could forgive the loss of a "Form Zero" for the sake of getting to the good stuff - by which I totally mean Kamata-kun! - but the literal non-entity of a Tadpole 'Zilla, and the momentary glimpse of a T-Rex Zilla are such oddities that they can't help but give me pause.

With the above in mind, I'm now truly honestly curious if there was an entire reel's worth or so of content jettisoned during production with the "Monster B Form", as having his armored shell before he's been attacked by human weapons doesn't actually make a lot of sense in the context they went out of their way to build about his powerset... but, I guess we'll probably never know. Toho is incredibly protective of their most famous star, and Anno isn't known for talking shit after a project finishes, so the fleeting presence of the red, birdlike monstrosity that goes literally nowhere before scurrying off-screen feels like a last-minute change somewhere along the project, with the trailer-friendly zombified march of the final form likely being more in line with what Toho was expecting of the project the whole time.




Just a sunny afternoon in Downtown Tokyo for Toho.


Now, that having been said, every complaint here is nullified, instantly, by the time Godzilla gets to central Tokyo. Watching this monolithic beast suddenly lose its' stoic cool after being nearly a statue for so long has a certain inherent shock to it, and what follows is the most amazing instance of city destruction porn I may have ever witnessed. It's breathtaking, technicolor beauty and satisfyingly massive scale is the stuff that you could make love to, and the fact that it begins with Godzilla, breaking his own fucking face, just to make his trademark atomic breath physically possible is exactly why I was fascinated at the thought of Anno picking up the reigns in the first place. The obvious body horror, physicality of the chemical changes, and final otherwordly beauty are the sort of creative images that nobody else on the planet delivers quite like Anno, and Higuchi brought them to life in a way nobody else could have realized.

After this jaw-dropping scene, however, the film shifts gears back to the offices of the Prime Minister and quickly finds itself back in the hands of the floundering politicians; brave, clever, and desperate to find a solution before the rest of the world finds one for them... yeah, that stuff's still pretty good. But it didn't make me nearly as erect as watching Anno's vision of Tokyo turned into a sea of a flames.

Aside from the real-world military hardware (which is pretty damn satisfying to watch!), it's never photo realistic or cutting edge as far as the effects go, and anyone who expects that from a Japanese Godzilla film is so amazingly far off the mark I'm not entirely sure why they're watching this to begin with. Gareth Edwards - for all of his tedious second act filler trying to convince us its' human drama - has already crafted the ultimate, "realistic" Godzilla, and I'm surprised how intrigued I am by Legendary's similar upcoming treatment of Kong: Skull Island. For Anno and Toho to even try to top that would have been a fool's errand, so instead we get bug-eyed turkeys smashing their face into shit. I'm fine with this, and I think once the obvious reality of what the movie was always going to be sets in, most of the people grumpy about it now will come to the same conclusion eventually.

And as for the final, unsettling shot of the film... hoo, boy. I can't wait for what's an obvious visual metaphor of Godzilla trying to achieve his final, perfect form to be misinterpreted for the next 10 years! Though damn it all, I AM curious if the sequels will pick it up from there and go batshit crazy with what it implies...

ANNO'S ATTENTION TO MADNESS

(IN CONCLUSION...)


That said, for all the things that frustrated me about the above mentioned monster-porn build up, there was a handful of shots - curious, high up, almost introspective shots of the monster - one of which shows it rearing, which is features in many of the film's trailers. It's clear to me this particular shot was the giant mechanical puppet - it was too big to be a "suit" in any traditional sense of the word, and is closer to the stunt-suit used for various shots in the original 1954 film. Those shots bothered, not because "they're not CGI and you can tell" (even though you can), but because... well, Shin Godzilla's face was an entirely different shape than the CGI model. It was longer, had larger eyes - I suppose it was a bit more crocidillian whereas the "normal" CG model was more humanoid. Something about this bothered me, and it took a conversation with the better half to pin down where the issue was...


With all the attention to detail in the figures and so on, why are the proportions of his head a different shape in the actual movie? How would they not catch that?

> Wait. The original Godzilla had two different suits, didn't it?

Well sure. The prototype was turned into the fire breathing head, and it had a longer snout and bigger eyes and...!!!

> What's your problem.

OH MY GOD!! ANNO REPLICATED THE INCONSISTENT CHARACTER DESIGN...

> Yeah. That's what I said.

競女!!!!!!!!

...I mean, it could be a coincidence that Hideaki "Evangelion" Anno - known for layers of subtle foreshadowing, obscure external references, and generally being a mischevious bastard - accidentally replicated the same mistakes as the film he's effectively remaking... but if that's a coincidence, it proves Anno's a hundred times better at this shit than anyone's giving him credit for. Even if it's completely by accident.

Whether Shin Godzilla's greatness - and curious flaws - is the result of cautious, intentional craftsmanship or accidental genius are ultimately irrelevant. It did the impossible and justified both Legendary and Toho producing fully independent and tonally opposite Godzilla, for different (if oft overlapping) audiences, and there's something gloriously fun about that. If you can see this in an American theater before October 18th, I'd recommend it... the sheer scale of the massive, explosive elements are worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, even if you'll also be able to tell exactly when Anno cribbed some shitty YouTube stock footage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

88 Chances: 88 Films' 2016 BURIAL GROUND Blu-ray (Review)

UPDATE TO THE INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN:

All of the stretch goals have been met! Pledging 45 Pounds ($67 USD) will get you all four titles with exclusive slipcases, guaranteed. That's less than $17 per title, shipping included. Their "Italian Collection" BDs are usually £20 for the first-press (ie: with slipcase) and then drop to £12 for the standard release once that initial run sells out, which basically means you're getting the limited edition for the price of the standard edition. No matter how I slice it, this is a pretty sweet deal.

These guys aren't buttering me to shill their campaign, either. I'm just excited to see lovable trash like Absurd and Massacre in Dinosaur Valley on Blu-ray at all.


QUICK PSA BEFORE WE BEGIN THE AUTOPSY:

88 Films is currently running a new INDIEGOGO "ITALIAN COLLECTION RESTORATION PROJECT" CAMPAIGN, with the explicit intent to create new HD masters for Joe D'amato's ABSURD (funded), Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (funded), Lucio Fulci's AENIGMA and Joe D'amato's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.

Regardless of what I have to say about the following Blu-ray release, if you care about any of these films, take a look at the campaign and consider contributing. I plan to myself, and if you legitimately want to see more vintage Italian exploitation films released on Blu-ray, you probably should too.



The day has come, friends - I've finally gotten my copy of the 88 Films Blu-ray of Andrea Bianchi's BURIAL GROUND/La Notti Del Terrore - a month late due to a forwarding address apparently having been expired, but hey, who's counting!

For those who don't know, 88 Films secured the rights during, and offered a restoration as a bonus stretch goal to their Zombie Holocaust remaster campaign through Indie Go Go. They were quiet on the subject for a little while, and the reasons behind it became clear when they decided to release a random sampling of A/B/C comparisons of "tests" they were doing with the available materials. You can see them HERE ON FACEBOOK, if that's your jam; the short version was they were left four options, each a little more pleasant than the last.


* Media Blasters' effectively useless HDCAM master, which is such a mess I've written extensively on it - to summarize, massive chroma noise from a poor scan, frames missing at literally every single cut resulting in a notably shorter runtime, and outtakes have randomly been inserted back into the film incorrectly - and that's on top of it having been delayed for nearly a year! (In short, this was the Eurohorror release so shockingly bad that Media Blasters never even bothered to do another one.)


* The only known surviving English language 35mm "Grindhouse Print" which - while more or less complete - looks just as blown out, faded and filthy as you'd expect. We'll talk about that later, rest assured...


* A 16mm Internegative - presumably the same film source that all DVD masters in the last 20 years have been made from, which is badly out of focus.


* The original 16mm camera negative, which - while the very best material available -  evidently required a ton of work to restore every individual cut of the original film to its proper place.

Now, I have a theory, as imperfect as it all is; Media Blasters' transfer claimed to be from the "Original Negative", as does 88 Films' remaster. 88 Films even went as far as to provide some context for the fact that the negative they were offered involved "Undercuts" - in other words, the original 16mm A/B rolls where the editor marked the end of the shot by marking the first frame he didn't want with a big "X" scratched into the print itself... but, before we get into the nitty gritty of the transfers themselves, I can say (with one dubious exception) that every single frame is here.

Which means that either the Media Blasters transfer was made from some other film source entirely - maybe a 16mm reversal-negative with warped splices? - or else they really did go back to the same negatives, and were so shockingly sloppy re-creating the finished negative that they managed to lose frames completely at random because whatever film lab did the work was literally just that amazingly terrible.

None of it really adds up either way, and I've reached out to 88 Films for clarification, but they're taking their time in getting back to me. Without wanting to throw either party under the bus, I'll leave the details and explanations given by their respective parties as they are for now, and will happily update this if anyone's willing to come to light with more details.

So! Confusion and potential behind the scenes drama aside - how is the presentation?


THE GRINDHOUSE TRANSFER:

Much like the uncut version of Just Before Dawn that Code Red released a few years ago, this is a gloriously nasty source print that's been given absolutely minimal preservation efforts; for this transfer each and every scratch, scuff, stain, pop and blob of dirt has been retained in its untouched form.

How does one even qualify a transfer like this, I wonder? While I've seen some truly impressive transfers derived from 35mm release prints, this has gone out of its way to not correct any color grading mishaps, to not process out any of the tinny hiss - to call it "raw" would be an understatement, and considering what a cheap little slice of exploitation this particular title is, I would imagine that anyone who legitimately has an affinity for it - particularly anyone who was lucky enough to own an original VHS copy before the various DVD releases, or even see an equally-grotesque 35mm transfer at a revival showing (both of which I myself am guilty of) - won't feel their black, shriveled hearts grow three sizes just spending a few minutes wallowing in this unfiltered stretch of nostalgia.














From a technical standpoint... I really have no complaints. The 15.76 Mb/s bitrate is adequate enough to keep the fuzzy grain structure from looking like AVC soup, and the very rough-and-tumble nature of the whole makes the usual expected problems sort of blend into the constant grimy insanity of the content itself.

The Grindhouse Version ain't pretty. It's exactly as it should be. It's kind of ironic that despite being an ass-ugly source print, there's really no technical complaint to be had.


THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE ORIGINAL(?) ELEMENTS

Here's where it gets a little more complex... but, the good news is that I can emphatically say that the title has never, and may never, look better than it does right now. Whatever quibbles and misgivings I have for the transfer as a whole are absolutely drowned out by the fact that, in the pantheon of low-budget and schlocky Italian horror films to have been brought to Blu-ray, this is far from the worst. It's not perfect, which is a shame, but what can I say? If the $35 I paid as part of the Indie GoGo campaign led to this, I'll live with it.

First of all, the restored version - one oddity I'll explain later aside - appears to be complete. The Media Blasters' release before it lost frames at each individual cut, an issue that is mysteriously not an issue on this virtually-complete presentation. This alone is worthy of praise, considering another Italian zombie trash classic - Hell of the Living Dead - has suffered the same fate in High Definition as the previous Burial Ground master before it.

There's little in the way of notable debris, scratches or damage in general to complain about - there's minor scuffs and dust that hasn't been completely scrubbed away, though it's never to the point of distraction. The original 1.66 framing of the Super-16 negative is preserved in full. The English titles have been sourced from what look like 35mm archival elements, and while I would have liked to see the Italian titles, even just as an extra, I have no complaint over "Burial Ground" being the on-screen title rather than "La Notti Del Terrore".

What 88 Films promises is a 2K scan of the "Original Italian 16mm Negative" has a slightly muted, drab look when compared to other releases I'm familiar with - no contrast boosting here, that's for damn sure! - but daylight scenes have a fairly natural, golden hue and the juicy gore on display is a healthy crimson, with the poorly lit fleshtones tending towards a natural - if slightly sickly - hue. Black levels are quite solid, and overall the restores presentation's clarity and definition is dramatically better than the fuzzy, uneven blobs of high-contrast film grain hovering on top of the Grindhouse Transfer.

The English audio has been transferred in its original mono at 24-bits, as has the original Italian audio. They both sound fairly clear without any obvious hiss, flutter or other analog distortions, though it's obvious the English track has been given a pass of digital noise reduction, while the Italian track is more prone to clearer highs and slightly more distinct separation between music and dialogue - though it tends to hiss and crackle a bit more as a result. The slightly more "raw" Italian track sounds slightly more appealing, and I don't think any of these actors spoke a word of English on set anyway - but neither is really a disappointment.


THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE DIGITAL TRANSFER

What needs to be discussed is... well, the general texture of the transfer. Make no mistake, the Media Blasters master was a horrendous abortion of constant, distracting chroma noise that in no way represented the original film elements - 16mm or otherwise. For that reason alone, this release wins hands down - I had intended to do a full 1:1 comparison with that eyesore, but at some point I must have had a stroke of pure sanity and seem to have either sold it, given it away or burned it in a toilet fire.

But is what we have here actually good? I tend to think it's ultimately on the upper-end of the transfers Blue Underground and Arrow Video were releasing early on, before it became en-vogue for them to the scans themselves from scratch; there's noise floating on top of a soft and somewhat smudgy image, a minor-to-moderate level of DVNR that comes and goes (but is especially heavy during the opening zombie attack), and it has that unfortunate, tell-tale artifact of fast-moving objects like swinging weapons having sharp, defined grain while the rest of the image looks somewhat smoothed over.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is the 2K remaster of Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2... that is, the LVR/Blue Underground remaster, not the superior Arrow Video transfer sold as Zombie Flesh Eaters. If you were fine with that, you'll probably love this. If, like me, you found the Blue Underground release of that lacking... well, you're not exactly in for a treat.













To get a clearer idea of what I'm talking about, open both the "Grindhouse" and "Restored" sceenshots 7 and 11 in different tabs. Notice how "off" the grain looks on moving faces? And notice how despite the numerous other problems on the Grindhouse version, the grain looks... y'know, normal?

[Kentai Films Protip: When you have an especially noisy scan, don't use temporal DVNR! The result always warps during fast motion, and with old CRT scanners the issue is less the presence of noise itself, and more that it seems to exist outside of the underying celluloid image. A far better method is to gently apply a spherical blur until the noise loses its "sharp" look and blends back into the film image proper. No, it's not replacement for a scan with better quality optics, but helps you avoid... whatever it is we should call what we're looking at today. No chroma smearing, no irregular grain patterns - just subtle a softness no one would ever suspect without a direct comparison.]

Do keep in mind that - while I stand by by BU Zombie comparison on all technical merits - the budget and artistic intent behind this film is... well, it was minimal, to put it bluntly. Comparing Lucio Fulci's camerawork, light staging, editing and artistic direction to Andrea Bianchi is like comparing Baz Luhrmann to Christopher Nolan. The 16mm negative stock, terrible on-set lighting, and frantically moving whip-pans all lean me toward wanting to forgive 88 Films' clearly well-intentioned transfer, but... I've got to be honest here. It's just not that good. It pains me saying that, too, but it's just not very good at all.

My opinion was a lot more positive the day the disc arrived, when I could wallow and revel in a stable, watchable HD transfer of archival materials, but the more time I spent looking over different scenes with different intensities of grain management and faded, sickly color that leaves skin an odd, almost gray mass of nothing, the less enthused I became with it. It's never anywhere near as miserable as the 2011 Blu-ray, and it's still a substantial step-up from any SD presentation, but one need only compare the two transfers present on this very disc to know that something just isn't right on what should, in every way imaginable, be the superior presentation.

Had this come out through Shout Factory or NSM Records, pretty much anywhere else that didn't have the fanfare surrounding the restoration itself? I'd just shrug, say "Well, it's better than a bunch of other shitty Euro Horror discs on the market." As someone who paid to see both this and Zombi Holocaust restored... I'm honestly not sure how I feel. Disappointed, maybe, but even that's giving these flaws a little more attention than they probably deserve. I'd bet money this was carried out on the same Cintel hardware LVR has had chugging along for a decade, and it's unfortunate that no matter how hard the staff of any lab might try, they can't magically make garbage hardware they spent a quarter-million dollars on magically "good" - instead they listen to complaints, and adjust their internall processes accordingly, even if the ultimate end result is "add noise reduction so clients don't complain about video noise". It's panning water, not plugging the leak, but that's the situation we tend to find ourselves in...

But high personal standards aside, let's face it - Burial Ground getting a mulligan at all was a goddamn miracle, and if this is as good as it's gonna' get... well, I don't have to praise it to the heavens, but I can say that I've seen, and own, far worse. I'm happy I have this release. I don't mind that I paid $35 to fund it. I just hope this isn't seen as the high watermark when 88 Films themselves have released better looking transfers from other licencors, as they've proven they're capable of much more when their HD tape masters start from a better place than this.



ANY NEW BONUS FEATURES,
OR UNEXPECTED ADDITIONS?

As far as original "Expert Commentary" goes we get a feature length commentary by John Martin, and a 27 minute video interview with Mikel Coven*. I've not watched either, and to be honest, I don't know if I will any time soon - not that I doubt they're amusing and chock full of interesting information, I just don't have the energy to watch another 2 hours' worth of Italian schlock bonus features right now.

Ported from the Media Blasters release are the films' trailer under the title NIGHTS OF TERROR - not only is it poorly upscaled, but it appears to be a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, deinterlaced, and upscaled to 1080i 29.97. Brilliant.

There's also 10 minutes or so of Deleted Scenes presented as-discovered, without sound, which run the gamut of being amusing to erotic to kind of dull, as is often the case. Frustratingly, the Media Blasters incorrectly re-inserted a few of these outtakes at around 00:25:41 on the 88 Films Restored Version. Footage that was supposed to be included in the film proper is still included in the Deleted Scenes reel, but the outtakes that are presented as part of the feature on the Media Blasters Blu-ray - including some additional exploding lightbulbs and a longer scene of two lovers flirting and kissing by the fountain - are nowhere to be found. A minor loss, but a slightly frustrating one all the same.

While the initial print-run comes with an "O-Sleeve" style slipcase, all releases also come with a booklet featuring new writing by Calum Waddell (who also moderates the commentary). Finally, the package includes a collectible postcard featuring the original Italian poster art, as well as a two-sided cover with both classic American and Italian designs. All of this has a sort of bleeding, super-saturated look to it, but there was clearly some effort put into the design, and as a fan of the oft-insane posters for vintage trash films the attention to providing multiple options is deeply appreciated.

*Fun Fact: The interview is interspersed with what looks like the super-noisy footage from the Media Blasters BD.



IS THERE ANY FOOTAGE MISSING?

This is an interesting case. In short, the version on display per the Negative Restoration appears to be the exact same version released on every DVD going back to the Japan Shock release:

At around 00:42:45, James slams the shutters closed after tossing the lifeless body of the maid to the zombies below. In the Restored transfer, he begins to turn towards the camera, and there's a jump-cut to the bloody hands of zombies picking at the corpse below. The music has a jump cut as well, though with the weird, grinding soundtrack over this film it's a little more difficult to tell than normal.


This shot as it appears on the "Restored" version. 

If you go to roughly a minute earlier on the Grindhouse print (due to the truncated title sequence), you'll find that this shot actually runs about 6~7 seconds longer; James leans his head against the shutter, clearly horrified by what he's just done, before it smash-cuts back to a close-up of entrails being clawed at:


Why yes, that does appear to be print damage on the side of the frame.

This specific oddity confuses me. If this was pulled from the original camera negative, the footage would still be there as it was on the Media Blasters HD master - though I suppose it's not unthinkable that the English language 16mm IP that was used for the audio was missing this short sequence, and the raw footage was trimmed to match - rather than the Italian audio being used to fill in the gap, which would have been preferable? One could easily argue that MB never touched the negative - they did, after all, claim to be "working from the negative" on Buio Omega, only to later reveal what they meant was they had a new IP made from said negative - but the fact that Media Blasters unearthed about 10 minutes of never-before-seen footage implies they had some poor sap digging through the archives for the earliest-generation material available.

And yet, the same old footage known to be MIA from the 16mm IP is - once again - trimmed from the 88 Films transfer. Is this master really from the original camera negative, or perhaps a 16mm back-up negative used in place of the unusable OCN the licensors are now treating as one if the same? If not, what the hell did Media Blasters use for their 2011 masters? Don't misunderstand the tin-foil, I want to trust everyone involved here, but as the similar confusion over exactly what materials were used between both Blue Underground and Arrow Video's competing 2K restorations of Zombi 2 have established, either one side is lying... or both are being lied to.

If 88 Films wants to clarify any of this, I'd love to know and will happily update the write-up. I'm not angry, as the scene was (to be fair) a largely inessential reaction shot and it's included on the disc in one form or another. I'm just... confused. And I don't like being confused.


TRUTH TIME:
IS IT WORTH THE UPGRADE?

If you own any prior DVD copy and want a notable HD upgrade? Yes. If you own the Media Blasters HD transfer and want a proper, effectively-complete version of the film? Absolutely. If you like having raw, un-restored 35mm "Grindhouse" transfers to ogle in High Definition, as I occasionally do? Hell Yes! If you just want a cheaply made movie looking fantastic on principle? I'd recommend you move on.

All that said, I still plan on contributing a wad of cash to the current Italian Collection Restoration Project. I'm not blown away buy the results here, but I'd still rather see Aenigma and Buio Omega brought up to this standard than to languish in the inferior presentations we currently have at our disposal. It's all a matter of degrees at this point, and even at its worst, Burial Ground commits the cardinal sin of being no-better than average.

I guess if that's the best future I can hope for, I'm fine with it. We live in a time where Michal Mann approved Blu-ray transfers have SD inserts, because at this point sales on physical media are so weak and "old" B-movies do so poorly that nobody fucking cares - not even guys like me. If you need further proof, take a look at the Indiegogo Campaign and realize that despite over 20,000 pounds having been raised, that's still less than 500 backers in total.

Five years ago, when I was adamant that we could - that we should do better, there was still reason to have hope. These days, if a release isn't appalling... that's pretty much yer' lot going forward. If "Average For An Italian Exploitation Film" quality is all we have a chance for, I'd rather take it than not at this point.

Just do me a favor and keep including those chewed-up Grindhouse Prints, won't you? If I can't have a proper looking "perfect" restoration at least let me torture my monitor and headphones with the ugliest, most organic presentation possible as an alternative!