Friday, April 24, 2015

Head Transplants and Metal Gears: Another Ruse Cruise, or Something Scarier?


Pictured: My current level of raw, pulsating confusion.

Look, I don't know what to think anymore, but this past week or so has been really, really interesting for casual digging...

Loathe as I am to give NeoGaf credit for pretty much goddamn near anything, the jack-booted cesspool did come up with a clever observation about the as-of-yet unnamed doctor featured heavily in the previews for Hideo Kojima's upcoming I-desperately-hope Magnum Opus METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN. A game which, despite the behind-the-scenes insanity we've only been seeing snapshots of here and there, I'm still going to continue to hope can deliver on the hype I've felt building since Ground Zeroes came out over a year ago, because if it doesn't, I'm going to be physically unable to feel hype for pretty much anything. I'm getting old, guys. I can only hype for so goddamn long!

What did they find, you ask? Well, they found that whatever doctor introduces Venom Snake back to the land of the living after his supposed 9 year coma looks an awful lot like to apparent real-life neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero, who's been in the world news for the last two years or so over the fact that he claims to be the guy who's cracked the code of one of medical science's biggest check-mates: The Full Body Transplant, which is to say the act of severing a living person's head and transferring it to an entirely new donor body. Go ahead, google his ass - the guy's been talking about it for about two years now, and while we've had some luck (scientifically speaking) connecting animals' severed heads onto new bodies, we've never been able to reconnect the actual nerves, meaning they're literally a Futurama head attached to a limp, worthless flesh jar. But this guy? This guy figured it all out, and swears we'll see a human head transplanted onto a new body within the next few years.

But what about that whole "The Phantom Pain includes his apparently unlicensed likeness" claim - a matter Canavero himself has said he'll have to bring up with his lawyer? What, you don't believe that they're basically identical twins separated in the Super Baby womb?


Pictured: Just a photo realistic video game!


Pictured: The real doctor Canavero. Or whatever.

Sure, sure, the nose is a little different and the real deal has more hollow cheeks, but he looks a heck of a lot more like Canavero than Ian Moore, the actor  Granted, the resemblance alone isn't all that big a coincidence; thin, middle aged, shaven-head men with some silver fox facial hair are a dime a dozen in the world, right? When asked if he had any knowledge of this, Canavero replied to questions - in Italian, mind - by saying "I will notify my attourney. Thanks for the heads up." No confirmation on if he put on a pair of sun glasses and was immediately greeted with a bitchin' guitar riff and a wailing hair metal singer.

Realistically, Kojima probably just saw a a photo of the guy, being Kojima, and told Shinkawa "Hey, draw that head-transplant guy. That'd be cool." Nothing to see here, DLC pass is $35 on top of pre-order bonuses, mobile game integration coming soon. Forget it and chalk it up to a weird coincidence, right?


Ian Moore, the British actor credited for voice/motion capture for 'The Doctor'.

Well, that's just the thing... it gets so much weirder. The first major paper on the subject he's discussing - namely, a method to attach a still living head onto a donor body - was submitted for publication March 29th, 2013. The title of the research paper is, and I quote, HEAVEN: The Head Anastomasis Venture Project Outline For The First Human Head Transplantation With Spinal Linkage (GEMINI).

Pretty wild, right? What's even wilder is the fact that Hideo Kojima's GDC announcement for Metal Gear Solid V even existing was a mere two days before.


Ain't no ruse cruise like a Kojima ruse cruise.

You all remember that, right? When Kojima got on stage as "Joakin Mogren" - an angram of "Kojima NM Ogre" - and removed his own head? Anyone who remembers the "Teaser" building up to this knows how much time and effort Kojima puts into his charming, Puckish little pranks, leading people on and pretending that 'The Phantom Pain' was an original project rather than the "missing link" between the Peace Walker Incident (canon-circa 1974) and the 1995 Outer Heaven Uprising (canon-circa 1995).

But hey, even IF this wasn't mere chance, it probably doesn't mean anything important. In fact, with a core theme of the game being loss and Big Boss himself being short a limb - with poor Kaz short more than that! - he probably read Canavero's 2007 book about neurological disorders as part of his research into the matter, thought Sergio was a pretty cool guy, and couldn't help but slip him in when he wrote the outline. DLC Season Pass is $35, don't let the pre-order hit you on the way out, right?


As you can see, he's clearly the Steve Jobs of Dr. Frankensteins!

So who is this guy, really? On September 20th 2014, Dr. Canavero gave a brief explanation of his concept at a Ted x Talk. Pretty cool, right? Well, there's a couple things that only raise further questions; for one, the Ted x Talk is taking place in Cyprus - and there's a map of Cyprus in the "hospital escape" portion of The Phantom Pain, implying it's the same location. Okay, okay, maybe that's just a weird coincidence too... but it's even weirder than the name of this TED x Talk was called "TEDxLimassol". Re-arrange the letters like a mad man with some glue and scizors and what do you get?

"Metal x Solid"

Crazy! Or, y'know, it would be if Limassol wasn't the biggest damned city in Cyprus. It is kind of funny that the animated logo that opens the whole thing - white text at the bottom, red text at the top, with two symbols looking a bit like a broken "V" no less! - but presumably Canavero himself didn't make the damned logo, so it's probably just a hilarious, amazing coincidence that some video editor intern picked fonts that match the established Metal Gear Solid V logo design.


What's even crazier is that TEDx Talks typically have a sponsor. For the TEDxLimassol event, the partner was none other than Wargaming, a Cyprus-based video game developer known for World of Tanks, among other decidedly straight-forward military simulators. That's cool and all, but the borderline Sci-Fi medical miracle stuff that Dr. Canavero is up to doesn't really apply to their usual bread and butter. Had this been Square Enix with a plan to tie this guy's research into a Deus Ex themed charity or something, okay, THAT would make sense, but the World of Tanks guys? Just seems a little unexpected.

Oh yeah, totally not a big deal, did I mention that the hospital room from The Phantom Pain that features 'The Doctor' also has a map of Cyprus on the wall? Meaning that if Hideo Kojima was "inserting" the real-life Dr. Canavero into The Phantom Pain, he did so by showing him not only two days before he'd published a new research paper, but predicted the exact locale he would give his TED x Talk in a year and a half before it was scheduled?

I know, right? That's... actually that's starting to make me incredibly uncomfortable.


You feel it too, don't you... It's like we're still being rused!

But the connections only get more absurd from there, as not only is there an actual mad doctor willing to try unproven head-transplant techniques running around - seriously, most of the "legitimate" news stories made about him so far have been quick to point out that most other neurosurgeons working in the field clearly think he's a Human Centipede level maniac - but he's already found a volunteer for the extremely experimental process.

To be more specific, he's found a young man by the name of Valeri Spiridonov, and has expressed clear interest in performing this very expensive and so-far untested surgery on a willing patient.


At least he's got a good head on his sho--OH GOD STOP HITTING ME--

To be fair, that guy clearly has a severe physical problem, and if you're interested in helping him fly out to meet with Dr. Canavero, you can toss some cash his way on Indie Go Go. He suffers from the muscle-wasting Werdnig-Hoffman Disease, and while he knows there's zero guarantees, he's still willing to risk death to dramatically improve his quality of life. He's a brave soul, and goddamn, I wish him luck.

The only thing that causes me to pause and flex a brow is the fact that Spiridonov's profession is also that of game development, with his resume dating back to about August of 2012... or, roughly when development on Metal Gear Solid V would have been underway? A game that actively needs a staff who speaks fluent Russian due to its heavy focus on the Societ-Afghan conflict of the 1980s? No, that's... I mean that's clearly just yet another bizarre, inexplicable coincidence...

Perhaps just a bit less bizarre are actual texts by the good Doctor himself, which all sound plausible enough, in a I-don't-know-shit-about-neurons sort of way. Most recently, Dr, Canavero has published an updated paper on his procedure - The Gemini Spinal Cord Fusion Protocol: Reloaded - which, admittedly, sounds like the title of the best Chuck Norris movie never made.

He'a also published a book quite recently - "Head Transplantations and the Quest for Immortality". This was preceded - by less than a month, mind you! - with the dramatically differently themed "Immortal: Why Consciousness is Not in the Brain", which would... actually seem to contradict some of the tenants of his argument that transplanting a human head on a working body is, itself, a form of immortality. Again, assuming I'm guesstimating the writing in a way that's even remotely close to what's actually in the text.

Look, I need to move. Again. Don't hate me because I'm cheap right now.

Again, haven't read the book, but it's not that "Genetic Memory" stuff, is it? Implying that 'memory' exists in DNA itself? Because that... I mean, particularly in the context of Metal Gear, that would be... that... I don't... where to... ugh, fuck it, let's move on.


Actual chapter list from "Head Transplantations".
As with everything else in this post, I'm not making it up.

Alright, neat! We get a couple hundred pages to thumb through over a lazy weekend as you tranq fresh experiment-fodder and toss them into your windowless van... but let's take a quick rundown of those chapters, yes?

Now I admit, I haven't read the book. Real life surprises are currently curb-stomping my bank account, so spending $60 on a hunch ain't happening right now. But thumbing through what little exists for free, the jist I'm getting from it is that once head transplants are viable, the second step is to clone fresh, inert bodies - "slugs", to borrow terminology from The Venture Bros. - and use them as home grown organ donors. That's the idea, right? If someone actually spent money on these things and can correct me - or even add to the crazy - I am all ears.

The thing is, you can use stem cells to re-create most organs without needing to go through the whole song and dance with making a clone, and even if you could, to the best of my knowledge we haven't actually figured out how to manipulate genes to artificially age a clone body. You'd basically be making a baby back-up, waiting 20 or 30 years, and then decapitating it. Say what you will about the ethics and legality of a full body transplant, but there's no way cloning in conjunction with this shit would be remotely LEGAL. I know he's a scientists and scientists write crazy "what if?" papers all the time, but this is so far outside the realm of sanity that... well, it really does sound like modern day Frankenstein level shit.


"It is our only home - our Heaven, and our Hell.
This is Outer Heaven." - Big Boss, 1974 (Peace Walker)

Even if it is all legit research and theorizing, is it not strange that he'd write a book about cloning yourself to make numerous "backups" and then write another book, published just two weeks earlier, suggesting that the consciousness is not stored in the human brain? Wouldn't these two works not completely contradict each other, despite being published at virtually the same time? Granted I'm extrapolating a lot here, and I don't have the cash to be buying books on a tinfoil-hat level theory to find out for myself, but... I'unno, guys. Pumping two books focusing on those related but contradictory themes at the exact same time seems a bit much to be mere coincidence...

Which is why the references to "Heaven", "Frontiers", and "Gemini" are all a head-scratcher. Metal Gear Solid introduced the idea of gene manipulation to initiate premature aging in MGS2: The Sons of Liberty, and even introduced the idea of (effectively) a full body transplant for the final scene of MGS4: Guns of the Patriots. It's also intensely curious that "Gemini" and "Clone" would be repeated themes in the work of Dr. Canavero, as the two most prominent characters in Metal Gear Solid are none other than Solid Snake and Liquid Snake - "Gemini" themselves, and both slightly imperfect clones of Big Boss himself.

"Heaven" and "Frontiers" are instant red flags as well, as MGS: Peace Walker introduced Big Boss' Militaires Sans Frontieres ("Army Without Borders") group in a fictional Costa Rica circa 1974, and the fortified South African military city-state the original 8-bit Metal Gear takes place in was known as Outer Heaven, a name later resurrected by Ocelot in MGS4, as well. To be fair, both Peace Walker and Portable Ops inevitably refer to Big Boss' army as 'Outer Heaven' - directly or otherwise - but man, if there's one thing Metal Gear loves, it's a good retcon!


Far be it for me to give a man fashion advice, but damn, is scrubs-green his color.
ALSO WHAT SORT OF DOCTOR DOES PHOTO SHOOTS LIKE THIS?!

So let's get real for a second here. There's basically three possibilities here, none of them completely outside the realm of possibility;

1)  Dr. Sergio Canavero is an actual neuroscientist who, through no fault of his own, may have inspired one of the world's most beloved video game directors - and may simply be pulling naming conventions and locations for his ground-breaking work as a matter of sheer coincidence. It's not impossible, no, but it'd be DAMNED difficult to hand-waive the bizarre and, frankly, inexplicable connections to various game developers.

2) Dr. Sergio Canavero is an actual neuroscientist who, for reasons that are not yet clear, is working with Konami Entertainment and/or Hideo Kojima to take the whole fucking world on an epic practical joke that - assuming he IS a legitimate medical voice - would completely shatter his credibility for the rest of his career. This is the most obvious answer to this set of crazy circumstances, but it requires a level of suspension of disbelief I'm having a bit of trouble swallowing, as somebody by the same name published a very real book on the phenomena of Phantom Pain back in 2007.

3) Dr. Sergio Canavero is just an actor who's otherwise performing the same role as the second option, punking the entire medical world just to sell a game to an audience on the premise of a modern miracle being total bullshit. It's possible that Sergio Canavero was a legitimate neuroscientist, and this person is actually just an impostor... which would be particularly interesting, considering one of the

You might think 2 and especially 3 are completely insane, but... let's talk about Hideo Kojima for a second. I, like most people, only skimmed the interactive novella included in MGS2 - In the Darkness of Shadow Moses: The Unofficial Truth, which is literally an entire account of the original game as written by Natasha Romaneko. Konami paid someone to write an entire paranoia-fueled and partially inaccurate summary of their original game, complete with references to fake New York Times articles, just to sell the idea that the world of MGS2 was our own, complete with sleazy best sellers leaking half-truths from every page.


LA-LI-LU-LE-LO! LA-LE-LU-LE-LO!

You may also remember that the final twist in MGS2 was the fact that the list of "The Patriots" turned out to be a ruse itself; the names were true, but the members themselves were long dead, simply people who had taken the preservation of their nation and culture seriously enough that their works and methodology was later converted into an AI system that would represent their combined will.

You may also remember that the whole fucking point of MGS2 - from a narrative point of view, rather than a thematic one - is the revelation of the "S3 Plan". Without delving too deeply, the short version of the S3 Plan was that it was an experiment to measure how easily the public's perception of 'the truth' could be manipulated by the media. This is the core narrative twist of the game - yes, it "means" something else entirely via the magic of context and post-modernism, but it's still a concept he's clearly thought a lot about.

With that firmly in mind, it presents a possible fourth option:

4) Sergio Canavero was a legitimate neurosurgeon, and for reasons yet unknown, a third party - like, say, an actor working with Kojima - has taken his identity and is carrying out mad science in his name.


A reminder that Hideo Kojima tried to warn us.
All we had to do was listen, and this was the future we chose...

At this point, Hideo Kojima is doing one of two things: He's either engineering a massive lie so over the top the mainstream media is blissfully unaware of the viral marketing campaign they're covering as scientific breakthrough, or Kojima's insanity has become so omnipotent that it's causing ripples of crazy to spill out into the real world. There's no other options, and honestly, the latter is such a terrifying thought I'm going to hope it's the former.

The bigger question is would Konami really go through with all of this? Admitting a "New Metal Gear" is in the works, implicitly without Hideo Kojima? Silencing his social media presence, and restricting every piece of public communication since his demotion to a contracted designer to a single pre-recorded release date announcement? Risking the standing of their stock, and their already shaky reputation with one of the most dedicated fanbases in the entire industry? I could see Kojima masterminding this elaborate head-transplant as a ruse, but I can't see his corporate buddies being too keen on it... which, in turn, leaves me to wonder that IF this was a stunt he'd orchestrated, if it's what got him canned in the first place?


Pictured: More relevance that the entire American Games Journalism industry combined.

Think about it. None of this bizarre shit even came to light until after Kojima was quietly given the boot from the VP position in March, but by God, are they taking his "No Media Presence" gag-order seriously. Despite Hideo Kojima having won a combined three Famitsu Awards  - one for Ground Zeroes, another for P.T., and a sort of lifetime achievement award for the 1998 Metal Gear Solid - neither he, nor any representatives from Konami were present at the event to take the awards. Again, if this is all real, that's fucking harsh. Famitsu remains THE video game review publication for Japanese audiences, and Konami has seen it fit to let him go twice before - once in 2005 for MGS3: Subsistence, and again in 2011 for MGS: Peace Walker. Had Kojima been allowed to release a video statement with the expected "I'm hard at work on Phantom Pain, but thanks guys!" sort of fluff I wouldn't think twice about it, but not allowing anyone from Konami to show up and grovel for all the honoru bestowed upon them is, quite frankly, a little weird to see from a Japanese corporation. Either Kojima's really in the dog house double, or... or what, I wonder?

Let's assume Canavero is really a puppet of The Patriots Kojima. Is Konami really publicly humiliating him by denying him entry to the Famitsu Awards only to make the Canavero stuff seem that much more legit? If they caught wind of Kojima telling his comrades to start actual charity fraud and his "actors" threatened to sue Konami, wouldn't there be some carefully worded but clearly very butt-hurt statement released hours later, as was the case with Kojima's apparent firing? The behavior of Konami isn't just erratic in the face of controversy, at this point it's positively insane!

Just to spite anything resembling clarity, Kojima - who's seemingly been granted very limited access to his English and Japanese twitter accounts - showed this photo, only to take the image off his feed an hour or two later:


And it's official: I'm completely out of tin foil.

In any case, Canavero's official response - in a phone call to Kotaku, which I'll let you find for yourself, because Gawker and its subsidiaries can get fucked as far as I'm concerned - has been that he plans to sue Konami and use the money for his HEAVEN research. Oddly he couldn't be reached at his work in Turin, but he was available on Skype, where he insisted he'd be on Italian television soon to talk about the Japanese corporation primed to make a fortune based on his research.

He obviously doesn't have much of a case - like I said, bald white guys in scrubs aren't exactly a unique commodity in the modern world, and this could likely be waved aside as parody  - but if that really is the final blow to this story, I'm okay with it. Real life emulates video games emulating 1984 emulating what they thought future technology would be at the time? Beautiful.

If, however, this turns out to be something more... well, goddamn, Kojima. The ruse cruise hasn't even pulled into the port, and we're all still on board. If he just played not only Metal Gear fans but medical science itself like a damn fiddle, I say Kojima's officially surpassed trolling from an artform into pure cosmic energy.

...oh, what's that? The guy who got a hold of Canavero for Kotaku has a "big reveal" to share with the world? Fuck it. I'll let you guys figure out the answers to these burning questions on your own.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

And You Will Watch In Terror! THE BEYOND Blu-ray Comparison


As Bob Murawski himself was has pointed out, the Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray release of Lucio Fulci's  THE BEYOND/...E tu Vivrai nel Terrore! L'aldilà is a release several years in the making. There's a lot to talk about this time around, and it's been a damn long while since I've gone blow-by-blow on a comparison for a title so in need of one, so let's get the history out of the way as soon as possible.

Odds are there's little I could possibly say about the film that hasn't been said already; for better or worse, Quentin Tarantino re-introduced the film to American audiences - who back then only knew it as an edited feature known as "7 Doors of Death" - at the end of the 1990s by doing theatrical runs of Grindhouse Releasing's restored, uncensored director's cut in a joint venture with Rolling Thunder Pictures. Grindhouse Releasing teamed up with Anchor Bay to release a restored DVD in 2000, with various re-releases in the years that followed, all based on the same telecine materials. It has seen numerous DVD releases in Europe and Asia with varying degrees of quality, but by all reasonable accounts it seems that Grindhouse and Anchor Bay were responsible for the definitive SD presentation some15 years ago.

UK distributors Arrow Video released the title on Blu-ray in 2011, but the initial release was criticized from top to bottom, and rightly so: The opening titles, always meant to be a golden-sepia the color of a faded photograph, were presented in stark black-and-white. The English audio would slip in and out of sync, and some shots - even one of the film's most iconic gore set pieces! -  were repeated to fill in the gaps. The feature and numerous HD bonus features were all crammed onto a single-layer disc, despite the packaging promising a BD-50. The whole thing was such a mess that Arrow Video eventually offered replacements, and while it did correct some of the color grading issues and gave consumers the promised dual-layer presentation, it also came with added DVNR, and didn't fix any of the audio flubs in the process. It was a modest improvement, to be sure, but to say both discs are somewhat disappointing would be perfectly reasonable.

Grindhouse Releasing has done some really impressive work with rarely-seen on video titles like The Swimmer, An American Hippie In Israel and Carnage... but, for Cannibal Holocaust, they seemed content to use a dated, middling quality transfer, the bulk of which is likely older than Grindhouse's DVD dating back several years now. Company head Bob Murawski has also stated in no uncertain terms that both Fulci's Cat in the Brain and Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces would be new 4K scans... but there was no mention of the materials or the scanning processed being used for The Beyond, which was also true of Cannibal Holocaust, and served as something of a red flag for me.

Bob has also said that, while he intends to release all of the titles he currently holds the rights to on Blu-ray in the coming year or so, he's also said that he's not interested in acquiring any new titles going forward, effectively ending the company's 19 year run. This business was always a pet project between professional film editor Bob Murawski and the now-late Sage Stallone, and with one-half of the company's leading men no longer in the picture, I can't help but think Murawski's honesty is honorable enough.

It was with this in mind that I kept my expectations firmly in check. Grindhouse Releasing has a 35mm print they play on a somewhat regular basis, but with the Arrow transfer having supposedly have been made from the original negative, there would likely be some advantages to using what HD source was waiting in Europe. I also seem to remember the Anchor Bay DVD proudly proclaiming that the title was "Mastered in High Definition", but I know from experience that not only is that claim rarely bullet-proof on older titles, but it's entirely possible that ancient HD masters are little better than a proper SD master minted a few years later on better equipment.

It's with disappointed that I acknowledge that Grindhouse used the pre-existing 2011 master... but the good news is that the results are at least somewhat better than expected.


RANDOM SCREENSHOT COMPARISONS
(Arrow Video Replacement Top - Grindhouse Releasing Bottom)





























All screenshots were taken by ripping the entire disc to my HDD, decoding the main video M2TS file with DGAVCDec loading the resulting DGA proxy file into AVISynth, loading said script into VirtualDub,  using the "snapshot source frame" option, dumping the raw bitmap data into MS Paint (because why the fuck not?), and then exporting a 1920:1080 PNG. In other words, these screenshots are 100% identical to the disc. No hardware acceleration here, folks!

HORROR NERD STUFF:
IS IT CUT, OR COMPLETE?

There's been rumor swirling around that the Arrow Video presentation was cut by about 8 seconds - I've never seen details of where those cuts are supposed to be, but decided there'd be a pretty quick way to figure out if there was any truth to it. To simplify the process, I cut off the "Grindhouse Releasing Presents" title card on the US release and edited my scripts so that both transfers started on exactly the same frame, using the position of the flames on the hotel in the opening shot as a reference point. In other words, both films are starting at the same frame, no question 'bout it.

Having done this, I jumped to the final hard cut of the film - that is, the shot from our heroes starring into the titular Beyond before the optical effects kick in. At this point we get a total runtime of 1:25:42.095 for the Arrow Video BD, and 1:25:46.600 on the Grindhouse Releasing BD. So, in theory, if the Arrow Video release was cut it would be missing a bit less than 4 seconds, not the 8 rumored... right?

Well, to be safe I did another test: Despite starting these two samples at the exact same frame, the first frame of "full color" (the Book of Eibon bursting into flames) kicks in on the Arrow Video BD at 0:06:59.711, while it shows up in the Grindhouse presentation at 0:06:58.75 - meaning the opening sequence of the Arrow Video master is slightly longer, which makes very little sense if the Arrow Video master is the shorter of the two!

(Having made my point, going forward I'll only reference the on-disc timecodes forward, just to make it easy to play along at home.)

Honestly, I don't notice any obvious jump-cuts or looped frames in the opening, so I can only assume this is the result of Arrow Video having tried - in vain, I know - to edit the raw footage of the Italian negative to match the English audio materials, rather than edit the audio materials themselves to match the English dub, as any more sensible studio would have fone. This is also the only conceivable explanation as to why the Arrow Video version re-plays nearly a second of Joe the Plumber getting his eye torn out of its socket at  00:18:25 on the Arrow Re-release (00:18:43 on the Grindhouse disc). So there's no "missing scenes" or anything of that nature on the Arrow Video release, just little trims and looped shots here and there that ultimately add up to a whole lot of nothing, but might annoy those who have watched the film countless times before.

In short, both prints are slightly different, but in all but one case those differences are so goddamn slight I can't even spot most of them, nor will I be able to figure them out without wasting hours on end counting frames. With the general funkiness of Arrow's presentation being well known, I think it's safe to say that while neither release is "cut", the Grindhouse presentation is the more accurate of the two. If anyone else has noticed any oddities - on either version - I'm more than happy to update this section, but for the time being I'm willing to chalk less than 4 seconds up to what would have been Arrow's usual incompetence circa 2011. Now, I'd say Grindhouse and Arrow are equals... my, how times change.

VIDEO NERD STUFF:
AVC ENCODE

When Arrow Video announced the rights to The Beyond in early 2011, they claimed that it would be a new transfer from the camera negative, a common enough promise from Italian genre licensors, and one I typically think there's at least some truth to. Unfortunately, Arrow's initial BD was a mess with boosted shadows, wonky color grading and terrible compression. When fans reailized that the package promised a dual-layered BD-50 and the actual release was a single layer BD-25, Arrow finally admitted fault and promised to fix the prior mistakes. The second release was an improvement, to be sure, but it was still pretty disappointing in the long run.

Grindhouse's presentation is a single-layer disc that clocks in at about 24.8 gigs, packing the single layer nearly to bursting, and boasts an average bitrate of 23,158 kb/s. Some may call foul on the average not being maxed out, but in terms of actual visible compression issues, I have no real complaints; there's little in the way of banding and grain structure maintains a surprisingly coarse texture from start to finish, which is more than we can say for the Arrow presentation, which clocks in at an even higher 27,999 kb/s. Remember kids, it's not all about the raw number of blocks with AVC - it's how you use those blocks to avoid visible artifacting. To put this another way, while a higher bitrate rarely makes a transfer look worse, I'm not convinced that this particular master would look magically different at even 30,000 kb/s. As always, Grindhouse Releasing has done a fine job compression difficult source material, and while part of me feels that BD-50 should be standard on all commercial releases running over an hour, if more BD-25s looked like this, I doubt I'd feel that way to begin with.

CRT VS CCD:
AN ITALIAN CLASSIC?

But the technical merits of an encode don't mean squat if the master it's supporting is crap, and that's where the Grindhouse release falls just a little flatter than I had hoped. While it's not been confirmed which film lab in Italy did the telecine work - it doesn't really look like LVR's usual output and I'd expect better from Technicolor Rome or Cinetecca, so perhaps it was Agustus Color? - it's no doubt the result of a CRT scanner, which has a certain... let's call it "quality" that I'm not a fan of. For lack of a clearer way to explain it, CRT scanners produce a noisy image without a lot of fine detail; it does (or it can) look like a "grainy" image, but having seen 35mm prints of vintage films like this, even theatrical prints looked softer and more nuanced than, say, the shot of David Warbeck in his car from up above.

The biggest question, of course, is "why"? Why use CRT scanners, when more modern CCD based alternatives exist? Well, there was a time when CCD scanners were expensive, unproven technology and CRTs were both familiar and readily available, so it'd make sense for a film lab looking to upgrade to HD ten or fifteen years ago to stick with the tech they already knew how to work with. Another issue is the very nature of the beast; having had the good fortune to speak to a colorist on the issue a few years ago, he told me that some film makers actually like the diffuse, noisy quality of CRT scanners, saying they felt that other options appeared "too soft" and compared the difference in texture and contrast captured by the different technologies to the difference between people who prefer CD over vinyl. I may not entirely agree with that assessment, but knowing everyone has their own fetishes, I can see why people who love the idea of "film grain" and have been looking at CRT scans for years would come to that conclusion.

In fact, the reason CCD has replaced most CRT scanners has less to do with the actual quality, and more to do with the fact that CRT scanners are goddamn expensive to upkeep! Not only are their separate tube pieces for each of the 'guns' - for red, green, and blue respectively - but they need to be kept replaced and properly aligned, which could lead to one gun having worn out and producing funky results, which would (at minimum!) require an expensive visit from a technician to minimize the difference. By comparison, CCD scanners basically have a single flash bulb that can be replaced with a screwdriver. No fuss, no unpredictable behavior, just clean scans all day, every day.

There's also a difference between a "scan" and a "telecine". They can occur on the same hardware, but the latter is a real-time affair that basically plays the film out like a projector and converts every frame to tape as it goes through. The results can be very nice indeed, but because of the constantly moving nature of the process, the results will never be quite as high quality as a proper scan, which lays the print flat and does a slow-exposure to make sure every detail is captured in the highest quality possible. How much of an impact that makes, however, depends on a lot of things, and some of those differences only matter if you're doing extensive color correction or damage repair anyway. So before anyone assumes I simply hand-waive this stuff off as broken out of the gate; not all CRT scans are inherently bad, and not all CCD scans are inherently good. We've made great leaps in technology for the latter in recent years, and poor color grading or heavy processing can take a superior scan and still make a worse final product.

That said, I'm a firm believer that CCD is "better" in every way that's worth noting, but that's just, like, my opinion, man.

...GO ON...

So why bring it up at all? Well, it so happens that numerous Italian genre films were all being made on the same piece of hardware - the Cintel DSX, if I remember - and they ranged from "noisy but okay" to "utter, absolute shite". So yes, we're dealing with a less than ideal HD master minted no less than 4 years ago. But that out of the way how bad is it? If we were to compare this to the usual suspects - that is, other Italian genre releases - it's on the better end of the list. No, it's nowhere near as good as Arrow Video's 2K restoration of Fulci's own Zombi 2,  Argento's 4 Flies on Gray Velvet, Synapse's corrected presentation of Demons or Midnight Legacy's proof of concept Alien 2: On Earth, but it stands head and shoulders over the vast majority of transfers from Blue Underground and LVR, which - for a damned long time - were about the only point of comparison we had to draw from.

To compare this to Grindhouse's own output, it's certainly better and more natural looking than the majority of Cannibal Holocaust, but it's also not as good as any of their other titles. To make a broader comparison, it's certainly no worse than The New York Ripper or Bird with Crystal Plumage, and if you thought the Blue Underground presentations of those were "good enough", as I myself do for the most part, you'll likely have no complaints. It's worlds better than garbage like Arrow's sand-blasted initial release of Tenebrae or Blue Underground's smudgy City of the Living Dead, and if you're looking for the best video presentation of The Beyond to date, this is it still by a country mile. The odds of some crazy new 4K scan beating this for several years are slim, to say the least.

Another consideration worth exploring is the way in which it was shot. As with the majority of Lucio Fulci's films it was shot using the Techniscope process, which - in plain English - is a 2-perf format that uses half as much film as a typical 4-perf anamorphic process. It's basically the Italian version of Super35, and as such had to be blown up to 4-perf for distribution, which means it has roughly half the vertical resolution of a 'proper' 4-perf anamorphic film. However, techniscope used spherical lenses which have tighter control over deep focus and none of the typical anamorphic distortion issues, so while the process is certainly "cheaper" than typical Hollywood alternatives, it isn't by default any "worse", particularly not in terms of Blu-ray where resolution is locked to 1920:804 for a constant 2.39:1 image. Don't get me wrong, I do love anamorphic photography, but I do want to dispel any nonsense about The Beyond, or indeed any of these lovely 1970s and 1980s Italian Techniscope films being "too cheap" to look good. Remember, Robinson Curusoe on Mars was shot using Techniscope and it was still high enough quality that Criterion scanned a 35mm IP at 4K and got an incredible looking Blu-ray out of it. And that was shot in the 60s. So everyone can shut up about "cheap" grainly film stock, unless you're actually discussing how it changed photo-chemically in the mid-1980s, and how it was less "cheap" and more "it had to be exposed completely differently for the same results, so it looked super grainy until DPs figured out how to work with it".

For those unaware, the credits are presented in Italian. This isn't a complaint so much as a clarification, though I am suspicious of the full title - that is, "...E tu Vivrai nel Terrore! L'aldilà", or '...And You Will Live In Terror! The Beyond' - was ever used theatrically in the 80s. They look like genuine optical titles, at least, so if they're fake at least they've done an above-average job of it.

MY KINDA NERD STUFF:
DIGITAL PROCESSING

Perhaps the most damning artifact on display is actually not the diffuse grain structure, but the edge-sharpening halos that were likely applied during telecine; Grindhouse cropped the edges of the matte bars out to hide the most obvious offenders, but door jams, signs, actors in bright sunlight and other high-contrast edges still have a funky, warped false-contour that gives the cheap illusion of a "sharper picture". I'd call it edge enhancement, but it seems to have been applied more to horizontal surfaces than vertical, so it looks 'different' than you may expect. Thankfully the lab used a "smart" algorithm that only targets consistent, hard edges, and doesn't simply contour the grain/noise as so many lesser filters tend to.

While Arrow was content to use a DVNR algorithm to blur and smooth over the more obnoxious layer of diffuse noise, Grindhouse seems to have left everything exactly as-is, favoring gritty fidelity over plasticine consistency. Fulci's usual affinity for soft-focus, gauzy photography is kept to only specific scenes here, so the film doesn't fall apart on Arrow's release nearly as often as it could have if it were, say, The Psychic. Grindhouse is the real winner in this regard, though sadly, that means you can finally see just how icky the underlying image could be on the raw scan.

Another major improvement over Arrow is in dirt and scratch removal. If fact, you can see small black and white specs on most of these screenshots on the Arrow presentation missing completely from the Grindhouse release. This is the sort of filtering that doesn't stand out, because they've done a fine job of it; an A/B comparison between the source and the finished product is like night and day, but simply watching the Grindhouse disc gives you the impression that the negative was simply clean to begin with. There's still a small level of "sparkle" - small white blobs and minor scratches that dance around from time to time, particularly on sudden movement - but it's never particularly distracting, and may be one of the more impressively naturalistic restorations of a "cheaper" catalog title in recent memory. Anyone expecting a Fulci film from 1981 to look sparkling clean was a fool, anyway.

The largest improvement, however, might just be color grading. The Arrow transfer often leans towards yellow midtones, boosted gamma and a bright, day-lit look, even during scenes that were clearly supposed to be day-for-night shots. The Grindhouse transfer is "darker" broadly speaking, but it's not simply darker as a matter of course; whole scenes have been adjusted separately for a desired "look" that appears to be in line with the Grindhouse 35mm elements we've seen on DVD and various theatrical road-shows over the last decade and a half, and while I don't know for sure if Sergio Salvati had any direct input on those transfers, he did give an interview in Blackest Heart Media's graphic novel adaptation confirming that the opening titles were supposed to be the color of a faded color photograph, not the simplistic black-and-white grading of the initial Arrow Video transfer*, which leaves me to assume that Grindhouse has a far closer idea of what the film is probably "supposed" to look like. I prefer the grading by a wide margin, at the very least, and I can't imagine anyone who sees the shot of David Warbeck walking away from a hospital with its lights on in the middle of the afternoon would assume this is somehow the way the scene is supposed to look.

NOT MY NERD STUFF:
AUDIO MASTERING

Okay, so this is the big bug-bear we've got to poke around with harder than expected. As you all know by now, I'm not much of an "audio guy". I can listen to a track and tell you if it's shit, if it's out of sync, if it's been filtered hard, but... I'm not the guy to ask if it's warm or cool. Or if it's within R128 spec. I mean I can probably guess if it's "okay" or "shit", but the finer points after that are so much gobbledygook to me.

...huh. I guess that's what talking to me about video issues must feel like for other people.

Anyway, there's been a lot of discussions, accusations and questions swirling around the "original mono" track. The 5.1 mix is actually not in dispute - it sounds more or less exactly as expected, a higher fidelity copy of the Dolby track from the old Anchor Bay DVD, and that's not a bad thing. As is often the case the 5.1 version has been subjected to a wide range of audio filtering, meaning there's very little hiss, but a certain 'underwater' quality that muffles and warps the sound as a side-effect. This is audio based noise reduction, and is - give or take - the aural equivalent to pasty, smeared left-overs after a video grain removal pass has gone terribly wrong.

I'll also give that 5.1 mix due credit - whoever did the mix paid close attention to the action on screen: The stereo panning at about 00:11:27 on the Grindhouse disc as the camera whips around to show the hotel buzzer slowly centered is perfection, and the scene at 00:09:38 where the contractor is bleeding out on the hotel couch only lets the sounds coming from the off-screen doorway emanate from the left side of the sound field. Most 5.1 mixes of old mono films aren't just pointless, they're actively lazy, letting the dialogue play out as mono and the music play out as stereo, with little attention paid beyond an explosion here or an echo there. Grindhouse's 5.1 mix has always been top notch, and neither Arrow nor Grindhouse have anything to feel ashamed of for it on Blu-ray.

The mono track on the Grindhouse disc, however, has gotten a bit of criticism for "pops" and other distortions in the high-end. Blu-ray.com member Irongod2112 has LISTED several instances, and on my trusty pair of MDR-V600 that's all but fallen apart from years of impure love, I can confirm that they're all here. The audio just sort of 'blips' out on the high end, not a full blown dropout but a distortion that covers much of the soundwave none the less.

Again, this isn't really my ream of expertise, so I'm more than willing to discuss this with anyone who feels they're more qualified to go over why these distortions exist - and how they could have been fixed without temporal digital processing/tedious looping that might not sound much better - I'm all ears.

What I don't agree with, however, is the notion that these are so dramatic that they're worth replacing the disc for. Much like the gritty scanner noise and occasional filmic scars that flow through the video presentation, these pops - while technically fixable, I have no doubt - are merely a broader sign of how little the original mono track has been molested. Minor distortions, especially on the high end, are to be expected of a post-dubbed Italian mix from this era. Remember that phrase I used earlier, "gritty fidelity over plasticine consistency"? That's exactly what we're dealing with on the sound side, as well. The original mono mix has been transferred in the best condition it can without getting a massive, rounded face-lift to remove minor flutters, clicks and inconsistencies that have always marred the masters, prior versions were simply so bereft of their analogue noise that you'd never have noticed before. An ideal spot to compare the mono track to the 5.1 mix might be 00:26:03, as Joe's wife and daughter walk down the silent hallway of the hospital; the mono track may have an omnipresent hiss in the high ends here, but the sound effects of the shoes clapping on the hard floor are notably more distinct as a result - the 5.1 remix may be completely clean of all analogue distortions, but the "thud" of the closing door at the end of the shot is positively hollow by comparison. When it cuts back from the hospital to the inside of the mortuary at 00:27:42, the mono track murmurs with subtle mechanical life, while the heavily filtered remix has been so cautiously scrubbed of hiss that it sounds very sterile.

The difference between them could easily be compared to a smoothed over CD remaster and a vintage vinyl recording. and I, personally, think the option of having both - a carefully restored and active 5.1 mix, as well as an accurate, organic presentation of the legit theatrical mix - is the absolute best case scenario anyone could ask for. One need only compare it to the "restored" mono track on the Arrow Video release - which sounds as clean and filtered as the 5.1 mix, but without any of the added "depth", or whatever proper audiophile terminology I'm looking for, of the "raw" Grindhouse track.

As is often enough the case, the Italian track doesn't sound quite as nice as the English mix - neither the 5.1 mix nor the English mono - coming across as somewhat flat and tinny by comparison, despite being just as full of analogue distortions as its English cousin. If I had to guess I'd say this was the optical track from a vaulted Italian print, while the English track is likely a newly transferred archival master - something magnetic, presumably? In any case, the film was shot primarily with actors speaking English, so unless you speak Italian I can't imagine the track being anything but a brief curiosity.

One other thing to note; the mono mix is fucking LOUD compared to the 5.1 mix, which may in part be why its distortions are so obvious. If I had to guess, I'd say this was down to the 5.1 mix having been made specifically for theatrical distribution using Dolby Digital as a codec, which is typically set to have a dialnorm rating of -27db... or, about 4db softer than a "reference" studio master. For a quick example of how drastically different the volume can be, jump to 00:52:19 as the pipe-cleaner spiders start eating the hapless bastard's face; the high pitched squealing and nails-on-chalkboard screeching are practically toe-curling on the mono track, but have a somewhat muffled quality on the remix by direct comparison.

Whether you want the original mono mix or the 5.1 surround remix, you're getting the best presentation here you could ask for. Much like the video presentation, it's not perfect, but it's damned good.

BONUS FEATURES
AND PACKAGING

Afraid I'll leave other reviewers to talk about this; suffice to say the overwhelming majority of the healthy selection of commentaries, interviews, image galleries and trailers from Grindhouse's previous DVD release have made the jump here, which was already several hours worth of content. I'm disappointed that the "full color" version of the original title sequence - hidden on the first disc as one of many, many easter eggs - is the old SD version from the DVD rather than the "raw" scan of the camera negative they showed off on their facebook page a while back, but hey, at least it's there in some form.

Fulci films are always a tough one to do extras for because the somewhat infamously petulant director passed away in 1996, before his work - along with several other prominent Italian directors of the 1970s and 80s who's work was often written off as cheap schlock - would be reappraised by an audience with a greater understanding of the trends, limitations, and unique style that makes the works of directors like Fulci, Martino, Margharetti and Castellari so fascianting to this day, even if most of their works were shrugged off at the time as cheap Hollywood knock-offs. They were, make no mistake, but so many of them - particularly a large number of Fulci's own films - managed to be far more than the sum of their parts. At the time a lot of wounds and rivalries were still fresh, so it took a few years without Fulci for those who knew him best to say anything particularly nice about him. A pity, perhaps, but it's slowly changed in the nearly 20 years since he left this mortal coil, with perhaps the most notable example being the two-part epic PAURA: LUCIO FULCI REMEMBERED, the raw footage of which - I do suspect - makes up a substantial runtime of what we're about to discuss.

It's with this in mind that I'm stunned to find an entire second disc of interviews, which - looking at the runtimes alone - appear to clock in at over 4 hours, with the lion's share of them being recent, HD affairs. Jesus Christ, I don't know if I should laugh or cry! As you can imagine a lot of these interviews have little to do with The Beyond specifically and are more long-form anecdotes about his career, but honestly, if any Fulciphile can sit through this and walk away somehow unsatisfied... shit, I don't even know what to tell you.

I don't usually make a big stink about packaging, but Grindhouse has always produced very handsome presentations and this is certainly no exception. Housed in a clear, Criterion Collection style double case, the set includes a 10 page booklet and a glow-in-the-dark embossed slipcover. The original soundtrack is included in a thin cardboard sleeve, and there's an additional thin bit of cardboard in the slipcase to keep everything from getting crushed in transit. It's one of the nicest packages I've seen in quite some time, and I can only assume later pressings will likely forego the fantastic Fabio Frizzi OST and the slipcase. The former was absolutely a deal-closer for me; with all due respect to the latter, Grindhouse's "original" artwork has always been my least favorite for the film, and I'm just a little sad that we don't get the bizarre American 7 DOORS OF DEATH poster as a reverse-sleeve image. (At least the booklet has the Italian poster art.) But I've always adored Frizzi's score for this, and indeed the rest of the Fulci zombie-themed films that were all expansions of his new theme for the 70s re-release of the original Godzilla.

AND YOU WILL LIVE IN TERROR?

While I had trouble recommending Grindhouse's Cannibal Holocaust BD to all but the most dedicated fans, this one seems a no-brainer: There's no better presentation out there, and it's full to bursting with bonus content and limited goodies. Highly recommended for fans, even if - like me - you purchased the Grindhouse disc 5 years ago. One could argue that the UK release has its own unique interviews, but Grindhouse interviewed most of the same people anew, so the only real defense for the UK import left was that limited window-box packaging, which has been replaced since by a more expensive steelbook.

Friends, it's never been a better time to be a fan of Italian cult films. Fulci's own A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN is getting a Blu-ray this summer, with Fulci's goofy, action packed train wreck ZOMBI 3 having just recently been announced by 88 Films for a UK release. Grindhouse Releasing themselves are going to release the amazingly nasty CANNIBAL FEROX next month, and Fulci's own CAT IN THE BRAIN will be one of their final titles - and that's not including German imports of THE PSYCHIC, or UK releases of ANTHROPOPHAGOUS and BLASFIGHTER in the near future. It's only gonna get better from here, friends, and I personally can't wait to revisit the lot of them.

I had hoped that The Beyond, arguably Fulci's most profoundly bizarre work would be considered important enough to be worth a new 4K scan. This may not be the presentation it could have been had they treated a new transfer as priority over bonus content, but for what it is, I just can't find it in me to complain.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Upscaled Embarassment: A Tale of Two KITE Blu-rays

It is with nothing but thanks and respects to old timey nerd Buster D that I present a quick, dirty, and thoroughly devastating comparison between the Media Blasters and Green Bunny BDs for Yasuomi UMETSU's ever-controversy generating 1998 anime masterpiece, A-KITE.

Images for the MB Blu-ray were taken using Media Player Classic Home Cinema's screenshot option, because they're not exact frames and honestly, I don't really give a fuck. This isn't the usual critical piece I'm fond of, it's just an excuse to point and laugh to hide the fact that I'm drowning in bitter, bitter tears.





















I know I talked briefly about this last time, but holy poop on a stick, whoever did the color grading for the HD transfer needs a proper pimp-slapping. Flesh tones are alright, and I'm not suggesting the old LD master was "better" overall, but why the fuck did they turn the gamma down to nothing? It's practically a black hole now, despite - as you can see - thorough attention paid to the dark and often moody backgrounds. "Black" needs special care in animation, since making sure outlines hit IRE 0 won't necessarily be "correct" - there's too many variables in paint and lighting to assume that, and turning everything down results in... well, in overly dark and "off" looking transfers like this. I suspect the reds are pushing way outside of color-safe zones, too, but I'm far too lazy to confirm at this point. There's so many other things wrong that complaining about Blu-ray limitations just feels like pissing on a corpse after you've stolen its watch.

And the next two shots are from the "explicit" scenes not included on the Media Blasters BD, just to prove the Japanese release - while far from uncensored - is, at least, the complete 18+ version.



It's really... it's really something, isn't it? The American BD may be a disaster on every level, but at least somebody seemingly tried to assemble a high quality composite of the best elements available. The Japanese BD is the laziest sort of abomination, an eyesore that's more censored than ever before... and yet, when it comes time to compare the Japanese BD to the upscaled scenes on the North American release, it's still the better of the two. It's like having to choose between a fresh shit and a dried turd, truly.

If it wasn't for the combination of pixelation-censorship and bizarre blurred-self censorship, I'd say the Japanese BD was the best version available, if only by default. Sadly, it seems the Media Blasters "Kite Uncut" DVD from a decade ago is still the winner, despite being a badly compressed release pulled from what I can only assume is a noisy-ass Betacam SP dupe master. The JP release has some gnarly analogue noise of its own, but at least it didn't turn into pixelated mayonaise with a nice high-bitrate AVC encode, I guess.

I'm fucking done with the internet for the next couple days. Was hoping to have a feature on a less sorrow-inducing release finished by now, but hey, I go where I'm needed, like a rounin with the superpower to shitpost and complain at the speed of spite. I hope all of you have more fun seeing this than I did, 'cause man, all I feel right now is sick.