Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Very Merry Unbirthday... To Me!

I wasn't around yesterday. Why? 'Cause it was my Birthday. Mmmyep, 23 and already I feel like a washed up has been. That can't be good. But as is customary on my birthday, I still had a lot of fun, and man oh fucking MAN did I get some awesome stuff out of it.

First off, the present my too awesome for words wife got me:

This chunk of beautiful PVC is the YURIA figure released under Kaiyodo/XEBEC's 200X FIST OF THE NORTH STAR toy line. She was released back in 2001, and was one of about 3 Fist of the North Star toys to never get a US release. I've only ever owned a hand full of these plastic beauties (though as most of them are big beefy men in leather and covered in blood, maybe "beauties" isn't the right word), and this one - with a retail of 3,400 yen and no US availability - slipped through my grasp after she disappeared sometime 5 or 6 years ago. I've always regretted it, particularly when - as you can see - she can either be all cute in her little skirt, or decked out and incognito as the Nanto Saigono no Shou (The Last South Star General) in full samurai armor. She goes for $150+ on eBay, easily, and while I don't know for a fact what my wife spent on me, I know she asked what they sell for on the off-chance that she could grab another and make some of her money back. When I told her, she fell dead silent.

There's a reason we were out of food for a while.

But dammit, that glorious idol of plastic was worth every minute of hunger and wishing like hell that I had some ramen and soy sauce. I opened her - why the hell do people buy toys and then NOT play with them (or at least display them) anyway? - and found that while she poses beautifully, I can't actually put her in full armor yet. The paint job, while spectacular, has fused her boots (which are 2 separate pieces that enclose her lower leg) completely, and I'm going to have to go at them with a pot of hot water, an X-acto knife and a whole lot of luck and patience if I want her to be covered in a shell of badass armor. While she's certainly the sexiest looking toy I think I own (most of them fall under the "demon" and "buff men" variety), to not show off that suit of armor would be a crime. Now I clearly need to get a KING figure, a second version of the Shin 200X figure that included an alternate outfit to snap on to the Yuria figure. A shame they never came in a 2-pack... also a shame he'll be about $60 to import after Celga fees and shipping.

Anyway, this blog has (almost) always tried to remain pretty focused on movies, the people that make them, and how you can see them for yourself. With that in mind, I've got a present for you, the reader, on this, the day after my birthday.

...fuck, what am I, the godfather?

For some time, I've been a fan of Takashi MIIKE. By fan I mean that I'd suck his dick for him, choke a bitch for him, give him one of my kidneys - y'know. BIG fan, is what I'm getting at. And the second Miike Movie I was lucky enough to see is his now infamous horror film AUDITION. Audition, for those who've not seen it (and all of you should have) is the story of a kind middle-aged widower who, in a bout of loneliness and melancholy about the state of the world around him, holds a sort of fake audition with his TV producer confidant in what seems like a last attempt to find love. Under the right circumstances, Audition could have been the great romance. Aoyama, the lonesome and good natured protagonist, is a genuinely nice and humble man. He's a good father, he loved his wife, and this process to meet a nice girl - one he at first is against, even - isn't the reach of a sexual predator, just one of a nice guy who can't seem to get lucky a second time. Similarly, Asami - his beautiful love interest - is the perfect woman, a retired balet dancer who lives a quiet, simple life, and who's affection for Aoyama grows from his genuine interest in her, and his desire to nurture and care for the sweet girl.

Of course, if that's all there was to Audition I wouldn't have bothered. No, Audition is a horror film the likes of which the world hasn't known before, or since. Played in a delicate yet bipolar style I'd compare in principle only to the psychedelic works of Dario Argento, the film starts out with lucid, long shots bathed in a golden glow, and a sweet natured soundtrack makes the film feel like it's a straight forward character piece up until the audition itself begins. After a long, painful shot of the shutters in the room closing like a lock-down in a prison, Aoyama calls Asami as he promised he would... and there she is in her apartment, staring at the phone without moving, a large burlap sack in the background gurgling in a strained human voice kicking around behind her. Audition has mere moments of the surreal and the horrifying in what for the first half is the perfect romance, building and simmering until the camerawork and dialog becomes more frantic and chaotic, the perfect romance slowly turning into a hellish nightmare. All the same, even fans of Argento, Fulci, or any director with a love and appreciation for raw sadism won't know what the hell to expect from the final reel, in which memory, reality and Aoyama's darkest fears pile on top of one another like a fever dream. Audition's final reel is one of the most spectacular pieces of horror I've ever seen, and more importantly it's to this day the most mature and perfectly honed piece of Miike's filmography. This isn't to say it's my favorite, or even that it's the most brutal film Miike's created... but there is a reason he's known internationally as a "horror director" when, infact, the majority of his works are either about yakuza. He's a horror director in part because his non-horror films almost invariably have extreme and unpredictable sequences that fill the viewer with awe and disgust, and because when he is directing horror (particularly when it touches upon the subject of treacherous or frightening women... the hell did Mama Miike do to him?) he's unquestionably at the top of his game. Audition is a perfect introduction to Miike not because it sums up his career - doing so would be fucking impossible - but because it's a film that shows off pretty much all of his strengths and obsessions as a director.

It does lack gay buttsex, but if he ever goes directs Bishounen like he promised perhaps he'll finally admit that he's gay and stop fearing anything with a vagina so much. S'okay Miike, we don't give a damn. Hell, Roman Polanski butt-rapes 12 year old girls and everybody loves him.

Anyway, there has been a big problem with Audition for some time now: frankly, the DVDs floating around suck. They suck hairy donkey balls, even. For a while was a DVD from Chimera Entertainment that featured a slick orange digipack in the US, and it went out of print in 2005, to make way for a new "Uncut Special Edition" from Lion's Gate Entertainment. The only R-rated video release from Chimera went straight to rental chains that requested it (like Blockbuster), but, whatever. Lion's Gate promised new features, and a brand new print, which was nice since the R1 was non-anamorphic, and the Japanese DVD (and this master) was the same way. The R1 did have some nice exclusive features though, including an interview with Miike and a commentary track for the last reel. Unfortunately, both of these features were dubbed in English instead of subtitled. What the hell, people?

Here we have a screencap of the Chimera R1. As you can see, the transfer... isn't very good. It's very, very dark, has a bit of a warm cast to the image, there isn't a lot of fine detail, and with the master being non-anamorphic this will look like crap on a decent setup. It was taken from a component master though, artifacting is pretty minimal, and there isn't any obvious edge enhancement. It could have looked far worse than it does, but it could have been better too. At least both the 2.0 and 5.1 audio options sound very good, the subtitles are optional, and the disc wasn't horrendously prices ($30 was average back in 2001 or so when I bought it). While the screencap doesn't show is that this DVD was also encoded progressively, showing that it was indeed a transfer made specifically for DVD rather than a composite LD slapped on DVD, or something similarly strange.

Fair is fair though, and at first glance the newer transfer from Lion's Gate looks pretty awesome: there's more fine detail in Asami's face (isn't she pretty/nightmare inducing?), the image is a lot brighter and brings out formerly missing detail in the walls and chair behind her, and that strange golden cast is gone. That having been said, the tint may have been intentional... it's pretty common in Japanese films for the films to have been tinted a specific hue on a scene-to-scene basis, and much like the restored HALLOWEEN DVD from Anchor Bay entertainment, the attempt to "fix" the colors have made the film look more natural, but less impressive*. Also, take a look at Asami's hands... zoom in if you have to. See something 'funny' there?

What you're seeing on the Lion's Gate DVD is ghosting. Why? Because back when the film was licensed to Germany, the now-defunct German film studio Rapid Eye Movies (REM) thought the Japanese DVD looked less than impressive - particularly since the NTSC tape master would have to be converted to PAL, which would further degrade the quality for the finished DVD. Typical PAL to NTSC/NTSC to PAL conversions are done with a machine that are built to take several frames and then try to mush the frames together in a form that kinda', sorta' resembles the desired frame rate. It tends to screw with the colors, soften the picture, and create ghosting, which is in the above cap there (though I wasn't trying too hard to find it). PAL transfers are fine in theory, aside from their 4% speedup and half a semitone of audio pitch. NTSC is theoretically also fine, aside from the 3:2 pulldown (don't ask). Unfortunately, converting one to another - either way - always leaves you with a ghosting mess that often looks all right paused, but goes to hell in actual motion. It's a hard effect to describe, but once you see it it's almost instantly recognizable.

Now, the reason Lion's Gate used a PAL-NTSC conversion is simple: REM did the dirty work in creating an anamorphic print, and while they could have (ie: SHOULD HAVE!) taken the 25 frames per second PAL remaster and changed the framerate back to 24 frames per second, creating a progressive NTSC master, it was just easier to run it through a converter box and say "looks good enough". There are hundreds of conversion transfers running around - some of them unavoidable - but since I myself could have turned the PAL master into NTSC with nothing but some free time and a cracked copy of CCE, it makes me incredibly sad to see a touted special edition use a nasty transfer like this.

The real question, of course, is which transfer is better? While the Lion's Gate transfer ghosts and may or may not have the proper color timing... it is brighter and sharper than the old Chimera transfer. It's also anamorphic, and with the Chimera DVD sporting subtitles inside the black bars anyone with a 16:9 television would be fucked, unless they know Japanese well enough not to need them. Also, while Lion's Gate dropped the actual trailers for Audition and replaced them with a bunch of trailers for less impressive Asian horror films (despite there being plenty of room on the DVD - over a gig untouched!), they try to make up for it by including a new introduction with Miike, an interview with Ryu Murakami (who wrote the novel after having met several crazy bitches while casting the now-classic Japanese sex film Topaz/Tokyo Decadence), and a segment from Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, in which Eli Roth squirms like a pussy remembering, and Rob Zombie acts like a man and calls it genius. It's amusing, but... not really all that enlightening. The commentary and interview from the Chimera release are still here, though unfortunately they're still dubbed, so we can't hear Miike whacking off during the finale. I've not watched the new material itself yet (apart from the Bravo thing), and hope to tomorrow: I have much else to watch, which I'll mention momentarily.

Since Tartan, a (mostly) UK distributor bought the REM master and released their own Audition Special Edition some time ago, you can now get the UK SE for under $12 shipped. It includes basically the same transfer as the Lion's Gate DVD minus the ghosting, and it also has the original trailers and an interview which... I THINK, is different from the one on the Lion's Gate release. It also has a DTS track, which everyone agrees was a waste of space. If you're a hardcore Miike fan, the UK release is probably the one to get for the transfer, with the Lion's Gate DVD a nice complimentary piece if you dig having every extra known to man. I've assumed for some time that the Lion's Gate SE was a PAL-NTSC transfer, and actually having it in my hand at least sets my curiosity to rest... if not my ire and frustration. Still, the extras are promising, and as I only spent a whopping $10 on it I'd consider it a good purchase. I think I can finally put my Chimera DVD out to pasture, and if I miss the Japanese trailer (which features a silly pop song also used in the end credits) I can always just add the Tartan SE to my shelf.

So, what else did I buy? The OLDBOY 3 DVD Ultimate Tin Edition from Tartan/Asia Extreme (US version) - a lucky find since this massive hunk of cool has been out of print for probably a year, and the recent Media Blasters' release of the ICHI THE KILLER 2 DVD Special "Blood Pack Edition". Uh-huh. They sold DVDs in a blood bag, and finally ported everything from the Dutch Special Edition, and even more besides. I'll post screenshots and ramble like a crazy person once I've... actually watched them. Oldboy has almost 6 hours of special features before the 3 commentary tracks... my god, what have I gotten myself into?

*Many remasters are done from the camera negative, which can lead to intentional tints not being in the finished films. One such example is the night-for-day scenes in several cult film remasters, like Sadomania or The Man From Deep River, where characters will say it's night when it's still bright and sunny. These scenes would have been tinted dark blue by the time they made the interpositives, which would in turn source cinema (and later video) prints. So, when Europe does a remaster of a Japanese film - like Ichi the Killer, Audition, or Versus - they do it without the presense of either the director, or the cinematographer. Clearly if they're handed a master and feel it's not good enough, something may have gone wrong, but without the film makers themselves there to decide if the colors are right, if the contrast is boosted, if the level of detail is acceptable - who are we to bitch otherwise?

We're frustrated fans who look at a man in a white shirt and see that it's yellow, despite him wearing white on the box, goddamn it. Sometimes even the cinematographers are full of shit, or don't remember, or simply don't care... it's a tough balance to come to, knowing "when I saw it, it looked like this" when the guy who MADE it says otherwise. Still, remasters made from the negative without the supervision of anyone involved - particularly if these masters were meant to be filtered in post production - is about as slippery a slope as you can find in this industry.

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