Friday, June 24, 2011

RIKI-OH Punches Through Blu-Ray!

If anyone was ever dumb enough to ask "What's the most ass-kickingest movie ever made?" out loud, they didn't live to tell about it. You know why?

'Cause then this happened.

力王/RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RICKY was the 1991 film adaptation of the saliciously grotesque ongoing manga, simply titled "Riki-Oh", written by Masahiko TAKAJO and illustrated by Tetsuya SARUWATARI. The manga is sort of the unofficial satire take on my own beloved Fist of the North Star. The hero, a cultured and honorable young man named SAIGA Riki-Oh, is imprisoned in a corrupt jail for the cold-blooded murder of a local crime boss. While in prison he's forced to fight his way through the four inmates who really run the joint - fighters so desperate to take Riki-Oh down with them they disembowel themselves and use their organs as weapons. When he takes care of the lot of them, he takes down the warden, who's The Incredible Hulk... no, not actually the Marvel Comics Hulk, but one Takajo made up himself. After destroying the corrupt system, Row Row Fight the Power and all that, he literally punches through the side of the fucking prison and walks off a free man.

It's not all roses on the outside, though: After taking down some Neo-Nazi soldiers interested in recovering the Lance of Longinus, he signs up for the Kumite and fights The Terminator... yes, he basically fights a metal-faced Arnold. But their battle is interrupted by Riki's long lost twin brother, Nazi, who's not only a super powered Jesus lookalike who's being managed by M. Bison, but is also the reincarnation of Hitler and will bring about the fall of life as we know it unless Riki kicks his ass. I swear I'm not making a word of this shit up-- the entire 12 volumes of manga has been translated by the good folks at illuminati-manga. Just read that shit after I'm done jaw-flapping at ya, I'm going somewhere with this.

The 1991 Lam Nai-Choi film, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, adapts the first storyline with Riki-Oh fighting his way through the wicked prison inmates. It basically defines the very notion of the word "epic", and is every bit as great an action movie as a Sonny Chiba marathon and every bit as gruesome as all of Peter Jackson's early movies put together. It positively bleeds manly greatness. If you don't like this movie, we can never, ever be friends. I don't care if you were the best man at my fucking wedding or helped me bury my own brother's corpse - you say one word about Story of Ricky being anything but the greatest achievement in cinematic history and I'll promptly kick your candy ass square in the junk and walk away, never to speak to you again.

So here's the good news: Blu-ray is SET TO DROP this Setpember at the ridiculously low MSRP of $21! The bad news... well, just look who's releasing it.

Due to the endless awesome this title exhudes from every gaping wound, I'm buying this fucking Blu-ray. But Media Blasters has been incredibly hit or miss on the format, so I'm not convinced I'd recommend others pre-order unless they're willing to take the gamble on this being an utter trainwreck. Yes, Fortune Star did an HD remaster a couple years back and released it on DVD, but not only have they since released a number of hastily-upscaled SD masters straight to Blu-ray, but that DVD was no looker.

The caps might not actually look as bad as the DVD does in motion, since it allows a certain level of grain through the DVNR... but that grain is frozen in place, like a blanket of sand-paper over an otherwise moving image. You can see *some* grain around moving objects, an odd sort of sharpened-ghosting (check out the billy club for a great example), but on stationary shots there's no organic movement whatsoever. It gets especially bad in the bathroom when the titles just sort of blend and blur together, only becoming a clear grid again when the camera stops moving. Wither or not the transfer is "better" than the HKL UK DVD is up for interpretation, but if this is the only HD master out there, I assume it's the one Media Blasters is getting... and that doesn't fill me with confidence.

How's this going to play out, Media Blasters? Am I going to sing your praises and compare this 20th anniversary event to being fellatiated by God himself?  Or am I going to have to rip it a new fist-sized asshole for being on par with Versus, Ichi the Killer and other fucking awesome movies you've shat out on poorly upscaled "High Definition" releases?

The rock's in your court now, Sirabella. Wow me. But don't do it for me (not that you would), do it because this movie rightly deserves every ounce of love and care that Citizen goddamn Kane has been given over the last 70 years. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is the absolute pinnacle of splatstick/kung fu anime inspired madness, and no film has even even TRIED to steal it's title in 20 years. If you're willing to pay for a new HD master for a pile of convoluted knock-off bullshit like Zombie Holocaust, the least you can do is go balls out for this authentic masterpiece of whatthefuck cinema.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Maniacal Machine Noise Haunts TENEBRAE...

Back when Blue Underground released City of the Living Dead and Django on Blu-ray in 2009, Michael MacKenzie - former reviewer for DVD Times, writer for the delightful Land of Whimsy, and an admirer of all things giallo that borders on the erotic - came away very underwhelmed. He was one of the first people to regularly review Italian genre releases on the tubes to suggest - after reading all of the scuttlebutt on AVS - that while seemingly all of Blue Underground's Eurohorror titles had a distinctly sharp (or "harsh") grain structure, it seemed to sit on top of the actual image rather than create it... it's a difficult phenomenon to describe, but his initial theory was that perhaps they were older HD transfers that had been subjected to DVNR at some point, and then a layer of artificial dithering was added on top to try and give it a more natural, film-like appearance. Before you call that crazy, keep in mind that's exactly what Universal did to An American Werewolf in London once John Landis called the restored HD transfer something like 'too pretty for its' own good'.

I don't mean to put the poor guy on the spot, but it wouldn't be right to claim that many other serious reviewers were suggesting anything that radical when these discs were brand new. On the contrary, Django and City of the Living Dead have been given almost nothing but praise, in no small part due to having been released for decades sourced from dire prints. And yes, I myself was one of those guys largely satisfied with City of the Living Dead, after having watched it on the Thriller Video VHS transfer so caked in print damage it looks like the opening scene is raining. It's within these unique, personal experiences that we take in how we think a film 'should' look, and sometimes apply these limited standards to concurrent releases without consciously factoring in what, if circumstances were ideal, they probably COULD look like. Thankfully, Michael's a smart guy with an eye for details, and he's not as ready to let fuzzy nostalgia of a chewed-up rental tape keep him from saying, if perhaps not in so many coarse words; "Hey, this looks like piss on shit!"

Speaking of which...

The following images were taken from the Arrow Video release of TENEBRAE, and all of them exhibit the same oddities of a harsh, unnatural layer of grain on top of a soft, almost smeared image. To compare, here's another image from City of the Living Dead and Django, both exhibiting an obvious lack of actual "resolution" despite an abundance of something that, more or less, resembles film grain - stolen, quite shamelessly, from the good folks at DVD Beaver. Because I'm too lazy to grab my own copies today.

Now, here's the kicker... the Arrow Blu-ray for Tenebrae is NOT taken from the same source as the French Wild Side release. So how does that French transfer, an independent telecine, look in comparison? Can we maybe get a shot-for-shot 1:1 comparison?

Holy shit... the walls on the left side of the frame are a virtually barren, smooth surface on the UK release, but they're full of nooks and crannies on the French master. The belt loops on Laura Wendel's skirt is also clear and easily visible on the French print while they're virtually indistinguishable on the UK transfer. And that lightbulb... for the love of God, just look at the lightbulb!

It's straight-up impossible for BOTH of these transfers to accurately represent the level of grain on a high-quality source print, and while the French release looks the way I'd expect reasonably modern, well exposed 35mm film to look, the UK release just... looks like a blurry mess with a coating of funky-ass noise buzzing on top of it. And just so we're clear that the French transfer isn't rife with DVNR or anything, here's a nice, natural layer of film grain that's typical of every less-than-perfectly lit scene in the film. Remember kids, grain becomes finer and harder to spot on brightly lit material, so it's perfectly natural for Tenebrae to have only the thinnest layer of grain on the negative.

So what the fuck is going on here?!

The French HD master has more detail and less grain than the Italian-made HD master given to Arrow Video (a master that has the same hallmarks as virtually any of its contemporaries). There is no sensible reason for this to be the case, which leaves us with about three explanations:

1) The titles really were smeared with DVNR, and then caked in digital grain after the fact.

2) They have some seriously poor or mis-calibrated scanning equipment,which is producing digital noise on top of an already badly focused image.

3) They're using multi-generational film prints... but, no, even that wouldn't explain the smudginess.

Understand that I don't blame Arrow for this, at least not so far as I blame any licensor who doesn't make their own transfers from scratch (and most of them don't). They're being handed smudged, noise-riddled materials by the Italian licensors as part of their contracts, the cruelest irony of all being that they probably paid a secondary fee specifically for access to these crappy HD masters. The same exact thing happens with Blue Underground (though they tend to make matters worse by lying about those materials being "from the negative" and "new masters" when they're neither) - more often than not they aren't actually producing these transfers, they're getting HD materials from Italy and keeping their fingers crossed that they don't suck. Paying for a pre-made HD master is always cheaper and simpler than being tasked with making a new one yourself, and... well, let's think about this for a second; would you expect a foreign film producer to NOT offer you a usable, new, high quality transfer?

But the speculation as to wither or not Argento's films "should" look as gritty and harsh as they have on Blu-ray can finally be put to rest. This goes for the works of Fulci, Corbucci, Grau and Passolini too, all of whom have had ridiculously noisy Blu-ray releases. We can only thank Wild Side for making their own HD remaster of similar (if not the same?) film materials and finally proving how self-serving only having one or two licensors picking away at the same titles can become... there's no incentive to improve, and with everyone shoveling the same shit back and fourth it becomes easy to lose track of what the releases could be, instead of what they actually are.

Arrow Video, Blue Underground, and every other film licensor who's willingly taking these shitty transfers: Enough is enough. You've been serving these blurry, gritty clusterfucks up our way for over two years now, and because we had no solid point of reference we were all willing to believe your claims that this was as good as it got. Sadly, Tenebrae effectively proves you've been complacent at best, and incompetent at worst. If you buy the rights to a film and you get handed materials that look anything like the Arrow transfer, TURN IT DOWN. Either make a new transfer yourselves, or walk away from the title completely. Yes, these smeared, harsh, ugly HD transfers are all "better than the DVD", but if we have to compare it side-by-side to a decade old standard definition release just to be confident that it's a marginal upgrade, it's not fucking worth a $30. You know it, and we know it... but we're suckers for these films and we'll keep buying them anyway. We'll even lie to ourselves and say "it doesn't look that bad" because we're sure nothing better is coming down the pike for who knows how many years. But that's just not going to cut it anymore.

Blue Underground got this Eurohorror Blu-ray ball rolling in late 2008 with the virtually sand-blasted The Stendhal Syndrome, and right from the start just a few dedicated genre fans thought something was amiss. The satisfied majority called them crazy (among other things), saying that these films have always looked like shit - which is true enough, I know - and that the transfers from Arrow and BU were as good as they could possibly get. Wild Side has finally proven that simply isn't true, and I have no doubt that it never was.

Something is rotten in Italy, and Tenebrae is the first title we can finally look at two completely separate releases and prove it. Time will bear out that this is no isolated incident, and I can only hope that Blue Underground's threat to scan Zombi 2 from the negative isn't idle talk like the rest of their marketing bullshit... but that's a bit of a dangerous game, isn't it? If Zombi 2 really is the gangbusters release we're all hoping for, it'll only establish how shitty stuff like The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and The Beyond are by comparison...

We'll talk about all this in October, of that I'm certain.

EDIT: Updated to include an exact frame-match in BT.709 colorspace, and fixed a few minor errors that come with writing in a rage. Thanks, Mentasm! You've saved me at least 15 pounds sterling.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This is a joke, right?

From now on, I'm going to reserve the words "upscaled" for transfers that look like this. I'm still not convinced that transfers like King of New York, Versus and Battle Royale have anything approaching real-world resolution that a DVD isn't fully capable of, and that has made me quite suspicious... still, I'm willing to admit I could be wrong. A combination of old scanning equipment, excessive post-filtering and middling encoding can leave you with an image so processed and stripped of the resolution present in whatever film source was used that the detail is essentially lost, leaving you with an "HD" transfer totally devoid of any natural film grain or high-frequency detail, the two things that actually separate HD from SD to begin with.

Part of me wonders if a transfer so shoddy that it has no real-world resolution over DVD should be held in any higher regard than an SD upscale... but no, that's not entirely fair. Some films are just blurry as hell, or transferred from multi-generational sources. More importantly, even a shitty new HD master is bould to not have numerous problems a dated SD transfer is more or less expected to have. In effect, a bad HD transfer is bad, but a bad upscaled transfer is just acknowledging you don't give a shit and have nothing but contempt for your own product... if that's the case, I should probably apologize to the likes of Media Blasters and Arrow Video...

...but, then I remember that both Ichi the Killer and the Italian version of Bay of Blood are, in no uncertain terms, SD upscales. So, whatever. Lie to me once I'm going to assume you're doing it all the time.

Well, this looks pretty good for an SD Netflix stream...

Unfortunately, the new German Blu-ray release of David Cronenberg's iconic (if overrated)  Sci-Fi head-popper SCANNERS is as blatant an SD upscale as it gets. There's a ton of caps floating around on the forums if you'd like to see more for yourself. Say whatever you like, it's painfully clear that this is just an upsampled version of the SD master MGM made for DVD ten goddamn years ago! Same framing, same print damage, same color timing... and yeah, same level of detail. It's not awful for a ten year old Digibeta, but what the hell is it doing on a 1080p Blu-ray, claiming to be "Remastered", no less?!

In the words of the great and wise Cee-Lo Green, Fuck you, Koch Media. If this was mastered from anything but a Digibeta, then I'm going to nominate the Hong Kong release of Bullet in the Head as the absolute best transfer of the year:

Hoo-lee shit... I never, EVER thought I'd have to say "Well, at least Woo'sThe Killer looks amazing in comparison!"

UPDATE: There's been a lot of talk about a "superior" HDTV broadcast version that's been floating around the internet for some time. The forum has since uploaded several caps of the MGM HD version, and being the natural skeptic that I am, included both transfers here, side-by-side, so you can make up your own minds as to what you think happened (spoiler warning: I'll say what happened after the pics, too):



It's... kind of a wash, to be honest. The crisper details, IRE 0 blacks, lack of distorted edge-ringing, better framing and more natural colors all suggest that the HDTV rip is, indeed, a completely different source. It sure looks like a new HD transfer on close-ups, but the 720p version that's still on P2P sites is so badly filtered and compressed that the upscaled Blu-ray still, on occasion, has more detail despite having less source resolution: That sign with the corndog looks better on the HDTV version, but the texture on the empty stool looks better on the Blu-ray.

Y'know what? I'll say it again; Fuck you, Koch. It's not bad enough that you're passing off shitty SD upscales as "Remastered HD", but there actually is a remastered version and you assholes didn't even get your hands on it!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Escape From The Print Damage

So I finally got my hands on a copy of Enzo G. Castellari's 1983 action film BRONX WARRIORS 2/Fuga del Bronx... and was immediately horrified by what I saw. I don't think it's unfair to say any real "restoration" that went into this release was putting a band-aid on a limb cut off with a dull hacksaw, and having long thought the prior film in the series, 1990: The Bronx Warriors was sort of the definition of badass Italian knock-off cinema, I can't help but feel like the sequel deserves substantially better than it got... and yes, I'm saying that knowing full well that Enzo himself wasn't thrilled about being the guy to make it, but come on! The original Inglorious Bastard himself basically ate awesome and crapped kick-ass until Rome's film industry collapsed at the end of the 1980s.

Oh sure, the Shameless UK DVD is uncut, anamorphic and the best looking print available... but it's always the little things, like decent scratch repair, that make all the difference.

(41 Mb, compressed at 720x480 with x264)

Now don't get your hopes up, this won't be my next DVD-R or anything - I'm just fussing around with it as a few other things settle. I'm having a lot of fun exploring some freshly tweaked scripts here, and I'll probably give it some final spit-polish in Sony Vegas before all is said and done.

Sony Vegas: It's like Final Cut Pro for us guys who are Mactarded!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Knock a Little Harder: COWBOY BEBOP Gets Downmixed?!

Gary Oldman, Dakota Fanning, Keanu Reeves and Asia Argento (circa 2003)
Don't pretend you weren't thinking about it before Fox made it a horrible possibility...

If you're even remotely interested in anime, odds are you've got your pre-order in for Cowboy Bebop The Movie: Knockin' on Heaven's Door/劇場版 カウボーイビバップ 天国の扉. The street date is June 28th, and the MSRP is a criminally low $17.97. The JP release will set you back over five times that price, and there's no English audio or subtitles to boot. Like the rest of the world I figured this'd be a sweet deal, and a nice HD treat to tide us all over until Bandai gets their shinola together and releases the TV show on Blu-ray...

Unfortunately, we can't always have nice things. Not for under 7,800 yen, at least. Having bought the rights to release the film domestically from Sony Pictures Classics in 2010, Image re-released the 2003 Special Edition DVD verbatim - even the case is virtually identical. This means that Image clearly has access to Sony's materials, and as such likely has every opportunity to do the film justice. I mean yeah, we'll never get the on-screen original subtitle "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" in the states over legal concerns with Bob Dylan, but that's a small price to pay in the long run for a fun slice of Space Cowboy adventures.

Sadly, it's now confirmed (even by the official site) that the Image BD has bit two very big problems:

- All of the DVD extras are gone -
- Audio is PCM 2.0 Stereo -

Cowboy Bebop's movie was just as advertised; a legitimate big-screen production, with a legitimate 5.1 surround mix. Even the TV series was given a full-blown surround revival, so the fact that the most expensive and dramatic entry into the franchise has been clipped into a track fit for goddamn laserdisc is nothing short of baffling. None of the DVD releases of "The Movie" in Japan or the 'States have ever included a stereo downmix, much less at the cost of the original surround track, and the Blu-ray is certainly a piss-poor place to start!

The extras are arguably less of a cause for concern, but further illustrate how hard Image is willing to half-ass these $18 Blu-ray releases. To Sony's credit, they crafted a six-part documentary with the localization team, some storyboard comparisons, and included the following deliciously goofy trailer...

Oh yeah. It's happenin'.

It may be too late for Spike and pals, but rest easy knowing this is the only anime title Image Entertainment has to offer. Once this is over and done with, we just have to keep an eye on Sentai Filmworks, Bandai Entertainment, FUNimation and the rest of the usual suspects.

Sadly, this has set a pretty miserable precedent for the multitude of Anchor Bay and Something Weird titles they've got lined up for the rest of the year... call me crazy, but I can't imagine them treating The Hills Have Eyes and Blood Feast any better.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Full Sequence Denied: BBFC Bans HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2

Less than a week ago a friend of mine asked if Tom Six's bizarre horror independent film Human Centipede (First Sequence) was worth watching. In the end, all I could do was shrug and say that it was "different" from anything else I've ever seen before - it's a serious, relatively thrilling little piece of work, I'll certainly give it that. Even just being "different" is modest praise, since I watch my share of gonzo-ass horror films, but the whole thing felt like a great concept that left itself with nowhere to crawl. My wife also sat through it end to end (to end), which is more than I can say for Cronberg's Crash or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre... so either the notion of becoming a faceless assless shit-monster is less blatantly repulsive than wound fucking and being chased by a giant retard with power tools, or Mrs. Kentai is kinkier than I'd realized. I'll have to look further into that possibility...

Yeah. It was this, or that "Dark Side of the Centipede" LP cover.

Touting medical accuracy as the height of debauchery, the film sews three victims ass-to-mouth into a writhing blight against God that feasts on its' own shit, and exists solely to amuse its' creator, a mad scientist (easily the film's best asset, German character actor Dieter Laser). The film - much like the iconic "monster" - is an experiment solely for the sake of it, an engaging and surprisingly smart vehicle for a really grotesque idea that's just clever enough to squeeze every ounce of thrilling potential escape and sacrifice it can, but in the end paints itself into a depressing little corner. It's not a bad film, but it's neither the scathing assault on the senses I'd hoped for nor the sort of "fun" extreme gross-out movie you could theoretically build a drinking game around. It's in its own little fecal-fed world, and while I respect that, I can't say it ever touched me in an appropriate place as I'd so dearly hoped it would.

So after the first film got through uncut with an '18' Certificate across the pond, imagine my surprise when I read that the sequel has been banned outright! The last time the Brits got this uptight over a film was the Japanese shocker Grotesque/グロテスク, a nasty little film that's basically the Jay Hernandez torture scene from Hostel stretched over 80 minutes... if Hernandez were a cute porn star and had to watch her boyfriend get nails driven through his hairy nutsack. What the hell, Brits?

The BBFC has a pretty strict policy against letting films that glorify sexualized violence getting into the hands of the public (for fear that they'll become baby raping serial killers IMMEDIATELY after viewing it... I guess). Keep in mind that A Serbian Film was chopped to pieces in Merry Old England (also Ireland, Scotland and probably Wales), but they still didn't up and ban the damned thing. So what's so awful about this not-yet-released Independent Film Channel produced schlocker? Well, I'll let the official BBFC statement fill you in... and it should go without saying that MASSIVE spoilers are in the blue text below:

"The BBFC has rejected the sexually violent, and potentially obscene DVD, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) This means that it cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK. The decision was taken by the Director, David Cooke and the Presidential Team of Sir Quentin Thomas, Alison Hastings and Gerard Lemos.

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is a sequel to the film The Human Centipede (First Sequence), which was classified 18 uncut for cinema and DVD release by the BBFC in 2010. The first film dealt with a mad doctor who sews together three kidnapped people in order to produce the human centipede'of the title. Although the concept of the film was undoubtedly tasteless and disgusting it was a relatively traditional and conventional horror film and the Board concluded that it was not in breach of our Guidelines at '18. This new work, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), tells the story of a man who becomes sexually obsessed with a DVD recording of the first film and who imagines putting the centipede idea into practice. Unlike the first film, the sequel presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation, and the viewer is invited to witness events from the perspective of the protagonist. Whereas in the first film the centipede idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the centipede idea as the object of the protagonist's depraved sexual fantasy.

The principal focus of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is the sexual arousal of the central character at both the idea and the spectacle of the total degradation, humiliation, mutilation, torture, and murder of his naked victims. Examples of this include a scene early in the film in which he masturbates whilst he watches a DVD of the original Human Centipede film, with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, and a sequence later in the film in which he becomes aroused at the sight of the members of the centipede being forced to defecate into one another's mouths, culminating in sight of the man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the centipede. There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience. There is a strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence and a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure. It is the Board's conclusion that the explicit presentation of the central character's obsessive sexually violent fantasies is in breach of its Classification Guidelines and poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers."

Tom Six has been refreshingly vocal about the whole thing, too, with the following rebuttal through Empire Online after they spoiled the living shit out of his top-secret project, the trailer of which doesn't feature a single frame from the actual film:

"Thank you BBFC for putting spoilers of my movie on your website and thank you for banning my film in this exceptional way. Apparently I made an horrific horror-film, but shouldn't a good horror film be horrific? My dear people it is a fucking MOVIE. It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-belief. It is art. Give people their own choice to watch it or not. If people can't handle or like my movies they just don't watch them. If people like my movies they have to be able to see it any time, anywhere also in the UK."

Truth be told, I'm not sure how I feel about all this... Mister Six proved he has a talent for the retch-inducing, and if you need concrete proof that he's made even a minor dent in the pop-culture landscape, even South Park recently dedicated an episode to using the Centipede as a way to mock Apple. Going in the direction he has here is about the only direction that's left, short of remaking the first film verbatim - and who the hell would want to see that? (Except the lead in the sequel, I guess.)

Lack of sensible alternatives or not, going in that direction two years after the original film might be too much, too soon. Craven had to wait a decade before he could pull that shit with Freddy Kreuger, and in that instance the character become such a ridiculously franchised sensation that he was more or less on all fours with his ass in the air, begging for a little post-modern reaming. I honestly think Six might just be trolling his critics on an epic scale here, and if that's the case, I wish him nothing but luck with that... I just hope his film has got more up its sleeve than the BBFC are giving him credit for.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A word about SD Video and Blu-ray

Recently, Media Blasters released their own co-produced Japanese exploitation features THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE on Blu-ray. The buzz for both of these films has been positive since they came out, and while we've been treated to a total of two Tokyo Gore Police DVDs and no less than three SKU's for The Machine Girl, they've both made their American High Definition debut in the last several weeks.

There's just one teeny little problem...

The Machine Girl

Tokyo Gore Police

Now I know what some of you are thinking; "Here he goes again, another Media Blasters fueled shit-storm".  While yes, this is a cause for concern, it's not for the reasons you might think.

If you're not blind you've surely noticed the heinous compression blocking and aliasing all over The Machine Girl. Not that I'm surprised - there was a UK Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing back when the film first got licensed to the Britains, and it looked pretty much identical. It could even be the same exact encode for all I know.

Let's be real for a second here; The Machine Girl was shot and/or finished on NTSC DV. There's literally no other explanation for why it would look half that fugly. DV was certainly a step forward technologically speaking in 1995, literally before DVD even existed, but it's heavily compressed, the chroma subsampling is a joke, and the cameras themselves are often about as well built as a cardboard Cessna. DV is just professional enough to make a cheap direct-to-video exploitation film on... so, that's what Noboru IGUCHI and his pals did. If it wasn't literally shot on DV is may have been edited and color-corrected on the format, but it absolutely had to have been on that gnarly format at some point.

Tokyo Gore Police is, per multiple viewers' word, a consistently nasty looking mess filled with aliasing, noise and a lack of any real detail. I don't think it was shot on DV, no, but I strongly suspect it was still shot on some sort of compressed SD video format. If it was shot in HD there's absolutely no high-frequency detail. I think it's very safe to say that, despite being the stronger of the two, we're still probably looking at Standard Definition materials having been given an artificial resolution bump via HD upscaling and some minor edge-sharpening filters.

And you know what? That's just fine by me. Unlike 35mm film, which can be re-scanned at high resolution at any time, productions that were either filmed on SD video, or shot on film and then heavily edited on SD video, or rendered to any resolution and output to SD video (ie: at least half the TV bound Animation from the last 15 years or so) will never truly be available in High Definition; the resolution simply doesn't exist. Upscaling is literally the only option for a distributor to offer it on Blu-ray, and similarly the only way for a consumer to buy a release without the lossy audio and heavy compression artifacts that'll likely be present on a DVD, but sidestepped completely by a faux-HD presentation. I was skeptical of SD upscales until I had the chance to see a few for myself, and while it's never as good as a "real" HD presentation, it regularly still beats the living snot out of any DVD.

The very first anime Blu-ray in Japan, Kyoto Animation's AIR galge adaptation, was an upscale. Animation in particular can benefit from a lack of compression artifacts, and the following comparison between the recent Japanese Blu-ray of LuckyStar - provided by the good jungen over at Anime In Blu - paints a very clear picture of how much better even upscaled SD material can look in quasi-HD using MPEG-4 and 5 times the bandwidth of DVD.

Upscaled US DVD

Upscaled JP Blu-ray
(Come on, guy! You just know Konata would approve of you spending $375 on this upscale...)

There's just one thing Media Blasters forgot to do, and that was tell potential consumers that their over the top gorefests were upscaled from standard definition masters. FUNimation pulled that shit for a while too, releasing upsampled material and in no way, shape or form informing customers wither they were getting a "real" HD product or just an upscale. Eventually FUNi wised up and started putting "HD Native" on the box for shows actually sourced from  High Definition masters, and uses the term "SD Remaster" for titles where they were just upsampled them. Japanese studios have mostly been good about pointing out which titles are upscales ("1080i Upconvert" is the usual jargon they use), though with so many studios releasing so many titles it was pretty much inevitable that a few fuck-ups were made along the way.

Look, I get it. Tokyo Gore Police isn't going to get any less SD, that's fine. It's not like Ichi the Killer where you upscaled a ten year old Digibeta of something originally shot on 35mm - what you see is as good as it gets. If you as a producer want to offer me, as a consumer, your gruesomely goofy B-movies on Blu-ray, that's cool. Just say something on the case so I know that I'm getting a transfer from chintzy source materials and don't waste $25 when I already spent that much on the DVD that, by all counts, is 90% as good as that BD's ever going to be. Be honest - just say it's "1080p SD Remaster" or "1080p Upscale" -  that's not so hard, is it?

Oh, yeah. There's also the fact that the Tokyo Gore Police Blu-ray case says it's a two-disc special edition with all the trimmings from the "Tokyo Gore Police 1.5" double-disc DVD... it does not. It only has the feature and trailers, not the behind-the-scenes bonuses or the short film. That's pretty goddamn weak sauce right there. If you want to keep the extras to the SE DVD, I guess that's fine, but goddamn! Someone needs to check this shit before it goes off for replication.