Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Hills Have Lies

A member of the Blu-ray.com FORUM has the following All American HD Nightmare to share:

You can almost smell this upscaled bullshit through the screen, can't you? It's coming out a mere week before Alexandre Aja's largely superior remake hits Blu-ray stateside, so it's clear that Image is kicking this poor flashbacking German Shepherd out the door as fast as they can in the hopes that people will just get confused and buy the Wes Craven flick by mistake. No, it doesn't make any fucking sense to me either, but I can see no other sensible reason why they'd put this on Blu-ray and not C.H.U.D or Slugs or any of the other dozen Anchor Bay titles they've acquired in the last few months.

What I do know is that I'm not going to pay Image $18 for their "Midnight Madness" release. The only madness on display here is that they thought they could charge even a low MSRP for a shitty upscale of an 8 year old SD transfer that was never any good to start with! Vamp and Hellraiser II have already had largely satisfactory HD releases in Europe, so with any luck this will be the only post-Anchor Bay upscale to worry about...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Burial Grounded - The Splices of Terror

As friend of the site Kevin noted in his review at WTF-Film, the Shriek Show Blu-ray of Andrea Bianchi's super sleazy and charmingly budget-conscious thrill ride BURIAL GROUND/LA NOTTI DEL TERRORE was roughly a minute and 44 seconds shorter than the NTSC DVD release. Ordinarily this would either mean a chop-fest or perhaps a PAL framerate standards conversion, but having had a chance to look the disc over, I think the truth is far more bizarre than either of those seemingly reasonable explanations.

Now there's a few cuts, to be sure, but as Kevin's review pointed out there's only two substantial  sequences missing (totaling roughly 11 seconds), while there's at least 27 seconds of brand new footage never before seen on any English dubbed version of the film - to say nothing of a 3 second scene missing from all prior DVD releases, but presented in full on earlier VHS prints of the film. There was a mystery at hand and so, swapping out my usual bitchin' fedora for a more appropriate deerstalker cap, I got my hands on the damnable HD thing and decided to investigate.

The English titles appear identical to those on the prior DVDs, and apart from the brief bit of zombie gore and the happy couple sucking face in the garden before the arrival of the living dead, nothing else of note appears to be missing though it's possible we've both missed something - we're not robots. (Well, at least I'm not - Kevin's status as a potential android is entirely his own business.) Curious. Despite the video not having a proper pulldown flag the audio is properly pitched to 23.98fps, and when played on any competent BD player you'll get "1080p24" playback, so PAL speedup isn't an issue... odd. Where in the Bloody Pit of Lovecraftian Shenanigans did 2 minutes worth of runtime just up and fucking disappear to?!

The answer is as simple as it is mind-boggling, and before I even try to explain it, I'm going to post a sample... this scene occurs at 0:14:16 on the Blu-ray, and 0:14:23 on the DVD:

I've used the above example because of the round window behind the zombie - it makes it very easy to see that there are "extra" frames on the DVD, or rather that the Blu-ray transfer is missing these particular frames. With film running at 24 frames per second, that means this "cut" is exactly 1/8th of a second. Normally a couple missing frames between prints is common problem, and nothing to get too fussed about, but in this one sanity defying example, that's actually the answer to the sixty-four thousand dollar question...

This is probably the craziest thing I've ever had to type on this blog yet, but Media Blasters and whoever they had in charge of making their transfers has seemingly cut just a couple frames each time it cut from one shot to the next. Now when I say "every time" I'm not exaggerating, like there's 10 examples I could find if I sat down for an hour and tried:

I literally mean. Every. Single. Fucking. TIME.

I have never seen this done before, and mark my words I'll never see it done again, ever. You know why? BECAUSE IT'S COMPLETELY INSANE!!

As some of you may know, the word "cut!" wasn't just lingo used on the set of a film; it's also a technical term describing a single take from a single camera. It was called a 'cut' by editors because they would literally take a pair of scissors or a razor blade and cut the specific frames they wanted from the raw take. Each "cut" was then affixed to the next by the negative cutter, who used either sticky tape or cement to stick each 'cut' together and form the finished negative. You've probably seen splices at your local theater in the form of a black line that suddenly cuts across the middle of the screen followed by a quick jump in the film - if a portion of the print becomes warped or tattered, it won't run through the projector, and the person in the booth will have to cut that section out and add a new splice to the print to keep things running smoothly. And you probably thought all they did up there was smoke pot and read old Playboys!

That's a splice - the big, ugly white line at the top.
(Also notice all the gross discoloration below it.)

Typically, a splice on the negative would be made at the very top of the "next" shot, close to in-between the individual frames of the actual movie. That'd make them very difficult to detect, since most films are matted in the projector cutting off the outermost edges of the print anyway. The problem is that film splices often don't last forever. Depending on the adhesives and methods used to create the splice, the frames can become warped or damaged over time, creating discoloration and tearing the print! This is yet another reason you have to treat the original camera negatives carefully; those splices may be just brittle enough to tear, but not so brittle that the splice goes, at which point you start shredding irreplaceable frames of the actual negative! This is a big part of why, until very recently, film labs would always make a new print to restore and scan for home video rather than risk running the actual camera negative through the telecine process; making a high-quality contact print was less strenuous on the film splices, and as such there was less chance of destroying the negative permanently.

Sometimes the number of frames is literally one or two, sometimes it's five or six. Sometimes the cuts eat the last frame of the prior scene, but at they always cut into the next shot. So, why is Burial Ground literally missing over 2 minutes of random frames, and only at the splices at that? My only guess is that the splices had gone "bad" in some way, and this left the film lab with one of two choices: Either fix each and every splice digitally, or cut the goddamn things out and hope nobody would notice. The trouble is when you start randomly deleting frames, the audio doesn't sync up so well anymore, so then they may have trimmed a few more frames here and there to try and keep the already somewhat poor English dubbing just close enough to "properly synced" that nobody would notice the difference. The film certainly appears to have been shot in Italian and been post-dubbed in English anyway - there's never been a version where the dubbing looked remotely convincing, is what I'm saying. It seems every effort was made to push the dialog and sound effects around at every cut and quiet moment the film can spare, so for better or worse the missing frames haven't notably affected the already sloppy sound sync.

Now typically when the Italian negative is longer and there's "new" footage to be had, the label will simply default to the Italian dub track and then sync the English version up as best they can around the restored material. It's clear now why Media Blasters didn't do this; the Italian audio wouldn't have fit this print to start with because of the frames missing literally everywhere you turn!

Honestly, I don't even want to nickel and dime Media Blasters over a couple instances of 2 or 3 frames missing here and there. It's a pain in the ass, and virtually every label does it from time to time... it's just one of those "things" we have to accept happens and try to ignore it. Rest assured that if this bullshit were occasional and ammounted to five or ten seconds, hey, c'est la viva babe, grumble once or twice that you're OCD enough to notice and then move on. But I've never, ever seen a film restoration that literally removed frames from each and every scene without trying to somehow replace them, and frankly it reeks of corner cutting on an almost legendary scale. If this happened once or twice, or maybe five or six times, I wouldn't care. That's spare change, at most. When the runtime is affected by MINUTES, not frames or even seconds, that's when we seriously need to look into what the fuck is going on in Rome and demand someone get a clue.

Obviously, I can't say how bad those dodgy splices were, or even know if Media Blasters really understood this rather bizarre issue, or if the film lab* made the decision without consulting them.  Whatever the facts may be, it's still incredibly frustrating to think that SOMEONE thought process was a good idea. Like I've said, I've never seen it done before now, and I can't imagine it ever happening again because it's retarded. You don't cut two goddamn minutes from a film just to avoid fixing it, no matter how trivial 2 frames here and 4 frames there may seem in the long run. It's not right, and shows as much a lack of respect for the material as it does outright incompetence in handling it. No I get it, Burial Ground isn't really "The Citizen Kane Of..." anything, but that's no excuse to completely change the pacing, just because you're too lazy or too cheap to do it properly. Every film is an artifact, a time capsule to the era, and while I understand that not everything can get a million dollar 4k restoration, the least you can do is reassemble the fucking thing at the right length, in the right aspect ratio, and without any new problems to speak of. If you can't, pass on the title and go work on something you do know how to fix.

(* ...but it was totally LVR. I know, MB didn't explicitly say that on the disc credits, but the overly noisy, extremely dark, and funky smeared print damage forms an almost disappointingly perfect bookend with ZOMBI HOLOCAUST. Honestly, that transfer is such a mess I decided NOT to post the review. It's such a miserable transfer from the ground up that I almost felt like I was making fun of a handicapped kid or something...)

The English dub on display is exactly the same one used for the slightly different English language prints, and as such, when we get an extended second or so of the chandelier exploding (0:16:09) it just uses music from the next scene of the film. You literally watch the chandelier continue to explode and it doesn't make a sound. It's eerie, and not in any way that the film should be. For fuck's sake, you guys couldn't have just re-used the sound effects of the bulbs shattering from four seconds ago!?

I also need to talk about the "missing" shot in the Blu-ray or the zombie emerging from the planter (0:25:51). The good news is that it is included... the bad news is it's as an outtake, which is pretty fucking weak no matter how I look at it. Kevin's theory that it was removed during the restoration so that the English dub would sync up after the new bit of footage at the start of the scene with the lovers walking by the fountain wouldn't surprise me one bit. I'll say again, if they had simply transferred the entire negative instead of dropping frames literally everywhere they could have simply used the Italian audio to fill in the gaps, and then re-inserted the shot of the zombie emerging from the planter without issue. And by "re-insert" I mean "leave it the fuck alone", since I refuse to believe the negative just has 8 random frames and then jump-cuts... it doesn't make any goddamn sense. It LOOKS like a clumsy cut, and while there are a couple jarring continuity flaws due to sloppy film editing, this is the sort of crumby stuff that looks like some naughty post-house employee was throwing their hands up in the air and saying "THERE, your dub matches now - happy?"

Also, with the above information finally in place, I can only assume that the close-up of the zombie being shot missing at 0:24:16 is the result of so many frames around the splices having been lost that the shot was simply lost in the shuffle; the two shots of the zombie and his bullet wound combined only ran 17 frames, so if they lost several frames from each, the sequence probably became an incomprehensible blip that looked like a mistake instead of an inspired moment of slightly-pre-MTV rapid fire film editing.

As to wither or not the actual negative was used, I actually have little doubt that what we're seeing is either the OCN, or a new IP made straight from it. If this were made from an IP that was vaulted 30 years ago, all of the film splices would be printed onto the reels themselves and we wouldn't have the missing frames like we do to start with - ironically, that means if MB had used an older print we probably wouldn't be missing any previously seen footage! (Though we probably wouldn't have the two extensions mentioned earlier, either.)

There is one thing I can't really explain, though. The following image was brightened in photoshop, to make showing the problem easier, but was otherwise untouched:

There's what I can only describe as a grid of static, vertical lines appearing in the dark scenes - they may be easier to see if you turn the brightness/gamma up, assuming of course your set is somewhere close to properly calibrated. There's vertical artifacting on the DVD, as well, but I always assumed that was the result of using a Time Base Corrector in the analog chain or something. So what the heck are we seeing here? I honestly don't have any clue... and also yes, that ridiculous chroma noise really is there.

So, missing footage, loopy dubbing and lost frames aside... how is the disc? Pretty ghastly, if you ask me. It's slightly less horrifying in motion than stills can properly express, if for no other reason that the heavy chroma noise that saturates each and every frame doesn't have any cringe-inducing DVNR artifacts, which is more than I can say for Zombie Holocaust. That noise is neither film-like nor attractive, and considering that prior DVDs made from prints that were probably generations removed from whatever film source we're seeing now, I flatly refuse to believe that the image is even close to properly representing the quality of the analog film source. I'm not certain if the film was shot on 16mm or 35mm, but the image on display is an embarrassment in any case.

 As I said the moment I saw screen shots, THIS IS NOT FILM GRAIN:

Lossless, just so you can fully appreciate the fugly.

This buzzing, rainbow-like chroma noise swarms over everything, but it's especially gruesome on the color red. While stills will always show off noise slightly more defined than a constantly moving image, make no mistake that Burial Ground is drowning in this crap, and it's impossible to ignore. Even if the release was complete, this transfer is heinous, and the distractingly 'colorful' noise might be even more frustrating than my prior "This Isn't Fucking Grain" demo title, The Stendhal Syndrome, which - while perhaps similar in volume when it comes to nasty signal junk - at least had the decency to produce noise only in the luma channel!

Make no mistake, Burial Ground will never look like The Sound of Music. Focus and lighting were never ideal for this fast and cheap production, and while it's impossible to be certain, the 1.66:1 ratio could well imply that it was shot on Super16 - I honestly don't know, and with a transfer looking this bad it's hard to even guess what the original format was. But assuming this is as good as the film could look is preposterous, when even Media Blasters and LVR managed to out-class the hell out of this overall transfer with Beyond the Darkness. Sure that disc had big problems, but at least it looked like film, not... whatever the hell this crap is.

Strangely enough, there is ONE scene that doesn't have the overbearing video noise that haunts the rest of the transfer. At the very beginning of the film the professor leaves the mansion and walks to the dig site, in what appears to be a day-for-night sequence running from about 0:01:47 to 0:02:31. Frustratingly, the slow, syrupy noise that remains suggests that this sequence has been with with DVNR - could it be that Zombie Holocaust was given a scrubbing to avoid a similar appearance? Hmmm...

I'm not entirely sure why they'd apply DVNR to only one scene, much less a scene that appears to be a digital re-creation of an optical effect rather than a "genuine" optical... but whatever. The compromised grain structure is unfortunate, to say nothing of the (intentional) lack of color in the sequence itself, but I'd still argue this is just a little less painful to look at than the other 82 minutes of the feature on Blu-ray.

The transfer may be a slight upgrade from the multitude of crumby VHS and mediocre DVD releases out there, but man is it still pitiful. The English audio sounds fine, for what that's worth. The outtakes are actually pretty cool, even if they aren't the most exciting deleted scenes in film history. The film is missing snippets from start to finish, and two sequences that were available on very prior home video release are either shuffled off to the extras without good reason, or are missing entirely. I can't in good faith suggest that this release is even slightly good, but it presents just enough of an upgrade over the equally shit DVD that I'd be hard pressed to blame anyone who eventually clamps their dirty mits around it. Hell, I did and I almost knew what I was getting myself into...

So, there's your missing footage. Congratulations Media Blasters, just when I think you've managed to screw something up in the worst way possible, you manage to find NEW ways to screw up that I didn't even know was humanly possible. I hope that their most recent titles, Devil Dog, was a sign of better things to come, but we'll just have to wait and see with these guys...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Trusting Betrayal: Aniplex's RUROUNI KENSHIN TSUIOKU-HEN Blu-ray

There's been much ado about Wandering Kenshin: The Meiji Swordsman's Romantic Story -  The Reminiscence Chapter/るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚- 追憶編  - released in English initially as "Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal", and commonly enough simply known as "The RUROUNI KENSHIN OVA" - ever since their premier in 1999, largely because...  well, it's just that fantastic. But first, a little background...

Despite Japan having to some small degree embraced animation as a medium for storytelling closer to - if not quite equal - Japanese live action productions, there are a number of uniquely Japanese genre largely lacking from anime. Sentai and Kaijuu material especially seems virtually non-existent in animated form for reasons I've never been able to understand, outside of being used as satire in shows that are already so far off the deep end they're mocking anything that crosses their path. While not entirely absent from the artform, the number of jidai geki  and chanbara anime - "period dramas" and "swordplay" films - seems disproportionate to the cultural boner Japan still has for its period of bloody civil war.

The 1996 Rurouni Kenshin TV series was perhaps a surprise hit on a number of levels. Despite being a title found in Shounen Jump and focusing on lone men unleashing increasingly convoluted and exciting hidden fighting techniques on another - typical boys fare, when boiled down to core concepts - Nobuhiro WATSUKI's art skews to a lighter, more feminine side that created a cross-over appeal with the fujoushi crowd who were more interested in the lanky, beautiful men leaving their crying women with a stoic gaze than any of the more typical tropes on display. The show remains appealing to both genders, and now 15 years after the start of the TV adaptation, the director and vocal cast that brought the franchise to life is reuniting for a brand new 2011 OVA series... and maybe we'll talk about that another day. For now, we're looking strictly at the "Trust and Betrayal" portion of the story, or as it was called in Japanese, "Tsuioku-Hen". The show was such a hit that Aniplex actually dubbed the show themselves and created an edited for-broadcast version called "Samurai X" that they tried to get on US syndication. Exactly zero fucks were given, and eventually Aniplex sold the rights to Media Blasters while AD Vision already held the rights to the OVA series, ironically giving American audiences the backstory meant largely to close out the franchise as their first taste of Himura Kenshin!

Tsuioku-Hen/Trust and Betrayal is, at face value, the inevitable prequel to the TV series, detailing the hero in his early days as the legendary Hitokiri Battousai ("Slayer of Men"). By the time the series proper begins, Himura Kenshin has had more than enough killing, and now fights using his unequalled Hiten Mitsuguri style using a sword with a blade on the reverse side, forcing him to best opponents without ever actually killing them. It plays an important role in both defining the battle-hardened but ultimately compassionate character, and making the bloody, brutal battles of the samurai era fodder for a TV show targeted at middle school boys (and adult women). The Tsuioku-Hen prequel, however, has none of that pretense, and literally opens with the sight of Kenshin as a young boy watching the only people in the world who care for him die, brutally, trying to save him. The pathos and bodily destruction on display in the Tsuioku-Hen OVA is almost surreal, never quite packing as much gristly chunks on the screen as something like Kakugo no Susume or Violence Jack, but making each and every act of violence more harrowing than the last. Each and every strike of the blade is a rendered with such care and delicacy that it utterly romanticizes the traditional art of Japanese swordsmanship without ever denying it's brutal, destructive power. The Tsuioku-Hen series may be the backstory to a program made for children, but Tsuioku-Hen is certainly the grown up retelling, even if the blood-soaked protagonist is only a teenager.

The less said about the actual storyline, the better; the slightly vague American title "Trust and Betrayal" probably suggests more than it should, but when the four part serial is essentially a two-hour political thriller with human lives being picked off by a mysterious assassin, so odds are someone had to betray Kenshin or he'd probably still be doing it up to the start of the TV series. I'll say no more, and let any of friends of the Kentai blog who aren't familiar with this truly incredible work of art experience it fresh.

The version under the microscope today is the brand-new Aniplex Blu-ray, which has made every prior version of the film thoroughly obsolete - particularly that bullshit "Director's Cut" and it's faux-widescreen shenanigans. I'm not at all exaggerating when I say that the "American" Blu-ray for sale is also Japanese release: Aniplex has literally just set aside a limited number of Japanese Blu-ray, thrown in a translation pamphlet booklet, and said "fuck you pal, take it or leave it". The upside here is Japanese releases are typically the highest quality available... the downside is that they're always jaw-droppingly expensive. RuroKen Tsuioku-Hen is no exception, and it's currently for sale at The Right Stuf for about $65. No discounts, no coupons, no "Got Anime!" membership... it's just plain $65, end of story. Normally I'd say "Holy shit, that's expensive!!", but Japan is paying about $105 MSRP, and even if you were to import this from Japan at a decent exchange rate, you'll be slapped with obscene shipping charges. It sure ain't cheap, but baby, it isn't going to get any cheaper...

This was one of the very last OVA to be crafted using (primarily) plastic cels and 35mm film. It's been treated none too well on DVD in the past, and with word of a brand new HD telecine, hopes ran high... so let's take a look at the results, shall we? All from episode 1 (to avoid spoilers and because I'm lazy), and presented as lossless PNG:

I'm a bit frustrated to report that, while a massive upgrade from AD Vision's initial dot-crawl infested DVD (with some extensive comparisons HERE), this is perhaps not the reference quality the price tag demands. Detail is well resolved, lines are clean and colors are bright and vivid. At a glance the transfer looks very pleasing, but there's clearly some DVNR afoot. It's less obnoxious on the brighter, daylit sequences, but the distinct lack of organic, film-like texture irks me more than it seems to many others, and even when grain is present it has that sluggish quality that makes it look more like manipulated noise than anything I'd typically associate with film. It's not as clean-scrubbed as a Disney classic, perhaps, and I can't say there's any notable issues with smearing or blurring... it's about as minor a manipulation as I could have hoped for, and while I really do wish they'd left well enough alone, we're still looking at a crisp, sharp transfer with very little of the usual complaints DVNR bring to the table. At the end of the day it's "different" than it probably should be, but due to the relative simplicity of the animation itself and high quality of the HD telecine, I can't rightly say that much of the underlying detail has been destroyed.

The transfer is also, at times, very dark without ever dropping off to IRE0 - but this isn't really a flaw of the Blu-ray so much as it is with the animation itself; every single prior incarnation of Tsuioku-Hen has had frustratingly murky shadow detail, and this release is no exception. It isn't always pretty, I admit, and the DVNR has made some of those dark areas worse for wear by smearing them into a blotchy moire pattern (such as in cap 6). Despite these caveats, overall this is a very decent presentation, and it's safe to say that it's probably never going to look better.

I'll note here that a few scenes were composited using rotoscoped footage on SD video back in 1999. They've been presented here upscaled to 1080p from SD material. There's not much else that could be done with it, and I'm not going to dock any "points" from the transfer for preserving the animation as it was created. Keep in mind that the percentage of upscaled material only gets higher, so the first two episodes are largely perfect and give way to more unfortunate material-related issues as they go. This was totally unavoidable, and so far the ONLY anime production to "re-do" the dated digital animation to match with the traditional film animation was Serial Experiments LAIN... and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Ghost in the Shell 2.0. In other words, don't expect it unless the creators behind the show are ABe/Oshii level crazy.

Packaging is absolutely stunning. The release comes in a DVD sized digipak that's housed in a fairly sturdy cardboard sleeve, featuring exclusive new artwork by the OVA character designer Atsuko NAKAJIMA. Inside is the classic, spoiler-riddled key art from the final LD jacket, and there's a floppy paper card that wraps around the back, bottom, and a bit of the front of the package, detailing the contents in Japanese only. It all comes in a resealable bag, which I - in usual form - have made look like a wrinkled and thrashed pile of shit the moment I un-stick it for the first time. Oh well, as long as everything inside remains shiny and new-looking, can't say I give too hard of a crap.

Audio comes in three flavors: The original Japanese stereo mix is included in uncompressed PCM 2.0, and those of you with 5.1 HD setups will be treated with a brand new DTS-HD MA remix - one that doesn't hesitate to splatter grotesque eviscerations in the rears, at that. The slightly infamous dub from AD Vision is included as a DVD quality 448 kbps DTS 2.0 mix... frankly, if you're watching a samurai film dubbed in English, you're getting exactly what you deserve. Subtitles look fine and aren't dubtitles, which is more than I can say for the old Sony R2 DVDs. I didn't think to check if they subtitled the epilogue text... oh, well. If you need to know what happens at the end of the Tsuioku-Hen OVA, just watch the goddamn Kenshin TV series.

Menus are bilingual English/Japanese, and the disc doesn't spare much time kicking you right to the main feature after a brief FBI-style warning. This is a Japanese release, so the language defaults are Japanese with no subtitles. Menu operations are quick and simple. There are no extras on the disc, only the 16 page Japanese booklet and the fold-out pamphlet with English translations.

RuroKen Tsuioku-Hen is one of those thoroughly incredible anime features that's difficult to put a price tag on. It's spell binding, elegant, grotesque and moving in all the ways that so many people probably don't realize animation can be. It stands up as an inspiring work of chanbara action drenched in raw humanity, "cartoon" or not, and is perhaps one of those precious few titles I'd probably recommend to folks who are ambivalent to the concept of animation as high pop art, but clearly aren't going to be swayed by a Dragon Ball Z or Miyazaki marathon. With all of that in mind I gritted my teeth and paid the price asked, feeling my anus clamp down in pain at the very thought. Had I known about the DVNR I still think I would have taken the plunge, but knowing the way my subconscious works, pre-ordering was largely a tactic to no longer give me the option to pussy out. Take a look at the images above, factor in that the final episode has a fairly large number of scenes that don't look half that good, and decide for yourself if it's worth that much to you. If you falter, hell, I don't blame you...

I've pre-ordered the RuroKen Seisou-Hen ("Reflection") OVA, which serves as a sort of tragic bookend to the end of the Kenshin TV show. It certainly isn't bad, but I wouldn't say it's on the same level as Tsuioku-Hen, and the fact that it's $10 less is a relatively small comfort.

And as for Rurouni Kenshin: The Motion Picture... that's just not happening. I'm not saying it's bad... but it's not a masterpiece, and even it's defenders will admit that. And if it's not a masterpiece, fuck man, it's not worth $60.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Slower. Rottener. Sharkier. Zombi 2-ier!

Blue Underground has released the following behind-the-scenes EPK detailing, in brief, the process being used to bring Lucio Fulci's most famous horror milestone, ZOMBI 2, to Blu-ray. Having an idea of how many hours went into dirt clean-up and exactly what workstations are being used to remove damage to the negative is some pretty cool stuff, though unless you talk to film preservationists on a regular basis it's hard to say if this is the white-glove special, or just the average shave and a haircut (two bits!) treatment.

This could shock a few of you, but I'm really, really hoping this one turns out to be the best transfer in Blue Underground's catalog. Zombi 2 is the most famous film in Fulci's canon for good reason, and this may well be the one "evergreen" title left in Bill Lustig's bag of Italian tricks. If there's anything left up his sleeve he should pull out every stop for, friends, this it it.

Still, for all the great promises this bit of promotional material holds, it's all just a little disconcerting. LVR and their CRT-based Cintel DSX is clearly the film lab of choice for Blue Underground (as I've already theorized), and if earlier Techniscope transfers like City of the Living Dead andCat O' Nine Tails were made using the same process as Zombi 2, well, what's going to prevent it from having similar problems? I want the final results to be flawless, and have no doubt that Blue Underground has spared no expense on what could be their last hurrah for Euro-Horror, but... isn't LVR the likely weak link in the Euro-Horror chain? If this transfer is a winner that's great, but that'll only raise further questions.

Bring it on, Lustig! I'm more than ready to see some "Eye-Popping" High Definition.

Cannibal Holocaust Denial

The Holocausto Canibal one-sheet, it ain't...

Friends of the Kentai Blog probably know how I feel about Ruggero Deodato's epic, the film that put him on the map and forever changed the notion of "controversial film". Professing my love for Cannibal Holocaust in anything but nude interpretive dance set on a bed of hot coals to Riz Ortolani's sweeping score would only be a trite offense to its accomplishments, but suffice to say that, 30 years later, this film is the real fucking deal. It speaks to our love of brutal entertainment on multiple levels, it remains offensive and shocking even after several decades and repeat viewings, and it's remained a hot topic with censors and activists ever since the film's debut in 1980. Hell, the film is still censored by the BBFC... but, more in that in a minute.

Cannibal Holocaust is an angry film, make no mistake. There may not be a single act of tenderness, apart from watching a bawdy couple literally fuck in the ashes of lives they've worsened in the name of getting the best shot for their documentary. Born of Deodato's increasingly jaded opinion of the media and a climate of post-"Mondo" features that demanded more gore to satisfy hungry Eastern audiences, the film makers disappeared in the jungles of the Amazon. When they returned and the film premiered, none of the four actors who disappear in the narrative were to be seen or heard from again for 6 months to build rumors of the film's "snuff movie" authenticity - rumors that were so startling and well received that Deodato was, for a brief period, accused of murdering his actors. Brutal rape, animal sacrifice, and the most warranted revenge in the history of horror cinema smear across the screen in faux-documentary 16mm recovered footage, laying the groundwork for the countless number of "asshole shakes his camcorder" films we have even now... and you know what? After all the controversy, the bannings, the protests from animal rights activists and the nay-sayers who scream that it's nothing but unwashed sensationalism... the movie itself is actually pretty fucking good.

Oh it's not perfect, make no mistake. The irony of creating a film that steadfastly says that we, as an audience, should reject the exploitive coverage of human suffering that, in turn, is built around set pieces that involve the slaughter of real live animals is pretty obvious. The film also has some pretty cringe-worthy post dubbing (despite being shot in English), some odious use of stock footage and one or two special effects that hardly hold up under scrutiny, but this all comes part and parcel with the film being a vintage slice of Euro-Horror. Jack Kerman's poor voice over gives the film a slightly misplaced goofy charm, but it doesn't destroy the film's criticism of the media as sensation-hounds willing to fudge the truth with more gore and less clarity, nor does it make the panicked footage of the film's ultimate villains scrambling lost in the wilderness as unfriendly forces close in on them any less exciting - and ultimately grotesque. No, for all the failings Cannibal Holocaust may bring to the table, it's very much a "real movie" with a clear vision and an end to its means, something I'm not so sure I'd say about Lenzi's much more depraved - but perhaps no less entertaining - final word on the gruesome Italian jungle adventure movie, Cannibal Ferox. Everything Cannibal Holocaust gets right far outweighs the things it does wrong, and the final result, three decades removed from the ballyhooing and cries for answers, is every bit as unpleasant and moving as they ever were.

"The most controversial film ever made", they say. Perhaps that's true, and Deodato isn't making it any fucking easier on that description by deciding in 2011 to create a brand new Director's Cut, which premiers on UK Blu-ray on September 26th. In a stroke of what might seem like karmic responsibility, Deodato's new version of the film removes only the most controversial remaining element: Footage of animals being slaughtered, live, for the sake of the audience. What some folks may not realize is that the natives egged Deodato on to catch real monkeys for the scene in which the little simians face is licked clean, or that the pig shot right between the eyes was purchased from a local market and would have been slaughtered eventually either way. The snake, the tarantula, and the river turtle were all killed quickly and (presumably) consumed by the local crew, since seriously, if you're living in the Amazon you learn to eat fucking anything and like it. In all cases, these scenes remain in the Director's Cut, but the actual moment of death - those few seconds of impact - have been obscured by simulated film damage. Deodato has seemingly acknowledged that they are part and parcel with the film, but stands by his suggestion that these scenes were made at the demands of producers who wanted more gore for the Mondo hungry Japanese market especially.

And you know what? I call bullshit. One of the very first interviews with Deodato on the subject recorded - over ten years ago now, if I remember right - has him explaining that he grew up on a farm where killing kittens and slaughtering livestock, while not fun, was an everyday part of life, so he didn't feel particularly bad about doing what he'd done in years past just because the cameras were rolling. After all, films like Apocalypse Now have scenes of animals being slaughtered and nobody complains about those, right? Perhaps the breaking point is the scene with a coatimundi, a furry little South American answer to the... fuck, what is it? A fox? A muskrat? A possum, maybe? I dunno, but it's fucking adorable, and it gets its throat. Fucking. Cut. The scene isn't pleasant, it doesn't drive the story forward, and unlike the lengthy, grotesque sequence with the turtle it was neither done to feed the cast nor to showcase the survival tactics that Amazon natives use - like cooking turtle soup in its' own shell, which is pretty fucking cool when you think about it. No, the coati isn't considered a delicacy, as the monkeys were (and cast members confirm that the locals were eager to munch some brains) - it was just a critter they caught that day by chance, and convinced one of the local Indos to eat some raw pieces of it on camera solely for shock value. It's an unpleasant, unnecessary and deplorable sacrifice to an otherwise almost-tactful film, and it's run afoul with censors - both without and within - twice with this upcoming British Blu-ray release.

The new "Director's Cut" deals with the footage by cutting away to a shot of the monkeys in the trees watching as the poor little coati squeals and dies. The "Original" version of the movie (also included), however, cuts this footage entirely. You see, the BBFC have a pretty strict policy about animals being mistreated in films, and if you can't somehow prove that an animal wasn't in any harm - even psychologically distressed! - the scene has to be removed. It's the law there, end of story. To the BBFC's credit they've lightened up considerably in recent years, allowing scenes of simulated animal torture in Deep Red to pass uncut, and in Cannibal Holocaust's case, every other act of violence towards an animal was deemed "humane enough" to remain in the film. Deodato's "Director's Cut" was likely a PR stunt pulled by Shameless so they could claim that at least one version of the film is "completely uncut", but the fact remains that this infamous footage is now going to be excised from the Shameless Blu-ray completely.

So, basically this. But with lots more shrieking and you feeling worse about it.

This leaves me in a frustrating spot. On the one hand, yeah, the footage is deplorable and nobody with a soul should literally mourn its absence. On the other hand... it's a part of the film. Yes, a cruel and perhaps needless part, but that doesn't make it any less relevant to the work as a finished piece of history. In effect, this single coati - who statistically would have died eventually, probably eaten by crocodile instead of a man in a loincloth - lost his life to set a deafening, gristly tone for a film that's been reviled and, yes, even beloved by millions of people around the world. If that scene is cut, the coati literally died for nothing! It's unfortunate that it happened, but is removing the footage really making things better? For that matter, why does cutting away from the literal moment of death change anything - the animals were still killed, and we still see their corpses laying there dead as a doornail immediately afterwards even in the new edit of the film! At least Grindhouse Releasing found a fairly clever way to literally remove all traces of the animals getting hacked up - it was kind of a pussy move, but at least it made sense.

Just to put this grim moment into context, it's not as if humans don't get their comeuppance: There's stock footage of real human executions in the film. Yeah, we see political prisoners in Africa being shot in the fucking head, and of countless bodies being piled into a mass grave. Totally authentic, and absolutely horrible to watch. Yet for one reason or another, NOBODY cuts that footage. I've had my share of kitties and other furry land mammals and certainly abhorrer even the thought of pets (or even livestock) being abused, but for fuck's sake! If images of non-simulated "death" and "cruelty" are the real issue here, why isn't that footage removed as well? I just don't get it... either it's all acceptable or none of it is.

With the above information laid bare, what the fuck do I do now? I make it a point to never buy censored releases if an uncensored version exists, and I already own multiple DVD copies of Cannibal Holocaust, all of which are at least less cut than the upcoming Shameless release. But do I really need that 15 seconds of cruelty? Does skipping over one brief moment of genuine horror at the hands of an entertainment crew make this release totally invalid, or can I purchase it for the HD presentation and exclusive extras, safe in the knowledge that I have at least three DVD copies with the coati slaughter scene intact?

I'll say it again: Either it's all acceptable or none of it is. This is a slippery slope of moral back-bends in which "grotesque image X" is somehow more or less acceptable than "grotesque image Y". With some fairly obvious exceptions*, I don't buy that bullshit, and it's why I make it a point to support censored film releases as little as I possibly can. I don't mind directors changing their minds decades later so long as they'll give us the version they made initially as well, and while both Deodato and Shameless have given their all to make everyone happy, the BBFC says that this one image is the line. Do I support it to satisfy my lust for Cannibal Holocaust, or do I turn it away and hope that Grindhouse Releasing will actually release the film in HD before I'm old and gray? They took about 5 years to pump the film out on DVD, and when they did it... looked kind of shitty. Doesn't really fill me with confidence that waiting a couple years will make their perhaps inevitable release "The One"... but either way, I still have my uncut PAL EC Ultrabit DVD to tide me over.

Amusingly enough, this is the "B-side" on the Shameless BD cover.

I think this is a more complex question than this admittedly already long-winded piece of brain-fartage can give proper exposure to. Does it seem justified to support something when you know it's your only option, but morally it rubs you completely the wrong way? Is it somehow more okay to steal said product - via downloading or, whatever - since it's not up to the standard you'd usually pay for, but still offers something of value? Is this sort of material - cruelty to animals, 30 years after the fact - actually harmful to anyone (sans the coati)? And should a director be allowed to reassess his work based, seemingly, on little more than the notion that the film he made strikes him as being in bad taste today?

All I know is that I want me some Cannibal Holocaust in HD, but can't decide if the film having even a frame removed is a fair tax for the privilege, much less for the 17 pounds sterling it's currently selling for... do I pre-order now and avoid the potential price-hikes of the dollar tumbling down a black hole? Or do I wait until I've seen screenshots and can confirm once and for all that the transfer isn't going to be cut and look like a decapitated monkey's asshole?

On much the same note, Anchor Bay recorded an interview with Sergio Martino for Mountain of the Cannibal God, in which the director defends the footage of the monkey being eaten by a snake was "a tragic accident", and when they realized there was nothing they could do they sighed and rolled cameras again, realizing that there was no sense in letting that moment go to waste. The footage cuts to the scene in question, pointing out - in slow motion - that the monkey is attached at the neck to a handle and is literally being force-fed to the snake. So at the very least I can't accuse Deodato of being alone in lying through his teeth over what's now a particularly controversial subject.

* For all the delishus lolita complex and shotaporn material you'll find on the Kentai Blog from time to time, you won't EVER find any actual images of child abuse. But, you CAN easily find plenty of legal to own images of actual murder on the internet. Weird... right?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Not Sure If Clever Satire, Or Just Japan...

Now I'm not saying Japan is fucking weird. That's not because that'd be racist or culturally insensitive or whatever, but because if you watch the above 4 minutes, I won't have to say it. You'll just know.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Devil Dog From Detroit

Dude, lay off of Detroit already.
Those people are living in Mad Max times...

WTF Films' Kevin Pyrtle wrote a lovely REVIEW for this schlocky bit of made-for-TV fun that's equal parts The Omen and Benji. It's weird, right? We can't buy a "legitimate" horror masterpiece like Rosemary's Baby on Blu-ray, but we can get the cheap knock-off version that stars a German Sheppard in a wig. What a glorious age we live in.

Anyway, color me shocked: It's a Media Blasters transfer and, based on Kevin's caps, it looks AMAZING. As friends of the Kentai blog know, Media Blasters has been delivering nothing but fuckshit piled on top of crapsnacks for a while now, so for this - a goddamn TV movie from 1978! - to be a potential reference transfer is just mind boggling. In a good way, mind you.

Keep it up, Media Blasters. Seriously, I don't want a reason to hate your guts, I just want your transfers to look good. This? This looks damned good. In a painful twist of irony you've managed to rock the hell out of a title I could honestly care less about, at least you're showing us that the potential is there.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rock & Rule High School

As I'm so prone to do these days, I gave Media Blasters a lot of shit for their embarrassing Blu-ray presentation of Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. Every word of that remains true, and I will never, ever forgive Kitty Media for that bullshit - but it's dawned on me that I wasn't especially fair in stating what I had expected from it in the first place. As I'd briefly said, if the presentation were complete and in the right aspect ratio I might not have been totally enthused by the results, but I'd have at least given the release a pass as being everything that it was ever apt to be. Honestly, what should we expect from a fourth-generation release print?

As time goes on, restoring titles from the camera negative for Blu-ray has almost become standard; making an Interpositive and going from there is still acceptable, but with technology having advanced to the point where the whole camera negative can be scanned without damaging it, there's really no reason NOT to go from the best archival elements around. Of course, for some films that just isn't possible; the negative is either considered lost or are known to have been destroyed, leaving film licensors with nothing especially good to restore the feature from. One of the more fascinating examples were the "Grindhouse" quality DVD releases of Pets and The Last House on Dead End Street, mastered from what may be the last surviving 35mm elements in the world, but low-budget 1970s exploitation films taken from blow-up elements that were stored in some dude's attic for 30+ years is probably a discussion unto itself.

I've decided to take a look at the 2010 Unearthed Films Blu-ray release of Clive A. Smith's ROCK & RULE. Information about the restoration of the title can be found HERE. The short version is that the negative for the film was destroyed years ago in a warehouse fire, ruining most of the materials for what may be the one good thing Nelvana ever gave the world. The 1080p restoration for the film was made using a single, and very well-worn theatrical print, and the results are... well, let's just let the transfer speak for itself:

While perhaps not approaching the heights of clarity offered by Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind's 8k OCN restoration, the outlines are crisp without looking digitally sharpened, a low level of grain is still evident, and all of the major pieces of film damage - dirt, scratches, staining and the like - have been removed using tools that haven't removed details that should remain, like drops of rain and blinking console lights. Unearthed Films may have a long history of releasing some pretty low-rent splatter films from humble as hell video origins, but they certainly didn't skimp when they had a 35mm sourced feature that was in dire need of some tender love and care. One of the few special features missing from the Blu-ray was a comparison between the raw footage and the final transfer, and calling them "night and day" is an absolute understatement.

There are numerous issues inert to the print, and while I can't ignore them I can certainly take them in the context of this being the only surviving materials left. For one thing, the black levels are crushed, the whites are blown out, and the colors appear oversaturated; this is the unfortunate reality of working with multi-generational elements. Every time you expose one print to the next you're kicking the contrast up higher and hotter, and if you do that enough times (say, three or four) you've already destroyed any of the shadow detail the negative may have had. This is the risk you run when your elements are shit, and there really isn't anything you can do about it. I applaud the transfer for at least remaining consistent; the film looks too dark almost from start to finish, but furry-flesh tones and obnoxious colors such as Omar's jacket are spot on from scene to scene. The "look" of the materials are slightly unfortunate, but with the director overseeing the color correction and the limitations of being an actual release print, I have no doubt that's simply as good as it can ever look now.

There's clearly a level of grain manipulation, evidenced (if nothing else) by the overwhelming lack of it compared to what we've seen from a multitude of other cartoons made from around the same period. Being a release print it should have substantially more grain than something taken from the camera negative, but that just isn't the case. At least it's nowhere near as clean-scrubbed as those unsettlingly smoothed over Disney transfers that have only started to shift towards a more natural, film like appearance. There's quite a bit of texture hiding in every nook and cranny of the background art (that's not shrouded in darkness anyway), and while I can't say that it looks quite as natural as something like Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings or Heavy Metal, the latter of which is exactly what the majority of traditional animated transfer should aspire to be, in both cases those features still have negatives to go back to. There's no obvious temporal smearing artifacts to complain about, and when the film switches to optically printed effects the grain looks more pronounced and coarse, just as it should. In short, it looks as objectively "good" as it can without literally looking like a chewed up print complete with stains and flickering and the like. I do wish the grain had been retained fully, but considering how little loss of real-world detail this seems to have caused I'm mostly bitching about semantics and personal preference.

The only footage sourced from the old analog video masters is the title card, which (as the DVD proved) was actually re-titled The Ring of Power by distributors at the last second. Why? Beats the hell out of me. I can only assume that Bakshi's aforementioned LOTR feature was getting a re-release at the time, and they were hoping to piggy-back their drug and clevage fueled road movie about summoning demons with the power of rock 'n' roll onto a film they already knew was a commercial success. It sounds ridiculous I know, but if they'll try to sell Tombs of the Blind Dead as a sequel to Planet of the Apes, cripes, ANYTHING is possible...

The final disc has a few major problems, but for better or worse most of those are on the authoring/encoding end, not the original mastering. The audio is presented as vanilla Dolby Digital, but as the mixes were ultimately sourced from the optical tracks from nearly 30 year old prints, it's doubtful that a lossless track would have sounded much different anyway. The start of the film is full of hiss and pops, even, proving that - just like the video - there's a level of "it's fucked" that can't be scrubbed away digitally. At least the film's soundtrack comes through loud and clear, and they've crafted a surprisingly competent sounding 5.1 mix despite no stem materials existing.

The bitrate for the video is a painfully low 14 mb/s, which is prone to spatial smoothing and even overt pixelation as evident in a few of these screenshots, but for better or worse the rampant motion and remaining level of grain makes many of these artifacts notably less obvious than screenshots on their own might leave you to expect. I hate to suggest that the more minor compression artifacts 'blend in' to the film's already course and slightly irregular grain structure, but that's really the effect the transfer has most of the time. (That Dance! Dance! Dance! sequences, however, does look pretty fucking bad even in motion.) Though the compromised bitrate leave this release well below the level expected of a "reference" transfer, the master underneath seems almost breathtaking, leaving the presentation a deeply frustrating experience.

Shockingly enough, my biggest complaint are the clunky menus; pressing "pop-up menu" presents floating text that, instead of presenting an actual pop-up menu, send you to whichever page from the main menu you may be looking for. Seriously, they should have disabled the pop-up menu completely at that point! This niggling detail in particular suggests to me that Unearthed was less to blame for the low-balled compression than whatever post house they went to for their High Definition debut; this shit's complicated, and if the guy you're trusting to understand the technical details doesn't really have a clue, you're pretty much boned. Unearthed clearly spared no expense during the restoration of the title, so to see much of that work get fudged at the last possible stage is almost painful to see. I can only hope their upcoming second BD release, The Scarlet Worm, fares better during post production.

Rock & Rule certainly doesn't have the spit-polish we've come to expect from properly stored negatives, but it still looks every bit as good as it probably ever will, compression aside. The transfer has all the weave and grit that prove it was a piece of hand-crafted art that's to some degree lacking from "modern" digital animation, but that doesn't mean it has to look like a goddamned fecal-stained workprint. Let's also not forget that this was all done back in 2005, too - tech and standards have broadly improved across the board since this transfer was made, and yet it still wipes its ass with that brand new Overfiend transfer! Unearthed is, and always has been, a substantially smaller label than Media Blasters too - so I don't want to hear a word about how "smaller labels can't always do what bigger labels can". If Unearthed Films can do it, anyone else worth their salt in this business can too.

Ignoring the weak compression, Rock & Rule is still a perfect example of what a vintage print is capable of being in High Definition with enough work behind it. I don't wish these particular circumstances on any licensor - the negative should always be the goal, and if it still exists, there probably isn't a good enough excuse not to use it. I have little doubt that some of the more obscure and colorful titles are only going to have similarly compromised film materials on hand, and if you're not willing to put in enough time and money to make it look at least as good as Rock & Rule, you probably have no business shuffling it out on Blu-ray to start with.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blu-ray Gets XTreme

So any of you guys remember X-RATED KULT Video? That occasionally shady but somehow still ground-breaking German label that sold everything in VHS sized hard cases, run by semi-pro sleaze director Andreas Bethmann? Sure you do, because they were the label that kick-started that whole simultaneous multiple covers trend that Germany has wallowed in ever since! They still exist as far as I know, and Bethmann has since "inspired" a new generation of German labels, among them "'84 Entertainment", "XT Video" and "CMV Laservision", with the lot of them regularly putting out 5 notably different boxes, all with the same discs inside, for films that German audiences have bought at least 10 copies of in the last decade.

If I were a cynic (who, me?!) I'd probably insult the notion of selling the exact same product in 3 limited boxes with varying covers, but hell, the fact that each cover is limited to 66 - 333 pieces each means they're probably only pressing a thousand copies of anything at one time. If you can't sell out with numbers like that at 20 Euros, you're doing something wrong!

With covers like this, who needs English dubbing?

One of those offshoots is such a racket they're literally producing empty hardboxes. I swear, for ten euros you can get the French one-sheet of The Evil Dead on a sturdy case with no specifics for the disc specs and put your favorite DVD and/or Blu-ray copy in yourself. That's how crazy Germans are for these goddamn things. Imagine if Blue Underground charged you $15 for an alternate cover of The Nesting - the entire American market would shit themselves laughing and then never mention it again.

They've been slowly embracing Blu-ray by way of combo packs, and it seems they're finally ready to go whole-hog with High Def releases either later this year or early the next... details are sparse, but we know the titles lined up are as follows, with films of particular note in bold:

WOODOO (Zombi 2)
SADO (Buio Omega: Beyond the Darkness)
MUTTERTAG (Mother's Day)
DAS HAUS AN DER FRIEDHOFMAUER (The House by the Cemetery)

I have little doubt that all of these titles will be using the same materials offered to Arrow Video, Media Blasters and Blue Underground. The question is will these films end up with better transfers in the hands of XT Video? The Arrow BD for Phenomena is rife with DVNR, both releases of The Beyond can be described as unimpressive (with the initial release bordering on "fucking unwatchable"), and while the French transfer of Tenebrae was very nice indeed, the Arrow BD was... well, let's just call it 'less so' and move on. Though I suspect that in all instances Arrow was handed less than ideal materials to start with, it'll be very interesting to see if any of them improve in the hands of a label that may have a better understanding of what to do with less than stellar materials. Heck, Blue Underground encoded circles around Arrow Video with Deep Red, despite the US transfer having a 25% lower bitrate!

Go ahead. Try and tell me you don't need that as a poster.

"Sado" is, of course, Buio Omega/Beyond the Darkness, a title that Media Blasters fucked up the presentation of quite spectacularly. I honestly don'texpect the Germanic release to be properly framed, or have the missing sequence restored, but if they do both they've got one guaranteed order from me. Buio Omega seems to have been quite popular in and around Germany, so I can only hope they pull out all of the stops for it.

It's 3D. No glasses required!

The New York Ripper is a more... complex situation. The Blue Underground release is actually pretty damned good - I suspect it's a bit noisier and higher-contrast than it really should be, but it's likely the best looking transfer BU has minted for a Euro Horror release in the last 3 years. The issue is that there's a 15 second sequence (detailed HERE) that was missing from the Blu-ray. As this site shows, German dubbed prints were missing the scene, and while it was present on the Anchor Bay DVD from 1999, it was in a completely different spot in the film. This all leads me to assume that the scene itself is some kind of outtake, and with that in mind I don't consider the release "Cut" in the traditional sense. Anyway, the UK release on the Shameless label does include that scene, but it also removes what may be the film's single most infamous sequence to earn a BBFC approved "18" certificate, so I flatly refuse to import a release for 15 seconds of "guy looks over his shoulder" when it, in turn, is missing 20 seconds of "a whore's boob meeting a razor blade". The audio is all there, but they covered the footage up with cut-aways.

Of course, this begs a lot of questions; Will they be region locked? Will the English credit sequences be replaced with the more familiar German titles? Will there be English dialog provided at all? If a scene wasn't dubbed in German, will it be cut and shuffled off to the extras as a "Deleted Scene"? Will bonus features be presented in PAL? Could XT Video produce even worse transfers than Arrow Video?

And before you scoff at the notion, don't forget that X-Rated started this push to putting packaging and title recognition over absolute product quality. X-Rated were the guys who released VHS quality transfers of Caligula 2 and Female Vampire on DVD, uncut or not. Bethmann and his company would also regularly overlay ridiculous video-generated title cards seemingly just to fuck with people. No, seriously. I can find no other explanation for why the title for the X-Rated Kult Torso DVD looks like this:

...goddamn it, Bethmann...
(What's sad is they were STILL better than Mya!)

But anyway, a little healthy competition can only help keep Blue Underground, Media Blasters and Arrow Video on their toes. It's just too bad that pretty much everything they've announced has already been released by the three of them. If these released don't at least meet the quality of the transfers already kicking around, then the only real advantage they'll have is for those who speak German. Well, and those who love them some hardboxes and mediabooks and digipacks and whatever else Germany's grooving on these days, packaging-wise...

Really? Germans actually buy these butt-ugly things?

Waitasecond, fucking Mothers Day too? Well, good for them I guess, but it looks kinda weird shoe-horned in between that much Fulci and Argento.

UPDATE: A dashing young Anonymous has informed me by way of the comments section that NSM Records is running XT Video, not X-Rated Kult! As such, the piece has been updated, but most of the points I've made remain valid enough that I'm keeping them.

That said, NSM re-released several X-Rated titles (like TORSO, PUPPET MASTER 3: TOULON'S REVENGE and ANTHROPOPHAGOUS). They've also re-released a number of shitty Laser Paradise "Red Edition" DVDs in hardboxes too though, so odds are any "former" X-Rated titles being in their catalog are mostly coincidental.

Slasher Kombat!!

Fine, I'll admit it. The only part of this that really pisses me off is that it's that stupid naked-mole-rat looking Jackie E. Hayley remake Freddy, and not the Robert Englund version we all know and love.

There's no two ways about this one, Kreuger is and will always be Rob Englund, a man who's performance was so iconic he basically couldn't get a serious role unless they found a way to work in his scarred-up Freddy face anyway. I can forgive the two gloves, if for no other reason that Freddy's cutting up warriors instead of molesting children to death. Yeah, that was the backstory for New Line Pictures' big franchise maker: He diddled children with blades until they died. Let's see that pussy Ghost Face top that.

The official trailer for Freddy Kreuger: The DLC doesn't have any dialog - not even a goddamn wisecrack! - so I can only assume that we have a JEH impersonator doing an impersonation of Englund twice-removed... ew. With all due respect to the perfect Rorschach, his interpretation of Kreuger struck me as a shallow, limp echo of Englund's original portrayal, which started out as a looney tunes parody and ended as a seething, wrath filled horror that's gone sadly underrated ever since the sequels turned him into a walking joke that kills stoners with the Nintendo Powerglove. Yeah, that actually fucking happened.

I didn't write a review up for the 2010 ANOES for the same reason most long-term prison convicts don't write a review of their anal raping; talking about it isn't going to make the pain in their asses go away, and as I'm not yet sure if the film gave me AIDS or not, I really don't want to talk much about it. But even had Hayley rocked the role all up in our faces, that remake was a poorly planned pile of shit that simply stole the best set-pieces from the original and made them substantially less effective with crappy CGI. It's like asking a talented captain to fly a plane without wings - at this point it doesn't matter how awesome he is, we're all pretty much screwed. I may not especially like that 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, but at least director Marcus Nispel tried to make it his own and gutted the concept down to the bare bones in an attempt to create a film that wasn't just checking off a bulleted list of shit the original did. It all may not have worked the way I'd have liked it to, but it was substantially more interesting than watching him simply reshoot the first three Jason movies and boil them down to one new film with (essentially) the same archetypes and bloody gags that have thinly defined the franchise for 30 years. The ANOES remake is so goddamn phoned in that Michael Bay might as well use it as an example to publish a "Remake By Numbers" book... thank fuck they never got around to remaking Rosemary's Baby.

Still, this is nowhere near the dumbest character in Mortal Kombat history, and I'd happily rend flesh from Sub-Zero's bones as even this bastardized beast of Craven's father-complex riddled imagination over Naruto filler villain looking crap like this:

These days, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company owns Jason Vorhees (and Leatherface! *sigh...*) so those of us waiting with a freshly lubed fleshlight to re-enact the final reel from Ronny Yu's appropriately titled slugfest of a motion picture are probably out of luck. Jason shot a spear in "Part 3-D", right? Just cross your eyes until Scorpion kinda looks like a rotten goalie. That's about as good as it's probably going to get.

And to everyone who was bitching about Kratos being "dumb" because they only had an Xbox and thus couldn't get their hands on him; butthurt much? For fuck's sake, I'd rather Kratos REPLACED Quan Chi. They're the same exact character except Kratos is about 70% less bitch.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Old Spice & Wolf: Or, FUNi Screws the Pooch

Japanese Blu-ray (Native HD)

FUNimation Blu-ray (480i upscale)

Full details of this clusterfuck plus comparison screeshots available on the Anime on DVD/Fandom Post forums HERE and HERE (also HERE for the full AoD thread).

There are indeed HD masters for the only slightly fan-pandering commerce themed fantasy series Spice and Wolf/狼と香辛料, that were used for the Japanese Blu-ray. FUNimation got NTSC standard definition materials with their license a few years back, and decided to re-release the first season on Blu-ray to coincide with the second season getting released... trouble is they didn't get actual HD masters first.

FUNimation has done this once before - just once, for the second half of the Tsubasa Chronicle/xxxHOLIC Movie CLAMP Double Feature. They were still very new to the whole Blu-ray "thing", and at the time I was largely willing to ignore it as a possible legitimate mistake. It's never been addressed directly, however, and while the Tsubasa movie has been released in the "Complete Collection" along with the TV series, the xxxHolic feature film has yet to be re-released from legitimate HD masters.

I guess everyone's allowed a fuck-up once in a blue moon... but this? Re-releasing the title for the third time - this time on an upscaled Blu-ray - when the show already has actual HD masters and Japanese Blu-rays that have been out for well over a year? Damn... is this something we can ignore more than once? I say no. Fuck no, even. FUNimation, THIS IS NOT FUCKING ACCEPTABLE. Not for Spice and Wolf, not for anything. As a company you've shown a lot of progress since your early, wonky looking titles like Samurai Champloo and Claymore, but it's as if you're only getting worse at releasing SD content on Blu-ray as time goes on.

Some of the eagle-eyed among you are probably already noticing two strange factors; one, that the HD release from Japan looks like aliased poop, and two, that the FUNimation upscale has HD credits. There's a surprisingly simple answer for both of these oddities:

There are a handful of titles animated around this period (2007-2008) that were animated at 720p resolution, and then upscaled to 1080i for broadcast. Trouble is, the way the material was upscaled in a way that broke the 720p material into interlaced fields first, and then upscaled them. You can't upscale interlaced content without deinterlacing it first, because then the fields no longer weave back together and you wind up with crap that... well, that looks like Spice and Wolf. OCD Japanese videophiles noticed it happening on a number of titles and took to calling it "720i". The only other title with this odd resolution available stateside is the girls-with-guns action show Canaan, but as that's encoded at 1080i I doubt most people would think twice about it; they'd expect deinterlacing artifacts anyway.

As for FUNi's credits, their standard procedure is - and almost always has been - to upscale the 'clean' non-credit sequences first, and generate new titles after that. Hey, just because the footage underneath it is 480i doesn't mean the credits have to be too, right? All you need to do is look at the cute little chibi-wolf and the ornate frame around her to see that the JP release looks worlds better, HD credits or not.

I was always kind of torn on wither or not I wanted to buy a show about medieval merchant, who happens to travel with a wolf-spirit who's sole super power seems to be giving even militant furry haters wolf-boners. It's certainly not the worst concept out of there, but knowing it's far more about haggling over grain and than ogling over wolf-ass seems like a a bit of a missed opportunity, or even just a ploy to get hot-blooded otaku to pay $50 an episode for a show about the exciting trials of pseudo-medieval accounting. It may sound absurd, but think about it. I hate math. Always have, always will. My damn grandfather's a retired engineer, and the fact that I have to whip out a calculator when I go to a grocery store fills him with disappointment and a distrust in the very idea that life was worth living. (He doesn't say it or anything. But I can feel it.)

Flash back to high school; my algebra teacher was a kind and competent, but elderly and heavy set woman. Had fate replaced her with a 20 year old hot chick with fuzzy wolf ears, I'd have spent sleepless nights re-wiring my brain and aced that shit just on the off chance she'd say "Good job, Kentai!" Clearly Isuna HASEKURA is a genius and wants us to understand 16th century business-building strategies by exploiting Japan's oldest fetish; canines who happen to love man dick.

In any case, either buy the DVD for the first season or ignore it entirely. Whatever, fuck 'em. The FUNi release of the second season should be a "Native HD" release, but clearly we can't trust FUNimation to keep track of that kind of stuff...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Realism vs Moe: Round 2

Highlord - TOUGH BOY (English power metal version)

Momo-i - TOUGH BOY (Ironic
萌え version)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"Grain" vs "Noise" Round 2: CRT vs CCD

As there are a few folks glancing at the Kentai blog who seem confused as to what a CRT monitor has to do with digital video. The Wiki article I linked to last time explains it, but, not very clearly - for those who missed it, I'll direct your attentions HERE for the more technical explanation. Most of this may sound like crazy-person gibberish to people who don't work with telecine hardware on a daily basis (I know I scratched my head over it for a while), so here's a slightly simplified explanation that should clear up any confusion as to why I'm blaming the analog noise found on Italian horror films on a CRT:

 This is where movie babies come from. DON'T LOOK!

Cathode-Ray Tubes have been used to transfer film to video signals since the 1950s, and are still being used by some film labs to this very day to create HD masters. This is essentially accomplished by shining rays of light generated by a CRT (A) through the film print (B), which are then reflected by photon-sensitive mirrors (C/D) that separate out the red, green and blue information, which is then converted by photomultiplier tubes, or PMT (E/F/G) into measurable light data an three separate primary colors, which is then digitized into 0s and 1s and exported as HD video.

This is what SCIENCE looks like.
(Also, mediocrity and obsolescence.)

In other words, there's about six completely separate analog components that need to be perfectly aligned and functioning before any of it goes digital, and if any part of the chain is malfunctioning it can produce unwanted side effects - including blurring from poor physical calibration, and analog noise from failing vacuum tubes. It could also produce uneven color levels if just one of these components isn't working right - let's say a lack of blues, which makes everything else in the image too yellow. A colorist can only correct what was actually captured during the film transfer, so ensuring that all three colors are properly accounted for is extremely important.

Now here's where it gets kinky...

Most - but certainly not all - modern film transfers use a CCD Telecine. Basically, they use a xenon based flashtube (A) to produce an instant flash of white light, which passes through the film print (B) and is then separated by a light prism (C) and/or, again, light sensitive mirrors (D). This prism separates out the red, green and blue information, and sends it to three separate Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCD (E/F/G), which transforms all of that analog light information into digital color data.

It actually works on a very similar principle as the CRT device, it just does it using more modern components. The big difference between them is the fact that CCD is considered more stable technology than CRT; the xenon bulbs are cheaper, easier to replace, and last longer than a CRT tube. CCD array based telecine devices generally don't have alignment problems like CRT scanners do, either. They both go about capturing analog film information via flashing light through celluloid towards analog-to-digital sensors, but if one costs less to upkeep and doesn't require semi-regular calibration, I'd say it's the superior format by default... but let's not rule out CRT without good reason, right?

As I've pointed out before, LVR is using a Cintel DSX as their only advertised telecine device. Cintel is a UK based manufacturer that makes exclusively CRT based hardware, and if you click the fourth image down on that page the caption even reads "Flying Spot CRT Telecine System". Whether LVR or Cintel (and other related CRT devices) is really "at fault" for the final product is up for debate, but there's no dodging the fact that this is what they're using to make Media Blasters' shockingly shitty looking HD transfers. It's also been reported by John Sirabella that Beyond the Darkness was transferred three separate times, which makes me wonder if that one project was done on another device entirely... if nothing else, it certainly looks different from anything else MB or BU have released in HD.

Even on Cintel's own website, they list the following 'negatives' for CRT scanners:

  • Seen as expensive as the CRT can require replacement every 2 or 3 years.
  • Can require complex circuitry to mask ageing effects.
  • Sometimes requires expert alignment.

Their words, not mine. Amusingly at the end of the FAQ, the one real advantage in creating the final product that a CRT device has over a CCD scanner - and this is according to the guys who make them for a living - is "a deeper, filmic look". That's right, the only advantage they're able to pull out of their spinning mouths is that CCD produces "a flatter, cleaner, video look". And you know what? That's totally believable. In fact when I watched Taxi Driver on Blu-ray, you know, probably the single sharpest, grainiest, and most film-like transfer to hit stores in the last 12 months - made completely on a CCD scanner, make no mistake - the only thing I could think was "Wow, this looks pretty good... but if only there was some CRT noise it'd be PERFECT!"

A "deeper, filmic look", huh?

As I've said before, this is not film grain. This is exaggerated video noise being caused by a less than optimal CRT film scanner. Wither the film scanner is completely worthless or just needs one hell of a tune-up I can't rightly say, but I can (and will) say without hesitation that I own DVDs with more detail than these two "1080p" atrocities.

This has got to stop, and the only way things are going to change is if we demand it. Don't buy shitty releases; wait for reviews from someone you trust, and don't bother upgrading from a good DVD to a mediocre Blu-ray. For fuck's sake, if we can't think of a better use of our hard-earned money than that, we're clearly not trying hard enough!

If any of this information (basic as it's supposed to be) is misleading or incomplete, I do apologize. I'm not a professional lab colorist or a telecine repair tech or whatever, I just gather info on the subject from both private and public sources as I'm able to. If any readers out there ARE colorists, or otherwise have experience with both CRT and CCD setups, I'd absolutely love to hear your take on this issue in the comments.