Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frightful Sellouts

Yeah... this film has no other posters to speak of.

So I'm leaving... Thursday? Thursday. Packing like a madman. Blithering like an idiot. Had to share this before I pass out for a few fever-dream induced hours and continue on my maddening trial. Also, do you have any idea how many DVDs Kentai owns? 'Cause I hadn't taken much stock over the years. "Two big-ass Wal-Mart bookshelves with additional shelves stolen from a third full to bursting" should have been a sign that I was a very special episode of Hoarders in the making, but hey, I guess that's still cheaper than doing rock on a burnt mattress in an abandoned warehouse. (Wait, is it?)

But forget my insanity for a sec - let's talk about movies 'n' stuff. Screen Archives Entertainment has officially sold out of FRIGHT NIGHT. Proving once again that all the ferocious internet bluster in the world doesn't mean much; people buy what they love and ignore everything else. Glad I pre-ordered mine the day it was available and didn't miss out - looks great, sounds fine and the window closed less than one week after the "official" release date, which is probably the best Sony Pictures and Twilight Time could have hoped for. And now, just for everyone that was bitching and moaning about $35 shipped, eBay auctions are already getting bids at $50 minimum, and some of the buy-it-now copies are $250! Ah, collector's markets...

Of equal note is the fact that they evidently saved aside 100 copies for writer/director Tom Holland to autograph. Cool, right? Are they giving those out to the first 100 people who pre-ordered or randomly sending them out to lucky fans as a sign of good will? Fuck no! They're actually giving them away to anyone who orders $100 worth of Twilight Time DVD/Blu-ray titles for free. Now I get it, Fright Night is probably going to sell better than Stagecoach and The Roots of Heaven, but maybe some of those hold-outs will see this deal and break down anyway, right? It's a clever way to move more of their other titles, and sounds like a nifty little extra incentive... but they announced it AFTER the title was available for a week, all of the pre-orders had shipped, and they had already said that less than 500 copies remained.

All of those guys who actually pre-ordered Fright Night and showed their support a fucking month before it was ready to go? Y'know, all those assholes like you and me - the target goddamn consumer? Evidently we don't get the extra-cool shit, not unless we really, really want Rapture and The Egyptian and The Picnic for $35 a pop. That's just cold, man. Thanks for showing the people who crashed your shitty servers just to get their copy the day pre-orders went up where they can stick it, Twilight Time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merry Fucking Christmas, Dario Argento.

Work-In-Progress Teaser for Dario Argento's DRACULA 3D

Yes, I really should be packing. No, I don't have time for this. But Jesus Fucking Christ, just look at this shit and tell me this didn't DEMAND 5 minutes of my busy schedule to address.

I want anyone who's ever had even the slightest shred of respect for il maestro del terrore, for Dario goddamn Argento, to look at this two and a half minutes of distilled cinematic pain and tell me there's anything left in him. Yeah yeah, it's not technically "finished" yet, but not even WETA's best is going to make this look any less shockingly retarded and sloppy. This is the sort of gateway to cinematic purgatory reserved for films like Highlander: The Source (Russian Director's Cut) and the live action Devilman - movies so appalling that the Surgeon General suggests they might actually give you cancer.

You remember when ol' Blue Eyes was singing in clubs for the last couple years of his life, forgetting the lyrics mid-song like some drunk asshole with a broken karaoke machine? You remember how sad you felt for him, and how you wish he'd just get a little place in Boca and live his last few years in quiet dignity as Frank Sinatra: The Legend, not the reality that he was an old man living borrowed time, acting out his classic shtick like some weird singing marionette? This new teaser is exactly the same thing for Dario Argento. What's worse is this is the teaser that producers are trying to use to sell the film to publishers; if this is what they're showing people to make them want to pay money for it, I shudder to think what the other two hours or so must be like.

As someone who doesn't hate Trauma, sat through The Card Player and left with a shrug and barely made it through Giallo in no less than three sittings with clenched fists and tears in my eyes... this is just pure shit. I actually want to give Rutger Hauer a big sympathy hug for having gone from something as amazing as Hobo with a Shotgun to... well, to this.

Dario Argento, as an asshole who's loved your films even when you only half deserved it, and was willing to look the other way when you slummed it up with crappy TV movies and actually sat through The Mother of Tears dubbed in Italian, wincing every three minutes, but stayed to the end because you were a God in your day... just stop. Please, for everyone, just stop making movies. The only thing you can do to your legacy now is stop tarnishing it any further. When Phantom of the Opera is no longer your worst film, we can no longer pretend than anything you made after Opera is even remotely good. Your work from 1990 onward has been middling, even at its best, but this teaser was just... God, I couldn't even watch it in one sitting. It's so bad I can't watch the fucking trailer without stopping to laugh and weep.

It's a Dracula movie and - I'm not making a word of this up - I JUST SAW A DUDE GET KILLED BY A GIANT PRAYING MANTIS. What. The. Fuck.

Anyway, it's time for me to pack more stuff. Just uh... yeah, Merry Fucking Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

X-Mas And Beyond: A Temporary Hiatus for Kentai Films

Hang on, I can almost see the future...

Do not be alarmed, friends. I haven't given up, and I'm not shutting the site down. But it's likely to go on hiatus for a little while. A few weeks, maybe longer? It depends on how long it takes to settle my affairs and get comfortable with something I can only describe as... well, it's basically a brand new life. A new part of the country, a new job, new  friends to meet, things to learn, restaurants to explore, gangs to avoid... I think it's pretty good to be Kentai right now. It's exciting.

It's also a little terrifying - mostly because I literally need to travel a distance of what'd be the span of several countries on most continents in a little less than a month, complete with my wife, my mountain of useless shit, and my miniature lion and my wife's kitten I can't imagine will be thrilled about living in the back of a car for about a week. It's gonna be one hell of a Kentai Christmas on Route 66, that's about all I know for sure.

A happy one to you and yours, friends... I'll see you all on the other side.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fright Night... For Real.

Much controversy has surrounded the new Twilight Time release of the 1985 film FRIGHT NIGHT, and that's really a shame. The film itself is phenomenal, as most anyone familiar with 1980s horror films will attest, combining a legitimate retro-horror story built on the legacy of Hammer films from the 50s and 60s with a sense of dry wit that's been largely called a "horror comedy". A fairly normal teenager named Charley (William Ragsdale) notices that his new neighbor doesn't come out during the day, keeps a bitchin' coffin in his basement, and has seen women disappear into the house only to turn up as corpses on the news the next day. A casual fan of "Fright Night", the local TV station's monster movie theater hosted by the 'Legendary Vampire Killer' himself Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), he quickly puts two and two together and enlists the help of his worried girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and socially inept friend "Evil Ed" (Stephen Geoffereys) to help stake the beast. Obviously they think he's flipped his lid, but there's still something about Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) that just doesn't add up... the question is can they can do the math before the neighbors wind up taking a bite out of everyone on the block?

There's clearly a streak of dry humor from start to finish in Fright Night, but this isn't exactly cut from the same cloth as Return of the Living Dead or The Monster Squad; the humor is kept low key, a natural extension of the characters rather than a flat out rolling meta-commentary. (I'll say it again: Fuck you, Scream.) Despite not sharing nearly as much screen time as Charley and his friends, Chris Sarandon as the smarmy blood sucker with class to spare, and Roddy McDowall as the classic horror star turned washed-up cable presenter, a sort of poor man's Elvira mixed with the real life decline of Bela Lugosi, absolutely steal the show with performances that are just as heartfelt as they are genuinely funny - not by hamming it up or dropping bad puns, but by understanding what makes these archetypes tick and pushing them just far enough that they're amusingly over the top without degenerating into obvious parody. Neither of them are spitting out one liners, they just live these roles to the hilt and wallow in the great power and unique melancholy they require until there's nothing left to give. I understand why we focus on the dumb (but not entirely unpleasant) kids for most of the runtime, these two are the heart and soul of the flick, and it's an absolute joy watching them play completely opposite ends of the spectrum, one deadly, sexy and confident to a fault, the other a cowardly old has-been seemingly on the verge of waiting for death to put him out of his misery. The kids are all right, but these two carry so much genuine menace and pathos that they effectively anchor the silly teens into the darker adult world by proxy.

The film's rubber and corn syrup effects augmented with some impressive optically-printed animation have a unique vibe to them that was lost with the advent of digital special effects. It's not that these were "better" - just that there was a certain impact a rubber mask covered in glycerin had, not just on the actor actually in it, but on the actors around them. One of the film's best scenes is McDowall reacting in simultaneous horror and tempered sympathy as he watches a boy degenerate from a deadly wolf to a pathetic naked imp, a shell of his former self that continues to wither away, bit by bit, until only the frail, dying boy is left. It's rare to find an actor who can convey that much, that fusion of fear and pity, without making a sound to start with - but I'm sure it'd be even rarer to get him to react that way without being able to SEE the wretched creature whimpering and clawing at its wounds, trying to stay alive. The special effects don't look "real", exactly, but they do still look pretty goddamn cool. We may have finally perfected the prosthetic decapitation 30 years after Friday the 13th, to the point where it looks as real as any terrorist snuff video - but making it look awesome? That takes talent and imagination, something that throwing endless piles of money at a problem can dull over time.

Fright Night was hardly a gorefest though - it just drives home that almost unnervingly silly vibe the great cast and classy score by Brad Fidel have brought to life, infusing a fun but timeless story that's as much Rear Window as it is The Fearless Vampire Killers with a firm and unapolagetic identity as a 1985 production. It was a superficial and ridiculous decade, make no mistake, but this is one of those films you can point to and say "They don't make 'em like this anymore" - and you'd be absolutely right. Well, yes, they did make another Fright Night... but just watch the trailer for the original and then chase that down with the trailer for "Fright Night 3D". Different eras, different goals and so on. Writer/Director Tom Holland would combine horror and comedy to unique ends as well a few years later in the original Child's Play, but I tend to think that decent enough film doesn't stand up as well as Fright Night does, for a number of reasons. To be fair, though, with the massive franchise it somehow spawned it's impossible NOT to watch Child's Play in the 21st century and know for the entire first "mysterious" hour that the killer was really-- well, you know...

By comparison Fright Night is just as charming as it was in 1985, and I doubt the inclusion of either 3D or Collin Farrel have improved the 2011 version currently cluttering up six shelves at a Wal-Mart or Best Buy near you. I've not seen the remake and kind of doubt I ever will, but from a friend's account of it the 3D film has its own identity for a while, but falls back on scenes cribbed almost word-for-word in the last act. A shame that the script's largely different direction about hanging out with the wrong crowd and being unsure if the neighbor is a vampire or just a normal Las Vegas weirdo decided to give up the ghost in the 11th hour, since the more complex character arcs and shift away from suburbia sounded like they had some potential to at least create a completely different experience... but, back to the original under review.

The new Blu-ray transfer is, according to film restoraration expert Robert A. Harris, a 4K scan of a brand new interpositive. The original Dolby Stereo mix has been unfolded into a 5.1 DTS HD-MA (24-bit) lossless track, and while the 106 minute film has been squeezed onto a single layered Blu-ray, the the only included bonus features are a pair of vintage theatrical trailers and an isolated score (DTS HD-MA 2.0 16-bit), allowing for an adequate bitrate of 23 Mb/s for a film shot in scope, which means 25% of the screen is unmoving and thus easier to compress. Most of you know that I'd love to see 40 Mb/s as the standard for Blu-ray, but in the real world, studios want to save money and so long as the transfer looks decent, I don't see being a BD25 as an inherent negative... take a look at these caps and decide for yourself:

The last screenshot is about as bad as this disc ever gets; I wouldn't call that especially "bad", either. It's likely just a notch below reference and may not blow those of you with front projection setups away, but it's still a very good transfer. Anyone who's seen a few lower-budget 'scope films from this period should more or less know what to expect in terms of focus and grain, and that's exactly what you'll get with Fright Night. It looks very nice - nicer in motion than screenshots suggest, I think - and while Mr. Harris and I may disagree from time to time, he loved the crap out of it. If you trust neither of us, well... I honestly don't know what to tell you.

The audio is being called "front heavy", and that's not an unfair accusation - the film appears to be, essentially, a 5.1 upmix of the original Dolby Stereo track, leaning more towards a faithful recreation of the original sound mix on modern systems than any sort of extensive "from the stems" affair. I've decided to rip the 1.5 Mb/s "core" track and take a look at it as a WAV form to get a better idea of what this track is really made of - just because I *heart* you guys enough to do that sort of thing, even if I'm going to listen to the whole disc with a pair of middle-of-the-road headphones most of the time anyway.

The channels are, in descending order: Left, Right, Center, LFE, Surround Left and Surround Right. Forgive the almost Lovecraftian scroll bar - I had to patch two separate screenshots together to show the whole thing, is all. As you can see there is some basic separation between the left and right channels, but 90% of the sound is coming right out of the center, and the sub is barely there at all. I'm not chastising the mix at all - just saying what the waveform has already told you. It's a pretty basic stereo feature bumped up to an equally basic surround mix, but it's absolutely NOT a vintage Dolby Surround track - that would imply that the SL/SR channels are identical, and zero LFE presence. It's a new mix, and it doesn't sound bad to me... it just, sounds like a 26 year old low-budget horror film. Go figure.

Not to ride Sony's ass on this, but why aren't original mixes included more often by certain studios? I doubt the difference would be notable here, of all places, but it's the sort of thing I feel really should be standard on Blu-ray by now. Include a 7.1 mix and a dozen dubs, go for it - but don't forget to include the vintage theatrical mix while you're at it, you know?

You know what else you get? An 8 page booklet!  Booklets are a rare treat these days, one I've grown to miss as Blu-ray has overtaken my DVD collection by storm, and there's a number of nice glossy photos and the original poster on the back, plus a sheet with production credits and special thanks. No chapter listing... but we'll talk about that in a second. There's also a lengthy essay on the film written by Julie Kirgo which is a nice touch unto itself, though I'll admit I'm not totally on board with her theory of Evil Ed being a subtext for closeted homosexuality. English language vampire mythology is literally rooted in homosexuality and later sadomasochism, and I viewed their brief relationship as that of one social pariah to another - not a suggestion that they share a homosexual bond, particularly when the entire last act is about Chris Sarandon fang-humping the life out of Amanda Bearse! (That said, I'm somehow totally not shocked that Marcy from Married... With Children is a lesbian. What, are you?) The passing implications between Sarandon and his ghoulish "roommate" (Jonathan Stark) as possible homosexuals actually works brilliantly as a cover story; who would suspect the pair of nondescript, cable-knit sweater wearing gays restoring a very special episode of This Old House as a pair of blood drinking prostitute murderers? Anyway, Kirgo's made her case and I'm grateful that she had plenty of nice things to say, and even some fun production anecdotes to share - such as McDowall's point of inspiration for his character, and it's not his namesakes! - even if I personally think some of it's a stretch.

You'll also find a link to Icons of Fright's "Unofficial" commentary tracks, which for legal reasons they couldn't put on the disc, but any clever S.O.B. with an iPod should really be able to download them and watch the commentary with the Blu-ray anyhow. Not an extra on the disc, unfortunately, but appreciated all the same. You also get a fun lil' fridge magnet - or, at least I did. A friend of mine wasn't so lucky, but as several others have reported getting one I assume it was just an isolated slip-up. As mentioned in brief, the only extras included on the disc are two vintage theatrical trailers - and curiously, they're cropped to 1.85:1, despite the film proper being in 2.40:1. They look a little worse for wear, but being duplicate elements and optically reframed besides, that's only natural. I honestly don't like it when they use the vintage trailer audio and re-cut the "restored" footage on top of it; I'd much rather see how nasty the film looked when it was marketed in the weeks before it came out, and you don't need to restore the trailers at all to give us a peek into that little sliver of the film's history.

The only thing I will shake my head over is the authoring of the disc itself. For one thing there's a main menu, but no pop-up menu. It's perplexing, perhaps just a bit annoying, but I've got all these unused buttons like "Audio" and "Subtitle" on my remote for a reason, and this is it. What's less forgivable are the fact that the chapter stops are placed at 10 minute intervals, like clockwork. I know chapter stops aren't the most important thing on ANY release, and yes, films are meant to be watched front to end anyhow, but... seriously? You guys are charging $30 for these discs and you can't take the ten minutes it'd take to put the chapters in natural scene breaks that have something to do with the movie? Even those low rent Echo Bridge assholes do that, and they squeeze four films onto a single BD50! It's a shame, since this is the first time in a long time where the back-end authoring of a disc has actually been the only major disappointment.

The authoring isn't the controversy, though; as I've mentioned before, Fright Night is only being made available through Twilight Time's parent company, Screen Archives Entertainment - though you can now purchase it through Amazon.com (from SAE as a third party seller, anyway). It's $29.98 plus about five bucks shipping, end of story. You can get similar 80s horror films on Blu-ray from Amazon and Best Buy for half that, sometimes even less - so why is Fright Night so expensive? There's been discussion raging on over this fact ever since the details were made public a few months ago, but the short version is middle-of-the-road catalog titles just don't sell well on Blu-ray, and studios like Sony make substantially less selling a few thousand copies of a $10 movie than they do selling a new movie at $25 that they've started to lose interest in them completely.

If you want to see great movies like Fright Night, The Rapture and Mysterious Island (among others) on Blu-ray, then don't think of Twilight Time as some perverted mutation of the home video market; see it as the future that deserving titles will get. Because without this more expensive limited edition model, there is no future on Blu-ray for these films. 25 years ago, Laserdisc served a niche audience that favored quality over convenience, and for those that are still willing to pay top dollar for high quality features, this could be the way the market swings towards in 2012. I admit that the price is higher than I'd like it to be, but Fright Night is a fantastic film. I'd rather pay $35 for this than the same price for three films I don't especially care for, but I know that everyone has their limits.

Rest assured that, if not the Best Blu-ray Ever, Fright Night' audio and video presentation is perfectly fine. It's a little dark, a little soft and sounds pretty front heavy, but anyone expecting something different must not have known what they were signing up for to start with. It looks and sounds the way I can only imagine Fright Night should, and if you've ever seen this on cable, DVD, or even a 35mm print, you've never seen it look or sound this good. If that's worth $35 to you, indulge. If not, hey, there's always Sony's DVD re-release... but I'm not even going to link to that. You know a contemporary classic like Fright Night deserves better.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Realism vs Moe: Round 3

Realism (H.R. Giger's Li II)

萌え (Japanese erotic mangaka PIKU2N)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Hail To The King That Never Was

The King That Never Was (2011 - Alternate Reality)

King Arthur and Robin Hood (2002 - Brendon Small)

Now I'm not implying that the former is a remake of the latter... but that's only because I don't think I need to. Having watched the whole of Alternate Reality's premier video I can't tell if I want to suck on the loaded end of a shotgun The Hills Have Eyes remake style or send these guys a cashier's check for every cent I have.

There's only two possibilities I can come to: They're either brilliant satirists who have created the ultimate piece of Wizardcore Metal strictly for the lulz, or they're the first recorded example of walking, rocking, sentient brain tumors and actually think this is the single greatest thing ever.

Keep in mind that I'm the asshole who just spent ten bucks on the new sequel to Welcome to my Nightmare and wasn't sure what a Lady Gaga was until about a year ago, so I'm probably not the best guy to judge anyone's musical taste - but it bothers me slightly that I'm not immediately sure if these guys are just fucking with us or not. I guess The Beastie Boys made a career out of their satire being misconstrued as earnest hip-hop, so maybe these goofballs are on to something here?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Cannibalized Masters

I'm totally serious. It's half man, half bear... and half pig!

Ian Jane over at Rock! Shock! Pop! has done assholes like myself a big favor by reviewing the new French Blu-ray of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and has a full review on the actual content as well as plenty more "pretty" pictures. Anyone with more than a passing interest (or who's considering lunging for the Amazon.fr order page) should give it a look.

Here's the Reader's Digest version: 1080i transfer with no lossless audio, "PAL HD" menus, and the only new extras are an interview with film critic Julien Seveon, and a 22 minute panel with Deodato at a convention, both in French with no subtitles. As for the good news, such as it is, the disc is region free, doesn't have forced subtitles and there's no censor cuts, so if you're ever so inclined you can officially watch that coati get throat-fucked with cold steel in 1080 as often as you like.

If (like me) you watch everything on a PS3 you're still up a creek on this one thanks to the menus being 1080i50Hz, but that transfer is such an underwhelming pile of fuck I can't say I'm all that upset about it. I love the crap out of it and all, but I just gave one copy away and I've still got two more sitting on the shelf! I'm not going to spend a dime on this movie again until I'm given good reason to, and a middling HD transfer that might be even worse than the crumby Shameless Blu-ray is simply not it. Grindhouse Releasing and Red Shirt Productions are both apparently hard at work on an all-new Blu-ray release for sometime in 2012. Under the circumstances, and knowing they created their own transfer for DVD (even IF that ended in mixed results), I'm more than happy to wait this one out.

Oh yeah: Ian doesn't mention wither or not The Road To Hell in-film documentary is complete, but since I've yet to see that footage pulled from anything that didn't look like VHS, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume it's not.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Meet Me At The Echo Bridge Quad


Yeah, yeah I know... here I am being part of the problem, supporting the absolute bottom of the bargain barrel release instead of throwing all of my money at "respectable" presentations to ensure that the market pulls towards quality over price. Buying crappy releases ensures that we'll only get more crappy crap in return, and the only way to turn it around is to support the niche players who still give a shit - these are tenants I've spoken of for years now, and they remain just as true now as they always have. I haven't given up on the cause... I'm just having a poor white trash moment. Going to Wal-Mart to buy milk and cat litter can do that to any man, damn it!

Besides, I've got my Fright Night pre-order in, I recently bought Intruder straight from Synapse Films, I can't even fucking REMEMBER how much money I spent on movies during that caffeine and Mastercard fueled Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping spree, and I just put in $225 worth of pre-orders to satisfy my Puella Magi Madoka Magica addiction. I'm dead fucking serious: 12 episodes with CDs, booklets and some paper trinkets for $224.94. The entire Blu-ray industry can blow me because it's already got all of my money, and the only way I could possibly put more back into it was if I started buying movies I actively didn't like.

I mean come on, it was $10. TEN BUCKS for From Dusk 'Till Dawn, it's substantially less respectable direct to DVD sequel, its equally - if perhaps even more loathed? - direct to DVD prequel, AND the feature length Full Tilt Boogie documentary. How can you possibly beat that deal with a stick?

And what could Echo Bridge do to make this dream team of low price and high content possibly fall apart? I'm glad you asked, sir! Best known as the company that creates half of the DVDs you find in Wal-Mart's $5 bins, they were quickly derided - often solely on principle - for using whatever crumby HD masters Miramax gave them, with very little being done on their part to improve the situation. Not that I imagine the audience for Dimension "classics" like The Crow 2: City of Angels and Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Meyers were expecting lavish collector's editions to start with, but it would have been nice if, say, Dracula 2000 had been framed properly or if Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest had been given an IVTC so it was presented at 1080p.

Another troubling aspect is that they'll do separate encodes for stand-alone features and double features. When From Dusk 'Till Dawn was released on a single Blu-ray by itself, the bitrate was about 25% higher than it was for the Double Feature disc which included Scott "Intruder" Spiegel's sequel. Why? Because the Double Feature Echo Bridge discs were actually squeezing two feature length films onto a single BD25! Two movies, one layer... obviously something has to give, and when your stand alone releases have nothing in the way of bonus features or alternate language tracks, bitrate is about all that's left. With that horrifying knowledge in mind I just had to see first-hand how awful these Quad Feature discs really were..

From Dusk 'Till Dawn (1:47:49 - 14.6 GB)
1080p AVC - 15 Mb/s + 24-bit 5.1 DTS-HD MA

FDTD2: Texas Blood Money (1:28:06 - 8.2 GB)
1080p AVC - 14 Mb/s + 24-bit 2.0 DTS-HD MA

FDTD3: The Hangman's Daughter (1:33:00 - 11.0 GB)
1080p AVC - 14 Mb/s + 16-bit 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Full Tilt Boogie (1:40:30 - 11.5 GB)
1080p AVC - 11.5 Mb/s + 24-bit 2.0 DTS-HD MA

Based on reviews kicking around for the "From Dusk 'Till Dawn Double Feature" Blu-ray, the movie files present on the Quad Feature are identical. What's interesting is that reviewers almost universally praised the transfer of the first film and called the second one of the worst available on Blu-ray, but as you can see the video bitrate is nearly identical - the main reason the second film is so much smaller is because of its crumby stereo mix! Who knew? What's really fascinating is that all four films look completely different from a compression standpoint...

From Dusk 'Till Dawn looks... well it's passable, if not actually good. There's some obvious compression artifacts that love to crop up during especially grainy or fast moving shots, but it's only a minor annoyance compared to what I had expected going in. It looks considerably better than the average HDTV broadcast or a Netflix HD stream, and having owned that Dimension Collector's Edition DVD for longer than I can remember, words can't properly express what a massive upgrade this transfer is over that non-anamorphic turd. It could certainly look better, but try as I might, I just can't get that upset about what I'm seeing. Remember: Low Expectations = High Payoff!

Texas Blood Money, however, are my worst nightmares realized. The bitrate is only a slight step down, but if you were to walk in on this sucker playing you'd probably think this was just a crumby DVD-R size HDTV rip - not a mass market Blu-ray. It looks like absolute shit, but why it looks so much worse than the other two 35mm sourced feature films on the disc, I really can't say... all I can do is chalk it up to poor encoder implementation, 'cause seriously, even at low bitrates like this the image shouldn't look that ridiculously pixelated. I think I actually feel embarrassed for Echo Bridge over this one - and I actually gave them money for this fucking thing!

The Hangman's Daughter is an interesting compromise. Compression artifacts are rarely an issue, but the film is in a state of extreme soft focus seemingly from start to finish, so there isn't much in the way of mathematical complexity to choke on. I don't know off hand if we're seeing a transfer that's been intentionally defocused before compression to avoid ugly block artifacting or if this was a stylistic choice by the film's director to start with, but in either case the final results are infinitely more watchable. Except, of course, when you get the occasionally dreadful CG element that looks like it was sourced from a BOB deinterlaced Digibeta... but that's neither here nor there, I guess.

And as for Full Tilt Boogie... well, it looks good enough. We're talking about a documentary that's a combination of feature quality 35mm, fly-on-the-wall 16mm blown up footage, and even analog video printed to film! It looks like asshole on a variety of levels, but it's mostly just talking heads and extreme grain to start with, so despite being the "worst" transfer in terms of raw bitrate and quantizer issues, it's also the least offensive part of the set to have those sorts of issues to begin with. It's essentially a bonus feature, yeah? The fact that it's even from a legitimate HD source was a surprise, so the fact that it was lowballed in the bitrate department isn't going to keep me up at night.

At the end of the day, we're talking about 6 and a half hours of HD content on a single BD50 complete with lossless audio, with not a scrap of disc space being wasted. It's goddamn ridiculous, and this really isn't where I want to see the format turn to... and yet, here I am buying it anyway. Just because it's ten fucking dollars. For that price, the quality is acceptable; it's not something I want to see become the norm, clearly, but if this is where Miramax's endless catalog titles are going to go, I won't very lose much sleep over it.

Does From Dusk 'Till Dawn deserve better? Of course! And for what it's worth it's already got better releases in Canada, Japan, The United Kingdom, and likely other corners of the world I'm not paying quite as much attention to. Though the moniker has never been applied to it (and never will be), From Dusk 'Till Dawn was essentially the trial run in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse double feature, something I still consider the best 3 hours and change in a theater to be released in the 21st century. It's a legitimately great piece of genre-fusion entertainment, funny and smart when it needs to but never at the cost of being a viscerally satisfying joyride. I'm deeply disappointed that I even have to import if I want a Blu-ray release that has any actual bonus content, considering the material is already held by Miramax - but that's just the name of the game when the studios simply stop caring about their back catalog and hand it over to a third party that manages to care even less. Sales are in the toilet, and our friends at the Weinstein Company (or at least those they've contracted to do their dirty work) are smart enough to know that people will buy movies, even amazingly shitty movies, when you can grab four of them for less than the cost of the pizza you'll devour while you watch them.

There's nothing WRONG with the From Dusk 'Till Dawn Multi-Feature Quad Blu-ray. It's a bargain bin release that promises several hours of High Definition schlocky fun for next to nothing, and delivers as promised. You can't just order crab and then be upset you didn't get lobster. It doesn't look perfect, but after reminding myself that I've spent just as much much on Blacksploitation or Kung Fu films that were literally 3 chewed-up VHS tapes recorded onto a single layered DVD, I stopped being so damn ornery about the whole thing. It is what it is - no more, and no less. But what does all of this imply for All of Those Shitty Hellraiser Sequels, The American Edits of Project A and Armor of God, or God help you, This 'Wes Craven Presents' Monstrosity? Based on what I've seen here, these Multi-Feature discs are probably "good enough". They're never going to knock your socks off, but if you need a fix of B-movie magic that won't break the bank, they're sure to leave you adequately satisfied.

Just do the whole industry a favor and buy a better Blu-ray next time. The fewer labels we see needlessly squeezing 3 hours on a BD25 layer, the better.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Magi Puella Pre-Order Clincher

Well. There goes all of MY money for 2012!

Australia Can Eat Shit!

The Australian Classification Review Board has officially BANNED THE UNCUT VERSION of Tom Six's The Human Centipede 2 [Full Sequence]. Monster Films was shocked enough that the Australian Classification Board (formerly the OFLC) passed the film as R18+  without ordering any cuts, but the ACRB can legally usurp the ACB's decision and choose to ban a film, even when a prior government agency has said it wasn't obscene.

What the hell is wrong with Australia? Who has a tax-payer funded board who's sole purpose is to decide what is and isn't appropriate for any given audience, and THEN have a second rung of assholes who decide if the first board actually did their fucking job? After the same group did the very same thing TO A CUT VERSION OF A SERBIAN FILM I can't say I'm surprised this is the outcome, but why have a secondary branch who's sole purpose is to bow to outside pressure? The ACRB don't spend each and every day rating films, they literally just wait for someone to complain loud enough and then decide wither or not they agree with the ACB's professional decision!

Australia, I don't hate you. You've given us awesome things like the platypus, Mel Gibson, pizza with barbecue sauce, the electric drill and The Loved Ones (the latter of which couldn't exist without the former). A dear friend of mine will soon enough be an Aussie by marriage, and I'm glad someone made her happy - even if all of her new relatives speak in such a way that I'll forever assume they, just occasionally, wrestle the shit out of crocodiles. But none of that changes the fact that YOUR RATINGS SYSTEM IS COMPLETELY FUCKTARDED. I know I'm getting way too upset about a film that isn't even all that good, but it's the principle of the thing that just chaps my ass! We're back to waiting, literally just hoping that Japan, Austria, The Netherlands or who knows where to give us sweet, unmolested centipede rape.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in the angry dome.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Fight The 3D Future

Upon its 2000 Japanese release, Kinji FUKUSAKU's adaptation of Koushin TAKAMI's science fiction novel BATTLE ROYALE/バトル・ロワイアル was equally reviled and profitable. With the mounting controversy surrounding a large studio production - by Japanese standards, anyway - in which 42 teenagers are selected to kill each other off until only one remains, a special screening was held for Japanese parliament who predictably decried the film as "crude" and "tasteless". The film went on to make over six times its budget back, and was quickly licensed to virtually every foreign nation... except North America, which led to ridiculous rumors that it had somehow been banned in the USA! Certainly there was some truth to Toei wanting to insure the film against being sued for any "harm" it might cause the public - this is a country where people who spill coffee on themselves win big settlements, after all - Anchor Bay's 2010 announcement that they owned the film stateside more or less put to rest any doubt as to why the film had been ignored in North America: Toei was greedy, and it took ten years of mellowing for the price to drop to a point where any sane label in America was willing to play ball on their terms.

The plot probably doesn't need to be spelled out to anyone within earshot, but just in case: In a future where social and economic crisis have left Japan in shambles, the paranoid government creates a bloody spectacle to distract the public. Once a year, a high school class is randomly selected to participate in the Battle Royale - an event in which the entire class is given 72 hours to slaughter one another until only one is left standing. Should more than one person survives or if anyone's caught trying to cheat, they'll be murdered remotely by the explosive collars strapped to their necks. The grand prize is simple: A chance to go home, live their life, and be grateful for the chance to grow up to be a functional adult, and not one of the rabble rousing kids that have doomed this once great country.

If you're having trouble buying any of this, it's worth noting that in the original novel, history was rewritten so that the Axis Powers won WWII, and the BR ACT is just a grim authoritative way to instill fear and obedience in an entire generation of children. The film wisely fast-forwards through pretty much all of this to get to the part where the kids start decapitating each other, but it changes the context of the story into one of Japan's bitter resentment towards the youth, seeking revenge on them for living the easy lives they couldn't have and still rebelling against the system.

Kinji Fukusaku: My kind of OG.

It all sounds pretty absurd at face value, but the story's focus isn't on the over the top premise; it's on the individual students, and how teenagers given a bag of survival gear and kicked out to battle with their friends would react to those horrific and war-like circumstances. Who would band together for safety, and who would manipulate casual frenemies to stab each other in the back? Would young love beat out the need to survive, and how quick are best friends willing to turn on each other once their trust has been strained? While invariably some of the characters are shafted by the film's 114 minute runtime, it takes every opportunity to try and pick apart the violent and confusing nature of mankind through the eyes of those who are old enough to know what's right and wrong, but not old enough to know how to be rational and overturn their dire circumstances. It's Lord of the Flies by way of Beyond Thunderdome, and worst of all it was made for a target audience who has the same developing and inexperienced emotional maturity as the characters themselves. Fukusaku, a man with nearly 40 years experience in the film industry when he took directorial duties for Battle Royale, was so upset by the film's realistic and rampant violence earning it an R-15 rating that he petitioned the EIRIN for the less restrictive PG-12. He argued that the film's message was specifically intended to be seen by teenagers.

This act of unusual ballsy protest from a prominent and respectable director - one who made quite a name for himself in the early 1970s with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series - turned the public eye towards pundits who used Battle Royale, a fictional program set in a future that could almost never exist, as proof that the EIRIN's independant doling of film ratings wasn't enough - that government control and censorship was the only way to ensure that minors wouldn't be willfully corrupted by acts of violence and sex flickering at 24 frames per second on the silver screen. Fukusaku withdrew his appeals, essentially saying that censorship should never have to be a government issue, and promptly told everyone who disliked the movie what he thought of them by shooting several brand new sequences for the 2001 "Special Version" of Battle Royale, which was given a second theatrical release with a bold R-15 certificate added to the new opening title sequence, and a year later announced what would eventually be the 71 year old director's final film: BATTLE ROYALE II, eventually succumbing to cancer on location and leaving the final directoral duties to his assistand director - his son, Kenta Fukusaku.

When Arrow Video released Battle Royale on a region-free Blu-ray set in 2010, I was immediately let down by the final product. The transfer's hazy focus, dull contrast, and utter lack of fine grain left me assuming the worst, and having watched both the original 2000 Theatrical Cut and the 2001 Special Version (incorrectly called a "Director's Cut" on all UK releases), I'm willing to admit I made a mistake. Last year I put my balls on the line and said, with a straight face, "This shit looks upscaled". Though I'd say it again if it weren't for the razor sharp optical credits and occasional high frequency speckling of print damage, I now know I was wrong. Upscaled or not though, the important thing to take from my suspicion is that the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Battle Royale looks like shit. I wouldn't be surprised if some of this is down to Arrow's usual mediocre encoding, but most of the blame here is on the dated, decade old HDCAM tape that Toei provided in the first place.

Arrow Video, doing what they do best.

At least Arrow got most everything else right: Virtually every bonus feature known to exist is either included on the Blu-rays themselves as upscaled 720p videos, or crammed on a third PAL DVD. Lossless 2.0 and 5.1 audio, with no English dub and generally improved English subtitles. Two extra digipak's bearing gifts were included in the box, and among the bonus pack-ins were a thick ass production booklet, an all new English language comic adaptation of the story, a fold-out poster, a set of glossy postcards, and even a certificate of authenticity just to convince the whole goddamn world that Arrow was the classiest purveyor of B-movie sleaze anywhere on the planet. It's an impressive monster of a box set, I'll give them that, and while I remain disappointed over the video quality I can't fault them for producing a stunning presentation otherwise.

Pre-orders for the box set were so strong that Arrow Video doubled the number from 5,000 to 10,000 - a move that held surprising importance, because once the box set was sold out, Arrow Video's "standard" release was replaced with a Region B locked version with much less in the way of bonus swag! In perhaps a painful stroke of irony the Limited Edition PAL DVD is out of stock, but you can still buy THE LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY for the retail price of £39.99($61.75 + postage) straight from Arrow Video themselves.

Oh right, did I mention that right around the same time Arrow Video was preparing the first ever Battle Royale Blu-ray,  this happened? 'Cause it's kind of important.

When the news of "Battle Royale 3D" hitting Japanese Blu-ray this past summer came to light, I wasn't sure what to think. On the one hand, the digital nature of the production all but guaranteed that a remaster was in order. On the other hand, the trailer suggested that some brand new digital elements would be added to push into the audience's gaping face as they stare bug-eyed from behind their pair of plastic glasses just to force the "3D Effect" where there was never meant to be one. For those so inclined, Anchor Bay has threatened to release Battle Royale 3D in North American theaters sometime next year... but we'll see how excited y'all are about that once we're finished with the comparison.

Having performed an exhaustive and, might I add, emotionally painful comparison between the original 2000 cut from Arrow and the 2010 "3D" cut from Toei, I've come to the conclusion that I had every right to be suspicious about Arrow's HD transfer, it not entirely for the right reasons: Battle Royale 3D proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Arrow Blu-ray isn't even CLOSE to the level of fidelity the original camera negative was capable of... unfortunately, it's also found a whole bunch of brand new ways to fuck up the experience beyond compare.

Battle Royale 2D (Arrow Video) TOP
Battle Royale 3D (Toei Video) BOTTOM

"I don't understand this... I don't understand any of it!" - Shuya Nanahara

Man, where to even begin? First off, the "3D" cut is a reworked version of the longer Special Version - thankfully minus that eye-rollingly stupid "Reqiuem" reel at the end - which I don't consider to be the stronger of the two cuts, but whatever - that's the Arrow Video version I compared all of this to. Contrast has been manipulated to the point of pretty severe white clipping, but the original transfer was so dark I think it's still a fairly acceptable compromise. Flesh tones are vibrant and lifelike, and blacks look reasonably solid... sometimes, anyway. Detail is improved more often than not, and film grain - though never completely unmolested - peeks through for most of the first half of the film, and the underlying resolution on display has increased DRAMATICALLY for it. While Battle Royale's dated 2D master only offers a marginal improvement over the resolution DVD is capable of, Battle Royale 3D is, in many ways, akin to seeing the film for the first time. You can actually read the numbers on calendar posted on the boys wall under the open window, and even count the number of teeth on Kitano's zipper! When Battle Royale 3D is at its best, the Arrow Video Blu-ray really does look like a faded NTSC upscale by comparison...

Unfortunately, it's not all roses and bloodshed. From the scene where the terrifying teacher - played by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (ironically named Kitnao, even in the original novel!) storms in on the recently captured classmates, the entire film is treated to what could be the single most horrifying DVNR I have ever seen in my life. I'm not exaggerating - check out the scene of Kitano writing on the chalkboard and you can see a half-dozen ghosted doubles of his arm in the process!

Things can go awry on a scene-by-scene basis, too. As you can see with the delectably sadistic Chiaki Kuriyama jogging, a heavy golden haze filter has been added to a number of scenes to help establish them as being flashbacks. Not that the film was always 100% clear when it was flashing back, but that was kind of the point; the scene with Kuriyama starts off as a pleasant bit of deja vu, and then ends when she reaches up to rub sweat from her neck and feels the cold metal collar around her jugular - waking her from her innocent memories, and reminding her that the game isn't over. The effect is uncomfortably reminiscent to the bloom filter found on Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and it just looks... cheesy. It isn't the worst thing about BR3D - hell, I wish it was! - but it proves how dramatically different the two versions look, even when nothing especially heinous is going on.

And then, of course, there's all this bullshit.
Let's just not talk about these and say we did?

While I'm a bit perplexed by Hollywood's mass adoption of 3D as a way to milk audiences even harder than usual, I'm not completely against it. Films ranging from schlocky, goofy crap like Friday the 13th Part 3D and Comin' At Ya! to legitimately good modern titles like Immortals and Coraline make a use for the technology that immerses the viewer in a way that the same material in 2D simply can't match. It's a whole new frontier using 3D as a dramatic device, and I applaud any director who can shoot a film in 3D and use it as a part of the fabric of the experience instead of just an excuse to throw things at the cameras. I mean fuck, for all the complaining people do about Avatar being an Xbox 360 styled remake of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (and it totally is), at least Cameron proved that the visual experience can be used to put you in another world entirely. Despite gimmicky history that 3D brings with it, the technology can completely immerse the viewer - to heighten the experience at a fundamental level, and put them in the shoes of the protagonist. For a film that begs them to put themselves in an unthinkable situation - one as invasive and as unsettling as Battle Royale - the potential was there to really make something special out of it.

Sadly, BATTLE ROYALE 3D is the absolute worst sort of abuse of technology. It's tried to take an already good film and make it seem "relevant" by re-releasing it with the latest digital tools in the forefront, but it's only succeeded in making the actual film worse by association, proving the detractors right that the only value 3D has to offer is ridiculous gimmicks being tossed at the viewer's eyeballs. The 2010 3D cut of the film is a fucking joke, and I can't even say it's improved the viewing experience; it's increased resolution has finally proven what a crumby piece of work the Arrow Video Blu-ray was, but I don't think anyone had very much to say in its defense to start with. If you're feeling horribly masochistic and are capable of laughing (instead of wincing) at the obnoxious new CG elements, Toei sells it for ¥7800/$100.12, and of course the release is in Japanese without any English subtitles.

Despite the blurry and faded nature of the Arrow Video Blu-ray box set, it remains the best way to see this film... even if that's more through a lack of notable competition rather than it being particularly good. Anchor Bay announced that they'll be releasing Battle Royale in 2012 to piggyback on the new movie version of "The Hunger Games" in March, an adaptation of an American Sci-Fi novella series that bears an uncanny resemblance to Fukusaku's film. Maybe Anchor Bay will treat the film right and give the original 2000 version the HD restoration it so desperately needs, but if all they wind up offering is the 3D cut, wave it in front of their faces until they're annoyed and then tell them to shove it right back up Toei's ass where it belongs.