Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I'd Rather Starve.

In light of The Hunger Games making $150 million in its opening weekend, I'd like to talk about the film that's basically the same thing... except, you know, not written for tween girls.

Kitano could have taken 'em all on.
With chainsaws.


Pay close attention to the piping on Kuriyama-chan's jacket. On the US and UK masters it has a secondary, digital contour - essentially a smarter, more modern form of edge enhancement - while on the Austrian transfer it's softer and fades, quite naturally, at the edge. There's also more visible grain, implying that the Arrow transfer was hit with noise reduction first, and then had the edges sharpened after the fact to try and make up for the temporal processing. In short, the Austrian transfer almost looks like... well, it looks a lot more like 35mm film than the flat, digital presentation found on the UK release, and while I'm still convinced we're looking at an HD master cobbled together no later than 2002, at least we're looking at the scan without any digital manipulation.

The US transfer, however, has the exact same edges as the Arrow transfer. There's really no doubt in my mind that Anchor Bay took Arrow's pre-processed HD master and then tweaked the colors somewhat, boosting the contrast on certain scenes and shifting the color balance away from green, which has resulted in a more natural white balance at the cost of overly ruddy flesh tones and the expected loss in shadows (which were already a murky mess to start with). Anchor Bay's handling of the same exact material is overall superior, but... not by a lot. Arrow's HDCAM source materials were always the problem, and the early comparisons posted by DVDBeaver were - once again - about as useful as tits on a fish. This flick doesn't need a coat of digital paint, it needs a new scan from the ground on up... and in light of Battle Royale 3D, that isn't going to happen any time soon. Probably not ever, at this rate. This is what we're stuck with, and I for one am none too pleased about it.

The Austrian BD transfer remains the best presentation of the "original" 2000 Theatrical Cut of Battle Royale. Anchor Bay also managed to fuck up one of the few good instances of CG - a subtle fix when Kitano wrenches a knife from a dead girl's face - on the extended 'Special Version' by swapping it with the less convincing practical effect from the original cut. So, god help us, one of the few things the 2001 cash in got right is not even available on the US Complete Collection. Goddamn, guys, just... goddamn.

To draw this to a close, the two advantages Anchor Bay bring to the table are an English Dub for the Special Version, and the Theatrical Cut of the film's horrible sequel... oh, yeah, and the bonus features are now on an NTSC DVD. Y'know what, fuck Anchor Bay; for once, I'm NOT going to bother buying a movie I love again and again (and again). Were that less-terrible and not-English subtitled Austrian transfer less than $40 for the cheaper release - before international shipping! - I'd at least have considered it... but Fukusaku is dead, and the only thing here properly honoring him is a Scrooge McDuck pile of PG-13 money that isn't actually going towards his name. I'm as through with Anchor Bay as I am ready to punch a baby in the face with pure, unbridled hatred for the world around me.

That said, Austria ain't out yet. XT Video just got real...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Four Flaws in Shameless Spinnery

Here's the full, official word from Shameless Screen Entertainment's own forum:

Shameless has investigated the alleged audio defect which had been reported by a few people. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

This is what we did:

We reviewed the issue with our authoring house which in any event always do a complete technical quality check of all output before releasing the assets for mastering and replication.

The original 4 track magnetic sound of 4 FLIES is being made available on the Shameless release for the first time since the film’s original theatrical opening in the 1970s – therefore the track is from a 40 years old (analogue) support, which was transferred with as little digital treatment as possible in order to keep to the purity of that original audio. The lab stated: “Essentially all (audio) are as source, nothing has been introduced. Due to the age of the material we wouldn't ... fail it because of these audio faults and in all instances they're fairly brief.”

We ourselves tested the discs on half a dozen different players and we asked friends to do same on their players. We've had a good listen & noted that each player delivers slightly different rendering (in the same manner that different players and even different firmware can each read and display a disc in a slightly different manner).

The areas which have been reported were for the most part only audible after careful scrutiny, however we did note that on mid-to-high end home cinema systems the audio glitch itself gets very amplified and therefore very noticeable (the glitch is not a harmonious signal and just gets amplified raw through the amp and sounds very loud).

We apologise if the audio glitches towards the end might be noticeable when played on some players/audio system but we can assure you that the discs per se are not faulty. And as can be gleaned from reviews at large both in print and on the web, both the Blu-ray and DVD releases have received positive reviews in regards to the film and its visual and audio re-mastering which reflect the genuine efforts we make to try and bring you the best results from often highly difficult materials to work with.

Shameless Screen Ent

I've tried to write down what to make of this disc off and on for a week now. By far, Shameless' UK Blu-ray is the best presentation of Dario Argento's 'lost' giallo 4 FLIES ON GREY VELVET yet, but I wouldn't call it an especially good presentation, either. It's clearly cobbled together from the 2008 Italian HD restoration - which is, supposedly, from the original camera negative, the German bootleg DVD release from Retrofilm, and the aformentioned English 4 track audio master with... well, let's call it mixed results.

First the good news; 95% of the time, the disc actually looks and sounds pretty damned good. It's covered in minor debris, some unfortunate luma banding and the color leans slightly towards crushed blacks and orange skin tones. It'd be a perfectly average transfer, maybe even a bit below par were it a catalog release from one of the big Hollywood studios, but in the sea of mediocrity that "genre-friendly" labels like Blue Underground, Media Blasters and Arrow Video have let drip out of their collective ass crack in the last few years, this stands as a pretty bold improvement from the expected analog-noise infested masters slathered in syrupy noise reduction. I'd even be willing to say that - MOST of the time, at least - it's the single most film-like presentation of a 35mm two-perf Techniscope feature we've seen in High Definition yet. Keep in mind that it still pales in comparison to Wild Side's French restoration of Tenebrae, Criterion Collection's Salo and Midnight Legacy's white glove treatment of Alien 2: On Earth... sadly, the silence from both of these not-Criterion studios towards realizing a second independant transfer in the last year or two speaks volumes over how prohibitively expensive and difficult the process of doing it yourself must be. (I'm all too certain there are "other" issues we don't know nearly enough about preventing more titles from crawling out of the gate, but those are the sorts of things you never hear about until years after the fact...)

The "extended" version presents the roughly 40 seconds that were supposedly cut from the Mya Communications DVD (and all other subsequent DVD releases, as far as I know?) due to "print damage". Let it be said that while I have little doubt the reel changes were in rougher shape than the rest of the film - the ends of each reel wind up getting exposed and thus scratched up through normal use, even on archival prints - I don't in any way, shape or form buy that they couldn't have been restored or that footage was out and out 'missing'. The footage includes some brief dialog exchanges, but barring one brief line that introduces Mimsy Farmer's cousin the losses were arguably minor in the scheme of things. You guys know me - more than a few frames and I start clenching my fists - but I've got enough to say that I really don't want to get into how "every scene is essential, even when it's not". Either you already care or you never will, and by the magic of seamless branching, this disc has you covered either way!

Shameless has already said that a new HD transfer for these scenes wasn't financially feasible, so, they sourced the footage from... wait for it... the German Retrofilm DVD. Yes, the bootleg made from what appears to be a vintage American theatrical print was actually used for the Blu-ray. I don't mean "the Retrofilm 35mm print" or even "the Retrofilm Digibeta" - this was a gray area release made outside the typical channels where the Italian licensor would doubtfully even have access to these materials. I mean that it looks like the Shameless Blu-ray literally upscaled the actual Retrofilm DVD. Now I could be mistaken - I don't work for Shameless, after all - but I can find no other sensible excuse for there to be such ugly, patchy blocking on this footage despite modest bitrates. Adding insult to injury is the fact that they weren't even color corrected properly, leading to washed out and heavily color-infused "blacks" that make even the print's matte bars dark green. It's bad enough that we're watching upscaled PAL footage, but the fact that they didn't even have the decency to present said PAL footage properly is enough to turn my stomach.

At least the 'restored' footage has fine audio... it's too bad I can't say that for the "newly discovered" scenes dubbed into Italian during the final reel. The video I posted a few weeks ago is absolutely a fair representation of the Blu-ray's completely borked English track, and the clipped, static noise that invades the otherwise acceptable sound levels are - at best - embarrassing. Shameless can sweep that shit under the rug all they want, the fact is the Italian mono track sounds perfectly fine during these scenes, and it would have taken all of 10 minutes to splice the Italian track in for those brief inserts and save it out one last time before replication. The thought that they're trying to preserve the analog origins sounds commendable, but for fuck's sake guys, those are blatant analog distortions and they're not just obnoxious, but they're potentially dangerous and could blow out your fucking speakers!

Allowing some level of constant analog hiss through to not distort the high end of the mix is one thing; this is a blatant, obvious flaw and it should have been fixed by their authoring house LONG before Shameless ever saw it. I know the odds of the giallo-import enthusiast crowd and the home theater hi-fi buffs being too large to fit in a single McDonalds restroom is probably astronomically slight, but even so, this isn't about trifling over minor issues; this is about something called "professionalism". There's a difference between having less than perfect standards and simply not having them, and blatant audio clipping in newly restored scenes when you already have perfectly acceptable audio materials is flat out not just giving a fuck. The similarities between this release and Media Blasters' similarly as-decent-as-it-is-infuriating presentation of Joe D'amato's Beyond the Darkness are just too much for me to bear, and it's with the same gritted teeth and OCD fury that I recommend only hardcore fans of the title actually spend their money. It's certainly not a show off piece, but short of Koch Media besting Shameless at their own game (and making the Germanic release "English friendly" to boot!), this is as good as it's probably ever going to get.

Whilst discussing the release with a friend of mine, I basically threw my hands up in the air and said it was "good enough". I didn't mean that, not exactly, but in a world where most genre labels are either releasing shitty BDs or no BDs at all, the Shameless presentation of Dario Argento's so-called lost thriller was everything I already expected it to be, and absolutely nothing more. Fans who are familiar with prior DVDs or - even worse - barely watchable VHS bootlegs will be thrilled, and those of you who have come to appreciate the level of standards Blu-ray has brought to the table in recent years will hang your heads and weep. I'm somewhere in the middle, appreciative that Shameless tried to fix the film... they're just absolutely clueless about how to pull it off. That's a damned shame, but it's so much better than that turd Mya Communications released a few years ago that, under the circumstances, I'm sorta glad I have a copy... and just as thrilled that it was a gift.

For the record, I'm not a particularly big fan of the film to start with. It's not awful - and there are plenty of awful thrillers out there - it's just a little dull and hasn't aged particularly well. I think Deep Red and even The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hold up reasonably well over 35 and 40 years after the fact respectively, but Michael Brandon is a bland lead and his character is such a self-centered douche that it's hard to feel especially worried for him. The murder set pieces are shot well enough, but they're few in number and lack the visceral impact that they needed to really stick out; I honestly had forgotten one point-of-view camera shots of a girl being dragged down the stairs until I saw it again in the film's UK video trailer, and considering I have vivid memories of each and every kill in Tenebrae, that can't be a good sign. The film's final reel is all great stuff, the killer's motive and violent breakdown in particular being a memorable and satisfying expansion of a similar theme that was brought up in an earlier Argento penned gialli, but more than that I can't get over the absurd image that the film's bizarre title conjures up, one that I WISH had more to do with the following poster:

'Cause seriously. That's just straight out bitchin'.

The reality is that the culmination of that lurid one-sheet is the sort of eye-rolling psuedoscience bullshit that makes the twist ending in Cat O' Nine Tails look downright sensible. Argento was freed on so many levels in Deep Red when he introduced a psychic and decided "Y'know what? She can do this because fucking magic." Trying to work in dated and 'experimental' scientific theory into a thriller that's rooted in the very realistic universe of childhood trauma and serial killers is a dangerous game, and here, it bites what was an otherwise poignant tale of a mysterious madman on the loose right in its crazy ass. I've probably just inadvertantly un-invited myself from any local movie nights should I find myself lost in Glassgow, but hey, I'm calling it as I see it: It's certainly a unique, perhaps even fascinating experiment, but it's not one that ever comes together in my own yanked out eyeball.

If you love it already, or if like me you're an Argento completest despite knowing better, this Blu-ray is the only game in town and you can finally dump that spunkpile of a R1 DVD in the dumpster where it always belonged. If you're already on the fence, or you've never actually seen the flick before... honestly, I'd say keep your money, or at least watch it before you pull the trigger. The film isn't all that great and the presentation, while better than most of its contemporaries, is still frustrating enough to warrant a fair warning. I'm sure that epic Luigi Cozzi interview will be worth the price for some people alone, for whatever it may be worth to you, personally.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Battle of the Royales

First BR BD comparison courtesy of DVDBeaver.

And yet, somehow, I'm the asshole for assuming the UK release was an upscale?! Just look at the bandana on Kawada's forehead; there's a substantial difference between the blurry, faded, almost out of focus Arrow BD and Anchor Bay's brand-new offering. I'm already seeing people defend Arrow Video's muted color scheme and weak ass contrast, but I can't for the life of me assume that the Arrow Video release is, in any way shape or form, the technically superior release here.

Even with the caveat that DVDBeaver tends to be the least reliable website for Blu-ray image comparisons - sorry Gary, but it's true - it's clear that the Arrow Video release has been outshone in every way that matters by the almost zombified remains of Anchor Bay. So convinced am I that I'm already making plans to give my Arrow Video box set away in preparation to upgrade to this fucking thing, and rest assured, the thought of spending yet another $50 on this damned film isn't filling me with excitement the way it did when it was announced two years ago.

Fuck, I'm still not convinced the Arrow BD wasn't taken from a PAL Digibeta... oh, well. Maybe I can talk about another wonky UK import when I have some free time this week?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Winter Is Coming... Tuesday

A mere $35, and available in two exclusive minimalist covers, no less!

Seriously, if you have neither the time nor patience to read 4,000 pages and counting (and fuck if I do these days), HBO's adaptation of GAME OF THRONES is fantastic stuff.

Having actually plowed through all of the first book I'm just a little disappointed in the way Daenerys' whole story was handled and think Tyrion got robbed of his one chance to show he's got more going for him than a silver tongue, but all in all the drama series is a fantastic piece of work that should break the barriers a bit between genre fodder and mainstream viewers; yes, there are walking dead, an extinct race of dragons and more pseudo-European cultures than I can rightly keep track of, but the core of the show is about complex family ties, the murky meaning of honor, brooding over bloody revenge and, particularly in the TV adaptation, fucking anything and everything in sight for reasons that range from selfish to horrifyingly tragic. I'm absolutely looking forward to April when the second season begins... though, I suppose, one could argue that most of episode 10 was really the start of George R. R. Martin's second novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings.

I don't get a dime if you use this link, either. I just really, really think anyone within earshot should nab those kick-ass Criterion worthy box sets while the price is still less than half MSRP.

UPDATE: Got to see the Best Buy "Exclusive" package today and it's... basically a flimsy paper slipcover over the standard box with Eddard sitting on the Iron Throne. Still cool, but if you miss it... well, it's not like it's an exclusive steelbook or anything.

Thanks for an example, BPutman!