Friday, January 8, 2010

Quixotic Blu-Rays

Movies that deserve the HD treatment they will most likely never get:

This spectacular Hungarian film about subway ticket inspectors is most notable for launching the lackluster Hollywood career of Nimród Antal, director of Vacancy, Armored, and the upcoming Predators. (I admit to not seeing any of those, but the reviews and trailers scream 'Meh' to me at the top of their metaphoric lungs.) Kontroll itself is a bit of a mixed bag of indie cinema tropes (quirky characters, fugue state twists, and a 'meet-cute' wearing a bear costume) but its kinetic, textured visuals and impressive subterranean setting, which remain impressive on the poorly mastered DVD we're currently stuck with, could blow some serious minds.

I'm still kicking myself for missing my chance to see this on the big screen. A blu-ray would go a long ways toward consoling me.

One of my all time favorite films of all time, Stalker is a languorous science fiction epic by the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It's a possibly allegorical tale of three men, Writer, Professor, and Stalker, who venture into a forbidden wasteland called the Zone to retrieve a possibly extraterrestrial wish granting artifact. A story of the fantastic, warped by the director into something more concerned with mankind's battered spirit than aliens or ray guns, it is nevertheless filled to the brim with striking visuals and authentically gritty locales.

Unfortunately, the film has yet to even see an adequate DVD release. For now we must settle for a murky picture inexplicably split over two out of print discs. (One dual layer, one single... why?) The only thing it really has going for it (aside from being the only game in town) is the shockingly adequate, if not entirely faithful, 5.1 surround sound mix.

I bug the Criterion Collection on a regular basis about the film, but it's likely that the distribution rights pose a problem. (They've managed to release a handful of his other films--Ivan's Childhood, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev--so there is hope for at least some HD action.)

My all time favorite J-horror, Kairo is yet another film rich in gritty detail and elaborately decaying industrial backdrops. It's even been described as 'Tarkovskian,' which is a non-pejorative way to say "glacially paced" or "slow as hell." Just don't fall asleep to the film, as I have done (same for Stalker--a great movie for naps, seriously) because the score will wake you back up for some hardcore existential dread. Hell is full, and the dead are invading our world through electrical and information networks to show us just how sad and alone we are in this universe. The only recourse is to run like hell and seal them off with red duct tape. (Then you can never, ever, ever go back there, BTW.)

If I may rant and swear for a minute, WHY THE FUCK is there a fucking HD DVD (I noticed this before the format died--yes I've got a player--shut up) and two sequels for the godawful US remake, but no known plans for an HD treatment of the original? If they release the remake on blu before the original, I'm going to ultra-plotz and take all of you with me.

Long before he sold out with the mediocre Suspect Zero, E Elias Merhige was a promising experimental filmmaker sweating over the meticulous photographic techniques in his silent, black & white epic of human suffering, Begotten. I've yet to see the whole thing, because the DVD is so out of print that it currently goes for $90(!) on Amazon. Furthermore, what little I have seen could only hint at the wonders of a theatrical or HD screening.

When mastering a home video copy of a true film, studios have an irritating 'baby with the bathwater' tendency to clean up the print with digital noise reduction. Limited use of DNR is a cost effective way to clean up the most distracting bits of dust and dirt, but many disc authorers use it as a crutch, reducing the image's total detail, eliminating all that delicious film grain, and basically destroying the entire point of high definition mastering.

The wild, organic nature to film grain (an artifact of its chemical nature) is far more pleasing to the eye than its digital equivalent (pixels, boo!) so while HD and its big brothers 2K and 4K are finally shrinking their pixels even smaller than the grains of 35mm film emulsion, the texture of those grains is still an integral element to the format and should be preserved in digital duplication whenever possible.

This most apparent in Begotten. So much time and effort went into the film's processing and optical printing that it is starting to creep into the world of animation. When poorly mastered or shown in an inadequate format, all that grain and contrast is lost in the murk. When the texture is almost more important than the image itself, and you eliminate the texture, all you have left is a shitty, blurry picture.

Sometimes high-def is the only way to properly see a film, but if no one can do so, then there ends up being little demand for a high-def release. It's a negative feedback loop of cinematic under appreciation.

5. The Best of Classic Experimental Cinema

See the last sentence above. Most experimental films are almost completely lost to SD video, and are definitely lost to YouTube. A collection of the greats on HD would be the closest most of us could get to seeing 'Mothlight' or 'Serene Velocity' in the proper celluloid setting.