Sunday, January 29, 2012

Riki-Oh's Last Story

Before I talk about the disc under review, I need to point out that I was lucky enough to catch a double feature of Yuen Woo-Ping's Drunken Tai Chi and Man Kei-Chin's The Eternal Evil of Asia. It was a fantastic experience on a lot of levels, and it's the first time I got to see a pair of "real" vintage 35mm Hong Kong prints, the former courtesy of The Alamo Drafthouse and the latter Grindhouse Releasing.  Come as I have to loathe theaters and long as I might to throw every cent I can at Blu-ray for bringing the experience home, this night on the town reminds me that Blu-ray and 35mm are still completely different animals. It's nice to have that occasional reminder that film prints, despite their emulsion scarring and distorted audio sync and weird wet-gate printing mishaps, don't look like digitized monstrosities or pits of grainy analog death; in the right hands, even an ugly print can be beautiful. And boy, is that the only way to describe that Wong Jing produced B-picture...

It's with the flickering images of actual vintage Hong Kong prints fresh in my memory that I'd like to discuss Media Blasters' release of THE STORY OF RICKY/力王, better known to fans of over the top Japanese pop-culture as "Riki-Oh". Based on the somewhat snide Hokuto no Ken knock-off of the same name, the epic struggle between violence and common sense sits somewhere between Braindead, Cool Hand Luke and Fist of Fury, fusing extreme vengeance with absurd adolescent machismo as a marches into a privatized prison with a half-dozen bullets lodged in his chest to uses his super powered martial arts to take down corruption from the one place designed to correct it. Gorier than all of the 80s horror films put together, zanier than an episode of Tom and Jerry, and more action packed than your mom's ass, this is one of those films that you just biologically have to enjoy or you're broken, somehow. If after saturating yourself in the world of Ricky for 90 minutes you can somehow walk away and spout out something lame like "Sorry lad, but I didn't care for Story of Ricky... but have you seen Raise the Red Lantern? Jolly good show, that." is just the sort of thing you should get punched on the end of your dick for. I'm fucking serious; if you can't wallow in the film's shameless, ludicrous, and brilliant 12-year-old-with-a-red-market excess for the base and brilliant exploitation that it is, I fear that we can never actually be friends... and yeah, I do kind of like Raise the Red Lantern. But that fact becomes irrelevant when we're talking about movies where a dude punches through another dude and we're only like 6 minutes in.

Media Blasters has had a spotty record on Blu-ray, with some titles nearing perfection and others being an extended joke with a full retail price, including Versus and Burial Ground and that early, awful SD upscale of Ichi the Killer. but some of them, like those Queen's Blade and 12 Kingdoms sets, are actually pretty great! So, let's just see how The Story of Ricky turned out with a few--

Media Blasters and Fortune Star, working together...
Did you really expect anything better?

Media Blasters' claims this is a "New High Definition Tranfer". It's 'New' in that it's new to North America, but it's clearly the same materials that Fortune Star used for their remastered DVD back in 2008. And it's "High Definition" in the sense that... well, actually it's not. Not at all. It's a just straight up 480i-to-1080p upscale of a goddamn Digibeta. It's technically encoded at 1080p at a crazy-high bitrate that seems to never dip below 40 Mb/s, but it doesn't fucking matter. They're polishing silver on the Titanic here; the source material is borderline acceptable for a DVD, and by the dint of its crazy-huge filesize it doesn't have the compression issues an SD MPEG-2 stream has... but it's still an upscale. Of a film that Fortune Star did a brand new scan for just four years ago, so I don't want anyone to even postulate that the materials might have been "lost" in the interim. They're sitting in a vault in Hong Kong, and neither Fortune Star nor Media Blasters was willing to create a new print and have that transferred in HD. If you, dear friends, think any of these images look like they might be sourced from a scan with more than 525 analog lines of resolution, I honestly have nothing more to say.

To the discs credit, I guess it does lack the nasty, garish DVNR artifacts found on the Fortune Star DVD, and the audio is lossless all the way down the line. English and Cantonese are available in 5.1 and 2.0 options, with Mandarin getting only a 2.0 mix (presumably a dual-channel mono). English subtitles are removable, and I haven't bothered to check if there are any audio issues or subtitle gaffes; I assume everything's fine, but after 5 minutes of spot checking and realizing what a piece of shit I had on my hands, that was all I could stomach. As was true of the Fortune Star DVD before it, the film appears to be uncut, framed at 1.78 and given a reasonably consistent, neutral color timing without the heavy saturation push found on the Hong Kong Legends DVD of yesteryear. Contrast looks a little too hot for my tastes, but it's rarely to the point where the transfer looks offensive (or any moreso than it always does). There's some edge enhancement visible at all times, and it's made the low-resolution film grain stick out like a sore thumb, but with the only two noteworthy transfers this film has had being made by Fortune Star and Hong Kong Legends, this release will perhaps forever rank as the best looking and sounding release of The Story of Ricky... if only by default.

The cover promises a brand new roundtable discussion about Story of Ricky with the Hobo with a Shotgun crew - namely director Jason Eisener, producer Rob Cotteril and cinematographer Karim Hussain, but this feature is nowhere to be found on the disc - I opened every video file in Media Player Classic, just to make sure some dope didn't accidentally forget to link to it from the menu. Instead all we get is a 2 minute introduction in which Eisener talks about how much he loves the film whilst the cameraman (likely Hussain) punches him in the face. It's cute, I guess, but nothing to get excited for. You also get both English and Cantonese language trailers and a 20 minute interview with the film's protagonist Fan Siu Wong that's appeared on the Fortune Star DVD prior... I think this was recorded for the Hong Kong Legends UK DVD, but I'm honestly not certain. The Hong Kong Legends DVD has a legendarily informative commentary with Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, and when Sirabella first started talking about this film a year ago he said he was going to license it from them... clearly that never happened, and never having bought that decade old UK import for myself, I'm disappointed on a solely personal level.

Bottom line here is painfully simple: THIS BLU-RAY SUCKS. I once more gave Media Blasters the benefit of the doubt after having called a few of their crumbier looking titles upscales without having seen the discs in full... I've apologized, and perhaps even repented for those knee-jerk reactions, and under the circumstances still don't think they were totally inappropriate. But this time, there is no sharp print damage of optical titles to sway my opinion, and the Downscale-Upscale test results haven't caused any notable differences at DVD resolution. (I've posted examples elsewhere, so why bother repeating myself?)

I'd honestly love for John Sirabella to show up and spout off a bunch of crap about how I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm not convinced he has the stones to right now: He just fired 60% of his own staff and his distribution chain is so fucked after having pushed back the release date of virtually every single BD he's ever announced that you can't even buy Riki-Oh from Best Buy or Amazon! Media Blasters has dug its own mass grave, and while Sirabella's managed to crawl up the sides many times before, I honestly don't know what tricks up his sleeve he's got left. If this is his master plan, the company deserves to sell only a couple hundred copies of every title. They entered the Blu-ray market with a gnarly looking upscale in Ichi the Killer, and if they leave on a second SD sourced title I can't say I'll shed a single tear. This will be the last time I play the guineapig and buy a Media Blasters title without screencaps being available, and frankly any incentive I may have had to "support the industry" when this pile of dogshit is the respect we as consumers expect has all but evaporated.

I can occasionally forgive a fuckup - a dual channel mono that's supposed to be stereo, a few missing subtitles, a second or two of misplaced reel-change footage or what have you, depending upon the circumstances... but this? Hell no. Fuck you, John Sirabella. Fuck you and every day you've stumbled through this industry and survived when companies that actually gave a crap about films went by the wayside. This is a bag of bullshit with a $20 price tag, and you can't even use the "it'll never happen again, honest!" defense because you already did that over Ichi the Killer when you were talking about releasing Story of Ricky.

I'm through, guys. No more excuses, no more lies, and no more of my own hard-earned money lining your bank account. I've finally reached the point, after a decade of tepid support, that I actually want to see Media Blasters collapse upon itself. I'd honestly rather not have films that I love like Story of Ricky, Ichi the Killer and Urotsukidoji on Blu-ray than get the salty garbage you're slinging. If I purchase a new title it'll solely be in the hopes that my one purchase turns away 50 others so I can watch the vultures of irrelevance suck the marrow from your studios' very bones... not that you need me to ruin you at this point.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

FUNimation Says We Can't Have Nice Things

  Vegeta can NEVER feel pretty!!

Via Anime News Network:

Flower Mound, TX – January 26, 2012- FUNimation Entertainment, has officially confirmed they have suspended production of all future planned Blu-ray releases of Dragon Ball Z including Level 2.1 scheduled to be released on March 27, 2012.

Blu-ray editions of Dragon Ball Z went into production based on fan demand, however due to technical challenges of restoring from the original film frame by frame, we are unable to continue these releases by way of this process. FUNimation will be re-evaluating the current process and researching more efficient methods of restoration.

Specific questions may be directed to :

Actually, um, I've got a question: WHAT THE FUCK, GUYS!? Did you somehow just not realize that restoring film properly was a long, arduous and expensive pain in the ass? Did you not realize that releasing the first Blu-ray a month after the last of the Dragon Boxes would seem like a kick in the pills to the average consumer who's put up with your bullshit for all of these years? Or did you honestly expect the majority of consumers who even kinda give a shit to buy 18 separate volumes over the course of 5~7 years, knowing full well that smaller, similarly priced box sets were in the future?

Yes, I'm fucking mad and being a little unfair. That's what crazy fanboys do when you dick them around for years, finally treat them with some respect and then say "Ah, fuck this. Profit margins just aren't worth it." I bought Level 1.1 - I pre-ordered that goddamn thing! - despite owning all 7 Dragon Boxes. It's not like I'm finally catching up on something I put off for years, FUNimation already has over $300 dollars from me for this exact title and I'm still giving them more.

Despite my exhausted and mildly pessimistic comments about being content to wait for "DBZ Level 2 Complete" in a box set, if I hadn't been in the process of switching jobs and moving cross-country, then yes, I probably would have bought Level 1.2 as well. (For the $25 it sells for, why the fuck wouldn't I?) I thought the work overall was a top notch effort hampered slightly by less than ideal film materials, and was impressed that FUNi had the insane courage to, if only not in so many words, come out and indirectly admit that 'okay, we know we fucked up in the past baby... but this time, it's for reals! PLEASE COME BACK, I LOVE YOU BABY AND I CAN CHANGE!!'

Too bad Fukunaga and his company wrote a mouth-check that their glittering wish-summoning balls just couldn't cash. FUNimation may have finally split the belly of their golden egg laying goose here, and if so, it's only the fans who loved those first two "Level X.Y" sets that will suffer. Will we see more Dragon Ball on Blu-ray? We'll see the end of "Kai", if nothing else... Z, I'm no longer certain of, save that the outcome from the now privately-owned company worth just shy of 25 million dollars isn't looking as rosy as I'd like it to.

Keep in mind we live in an age when Universal is using shitty masters for movies like Scarface and Jurassic Park, single feature length films that don't need half as much tender love and care as DBZ does. And people still buy them, myself included... we all talk a big game about boycotting this or skipping that, but do we really do that? Or do we just wait until it's on sale for $10, shrug, and say "Whatever, it's all we'll ever get anyway"? The home video market is slowly rotting away while the worms of digital distribution burst out of its corpse for us crows to feast upon, and as much as I may hate it, that's probably all we're going to get in about a decade. Niche releases without the support of new, blockbuster hits to fuel their catalog are either going to be shitty, or they aren't going to happen at all... struggling to present consumers with a gorgeous, competitively prices, and exhaustively presented product like this is what leads to labels either giving up all attempt at caring, or just giving up completely.

Much as it pains me to say it, FUNi really isn't at fault here: for all their bone-headed timing and trying to milk this release for about twice as many SKUs as they should have, the work was solid and the price was fair. This tragedy - and that's what it is, whether you like Gokuu or not - is that the one 80s cartoon title with just enough appeal to justify this sort of treatment isn't going to get it because nobody fucking bought it. If Dragon Ball Z can't "afford" a proper restoration past the first story arc, I'm not convinced any vintage animated TV series can... not on these shores, anyway.

Abandon all hope, yadda-yadda.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 Begins Not A Bang, But A Big Ol' WTF

So at this point I'm moving into my new place bit by bit, replacing all the furniture and housewares and personal care products I'd grown to take for granted over the years. It's the little things, you know? Like dental floss and butter and KY jelly that you really miss when it's gone. Also, you miss guaranteed parking. Piss and balls, do I miss guaranteed parking...

I'm also working well over 40 hours a week at my new totally legit gig, and while I can't give up too many details, what I can say is this: I'm working day in and day out with video of all kinds both for big studios and fledgling independents, working on that wide variety of content in tandem with a lot of really awesome people. It's not at all a waste of the skills I've cultivated over the last few years, and best of all it focuses on the few areas of the film delivery industry I have a feeling are going to stick around for the next decade. I really can't thank them enough for having given me the opportunity to show them what I can do when given the chance, and I can say without the least bit of hesitation that I genuinely like my job. Between that, the missus and this bitchin' new one bedroom pad, I honestly don't think I could ask for too much more in life.

As I've said in the past I don't plan to give up the Kentai's Films and I hope to have a review for a title very near and dear to my heart ready in the next week or two, but for the moment my days are spent turning my empty apartment into a home. I can't even remember the last time I watched a movie, so don't fret that I haven't had time to write about 'em, either... I'll get back to that soon enough, I promise.

Now, what else has been going on in the last few weeks? Here are some of the more interesting highlights, at least from my point of view...

Megaupload: The owner was arrested in New Zeland as is being, last I read at least, extradited to these United States on the behalf of "copyright holders". I've mostly tried to avoid all of the SOPA/PIPA nonsense since it's all too vague and political for my tastes - but this is evidence that it doesn't fucking matter anyway; despite The Internet as we know it being policed solely by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act - which, despite the name, isn't the fourth part of the Stieg Larsen trilogy...), that still, apparently, gives the US Government the right to destroy an entire web service and extradite said service's CEO despite the fact that the guys running the service aren't actually posting anything illegal themselves. We're already living in 1984, as you probably all suspected beneath your stylish foil doo rags, it was just a question of how long it took before Big Brother decided to openly cock-slap someone.

Also, there are websites that claim to be "The NEW Megaupload!" Don't trust it; at best it's some desperate scabs trying to rape your Paypal account before folding. At worst, it's the MPAA loggin' your IPs with the express purpose of buttfucking you for downloading a copy of goddamned A Dangerous Method you can't find in a theater anywhere nearby, and the newest episode of Family Guy you can watch for free on fucking Hulu anyway. This is a super big deal for everyone within earshot, and I'll just remind all friends of the Kentai Blog to do whatever they do safely and smartly; in other words don't put up links to full episodes for everyone to see, ya goddamn goofball.

Bandai Entertainment: Despite being profitable after some 15 years in the North American home video industry, their overlords at Bandai Co., Ltd in Japan crunched some beans and realized they were one of the three least profitable parts of the company umbrella. Unlike Geneon's closing a few years ago the licenses still exist for the time being... they just, uh, aren't going to press any more copies of anything. Whatever's out in the wild now is all there ever will be, so if you desperately need that Mobile Suit Gundam OO: The Movie Blu-ray or the The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi-chan DVD specials, this is probably the time to stockpile that stuff.

It's weird that I don't own many Bandai titles. Granted they've had all sorts of QC issues over the years, but when they gave a goddamn and weren't stiffed with 10 year old masters the results were typically pretty damned good. I have little doubt that FUNimation will pick their bones clean of the moderately-marketable marrow once those titles all lapse, so while I could see a S.A.V.E edition of Code Geass R2 being a thing down the line, I wouldn't get my hopes too high for ever seeing Dan-Doh! on DVD again.

Media Blasters: Down but not quite out, the regular mustache-twirling villain handling so many of Kentais most favorite Films has downsized from 15 regular employees to 6. This news came a day or two prior to them announcing several new licenses, but odds are those contracts have been in negotiations for far longer than the week between this little chestnut and, say, the announcement that Fushigi Yuugi and Gamera the Brave were on tap for an American re-release for the hundreds of people who already give a shit.

I have a very bittersweet reaction to all of this. I feel bad for the employees who have just gone from a regular paycheck to crossing their fingers and HOPING Sirabella calls them, someday, with a project he can't slap together on his own for a fraction of what their monthly salary might have been. It's a frustrating way to live, and it's exactly why I moved about 3,000 miles to be where I am today: stable, regular income. For those people, I feel bad. For the people calling the shots at Media Blasters and letting terrible product leave with their name all over it, I don't feel particularly poor in the slightest.

FUNimation vs ADV Films: Whoa, what? TEXAS BRAWL IN THE ANIME HALL!!

FUNimation bought themselves out from Navarre's thumb last year to the tune of $24 million, and is now suing ADV's former management over $8 million in debt they basically inherited from Sojitz, the Japanese company that gave ADV 30 titles which all later went to FUNimation once it became clear that ADV could no longer pay their bills. Once that happened, ADV kinda... well, it's complicated, but the short version is they sold off all of their assets (including their own, non-Sojitz related titles) below market value back to themselves and left ADV itself to die like an amputated limb. Sentai Filmworks, Section 23 and a host of their sublabels were basically "Neo ADV" - same folks and same business model, but with a fancy new logo! - but ADV as a company recently surfaced anew to try and sue Gainax over the rights to the live action Evangelion movie, so what's good for the honking and suing goose is, I suppose, good for the shell game playing gander.

What I find fascinating about this one is how the majority of the anime fandom in North America have basically said "Bad FUNi! How dare you bully our old friends and demand money they didn't originally owe you to start with?" FUNimation is suing for money that's a third of their current worth - it's not like ADV just owed them burgers and six pack or something. This is especially galling when you factor in that ADV's reply cites the statute of limitations as a reason not to pay! They aren't saying "Come on guy, you know we good!", they're admitting they owe the money but are claiming that it doesn't matter because they took to long to demand it. This all gets even more complicated by the fact that FUNi's demanding a trial by jury - something that's usually reserved for cases where the contracts are pretty flimsy to start with.

Smore Entertainment: Rhino Records just bought the rights to Galaxy Express 999 TV and Bo^7 and are promising a "complete" DVD release for each. How fucking awesome is that? I seriously thought it was some weird April Fools joke, but nah, it's legit: The US anime market has become such a wasteland devoid of profit that Toei would probably sell you the rights to Space Captain Harlock and Futari wa Precure for any miniscule percentage of actual sales, so long as you promised not to rape them after the meeting, too.

IFC: Promises the Feb. 14th Blu-ray release of The Human Centipede 2 [Full Sequence] will be the "Unrated Director's Cut". Keep in mind that the version cut by 3 minutes was never rated either, so while I'd certainly love to find uncensored penis-mutilation at my local Target, I'm not sure what to make of all this... guess we'll find out soon enough. It's not like we don't have uncut screeners and the like floating around already should anyone decide to check the film out before release.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I'm Alive... Mostly.

Busy, but still breathing. Moved cross-country, started a new job doing what I like to do, and I think most of my shit made it in one piece enough to try and sell it off at local record stores for pennies on the dollar. Progress!

I'll do my best to get back into the swing of things, but I'll have substantially less free time than I did last year, so we'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. On the plus size for the half-dozen of you who still give a shit, I'm going to hand the Kentai store off to someone else in the next couple weeks, so we should have some titles that are pretty much ready to go available soon.

To friends and fiends alike; it's damn good to be back.