Monday, May 28, 2012

The Grand Duel at Mill Creek

WARNING: This was meant to be an innocent, short little review for something I picked up on a whim. It's now an epic puddle of frustration fueled brain-vomit. Don't say I didn't warn you.

tldr version =  Go buy Mill Creek's SPAGHETTI WESTERN DOUBLE FEATURE VOL. 3 featuring KEOMA / THE BIG SHOWDOWN. Also, fans of movies made before tomorrow? You're all fucked.

Y'all know I'm a quality conscious crazy person, but... I'm also a bargain hunter. Being poor for long periods of time will do that to you, and while I would much rather pay $30 for a fantastic Blu-ray than $15 for a crumby one, but I'm also not above paying $6 for something that's far from reference. It's not that being cheap makes poor quality any less so, it's just that I'm far more willing to adjust my expectations when a movie is, you know, less than the price of a damn fast food burrito. If I'm asked to pay $25 for a disc that sucks, I'm usually pissed (see DEMONS and DEMONS 2). If I only have to pay $10 or less, whatever, I'll get over it.

Enter Mill Creek Entertainment. They've been in the business of cluttering up DVD bargain bins with $5 kids movies and those "Franchise" themed genre movie combo packs. They're similar to Echo Bridge, offering catalog titles for low prices. How low? Well, using Echo Bridge as a metric, you can walk into a Wal-Mart and get four Hellraiser or Children of the Corn sequels for $10. No, really, ten fucking dollars! As you can imagine, quality control is often lacking on these releases; lossless audio may as well be a random bonus feature, there's no guarantee that you'll get the original aspect ratio, and yes, if you want those Jacky Chan movies you'd better like the old Weinstein Company dubs, but... well, did you really expect lobster when you're paying for artificial crab?

Now, Sony recently announced that they had handed 250 catalog titles to Mill Creek. This is... kind of a big deal. You know, in the way that The Beatles were "noteworthy" in the world of Rock 'n' Roll at some point. The fallout from this might not be apparent for a few years, but understand that Sony is, for all intents and purposes, the single major company that pushed for Blu-ray as a consumer format. Their PS3, trounced in sales and popularity by it's Xbox competition, was their so-called "Trojan Horse" to win the format war against the competing HD DVD format. Sony was by far the largest supporter for the authoring tools and hardware replication plants to establish it as a viable medium to begin with, and every time a Blu-ray disc is pressed, they make a notable profit on the copyright to the media itself. The fact that Sony, the Mac Daddy of all things Blu, is willing to split the marginal profits with a studio that sells movies for $5 a piece, MSRP, is a sign of the format's viability has gone down in the estimation of the studios that wanted it the most to begin with. Twilight Time's opposite end of the spectrum strategy may have been the crack in the dike, but this is where we're at now, and it gives me pause at to think of how little Sony, a studio that bought up other, smaller companies so it'd have movies to release in the first place, thinks of its own library...

Don't get me wrong, they'll all still milk their Blade Runners and their Wizards of Oz and their Apocalypse Nows for a few years more. Certain "cult" names like John Carpenter and Wes Craven will probably get their entire output on Blu-ray, eventually. It's not as if Michael Bay's Oscar Winning Transformers 20: Lube Me Sideways won't get a Blu-ray six months after its theatrical release either. Oh sure, it's true, new movies aren't selling as well as they did in DVDs heyday, but the fact that you'll pay $46 MSRP for The Muppets means they're finding "clever" ways to make up on that supposed loss, like including DVDs you don't need and soundtracks you don't want... ah, commerce! The studios also love to ignore the fact that more and more people are using services like Netflix, iTunes and similar On Demand services to watch movies they would have bought on sale before those options were especially viable, but hey, you can't post sales numbers for Netflix streams and it probably makes certain number-crunchers feel like their numerical penises are shrinking.

What's going to disappear now is the support from the major studios for all those cool little gems that are more than a year old, or didn't win a fuckload of awards, or didn't make a lot of money as a remake because there's apparently no money in any of it. Case in point, the only way to see the full Director's Cut of Clive Barker's Nightbreed is if you're lucky enough to catch a VHS workprint at a local screening! You think Warner Brothers is ever going to lavish a proper restoration on that when they're currently dumping the R-rated version nobody wants on DVD-R for $20? Please. We can't even get The Burning on Blu-ray, and the uncut HD master for that already exists! THAT'S the stuff that's going to disappear once the studios stop seeing their catalog as worthwhile, one gem in the rough at a time, and it bums me right the fuck out. Sony seems "dedicated" to transferring all of their titles into HD masters, but they're just as content crapping them out on a DVD-R once they're done with them - just look at Yor: Hunter From the Future, Rolling Thunder, The Legend of Billie Jean and plenty of other films I'd probably be stupid enough to buy on a Region A disc at Best Buy on release day. What a fucking waste.

And what about the independents? Blue Underground, Arrow Video, Media Blasters and so forth? As far as I'm concerned, the writing's already on the wall for the lot of them; BU is announcing DVD repacks at dirt cheap prices instead of new Blu-ray titles, and between you and me, I doubt that sales of A Bullet for the General are what's going to buttress them for a banner year in 2013. Media Blasters' public attempts to look alive while ANN outs the fact that they've been legally disbanded as a corporation for over a year is more embarrassing than usual, and they've canceled more titles this year than they've announced, scrambling to update their website just to prove that they haven't defaulted on everything... not yet, anyway. Arrow Video is still kicking, but with few exceptions - perhaps most notably the news of Lady Snowblood getting a High Def debut - they're basically doing their own versions of titles that have been out in the US for ages. Best of luck selling King of New York, that tin's badass and all, but yeah, I've got my doubts. The only one who might crawl away from this mess with a few dollars in hand looks like Synapse Films, who are releasing... trailer compilations and Hammer films they've been sitting on for years, now? Huh. That actually gets weirder the more I think about it.

The odd duck out is really Kino-Lorber and their various iterations. I swear, they're on some kind of Mission from God to buy licenses that will lose money. Good on 'em for releasing the works of Mario Bava, Jean Rollin, Jess Franco and everything else in between but... holy crap, this is either the greatest long-running practical joke in the history of the home video business, or some crazy bastard burning through his own money because HE wants to own A Virgin Among the Living Dead on Blu-ray, and figured the licensing fee was a fair price to pay to make sure it happened. That's the exact same theory I've had for a while about companies like Mondo Vision and Grindhouse Releasing to be honest...

But anyway, it so happens that I saw the latest Mill Creek Spaghetti Western Double Feature. It's actually their third such release, though the first two-fer, Django / Now They Call Him Sacramento, was yanked from shelves and retired without an "official" wide release, what with Blue Underground having already released the original Django on a special edition Blu-ray about a year before! Obviously BU still has the rights on the Franco Nero vehicle that kick-started the Italians back into that full blown Western Machine Mode, but that means that Now They Call Him Sacramento is essentially impossible to find on Blu-ray. I've never found an actual review, or even a damned screenshot of this mythical, almost Unicorn-esque Blu-ray, so whether it ever really existed or just vanished into the ether before its time, like that initial MGM branded release of Robocop, is really anyone's guess.

Their second release, featuring The Last Gun / 4 Dollars Of Revenge, is still readily available. Word is both the films themselves and the quality of the disc is nothing special, and being a casual Spag viewer at best, I'll sit this one out and let someone with a more intimate understanding of the hundreds of Italian Westerns available tackle whether or not you should care about them being available on a budget priced HD double feature. Makes me wonder if Mill Creek decided to pluck those two out of retirement just because they figured the odds of anyone else having purchased the rights would be astronomically small?

Back on track, it was $5, despite being a brand spankin' new title, and includes not the Lee Van Cleef crime-movie-in-the-Old-Italian-West genre bender THE GRAND DUEL (aka THE BIG SHOWDOWN), but it also includes what's oft considered the last great spaghetti Western ever made, KEOMA. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I plunked down a five-spot and expected the worst...

It's got a decent cover, at least.
That's the important part... right?

To my utter surprise, this release is actually pretty good, all things considered! For one thing I was fully prepared to find both films occupying the single layered disc, but they've arrived on a BD50, taking up a full 43-plus gigs for little more than the features themselves a pair of High Definition trailers and perfectly functional menus. The Big Showdown (that's the title on the print, anyway...) clocks in with a bitrate of 24 Mb/s, while Keoma rides slightly higher at 25 Mb/s. Bitrates regularly spike into the 30s, I can't say either film suffers from any obvious bitrate related deficiencies. Strangely enough, Keoma has 24-bit audio while Duel has 16-bit. (Why would they do that? No friggin' idea.) Both films are in their "original" English dubbed mono and sound about as good as I expect their limited sources are capable of. Also, both films feature English language credit sequences, and neither feature the Italian dubs or subtitles of any kind.

Once again I'm far too lazy to post caps myself, so... HAVE A LOOK HERE, if you like. I don't know who posted them initially, and I don't really care either, because I've already confirmed that the disc looks identical.

THE BIG SHOWDOWN is the better looking of the two. Oh sure, there's probably a little edge-sharpening going on and the black levels get just a bit wonky on some of the optically printed black and white scenes, but even putting on my Review Hat, there's just... nothing worth complaining about. It doesn't look like a million dollar 8K restoration, but it looks like a perfectly fine 2K telecine given more than adequate compression, and that's all I'd ever hope for from most labels that charge $20 for a single movie. Lee Van Cleef fans, you're in for a real treat here.

Pictured: Kentai's "Review Hat".

KEOMA is, well... the easiest way to describe it is "It looks like a Blue Underground transfer". I'm not joking, I'm not being an asshole, and I'm not even exaggerating; it literally has the exact same 'look' that's become the norm for BU from the latter half of last year onward. If you've seen House by the Cemetery, Strip Nude For Your Killer, Torso, or any other number of BU titles with a weird, sharpened layer of "static grain" sitting on top of the actual image as opposed to moving and being an organic part of the film itself, then you'll know exactly what to expect here. There is zero doubt in my mind that this transfer was made by LVR using the same stock settings they've used for a while now, and while it does look a hell of a lot better than early CRT Noise + DVNR experiments (such as Zombie Holocaust or Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue), I hesitate to say it looks anything like actual film. Is Keoma better than the ten year old DVD? Absolutely. Is the upgrade worth two-fifty? Totally. But is it good? No, not really. It's another mediocre LVR telecine, but somehow, paying five bucks instead of twenty doesn't seem like such a punch in the principle-sack.

As far as bonus features go, all you really get are a pair of the films' best known "International" trailers. The Anchor Bay DVD of Keoma featured a 10 minute interview with Franco Nero and a commentary track with the film's director Enzo G. Castellari, but I wouldn't be surprised if those are owned outright by Bill Lustig. An unfortunate loss, but with the Anchor Bay DVD (and it's latter day Blue Underground clone) selling for about $10 new on Amazon, it's not as if fans who missed the film's initial DVD release and want to know what these two men have to say about their kick-ass action movie can't get their hands on it for what's still, in the scheme of things, a very fair price. The Big Showdown has never had any English language special features that I'm aware of - heck, the last US DVD release from Wild East (now long OOP) looks like it was sourced from a goddamn laserdisc! To be fair, though, that label's been doing much better work in the last few years, and they've often sourced transfers from what appears to be their own film prints, so I can't blame them for being at the mercy of the licensors materials...

Franco Nero looks pretty badass in this, s'all I'm saying.

This is, however, a very interesting little monkey wrench thrown into the theory that Blue Underground and Arrow Video were, essentially, championing the movement to get obscure Italian genre films transferred in High Definition from their original camera negatives. See, this $5 bargain release is the HD debut of Keoma and The Big Showdown, and there's NO WAY that Mill Creek themselves paid for this transfer out of pocket. It just doesn't make sense. What's the only other logical explanation? That the Italian copyright holders, Surf Film for both of these titles in particular, are creating these masters in advance specifically so they can sell them to foreign markets. What else does Surf Film have at their disposal? Glad you asked! The New York Ripper, Torso, Killer Nun, Django, Baba Yaga, Night Train Murders, Strip Nude For Your Killer... frankly, the majority of Blue Underground's 2012 titles have been provided by Surf Film, as have a sizeable chunk of their older HD releases. They also own plenty of BU titles that never made it to Blu-ray, so it wouldn't be surprising if Lustig has made some solid contacts there over the years, giving him better access to their library than if he walked up off the street and started demanding they sell him some damn movies.

Looking over their catalog, it turns out that The Last Gun was yet another Surf Film title, which gives me pause... doesn't this mean that Surf Film making new HD masters and then passing them along to Mill Creek, rather than, you know, anyone else? Why? For that matter, why did they give Mill Creek access to HD materials for Django when they knew Blue Underground already had it? This isn't the first time I've seen obvious suggestions of behind-the-scenes confusion, but maybe Surf Film was trying to underut Blue Underground for a while? Geez, who knows... Either way, it does suggest that Surf Film is making these (often not very good) HD masters themselves to sell the films abroad, rather than Blue Underground is hand-picking Killer Nun and Night Train Murders over, you know, more Fulci and Argento pictures. That actually makes a lot more sense than BU specifically skipping, say, 1990: The Bronx Warriors in favor of, with all due respect, pretty much anything they've announced this year. I mean sure, I'm excited to see schlocky B-tier garbage like Strip Nude For Your Killer on Blu-ray, but who the fuck else is? And I'd be WAY more excited to see Nightmare City or Conquest, but hey, now I'm getting into pipe dream territory...

The only thing that does bug me in all of this is why the disparity? Keoma looks "okay" at best, but The Big Showdown is on a whole 'nother level. Assuming Surf Film is doing all of these transfers themselves, why does this one title look substantially better than the others? Both of these movies were shot using Techniscope two-perf 35mm, both are (from the looks of it) sourced from the original camera negatives. The only obvious variable is the lab work. Is Surf Film dividing its catalog up for different labs, perhaps? Or has LVR finally undergone an expensive replacement of their dated Cintel hardware between these two transfers? Who can say, really?

Bizarre and, perhaps horrifying implications of the release itself aside, there you have it. Mill Creek has stepped up to the plate and finally delivered a competent dual-layered double feature, and they're still only charging five bucks for it. If this is the future of home video, you can pretty much kiss companies like Arrow Video, Blue Underground and the rest of them goodbye forever - but, pains me as it does to even think this, if Mill Creek delivers transfers of the same exact quality, I won't shed any tears for their loss. It's not that I want to see these labels go away - I don't! It's because these labels existed to begin with that there's a market for any of these releases now, and without them, this well could dry up in record time. But I don't honestly see how anyone is making money licensing a title for a small fortune and then trying to pass off "meh" work for fifteen bucks to a market of a thousand or so hardcore fans.

Honestly, though, I don't see how Mill Creek themselves are making money either. If I bought this for $5, what did Fry's pay? $3, tops? This is a dual-layered disc for fuck's sake, who's paying to produce this product and how can they possibly break even? It's a broken business model. The entire market is broken, and if you don't OWN the content... you can't compete. The rush to the bottom of the bargain bin is now, my friends, and the results isn't going to be pretty for a lot of the things we've taken for granted for a very long time now.

Still, The Big Showdown is awful pretty on Blu-ray. Go buy it and despair... or something.

...there we go! If you can't tell, I was in a rush when this was posted yesterday, and parts of this were a full-blown incomplete, incoherent clusterfuck. Hopefully it's all better now.


Jason Stocker said...

You're getting Mill Creek mixed up with Echo Bridge. EB is the company that has some of the Miramax catalog and releases the 3 and 6 movie collections on blu-ray. Mill Creek mostly has been releasing some of Disney's lesser Touchstone releases. I've only been disappointed by them on 1 title, otherwise they're not too bad (very good for only $5). I think they'll probably do alright by the Sony titles.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Along with the fact that there were at least three paragraphs that cut off mid-sentence? Man, this write-up was a real mess! It should hopefully sound about 35% less crazy now.

Good to know you've been happy with Echo Bridge thus far. Hearing that "Budget Labels" will be handling Sony's library is the sort of thing that makes me wince, but if this is the standard EB keeps, I guess I don't have much to worry about.

Jason Stocker said...

Mill Creek's been doing OK, Echo Bridge, not so much. Echo Bridge's earlier titles were crap, they've since been getting better (the Roadracers release is very good) But just when I think they're learning, they start to release these sets that put together movies that don't belong together (3 movies per disc). Now in order to aquire a copy of eXistenZ on BD I have to also buy B Monkey and Malevolent. Argh!