Sunday, November 24, 2013

Voices Before Dawn: A Review of Code Red's initial Blu-Ray Lineup

After perhaps a year of what seemed like empty threats over releasing titles on anything but DVD, Code Red - a studio known for focusing on obscure cult movies of every genre and decade imaginable - finally announced that Jeff Lieberman's 1981 slasher film JUST BEFORE DAWN, and Lucio Fulci's 1991 supernatural thriller VOICES FROM BEYOND would be their premiere Blu-ray lineup. Both titles went from "Pre-Order" to "Now Shipping" in about a week, and while the latter is reportedly limited to a mere 1,000 copies the former is still being called a "Limited Edition", despite there being no specification of how many copies have actually been made.

What's that you're doing - looking these up on Amazon? Maybe Deep Discount, or Import CDs 'cause you have a coupon? You so silly! These days Code Red isn't bothering with the traditional distribution network game these days, and pretty much everything is being sold directly through their online storefront. There's also a guy on eBay called "codereddvd" or whatever, but why you'd bother buying there when the storefront also operates through PayPal, I have no idea.

Having told the Best Buys' and Amazon.coms' of the world to fuck off is only part of their master plan, however: They're a bit of an oddity in the marketplace for having a firm policy on doing one print run; if they print 1,500 copies and sell out... well, you should have bought that shit when you had the chance, sucker. They aren't, as far as I can tell, going out of their way to limit the number of copies manufactured to inflate their value, but they realize that there's a limit to how many copies of--

Wait. Hold up one goddamn second. What the fuck is Devil's Express, and who is Warhawk Tanzania?!

Seriously, check this shit out... it's basically the
Blacksploitation/Kung-Fu version of Midnight Meat Train.

My point is that unlike other labels who try to keep their titles consistently available for the dying business model of selling copies10 years down the line, Code Red makes as many copies as they think they can actually sell, and then simply move on to the next one. Simple as that. Code Red has always been a little unusual, but as the "studio" is effectively just a one guy - namely Bill Olsen, tracking down materials, organizing special features with creators, and producing titles by the seat of his pants, the slightly wacky and unpredictable nature of Code Red has long been one of the studios inadvertent charms. In a way, Code Red is one of the preservationists of the cult film scene, picking through mountains of films that have never seen a release since the early days of VHS (if that!), and creating new HD masters of whatever 35mm elements still exist. Those DVDs tend to be a bit rougher around the edges than the average Synapse or Arrow Video release, sure, but these films are so under the radar that studios that dedicate those sorts of resources into restoration wouldn't touch them with a 10 foot pole to begin with.

Bill Olsen has shown a level of dedication to legitimately obscure and sometimes almost completely forgotten films that I have nothing but respect for, but in the process has also painted himself into a corner; while sales for even the super popular horror and cult films of yesteryear have been dwindling as consumer ennui and the ease of piracy have made spending $20 on a potential piece of crap no longer necessary, the sales for stuff like Black Klansman, Mardi Gras Massacre and The People who Own the Dark were never going to be huge sellers, not even when people were indiscriminately buying every damn thing that got crapped out on DVD, because a blind-buy was so much easier than Netflix Streaming, or simply watching whole movies on YouTube, or... fuck it, whatever's on TV, which is basically everything.

Code Red has the street cred and the dedication to their titles to make fans of legitimately obscure cult films very happy - but what happens when you finally throw Blu-ray into the mix? Is this pair of launch titles worth the $50 they're hawking them for? Let's dig a bit deeper...


Okay, the point of this write-up is to talk about the Blu-ray release itself, but I need to talk about the films themselves first, don't I? Well that's just to fucking bad; I paid over $20 for a steaming pile of dogshit as a public service announcement, so the least you can do is sit through a paragraph of me bitching about how dreadful this flick is.

It's perhaps unfortunate that this film turned out as poorly as it did, because it ranks as perhaps Fulci's most personal and honest exploration of some very real, human concerns. The central story of a familiar patriarch snuffed out without warning by a brood mostly glad to be rid of him, the recurring nightmares obsessed with decay, and even a geriatric grandfather who spends the whole film looking on, silently suffering with the truth, unable to tell anyone around him what evil he already knows lurks in the heart of his fellow man.

There's a germ of something genuinely tragic and potentially fascinating in here, and it's certainly not the worst thing Fulci's name has been attached to from a technical level, but the fact that the film is so appallingly stupid muffles what should have been a bitter, angst ridden-strike against this mortal coil into a confusing, unfocused mess of a film that plays like grotesque set-pieces involving terribly orchestrated autopsies, brutal child murder, and clawing vengeful zombies was spliced into an otherwise lifeless Hitchcock inspired whodunnit, with rampant bouts of pointless narration by a corpse whom nobody in the film can actually hear, as far as I can gather at least. It plays like a listless TV movie, with none of the polished atmosphere or nihilistic sadism that made even his less than perfect films have a uniquely mean flavor that made even overly simplistic (Murder Rock) or even nonsensical (City of the Living Dead) Fulci films strangely lovable.

Had this been directed by anyone but the Godfather of Gore, I doubt anyone would have remembered it outside of circles going out of their way to find entrancingly dumb films: The mystery is ultimately too shallow to prove interesting, the (infrequent) violence uninspired, the score is - to be frank - just god-awful... I hate to say it, but it's exactly what anyone with a passing familiarity with Lucio Fulci's latter day career should have known to expect. It sucks! Not to cut off my own nose here, but Brain Eater's Will Laughlin wrote up a brilliantly comprehensive review many years ago that largely mirrors how I feel about the film; it's filled with too many slightly pretentious parallels to the late director's life not to mean something somewhat profound in its proper context, but as a piece of entertainment, it might as well be a black hole with only a few inappropriate chuckles here and there for the most dedicated and masochistic Fulciphiles out there.

Hell, I'd argue that Cat in the Brain is a far worse film, but at least it's so shockingly terrible that there's a campy level of self-inflicted masochistic joy to be had... how the hell that mess is getting a Blu-ray before Zombi 3, I'll never know...

To be fair to Code Red, I'm not saying you shouldn't buy Voices From Beyond - I'm saying you should know exactly what you're getting into before you buy it, is all. Limited to 1 copy per customer this isn't even something we can guarantee you'll be able to scalp a few months down the line; I hate to say it, but if a thousand people out there actually even want this movie on Blu-ray, odds are they're stuck with it for good.

With nothing but a 91 minute film on the disc, the feature keeps a healthy bitrate of  27,707 kbps and fills up roughly 21.5 gigs of the disc. Video is presented as a 1080p AVC transfer, and the only audio track is an English Dolby True HD 2.0 track in what can charitably be called the "original" English language track. (We'll explain that in a minute.)

The transfer isn't perfect, but it is better in many ways than expected. Likely a new HD scan of an old master positive, it's fair to say that Voices From Beyond has never looked better: Despite Fulci's favor for a soft, gauzy focus for much of the film there's a fairly coarse layer of grain visible at all times, but it's never so thick or unnatural as to obscure a decent level of detail on close-ups. Debris including specs, scratches and occasional massive blobs are infrequent enough to never detract from the experience, though you'll surely notice a handful of analog scuffs, even if you aren't looking for them. Flesh tones look just a too bit warm to be called natural, but it's never particularly distracting, and whites rarely look anything but accurate. What's less pleasing is the super-high contrast, which has left many location shots blown-out and looking overly bright, while the poorly lit interiors - more often than not - become little more than dark, dingy pools of black nothing.

Not having a DVD copy on hand to compare it to, I can only offer the following SD comparison on Caps-A-Holic, which suggests that while prior home video iterations had some dreadfully dark and undersaturated midtones, the new disc has "fixed" this largely by cranking the whites through the roof, and have crushed the blacks to match. I'm pleased to say that - despite most of Fulci's latter day train-wrecks having been shot open-matte for TV friendly broadcast - the widescreen presentation on this Blu-ray looks authentically framed, matted or not. In short, the "look" of the video transfer has some oddly specific problems I'm surprised to see, but overall the strengths far outweigh the color grading/exposure related weaknesses, and compared to the drab, ugly SD options we've had in the past this is still an obvious improvement.

I was honestly expecting a nasty, funky looking master on par with Blue Underground's City of the Living Dead or House by the Cemetery, and instead got a pleasantly filmic - if decidedly gritty! - transfer out of the deal. Don't get too excited by my saying this, but as the only decent looking Fulci BD so far to not be pulled from a ridiculously noisy CRT based film scanner was Arrow Video's gorgeous 2K remaster of Zombi 2, this makes Code Red's presentation of Voices From Beyond the second-best looking Fulci Blu-ray available by default!

For those unfamiliar, Italian films were typically shot in whatever language their cast members were comfortable speaking in, so it wouldn't be unusual for an American actor to read his lines in his native tongue, while the European actors spoke Italian - or Spanish, or German, or whatever - so that the dubs in their homelands would "match" the most interesting cast member from the local perspective. So while the majority of the actors in Voices From Beyond were (seemingly) speaking English, it's still a dub, and comes with it the basic sonic limitations of a cheap post-looped production made nearly 25 years ago. With all of this in mind I don't think the Italian dub would have added much to the package, though I do wonder if maybe it had less of that dumb-ass ghost narration that seems to have been slapped on at the last second in editing...

I'm a little shocked to report that the functionality of this disc is effectively non-existant: You put it in the player, you get the piracy warning, an upscaled Code Red logo, and the flick starts. Hit "Pop-Up Menu" and you... restart the film, because there is no menu. Want to pause it? Maybe fast-forward to your favorite scene? Not gonna happen; even hitting "Display" won't show you how far in to this flick you are because there's no proper timecode! To be fair, you can skip back and fourth between chapter stops, but they're placed every 10 minutes with no correlation to the film, and if you just have to take a leak or something it's not going to cut you any slack. In effect, the film is the only thing on the disc - so let's hope you liked it better than I did.

UPDATE: Apparently, the Timecode Lockout preventing anything but chapter-skipping is actually a bug that crops up by hitting "Pop-up Menu" - which, as discussed, simply re-starts the film. When you start the disc normally, functions like PAUSE and FF are perfectly accessible. Whether or not the controls are locked out after a re-start completely may vary from player to player - I can confirm that's how a recently updated US PS3 handled it, in any case.

Thanks to Nicholous for clarifying that the disc isn't totally broken!

Despite a perfectly decent transfer and suitable audio, the film is the pits and the disc itself is such a broken mess it's honestly less convenient to play than a VHS tape. This one is strictly for Fulci completionists, and I can only wish Code Red luck in moving even the modest 1,000 copies they're offering for sale.

Jeff Lieberman's JUST BEFORE DAWN

While director Jeff Lieberman has made a niche for himself among fans of cult films for his increasingly outlandish efforts: His first feature, the 1976 cult sensation Squirm, is essentially Jaws with the threat of a great white swapped for an army man eating worms.Two years later he followed up with Blue Sunshine, a fairly unique film in which, ten years after ingesting an experimental batch of LSD, a jaded pack of former flower children find themselves unable to prevent becoming mindless maniacs. He's if nothing else a very interesting writer-director of low-budget genre films, and it's a shame that his filmography never grew much further. It's equally frustrating to think that - according to Lieberman, at least - he's never been paid by the producers for this particular film, and has literally only ever seen a paycheck for it courtesy of Media Blasters.

I think that his 1981 slasher film under the microscope here, JUST BEFORE DAWN, has mostly slipped through the cracks. That's not to say it's a bad film, just that after Halloween and Friday the 13th established that low-budget movies about dead teenagers were worth their weight in gold, everyone and their goddamn uncle realized they could talk a half-dozen people into pretending to die on camera; this film came out in 1981, which is the same year we saw the American premieres of Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II, The Funhouse, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, and The Burning - not to mention another two or three dozen lesser known films. It's not that there's anything wrong with Just Before Dawn, it's just that there's so many anonymous killer movies from the early 1980s that it's easy for the titles that haven't been re-released a hundred times to be lost to the ages.

To help put this in perspective: The late David Hess, who's sole claim to fame was playing a mean spirited rapist every chance he got, directed a slasher movie called To All a Good Night in 1980. It's never gotten a DVD release, and I didn't even know it existed until this week. And that's a film coming from the guy who was the star of House on the Edge of the Park! Here, GO WATCH IT - somebody has to, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna do it after this double feature.

In the end, this film has probably been forgotten by all but the most dedicated Lieberman fans because it was largely cut not from the same cloth as John Carpenter's Halloween, but skews far closer to John Boorman's legendary Deliverance. The film is less obsessed with the violent destruction of the human body than it is in worshiping the beautiful, lush experience of wandering through God's back yard, with the mountain itself posing as much of a threat as the supposed "demons" running lose through it. The soundtrack is quiet, brooding, and despite a pair of eye-opening violent set pieces that open and close the film, it's largely just not that... exciting. (Seriously though, the last 5 minutes are kind of amazing - they feel like they were cut out of a much more exciting film I'd rather have seen Lieberman actually make!)

It is, however, a well shot and smartly written film that pits a number of friends in a shitty situation and leaves the survivors to fall apart in ways that make more sense than they typically do in films of this nature; that one of them grimly accepts that they're being targeted by forces they can't control while the other, who got them into this mess in the first place, quietly sinks back to denial makes the final half hour of the film more tense and unpleasant than it ought to be. In the end Just Before Dawn's biggest sin is that it's not as outlandish as its contemporaries, and where the main draw of "Golden Age" slasher films of the early 80s is in the ridiculous bloodshed, the fact that this one has a more adult polish does little to make the whole that much more fun. Fans will be delighted to revisit the film in the best quality possible, but if you're expecting another film on par with Squirm of Blue Sunshine, you'll likely walk away slightly disappointed.

The specs are similar at a glance to Voices from Beyond - 1080p, Dolby True HD 2.0, and an original trailers as supplemental material. This time not only can you pause, rewind and fast-forward the title at your leisure, but hitting "Pop-up Menu" actually takes you to a top menu! (Ironically, "Top Menu" does nothing.) What can I say; you don't stop to appreciate the little things until they're stripped from you without warning.

The history of this title on home video is only slightly insane, but the short version is that the original, uncut US print was released on VHS by Paragon Video in the early 80s, which ran about 91 minutes and featured a particularly mean-spirited bit of violence in the first reel of the film. There were various other releases internationally, but with the American tape being uncut and perfectly watchable, that was the end of it until DVD crept up into the mix.

The 2005 Media Blasters DVD loses a few moments here and there to print damage, and - most damningly - is missing one of the film's few scenes of graphic violence. This suggests that it was actually made based on a 35mm print from the UK, which ordered the cuts due to it being a form of "sexual violence" - I feel like ordering the scene removed for the good of the public is a bit much, but you know how those knee-jerking fun killers at the BBFC were back in the day.

Just to make matters even more confusing, in 2006 a UK DVD from distributor Odeon made the rounds with a 94 minute runtime (sourced from an NTSC speed master). All in all it was actually missing several scenes present on the more familiar American prints, but it made up for it with nearly nine minutes of never before seen footage! Exactly where this version was sourced I'm not entirely sure, but it quickly lead to bootleg DVD releases that clipped both the Odeon DVD and the original, uncut Paragon tape together to create the first ever "Complete" version. Video quality may not have been pretty, but this composite was - supposedly! - Lieberman's original cut before the producers decided to shore up the runtime to their liking.

Still with me? Good, because this Blu-ray includes both the "Original" American version of the film - complete with the bloody machete murder early on, plus all the short bits missing from the Shriek Show print - as well as the first official release of the "International Version", which includes all of that newly discovered footage shown on the 2006 UK DVD. Neat, right?

The 91 minute "Original Version" has been sourced from the archival 35mm Internegative, and the master itself looks surprisingly good for a 32 year old low-budget slasher movie without a surviving OCN. The color grading is much more neutral and pleasant than Voices From Beyond with strong flesh tones and dark, inky blacks that don't look artificially crushed. The soft, hazy nature of the original photography means the transfer rarely looks razor sharp, but the fact that an intentionally fuzzy IN print looks this good is still something to celebrate. Grain is natural but oddly light... we'll talk about that in just a minute. While headroom does get just a bit cramped from time to time, I'm willing to chalk that up to the film makers' time limitations more than any matting gone awry. In short, the original HD master itself is admirable and worthy of praise, if not utterly show-stopping.
Minor film damage is constant, and more prevalent in certain scenes than others, but it's far less distracting than it is on any number of highly praised releases of cult films - it's more on par with the first batch of Something Weird Video BDs than any of the Kino Lorber/Redemption titles, for example. It isn't quite perfect - minor, fixable scratches are present throughout, as is some very minor flicker - but it looks a lot better than any long-term fan of this film likely ever expected, or has any sane right to ask for.

Sound is similarly clean, considering the optical source; while you'll notice occasional pop or crackle there's nothing major to complain over, and while I have little doubt that some minor digital noise reduction has been applied, I have little doubt that what we're hearing is about as good as it's ever going to get.

The 103 minute "International Version" (or "Longer Version" if you trust the menu) is quite a sight to behold; unlike the American theatrical cut which was made from archival elements, this appears to have been sourced from the scummiest source available, and embodies the concept of a "Grindhouse" print more than anything else on Blu-ray I can think of! Dirt and, scratches, flicker and fading, hiss and crackle, wobble and splices - every single defect one would associate with an old and ragged film print is spread eagle for the world to ogle, and I for one couldn't be more thrilled. This print is butt ugly, but in the absolute best way possible... it's impossible to explain until you really see it in motion, but simply put, it's one of the most honest, raw presentations I've ever seen in High Definition of a 30 year old low-budget exploitation film. It's brilliant, and I hope Code Red - or literally any other studio in earshot - will present more "Alternate" cuts with every scar intact. This shit is like catnip to me, I swear...

That probably sounds crazy, considering how OCD I am about "accurate" presentations. So let me clarify this: I'm a firm believer that films should be restored and presented using the best materials possible, but if you're including two completely separate versions anyway, why not present the archival oddity with warts and all? Imagine if Blue Underground had included the original, uncut version of Torso as the main restored feature, and then threw on the vomit-inducingly beat-to-fuck-and-back Grindhouse version of the entire film as a bonus, instead of merely slapping the US opening on and then wasting 15 gigs or so on that fucking useless "Export Version" nobody wanted. Despite the HD master for that flick having been shit, I'd have held that turd up as release of the year, solely for at least trying to show both sides of the coin: How it actually was, and how it was meant to be. With that in mind I'm thrilled to have the International Version of Just Before Dawn included, even if it looks like print has been stored in a tumble dryer for the last 30 years.

The Media Blasters DVD from 2005 may not have been sourced from ideal elements, but it did include a several worth-while bonus features including a feature commentary with director Jeff Lieberman, a feature-length documentary about the history and production of the film, and a host of marketing materials. The only extra (excluding, of course, the feature length Export Cut) on the new Code Red Blu-ray is the original spoiler-laden trailer, which clocks in at just under 5 minutes. Despite the general lack of extras, we're still talking over three hours of content on one disc... and, here's where the problems crop up. Code Red is dipping its toe into the Blu-ray market fir the first time with these releases, and they've decided to squeeze all 196 minutes onto a single-layered BD-25. The cleaner "Original Cut" clocks in at a meager 14,000 kbps, while the thrashed up "Longer Cut" squeaks in at an even lower 13,000 kbps. This is actually a lower bitrate than the Arrow Video release of Demons, and y'all know how unenthused by that blotchy turd I was...

You guys know I hate poor compression - largely because I don't see a proper excuse for it in this day and age - but I'm in the interest of being fair and giving the disc an honest, fair appraisal. In the end I feel torn on how to feel about this whole thing, because while the 91 minute print never looks awful, it does suffer from some obvious compression issues - macroblocking, banding and even temporal smoothing - but honestly, once we get away from the flickering camp fires the disc looks... I guess it looks okay - not too bad, but not too good either.  Pan shots occasionally suffer from mosquito noise and grain fidelity has a bit of a murky, indistinct quality to it that's more reminiscent of old DVDs where the texture and level of grain would 'pulse' as the encoders struggled to render it in a way that appeared consistent, but these are the sort of issues only OCD people who have had to look under the hood for this sort of thing are likely to notice. My guess is whoever did the encoding went out of their way to try and smooth grain during compression rather than keep it; the result is a soft, but not overly processed transfer that looks less distracting than when you have a gritty transfer and try to compress it like you have all the bitrate in the world; that's a sure way to lead to nothing but chunky blocks of artifacted chowdah, and trust me, you don't want that shit dribbling down your gullet.

In short, it looks no worse than average when it looks good, and even at its worst all I could do was sigh and think, "well, that's a shame, isn't it". I'd take this unimpressive, but largely competent encode over the severe banding in Arrow's release of Demons, or the weird blotchy compression artifacts on Shout Factory's The Video Dead release any day. And that infuriates me in ways I don't know how to rightly express. I think, on the whole, this is about on par with that Gamera Double Feature that Echo Bridge crapped straight into the $5 bin a few years back (or the The Last Gun/Four Dollars For Revenge, if we're talking about the extended cut): It isn't all that when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, but it looks a hell of a lot better than you'd expect two feature length flicks squeezed onto a single layer to look. I don't like the decision that they made, but I can at least acknowledge that they tried to pull it off and clearly put a lot of effort into it.

I'd rather every film ever get a healthy bitrate to avoid these issues, I'm not a monster - when the discs costs five bucks and you get two separate films out of it, whatever, I can deal with some minor compression issues. But this thing will set you back thirty bones after shipping! At first I thought maybe presenting the 91 minute version on Blu-ray and then including the extended print on DVD might have been the ideal solution, but the thrashed-up HD Grindhouse version is the most interesting thing about the disc, so it'd be hypocritical of me to ask for that. No, at the end of this a release that's compromised because Code Red wouldn't foot the bill for a BD-50, and while I understand why Code Red opted not to, I don't think the customers should have to put up with issues that could have easily been fixed by using the same dual-layer discs that Twilight Time doesn't seem to have any trouble affording on releases that actually need them. It's a shitty spot to be in - you can't release a crumby Blu-ray and expect praise and sales to follow, but you have to spend so much creating a good Blu-ray that the same number of sales may result in you not earning a dime!

At a certain point, a Blu-ray is like an anus: No level of astroglide is going to make stuffing too much up there end in anything but disappointment. Unfortunately, not only do BD-50s cost more than twice what a BD-25 costs to replicate, but the Blu-ray Disc Association actually charges $7,500 per layer during authoring for licensing dues. This has left me sympathetic towards the plight of a label like Code Red who's struggling just to come up with the means to release a single-layer disc and then sell a meager thousand copies.  It's hard to be mad at these guys... but it's hard to justify paying $30 for something with a bitrate comparable to a goddamn Netflix stream, too. $30 isn't a lot in the scheme of things, I realize this, but it's the same price as any Criterion Collection BD, and it's a safe bet that those assholes would cram 3 hours on a dual-layer disc.

Just Before Dawn isn't quite an unfairly buried classic, but there's far worse ways to kill 90 minutes of your life... just go back and check Exhibit A again, if you need proof. The chewed-up 35mm International Version presentation is a fascinating treat, but its inclusion has limited the video quality on the original cut, which is unfortunate. I've heard forum rumblings that this title is limited to 2,000 copies, but have yet to see that number released in any official capacity. It was originally a limit of 2 copies per customer, but this has dropped down to 1? Not sure why... maybe it was a typo, who knows. The disc is well worth the HD upgrade for anyone who likes the film enough to justify the purchase price, but there's nothing about this transfer quite worth the $27 plus shipping they're asking for it.

Code Red's first wave is a mixed bag, but I hope - I honestly, sincerely hope - that they'll take everything I've had to say under review for their next wave and improve from here. There's potential here for high quality releases, they just have to be realistic about how hard you can abuse a single-layered disc, and making sure that the pause button is NOT an optional feature. Code Red has a lot of potential with their catalog, but they need to embrace the technology's potential to get there.

One last curio: Voices From Beyond has a large "02" on the spine, while Just Before Dawn has a "04". Presumably "Number One" was their long-threatened but (so far) unrealized Blu-ray of The Electric Chair, and while I honestly don't have any inside info, I'd be pleased as hell if number three turned out to be The Arizona Nailgun Massacre. Part of me feels like numbering a collection that's as unfocused as this is doomed to piss off more OCD fans than it'll satisfy, but whatever - Drafthouse Films have numbers on their spine, despite being just as quick to re-release vintage gems like The Miami Connection and Ms. 45 as they are more contemporary titles like The FP and Pieta.

And there we go, friends, my first "real" review in... Christ, probably forever. Don't expect to hear back from me 'till after Turkey Day, at the soonest, but I hope this review has convinced some of you - one way or another - if Code Red's initial BD line-up is worth your support.

UPDATE: Added a correction to the technical portion - and expanded the review of the content - on VOICES FROM BEYOND.

An open note to Bill Olsen of Code Red DVD:

Bill, if you're reading this, try not to take any of this personally. These discs could be better, that's a fact, but they're far better than nothing and there's clearly potential for Code Red to do some really incredible stuff. We're in a weird place with this market: You can't release middle-of-the-road BDs and expect people to spend a lot of money on them, because the market is divided into people who ask "How good is it?" and "How cheap is it?", with so little in between it's mind-boggling. You can't drop your prices going forward, I totally get that... but you can raise the bar in presenting them, and raise how valuable they'll look to your current consumers.

If you can't do basic things like pausing the goddamn movie, fix that before you press copies - I could care less about menus for a bare-bones release, but c'mon, I shouldn't have to be the only asshole who realizes that you can't pause the disc. Similarly, if you wouldn't put 3 hours on a single layer DVD, don't do it for a Blu-ray: I don't care what they tell you about "diminishing returns", because none of the screenshots above look as good as the HDCAM master they were inevitably pulled from, and none of them have come close to that point from a compression standpoint, which is unfortunate.

Yes, I'm an asshole: Just ask John Sirabella, Cliff MacMillan, and pretty much anyone else who ever had the audacity to release bullshit and call it foie gras. But I'm also writing reviews in my free time, and spending my own money to do it; I literally have nothing to gain by doing them these days, no label this is secretly supporting, no "agenda" to fragment the competition or whatever craziness people like to attribute to my naturally bitter persona.

Don't take my criticisms as anything but the frustrations of a collector who honestly wants these discs to be great so I can write about how goddamn perfect they are!

There's problems here as I've outlined in the above pages, but they aren't fatal to your future BD titles. I want to see you succeed, Bill, and there's potential here... I'm asking you, as a fan of cult films who gave you $50 without batting an eye out of little more than morbid curiosity, just to learn from all the frustrating points I've outlined above. At least consider them.

This'll probably sound crazy, but at the end of the day, both of us want you to succeed and release more Blu-ray titles. Step up your standards just a bit, and the rest will follow.

That is all. Good luck.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bubblegum and Replicants

Just a friendly reminder: The AnimEigo BUBBLEGUM CRISIS KICKSTARTER has less than 72 hours before all is said and done. It hit its goal in about a day, so that $50 guarantees you a 3-disc BD set. The plan appears to be to offer these Blu-ray sets direct to the supporters and not through typical retail chains, so anyone who wants to own the original 8 episode OVA series is urged to pledge their $50 while the pledging is still good. The very nature of these sets means that "extra" copies on the scalper's market seem unlikely, and while there may be a small contingency of people who are interested in buying the original BGC series but aren't interested in doing it through Kickstarter, I can't imagine there's enough of them to justify doing a standard release on top of this one.

If you wanna get your BGC 2032 on, and don't chip in for the limited AnimEigo set, keep in mind that the Japanese release - which is neither subtitled, nor includes any of the bountiful extras AnimEigo has already gotten approval for - lists for about $200. The odds of a reasonably priced Blu-ray with English subtitles after all o' this sounds like a flimsy possibility to me - but hey, the suggestion that AnimEigo would resurrect Bubblegum Crisis in Kickstarter form at all sounded  kind of crazy to begin with.

Look, I know as well as anyone that the concept of owning a film in 2013 is almost old fashioned - hell, it's not like I don't have perfect 1:1 BD50 rips with the English audio and subtitles added already - but even so, this is the first ever crowd funded Blu-ray that I'm aware of, and it could well set a precedent for similar niche-interest titles that skew towards a smaller, collector-driven market. I'd like to see this be the start of a way for titles like this to exist in the US market, and for that to be a possibility there needs to be a message, one loud and clear, that this is something Blu-ray loving old anime watching collectors types actually want.

I want Priss and the Knight Sabers in 1080p, and I bet a lot of you reading this do, too. What else could we get if this proves to be a great release that everyone is thrilled by? AnimEigo was, admittedly, off to a rough start with those disappointingly processed-looking Lone Wolf and Cub BDs, but there's already a perfect master for this series: At this point, copy-pasting the Japanese encodes would be enough to satisfy everyone. There's enough potential for more, and for greatness, that I'm willing to let the "meh" quality of their previous entry into the format gave us and believe that AE's staff can both learn from previous mistakes, and recognize quality when they see it.

C'mon, friends... let's all open Pandora's Box together.

Monday, November 11, 2013

FUNimation's HD Revenge

As anyone in earshot knows, FUNimation released a really shitty "HD Mastered" widescreen release of Dragon Ball Z starting in 2007... Christ, has it been that long? The short version is a lot of the book learnin' I put into understanding how films were put together back in the day came from me wanting, desperately, to understand how FUNimation had made Son Gokuu so damned ugly in their quest to make the show somehow look "better" by blasting away all the outlines of the original animation. It's been a hell of a journey since for yours truly, but I did learn a lot - so, if anything, some of the OCD tics I have while watching for video errors I owe to FUNimation's former mediocrity. Thanks... I guess?

When FUNimation saw that there was a vocal minority of concerned purists who wanted to buy Dragon Ball Z in a handful of expensive boxed sets but weren't excited about the thought of buying the botched faux-widescreen "Season" sets - commonly referred to by fans and haters alike as the "Orange Bricks" - were eventually treated to the Dragon Box sets beginning in 2009. These were a limited run, deluxe release with large comprehensive booklets and chipboard collectors boxes that, more or less, replicated the insanely expensive Japanese import box sets. Things were good.

This is the only "Wide Format" I want to hear about for my Dragon Ball Z TV footage.

Once FUNimation was done with the "Dragon Box" release - and we're going to ignore Kai, just for simplicity's sake - they announced the "Level 1" Blu-ray releases. I reviewed Level 1.1 extensively shortly before switching jobs and literally moving from one end of the country to the other in the process, and stand by everything I had to say; it was a stunning, dedicated release that any fan who liked Dragon Ball should support, and despite a few minor niggles we always knew was in the cards, it was the best presentation that anyone could have ever asked for with a straight face.

It was, perhaps inevitably, cancelled after two volumes out of a planned 18 (though production on 3 and 4 had already started). Worse yet, FUNimation managed to pull the plug exactly one episode before the conclusion of the Vegeta Arc, leaving it to feel like a bit of a raised middle finger to anyone expecting closure of any sort. I've actually heard musings from people I trust that the sets actually did sell pretty well, but the time and cost that goes into keeping a fully staffed restoration wing simply isn't a cost-effective solution, particularly if you're focusing all of your efforts on exactly one franchise and aren't expecting Disney-esque returns on them. Shit, even Disney isn't keeping a proper restoration staff these days... the jarringly inadequate quality on their recent titles like The Sword in the Stone, Mickey's Christmas Carol and Oliver and Company are proof enough of that.

A few months ago, FUNimation held an online survey asking "the fans" if they wanted to see the show in 4:3, or 16:9... and anyone with just enough cynism in their blood could see exactly what was coming next from a mile away. I'll point out that the actual results of said survey have never been made public, and gee, I wonder if there's a reason for that!

The upcoming DRAGON BALL Z: SEASON X  Blu-ray lineup is effectively an HD upgrade of FUNimation's cropped "Orange Brick" DVD box sets, and with the Level box sets having been put on hold for nearly two years it's safe to say they're the only noteworthy release we can expect to see going forward. Once FUNimation had the balls to bring "16:9" back up I think we all saw where this was heading, but I never, ever imagined they'd find a way to make the Blu-ray release somehow even shittier than the previous DVD release, assuming FUNimation's 1080p trailer is any proper indication:

That's right. More DVNR, smearing backgrounds into a pastel-smudge oblivion. More edge sharpening, making the original cels look like shitty vector traces. And more boosted contrast, because somehow, FUNimation looked at the meticulously crafted and almost universally praised Level 1 Blu-ray sets, and said "Let's just do the exact opposite of what we did last time".

You worried I'm exaggerating here? Then let's just quote FUNimation's own selling points, verbatim:

Make room on your shelves because the Dragon Ball Z Season Sets are finally on Blu-ray! We embarked on a frame-by-frame restoration process to remove any blemishes, tape marks, or foreign bodies that might have tarnished your viewing experience.

All three audio tracks have been re-mastered in the interest of noise reduction and superior sound quality. The bolder, more vibrant color of this ultimate Dragon Ball Z release closely mirrors the visual aesthetics of today’s entertainment.

And finally, our elite team of super-geniuses undertook a precise shot-by-shot reframing of the entire series to create a modern HD widescreen presentation of this legendary fan favorite. It’s time to experience Dragon Ball Z like you’ve never experienced it before!

Oh, my god where to begin... I think I got right to the "Super Geniuses" part before pissing myself with fits of I-can't-even-believe-this-shit laughter. I know this is the least of my worries, but FUNimation, when you're trying to convince people that you've improved something with a long history of questionable and controversial choices going in, this is probably not the guy you want to draw obvious comparisons to:

Pictured: FUNimation's 2014 business strategy?

But maybe I'm not giving them the benefit of the doubt - maybe FUNimation has changed their policies, and I'm just assuming the worst because of a lot of marketing buzz-words. Hey, maybe things are going to be just fine! And maybe, y'know, the Disney Channel will play Song of the South on a loop this Febuary in honor of Black History month. As always, the lovely denizens of the Kanzenshuu forums (formerly the Daizenshuu EX forum*) were one step ahead of me and proved that this, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is going to be a trainwreck on a level that we've never seen before. I'd considered reposting a number of the images therein, but that link takes you to page 50 (out of 90+ as of this writing), which should be enough to get you started. If you're anything like me, you may want to grab a vomit bag now, because those comparisons are utterly putrid.

Without getting into the gory details and mathematical problems that doing so would entail, the short answer to take away from this is everything bad about the Orange Bricks not related to the 16:9 framing - the DVNR smearing, the wonky supersaturated colors, the funky processed "look" in general - has only been amplified here. The fucking Orange Bricks will look more natural and film-like upscaled to 1080p than FUNimation's actual upcoming Blu-ray, assuming, of course, that this early trailer is any indication. Considering how similar all previous "Sneak Peek" footage for controversial FUNi releases have been, I have little doubt that what we're seeing now is exactly what we're going to get.

These are all the feelings left I have to offer.

As for the framing... well, so far all the footage FUNimation has shown has been pretty boring center-cropped bullshit that matches their DVD release almost perfectly. Doesn't give me much hope that they're really re-doing the tilt-and-scan process, but even if they were, so bloody what? Dragon Ball Z was a TV series produced from 1989 to 1996 on standard 16mm film - the original aspect ratio was 1.37:1, it will always be 1.37:1, and even when Toei spent a small fortune re-purposing the original 16mm footage, one of the things they budgeted in was re-animating certain shots from scratch in 16:9, because even Toei - while in the purpose of creating an entirely new show from the same footage - still knew cropping the footage inevitably made it look like shit. In short, FUNimation is swearing that the cropping will be better this time. They've so far not proven that it'll be different at all, and even if it is, they're ignoring the fact that the cropping itself is still a problem.

I am pretty upset at all of this... but let's try, really hard, to have a little perspective on what this is, and why it's happening. See, this is coming out after FUNimation's ROCK THE DRAGON DVD box set, which is - for those unaware - a classy, NIS America style DVD release literally selling the butchered, bowdlerized English dubbed broadcast versions  "Season 1" and "Season 2" of Dragon Ball Z, as it existed in early US syndication circa 1996. They've been pulled from barely watchable analog tape masters, they feature only the "vintage" English audio as produced by Ocean Studios, and they've been edited so brutally that there's roughly 13 episodes worth of footage missing from the 52 present. That's right, no single episode was cut in its entirety, but 20% of the footage involved in those episodes wound up being compressed or jettisoned in one way or another.

FUNimation never re-released these artifacts of their history prior, and even went out of their way to re-dub the uncut versions of these early episodes and began releasing them on DVD as the "Ultimate Uncut" collection (before those, too, were cancelled in favor of the Orange Bricks), trying to re-write the sins of the past and move away from reminding their newfound supporters who were excited to see Dragon Ball Z in its original, uncut format that they were once "that company" - you remember, the one that told you Goku hadn't died, he'd just been sent to another dimension. Because that's clearly what happens when you bleed out after getting run through with a corkscrew-laser canon shot by Satan who happens to look like a Martian genie.

So why does this monstrosity even exist now? Because FUNimation knows there's a market for every facet of Dragon Ball Z - even the one that they were embarrassed by. This is a set made specifically for people who saw this when they were kids and didn't know what the concept of "Anime" was - it was just some cool new cartoon about alien monkeys or, something, I dunno the first episode was pretty vague but HOLY CRAP THEY'RE BLOWIN' UP PLANETS, I GOTTA TELL THE KIDS AT RECESS! FUNimation released this set specifically to prey on nostalgia, and that's fine and dandy for those who have a fondness for vintage dubs*... but it was one of their last aces in Gokuu's hole. It's been nearly 20 years since "Arrival" aired in North America, and the bones of the Dragon Ball franchise have been picked clean... that doesn't make it fair or smart to your audience to milk your own cow with a damned bear trap, but at least it might help explain what frame of mind FUNimation's in to think it ever sounded like a good idea.

* Hey, who am I to judge? I'm about to re-buy AKIRA specifically for the shitty English dub I'll never actually sit through again.

If I had to guess, I'd say that FUNimation's claim that the "Entire Series" has been re-scanned in its intended 4:3 aspect ratio for the Level collection was a bit of an exaggeration. The first 40-odd episodes, sure, I believe that, but when they ran out of "Level" content to fuck around with and finally had a working understanding of how insane that plan was they pulled the plug. Faced with either re-using the 16:9 scans they had already paid for in 2005 or continuing down the Level sink-hole, they were then faced with the realization that people would want something "more" from a BD re-release, and decided on the more cost effective solution, as rage-inducing with a chunk of the audience as they surely knew it would be. Y'know, I have an image of my head of FUNimation's "Super Genius" sitting behind a computer monitor, intentionally tweaking contrast and DVNR until silent tears streak down his jaded face. This wasn't what I signed up for, he's probably thinking, having proven time and time again that he was capable of producing stunning video against impossible odds... but he's glumly following orders, knowingly obliterating everything even resembling the nuance and hand-crafted charm of Dragon Ball Z's history as a 16mm TV series from the dawn of Japan's Heisei era.  FUNimation themselves - even the higher ups that decided this was the only way forward - know it's wrong, and if they didn't they wouldn't have tried to present accurate, unmolested versions of the show so many times before. They're simply facing up to the reality that sales on Blu-ray for quintuple dips ain't what they used to be, and are crafting the most half-assed "Remaster" humanly possible so they can shrug off the potentially worse accusation of literally re-releasing the same exact content ("but now on Blu-ray!").

Will Dragon Ball Z: Season One be an improvement on Blu-ray next to the matching Season One Orange Brick? Will it actually re-frame certain shots to prevent important info from being lost, or fix the digital scratch removal glitches that ate original outlines during camera-shaking effects? Will the digital noise reduction fix up the ever-gnarly sounding Japanese mag-track sourced audio, which has always sounded like butt to one degree or another? I... couldn't tell you. Look, I've bought and reviewed a lot of crap for the Kentai Blog at no financial gain, but just so we're clear: I'm out. I'm not buying this new BD release - hell, I'm not even going to steal it off BitTorrent just to rip it a new one. Why bother? The very selling points of this release are an abomination, a targeted blow at everything I think Blu-ray can, and should strive to achieve, so there's really nothing more for me to add to this discussion. FUNimation are calculating the metrics on the new Dragon Ball Z: Season X set towards the exact opposite of a release I want, and if you have any interest in my opinion on that - any at all - that should be enough. Me commenting on this monstrosity would be akin to a vegan commenting on a bacon-cheeseburger; it might be funny, but it'd be a waste for all involved.

See this? This is about the only thing left FUNimation could release on Blu-ray that I'd happily throw money at. Seriously Fukunaga, where my Battle of Gods at?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Hollow Sounding Weens

Since it was brought to my attention that I had merely shrugged off the lack of the original MONO mix on the recent 35th Anniversary Edition of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, I decided I'd do my best to clear the air on the matter. Not to try to cover my ass too vigorously, but it's worth noting that my write-up on this title was almost entirely intended to be about the ever controversial look of the iconic film, and my opinions towards it kinda' spilled into the mix as I went... the audio is worth talking about, it just wasn't what I was particularly interested in talking about at the time.

Plus, I had friends over for the Halloween week. Didn't have nearly as much time to dick around before Samhain as I typically do.

Also, I had nowhere else to put this killer giallo-inspired Danish one-sheet.
Yes, that really is an obscure poster for HALLOWEEN as "Night of Masks".

Now, here's the thing: There's two arguments leveled against the 35th Anniversary BD's audio - one being that the new 7.1 mix is identical to the older 5.1 remix dating all the way back to 1999, and that the original mono mix is, infact, a down-mix of the 5.1 materials. I'm fascinated to report that half of this is true... and not the half I expected.

Before we go any further, I'll just put this here: A detailed comparison written by a one Daniel Pulliam. I applaud his dedication to this issue, and couldn't have been more verbose on this issue if I tried... Hey, if you want someone to confirm this shite for Halloween, I'm not your guy. He is. To try and sum it all up his 30 minutes of sad frustration is going to be a little complicated, but fuck it, let's give it a go...

 In 1999, Chase Audio created a new 5.1 mix for Halloween. Both the 1999 "THX" DVD and the 2003 "Divimax" DVDs included both the 5.1 remix, and the original mono tracks. So far, so good. As stated in my previous write-up, the 2007 Blu-ray release is essentially an HD port of the 2003 Divimax DVD, so that remains true of that particular release as well. So far easy enough, yeah?

Where this gets a bit confusing is the 35th Anniversary claims to include the "original mono", but it's actually a down-mix of the Chase 5.1 audio master. The easiest difference to spot is likely when Michael sits up in the back seat of the car, which has a loud, high pitched "sting" on the original mono track that's missing on the remix. There's a number of similar issues, but - honestly - I find all of them to be pretty minor, even on careful comparison. They're different, sure, but this isn't a SUSPIRIA level clusterfuck where characters are reacting to foley effects that no longer exist, or even a TERMINATOR level mess where Arnold's giant hand-canon mysteriously sounds like a comically inadequate pee shooter. While not perfect, Halloween's 5.1 mix is just rife with those minor oddities that tend to crop up when you try to re-create a mix from scratch, and while I can understand people being frustrated by these changes, I honestly don't think it's quite the atrocity against the artform that Daniel does.

That said: The "Downmix Mono" track on the 35th Anniversary BD should also be avoided, not just because it's a lie but also because it sounds like absolute ass. Dialog is so low it sounds like mumbling ants doing an impression of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. My guess is that when they folded the 6 tracks down they lowered the center channel by several decibels trying to compensate for a mix problem that didn't actually exist, crushing dialog and muting some sound effects to the point where they completely disappear. To put this another way, the main reason I wasn't really sure the mono mix wasn't legit at a glance was because I thought there was no way a surround remix from '99 could possibly sound that bad. So yeah, Anchor Bay fucked up on this one, and they fucked up in a way so impressive I'm kind of shocked anyone signed off on it in the first place.

That having been said: The 7.1 remix is not a a direct port of the Chase 5.1 remix with the rears being doubled, contrary to popular opinion. The most obvious difference appears at roughly 00:21:52, after the line "Hey jerk, speed kills!" The familiar "Halloween Theme" picks up in pitch... literally illustrating what 'speed' can do in the wrong hands. It's kind of cute, when you think about it from the point of view of a man who was both the director and the composer.

Anyway, while literally every previous release has had this music cue sped up... the track now plays at its normal speed on the 35th Anniversary 7.1 remix. DUN-DUN-DUN!! my head it sounded better.

What does this all mean? And what other surprises are lurking on that new 7.1 mix?! Fuck if I know, man. I just want it to be clear that the audio is more confusing than anyone should have expected, and that I'm glad I didn't get into it all until I could sort through the various BD audio mixes myself first-hand. While people have every right to be upset about the lack of an included original mono mix, I think the new 7.1 mix - oddities and all - sounds very good unto itself. Dialog has a bit of a DNRed quality to it, but the soundtrack is as crisp as I could have asked for, and there's a surprising level of natural spatial separation going on. It's not "as it was", no, but it's good enough for yours truly. And if it bothers you that much, hey, word on the playground is that you can paste the previous '07 mono track on the '13 BD's video file without any sync errors, so for all you fix-it types, at least there's a relatively simple solution.

And as for the Bonus Features... ugh, do I even have to say it? Don May of Synapse Films is literally sitting on the original outtakes for the Halloween B-roll material. He owns the deleted footage and outtakes from the film and presented them to the franchise's current master Malek Akkad - son of the films original producer Moustapha Akkad - who deemed the price he put on it too expensive. Christ. Exactly what's on those B-rolls... well, I don't think anyone knows for sure, perhaps not even Don May himself. There could be hours of never before seen alternate footage, and for all we know there could be 15 minutes of... nothing all that excited. But the fact that this footage was tracked down in 2006 and still hasn't seen the light of day is still incredibly frustrating.

Oh, and because I honestly can't remember if I pointed this out or got it wrong or whatever, the commentary on the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray is a newly recorded one, rather than a port of the Criterion LD commentary.

Tune in next time when we cover a release that has nothing to do with John Carpenter. Unless I pick up In the Mouth of Madness before that other thing I'm waiting for arrives... so eh, probably not Carpenter related? Wait, when is that new Arrow tin for Big Trouble in-- no, forget it. No Carpenter, guaranteed.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Topsy Turvy Blu-ray Slurrey

Just a quick label recap, because shit is now completely bananas:

* Arrow Video have turned their production end inside-out, hiring David "Lyris" MacKenzie as their mastering guru, and having James White oversee new film work where applicable. For reference, these were the guys who were crafting materials for BFI and Mondo Vision until Arrow Video head-hunted the both of them. I don't know Mr. White personally, but his interview for the Zombie Flesh-Eaters/Zombi 2 restoration speaks for itself, as far as I'm concerned. What you need to know is he's the guy you call when you have 80 year old film elements that have been vigoriously fucked by time itself... and now he's working on Lucio Fulci movies. Fuck. Yeah.

I couldn't be happier that these are the guys who are backing the "New and Improved" Arrow Video who made great strides about a year ago to re-invent themselves, and now sit atop the pile of genre film studios churning out both some of the most interesting titles, and the best presentations thereof available even when they'e surfaced in the US (or elsewhere, for that matter).

If you need proof that they're done fucking around, while Twilight Time was content to use an aged HD scan for Brian DePalma's THE FURY, Arrow Video created a new 2K scan of the original negative, and included the isolated score, which was the one constant Twilight Time had always given us, but failed to do so for this particular film. ThI'm thrilled to see them taking the initiative here, I'm just a little bummed it wasn't for, y'know, Carrie. Different strokes, I guess, and I'm sure that dreadful looking remake with Hit Girl miscast as all fuck in the lead put that out of the reach of many an otherwise interested suitor.

And if you're concerned about their past sins (as anyone who's bought from them would be!), it's comforting to see that one of their very last titles for the year is a remastered version of Dario Argento's TENEBRAE using the superior Wild Side materials, plus all of the exclusive bonus material Arrow created for the title's butt-ugly previous edition. Yeah, it kind of stinks that they're doing 4,000 exclusive tins for Zavvi with no release in sight, but hey, that's kind of a thing British studios do these days. Comes out December 16th, and odds are even with shipping from the UK it'll cost half of whatever Synapse's inevitable limited edition does next year.

* Speaking of which, Synapse Films is putting the finishing touches on Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and DEMONS 2: THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES, which should ship in the next week or so. Both titles have been extensively color corrected, had major audio overhauls, new bonus features and are being sold in limited edition steelbooks, limited to 3,000 copies each. The latter film especially is almost criminally overpriced at just shy of $46 shipped, but at least early reviews are nothing short of glowing.

Expensive? Hell yes, particularly with the (heavily flawed) Arrow two-pack selling for a third the price? You bet. But fuck it, I've already put in my order, and if you love these films even half as much as I do you probably have, too. The sad part is I think Demons 2 is kind of a steaming pile, but bought it as a sign of good faith that Synapse will keep the Euro-Horror flowing, no matter the cost.

Looks like I had little to worry about; not only does Synapse already have the HD materials for Dario Argento's TENEBRAE and PHENOMENA, but just this week - on Halloween, no less! - Don May announced the realization of his dream: The rights, and access to the original camera negative of, SUSPIRIA. I'm fully expecting all three of these titles to follow in the expensive, exclusive footsteps of the Demons films, but details won't be announced for a while yet, with Suspiria not due until presumably 2015.

* Grindhouse Releasing has stepped up from a mostly impressive legacy of DVDs and plowing ahead with Blu-ray releases for the obscure British thriller CORRUPTION, which looks to be a hell of a release (though I've not yet seen it myself, an issue I hope to fix soon enough).

They're also giving us THE BIG GUNDOWN for the first time on North American home video on December 10th, including two cuts of the film, new interviews and a soundtrack CD. It's a $40 Limited Edition of 3,000 units, and I have a feeling it'll disappear a lot faster than the 2,000 units pressed for AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL. According to Grindhouse, work on a CANNIBAL FEROX Blu-ray is already underway, and personally I couldn't be happier for it.

* Drafthouse Films are still alive and kicking, apparently, having announced my favorite Abel Ferrara film, MS. 45 (aka ANGEL OF VENGEANCE). They've already confirmed it'll be pulled from the original, uncut camera negative.

I'm sure there's new material to be had here, but if Bad Lieutenant is any indication, Ferrara may no longer be shooting up minutes before walking into a recording session. You'd think that would be a good thing, but go watch his commentaries on Driller Killer or King of New York, and compare them to how... normal everything on the more recent suppliments are.

* Surprising basically everyone, Code Red has finally stepped forward with not one, but two Blu-ray pre-orders! Exactly how this works is a little vague, but as far as I can tell you put in your order now, and they eMail you when they're ready to ship. Hey, considering how crazy Code Red is as a company already, let's just be happy we don't have to drop unmarked bills off at an unmarked mailbox in the middle of nowhere.

JUST BEFORE DAWN is a title that's had all sorts of vague legal issues leading up to this, but it looks like things are good enough that it can be pre-ordered for $27 plus shipping. Limit to two copies per customer, and while this is promised to be a "Limited Edition", there's been no real indicator as to how many copies will be pressed.

The bad news is that director Jeff Lieberman's audio commentary and the hour long making-of featurette included on the old Media Blasters DVD will not be included. The good news is that this will be the first ever release pulled from the uncut internegative, and that an additional "international" version will be included as well. The Media Blasters DVD was sourced from a theatrical print and was actually missing gore when compared to the old Paragon VHS release, so including not one, but two more complete prints is certainly a bonus.

VOICES FROM BEYOND is an even bigger surprise since... Jesus Christ, have you seen anything Lucio Fulci made after... I dunno, maybe Murder Rock? Or Zombi 3, if we're going by the official credits and not assuming it's a Bruno Mattei flick with a handful of Fulci inserts? Not everyone can be at the top of their game forever, I understand that, but few fell as hard - or as far - as Fulci, from amazingly great films like Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Four of the Apocalypse, to increasingly fun schlock like The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, to... shit like this and The Ghosts of Sodom and-- cripes, do we have to talk about House of Clocks? My point is that Fulci has made some incredible films, and I can think of literally 10 of them I thought we'd see on Blu-ray before this one. That's not a complaint, exactly - hell, I'm planning to pick this up just as a sign of good faith so Code Red can keep pushing forward with HD releases.

Relative quality of the title aside, the price is right at $20 plus shipping and fondling charges, and it's limited to 1,000 copies and a limit of 1 per customer - so at least there will be no Twilight Time styled scalping shenanigans here. Honestly, anyone who actually wants a copy of Voices from Beyond couldn't ask for anything more, and they can be pre-ordered at the Code Red webstore now.

A word of caution: With this being limited to a mere thousand units, odds are good that these could be BD-R releases. Can't say I've had any problems with the Albert Pyun "CA" disc or my signed copy of Dear God No!, but it's something to factor in, I, guess.

* And hey, Remember how Jeff Leiberman released REMOTE CONTROL on Blu-ray all by himself? Nah, nobody did. Sorry Jeff, but these days you need a banner ad and some sweet, sweet screener reviews to move more than a hundred copies of anything.

If it's thus far slipped through the cracks of your collection, but you're into 25 year old retro sci-fi movies about alien brain control, there's still hope! Jeff Lieberman dropped the price on the damn thing by $10, but in doing so stopped hand-signing and hand-numbering the copies in the process. Sadly, I have little doubt that this means Jeff was unable to move the thousand copies at the original $35 + shipping asking price... but hey, give the guy a break if it's something you remember, or wish you had seen to remember.

To recap: Arrow Video went from being a pile of shit to the shit, Code Red finally made good on their threat to release a Blu-ray or two, Synapse Films is becoming the Euro Horror Criterion Collection, and both Drafthouse and Grindhouse are putting their foot down on titles that I actually care about.

Goddamn, it's a great time to be re-buying movies on Blu-ray.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Bruce Lee's Blu-Ray Fight Back From The Garbage Bin

Alright, let's do this one last time...

After much confusion, misery and a large helping of abject shame on everyone involved, Shout Factory have finally done the only right thing humanly possible, and re-pressed the three "main" feature Blu-rays on their BRUCE LEE: THE LEGACY COLLECTION box set.

The good news is obvious: Now The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon have been fixed and given new transfers, which aresourced from the HD scans of the original camera negatives which have graced literally every other Blu-ray release of said titles in existence. No more SD upscaled bullshit - you finally get unmolested, high resolution 1080p transfers of the best materials available to date.

The bad news, is... well, remember how one of the big selling points of the Shout Factory release was the fact that they were going to color correct all the films, and finally fix the wonky green and brown push of the otherwise fairly decent Kam and Ronson HD masters? Well, they spent their wad fixing the upscales, so now the only difference between the US and HK transfers come straight down to compression. As I've snarked in the past, compression is oft the weakest link in any of Shout Factory's BD releases anuwau, but suffice to say if none of their previous releases have been particularly offensive to you in terms of banding, macroblocking or general grain structure, the Bruce Lee set should do you just fine. Caps suggest that the new Shout Factory transfers are otherwise equal to any of their other releases on the market - still flawed, to be sure, but far less offensively so than the previous upscaled release.

In short, you can watch these films on DVD with proper color grading, or you can watch them in HD with the same jacked, mint-green and dull-brown colors as the imports. A pretty weak option, but marginally better than any previous set. Over and done, right?

Not so fast, my Chop Socky Hunnies - it gets even worse! Remember how the other advertised feature was the inclusion of the original Mono mixes? Well, FIST OF FURY - by far the best (completed) Hong Kong film in the Bruce Lee canon, by my totally unqualified estimation - doesn't have a Mandarin Mono track! When they re-authored the disc it looks like they added the Cantonese track twice by mistake. There's still a Mandarin 5.1 mix, of course, but the surround staging on these Chinese remixes are infamously poor, dropping in modern sounding foley effects and using heavy noise reduction to try and tame the hiss of the original analog elements to the detriment of whatever fidelity those materials had to start with. The other tracks on Fist of Fury and the other two "fixed" discs in general appear to be fine, but that's akin to saying that the original audio on The Empire Strikes Back is jacked, but somehow the one with the fucking Ewoks came out the other end without a scratch.

Pictured: Shout Factory's QC team.

As of this writing, Shout Factory is offering mail-in replacements for just FIST OF FURY, but only to US residents. That's fair, and was a damn bit better than what they did with everyone who bought the original upscaled releases, which was to tell them to lube the box up and stick it back up their own assholes. I'm exaggerating, but not by nearly enough.

Shout Factory did not re-do Game of Death, but as that particular disc already includes both the [upscaled] original Hollywood Cut and the [hard-subbed/HD] Japanese Theatrical Cut, there was really nothing to "fix" here. Nobody with common sense cares about this movie either, just the last 20 minutes or so of super-awkwardly re-integrated fight porn, so let's move on.

If you absolutely must watch Game of Death, just watch this documentary instead.
Trust me, that 40 minute workprint is as good as this aborted project gets.

So now that the dust has settled, is it finally worth giving Shout Factory the $119.99 MSRP - or even the $76 or so on - this mammoth box set is selling for? Well, yes and no. The inclusion of the original mono tracks in all relevant languages - original Mandarin, Cantonese redubs, and classic English - are an attractive option, and the bonus features like the Japanese cut of Game of Death and the rejected English dub for The Big Boss, along with several new interviews, are all pretty nice. Unfortunately, the transfers - one of the biggest issues for these particular films! - are now no better than the similarly priced Hong Kong or Japanese imports, which both offer either English subtitles or English dubs, depending on what direction you'd rather go. Shout Factory promised the definitive, perfect Bruce Lee collection... and gave us a moderately more attractive version that kept flaws that should have been worked out before anything was finalized. In short, it's your best option on the market, but it's not as good as it should have been. Fans who don't already own half a dozen copies of Fist of Fury might find a lot to love about this box set, but as it stands I'm getting my hands on the Hong Kong releases and trying to decide how many hours of my dwindling spare time I want to dedicate to creating my own "perfect" release of these movies. For crying out loud, Bruce has been dead for nearly 40 years; it shouldn't take this goddamn long to get their presentation correct!

Then again, there's one last prickly pair all up in my craw I have to say something about before I move on... the following message was given to verbatim, and it takes every ounce of my being to read this without my eyes crossing and my brain simply giving up and going comatose out of sheer frustration:

"New Blu-rays for The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon. Contrary to speculation circulating on the internet, the original set did contain hi-def masters of the first three feature films. However, after comments from fans who had received early copies of our set, we discovered that our sources were not the recently restored transfers used for the Blu-rays in Hong Kong and Japan, but rather the original masters done a few years ago in Canada. We therefore acquired the improved masters (the master for Game of Death was no appreciably different), and have included them on this new set, for a truly definitive Bruce Lee collection." 

The original Shout Factory transfers were absolutely upscaled from SD sources. In fact, I defy anyone to argue why Shout Factory was willing to re-press an entire run of three BD-50s to use "better" HD masters despite having already paid to color correct and remove print damage from the previous materials; that's literally money down the drain, and if they weren't full of shit, they would have stood their ground on it. The mere fact that they re-pressed them at all is all the proof I need, but if in doubt, TAKE ANOTHER PEEK AT HOW AMAZINGLY BAD THESE THINGS WERE.

It's entirely possible - hell, likely even - that Fortune Star provided HDCAM masters, but an upscaled HD tape is not an HD source. This isn't even one of those "Maybe Kentai's just expecting too much again..." situations. No friends, this was one of those Hills Have Mother Fucking Eyes situations where the difference between the DVD and the Blu-ray is literally non-existent, at least in terms of resolution. This is one of those instances where Shout Factory absolutely should have known better, and if Shout Factory doesn't have anyone on staff who can, Fotokem should have caught it - long before they started actually working on these transfers, much less signing off on them as "good enough". There's just too many checkpoints this particular set went through for anyone to use ignorance as an excuse. Perhaps that's all water under the bridge now - after all, we finally have a set that more or less replicates all the import releases we've dealt with until now with additional audio tracks and bonus features, and while I suppose that's "good enough", we shouldn't have had to fight tooth and nail just to get here in the first place.

...why did I google image search "Good Enough", anyway?
More importantly, what is this and why might it be awesome?

This does, however, give me pause as to what to do about titles that aren't sourced from HD masters because HD masters simply don't exist. Things like older concert videos and sitcoms shot on video, and cartoons rendered at lower resolution aren't going to benefit from HD in terms of resolution, but they can - depending on how they're handled - still look marginally better due to BDs increased bandwidth, compression options and so forth.  I've bought several of FUNimation's "HD Remaster" titles, which is simply their code word for giving people an upscale ("HD Native" is their term used for a 'real' HD master). Now, the fact that FUNimation had to develop a new vocabulary for packaging blurbs suggests that it is something you should point out - and, frankly, FUNimation doesn't always keep proper tabs on it, with titles like Burst Angel and the first 4 episodes of Hellsing Ultimate claiming to be full HD when they are, in fact, upscales. But FUNimation doesn't make it a habit of lying to consumers because they know that without proper trust, nobody will drop $65 on one of their fancy box sets because they'll have no clue what they're getting.

Shout Factory - and Cliff MacMillan specifically - have made an error in sticking by their story that the Bruce Lee Legacy set was never made from upscaled materials; that's likely what their licensors told them, even, but Fortune Star is even more clueless than Shout Factory, because I guess when you own the rights to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, John Woo and Jet Li's majority catalog forever you can afford to not really give two shits about it all. Shout Factory has done the right thing with this release... but they've shaken the trust I have in them. When  Shout Factory says a release will be uncut, for example, I know they're not looking at the materials to answer the question; they're simply checking what the company line for that question is and passing it along. It's disheartening to know that, and it only encourages me to pick and choose which titles I'm going to purchase from them as wisely as possible.

 But... DAT LOGO!

Don't get me wrong, I won't be boycotting Shout Factory - that'd be absurd. They have too many fantastic titles lined up, and the fact is even with their weak compression and occasional ignorance towards their own product, the titles that are presented well outnumber the titles that aren't. Yes, Shout could have done a lot more with Audition, Good to See You Again Alice Cooper, They Live! and several other titles I could rattle off, but at the end of the day none of these are eclipsed by a wholly superior version... and hell, some of them don't have an import to even compare them to. Shout Factory is a far cry better than nothing, and as much as they occasionally let me down, I won't be forgetting that.

Now, all of that said, it's worth noting that Arrow Video recently kicked their ass with LIFEFORCE, featuring a visibly superior encode and an entirely new pass of carefully applied scratch repair. I won't be boycotting Shout Factory, but if another label is doing the same title... well, it might be worth looking into, is all I'm saying. Man, who thought we'd ever reach the point where fucking Arrow Video was one of the most trustworthy licensors out there in terms of video presentation?