Sunday, May 26, 2013

Burning For You

Before we get into the filthy specifics, let me first say that I'm thrilled to have THE BURNING on Blu-ray. As I've expressed before - many, many times I'm sure - while this was neither the earliest nor biggest grossing example of the early 1980s phenomenon that became known world wide as the "Slasher Movie", it might very well be one of the most perfect examples of what about them movie goers found so goddamn appealing in the first place. Released in the summer of 1981as the very first feature film to be published by the Weinstein Brothers' new company "Miramax", it's a totally shameless knock-off of the rampant success founded largely by Friday the 13th the previous year. The story of a deranged, disfigured madman picking off hapless summer campers - a trope so old the film itself even showcases one of the silly "campfire tales" that inspired it - was infused with the very real urban legends of a local killer in New Jersey at the period, which the locals nicknamed "Cropsey".

In a way, the fact that it sounds indistinguishable from any number of early 80s horror films is likely its secret weapon; it's difficult to name any especially great performances, despite being the first film to have a major role filled by either Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. British born directed Tony Maylam (who's other credits largely consists of documentaries and TV shows) never worked in genre film again, and while the film is shot and paced competently enough, the slow-burn act building and teasing towards Cropsey's bloody acts of misguided vengeance is - in retrospect, at the very least - quite by the numbers. The real draw of the film is the combination of brutality and misanthropy that stains each and every bloody set piece, in which both Tom Savini's extreme but not yet parody minded gore and Rick "Yes" Wakeman's pulsating electronic score combine to create a wholly unsettling and gruesome experience.

While the "Raft Murder" is unquestionably the film's pinnacle of excess, it's a much more subtle moment about 6 minutes in that sets the stage for why this film works in a way that so many other, similar Friday the 13th imitators do not; as Cropsey walks the desolate streets upon his release from the hospital, the words of the doctor who took care of him - "I'm so sorry the skin grafts didn't take." - run through his mind, a mantra that almost justifies his bitter, spite driven spree of senseless violence. Our young hero is also somewhat atypical for the genre: Not only is he a teenaged boy, totally ignoring the "Final Girl" trope that was already somewhat the norm in slasher films, but he's also a depressed, awkward creep who spies on girls in the shower and arguably deserves the ribbing his bunk-mates give him. Even the adult hero who barges in on Cropsey's dilapidated hideout has a sin of his own to shoulder, but there's no cleart moment of him accepting responsibility or asking forgiveness. It also - more than any other slasher film I can think of (with the possible exception of the generally headier Sleepaway Camp) - deals in the taboo of murdering children. Yes, fine, it's a little hard to swallow that Jason Alexander's  furry gut would appear on a 16 year old, but the cast still combines older and younger actors with reckless abandon, and makes it very clear - explicitly, in the raft sequence - that the counselors are just as ripe for the picking as the campers themselves.

There is no identifiable moral compass in the world of The Burning, and it casts Cropsey's rampage in an unsteady light; Cropsey is no more a villain than he is the ultimate incarnation of his surroundings, dealing out a crimson torrent of spite, menace and violence back to a world that punished him, even though we never learn for sure if he deserved or not. In short, The Burning might not be the single most ambitious or technically polished of its ilk - I'd argue that later fare like Maniac, Sleepaway Camp and Stage Fright are better made and more interesting stories, even if they're slightly desonstructionist (and in some cases, campy) in tone, but The Burning still stands tall and proud beside its 1981 brothers My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, and yes, even Friday the 13th Part 2 as a take-no-prisoners exercise in shameless, wanton misanthropy.

MGM has had financial difficulties for years now, and even filed for restructure-bankruptcy in 2010. They wound up releasing a number of titles on Blu-ray as far back as 2007 through 20th Century Fox while the dust settled, focusing on tent-pole franchises like the Bond films and genre-friendly cult films like Robocop and Return of the Living Dead. The genre titles eventually slowed to a crawl, and after a trio of horror films last October including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Jeepers Creepers, the announcements for genre films from MGM basically dried up completely. Oh sure, their Euro branches occasionally drops a surprise announcement - you can pick up both Breakin' flicks and two out of three of the Sho Kosugi Ninja movies in Germany, for some reason - but MGM US was done with that shit. Thankfully it was only a few more months until Shout Factory's horror centric label Scream Factory announced a number of MGM licenses, including Night of the Comet, The Howling, The Fog, and of course today's sample..

THE BURNING is one of the "Scream Factory Collector's Edition" titles, and comes packaged as a DVD + Blu-ray combo in a cardboard slipcover featuring newly commissioned artwork, and a reversible cover on the actual case with the vintage one-sheet key art underneath. Packaging is usually the least important aspect of a Blu-ray, but I find myself really enjoying the slightly surreal imagery of Cropsey's maw flowing with blood. It's one of Scream Factory's best efforts yet, and Nathan Thomas Miller - a regular staple of Horror Hound magazine - was a great choice for this title. You can see more of his work HERE, if the mood strikes you.

The transfer looks like the same uncut, 1.85:1 master the MGM DVD from 2007 was sourced from. This is, thankfully, more an observation rather than a complaint. Color is bright and vibrant on the sun baked summer camp scenes that dominate the first act, inky black but seemingly not crushed on the numerous night time shots, and while there is some minor judder and an almost regular minute "sparkle" of both black and white dust specs and subtle color flicker, there's really nothing to complain about; The Burning looks undeniably like organic celluloid, warts and all, and having seen the frustrating and inconsistent results a half-assed digital clean-up session can grant, we should be thrilled for it. Grain is beautifully resolved on top of the film's naturally soft focus, and the original mono soundtrack has never sounded better than it does here. Having seen a vintage, beautiful 35mm UK print back in October, I can confirm that this is not only exactly how The Burning is supposed to look - murky day-for-night scenes included - but that it's simply never looked better. Fans familiar with this nasty little exploitation film should be overjoyed, and newcomers alike have nothing to hold out for.


Audio is similarly presented as it always was, in a crisp, hiss free mono track presented as lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0. The fidelity couldn't be better for what it is, and while Wakeman's throbbing, bass heavy score might well have benefited from a remix more than many of the film's American contemporaries, I'll never be anything but thankful when I get the original audio mix, front and center.

To be fair, it's obviously not quite on par with the 4K restoration MGM showed on Rosemary's Baby last year in tandem with Criterion Collection, and the fact that it was pulled from an IP means it lacks a certain level of fidelity you'd find going back to the negative. The Burning could look marginally better if someone was willing to drop the massive expense on doing even a 2K scan of the negative, but I don't honestly expect this to happen, and the results we have now are certainly good enough that I'm not going to spend much more time wondering what could have been. In an alternate dimension where a film like this would sell 30,000 copies, then yes, maybe The Burning could have been a little nicer. In the real world, where a natural, unmolested transfer of a catalog transfer is about the best you can hope for, we got exactly what we were due. With this in mind the disc isn't quite up to the bar set by OCN transfers like Something Weird's Blood Feast, Arrow Video's Zombie Flesh Eaters, Midnight Legacy's Alien 2 and the "R-Rated" footage on Lionsgate's release of My Bloody Valentine, but the results are still far above average, and anyone with realistic expectations should be more than pleased.

The old MGM DVD's biggest blessing was inarguably the fact that it was the North American premier of the uncut version of the film (originally trimmed of its most famous sequence to avoid an "X" rating), but they did the film right enough by including the original trailer, just shy of 8 minutes of Tom Savini's personal behind-the-scenes home movies, and a feature commentary with director Tony Maylam plus a selection of production stills. All of these materials are ported over for the new Blu-ray release, as are the following brand new features:

CAST COMMENTARY - Shelly Bruce and Bonnie Deroski share memories of shooting the film.

HD PHOTO GALLERIES - Special Effects (2:25), Promotional Photos (3:05)

BLOOD 'N' FIRE MEMORIES (18:02) - Gore God Tom Savini talks about the special effects.

SLASH & CUT (12:05) - Editor Jack Shoulder talks about the raft scene, among others things.

CROPSEY SPEAKS (11:20) - Actor Lou David talks about his role as the film's memorable killer.

SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE (06:46) - Actress Leah Ayres speaks, 'cause why not?

With nothing in the way of extended workprints, canned sequels or bitter producer-director battles to argue over, the bonus content is limited to the nuts 'n' bolts making-of of the film, and I personally have no complaints. The stand-out here is, of course, Savini talking at length about how they made the still impressive practical gore effects, his dissatisfaction with Cropsey's (in my eyes, amazing!) head appliance, and jokes the whole way through about what a bright idea it was to bail on the Friday the 13th sequel because he thought making Jason Vorhees the "real" killer in the follow up was a terrible idea. Notably missing is any material from Elastigirl and George Castanza, but christ, anyone who expected them to give an interview about their non-central roles in a thirty-plus year old horror film that probably cost less than a million dollars was kidding themselves anyway. Amusingly enough, the trailer appears to have been carefully re-cut from the HD master, meaning the unique title shot and credits slate at the end is upscaled from SD. Savini's old behind-the-scenes footage have been upscaled to 1080i as well, though nobody with a working pair of eyes would ever mistake it for anything but consumer grade VHS.

Overall, Scream Factory's presentation of THE BURNING is great stuff, and I'm quite satisfied with my pre-order. Fans of vintage splatter who might be unfamiliar with this exceptional little flick should pick it up immediately, and anyone with a kinship to the film is only torturing themselves by not owning it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Phantasm Pains

A couple weeks ago, I had some pretty unkind things to say about the Caps-A-Holic PHANTASM II Comparison, which left many people to wonder - myself included - if the fuzzy Scream Factory Blu-ray might have merely been a worked-over upscale of the older Anchor Bay UK master. As is my policy, I try not to assume the worst... but Shout Factory's releasing a massive number of Jackie Chan titles pulled from the same Digibeta upscales that have seen the rounds in Hong Kong, and I tend to get much less trusting when that shit starts to look even remotely acceptable.

Curious, I got a hold of the disc myself, and had many things to say... but the list is basically "Wow, this really sucks!", with one of my main complaints being a seriously nasty case of waxy DVNR. And in my defense, everything I saw with my own two eyes - the ultimate test, according to anyone who distrusts screenshots - was horrid.

As I may or may not have mentioned, the computer that I typically use to watch movies on recently got a clean install of a brand new OS - huzzah, it's 2013 and I'm finally running a 64-bit version of Windows! (This install is named "AMON".) This, naturally, includes a hundred installations just to get back to doing the things I do every day, like bitching incessantly about vigorously discussing DVD/Blu-ray transfers, and stealing downloading movies  porn. (Or did I have that second one right the first time?)

It also, incidentally, involved reinstalling video card drivers. The short version of where this is going is the current version of the drivers I need to power the hardware I've still got had different default settings between the previous and current installs I'd made. The result? Well, Blu-ray playback used my GPU - which is normal, and preferable for most applications. Most of the time I take screenshots using an AVISynth script reading a DGA file, so the Media Player Classic Home Cinema decode I use to watch movies never really enters into it. But, of course, the one day I look at something and decide to call it a puddle of piss, I'm not using AVISynth, mostly because I don't have my old filters back yet... you see where this is going?

Short version: My initial reaction to Scream Factory's PHANTASM II Blu-ray was one based on a heavily filtered playback due to some shenanigans going on behind the scenes of my video card. It was a dumb mistake, one I'm not liable to repeat again now that my install seems nice and stable, and it made me dump a ration of shit on a disc that didn't entirely deserve it. With that in mind, I can only offer Scream Factory, Cliff MacMillan, and anyone who actually cares what I have to say a sheepish apology...

...or, I can talk about the disc again! Think of it as a Restored Review, mastered in 2K from the original hand-scribbled notes I keep next to my monitor. It's not, but it's probably more fun if you assume it is.

First order of business, some proper screenshots:

Without going into full speed ahead review mode - I've got a dinner date with the wife, and I've already half-written a proper write-up on another disc from these guys I hope to post before the long weekend is over - the Shout Factory BD is "mostly okay". It's probably ten times nicer than what I saw the first time I popped this sucker into my computer, in any event. The image typically has a fairly neutral coating of grain that's adequately resolved, but Caps-A-Holic's comparison still shows that the leap from PAL's limited 576p to 1080p isn't nearly as great as I'd expect for a well-shot feature film from a director with more than a little experience. The color grading also still leans towards a ruddy, contrasty hue that doesn't look particularly natural, though it does paint many of the outdoor scenes in a faux-sunset look that I could easily see Coscarelli finding appealing, and turning off that Auto Contrast bullshit helped skin from looking like it was always ready to burst into flames (as opposed to doing that only where appropriate). It's fair to assume that what we're seeing is a slightly tweaked Universal catalog transfer from the better half of a decade ago, and while it's really no great shakes, I'd have been far less willing to assume Shout Factory was hustling me with an upscale if I'd seen the original transfer unmolested to start with. Mea culpa on that one, Shout Factory. If nothing else, this still looks quite a bit better than Image's fuzzy release RE-ANIMATOR or the sludgy DVNR nightmare that was THE WIZARD OF GORE.

That said... it's still a pretty "whatever" presentation, transfer wise. It's not bad, it's just not particularly good either. The blacks look crushed and gamma is weak, meaning the multitude of dark scenes are basically black holes with characters struggling to creep out of a dark pit of nothing. The print itself also judders around like the optical printer smoked a fat bag of crack before doing its thing, and is likely the result of a less than ideal 35mm source print getting a real-time HD telecine, which doesn't really having anything in the way of print stabilization. Mild trailing from (thankfully subtle) DVNR likely dating back to the master's creation hit a number of the brighter scenes, and try as I might, I still can't figure out what the hell that dancing digital static just below the 1.85:1 matte bar is supposed to b. All of this sounds like niggling, and it is really, but when all you can do is niggle about this being "eh" and that being "meh" and the other thing being "not terrible", what you're looking at is a mediocre transfer.

Look, let's be honest for a second here: Do I honestly think PHANTASM II is ever going to look better? Sadly, no. I honestly think it could look pretty impressive if Shout Factory had gone back to the 35mm OCN and done a proper 2K scan, getting those dark scenes graded properly and removing the constant tittering on what should clearly be more or less static shots, but it just isn't going to happen in this marketplace. Shout Factory got what they got, shrugged, did as much clean-up work as they could do without investing in a new scan and moved on to the next title. If you like this movie, the 35mm sourced workprint footage alone is worth the $20 it's selling for. If you're on the fence and want a strong transfer to sell you on the upgrade... I dunno' what to say. The disc is what it is, and while Shout Factory can - and has - done much better work, it isn't as bad as I'd initially feared.

There we go, I feel much better. Let's meet back here in a couple days and talk about another Scream Factory Collector's Edition, yeah?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Part Man, Part Borg: MANBORG DVD vs BLU-RAY

Sadly, it's not for sale (yet?), but THIS GUY apparently made it.
Go bug him about it - maybe he's working with Alamo Drafthouse?

Canadian genre-collective Astron-6's approach to no-budget, intentionally kitschy, and utterly guerrilla film making is the very definition of "Critic Proof". While I thought their first feature length schlock-epic to get a distribution deal, the Troma funded and distributed FATHER'S DAY, stretched the premise so thin it basically broke an hour in, I had nothing but respect for the absolute balls-out sense of humor and total dedication to tongue-in-cheek style over anything even resembling substance. Father's Day was a bad movie to be sure, but it clearly knew and absolutely reveled in the fact that it was a bad movie. I might not have been won over by their foray into literal Troma Films territory - particularly not after Jason Eisener's all but perfect HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN kind of closed the book on ever needing to revisit candy-colored 1980s splatter-movies - but everything about it convinced me that Astron-6 was just a little self-control away from something resembling, for lack of a better term, an Anti-Masterpiece.


Technically Astron-6's first feature-length production, the 62 minute long 2011 feature MANBORG, which saw its first wide North American video release just one week ago, might be the Cinematic Anti-Masterpiece of the decade thus far. Shot, animated and rendered over the course of three years on an estimated budget of $1,000 Canadian entirely on green-screen, the result is like a hallucinatory fueled nightmare of 1980s Science Fiction as rendered by a Sega CD that runs on nostalgia and lulz. Stop motion machines, rubbery monsters, hover boards, neon lights, explosive violence, fake Aussie accents, Future Audio Casettes, full sized actors turned midget via forced perspective, arena free-for-alls, and zombie Nazi's from Hell litter the screen for just over an hour, hitting on a hundred great genre tropes and exiting stage left before the film can be anything but a mind-blowingly fun piece of stupidity steeped in two parts love and one part detached irony. This is the 21st century all-digital midway point between the legitimate masterworks of a young Peter Jackson and the hilariously inept schlock of Andreas Schnass in his prime. Director and general auteur Steven Kotansky clearly has a great grasp of post-production and physical effects, he just isn't afraid to waste it on goofball trash, which I think is a positive trait for a young group of amateurs who clearly love this material enough to ape its stylings and weaknesses to a beautiful fault, while still seeing what it is that made these sorts of films so appealing twenty and thirty years ago.

Talking about the actual movie itself is a waste of brain cells (and is sure to ruin some of the fun!), but what's most fascinating to me (and probably nobody else) is the fact that it's, basically, a schlocky remake of Kazuaki KIRIYA's 2004 CASSHERN movie. No, really! A young soldier on the front lines of Mankind's last great war is brought back to life by mad science in an effort to take down our new overlords, and in the end he's forced to accept that only the indomitable human spirit - something our hero is no longer convinced he still has - can save us all. I've just described both of these movies perfectly, and that's about all that really needs to be said, since the fun in both of these films is watching it unfold in the least predictable and most overtly memorable way possible.

The difference, of course, is that Casshern is a long, stuffy, pretentious attempt at humanizing the face of humanity through machines by way of turning humanity's last battle into a glittering fashion shoot that, momentarily, remembers it was supposed to be based on an anime about punch-fucking soviet machines, Manborg goes the opposite direction and just thought it'd be awesome if one of the bad guys from Star Trek: The Next Generation teamed up with Mortal Kombat: The Guy and Illiterate Australian and Hot Sister In A Shit Wig to beat up stop-motion demons on motorcycles in The Thunderdome. Without trying to sound condescending, the film's actual plot and execution look similar to what an energetic four year old with a box of unrelated action figures might come up with after downing his first espresso: It's full of its own logic that escapes everyone around him, but it's so damned compelling and full of explosions and things that make you try not to lulz all over yourself, all you can do is pick up a Thundercat and a Pokemon and join him.

Logic, continuity, and any concept of film criticism are all irrelevant here. Seriously, just look at this fucking box art and tell me what the ghost of Roger Ebert would say that wouldn't just be a noise you'd try to translate back into various question marks and exasperated hand-signals.

"What the hell am I supposed to... wait, you can actually hear me?!"
- Anonymous Ghost Review

MANBORG is exactly what you think it is, and if you can see the trailer and not instantly know if you'll love it or hate it... there's really nothing I can say to sway you either way. So, much to my chagrin, I actually bought this on DVD. For $10 I'm not about to bitch, it's just a bit surprising that Dark Sky would skip on even offering this title in HD! WVG Media in Germany has already released the film as MANBORG: RETTER DER ZUKUNFT ("Savior of the Future!") - leaving American fans high and dry for a 1080p release to go with their Father's Day limited edition combo pack. Thankfully, the wonder of The Internets allowed me to get my hands on the German import Blu-ray from WVG Media... that said, the results may surprise you. They sure surprised the hell out of me.

Let's start with the home team, so to speak. Dark Sky presents the film on an NTSC DVD with Dolby Digital stereo audio and optional English subtitles. The word "competent" springs to mind; there's really nothing special these days about any NTSC DVD with the threat of an 1080p Blu-ray looming over its shoulder, but the SD release looks perfectly fine for a DVD, if not particularly awe-inspiring. As is typically the case it's been low-pass filtered, which blurs color and leaves ringing on high contrast edges, but I'd be willing to bet the number of DVD releases without this encoding "process" can be counted on fingers and toes. While the disc is technically interlaced, there is no visible interlacing, and every 5th frame is repeated (rather than being a 24fps file that plays back at 30fps due to flagging) -obviously, it hasn't done anything to help the compression, but it's not deal breaker. Just a technical oddity most people will probably never  notice.

Half the cover promises that you can reverse it.
Only in the Father Land...

WVG's German import Blu-ray release sends off some red flags with mention on the box of it being a 1080i transfer - and a 1080i 25fps "PAL HD" one, at that. Another oddity is that while the German disc has a runtime of 62 minutes, the Dark Sky release has a runtime of 72! What the hell, right? Well, before we get into the technical disparities, we have to talk about the presentation itself. The German BD features just the film - it starts with the Raven Banner logo, plays Manborg proper, and once the film's over... well, the film's over and the disc goes back to the main menu.

The US release begins with a mock-VHS notice to "Stay tuned after the feature for upcoming titles!" slate, then you get the movie proper... and afterwards, you're treated to a 6 minute short called BIO-COP, a faux-Grindhouse style trailer for a movie that... well, I don't want to spoil the whole joke, but suffice to say BIO-COP is so great it kind of justifies picking up the R1 DVD all by itself. It's that fucking good. The other 3 or 4 minutes or so boil down to a bi-lingual English/French anti-piracy warning that starts out again feeling like a VHS relic, and quickly turns into a ridiculously long-winded tongue in cheek jab at how - and why - these laws exist exist in the first place.

In short, Manborg itself is identical in content in both Germany and North America, but the R1 DVD is the full fledged "VHS experience", and - considering the already ridiculous, intentionally silly nature of the feature - seems to be exactly how Astron-6 would want you to see it.

UPDATE: Thanks to spannick, who sent me THIS German language comparison between the German Blu-ray and the American DVD, which - as far as I know - didn't exist when most of this was written. As far as I can tell, the German Blu-ray/DVD release is the unedited 2011 version, while the American DVD is actually a brand new 2013 "Director's Cut" of the film with about 104 seconds of new material edited into it, even aside from BIO-COP and the Faux-VHS "Experience" material book-ending the DVD I did immediately recognize. Most of it is "Blink And You'll Miss It" easter egg fun - head explosions, complicated future doors, a Jumbo-Tron introduction, silly crap like that - but it does make me feel just a bit sheepish for assuming the two were exactly the same as opposted to almost the same.

Bonus features also differ, though both releases cover quite a bit of common ground. The US and German versions each feature a Behind the Scenes short, Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, and original trailers in NTSC and PAL, respectively. The US release ups the ante pretty quick by including two feature commentaries with the director (one solo and one with his co-horts), a Visual Effects Reel and Stop Motion Reel, a number of short interviews with the crew behind the film, a Film Premier Q and A Panel, and finally another short film, "Fantasy Beyond", which is a fun distraction for about 8 minutes to anyone with a forgiving boner towards low-budget claymation.

So! About that German Blu-ray, since - as nice as all those R1 bonus features sound - the transfer fidelity is really what I'm most interested in. For one thing, the German disc includes both English and German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, which trounces the US release's Dolby Stereo track kind of by default. But why on earth is the transfer 1080i25? For that matter, does an HD master for a micro-budget schlock film shot in 2009 even exist? Well... the answer's complicated, so let me use screenshots to try and fill in the gaps.


Alright, this establishes - just as a base line - that the German release WAS pulled from a 1080i HD master. The test is clearly sharper and cleaner on the Blu-ray cap, and this becomes substantially more dramatic on the ED credits. So the knee-jerk reaction would be - based on this comparison, at any rate - to import the Blu-ray, right? Sharper! Cleaner! HD, MOTHER FUCKERS!

Well... let's look a few more caps before y'all bum-rush Amazon Germany.

Well that... kinda looks like ass, doesn't it? You're probably thinking that's just a weird one off, but I'm sad to say that the German BD appears to be a 1080i30 > 1080i25 standards conversion. In other words, it's a High Definition NTSC to PAL conversion, with all the frame blending, interlacing and other related problems we expect from its SD counterparts. Oh, boy!

You'd think that if nothing else, the higher bandwidth of the "Faux HD" version would avoid compression and have better grain retention than its SD counterpart. You would be very wrong. As this comparison shows, the BD's blended, ghosted framerate conversion have oblitherated any hope of keeping resolution on any part of the screen that's in motion. The BD does have stronger resolution on totally static areas - like the opening titles! - but in every other way, it's either equal to, or even worse than, its American DVD counterpart.

As you can see, while the BD may have the slight advantage in compression, most of that effort is wasted on the fact that MANBORG appears to have been created almost exclusively from low-quality digital elements already rife with compression artifacts, banding, aliasing, chroma issues and other digital debauchery that I'd all but expect from a film made for what is, as I understand it, about the price of a McDonalds dinner for a family of five in Canada. Fuck it, let's do one more quick comparison and call this a day:

It's pretty safe to say that, with the odd exception of the graphic overlays for the opening and ending titles, MANBORG was shot on SD video. If it was shot in HD, I hate to tell them this, but there's literally no difference between the upscaled R1 DVD and the 1080i HD Blu-ray in terms of detail on any of the live action footage,  stop motion animation or CG VFX. Calling the Manborg BD an "Upscale" isn't quite true because, basically, it was a legit HD master created almost exclusively from SD materials, the same way a 35mm negative might be made from raw 16mm blow-ups. Does that make sense? And when you get down to it, should we consider the difference in the material's favor? The credits would be crisper on Blu-ray, but otherwise everything would pretty much look identical to what we have now, minor gains in compression and colorspace aside.

Having pulled the DVD transfer apart in AVISynth, I'm convinced a 1080p 24 HD master could be created based on whatever Astron-6 has in their possession. It wouldn't look good, exactly, but it could certainly be an improvement over the shoddy German presentation, who's sole positive attribute is lossless 5.1 audio - so, until a "perfect" release exists, we're caught between an SD rock and an HD hard place. I almost never say this, but under the circumstances I'd recommend anyone interested in the film pick up the Dark Sky DVD over the WMG Blu-ray; the "HD" transfer is really more problematic than it is an improvement over the DVD release, and the wealth of R1 exclusive bonus features outweigh anything I'd have to say about the German audio bump. Plus, it's ten fucking dollars. What else were you gonna do with that cash?

I can't defend the film any more than I can criticize it; Sometimes, a movie just is what it is, and it so happens that this one is glorious at being everything it wants to be and absolutely nothing else. I fully expect some of you to think I must wear a hockey helmet for recommending MANBORG, but it's cut from the same tongue in cheek cloth as the similarly fantastic FARCRY 3: BLOOD DRAGON, which was basically the best $15 I've spent in at least a year. While I'm sad that on the last comparison I made with an Astron-6 feature I'd say "get the other one", this time, I'd say get both. Totally worth the combined $25.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Burning My Last Bridges

Just a week ago, I gave Scream Factory's Phantasm II SE Blu-ray a sound cock-lashing. To be fair, however, Shout Factory kinda' deserved it; that HD master is older than some of you probably reading this, and while I applaud them for creating a mountain of relevant bonus features, a crappy transfer is still a crappy transfer.

Was it actually upscaled? No, I'll give the devil his due and say that, while horrifically crumby, it was indeed an HD master, one that Universal must have minted at least a decade ago. Between the massive pasty DVNR and the total lack of anything resembling focus or image stablility, it may as well have been a DVD with lossless audio.

Because this is probably the only key art left I haven't thrown up yet.

That said, I am a reasonable man, and reasonable men pre-order the shit out of discs when the caps don't look terrible. THE BURNING is making the review circuit as we speak, with both HIGH DEF DIGEST and BLU-RAY.COM posting very enticing 1080p samples. I've thrown my $20 at Scream Factory for he privelage, and having spent more than that to see a vintage 35mm UK print at a local theater last October (which was promised "uncut" but was still missing two shots of the Raft Murder... *grumble-grumble*), I have no doubt that the quality of the BD presentation is going to be the best viewing I've ever had.

Scream Factory has done plenty of decent to fine work with HALLOWEEN III and FROM BEYOND. By all counts, they've done an equally great job with films that even they probably didn't care too much about (DEATH VALLEY says "hey"). When I say Phantasm II sucks monkey shit, I'm not doing it to troll or because I want unwashed neckbeards to call me one. It's because it actually sucks. It's entirely possible to hate a particular release from a label that happens to release the titles you want and still not hold a grudge or vendetta against them for everything else. As if I had enough energy left to start another holy war after burying what was left of Media Blaster's credibility... *ahem!*

Fun Fact: This should surprise no one, but just so we're clear, I don't get free shit. I don't even make money on Amazon links, or web traffic, or... anything. When I write about a disc, it's me wasting my own free time I could be spending playing video games or having sex with my wife or eating something covered in chocolate or, whatever, with no tangible reward. I do it because I care. Or I care enough to bitch about it. Whatever dude, you decide what to make of my own sense of self-worth.

The point is most people who say "This looks fantastic!" are, directly or not, getting freebies and/or kick-backs to do it. That doesn't make them bad people or their opinions invalid, but it does put pressure on them to look on the brighter side of things, particularly when we're talking about a relationship where one shitty review can screw them out of every concurrent title from that same studio. I'm not trying to get all high and mighty with what I do when I make poop jokes over an old HDCAM master, or suggest that home video review is a sham or anything overtly nefarious here - I just want there to be a little context into why I can sit here and bitch about a title looking "meh" and focusing on what went wrong - or more importantly, why it went wrong - even when the consensus might be that the disc is decent, if not perfect. I'm not paid to look on the bright side because, frankly, I'm not paid at all.

So, before anyone else decides they need to call me a dick-punch for... I dunno, having moderately high standards, I guess? The fact is I actually like Scream Factory. I think they usually do a fine job with the titles they pick up, and I'm legitimately excited that they're giving obscure and, at times, downright forgotten films their restored High Definition due, even if I don't want the majority of them personally. Their compression isn't the best in the industry, I admit, but it's not terrible either - Severin's current MPEG2 output is notably worse, as is pretty much anything 1080i Sentai's crapping out. The real problem is when they're handed a crappy master, they release a crappy product, because they don't see the need to make a new one from scratch - not when you can boost color and remove scratches for a fraction of the price, anyway!

It's sad that they won't pay to make a new transfer when the materials are actually that bad, but... well, what the fuck else are we going to expect? I'm sure the biggest Scream Factory titles hasn't sold more than a couple thousand copies on Blu-ray and DVD combined, and if the people who actually love Phantasm II are happy with the shitty transfer we saw, clearly the core demographic will take anything over nothing at all. I get it. It's sad, but that's exactly where the market is right now.

Oh, while we're on the subject of Scream Factory and it's sliding scale of greatness, SWAMP THING is coming soon and it's going to be the less tit-filled "Wes Craven Approved" USA Version, not the extended European version. I'd probably be more upset if... well y'know, if it wasn't fucking Wes Craven's Swamp Thing movie, a flick that's only particularly notable for the failed revival of the tie-in comics having led whackadoo Alan Moore to dump his unfiltered creativity in what DC saw as a corpse floating in the water, revitalizing the entire industry purely by accident. It was also the book that Rick Vetich got his ass fired for, and in a fit or rage he published The Brat Pack on his own, just to spite DC. You should really read that, world. Brat Pack is fuck'n awesome.

Where the fuck is this movie, Hollywood superhero machine?

Still, if jiggly bits are a deal breaker, save your money. If nothing else the footage should be included as a bonus feature, but I'm sure they're trying to keep that "PG" rating on the box without needing to plaster a bunch of "BONUS FEATURES CONTAIN UNRATED MATERIAL!!" boxes every which way. Arrow Video's also got this on tap, but there's so far no word on if they'll include all the mammaries either.

EDIT [5/17]: Dang! I've been informed by Arrow Video that they do not currently own the rights to SWAMP THING, which I can only chalk up to having mentally folded Shout's Factory's announcement into Arrow's own recent massive title list - sorry for that, guys! And, while I've got that on my mind, wow, I excited to see DERANGED uncut on BD!

Also, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. Yeah. There's really nothing more to add, except holy shit, Ninja 3? On Blu-ray? In North America!? Sweet. Now, why the other two Sho Kosugi Ninja flicks - not to mention the goddamn BREAKIN' movies! - are currently only available on BD in Germany, I couldn't even begin to tell you.

But whatever. The Burning. The Mother Fucking BURNING comes out next week. Put your pre-orders in now, and pick up whatever Scream Factory titles you've been putting off up until now... odds are that's as good as that flick's ever going to get, regardless of which end of the spectrum that disc is on.

Sunday, May 05, 2013


Full disclosure: I don't own Scream Factory's new Special Edition Blu-ray release of PHANTASM II. I've actually never seen the sequels to Phantasm, which I'd always hoped would fix itself by way of nice context-fueled special editions, but Scream Factory discs are rare in local shops and I'm slowly gravitating away from ordering everything now that 90% of what I want is readily available close by. In other words, this is something I've been eyeing for a while, but have yet to pull the trigger on.

With that in mind, I really can't comment on the disc proper, and as such you should take anything I have to say as the word of a casual observer looking at other people's examples. I can't say if the disc is a train wreck because I don't own it, and I want everyone who reads the following paragraphs to keep that fact in mind.

That said, CAPS-A-HOLIC has done a 1:1 comparison with the Anchor Bay UK DVD, and... I refuse to stamp this as a you-know-what without owning the disc myself to examine it in detail, but suffice to say, these comparisons are incredibly damning. If anything, the UK DVD caps appear to have more detail on close ups and less in the way of clipped highlights... and I have a theory as to why. Again, theory - don't own the disc, didn't make the comparison. Just calling this as I see it.

So, let's say you have a decent PAL Digibeta source. You can upscale it to 1080p using a smart-sharpening filter that warps edges to be slightly crisper, but you'll still have to crop off the edges to avoid vertical blanking info and any other distortions associated with SD video. Then, you can process the "HD" master using scratch repair filters on the upsampled master, which produces MORE SUBTLE ARTIFACTS than if you were to simply run an SD scratch repair filter. That said, it'll still SMOOTH OVER THE GRAIN SLIGHTLY, leaving slightly less detail than if you'd left well enough alone. You can tweak colors and contrast to your liking, though if you don't keep tabs on the levels you could end up with CLIPPED WHITES and COLOR CASTS that look... unnatural, is a nice way of putting it.

Not that this is an upscale of a PAL SD master. There's just... nothing about these comparisons especially suggesting that it's not. THIS SHOT is the absolute best I can come up with, and if that's as good as it gets and it is from a dated HD source, we may have another Re-Animator or Versus level master on our hands, a D5 tape so unimpressive that it's improvement over NTSC is marginal, at best.

Make of that whatever you like, I'm kind of done. Just pointing out these obvious weaknesses and letting everyone else make up their own minds.

Come to think of it, this reminds me of that Euro HD master for THE FOG that, despite wiping the floor with the piss poor R1 release, was clearly a PAL master converted to 1080p by less than ethical means. It's also worth noting that Scream Factory's parent company, Shout Factory, has released several Jackie Chan BD double features using crumby SD upscales provided by the film's distributors Fortune Star, so clearly they're "willing" to resort to upscales when that's what they're given.

Much as I want to give Cliff the benefit of the doubt on this one, there's just NO DEFENDING THIS CRAP as anything but an upscaled DVD master.

If you want to own Phantasm II, this is clearly the release to get - nothing else is even worth mentioning, even if this isn't an ideal presentation. That said, if you really want to throw money at something that might, potentially, further Don Coscarelli's zany career, go buy JOHN DIES AT THE END on Blu-ray instead. It's really fun!

UPDATE: According to Cliff MacMillan, head of Scream Factory (Shout Factory's cult-horror division), and I quote:

"It's an HD transfer approved by the Don Coscarelli." 

I want to believe him, and it's not as if Universal is well known for keeping high quality HD masters of its less-than-top tier catalog titles on hand, but... well, for reference, I thought that THEY LIVE was an "okay" transfer at best (and isn't even as nice as the Italian BD), and yet THIS is how dramatic an improvement it has over the old PAL DVD.

Further muddying the waters was a PM that "CMAC" sent to another forum member, which was reposted, and then quickly deleted from the thread afterward when asked if Shout Factory knowingly released NTSC upscales on Blu-ray for their recent batch of Jackie Chan double features:

"These are the master furnished to us by Fortune Star. I questioned them regarding them being uprez SD transfers and they told me "no, they were transfers done in Canada a few years ago".

It's bad business to say "Sorry, all the fan boys say you are lying that these are SD masters"

Should I contact them and tell them they are liars?"

I'll not call the man a liar, only point out that, if true, this film is sorely in need of a new HD telecine. At this rate, I might need to get my hands on the disc proper just to do some proper experiments...

Kids on the Slippery Slope: Sentai Filmworks and Blu-ray Shenanigans

I'm just going to throw this out here as a point of reference; KIDS ON THE SLOPE/坂道のアポロン didn't sound the least bit interesting to me at the moment when it came out. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and having been directed by Shinichiro WATANABE and featuring Yoko KANNO's jazz as a key selling point, odds are it's a masterpiece... it just came out at a time when a light drama about teens in the 60s singing in Engrish wasn't something that sounded fun to watch. At all. Being in a bad place emotionally makes me crave Human Centipede 2 and Bad Lieutenant, not Forrest Gump and The Majestic, so that has far more to do with how I was feeling than the show itself. Isn't subjective opinion an ass like that?

In short, I'm sure it's fantastic, but there's a time for I Stand Alone and there's a time for Ted. For me personally one year ago, the notion of the director of Cowboy Bebop making a coming of age show about kids singing in broken Engrish was just not what I needed, and so I've quietly decided to wait for Sentai Filmworks to do their thing and release the show on Blu-ray... and then, Sentai fucked up. Which they do a lot when I'm not paying much attention - more on that in a minute or two.

In the case of Kids on the Slope, episode 11 is MONO LT ONLY on the JP track. This is not the typical "2CH MONO" method, where the stereo track has been mixed down into a single mono track and repeated in both channels - you have half the stereo mix on the Left track, while the Right track is dead silent. It just isn't there. The other 11 episodes appear to be fine, making this oddity all the more frustrating.

If this were a one time flub I... well, I'd still argue that whoever does Sentai Filmworks/Maiden Japan's authoring should potentially be drawn and quartered for something as obvious as not having a complete, functioning stereo track, but I'd inevitably shrug it off and remind myself that every genre friendly studio - FUNimation, Media Blasters, Discotek, Magnolia, Shout Factory, Dark Sky, you name it - have made honest mistakes at one point or another, and while major issues should be recalled and fixed, a single, minor fuck-up here and there is going to happen, and with sales in the toilet, they have even less incentive to replace them than they did a few years ago. I accept that, and can try to ignore it, so long as it's just that: An isolated mistake, not a constant string of poor quality control.

In short, I'd be more forgiving if TOKYO MAGNITUDE 8.0/東京マグニチュード8.0 didn't have the exact same problem on Episode 8.

And episode 12 of THE WORLD GOD ONLY KNOWS/神のみぞ知るセカイ. Yes, seriously. Three titles and counting.

And as for HORIZON IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE/境界線上のホライゾン, the problem is no less awful, it's just even more shocking that it even happened. The second half of episode 7 was only pre-rendered before encoding, meaning it shifts down to 360p, sub-DVD resolution. On the mother fucking 1080p Blu-ray. Have a PEEK if you don't believe me for some reason.

And for the record, no, none of these problems are on the standard definition DVD releases. They were solely authoring glitches on the BD end, and Sentai has consistently offered short, professional eMails basically saying "It is what it is, and it isn't getting fixed."

This is all ignoring the general shittiness of their 1080i products, which are slowly taking over the label's output. PENGUIN DRUM, BODACIOUS SPACE PIRATES, TOKYO MAGNITUDE 8.0, DREAM EATER MERRY, and KAMISAMA DOLLS are all 1080i60 encodes Stateside despite their JP equivalents being 1080p24. They're crappy 1080i encodes, too, with moderate to severe artifacting on consistent motion, which even's REVIEWS are incapable of avoiding (despite the fact that the reviewer gave the disc a 4 out of 5 for video quality). FATE/STAY NIGHT and CANAAN are both 1080i releases, though at least that's true in Japan as well; I can't really fault Sentai Filmworks for using what already exists, but I can certainly give them shit for using inferior 1080i broadcast materials when 1080p home video materials do exist. When this happens, you buy the JP Blu-rays and re-encode 1080p transfers in-house. If the contracts say you can only use the material you were handed and you're a stickler for details, then you only sign contracts that demand 1080p materials.  It's pretty goddamn straight forward.

There's also that mostly forgotten and never once screen-capped FIST OF THE NORTH STAR: LEGEND OF THE DARK KINGS set which is supposedly 1080p on disc 1 and 1080i on disc 2, and almost surely an SD upscale to boot; I bought the subtitled DVD set for a song, and thinking the show is pretty crap to start with I'm in no hurry to re-buy an expensive release for the sole purpose of seeing just how bad it really is. I may have to cover that hot wet mess eventually, if for no other reason that it's clear nobody else is ever going to.

There's also the PERSONA 4: THE ANIMATION Blu-ray, which is dub-only despite the DVD being a proper bilingual release. Obviously this is a licensor limitation - not a "glitch" in the traditional sense, but at that point, is a Blu-ray even worth releasing? They certainly skipped BD rights on my beloved QWASER OF STIGMATA, so it's not as if HD materials are a flat requirement... part of me is incredibly bitter that the greatest piece of fanservice-satire-overload in the history of the medium is only available on DVD, but then again, if this is how they treat their premium content perhaps it was all for the best? Is it better to shrug off a release entirely than have it and be forced to bitch about it for hours on end? Oh yeah, no BD for MARIA+HOLIC ALIVE was a kick in the dick, too, particularly when we all learned that the first season was rendered in HD as well and would have given Sentai Filmworks the perfect excuse to re-release the first half of the series on BD, too.

This show is amazing. I stand by it 100%.

Keep in mind that the last two Sentai titles I bought - GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES and NINJA SCROLL - were perfectly fine, free of both authoring glitches or notable audio/video quality differences when compared to the super expensive Japanese imports. HIGHSCHOOL OF THE DEAD, one of their earliest releases, is a great release and I'm happy to have it on my shelf. Word is their just-released PATLABOR: EARLY DAYS OVA collection is similarly fine (though not owning a copy yet, I can't say one way or the other). And it's perhaps that inconsistency that's the most damning aspect of all; I simply refuse to pre-order anything from the splintered remnants of who I still think of as AD Vision, and going out of my way to support a company that so consistently shits the bed on their home video release as hard as these guys do isn't something I can convince myself is worth spending money on - not unless I know it's not a clusterfuck going in.

Shitty 1080i encodes already has me hesitant on both Bodacious Space Pirates and Penguin Drum, but the shows themselves are supposed to be so goddamn good I'm probably going to crack next time I see them on sale. Kids on the Slope and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0? No thanks, Sentai. Y'all can keep your shitty MONO LEFT tracks. Managing to create audio fuck-ups worse than Media Blasters wallowed in nearly 10 years ago is a clear violation of that line.

I don't want anyone reading this to flatly refuse to buy Sentai Filmworks/Maiden Japan titles, because when they don't fuck up their discs are just good as anything FUNimation puts out... I just want them to keep their eyes peeled on reviews, and know if they're supporting a major fuck-up or not before you throw $50 at a company that may or may not have earned it. Alternately, everything these guys are releasing on their streaming service THE ANIME NETWORK, and at least if the stream is fucked up you only paid $6.95 for a month of unlimited access. Just fit in 13 episodes a week and you'll have seen over $200 worth of problematic Blu-ray content for less than the cost of a Carl's Jr meal!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Cry For Bloody Vengeance, yeah, my evening's kind of a huge, wet, smelly cunt. Downloading FAR CRY 3: BLOOD DRAGON for the second time tonight, whilst Mrs. Kentai is on her second hour of playing motherfucking SIMCITY 2013, which was also purchased this very day. Irony? I could give it to you wholesale right now.

The biggest slap in the dick is the fact that Steam and "Uplay" - yes, a DRM scheme you run from Steam, as if goddamn Xzbit himself is now working for Ubisoft to put DRM in yer DRM - both claim I've played the fucker for about 45 minutes when, in reality, I maybe got a whopping 5 minutes in before the game crashed, and promptly refused to start again after a reboot.

Guess I have the excuse I've needed to go all Scorched Earth on this mother fucker, including a new MoBo, 3TB HDD and clean Windows 7 64-bit install. "Real Life" keeps rearing its ugly head and convincing me it's something that can wait until next weekend, but if I can't get my FC3:BD on, real life can go mother fuck itself.

In lighter news, I bought a DVD! No, really, an NTSC DVD of a film that just came out for purchase. Why on Earth would I do that, particularly when it's a title I already have a Blu-ray copy of!? Well friends, we'll have a lot to talk about next time... and, actually, the flick is basically a perfect match with Blood Dragon. Separated at birth, you could say.

Alright, let's see what happens... your move, Uplay.