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.


spannick said...

did you notice the German Disc is censored?

German, but the Pix & Runtimes are enough to see what's missing.

(sorry if you did notice, had no time to read the whole article)

Kentai 拳態 said...

I don't think that the German BD is "censored", so much as it appears to be an earlier, shorter cut of the film itself. Let us not forget that FATHER'S DAY was given an extended cut, but supposedly Troma fucked up and released the initial theatrical version by mistake. Not sure how much of that's 100% true, but it's clear Troma and Astron-6 were pretty goddamn fed up with one another when all was said and done.

Looks like the 105 seconds or so are mostly inserts. In any case the cuts weren't made by the FSK board. I've updated the write-up to show the differences - thanks, spannick!

And Demon, could you be any more glad that you 'settled' for the DVD now? ^_~

Anonymous said...

When the US DVD was announced, Astron-6 confirmed on their facebook page that Manborg was indeed shot in SD, which is why there was no blu-ray version.

Kentai 拳態 said...

The credits on the German BD suggest they tried to "fake" an HD master at one point or another, but with Astron-6 confirming the lack of a BD is due to the materials being less than ideal I certainly won't fault them for that. I do wonder if BIO-COP was shot in HD, though... maybe we'll see that as a bonus feature on a later HD production?

(Also, apologies to DEMON who's post got eaten when I was clearing out dozens of spambot posts. Sorry, buddy!)

Demon said...

MY POSTS!!! Just kidding.

In other news, MANBORG came out on blu-ray in Japan. As I am now in the business of importing and selling DVDs and blu-rays, I had to know what was up so I bought a copy. I think it is the definitive version, hands down. Here are the specs: Region Free, English: DTS-HD MA 2.0, Subtitles: Japanese (removable), 1080p, Special Features: Audio Commentary, Astron-6 Shorts/Trailers (BIO-COP, FIREMAN, LAZER GHOSTS 2: RETURN TO LASER COVE, FANTASY BEYOND), Deleted & Extended Scenes, Behind The Scenes, Bloopers, Music Video, VFX Montage, Original Trailer, Japanese Trailer, Cast/Crew Interviews. I think it looks great and it has the most extras out of any of the other releases. Shame it is so damn expensive, but I am glad I bought it. Now, hopefully someone will buy the other copy I have up on eBay :)