Saturday, January 31, 2015

redvsblue Season 1 Remastered

It is hard to believe how fast time flies. Can you believe it has been nearly 12 years since the debut of the web series, redvsblue? In case you are not familiar with the series, it is from the folks at Rooster Teeth Productions and was one of the first online series made entirely out of a videogame engine and helped kick off the genre that came to be known as ‘machinima.’ Part of the reason they exploded with popularity was because they filmed the game capturing footage from the most popular game at the time on the original Xbox, Halo. They quickly caught the eye of Halo’s publisher, Microsoft, and instead of facing a cease and desist order they were surprisingly able to collaborate and have been pumping out new episodes and seasons of content ever since.

Every year Rooster Teeth assembles a season’s worth of episodes and releases them on DVD. I owned the first several seasons on DVD, as I initially was a big fan of the show and did a yearly sponsorship for Rooster Teeth where you would get first access to HD videos online before everyone else and at the end of the season they would mail me the annual DVD for free. After a couple seasons they stopped that nice perk of the free DVD, and the story kept getting more convoluted and harder for me to follow as the years went on. By season four I was not rushing to watch the newest video they put out on the day of release and I dropped my sponsorship and instead would bank several episodes at a time to the point they were getting to be a chore to watch. I believe I stepped away from the show a few episodes into season five if I remember correctly.

A couple years ago Rooster Teeth remastered all the early seasons of redvsblue in HD and released the first 10 seasons as a big compilation on BluRay for their 10 year anniversary in 2013. The set went for a pretty high amount, but a few months ago Amazon had a cannot miss lightning deal on it and I could not help but snatch it up. I traded in all my old DVDs of the first few seasons upon getting the prettier BluRay release, and am going to try and watch a season a month and update on it here. Hopefully going back into this with a fresh set of eyes all these years later will reinvigorate my interest for the show and I will finally see what transpired where I left off around season five.

It is worth noting here you can catch most individual episodes of redvsblue for free on their website or YouTube channel. I recommend the home video releases because it features smooth transitions between the three to five minute episodes and a whole season plays out like a seamless hour and a half movie instead of having to deal with opening and closing musical interludes on each episode.

The subtitle for the first few seasons of redvsblue is The Blood Gulch Chronicles, and that is because it takes place on the insanely popular map of the first Halo, Blood Gulch (season one trailer). I do remember one of the classic opening lines of the very first episode being, “Why are we here?” as two red soldiers, Grif (Geoff Ramsey)and Simmons (Gustavo Sorola) ponder their existence in what appears to be a random meaningless canyon defending their base from a squad of blue soldiers on the other end. The scene is a well crafted preview of the series being mostly dialogue driven, and more focused on the day-to-day shenanigans and unique soldiers that populate Blood Gulch.

That is not to say there is no action, because whenever a melee does erupt, there usually is some kind of storyline reason behind it. For example, based on a hazing ritual fluke, new red recruit Donut (Dan Godwin) winds up with the blue base flag. The blue soldiers make haste in pursuit, with Caboose (Joel Heyman) having all sorts of trouble providing back up in their Scorpion tank that has a lovely voice providing not-so-helpful tutorials who Caboose refers to as Sheila (Yomary Cruz), aka “The lady inside the tank.” Things only get bonkers for the blue team going forwards with an undesirable fate for Church (Burnie Burns), who is quickly replaced by freelancer, Tex (Kathleen Zuelch), who has her own unique set of circumstances and back story she brings to the table.

The red team also has a very interesting set of characters besides Grif, Donut and Simmons. They are headed up by a soldier simply going by Sarge (Matt Hullum) who loves to raise hell and is my pick for most entertaining character of the series, and also have an assistant android going by Lopez who is voiceless for a majority of the season. My good memories of the first season still hold up upon this repeat viewing because of how self contained it is taking place almost entirely on the Blood Gulch map, and it had a simple story of mostly another day in the life of the reds and blues going at it over the most trivial of things. Things open up far more in the coming seasons, especially with Tex’s back story being a huge impetus on the grander story at large in the following seasons that are hinted at as we learn bits and pieces of her origin story in this season. But for this first season it is just a bunch of good old fashioned craziness on Blood Gulch, and I understand they could not do that for every season, and am looking forward on giving the series a second chance all these years later to see where they go after I left off.

The first season of redvsblue was initially shot in standard definition with the first Halo on original Xbox. For this BluRay remaster, they used the PC edition that came out a couple years later and features a higher definition of resolution, and more options for camera angles that are less restrictive than the ones available in the initial Xbox release. For example, Halo multiplayer on Xbox required at least two players so Rooster Teeth had to always crop one half of the split screen and presented it in a super narrow letterbox format, and there was no way to hide the mildly distracting target reticule. I threw in the DVD of the first season for the first few scenes to show to a friend before trading it in last year, and it does not hold up when played back on a HD television and looks rather fuzzy on modern sets. This new remastered BluRay looks smashing in comparison, and it was cool to see Rooster Teeth implement some more subtle camera tricks they learned in later seasons to provide for some more dynamic looking shots that made the first season pop out a little more than before.

This BluRay contains all the previously released extra features, as well as one new bonus. There are several minutes of outtakes of blown shots and cuts that were a hoot to relive. There are also six Public Service Announcement (PSA) videos, where the reds and blues attempt to shed some wisdom on matters like getting tattoos and movie piracy affecting their DVD sales of which none existed at the time. I remember the DVDs were originally loaded with hidden easter eggs, and I tried hunting for some on the BluRay by mindlessly flapping away at my BluRay remote on every option choice, but did not run across one. I guess I got out of the habit of looking for easter eggs in the transition to BluRay and streaming video several years ago, but hopefully they are tucked away somewhere on here. There are two commentary tracks, one with the cast and crew’s original recording in 2003, and a new one for this HD remaster. I listened to the new commentary, and it was actually entertaining all the way through since it features around five or six of the Rooster Teeth crew almost nonstop chatting away reliving their favorite scenes and providing a lot of technical details on how they went about capturing footage with the PC version of Halo. Being a fan of the game, it was fascinating to see them go in depth about the various camera options available and the ordeals they persevered through in order to set up and capture an ambitious shot.

I had a feeling this initial blog for the first redvsblue season was going to be a doozy, but I had no idea it would approach a 1,600 word count. I apologize for providing probably too much background on the origins of Rooster Teeth and redvsblue, but it felt like a necessary evil and I promise all future installments will (probably) be much shorter comparison. I remember talking to a few other friends and colleagues in recent years who at one point watched the show, and a lot of them only stuck around for the first season before dropping off, so the show is not for everybody. I threw in the season one DVD for a friend last year for about the first 15 minutes and he thought it felt a bit too slow-paced for him to get into. Before dropping any money on the DVDs or BluRays, if you have not experienced the show definitely get a taste by checking out individual episodes for free on the Rooster Teeth website or YouTube channel.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wrestling Road Diaries Too

Most of the wrestling documentaries I own are made by WWE, but every now and again an indy made documentary gathers some good buzz and catches my eye. Some past prime examples I recommend are Heroes of World Class and Forever Hardcore. A few years ago Colt Cabana, Bryan Danielson and Sal Rinauro documented a couple weeks on the indy wrestling road circuit and titled it The Wrestling Road Diaries. Its innovative concept made it one of my favorite wrestling documentaries yet, and I was delighted the sequel, Wrestling Road Diaries Too (trailer) came out in 2014 featuring a week on tour with Colt Cabana (former WWE star Scotty Goldman), Cliff Compton (former WWE Tag Team champ, Domino) and Big LG (former WWE star Festus/Luke Gallows).

I absolutely loved the first film since it was three rather jovial and upbeat fellows you can tell loved their craft no matter what rinky-dink small town or gymnasium they were performing in. This cast for the sequel still loves their craft, but as Cliff Compton put it in one of the extra features, this is more of an "outlaw" version of the first film when the first had the cast in primarily high spirits.

The film starts off in Colt's native Chicago where he meets up with Cliff and LG, and right away you can tell this is going to be an interesting journey because LG just suffered a groin tear in his last match and is determined to make his dates and film the rest of the documentary. LG and Cliff bring a more wild card dynamic to the mix compared to Sal and Bryan in the last film. These two are a bit more rowdy and pull no punches in vile ribs on each other and making it seem you need a high tolerance of good natured clowning around to hang with.

For the audience that does not keep up with the indy wrestling scene, but are curious on what these three guys made of their WWE careers, the film answers that every few scenes by jumping to a random cut with one of the three who pauses to reflect back on their short WWE runs on what did and did not work and how their love for the business keeps them going on the indy circuit. These were really fascinating parts of the documentary as all three show huge amounts of introspection on what they made of their careers thus far and sound genuinely passionate that they keep doing this for as long as their bodies will let them.

The film still gives plenty of time to what I loved about the first film, and that is the lifestyle of traveling to all these small towns and venues. The trio meets plenty of unique characters throughout their travels, and I applaud them for dedicating the movie to a man named Tex that they meet in the middle of the street. I will not even spoil a detail about the mesmerizing Tex, you will have to watch for yourselves to find out all about him! The three get across that one of the highs being on the indy circuit is more time hanging with the fans before and after the show. The fans they interact with are nearly as entertaining as the wrestlers and you can never tell what kind of reaction they would greet them with, which only made the film more spontaneous and enjoyable.

As I alluded to in the intro though, not all is well this time around as the film periodically checks in with LG's groin tear to see it getting worse and worse. I could not help but feel for the guy, and was finally elated to see him get medical attention towards the end of the tour. As unfortunate as this journey was for LG, a little part of me was glad we got to see a glimpse into the dark side of life on the road as a wrestler just so everyone knows that there are the good and bad days to the sport.

You can buy both Wrestling Road Diaries films on their official website for $20, but I highly suggest you shell out an extra $5 for the bonus disc that is available for both films. On the sequel's bonus disc, there is just under an hour of deleted scenes that were highly entertaining and range from random BS sessions on the road to more one-on-one sit down sessions with the three talking about their early days in the industry. In addition to that, there is a bonus video version of Colt's podcast, The Art of Wrestling, recorded in a local Chicago comic book shop with the three where they shed some behind-the-scenes wisdom and do a little Q&A with fans in the shop that lasts a little over an hour. Add it up and is nearly an extra two hours and fifteen minutes of quality content for only an extra $5.

As much as I enjoy most of WWE's documentaries, it is refreshing to step outside their perspective to get an outsider's look at the industry. Wrestling Road Diaries Too is the perfect version of that perspective! If you do not own either installments, I highly recommend getting both to see what life is like for the stars that could not quite make it in the WWE.

Past Wrestling Blogs

Best of WCW Monday Nitro Volume 2
Biggest Knuckleheads
Bobby The Brain Heenan
For All Mankind
Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection
Ladies and Gentlemen My Name is Paul Heyman
Legends of Mid South Wrestling
OMG Vol 2: Top 50 Incidents in WCW History
RoH Supercard of Honor V
RoH Supercard of Honor VI
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
Superstar Collection: Zach Ryder
Warrior Week on WWE Network
WWE Wrestlemania 3: Championship Edition
WWE Wrestlemania 28
WWE Wrestlemania 29

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Clash of the Titans (1981)

I was pretty happy with my blog progress for last year, so I will do my best to keep up at least a few movie blogs a month going forward. Right now the plan is to post two random movie blogs a month, along with feeding my wrestling addiction of a random wrestling DVD blog. Even though I averaged around four entries a month last year, I still have quite a backlog left to keep me going for some time. I have a few special series of movies I want to try and get to throughout the year so we will see how it goes. After taking a couple weeks off after wrapping up my 2014 series of blogs with my entry for Star Trek: Into Darkness, let us kick off 2015 with reviewing a 34 year old classic I never saw until this morning.

A few Christmas’s ago my brother gifted me the film on DVD I am covering today, the 1981 original version of Clash of the Titans (trailer). I recall him saying I think I would like it, I also recall this catching me off guard since remember seeing the 2010 remake recently and thinking it was all right, but nothing spectacular. I am guessing he misconstrued me speaking highly of that film, and presumed I must see the original. I am glad I did though, because this film was surprisingly entertaining all these years later.

I am surprised by how much I already forgot that transpired in the remake just five years ago, but as I watched the original Clash of the Titans, bits and pieces came back to me. In the 1981 original, Harry Hamlin stars as Perseus, whose city is destroyed by the wrathful Greek gods, but Zeus (Laurence Oliver), makes sure to save him from exile by seeking him rescue on a remote island. When Perseus reaches adulthood, Zeus wants him to wed him the dazzling Andromeda (Judi Bowker), but only after he conquers a series of insurmountable tasks presented by Zeus’s rival gods.

Right off the bat the impression that I got from the original Clash of the Titans was that this must have been a technical showpiece for 1981 standards. The gods initial attack of Perseus’s homeland looks silly and outdated by today’s standards, but I could have seen it wowing theatrical crowds back in its heyday with huge gushes of water slamming into and tearing down ancient pillars, statues and structures. The many mythological beasts Perseus squares off against throughout the film also must have been a remarkable on screen feat for its day. Of course they look like crudely animated puppets by today’s standards, but again I can only respect what they were able to pull off back then. Speaking of puppets, I do recall unfortunately getting an embarrassing chuckle out of the remake crudely poking fun in a not-so-respectful nod to this first film.

Obviously outdated special effects aside, I rather enjoyed most of the original Clash of the Titans. Probably even a bit more than the remake, this one seems more focused on the narrative, while still trying to wow us with effects when the remake from what I can remember focused on more style over substance. Seeing Perseus overcome each challenge before him got only more and more engrossing for me, and there were even a handful of spots where the clever use of special effects in certain spots stands the test of time. Only drawbacks were sometimes the story could have picked up in a couple spots and felt a little too leisurely paced in certain scenes, and there were a couple moments where I was yelling at Perseus towards the end to just finish off the final foe, the Kraken once and for all while he took his sweet time vanquishing the legendary beast.

There is not too many extra features on this DVD release I have for Clash of the Titans. There is an interactive map of the mythological beasts Perseus faces that jumps to a scene where they are encountered in the film. The only other extra on this DVD is a 12 minute interview with producer Ray Harryhausen who does provide some interesting insight on what it was like filming the movie and getting the locations just right and getting the most out of special effects back then. If you do not mind seeing some outdated special effects, and thought the recent remake was even just all right like I did, then you owe it yourself to see the 1981 original Clash of the Titans, because even with its older coat of paint, it still is easily the superior film.

Other Random Backlog Movie Blogs

12 Angry Men (1957)
21 Jump Street
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Bounty Hunters
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Field of Dreams
Fight Club
The Fighter
For Love of the Game
Good Will Hunting
Hercules: Reborn
Marine 3: Homefront
Marine 4: Moving Target
Rocky I-VI
Running Films Part 1
Running Films Part 2
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Source Code
Star Trek I-XII
Veronica Mars
The Wrestler (2008)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Star Trek XII: Into Darkness

The 2009 reboot of Star Trek from director JJ Abrams was a big success for Paramount that it was no surprise a sequel was inevitable. In 2013 we got that sequel in the form of Star Trek: Into Darkness (trailer). Nearly all the cast and crew returned for this film, but as I mentioned in my last blog, this will be the final film for JJ Abrams at the helm as Disney locked him in to make the next Star Wars film.

Into Darkness kicks off with the crew of the Enterprise caught up in the middle of a heated mission trying to save a species from dying off. The mission appeared to be a success, but Spock (Zachary Quinto) reports Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) for violating the Prime Directive which results in Kirk getting demoted to Starfleet Academy, and the Enterprise ends up back in the hands of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Meanwhile, a man under the cover of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), has a bad case of revenge on his mind as he destroys a prized research Federation facility and proceeds with an attack on a meeting of Federation leaders which results in the crew of the Enterprise on a manhunt to track down Harrison and bring him to justice.

I will spoil one tidbit about the plot in this paragraph, so if you do not want to be spoiled please jump ahead, and it is not a big spoiler either since it says it on the plot synopsis on the back of the BluRay. In an awesome exchange between Harrison and Kirk, Harrison reveals his true identity as the legendary Star Trek antagonist, Khan. It is probably one of the best dialogue scenes in all of the Star Trek films because Cumberbatch does a remarkable job in his delivery. I had a new perspective on the Khan character because when I first saw Into Darkness in theaters I had not yet seen The Wrath of Khan, which only made the big reveal far more impactful this time around. The original Khan played by Ricardo Montalban had a menacing, post-apocalyptic look to him, but I still dug this reimagining of him in this alternate universe, and Cumberbatch completely owns the character throughout the film.

Into Darkness is also the first time in this alternate universe where we meet the Klingons in a brief encounter when the Enterprise is hunting down Harrison. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) has her big moment here in a verbal showdown with a Klingon commander which does not go so well and leads into a intense firefight with a crew from the Enterprise. Not to be outdone, Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) all return and have their own moments to shine on the big screen. Watching these last two reboot films with a fresh set of eyes after seeing the first six movies with the original actors for the first time gave me a whole new appreciation for how the film kept the subtle idiosyncrasies of the original Star Trek crew intact for a new generation.

Like the last film, Into Darkness does not hold anything back when it comes to special effects. The opening scene where the Enterprise is on a routine mission that nearly goes haywire is filled with all kinds of explosive CG and pulls no punches in trying to wow me right from the start. While there is still a solid amount of exposition throughout, Into Darkness is like the previous film with more emphasis on person-to-person action and more in-your-face dogfights. There is a very snazzy warp speed encounter I never saw before in a Star Trek film was quite dazzling, and there is also a gripping ship-to-ship space jump scene with Harrison and Kirk, one that looks ten times as better and has more gratifying results than the unfortunate one that transpired in another sci-fi flick, Sunshine.

Minor plot details in this paragraph too, so reader beware! If it was not for the disappointing non-definitive ending, Into Darkness would have been right on equal footing with the last film. I still like how they paid homage in one of the classic scenes towards the end of The Wrath of Khan, but with a little bit of a fresh twist I did not see coming this time around, but then Paramount unfortunately kind of weaseled out of it with their own version of "remember," but this one is more of a gut-wrenching copout than compared to how well done it was in The Wrath of Khan. That complaint aside, the journey there is absolutely fantastic and it made its two hour run time fly by before I knew it.

I was almost expecting another set of several hours worth of extra features as with all the other Star Trek films I covered, but was simultaneously relieved and disappointed that was not the case with Into Darkness. Maybe there was another release day special edition I missed out on, but the BluRay I have only has several behind-the-scenes features totaling just under 45 minutes. No commentaries, no deleted scenes. I really wish there was at least a commentary since the one the five guys from Bad Robot recorded for the previous Star Trek reboot was probably the most enjoyable of all of them. The behind-the-scenes features are all quick watches around eight minutes long apiece, and covers the making of some of the more CG intensive scenes of the film and gives special looks into the Klingons and Khan for this alternate universe. I will give you a pass this time Paramount for easing up on the extras, since it was a nice breather from dedicating several hours a month to the plethora of extras on all the previous films.

If 2009's Star Trek reboot film won you over, then Into Darkness is required viewing. As I stated above, the final act loses a step or two which ultimately makes it a slightly inferior film, but there is still so much masterfully crafted action, moments and plenty of throwback references to The Wrath of Kahn to keep you delighted most of the ways through.

With that said, I have now completed my goal of watching and blogging about all twelve Star Trek movies within a year. I probably will not be going to a convention anytime soon, but I have a whole new appreciation for Star Trek now than I did a year ago. If you look below, I have rated each Star Trek film from one to ten. The Wrath of Khan and the Star Trek reboot reign supreme as the only two to get perfect scores from me. Nemesis ranks just under those two with it being my only film getting a 9.5 score, and then The Voyage Home, First Contact and Into Darkness all tie with 9 out of 10 scores. If you only had to watch half of the Star Trek films available, those are the go to flicks. The only two that are skip-worthy are The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier.

Where do I go from here? I do not have the time to invest in watching every episode of every television series, but a few days ago on Twitter, I recently stumbled across a article referencing the top 40 episodes of The Next Generation I think I will commit to. If I manage to get past that I think I will try and attempt to hunt down similar references for the top episodes from Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. Thank you all for sticking with me on this journey throughout the year, and feel free to comment below on your favorite Star Trek movies or shoot me a line on Twitter @gruel.

Star Trek Film Ratings

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - 5.5/10
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - 10/10
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - 7.5/10
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - 9/10
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - 6.5/10
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - 7.5/10
Star Trek VII: Generations - 8/10
Star Trek VIII: First Contact - 9/10
Star Trek IX: Insurrection - 8/10
Star Trek X: Nemesis - 9.5/10
Star Trek (XI, 2009) - 10/10
Star Trek XII: Into Darkness - 9/10

Additional Star Trek Blogs

Star Trek Evolutions and Captains Summit BluRay Bonus Discs