Monday, September 28, 2015

Rocky Balboa

I held off on watching the last of the Rocky films, 2006’s Rocky Balboa (trailer), until the day before I ran my town’s annual half-marathon race. I needed that inspirational film to get my psyche in that right place, and you cannot go wrong with a Rocky film. The “Itallian Stallion” also needed some inspiration in 2006 as Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) returns to the ring all these years later to see if he still has something left “in the basement” for one last hurrah on his terms.

If you are new to the Rocky films and have been following along in these blogs with me, you will recall the last film took place in 1990, so I do not blame you for thinking how the hell can Balboa return all these years later and prove to be a legitimate threat. In the extra features interviews, Stallone provides some valid justifications for this plot after George Foreman’s comeback in 1994 to win the heavyweight title. Stallone returns to the director’s chair for this film and he is going for the serious sports drama feel like the first pair of Rocky films that I prefer against the over-the-top nature of the middle films.

A lot has changed for Rocky since 1990, foremost he is now widowed as his former wife Adrian passed away from breast cancer a few years earlier. The film does a great job at making it apparent that Balboa is still living in the past and has not moved on as Rocky takes Adrian’s brother, Paulie (Burt Young) on the annual tour where they revisit a lot of the couple’s old spots across Philly. To make matter worse, Rocky has grown distant from his son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) since Adrian’s death as he has troubles trying to reconnect with him since Adrian passed.

Rocky finds a pick-me-up with a new friend he has not seen in quite some time that I alluded to in my entry for the first film. Remember 12-year old Little Marie that talked back to Rock and called him a creep-o? In 2006, Marie (Geraldine Hughes) is all grown up now and is a bartender at the old watering hole from the first film, the Lucky Seven Tavern. Rocky gets reacquainted with her and takes in Marie and her son Steps (James Kelly III) as his new family to get him through these hard times he is living through and gets them jobs at the Italian restaurant he owns, fittingly called “Adrian’s.”

While Rocky is getting his life together, the present boxing, champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is getting ripped apart in the press for steamrolling through the competition and not having any marquee fights. ESPN stirs the pot by running a nice looking computer animated test of what would happen if Balboa and Dixon met in the ring. All the buzz the computer test generates motivates Rocky to make a comeback to the ring.

I absolutely love the casting for these new characters. Tarver, Hughes, Kelly and Ventimiglia are all perfect in their roles and they all blend in perfectly in the Rocky universe. I also will give props to Stallone on his cinematography for the film. He has a great running theme with a majority of the film taking place at night to capture the rough downtown feel of Philly, and he really brings it out with bright street lights really make the city come to life on film. May favorite highpoints in this film are a pair of fantastic scenes where Rocky pleads his case to the boxing commission to get his license back and a very heartfelt exchange with his son to win him over and get him back on his side, and features my favorite quotes of the film that emphatically concludes with “that’s how winning is done!”

Rocky Balboa hits all the right beats you want out of a Rocky film. Rocky gets really down on his luck and nobody believes in him. He eventually wins over the doubters, and has a legendary training montage that fittingly got me revved up for the final fight. We get a vintage Paulie freakout, and many classic quotes old and new throughout the film such as “fighter’s fight,” “ain’t over until it’s over,” and “let’s start building some hurting bombs!”

I will tip my cap to Stallone and MGM for going all out in the final fight sequence and teaming with HBO who were gracious to let them piggy back off them for using their HD cameras and ring attire to film the Balboa/Dixon clash to give it a very authentic telecast feel. The fight looks the best of all the films’ fights and the announcers they brought in make it seem like you are watching the real thing. Stallone trained hard for this film and does a fine job at proving he can still go at his age and be a believable threat to Dixon. The fight follows the classic Rocky formula of showing the first two rounds in their entirety, and then a montage of the middle rounds before finishing things off with an epic final round in its entirety and sure enough, I was on the edge of my seat totally invested in this fake fight by the time the bell sounded to kick off the final round. The film concludes in a very appropriate nod to the end of the first Rocky that felt like the right thing to do and I would not have wanted it any other way.

After going four films without any extra features in this BluRay collection of the films, it was good to see Rocky Balboa offer up a hearty amount of extras. Unfortunately they are all carried over from the film’s initial video release with no new extras. But what is here is still quite good. Stallone has a solo commentary full of insightful fact about the production, but he has plenty of noticeable lulls and I would have preferred him to team up with someone on the commentary for him to bounce off of and keep the dialogue flowing. There are 23 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, and I recommend checking out most of them because there are a few pivotal scenes in here presented in a completely different way. I like the scenes the film went with in the final cut, but these are definitely worth checking out on what could have been.

Skill vs. Will is a 17 minute making of feature on the film that dissects the casting of the new characters and what it took to get a new Rocky film green-lit all these years later that I recommend watching. Definitely check out Reality in the Ring, a 15 minute take on how Stallone and MGM teamed with HBO to film the final fight and how Dixon and Stallone did not pull any punches and were told multiple times to ease up in the ring. The extras finish off with a quick five minute piece on the tech used to make the CG animated fight.

Rocky Balboa is a great final chapter to Balboa’s in-ring career. It helps erase that questionable street fight scene of Rocky V being your last memory of a Balboa fight and gave the good story of Rocky going out on his own terms. By the end of the film, Balboa proved that by getting through this fight that he was able to move on with his life. Along with the first two Rocky films, this is up there with being my favorite, and ask me any day of the week which one is my favorite and I will randomly tell you one of those three are.

So that wraps up my entries for the six films covered in the Rocky Undisputed Collection. We are not all the finished however. As you are likely aware there is a seventh film in the Rocky franchise coming out this fall titled Creed (trailer). It keeps up the trend of at least one Rocky film coming out a decade since the 1970s. No, Balboa is not stepping into the ring again, as now he is stepping into the role of mentor/trainer for who else, but Apollo Creed’s son. Needless to say, the trailer has got me jacked and I am really anticipating this film. Rest assured I will pick up the home video release and make sure the film gets its just due here. So thank you again for reliving all the Rocky films with me, and please join me here in several months for my coverage of Creed.
Past Rocky Blogs

Rocky V
Rocky IV
Rocky III
Rocky II

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hitman (2007)

I meant to get to this backlog entry a few weeks ago when it would have been more timely right when the new Hitman: Agent 47 film hit theaters. I think it still is in a smattering of theaters as of this writing, but to highlight the new Agent 47 film I am covering the first film based on the best-selling videogame series from IO Interactive that came out in 2007 and simply called, Hitman (trailer). I watched my old DVD copy of this film quite a few times, but a few years ago I upgraded to the BluRay release and finally got around to busting it out again.

Timothy Olyphant does the honors as the elite assassin who simply goes by the name 47. After a well shot routine mission setting up how much of a pro 47 is at his services, he is tasked with taking down the Russian president, Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). Needless to say, not all goes according to plan when 47 discovers his agency set him up and finds himself simultaneously on the run and still wanting to finish the job he started. Along the way he kidnaps/rescues one of Belicoff’s mistresses by the name of Nika (a pre-Quantum of Solace Olga Kurylenko) to aid him on his mission. To top it off two persistent Interpol agents (Dougray Scott & Michael Offei) are constantly on 47’s tail and determined to track down their guy.

I agree with some of the extra feature interviews on the disc that refer to Hitman as a darker version of a 007 film. I think the film still stands out eight years later and the action still really pops in high def on BluRay. The film was initially R rated, but the BluRay is unrated so expect a few more gritty shots of the action. The film has a perfect blend of reconnaissance for plotting out assassinations, building on 47 and Nika’s doomed relationship, Interpol and the CIA constantly being one step behind 47 and knowing when to jump to an all out action scene to keep your blood pumping. The cinematography of the gunfights and up close hand-to-hand combat is exquisitely shot and had me engaged through each intense action scene.

I played a fair amount of the original Hitman games, and I think the film does a fantastic job of being a faithful representation of the game. I think Olyphant nailed all the idiosyncrasies from the 47 character such as his trademark assassinations, signature poses and even down to the cadence of how he walked in the game all worked in smoothly into the film. Like the games, how 47 takes out a target in the film can play out in a variety of ways either through a stealthy attack in a remote location, thoroughly plotting out the ideal sniper spot for a hasty and safe escape route, sneaking around security by doing 47’s trademark costume swap, or by simply going in guns blazing. Pay close attention and you will recognize other little nods to the games throughout the film that showed the filmmakers went above and beyond to make this a good faith adaption of the games, to which I feel they pulled off in spades.

I thought Hitman went down the appropriate route of how Nika and 47’s relationship plays out. By 47’s nature he is not one destined for romance despite Nika’s advances, but the two end up forming an unlikely friendship as the film progresses, and 47 had a handful of dry wit quips at Nika’s expense that had me cracking up throughout. One nitpick I have is by the end of the film 47 does crack a full on smile that I felt went against his character, and it just did not seem right to see 47 so….happy. I also liked the supporting story arc with the Interpol agents tracking 47 down while trying to dodge Russia’s secret police. In one of the standout scenes of the film, 47 has a heart-to-heart talk with one of the Interpol agents in a very powerful scene. Naturally, Hitman climaxes in its final act when 47 makes one final, grand attempt at taking out Belicoff, and it delivers with the best action shots yet in the film and lots of planning for the assassination involved to keep you guessing on how they pulled it all off.

There are several extras along with a few deleted scenes and a gag reel totaling a little over an hour in extra features. In the Crosshairs is a 24 minute in-depth look at casting the film, adapting it from the game and detailing how much work they put into the set design as it interviews all the major cast and crew members. Digital Hits is a 10 minute feature that interviews the game developers and gaming press along with cast and crew on a overview of the Hitman games and why the series is a perfect fit for the silver screen.

I am a big fan of the score of this film as it reminded me a lot of the score used in the TV series 24 that was a perfect match for this film, so make sure to watch the Settling the Score extra which is a quick five minute interview with composer Geoff Zanelli. There are 8 minutes of deleted scenes, and most of them had me glad they were cut because they dragged out other scenes in the film, or were alternate shots of some other scenes that did not have the same effect as the film’s final product. I would have been pretty bummed out too if the film went with its alternate ending, so I am glad that was left on the cutting room floor as well.

This entry feels like me attempting to stand up and defend Hitman to the masses. I feel like I am one of this film’s few supporters because if I hear it discussed in podcasts, or referenced in articles running down the history of videogame-based films it usually gets classified as another clunker. It does not hold up too kindly on the popular film aggregate website, Rotten Tomatoes either with a critic aggregate score of a meager 14%. I have stated my case here why I am a huge fan of the film, and it was several years since I last saw Hitman and I thought it might not have held up after hearing all the negative opinions on it over the years. However, coming out of watching it again I am still really high on the movie, and while it may not be saying much in the grand scheme of its competition I still have Hitman tied with Mortal Kombat as my two favorite videogame movies of all time.

Other Random Backlog Movie Blogs

12 Angry Men (1957)
21 Jump Street
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Atari: Game Over
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Bounty Hunters
Cabin in the Woods
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Clint Eastwood 11-pack Special
Dirty Work
Field of Dreams
Fight Club
The Fighter
For Love of the Game
Good Will Hunting
Hercules: Reborn
Man of Steel
Marine 3 & 4
Mortal Kombat
The Replacements
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
Take Me Home Tonight
The Tooth Fairy 1 & 2
Veronica Mars
The Wrestler (2008)

Friday, September 11, 2015

redvsblue Season 7

When we last left off in the saga of redvsblue, season sixmarked the conclusion of the first part of a new three season arc dubbed Recollection. Season seven marks part two of Recollection, and is called, Recreation (trailer). If you have been keeping up watching along with me, you may recall things went pretty off the walls at the end of season six when it brought some major revelations to the character of Church (Burnie Burns) when the red and blue armies joined up to invade the freelancer command center.

Before jumping into season seven I recommend watching the four part mini-series, Relocated, which is included as a bonus on the BluRay. It takes place right where season six left off, with Sarge (Matt Hullum), Grif (Geoff Ramsey), Simmons (Gus Sorola) and Caboose (Joel Heyman) stranded after their vehicles malfunctioned after the EMP attack they launched effected their vehicles as well in their escape. They are stranded on the popular Halo multiplayer map, Valhalla. Caboose claims a base for the blues while the reds get to a top secret project on their own new base and recruits Lopez back from Blood Gulch, who has a quick throwaway line on how he won the war for the reds on Blood Gulch that you just have to hear to believe. The power of Lopez grants the reds an awesome new hologram simulation room for Sarge’s own personal training sessions, and things were going swimmingly before the mini-series concludes with the return of Donut (Dan Godwin).

Season seven kicks off proper with Donut bouncing between bases and eventually delivering a vital message that they need to track down Tucker (Jason Saldana). That is a great thing about this season because last season featured little to none of Tucker, Donut and Lopez and it really changes the dynamic of the show this season with these three having prominent roles throughout Recreation. With other characters gaining momentum this season, do not be surprised that a few other key players that I will not spoil here are reduced to small cameos or not featured at all this season, which I feel is for the better and will have a bigger impact when they make their inevitable returns.

The gang splits up where Caboose, Sarge and Grif team up to track down Tucker while Donut, Simmons and Lopez hang back at Valhalla. One of the standout scenes of the season is Caboose, Sarge and Grif attempting to navigate the M12LRV/Warthog/Puma through a minefield in their own unique way. Of course their awesome navigation skills lead them into another round of shenanigans in their pursuit of Tucker that play out just as good as any previous plans do for the reds and blues.

Back at Valhalla, we get an amusing little side story where Simmons is revealed to be a Mexican cyborg racist in his many failed attempts to win over Lopez, and the gang has to deal with the return of the invading Meta AI. I really dug the chemistry between the guys back at Valhalla and they definitely deliver a lot of comic relief this season, and it was just awesome to see Lopez get some much deserved star power this season after a couple seasons being regulated to very minor roles.

The season comes to a head with Agent Washington (Shannon McCormick) returning to help out the reds fend off the Meta. Meanwhile, Caboose, Tucker, Sarge and Grif learn even more major revelations concerning Church’s character, but not before fending off a big attack from a mysterious rogue faction of alien and human soldiers headed up by this season’s main antagonist going by the name of C.T. (Michael Joplin). Like many past seasons, there is a big cliffhanger at the end of Recreation leaving the fate of a couple key characters in dire straights to keep me glued to my seat for season eight.

I am enjoying how the Recollection saga is playing out so far, and I am down with their ‘less is more’ approach by reducing the amount of key characters in each season so we get more out of the ones featured instead. Like part one of Recollection, part two is filmed primarily with Halo 3’s theater mode, and the guys at Rooster Teeth keep impressing me with their improving camera work and utilizing some seriously good special effects at this point compared to their amusing-yet-low-rent photoshop effects they relied on in earlier seasons.

Besides the aforementioned Relocated mini-series, the standard set of special features are included with Recreation. The commentary took a different route this year, where keeping up the theme of this ‘less is more’ trilogy and instead of the usual several Rooster Teeth cast members the commentary only features Burnie Burns and the season’s director, Gavin Free. Burns directed all the previous seasons, but only wrote the script for this season. The two of them stay on point for most of the commentary and are very engaged throughout it, but be warned the two go deep into technical details on how they pulled off a lot of the complex camera shots and special effects this season. There is less of the friendly jesting that dominated a lot of prior commentaries so if that is not up your alley than this is a skippable commentary this season.

Aside from the commentary, there are about five minutes apiece of deleted scenes and outtakes, and nearly 20 minutes of bonus videos themed around Halloween, Thanksgiving and fire safety. Definitely check out the super short, but awesome Halloween video and their six-year anniversary video is also worth going out of your way to check out. Mark season seven of redvsblue as a success as I am very much digging the new direction of the series at this point. As I alluded to before, the ending of Recreation has me on my toes on a couple of characters so tune in next month where I cover the conclusion of the Recollection saga.

Past redvsblue Blogs

Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Season 6

Monday, September 7, 2015

Tough Enough: $1,000,000 Season

A couple weeks ago the sixth season of WWE’s reality show, Tough Enough aired and the winners were crowned. The show has undergone quite an evolution over the years. The last two seasons aired on USA Network, but with lengthy sabbaticals in between with the two seasons airing in 2011 and four years later in 2015. From 2001 to 2004 however, Tough Enough was on a yearly schedule. The first three seasons were prime time MTV programming and WWE along with everyone else was riding the ‘reality’ TV show craze that erupted with the success of CBS’s show, Survivor at the turn of the century. However, by the third season, the ratings lagged a bit and MTV would opt not to air the fourth season so WWE decided to mix it up a little bit for 2004 by having a couple of Tough Enough segments each week for a couple months on Smackdown to comprise the fourth season of the show. All those weekly segments are compiled into an abbreviated hour long feature that make up the feature presentation for the Tough Enough: Million Dollar Season DVD.

Each week on Smackdown for a couple of months there were two Tough Enough themed segments on the broadcast. One was a pre-taped segment usually showing one of the Tough Enough trainers like Bill DeMott and Al Snow or a veteran WWE star like Big Show or Kurt Angle going all drill sergeant on the Tough Enough recruits to well, toughen them up while they endured a set of physically taxing challenges. The other segment took place inside the ring, and was kind of the equivalent of recent examples like those horrible challenges off of NXT when it was on SyFy before it became WWE’s official developmental territory. Rinse and repeat this formula for several weeks as contestants are eliminated one by one until we have a winner that receivers a WWE contract.

Most of the segments each week were pretty laughably bad. There was one week where the contestants had to come out in drag to showcase their feminine side to the viewing audience, and another week where we had to witness a joust competition where it looked liked the competitors were on platforms and using jousts right out of a kiddy-bouncy-ball-pit. There were a couple of gem segments that unintentionally stood out from the pact. One week Kurt Angle wore out the contestants by making them do countless squat thrusts, he then instantly challenged the winner to an Olympic style wrestling match which he won handedly. He asked the rest of the contestants if they wanted to take him on, and former MMA fighter, Daniel Puder took on the challenge and actually went toe-to-toe with Angle and had him locked in a legit MMA hold until a ref got Angle out of the embarrassing situation by saying Puder’s shoulders were down and was pinned. I am always a sucker when WWE attempts to air a boxing match, and they had the final two contestants compete in a three round boxing match on the 2004 Armageddon PPV and called it a “Dixie Dog Fight.” It actually ended up being quite an entertaining match up.

WWE added a twist this year where the fans voted who stayed on each week, and the contestant with the least amount of votes was eliminated. In addition, the theme of this season is it is the “1,000,000 Tough Enough” where the winner would get a four year contract (although WWE made sure to point out in the ads calling for video submissions that only the first year was guaranteed, remember that for later).

If you have seen a season or two of Tough Enough you should know by now that WWE does not wash their hands of all eliminated contestants and keep on anyone showing real potential. Even from this season’s opening tryout montage you see two guys the WWE kept on, one Marty Wright was cut because he lied about his age, but WWE decide to keep him on and transformed him into the dastardly WWE character known as The Boogeyman who left us with countless Wrestlecrap-worthy moments for the ages.

A few other contestants from this season went on to far greater fame than the winner. Nick Mitchell got a good chunk of TV time for a year when he was prancing around as a member of the Spirit Squad faction. Ryan Reeves is still around, but he did not catch a break for several years later after suffering a few too many nasty injuries, but now you know him as the big guy and current Intercontinental champion, Ryback. Mike “The Miz” Mizannin went on to probably have the greatest fame and has been a regular part of the WWE roster since shortly after the 2004 season of Tough Enough ended. While The Miz’s tenure has had some lulls, it is hard to argue about how successful of a career you had where your shining moment is headlining a Wrestlemania where you pin John Cena. Now what about the winner you ask? Well, Daniel Puder got his guaranteed year, but other than a cameo in the 2005 Royal Rumble where he got the crap slapped out of him, he spent the year in WWE’s developmental territories until WWE decided he was taking up too much salary space and released him at the end of 2005.

Watching the one hour highlight version of the feature on the DVD is the preferred way to go. If you want though, you can watch all the weekly segments in their entirety on the WWE Network right now under the year 2004 in the Tough Enough channel of the WWE Network. They do have a lot of the in-ring portions of the Tough Enough challenges on Smackdown included in their entirety as DVD extras, but I would only recommend watching the Kurt Angle Invitational and the Dixie Dog Fight out of all them. There is around an hour of additional extras like audition tapes and exit interviews with the contestants, along with a few bonus stories from behind-the-scenes incidents. You can find this DVD online pretty cheap, and while the condensed hour long version on the DVD is my recommended way to watch this, I just feel bad recommending you pay money for this season that other than a couple of bright spots was not all that entertaining. You will be far better off watching the 2004 season on the WWE Network instead of shilling out extra dollars for the Tough Enough: Million Dollar Season DVD.

Past Wrestling Blogs

Best of WCW Monday Nitro Volume 2
Biggest Knuckleheads
Bobby The Brain Heenan
Dusty Rhodes WWE Network Specials
For All Mankind
Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection
Its Good to Be the King: The Jerry Lawler Story
Ladies and Gentlemen My Name is Paul Heyman
Legends of Mid South Wrestling
Macho Man: The Randy Savage Story
Memphis Heat
OMG Vol 2: Top 50 Incidents in WCW History
RoH Supercard of Honor V
RoH Supercard of Honor VI
RoH Supercard of Honor VII
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
Superstar Collection: Zach Ryder
Top 50 Superstars of All Time
Warrior Week on WWE Network
Wrestlemania 3: Championship Edition
Wrestlemania 28
Wrestlemania 29
Wrestlemania 30
The Wrestler (2008)
Wrestling Road Diaries Too
WWE Network Original Primetime Specials