Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011): A Blow in Your Eyes and Ears

Sucker Punch
Sucker Punch is a strange movie. Yet, it would be very unlikely, if after seeing previous Zack Snyder's efforts, anyone has expected a regular film from this director. Sucker Punch is a movie about girls. Not excessively dressed, beautiful and sexy girls. It's a movie about weapons. All kinds of weapons. It's a movie about enemies. Armed, unarmed, human, bestial, weird, big, undead and what other sort of enemies you might think of. Sucker Punch is a movie about life, death, dreams, lobotomy, games, crime, dragons, sacrifice. It's a motley hodgepodge.

Sucker Punch starts with Baby Doll (Emily Browning), the main "heroine" of the movie, losing her mother. Quite soon, the girl's stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) attacks her and her sister. Baby Doll attempts a kind of counter-attack, but the end result is not good for her. She is thrown into a hospital for mentally ill patients where the manager Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) is bribed from her stepfather to arrange a lobotomy for the young lady in order to permanently keep her silent. A doctor able to perform the lobotomy is expected to arrive in 5 days. And now, the real hodgepodge begins. Baby Doll's imagination produces a parallel world which is just a little bit nicer than the hospital but far more pleasant for the eye.

The "new" place is a brothel with skilled and young female dancers trained by Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) to exquisitely pleasure the house's VIP guests. When Baby Doll is forced to show her dancing skills, her mind once again retreats to another world where she meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who advises the girl to pursue her freedom with the help of five items she has to either obtain or discover. When Baby Doll is "back" to the brothel it appears she has turned into an incredible dancer and everyone is staring at her. She succeeds to convince four of the other girls to aid her preparing and fulfilling the escape plan. The girls are Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung). And from then on, it's showtime. The deeper the level of dreaming, the bigger the spectacle is.

Some reviewers compare Sucker Punch with Inception and it's easy to see where their reasoning comes from. But on the other hand, if we exclude levelled dreaming and a few hints of possible but not certain shared dreaming, there are not too many similarities with the Christopher Nolan's film and it's hard to say Sucker Punch is just an Inception clone movie. In addition, the ending of Inception has been widely open to interpretations, whereas Sucker Punch ends rather unambiguously. In a way, its ending has more resemblance to another 2010 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island, than to the Nolan's movie. And in terms of quality, it is questionable whether the both films are comparable because although Inception has been a far from perfect movie, there is even more to be desired from Sucker Punch.

And if you ask, what more do you want from a film with so many hot chicks in it... Sucker Punch is a mess. There is even a point in the movie (after, let's say, the first "second level" dreaming) where you may wonder what is really happening since the film has been looking like 3 completely unrelated stories up to this moment. The number of "stories" continues to grow as the movie progresses but at least some system appears in the initial chaos. The script is not a strong side of the film either and there are several cases of characters' behavior that do not seem well motivated or clearly explained. Sucker Punch carries out an expendable "you are your own God" message that is kind of artificially embedded into the movie. Finally, many of the visuals and techniques used in the film have been already exploited a lot, e.g., bullet special effects, slow motion, etc.

Then why would you possibly go see this movie? Well, there are moments beautiful to watch, either the gorgeous girls, or the exuberant visuals. The film is colorful in pretty much every aspect. If you are a gamer, the second level dreaming sequences offer a variety of game references. The music is primarily loud and although not being very original, there are noticeable covers of popular artists like the Beatles or Eurythmics. The score is what one would expect from a Zack Snyder's movie thus if you are into that sort of music, it's another plus for you.

And practically, this is it. If you want to see a film made primarily for your senses, Sucker Punch is a good choice. If you want a deeper story with less fireworks and noise, just skip this movie.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Black Swan (2010): Commenting a Few Speculations

Black Swan
Following the release of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a lot of detail interpretations have appeared. Some of them have been justified while others have been mainly fictitious. In this article we are going to comment a few of these speculations so it's likely that a couple of spoilers will be listed below although they will be avoided if possible.

Let's start with the genre of Black Swan. It has been classified as drama, thriller, mystery. While it fully belongs in the category of drama, the other two classifications are not entirely correct. Usually a thriller is associated with a kind of a crime: a murder, a theft, etc. It's not a must but even if we consider Black Swan to be an exception, it's hard to say the movie thrills you in the common way thrillers do. It's probably more thrilling because it is a Darren Aronofsky's film and somehow you don't know what exactly to expect from a motion picture of his. Pretty much the same thoughts apply to the movie being a mystery. There is not really any great mystification explored in the film.

Some people mention there are supernatural elements in Black Swan. Sure, a few events prompting at this direction happen but after seeing the movie's ending it is hard to believe anyone still supports this theory. Any physical and spiritual appearances of unnatural forces throughout the film appear to be just imaginary and a product of an unstable mind. Our main character, Nina (Natalie Portman), is the only one in the movie seeing or feeling such "unearthly" presence.

The other important ballerina in Black Swan, Lily (Mila Kunis), is intended as a contrast of Nina. Yet we don't see anything evil in her as many viewers claim. All bad we see in Lily is again only through the eyes of Nina thus it is a result of her imagination. Lily is open-minded, easy-going, playful, seductive and men like her but there is nothing evil in all of these. Even the symbolism of colors in the movie hints at Lily's character being good. If you watch carefully you'll notice that the last time we see her (the moment of final truth unveiling), she's dressed in white.

There are plenty of speculations that Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina's mother, abuses sexually her daughter. But in Black Swan we see almost nothing proving this theory. The main argument coming from the supporters of sexual abuse presence in the film is that one night we hear a line "Are you ready for me?" coming from Erica. Well, it's true, but it could mean anything. Maybe, it's intentionally there to bring some portion of uncertainty in the audience about the mother-daughter relationship. Still, it does not prove the sexual abuse hypothesis. The line itself could just mean whether the girl is ready for bed so her mother can turn the lights off or kiss her daughter good night, or close the door, or whatever. We see throughout the movie that Erica still treats Nina as a little child so everything mentioned is completely feasible.

Finally, Nina's mental problems are viewed by some as a journey to her dark side and they consider Nina becoming evil in order to successfully perform the role of the Black Swan. But again, we do not see Nina accomplishing anything bad in the movie, except for physically damaging herself in moments of madness. We see her occasionally behaving not very kind with her mother or Lily but there is nothing evil in her manners and they are obviously a consequence of her mental state. And if we refer to the color symbolism once more, at the end Nina is dressed in white. Practically, we don't see any real-life black swan portrayed in the film. But even without it, the amount of obsession and self-destructiveness flushing out of the movie strikes us with full force.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

3D Technology in Cinema: IMAX 3D, RealD 3D, Dolby 3D and XpanD 3D

After we've made an overview of the 3D glasses kinds currently in use, let's take a look at the 3D technology systems used in cinema theaters. The most widespread technologies for 3D projection in movie theaters are IMAX 3D, RealD 3D, Dolby 3D and XpanD 3D.

IMAX 3D is the oldest of the 3D technologies covered here. Its most obvious characteristic is the big imposing curved screen. IMAX cinemas are typically analogue and project 70mm film to achieve the necessary resolution for such big screens. There is also a digital IMAX version which utilizes smaller screens. Due to the large and curved screen IMAX creates in-your-face 3D images with a lot of "pop". Some earlier IMAX cinema used active shutter glasses but current IMAX 3D uses linear polarization. Linearly polarized glasses require the viewer to keep their head level, as tilting causes the images of the left and right channels to spill to the opposite channel. This is the so-called "ghosting" effect which plagues to some degree pretty much any 3D technology displaying info for both eyes at the same time. The head movement restrictions have a couple of implications: first, the amount of seats in the cinema theater where the image quality is at its best is limited, and second, longer viewings may become uncomfortable. This is one reason why until recently IMAX 3D theaters mostly did show shorts.

RealD 3D upgrades the IMAX approach significantly. RealD 3D uses circularly polarized glasses which allow the audience to move their heads around without any loss of 3D perception. RealD 3D is a digital 3D technology which utilizes one of two possible projection systems. In one of these systems, each left-eye and right-eye frame of the typical 2 * 24 fps 3D movie (24 frames for the left eye and 24 frames for the right eye per second) is flashed alternatively three times for a total of six flashes per 3D frame and 2 * 72 = 144 flashes per second. For comparison, in regular 2D movie projection, frames are typically flashed twice for overall 48 flashes per second. The other system uses a single 4K projector but projects two oppositely circularly polarized 2K frames simultaneously through it. RealD 3D has another advantage over linearly polarized tech (IMAX 3D) and that's the reduced amount of ghosting. And as the screens are normal sized and not curved the action doesn't seem to pop out of the screen as much, which is less stressful on the brain although not so spectacular.

Polarization systems (IMAX 3D, RealD 3D) have an inherent problem: the loss of light. Light is initially lost during projection through the polarization filter at the projector lens and then lost once more when passing through the filters on the glasses. There is also some loss when light reflects from the screen (this is not 3D specific). IMAX battles this by using 2 projectors (one for each eye), which means double the light output. And RealD 3D combats it by using silver screens for better reflection. A cinema theater may also work to compensate that by using more powerful projection lamps. Still, there is an overall impression of a darker image.

Dolby 3D is another fully digital 3D technology. It is quite popular lately because the same projector can be used for both 3D and 2D movies and no special screens are needed. For 3D projection a special color wheel is attached to the projector to achieve wavelength multiplexing, thus splitting the wavelenghts used by the left and the right eyes. The glasses need highly accurate color filters to correctly filter color wavelenghts at the viewer's end. These filters are called dichroic (or interference) filters and are more expensive than the polarization filters. Unlike polarized glasses they are being reused. Cinemas still like this tech as they cut on the expenses by saving both on silver screens and additional 2D screens. Dolby 3D tends to preserve dark detail better than polarization systems. One disadvantage is that glasses are heavier and thicker than the light plastic polarized glasses.

XpanD 3D is also a digital 3D technology. Unlike all the others, it uses active shutter glasses synchronized with projection through infrared signals. As frames are flashed alternatively for the left and the right eye without any color or polarization filters, there is no light loss from filtration on projection. But the use of electronics in the glasses may lead to reliability problems and the batteries need to be replaced when they deplete. As there is no special projection or screens required, the XpanD 3D glasses can also be used with home cinema theater 3D systems.

So how do these 3D technologies compare after all?
Correctly configured latest generation XpanD 3D offers the best possible experience. A lot of reference theaters at the movie studios are equipped with this system. Public theaters may often suffer from technical problems (flickering has been reported) and poor maintenance though, which might make the next options preferable. Dolby 3D and RealD 3D should probably rank about equal and above the linear polarization of IMAX 3D. One consideration with 3D at cinemas is that it generally amplifies the lack of projection quality wherever this lack is apparent. Brighter lamps and dual projectors (where applicable) help alleviate brightness problems. But any kind of incorrect setup will usually appear more severely broken in 3D.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentlmeny udachi): Pure 1971 Soviet Fun

Gentlemen of Fortune
Gentlemen of Fortune (Джентльмены удачи in Russian / Dzhentlmeny udachi transliterated) is a comedy released at the end of 1971 in the Soviet Union. It's one of the most successful Soviet movies starring some of the famous Soviet actors at the time and being the number one film in 1972 on the territory of the Soviet Union in terms of ticket sales. The movie has had more than 65 million viewers.

Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentlmeny udachi) is about a kindergarten director named Troshkin who looks like a twin brother of a criminal with a nickname Docent (meaning "associate professor" in Russian). Docent, assisted by two other felons, steals the golden helmet of Alexander the Great at the site of an archaeological excavation. The three criminals are caught by the militia (the Soviet Union's police) but without having the stolen helmet in them. An archaeologist professor accidentally meets Troshkin in a bus and upon seeing the striking similarity between him and Docent, suggests to the militia putting Troshkin in prison as a replacement of Docent. The latter one is separated from his gang and put in another prison so Troshkin begins his mission to wring the location of the helmet from the rest of Docent's gang. Pretending to be a real convict proves to be a tough task for the amiable and well-educated kindergarten teacher who has to learn criminal slang and behavior in order to lead his mission to a successful end.

With the above premise, the comic situations and dialogs in Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentlmeny udachi) unleash with full force. The movie is almost 40 years old but it's a lot funnier than many of today's comedies. The film combines adventure, comedy, crime and parody to make a family friendly entertainment without having any violent, sexual or other inappropriate scenes for the broadest possible audience. It's a movie that many later "good for all ages" comedies (e.g., Dumb and Dumber) should/could pay a tribute to if their makers have been aware of its existence eventually.

The director of the movie Aleksandr Seryj (Александр Серый) has been formerly in prison himself so he has had a first hand experience with the prisoners' slang and manners. He uses this experience well in the Gentlemen of Fortune. The actors are Evgeny Leonov (as Troshkin/Docent), Savely Kramarov and Georgy Vitsin (in the roles of Docent's gang members), Radner Muratov (in the role of another convict joining the other three). All of them are making a great job with their performances and contribute a lot to the success of the endless ridiculously funny situations in the movie.

Indicative of the popularity of the Gentlemen of Fortune movie in the countries of the former Soviet Union is the fact that the film has been seen in cinema theaters by 65 million viewers in one year. It's an enormous figure that is rarely reached by Hollywood productions even worldwide. Tickets for the movie have been resold by speculators at prices 15 times higher than the regular ones. In addition, there is a monument of "Dzhentlmeny udachi" built in the city of Taraz in Kazakhstan.

If you are a fan of Soviet movies or if you are just a lover of good (maybe even classic) comedies, Gentlemen of Fortune is just the right film for you. You'll hardly make a wrong step by watching it but it's likely you'll want to repeat this step more than once.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

3D Glasses: Passive Polarized Glasses and Active Shutter Glasses

3D Glasses
3D movies are shot by recording "two" films, one for each eye, slightly displaced. To recreate the 3D effect during projection, each eye needs to see only its "own" film and not the other. There are a few technologies achieving that which we will cover in a couple of articles.

IMAX 3D, RealD 3D, Dolby 3D and XpanD 3D are the most widespread cinema theater technologies for 3D movie projection. All of these, as well as home theaters, utilize 3D glasses to make the eye see only its "own" share of the picture. 3D glasses are variations of two kinds: passive (color or polarized) glasses and active (shutter) glasses. Technically, the older anaglyph red/cyan-plastic-glued-on-white cardboard glasses that everyone has seen are also passive but they are not really used anymore because they can't produce full color images.

So what's the difference between passive polarized glasses and active shutter glasses?
Polarized glasses have a different polarizing filter on each eye. Images projected at the screen are also polarized through opposite direction filters for the left and the right eye. When coupled with the 3D glasses, this results in each glass only filtering in the corresponding image even though both are on the screen at the same time.

The color passive glasses used currently in some cinemas (notably in Dolby 3D) are in a way glorified anaglyph glasses. They show "full" color by narrowing the spectra of red, green and blue for one eye and mapping wavelengths of red, blue and green left unused from that first eye to the second eye.

Active shutter glasses take another approach. They need electricity to work, so active 3D glasses in cinema theaters usually have small batteries in them. The glass for each eye has a liquid crystal layer which can be driven either transparent or opaque by applying voltage. The projecting system alternatively shows the frame for the left and the right eye and the glasses alternatively turn the glass for the right and the left eye opaque in sync with that. The synchronization is controlled by wireless signals.

3D for home use mostly favors active shutter glasses over passive 3D glasses. LG are pretty much the only manufacturer pushing passive technology for 3D TVs and PC monitors. Runco also have proprietary passive tech for their projectors. Sony, Panasonic and Samsung are all in the active shutter glasses camp. And they all have teamed with RealD to jointly develop 3D technologies.

So what is the necessary equipment for watching 3D movies at home?
A strangely popular misconception is that pre-existing (old) Blu-ray players don't play 3D movies. An older Blu-ray player will generally only need a firmware update in order to be able to play 3D Blu-ray movies. No hardware changes are required. Most bluray player manufacturers have already released firmware updates for their players. Pretty much all software Blu-ray players also have 3D support in their latest versions. Additionally, no special HDMI cables are needed. Any high speed HDMI cable will do. That is, if a cable can transfer 1080p, then it will also transfer 3D. So the only special necessity is the 3D capable TV (or monitor, or projector) with 3D glasses.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Last Seduction (1994) Review: A Flawed Movie You May Still See

The Last Seduction
The Last Seduction is a good example of how one could ruin a movie with an otherwise decent plot. The film has been made with a tiny budget, but this has nothing to do with its flaws. The actors have not been among Hollywood's favorites, yet acting is not the movie's problem. Then, if the plot is OK, the acting is good and maybe even the dialogue is enjoyable, what might The Last Seduction's faults be? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Look at the details!

So, while you are watching this movie you'll notice a few good things I am going to list at the end and a lot of not so good details. In fact, tons of unbelievable details. The lack of any realism in The Last Seduction starts almost from its beginning and does not disappear until the end of the film. Even a more annoying issue is that all these unrealistic events are let's say "unforced errors" that could be easily avoided without altering the main plot in any way. And although many people love to excuse such "errors" with "Well, it's a movie, it doesn't have to be realistic.", in my rating system non-fantasy and non sci-fi films that are less believable than Star Wars or Avatar, get usually a lower grade than the one they would otherwise deserve just because of that incredible "feature" of theirs.

To avoid making a huge list of the type "100 Things I learned from ..." and to prevent spoiling the movie for you, here are just a few of The Last Seduction's numerous flaws.
  • Nearly at the very beginning, you'll learn that if somebody brings you money in exchange of something, it's very likely he points a gun at you but surprisingly not in order to keep the $700,000 for himself. He just wants to keep... the bag.
  • You'll learn that when you choose a pseudonym in order to hide your identity from somebody, the best option is to choose the first name your persecutor would think of. Well, the fault here should be extended because the persecutor is an incredible genius able to guess an alias from a first attempt just based on a look at a random newspaper plus a couple of letter tweaks.
  • Another useful tip you should remember from the movie is that when you meet somebody being in a process of divorce, you must know for sure there is inevitably something suspicious about his past marriage. Therefore you shouldn't miss making a trip to another city and talking to the other divorcee in order to find out a presumptive great secret.
  • And please, note: if your wife robs you and wants you dead, the best you can do when you're most defenceless is to bring her up near you.
These examples should be enough to stress the point but when you watch the movie you can easily add lots of other issues to the short list above.

Well, there are many movies with a lot of plot detail issues (although hardly with so many faults as this film) but it's a pity The Last Seduction is so flawed in the details since it is otherwise a good movie. All of the unbelievable points above just spoil the pleasant experience of the plot itself. Yes, the main plot is Okay although not being the most original one. The acting is overall good and the lead actress Linda Fiorentino portrays the skinny but sexy bitch Bridget Gregory with ease. It is worth seeing this movie even only because of Fiorentino's memorable performance. You'll hear a few interesting lines among an overall good dialog too. The pacing is all right. And the problem with the unbelievability here is not so striking as for example in a courtroom drama like Anatomy of a Murder where one would except the plot details to be as realistic as possible. Still, it's not a parody either like, e.g., Blazing Saddles in order to justify the superfluous use of events less probable to happen than a lottery win.

So, if you haven't seen The Last Seduction movie, it's fine to do it. You could even enjoy it more when knowing in advance there are flaws of a certain kind. But it would be a much better movie if somebody had taken care to put more realism in the screenplay. It does not cost additional money after all.

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