Friday, April 29, 2011

Thor (2011): Not Just a Teaser but an Entertaining Movie

Thor was supposed to be just a teaser before the release of Marvel's main attraction this year Captain America: The First Avenger and something to help pass the time until Joss Whedon's The Avengers hits the screens in 2012. It turns out Thor is more than that.

Obviously, the main purpose of the movie is to introduce the character of Thor, one of the avengers. And it does quite a good job of that. While the story itself is predictable and cliched, the film is well paced, well acted and well directed by the competent hand of Kenneth Branagh. His Shakespearean expertise comes in handy during the scenes involving the relationships between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki. And while Anthony Hopkins is expected to perform at top level, the real stars of the show here are Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, playing Thor and Loki.

Chris Hemsworth is surprisingly good as the flamboyant Thor: charming, confident and audacious. Not exactly Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark level, but somewhere near it nevertheless. He is helped by a restrained script which is not overplaying Thor's ignorance of Earthly matters and customs to the point of silliness, focusing instead on good-natured humour and quickly putting Thor in sync with the place - in a true godlike manner.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki is lean and mean, his calm composure providing a good counterpoint for Hemsworth. Natalie Portman doesn't really have much to do in Thor other than smiling silly and falling for Thor in ten seconds. On the other hand, Stellan Skarsgard is always good to see. Fans of Marvel's series will also be delighted to see a couple of cameos: by another avenger and by Stan Lee, the comic's creator. Not to mention the amount of fan-service spread throughout the movie. And in the unlikely case you haven't heard this yet, there is a scene after Thor's ending credits, so don't rush to the cinema exits.

A high point of the movie is the design of Asgard. It is huge and megalomaniac, but clean and in some ways reminiscent of the game God of War environments. The night scenes set in Asgard are beautiful to behold and deserve a special mention. Bifrost, the bridge between the worlds is also spectacular, albeit conceptually somewhat different than the comic's original and the mythological original of the comic's original (chew that).

On the bottom side, 3D is pointless for this movie. Skip 3D if possible, save a few bucks and watch Thor in 2D. And there is also the mildly annoying issue of the politically correct presentation of the Aesir: neither the comics, nor Norse mythology have black and Asian Aesir in them.

So, to conclude: Thor is an entertaining movie doing more than a fine job filling the gap before Captain America and his shield arrive in July.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

CyberLink Released PowerDVD 11

CyberLink PowerDVD 11
For information about the more recent CyberLink PowerDVD 12 look here: PowerDVD 12 review

Today, CyberLink launched PowerDVD 11, the successor of the most widespread and award-winning DVD and Blu-ray player PowerDVD 10. You can find our latest review of PowerDVD 10 along with reviews of 4 other Blu-ray player software products here. In the current article we will introduce the new features of PowerDVD 11 and its progress towards becoming a universal player for various media playback.

PowerDVD 11 is intended to be your general player for viewing DVD and Blu-ray movies, photos, videos and listening to music. Similarly to its predecessors version 11 continues its expansion toward online experience and in addition to the playback of online content, it offers support for transfer and playback of content from smart devices. Whatever niche there is digital entertainment involved in, CyberLink's video player tries to cover it. Of course, it does not play "any media format from any device" as it is advertised but this is also valid for any other media player so let's forgive CyberLink for the exaggeration.

While not being a tremendous upgrade over its previous version, PowerDVD 11 has some new stuff to offer and here are a few highlights:
  • You can play and transfer content from portable devices. Support is offered for Android-based devices and for Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
  • You can use your smart device as a wireless remote control for PowerDVD 11 player with the help of a device application called PowerDVD Remote. You are able to control remotely the playback of your DVD and Blu-ray movies, videos, photos and music. You can zoom or rotate photos from a distance as well as using your device in the form of a wireless mouse pad.
  • You can use the player for photo viewing of JPG, TIFF, BMP, PNG, RAW, etc.
  • You have the possibility to play media files from remote sources either being DLNA servers or social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. You can also upload videos to YouTube directly from PowerDVD as well as commenting on photos and downloading them from Facebook and Flickr.
  • The 3D features have been enhanced. You can play Blu-ray 3D movies and there is a native 3D video support.
  • You can see significant improvements in the 2D to 3D conversion introduced with the previous release. Conversion of 2D Blu-ray discs is not supported although it has been expected but the feature is working for DVDs and video files including 1080p M2TS so the 2D to 3D Blu-ray conversion could be added in the near future. You can also apply the 2D to 3D conversion to images.
  • PowerDVD 11 uses TrueTheater™ to upscale all your video content to near HD quality.
  • You can make your home videos look better with the help of TrueTheater. It is able to remove noise, to enhance details and brightness and to stabilize shaky picture.
  • There is new Ultra-fast Instant Seek that allows you to search your DVDs very fast for a scene you want to watch.
  • As with the previous releases, version 11 offers a very vast video format support, including MKV (H.264), WTV, FLV (H.264), MOV, External Subtitle, 3GP and 3G2.
  • BDMV (Blu-ray folders) playback is here once again after being removed in a previous version.
  • Device auto-detection has been improved.

CyberLink offer PowerDVD in 3 versions as usual. PowerDVD 11 Standard is the cheapest one with the price of US $49.95 and of course it is the version with most limited options. If you want 3D support you will need at least PowerDVD 11 Deluxe which is priced at US $69.95 and for Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D playback you have to purchase the most expensive PowerDVD 11 Ultra version for US $99.95. All versions including upgrade possibilities at reduced prices and free trials are available here. CyberLink's PowerDVD Remote is available at the Apple App Store and Android Market. It costs US $4.99 for PowerDVD Standard version users and it is free for users of PowerDVD Ultra and Deluxe versions.

Check for PowerDVD 11 discount codes by following the link.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Despite my under appreciation (at least in terms of their enormous success) of the whole Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 happened to easily outrun all of the previous installments in the contest for the most boring and unbearable experience. It wasn't that I expected something great or entertaining but I was still quite disappointed by the seventh Harry Potter movie. Frankly speaking, after six long years set at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 offers better character drama and development, a lot of dark substance and a variety of new places and happenings. Still, all of these are overshadowed by a boring narrative, chaotic events and unmotivated behavior.

I am not going to delve into lots of details about the movie's story cause it's pretty much clear: Harry Potter continues his confrontation with Lord Voldemort. Harry and his two "inseparable" friends are on a journey to find and destroy the Horcruxes. A lot of people, creatures and things die. Harry is more lost than ever and only the occasional bright thoughts of Hermione (as usual) keep the party moving forward and in satisfactory health. Ron is constantly listening to some kind of a radio (yes, it's a fantasy movie) and an object similar to The Lord of the Rings' ring makes our heroes to act inadequately sometimes. As a bonus, we see a pointless wedding, a dance in the wilderness and plenty of other oddities.

Our heroes are magicians (and supposedly skilled ones) but every "amateur" chasing them out there is able to easily capture them. Wherever Harry goes, he is almost immediately discovered by Voldemort or his servants unless Hermione does some magic. We hear a ton of incomprehensible incantations of which we understand nothing. Most of the times they do not even work. We constantly wonder why Harry, Ron or Hermione is doing this or that. There is hardly any sensible motivation behind the characters' behavior and this is valid not only for the leads. We see Draco Malfoy and his associates wondering if the third person they see in a group with Hermione and Ron is Harry Potter as if Draco (and everyone else) has not been constantly seeing the three of them together for years. When Hermione starts to look for a "mystic" symbol she begins to find it everywhere and to find it with ease: a random grave in a graveyard appears to have it when she removes the dust from it.

Some of the situations are forced. We see Harry Potter letting Ron to perform probably the most important task in this film although he knows Ron has been unstable recently. Of course, the evil does not sleep and the next thing we see is Ron being tempted by the dark side of the force. Some people may argue that Harry has done this on purpose to give an examination to Ron and strengthen their relationship but even if this is the case, what more inappropriate moment to achieve it than this. Also the concept of Harry almost constantly not knowing what to do and everything to be driven and solved by Hermione is annoying at times.

In addition to the above flaws and overall inaccessibility of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the whole film is too long and tedious. The movie lacks a tight narrative and a good focus. Many of the events just happen. There is a bunch of expendable characters. Maybe if all of the series have been released over a two-year period similarly to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film wouldn't seem so messy. Maybe if you've read the Harry Potter books, the appreciation of the movie could be (considerably) different. But as I've said before I haven't read the Harry Potter books and this is still a valid statement. I've tried to approach the movie as a separate piece of art what it should be independently of the books and the truth is I cannot find it entertaining at all. I've seen worse films, of course, but rarely they've been so valued and successful as this one. I suppose if you are a fan of the books or if you've liked the previous Harry Potter installments and especially if you care for the lead characters, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 would be good for you. But if you haven't been able to appreciate the series until now, the penultimate Harry Potter film will hardly make a more positive impression on you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ACDSee Pro 4: Professional Photo Management Software

Note: As of October, 2011 ACDSee Pro 5 and ACDSee Photo Manager 14 have been released.

ACDSee Pro 5 Photo Management Software
ACDSee Pro 4 has become already available on the market so here is a short introduction of the product. ACDSee Pro 4 is full-featured photo management software for professionals and advanced photography users. According to its manufacturer, the software combines the best characteristics of ACDSee Pro 3 with a variety of new features and it brings together all the tools you need to treat your digital photos in the best possible way. You can view, manage, process, edit and publish your images online by using just one photo management software application. You are able to organize your photos, improve them with stunning visual effects for best perception results and achieve all you want with ease and quickly.

ACDSee Pro 4 Photo Management Software
ACD Systems International Inc. has been one of the leading photo management software providers for both, amateur and professional photographers, since 1993. The company has won multiple awards for products like ACDSee Photo Manager, ACDSee Photo Editor, FotoSlate Photo Print Studio, etc. ACD Systems gained a loyal following offering one of the first shareware software products and a very good JPEG decoder in the 1990's. They have offices in the USA and Canada and a really large user base including millions of customers. So here is some more information on their new product (you can read about its previous reincarnation ACDSee Pro3 and ACDSee Photo Manager 12 here).

Some of the new features of ACDSee Pro 4 include:
  • Geotagging and map view support;
  • Creation of custom metadata views;
  • Creation of metadata presets;
  • Customizable access to your external editing software;
  • Correction of fringing and chromatic aberration (see the picture on the left);
  • Vingnette correction;
  • Automatic upload of your photos to ACDSee online account.

Some of the improved features of ACDSee Pro 4 according to ACD Systems International Inc. are:
  • Performing of high-quality RAW image decoding;
  • Organizing and controlling your photos flexibly using file folders, metadata, ratings, keywords and custom categories;
  • Adding and modifying IPTC 1.1 info to groups of images;
  • Process RAW, JPEG and other format images in a non-destructive way in order to perfect color, exposure, geometry and clarity, while always having the possibility to adjust settings;
  • Processing of RAW images while having complete control and precision;
  • Creating slide shows and screen savers from your photos.

ACDSee Pro 4 photo manager is advertised like being the latest in DSLR photography management and it seems like a good professional photo management software that could be used by advanced amateur photographers as well. If its price is a little bit too high then you can consider buying ACDSee Photo Manager 12 which is more targeted towards amateur users. Either application is a good option but it's better first to think what your particular requirements are and make your decision based on them. And if it happens you are a Mac user, have in mind there is a Pro version for Mac too.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mary and Max (2009): A Profound and Beautiful Film

Mary and Max
Mary and Max is an animated film coming from the Academy Award winning Australian director Adam Elliot. Whereas his Oscar statuette has been in the category of Best Animated Short Film for 2003's Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max is his first full feature animation. But contrary to any expectations for an animated movie, this one is not targeted toward children. The film examines mostly adult subjects and although there is not much content inappropriate for kids, it is not a motion picture that will satisfactory entertain the majority of children.

Mary and Max naturally tells the story of Mary and Max. She is Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice by Toni Collette), a friendless 8-year-old girl living in Melbourne, Australia. He is Max Jerry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely 44-year-old man, living in New York, severely overweight with often anxiety attacks. Mary has an alcoholic mother and a not entirely normal father. And Mary loves chocolate. Max has trouble sleeping, enjoys entering the lottery, visits Overeaters Anonymous meetings each Thursday and has a strange, almost blind, neighbor-woman. And Max adores chocolate. It all starts in the 1970's when Mary picks a random name out of a Manhattan phone book in order to find herself at least a pen pal. And of course, this is Max. Thus, a 20-year long friendship and correspondence begin.

Although following an unlikely relationship between a child and an adult, most of the time Mary and Max goes into more mature topics even if some of them are presented through a child's eyes. Alcoholism, severe obesity, loneliness, love, panic attacks, madness, self-isolation, Asperger’s syndrome, loss, misunderstanding, lack of tolerance, suicide are just a few of the subjects touched in this movie. Most of the problems are just exhibited without any solution to be offered. But there are so many issues referred that even gathering all of them in a single film, makes the effort worthy of praise.

Mary and Max successfully manages to capture the existence in suburban Melbourne and even better to present the spirit of New York. These are often depicted through Max and Mary's naive minds but their simplicity just makes the pictures more moving. The use of muted color schemes for both worlds also helps a lot. Mary's universe has an overall brown touch, where Max's world is portrayed in grey. There are only occasional appearances of more color in a few episodes when something important or interesting has to be underlined, e.g. red lips, brown chocolate or a red pompom.

Having in mind all unhappy topics the movie concerns, it should be expected that Mary and Max is dominated by a feel of helplessness, isolation and misfortune. And it is. But there are also funny moments and much of the letters between our two main characters are written with a touch of subtle humor. You'll find yourself laughing plenty of times although the substance of the lines you hear is not comical at all. Independently of the occasional grins, at the end of the film it's hard to be in anything else than a sad mood.

Mary and Max is both beautiful and melancholic. It's visually interesting. The work of voice artist (mainly Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman) is fantastic. The music is also a great match. The movie is not so full of sorrow as, for example, Grave of the Fireflies is, but nevertheless, Adam Elliot's debut full feature effort is among the rare cases of animations leaving you with uncomfortable feeling after their ending. So, if you enjoy watching profound animated films, you should definitely give this movie a try.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Maria Full of Grace (2004): ...And a Portion of Disgrace

Maria Full of Grace
Some people do not like Forrest Gump because they think to portray an unintelligent man succeeding in the USA is just not right or politically correct. One might wonder then, why they haven't anathematized the film Maria Full of Grace. Because although I love Forrest Gump, I cannot get rid of the feeling that Maria Full of Grace portrays drug life and particularly being a drug mule as an almost innocent game. Whether the movie could push some young people into making the dangerous step towards drug affairs is beyond my ability to know but it definitely does very little to present the real side of the drug business. And I do not think that the usual "it's just a movie" excuse is suitable for a film of such kind.

Maria Full of Grace (an interesting and suitable title with multiple meanings) is about Maria, a pregnant seventeen-year-old Colombian girl, who loses her everyday job but is forced by her relatives to work and help them with money. Without having a good perspective for a new job, she accepts an "accidental" offer to become a drug mule and transport cocaine between Colombia and the United States in her belly. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned and even Maria's first trip turns into a "nightmare". She discovers that her friend Blanca has also joined the bunch of drug mules, New York customs inspectors immediately become suspicious of her and a drug mule colleague gets ill on the plane and subsequently dies.

While the movie is well executed and the acting is rather good with Catalina Sandino Moreno getting an Academy Award nomination for her role of Maria, the unrealistic depiction of drug business doings just spoils the otherwise fine premise. It's Ok that we see a naive teenager becoming a drug mule and that an even less intelligent friend of Maria's follows her. But the events that later happen are just a row of lucky occurrences in order to achieve a happy ending and they have nothing to do with the reality.

To avoid writing just twaddle and with the risk of producing some spoilers (skip this and the next paragraph if you prefer), here are a few examples in support of the aforementioned statements. While Maria instantly becomes a suspect upon her arrival at New York's airport and customs inspectors interrogate her and they believe she is carrying drugs in her stomach, all of a sudden they decide to discharge her without making any tests. Being pregnant is not a fair reason for that. And it's even stranger that nobody follows her to see where she's going and eventually to capture some of the drug dealers. It's inexplicable how the customs inspectors suddenly change their minds after being firmly convinced Maria is a drug mule.

Furthermore, Maria and Blanca know that if something goes wrong their families will pay for it but still they run away with the dope. That's still Ok but luckily again, the drug dealers in Colombia are not informed about the girl's escape so nothing happens to their families. Finally, after some time, the girls decide to call back and return the dope. As you already should have expected, Maria and Blanca survive again. They even receive their money and dare to ask for more. And everything ends happily... It could be said the movie has a surprising ending but it's not a virtue in this case. Since the film is not a parody one would anticipate that after doing so many stupid things the girls would be punished either by the drug dealers or at least by the police. But nothing like this happens.

There are many movies (even ones dealing with history) that present actual (historical) facts untruly. Yet, their life impact is not so critical. Maria Full of Grace does not portray actual events so everything seen in the movie is possible although not quite probable. The big problem is the film's lack of realism could send a very wrong message to the teenagers with its mild treatment of dangerous subjects like drug dealings and law violation. Sometimes, films about drugs, addiction or participation in a drug addiction treatment program get it right as far as portrayal is concerned. It's not the case with this movie though.

As I've mentioned above Maria Full of Grace is not a poorly produced movie and it is possible to enjoy it. But have in mind that the narco-business is presented pretty much like a usual job. In real life and in regard to the film's events, those 2 girls would have ended either in prison (their better option) or shot dead. After all, they've shot footballers in Colombia for nothing more than scoring an own goal. So, if there are youngsters around you, be aware that the dark side of the drug world is just softly hinted in Maria Full of Grace.

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