Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
After a decade of success the Harry Potter series has come to a conclusion. It all began as a children's story under Chris Columbus's direction in 2001. The first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was a box office success but was largely overshadowed by the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings trilogy amongst the older audience. The third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is still probably the best in the series. It was a drastic change in look and feel: darker and tighter, setting the tone for more mature future development. The next installment, under Mike Newell's direction, acknowledged both this fact and the supposed growing older of the fanbase by moving the series into PG-13 ground.

When David Yates, a relatively unknown TV director, was selected to continue the saga many were puzzled and doubtful. But (un)surprisingly, Yates went on directing all four final episodes. While the material he was working with was not always interesting he managed to bring in some fresh air. Yates succeeded in fleshing out Harry's inner turmoil, which was largely uninteresting up to then. At times his episodes got an almost indie drama touch to them, especially when putting the three main characters against the urban London backdrops. This weird (for a multi-million budget blockbuster) indie inclination culminated in the character drama aspirations of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Boring happenings storywise aside, this movie could easily be mistaken for a character driven drama, masterfully filmed by Eduardo Serra.

The closing installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, is all about the final confrontation of Harry and Voldemort, the event that the whole series was building towards. It is competently executed fast paced non-stop action with tight script and editing, and in stark contrast with the slow previous episode. Everything is at its best here: the acting of the leads is passable (as opposed to "unbearable" before), the visuals are convincing, the musical score of Alexandre Desplat is the best in the series (and yes, this means better than John Williams's scores for the first three episodes). Unnecessary exposition and overexplanations are shoved aside and the only infodump sequence is beautifully made. The cinematography is great. Eduardo Serra had to fill in the shoes of Bruno Dellbonel (who got an Oscar nomination for filming the sixth episode) and he did exactly that, and then some more: framing is perfect, the camera movement and angles are vigorous, but competent, and the lighting is gorgeous; it conjures some suitably dark atmosphere without the images themselves being unpleasantly dark and making stuff hard to see. And unlike the so-so leads, the seasoned British actors in the supporting roles are all delightfully good.

It is not all flowers and songs, though. Despite a couple of thrilling sequences, battle scenes are not very epic (compared to a certain fantasy trilogy) and may feel small. This is not a fault per se, but is worth noting. There are a few cringeworthy attempts at pathos delivered through pathetic speeches, pun intended. The epilogue closes the cycle and returns the mood back to the first movies which is not entirely convincing. A more contemplative final might have been a better choice cinematically, but apparently fans of the books need to be serviced too.

This final episode is also the first and only of the series with a 3D release. The movie is post-converted to 3D which is usually a bad sign (cashing in on the 3D wave and whatnot). But in this case it is well done and makes the whole 3D experience less taxing. Still, watching this in 3D is not a must so feel free to see it in good old 2D.

In conclusion, this is a very easy movie to recommend (or not): if you haven't seen the previous episodes, there is no reason to go see this one as it is really the last chapter in a series; if you've seen them, you obviously don't need our recommendation to watch this one. The series has certainly been an uneven ride but it is nonetheless an unprecedented undertaking in cinema (and a pop culture phenomenon), and that makes it worth knowing.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life (1946): Is It a Wonderful Movie?

It's a Wonderful Life
When you feel sad or full of frustration and despair, it would be a good time to watch this movie. It's a Wonderful Life is likely to bring back your vitality and trust in yourself and people. It is one of the classic films that will never grow old or boring and despite being shot in black and white Frank Capra's picture is full of color like not too many movies. It shows how valuable the life of everybody is although this fact is often obscure and unrealized by many of us. After seeing this film, a man could think of himself as a more important part of the society and probably raise his own self-esteem considerably.

It's a Wonderful Life is about a guy with dreams who has never had an opportunity to realize them. George Bailey (James Stewart) has spent his entire life sacrificing his longing for travel, his honeymoon, his perspectives of better career and more money in order to help his fellow-townsmen against the greedy and heartless Mr. Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who would love to take over the entire city making its citizens dependent on his will and loans. During the years, George becomes more and more frustrated and finally reaches to a point when he is thinking about suicide in result of an unfortunate event. But thanks to the prayers of his wife Mary (Donna Reed), his uncle (Thomas Mitchell), his children and other good people, a wingless angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to help George in an unusual way.

If the synopsis above has started to sound like a fantasy movie, you can indeed consider the film to be a product of loose imagination. But the presence of fantasy elements only helps It's a Wonderful Life to communicate its main message in a superb and effortless way, and to finish on a high note. The movie does have a happy ending but it is mandatory in this case and since it is anyway a fairy-tale-like film a happy ending fits it better compared to many other Hollywood pictures.

Director Frank Capra is at his best here. The movie has plenty of funny moments in parallel with a good portion of drama. We see George's inner fight multiple times when he is standing on some of the crossroads destining his future life. James Stewart makes one of his greatest performances here and he is a fantastic match for the role of George Bailey. George's romance with Mary Hatch is both beautiful and humorous. Donna Reed makes a good portrayal of one of the Bedford Falls' longing-for-George girls and his future wife. Lionel Barrymore is a convincing "villain" and Thomas Mitchell presents likeable impersonation of Uncle Billy. The movie deservedly has been nominated for the Academy's Best Picture award but not so fairly it has missed to win the Oscar statuette in this category similarly to all other Academy Awards it has been nominated for.

It's a Wonderful Life is a tale for adults but it is a suitable film for the whole family. What I mean by labelling it "a tale for adults" is that if you have some real life experience, you'll be in better position to appreciate this movie's message. The film should definitely help you if you are in a bad mood and think your life is a failure. It can surely kindle your thirst for living once again if you are in one of those unhappy periods of your existence. But as it should be expected from each and every great motion picture, It's a Wonderful Life is a movie you can delightfully watch even when your life is in a marvellous condition. It's a wonderful cinematic experience you can try out anytime.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hardware Vs. Software Blu-ray Player: Which Is Better?

In order to build a complete Home Theater system you need media reproduction hardware, i.e., video and audio playback modules, and some equipment to feed these modules with content. Due to the complexity of the video signal compared to the audio, the sound experience has been considerably ahead of its visual counterpart for many years: with the appearance of the compact disc, we have had digital audio since the dawn of the 1980's and various audio technologies are almost perfect nowadays offering high fidelity sound and surround sound systems with multiple channels.

A couple of decades later, the visual side of the hardware has begun to catch up: big high definition two dimensional displays and projectors are now widely adopted, a new generation of 3D displays is gaining speed fast, and good Home Theater experience is more popular than ever.

Conventionally, the media playing equipment has been represented by a box positioned near the TV: either a videotape player, a Laserdisc player, a DVD player, or as of recently a Blu-ray player (or HD DVD player for people not having enough luck to make the right choice in the HD format wars). But over the years, the personal computer has begun to establish a new trend as being an all-in-one machine for education, work and entertainment (like movie playing, browsing, gaming, etc.). A similar approach towards convergence has been shown with the introduction of the newest generation of video gaming consoles. They have moved closer to the PCs in terms of functionality as being advanced media entertainment devices rather than just boxes for gaming.

So, the good old video playing hardware box is more and more often substituted by software running on an already available PC at home. Indeed, the media player software has a bunch of advantages and since the latest broadly popular storage media is the Blu-ray disc, let's look at some of the better sides of the Blu-ray player software over its box / hardware counterpart (of course, pretty much the same is valid for the DVD playing options):
  • A software Blu-ray playing product could be considered a part of an all-in-one media entertainment solution.
  • BD playback software is to a big extent independent from the particular underlying hardware. And as the desktop PC hardware is modular by nature, this brings three more advantages out.
  • A Blu-ray software player can be easily updated with new functionality. Any new features could come with a downloadable software update. The recent introduction of Blu-ray 3D format is a suitable example.
  • If you want or need to change your PC's optical drive it will be cheaper compared to a dedicated hardware Bluray player full change.
  • If there is a need of more processing capacity with the appearance of new BD profiles in the future then only a CPU or/and a graphics card update can be easily made in the case of a personal computer.
  • BD playback software comes with more features compared to any Blu-ray hardware player.
  • Since most of the software Bluray players offer free trials, you can test them before making a purchase.
  • As most of us already have a PC, the additional price of the software Blu-ray player is lower compared to a dedicated hardware box. Blu-ray player software could be bought for prices as low as $50 and often even for less if you take advantage of a promotional Blu-ray software offer.

Some possible disadvantages of the software players include:
  • In the majority of cases, you will need your PC to be situated in the living room. And this may be a problem.
  • Compared to a dedicated hardware player, preparation to watch a movie will take a little bit longer.

Regardless of its minor disadvantages, Blu-ray player software will gain more and more popularity as if you already have a computer with a BD drive, you can download a software player instantly, cheaply and you don't need to purchase any additional hardware. In case you are looking for a media playing product like this, you can read our 2012 Windows Blu-ray player reviews in order to make the best choice for your particular needs.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Almost Famous (2000): Almost Great

Almost Famous
Some people like Almost Famous because of its cleverness, honesty and truthfulness. But although there are some elements of these in the movie, Almost Famous is still not much different than the typical Hollywood feature. This does not prevent the film from being a good effort but it is hardly so close to reality as people try to describe it. There is drama, comedy, small twists and of course a happy ending... What else would you expect from a Hollywood movie?

Almost Famous tells the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit) who is a 15-year-old wannabe rock music critic. He luckily gets the chance to write a story for Rolling Stone magazine about Stillwater, an "almost famous" rock band which he accompanies on their American tour. William is not alone in the world: he has an exacting mother (Frances McDormand) who loves him very much and is always worried about him; he has a mentor in the field of rock journalism - Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman); and there are several young girls (groupies) travelling with the band who take care of William. He also seems to be a good friend with Stillwater's members but do they consider him a pal or he'll remain their "enemy" forever...

Almost Famous is undeniably a good movie. The story is interesting. William sees a lot of new things about life, love, drugs, betrayal, etc. and it is easy to like him. The direction is fine. The acting is quite strong. Kate Hudson makes a very nice performance as the famous groupie Penny Lane (though she and her colleagues prefer the term "Band Aide" instead of groupie). In this movie, Hudson is capable of bringing a sad smile to your face. Frances McDormand is wonderful as usually in her role of William's mother. You can easily feel the concern about her son and at the same time she is very funny in her attempts to protect him from all bad and evil. The actors playing band members (Billy Crudup, Jason Lee) as well as Patrick Fugit also make decent performances. And of course, we have Philip Seymour Hoffman who has a tiny portion of screen time but makes a memorable appearance as an honest, experienced and predictive rock journalist that readily helps the naive and enthusiastic William in his march towards the success.

The director Cameron Crowe tries to present some of the nasty sides of being a rock musician or a person working/living in rock industry circles. And indeed, the movie manages to make it at times. But somehow Almost Famous suffers from being a Hollywood film. There is a forced happy ending and there are several unbelievable events. Why a magazine would ask a rock star whether an unfavourable article about him is true? What answer do they expect? "Yes, we behave like stupid, immature bastards, go and publish it." There are a couple of other not feasible moments too but let's not spoil the whole movie.

Despite its faults, Almost Famous is an interesting and entertaining picture to watch. Being a movie about music, it could be anticipated that the film would offer a good soundtrack too. And it does. Just do not expect that this is the definitive movie about the rock industry or about journalism. It's a motion picture after all thus it's a bit disconnected from reality. But if you don't insist on learning everything about the real doings of "almost famous" people from this source only and you enjoy movies about music, go ahead and watch the film.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981): Not Fully Engaging

The Postman Always Rings Twice
If after seeing Jack Nicholson's and Jessica Lange's names on The Postman Always Rings Twice cast list you've expected to watch a great film you will be most likely unpleasantly surprised. The Postman Always Rings Twice from 1981 is a remake. And as it often happens with movie remakes this is not a very good one. Bob Rafelson has tried to make a more modern and open-minded version of the film but while he succeeds in this attempt, the movie lacks heart and it barely keeps you involved into any of the events that happen.

The film is based on James M. Cain's novel and it is about the attractive and unsatisfied wife Cora (Jessica Lange) of Greek roadside saloon owner Nick Papadakis (John Colicos) and the crude vagabond Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) who is incidentally hired by Nick. Cora and Frank start an uneven affair that finally evolves in a plan for murdering her husband. Naturally, there are complications of all kinds and various fatal coincidences happen all the time. How everything will end is up to you to discover if you decide to see the movie.

While the plot is moderately interesting and could be a premise for a decent movie, in reality The Postman Always Rings Twice does not effectively turn the plot into a good feature. Motivation of the main characters changes quite too often for such important decisions they have to take. Cora's and Frank's behavior is frankly chaotic. At the same time, the pacing is somehow slow. There are too many coincidences for a serious drama. And in addition to all of these, there is not enough heart in the movie as I've already mentioned. The audience cannot dive deeply into the film and cannot associate with its characters.

The acting of the leads is overall good but the truth is that Jack Nicholson being one of the greatest actors of our time has had many better performances than this. Jack demonstrates a solid acting as usual but he does not seem to be the perfect match for his role since he does not present to the viewer a real look and feel of a hard-hearted drifter. Jessica Lange is an appropriate choice for the part of Cora but another unsuccessful side of the movie is that there is not enough chemistry between Cora and Frank. Even the famous sex scenes between them seem somehow forced and unnatural. John Colicos makes a good portrayal of Nick Papadakis and there is a short appearance of Anjelica Huston which is also not bad but both are not enough to compensate the lack of genuine passion and involvement in the picture.

1981's The Postman Always Rings Twice is mildly intriguing and unfortunately even less engaging. It has some sparks here and there and it is not a complete waste of time but the main question should be is it worth watching when there are so many other great movies released through the years. The answer could vary depending on who's asking. In general, if you are a more casual movie viewer you can skip this film and watch one of the better pictures starring either some of these actors or whoever else. If you are seriously into the movies and you've already seen thousands of films, well, you can see this one too.

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