Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011): Alienated Old Wild West

Cowboys & Aliens
On a first thought the idea of mixing cowboys and aliens in a single movie may appear preposterous or cheeky. So, perhaps a bit surprisingly, what makes this concept cool is the fact the movie is serious about itself as opposed to the humorous and light approach to the Old West in, for example, Wild Wild West. Cowboys & Aliens is based on the graphic novel of the same name and is made by the director and cinematographer duo Jon Favreau and Matthew Libatique who also did Iron Man and Iron Man 2 together.

Apparently the filmmakers were aiming to merge two genres: the classic western and the aliens thriller. Cowboys & Aliens starts as a western, develops into an alien-abduction-sci-fi-meets-search-party-westerns and then dives into an alien thriller, mixing genre conventions in its way. The western part of the mix is easily the better one. There are numerous allusions to the classics: from the opening shot which tips its hat to Leone through Daniel Craig being Steve McQueen look-alike to the emulation of Conrad Hall's western looks. Matthew Libatique has certainly gone to great lengths to make the movie stay close to the classic look: it is shot with anamorphics and sticking with normal and short telephoto lenses, moving away from the more modern and aggressive appearance of the wide angle glass.

The story is not very interesting and, somewhat surprisingly given the topic, succeeds in being generic. The first act is the most convincing. This is the part where the filmmakers embrace western conventions and pacing to the fullest. Lots of steam is lost in the second act when the aliens are stripped of most of their mystery. The final encounter, which probably emulates western showdowns is largely underwhelming, mixing dull stunts with dull pathos.

The cast of Cowboys & Aliens is pretty good. Daniel Craig is successful in a mostly silent leading role offering a new spin on the old no-name hero motif. Harrison Ford is cool in anything, which is not a romcom, once again unleashing his usual mannerisms. He is certainly one of the few actors who can afford playing the same role over and over again and stay entertaining all the time. His iconic charisma adds interest to an otherwise rather flat movie. Fans are even served with an "I am your father" line. Sam Rockwell's and Paul Dano's talents aren't put to particularly efficient use. Especially the latter gives a quirky and whiny but somewhat tiresome performance, which is probably supposed to add some old school character actor color but will also annoy many moviegoers. Olivia Wilde is hardly making the role of her life but with her intriguing and obscure character she manages to bring some decent feminine flavor amidst all the cowboys and aliens populating the film.

Sticking to the classic looks, the filmmakers have stayed away from 3D. A high point in the movie is the first appearance of the aliens. Their assault on the town is largely achieved through practical effects: lights (including lasers) rigged onto a spydercam system with minimal (if any) use of CGI. The alien creatures themselves are based on a mixture of xenomorphs and predators in yet another nod to the classics.

If most of the above has not been sounding too awful do not hurry to raise your expectations. Cowboys & Aliens has an interesting premise but it is not realized even to its half potential and as already stated, the better parts end in the first third of the movie. For keen lovers of the two genres used to produce the mixture, the film could possibly be a watchable effort but if you are among the rest of the general movie audience, there are better films you can see.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy Blu-ray Warm-up Reviews

Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy

Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Episode 1 is where the decline of the Star Wars series started. I mean a decline when considering The Phantom Menace as a part of the series. It's not such a bad movie on its own although it has elements of unintended parody. In my personal opinion the movie is the least spoiled in the prequel trilogy since it doesn't offer so much debunking of old characters and ideas as the next 2 episodes. But compared to the original trilogy it is a big departure from its virtues. There are no strong characters like Darth Vader or Han Solo. The music is similar to the old score but weaker without any new memorable themes (it did not receive an Academy Award or even an Oscar nomination as it had always happened in the case of the original 3 movies). The film offers parody characters like Jar Jar Binks and suggests the Immaculate Conception notion for Anakin Skywalker. And finally, The Phantom Menace is the closest to a childish story of all 6 Star Wars movies which is not mandatorily bad. It has proved to be the most successful of the prequels in terms of box office, probably due to the older Star Wars fans' enormous anticipation of something big.

Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
Attack of the Clones is darker than its predecessor and not so childish but it's where the debunking of the myths starts. We are offered a forbidden love story combined with some early signs of Anakin's temptation to embrace the dark side of the Force. But while this adds a bit to the overall storyline of the Star Wars saga it's not presented in the most believable way. On the other hand, while Anakin shows symptoms of disobedience and non-compliance with the Jedi Order's rules, it's hard to associate him with the future Darth Vader. To make the lack of correspondence worse arrives the flying Yoda who looks no better than a teddy bear floating in the air. And if the flying ridicule of Yoda is also not enough, a few unnecessary characters like Count Dooku are added. In brief: an even weaker sequel to a weak opening installment.

Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The final (let's hope) film of the Star Wars saga... Some people consider Revenge of the Sith to be the best of the prequel trilogy most likely because it's the darkest and also chronologically the closest to the original trilogy. It shows familiar characters like the newborn Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader in his usual "clothing" and the well-known Emperor. Yet, the Emperor is not the same. If the debunking of Yoda has been unpleasant in Episode 2, here's the time to feel the same way about Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. If he has been an embodiment and the root of all evil in the original trilogy, in Revenge of the Sith he is much closer to an ordinary although clever and skilful villain. Of course, Yoda continues his flight too. And in addition to Count Dooku, there is another unneeded character in the face of General Grievous. The transformation of Anakin in Darth Vader is hugely forced and unconvincing: in no time he changes himself from a supposedly good person to a merciless mass murderer of children. The "mighty" Jedi Order is destroyed with an incredible ease and almost everything intended to provide a link to the original Star Wars trilogy seems in fact strained.

This ends the 6 short reviews of the films forming Star Wars: The Complete Saga package expected to be released on Blu-ray discs in September. Expect to read our comments on the constant "improvements" George Lucas is applying to his original movies in the upcoming weeks.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy Blu-ray Warm-up Reviews

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
Just to warm up for the upcoming release (September 16, 2011) of Star Wars: The Complete Saga as well as for the separate releases of the both Star Wars trilogies on Blu-ray discs I've decided to write a few lines about each of the 6 Star Wars movies. I prefer to order them chronologically in terms of original theatrical release dates as I feel this approach is better. You can find also some thoughts on the endless alterations George Lucas is applying to his creations here.

Star Wars (1977) a.k.a. Episode IV - A New Hope
The first film of the original Star Wars trilogy is still considered to be the best by a huge part of fans and critics. It introduces the whole Star Wars universe to the public with interesting places, creatures, space ships, weapons, etc. It presents the Jedi and the Force with both of its sides. The movie has an interesting and likeable story. The characters are fun and entertaining. We are introduced to one of the strangest cinema couples in the face of C-3PO and R2-D2. The music is among the greatest to be heard in a motion picture. The special effects are fascinating. And the good wins the battle against the evil Empire. What more to be desired from a Hollywood movie?

Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
If the first film of the original trilogy is an achievement to be remembered, the second one is not a step back at all. The only major "flaw" it has is to have a predecessor. It's a sequel that is not often seen and it's the author's personal favorite in the Star Wars series. Unlikely for a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back changes considerably the form of the initial installment: it's darker, deeper and more mature. There is not a regular "happy" ending. The film sports one of the greatest twists in the movie history. And we see the initial appearance of the universal favorite Yoda. Independently of the overall darker atmosphere, Han Solo is still fresh and funny, while the evil Darth Vader seems unshakeable and stronger than ever. The music is still a great match for both, the whole Episode 5 and the individual scenes. And in addition, we learn considerably more about the Star Wars universe compared to the first movie. All of the above makes The Empire Strikes Back an essential part of the saga and arguably its best installment.

Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)
Episode 6 could be considered the first step back in the Star Wars series and the weakest in the original trilogy. Still, it offers genuine entertainment, big portions of fun and judged only by itself it is a very good picture. While it is closer to Episode 4 in overall atmosphere and even in terms of plot, it provides some interesting scenes and an army of new creatures. Considerable amount of time is dedicated to non-humans: Ewoks, Jabba the Hutt, Rancor and Sarlacc to list a few. The action sequences are also at their peak here (speaking of the original trilogy) with a significant screen presence. The story offers a couple of small twists although nothing so striking compared to The Empire Strikes Back. So in general, Return of the Jedi is a likable effort if not as strong as the first 2 movies. But then again, it's a part of the original Star Wars trilogy.

To read short reviews of the prequel movies follow the link: Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy Reviews.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Region Free Blu-ray Player Software and Hardware Hacks

Introduction (or why would you need a region free Blu-ray player)

If you are a movie buff you may have already experienced the annoyance caused by not being able to play a Blu-ray disc in your player due to region restrictions. Of course, the answer to the question Are Blu-ray players region free? is negative. The Blu-ray region code policy comes from the dark ages before information globalization and somehow it has managed to sneak into modern times. Sarcasm aside, the system of the Blu-ray region codes is in a way inherited from DVDs but with less number of separate areas. Back then standard definition reigned and the notion of having different discs for NTSC and PAL regions was at least technically relevant. This is not the case with high definition movies. TV sets around the world do NOT differ intrinsically in their high definition capabilities (and BD playback in particular). So the idea of these restrictions now is simply to enable movie studios to differentiate content and prices by geographical area.

While this is (arguably) good for the studios and their business, it is a pain in the ass for dedicated movie fans on account of at least two reasons:
  • Editions of the same movie sometimes have differences in specific regions, which means you may happen to live in the area with the crappier edition, which kinda sucks.
  • Some high quality Bluray discs are only available (and coded) in a single area. For example, movie fans' darling Criterion only ever releases BDs in North America (region A). On the other hand, European publishers like BFI, Eureka, etc. release movies coded in region B (Europe).

Some studios (Paramount and Universal) are good enough to release their titles as region-free, but most movie companies either release region-locked discs only, or a mix of locked and region-free titles.

Back in DVD times this annoying situation was eventually solved with the introduction of region-free (also known as multi-region or codefree) players, which were able to play DVDs from all over the world. So what can you do to eliminate this frustration in the case of BDs?

Again, just to get it out of the way, there is not any region free Blu-ray player out-of-the-box. Manufacturers of BD players are required to enable their products to play only discs coming from the area they sell the product in and region-free (multi-region) titles. Discs coded for other areas are not supported. That said, there are solutions or hacks for both BD player software (like Cyberlink PowerDVD Ultra, ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre, etc.) users and for fans of hardware BD players (for some products, at least).

Region free Blu-ray player software for Windows 7, XP and Vista systems

CyberLink PowerDVD 12 Ultra

TotalMedia Theatre 5
In PC systems with BD drives Blu-ray region codes are checked only by the software player, and NOT by the optical drive itself. Blu-ray player software products typically allow for up to 5 changes in their settings menus before finalizing the region code. There is an important consequence stemming from the fact that the drive itself does not verify region codes: you can have more than one software player installed on your computer and each could be set to a DIFFERENT code.

And this presents the first solution (albeit not very elegant) to the region free Blu-ray player problem in the software case: you can buy two (or even three) different BD playing packages and have one set for region A and another for region B (or region C, if you so desire). For example, suppose your primary region is A (North America), but you also want to be able to play B (Europe) discs. Then you can have PowerDVD set to reg. A and TotalMedia Theatre (or Corel WinDVD, etc.) set to reg. B. This is, actually, a viable solution to make your Blu-ray player region free (multiregion) capable, especially if you buy a cheaper software player as your secondary one (that could be Corel WinDVD).

There is another software solution to perform a Blu-ray region hack. Its legal transparency is vague, so use the following tip at your own discretion. Once again, this follows from the fact that optical drives in PC systems do not verify region codes and only software does. This means that if the software is forced to "think" that the region code change count has not expired (is less than 5), the user will be able to change the Blu-ray regions indefinitely. Different software players protect this counter by different means, but as is often the case, some kind people have automated the process of "cheating" the software and turning it into a multi region Blu-ray player. Blu-ray Region Tray Tool is a very simple (and free) program by ChiDragon running in Windows tray which allows you to change the Bluray region setting in PowerDVD Ultra 7, 8, 9 and 10 (no support for PowerDVD Ultra 11 at the time of this writing) and TotaMedia Theatre 3 and 5 at will, thus enabling you to bypass the change count limit in these packages. Here is a link to the latest version of the Blu-ray region hack tool, and here is a link to a more detailed description.

For a complete list of all software BD players available on the market check our reviews of Blu-ray player software.

Our review continues with Part 2 dedicated to region free Blu-ray player hardware.

Region Free Blu-ray Player Software and Hardware Hacks, Part 2

(...continues from Part 1 of our region free Blu-ray player reviews introducing the main issues caused by the existence of Blu-ray region codes and suggesting a couple of software solutions.)

Region free Blu-ray players (hardware)

As mentioned in the previous part, there is not a region free Blu-ray player out-of-the-box due to restrictions forced by the Blu-ray Disc Association. And unlike HTPCs which use Blu-ray player software for playback, getting your hardware player to read discs from multiple regions requires more work or may be impossible, depending on the model. There are two general ways to transform BD playing devices into region-free / multi-region players (more or less).

Sherwood BDP-5004 Blu-ray Disc Player (Black)
The first method utilizes the fact that sometimes manufacturers (usually unintentionally, for testing or whatever purposes) leave "doors" in their firmware which permit the user to change the region code (or to unlock the device thus making it region-free) by entering a specific sequence of remote control button presses at specific times. This process is usually tedious and may require a lot of tries plus precise timing. In addition, once such sequences appear on the web, subsequent firmware updates tend to disable them as manufacturers get alerted and address that. So you either install the update and lose the region-free (multiregion) capability, or stick with older firmware and get locked out of any features and fixes provided by the firmware updates.

The first BD players which were notable for being able to turn into "region free" were Momitsu BDP-799 and Momitsu BDP-899. Users used to utilize the above method to unlock them. Various Momitsu clones are still available under different brand names. For example, Sherwood BDP-5004 is a Momitsu BDP-899 clone. It can be programmed to specific Blu-ray regions by the following remote button sequences:

87510+1 for region A
87510+2 for region B
87510+3 for region C
(And it seems that 9735 can replace 8751 in the beginning of the sequence.)

The selected region will stay active until the device is switched off. After that the player reverts to the original region code. These sequences also make the Blu-ray player region-free in terms of DVDs (and it stays so on power off, unlike the Blu-ray region code selection). Also, keep in mind that firmware updates from 2010 or later disable this "hack". You may need to downgrade the firmware if your device has a newer firmware version preinstalled and you want to turn it into a region free Blu-ray player.

OPPO BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
The second hardware method uses modchips to cheat the device into "thinking" that Blu-ray region code verification is successful. In general, this method results in a much more pleasant user experience compared to the first Blu-ray region hack described above. Another advantage is that the modchip is transparent to the firmware, so future firmware updates can be installed safely with all the benefits that follow. Downsides include voiding the warranty (this may not apply for newer chips which are solderless and can be easily installed and removed) and higher price - chips usually go for $50-$150, depending on whether you buy a player with preinstalled modchip or install the chip yourself.

OPPO BDP-93 is the choice of many enthusiasts who want to have a multi-region Blu-ray player, and also the preferred BD player choice of the AVSForum hive-mind. It combines exceptional video and audio quality with tons of features, including Netflix streaming, Blockbuster on Demand, Vudu HD support and cinema-like 24p playback (if your TV set supports it, of course). Audiophiles may want to get the highest model, OPPO BDP-95, which has high-end analog audio output in addition, plus some extras (for double the price). But if you connect your audio through HDMI you better stay with OPPO BDP-93. You can mod the player yourself, for example with the beautifully made solderless kits from (free shipping worldwide, last time I checked but better ask for availability before ordering). Installation is easy and painless even for people with zero tech skills. Or, alternatively, you can get yourself a pre-modded region-free player, for example OPPO BDP-93, which will cost you a bit extra. And you can get a premodded OPPO BDP-95 too but it's really expensive.

A cheaper region free Blu-ray player alternative, although not as highly regarded as the OPPO BDP-93, is LG BD550. Similarly to the OPPO, it supports Netflix and Vudu plus Netcast, Roxio CinemaNow and YouTube. LG BD570 is the same as BD550 but with Wi-Fi connectivity.

This ends our reviews of software and hardware hacks that allow you to make your Blu-ray player multi-region capable. If we become aware of any new solutions in the future we will gladly add them to the list of possible options.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - Teaser or More?

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger is the last of the individual avenger movies before Joss Whedon's The Avengers next year. We've already seen Iron Man and Thor get their place under the spotlight. This time we have the all-American hero there. So is this a legitimate movie or just milking the Marvel universe?

Joe Johnston was chosen to direct due to his experience with period movies, having previously made The Rocketeer and October Sky. He brought on board his long time collaborator, cinematographer Shelly Johnson. The movie sports a somewhat distinctive look, based on stylized sets and simple and direct color schemes: heroes' scenes in warm tones, villains' scenes in blue and green. This stylization provides a certain comic book element to the period feeling.

Captain America: The First Avenger plays it safe and doesn't take any risks. This results in some decent entertainment, if not exactly thrilling. The story is generic and somewhat choppy, especially in the motivation department, but nevertheless provides an OK background for the introduction of the captain. Chris Evans is actually nice in the lead role. He already has half a dozen roles in comic book adaptations, which apparently did not stop him from accepting this one. The supporting cast is heavyweight, with Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Stanley Tucci. Hugo Weaving, in the role of the main antagonist Red Skull (only called by his real name, Johann Schmidt, in the movie), takes a particularly comics' inspired approach with his character, utilizing overdone accents and over the top attitude. In fact, all fake German accents are on the heavy side, which you may find entertaining, hilarious or silly, depending on your inclination. As the movie keeps it tight and doesn't take free dives into exposition, some of the supporting roles do feel rushed. This is especially true for the captain's crew: it almost looks like they are building them up for something that is never shown on screen.

Highlights include the digitally shrunk body of captain Rogers before his scientific "treatment" (no body doubles there); a certain demonstration by Stark Industries in the Modern Marvels Pavilion; the "creation of the American hero" montage that shows how the image of Captain America was conceived; and a chase scene through the streets of New York (which, incidentally, was shot in the UK). Last, but not least, there is a treat for the fans after the credits in the form of The Avengers teaser scene.

Similarly to Thor, the movie was post-converted to 3D. The result is smooth and pleasing. Apparently post-conversion to 3D has gone a long way since epic failures in this respect like Clash of the Titans.

In summary, Captain America: The First Avenger is a decent entry into the summer blockbuster ranks. Marvel fans obviously don't need any recommendations but everyone else can also see it in preparation for next year's The Avengers.

To discover other movie reviews go deeper in our Review Maze.