Thursday, July 29, 2004

Spider-Man 2 (again)

* * * * (out of four)(still)
Seen 28 July 2004 at the New England Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theater (The IMAX Experience)

It has, of late, become somewhat unusual for me to see the movie more than once in theaters. Heck, even after the reflex-reaction DVD purchase during the first week of availabilty when it's on sale, I'll generally leave that movie on my shelf because, gee, I've seen it in the past year and there are all these other movies clamoring for my attention. A second evening spent watching even a certified four-star movie seems like time that could be spent on something I haven't seen. Watching the movie you know you love is likely a better investment, in terms of probable return on your time and money, but watching a greater variety is better for you long-term, even if you wind up seeing something awful; you might spot an actor that it's worth keeping an eye on or be forewarned for the director's next movie.

So, why was I at Spider-Man 2 again last night? Two reasons; as the title mentions, Spidey 2 is the latest film to undergo IMAX's DMR process to get blown up to look good on a six-story screen. Also, my youngest brother came into town for it. Going to movies and talking about it afterward with someone is more fun that going by one's self. So even if the ticket for the IMAX showing is $13 (or, in my case, getting Matt dinner while he pays for the tickets), it's at least a different kind of experience.

It is, however, gratifying to see that the movie I'd enjoyed so much nearly a month ago holds up. Indeed, in some ways it improves on a second viewing; Alfred Molina's line about how keeping love bottled up inside will mess you up makes more sense when you know that Peter's powers will be going haywire later, for instance. The much-maligned scene of Peter ripping his mask off on the runaway train makes more sense, as the larger screen makes much more clear that the eyepieces on the mask were singed, and probably difficult to see through. And while I'd noticed the snake-like design of Doc Ock's limbs and how Sam Raimi and company seem to be going for a serpent-tempting-Adam vibe with them at the end of my first viewing, it's neat to notice that this is a motif he was working with throughout the entire movie.

I wonder whose idea that was. The original comic design of Ock's tentacles had the ends looking like deformed hands, with widely-spaced, stubby fingers; later revisions have given them a more octopus-like look, with sucker-looking things along their length. Was it one of the four writers, production designer Neil Spisak, or Raimi himself? Similarly, which of the writers giggled at the idea of sticking a chainsaw in a hospital OR, just so that Raimi could show that even with all the mainstream stuff he's done since 1993, he still could call on his horror-movie roots.

Come awards season, Raimi and company will be overlooked for their work here - after all, not only is this a popcorn movie, but it's a sequel. And fans of Raimi's previous movies will notice that there's a lot of references to to his other movies, from "the classic" sitting in Aunt May's driveway to shots lifted from Darkman, but these aren't used as crutches. It's a tight film, with only one screen that doesn't seem to contribute (and I wouldn't be shocked if the writers were using that cake scene to build Ursula Ditkovich's crush on Peter up for her to appear as Black Cat in Spider-Man 3). And I know I've said this before, but it's especially evident after watching The Bourne Supremacy two days earlier - Raimi/Pope is about as good a team as you can get with the camera in the action movie. As fast and three-dimensional as the action is in this movie, the audience always knows where the characters are in relation to each other and the environment, what they can do, etc. Spider-Man 2 holds up because the filmmakers worked hard but don't shove their hard work in the audience's face.

The IMAX presentation was good. There were a couple scenes toward the end where I wondered if perhaps IMAX's DMR processing was a little rushed, but otherwise it looked and sounded great.

There is one caveat, though. What I'm about to say will probably irk the people on the home theater websites I frequent, where the quest to have movies presented in their original aspect ratio rather than a cropped, pan-and-scan version is like a holy crusade, but I must admit it passed through my head. The IMAX presentation of Spider-Man 2 (like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Matrix Revolutions before it) is a matted widescreen presentation, in the movie's original 2.35:1 width:height ratio. That's a good thing, right? However, I did some math, based upon the stated proportions of the Simons IMAX Screen (65 feet high by 85 feet wide); the actual picture for these "scope" movies is about 36 feet tall. That's certainly bigger than most multiplexes, but not that much bigger than the largest screen at the AMC Fenway.

The first of the "IMAX Experience" series was Apollo 13, and there Ron Howard and his cinematographer, in addition to editing the film down to two hours so that it could fit on an IMAX platter (since then, most IMAX theaters have upgraded to larger platters), he and his cinematographer also recomposed the movie to use the entire 1.44:1 IMAX frame; George Lucas did something similar for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Some purists raised a stink over this, and apparently the studios have listened and responded. It's worth noting that these films no longer seem to be promoted as "The IMAX Experience", which is probably accurate - they don't really have the grand, immersive effect native IMAX films have, which Howard tried to duplicate by tweaking his film for the different demands and challenges of a giant-screen environment.

Consider the final scene of Spider-Man 2, where Spidey swings through Manhattan, escorted by a pair of police helicopters. Looks great, as good as or better than it looked on the best 35mm screens. Now, think how amazing it would have been if they had zoomed in, used the whole IMAX canvas, let the city and the speed just completely fill one's field of vision. It would have been utterly jaw-dropping. Considering Raimi reportedly wanted to film at 1.85:1 rather than 2.35:1 anyway, I think he could have been convinced. Of course, the question is if he and Pope could have made an "IMAX Experience" version; they would have had to either been composing for both versions during filming, or been given time to figure out how to fit their footage to a differently-proportioned screen. Given that the Spidey 2 IMAX release seems like sort of an afterthought, neither is likely the case.

It will be interesting to see how the 35mm and IMAX 3-D versions of Robert Zemeckis's Polar Express compare, as IMAX was apparently a consideration from early on. After watching the last three IMAX DMR blowups, though, I'm starting to wonder what advantage they hold over a top-line 35mm presentation if the filmmakers aren't given some license to make some changes. I've got no issue with Apollo 13 and Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience being slightly different, though closely related, works if it means the tools are used to their fullest.

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