Wednesday, May 26, 2010

AMC Boston Common's new "imax" screen and the movie shown on it: Shrek Forever After

I believe reports of AMC installing an IMAX screen in their Boston Common location first appeared in the summer of 2008, allegedly to open that September, probably timed to Eagle Eye. Since then, signs have gone up, come down, and gone back up again. Initial speculation that this would be accommodated by expanding theater #2 upward into the space occupied by "The Back Lot" - a bar & lounge area located on the otherwise-unused second floor between the lobby and the 17 theaters on the third - stopped once a complete lack of activity was seen there, other than papering over the windows, and the IMAX Digital Theaters became better known.

I say "IMAX Digital Theaters" there like it's a brand name, but it's not, which is one of the problems with them. There is no branding at all to differentiate the IMAX screens which use horizontally-fed 70mm film (or, as I like to call it, genuine reels-of-film-that-require-a-forklift-to-move-with-single-frames-the-size-of-your-fist-projected-with-a-bulb-that-doubles-as-a-death-ray-onto-a-screen-the-size-of-a-medium-sized-office-building IMAX) from these "new" digital projection rooms. This is probably by design, and the future of IMAX's business; from what I gather, there are no new large-format-film theaters in the planning or construction stages. Everything about the digital technology is more cost-effective, and they probably make the IMAX corporation much more money in the short term. IMAX and the cinemas installing their digital projection system want you to think IMAX is IMAX is IMAX, especially if you have lingering (or recent) memories of seeing the film version at the science museum.

I think this will hurt them in the long term, though. Last year's online uproar from comedian Aziz Ansari buying a ticket for an IMAX movie only to be presented with what many call "IMIN" or "LieMAX" and tweeting his anger seems to have blown over, and awareness of the difference between the two is probably not great right now. Within five years, many likely won't realize that IMAX used to represent something an order of magnitude or two better than standard 35mm projection, not an incremental improvement over standard DLP projection. And once that happens, what prevents Dolby or RealD or, heck, Technicolor, from launching their own premium branding, and undercutting IMAX's costs? IMAX could become just another brand name in a crowded sector, and will have likely laid off everyone involved in film R&D and production.

But that's their problem. Let's get down to cases.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I like film projection. Heck, you can probably guess that from just what's been written here. I make no secret of it; I think that the different grain structures of individual frames makes images that are not perfect horizontal or vertical lines look smoother, and that shooting digital offers a much lower upper limit to how good a movie can look with future technologies (think how the HD channels can show much more shot-on-film programming from the 1960s than shot-on-video shows from the 1980s).

There are positives to digital, though. Data files don't degrade nearly as quickly as prints. Independent films can get to many more theaters. Digital 3-D looks very good. On the production side, directors and cinematographers can get what they need without having to worry about chemicals.

So, what's that mean for the new IMAX-branded screen at Boston Common?

As expected, the auditorium selected for the upgrade is screen #2, the larger of the two screens on the first floor. It's been a couple months since I last saw a film on that screen (Green Zone, 13 March 2010), so its previous dimensions are not as firmly set in my mind as they might have been if I had seen something there the week before Iron Man 2 opened. It appears that, as is typically the case, they have removed two or three rows from the "flat" front section, replacing them with a larger, concave screen. The new screen, interestingly, is not flush with the back wall; when walking in, there is the brief impression that it is free-standing, like a large, warped LCD television.

It is large, but not staggeringly large. When one walks into the Simons IMAX theater at the New England Aquarium, the eight-story screen seems to go on forever; the effect is not quite so pronounced at Jordan's Furniture Reading, but it's still there. This looks like a good-sized movie screen. It is almost certainly the largest screen for digital projection in the greater Boston area, but I am honestly not sure how it compares to some of the larger film screens (#1s at Coolidge Corner & Somerville; #12 & #13 at Fenway). My hunch says this new one is slightly bigger, with its closeness serving to make it appear larger. From my seat, it filled my vision nicely, and there's an argument that anything more is overkill.

(I did kind of scratch my head at the folks seating in the back half of the auditorium as I entered; the room was far from full at 10:30am Sunday morning, and why shell out the extra dough for IMAX branding if you're going to sit far enough back to make it look like a regular screen?)

Shrek Forever After was not the ideal situation for judging image quality; much of the film takes place in relatively dark environs, effectively neutralizing one of these screens' stated advantages (bright, clear projection). The picture looked pretty good, although not perfect; I would occasionally note things looking a bit sketchy in the background, but since this isn't a case of something being upscaled like it would be if I saw it on a real IMAX screen, it's just what the movie looks like. Pixel structure was occasionally visible, but likely only for someone like me who has accidentally trained himself to notice it. One odd thing I noticed was that the 3-D glasses used seemed to be different from the Real-D ones used on other screens, and until the overhead lights went down, the glasses caught the light in a weird way, creating two vertical lines in my field of vision.

The biggest upgrade was the sound - AMC has cranked it in this theater, and the rumbling bass that kicked in with the Tron Legacy trailer (note to self: see Tron all the way through sometime this year) was pretty nice. Not quite the individual-subwoofers-in-every-seat awesomeness of Jordan's, but it's aggressive, far more so than any of the 35mm/conventional DLP theaters in the area. That's something that deserves play and praise.

But, let's look at this chart:

ScreenPrice (before noon)Price (afternoon)Price (evening)
AMC Boston Common, 35mm/DLP$6.00$9.00$11.50
AMC Boston Common, Real-D 3-D$9.00$12.50$14.50
AMC Boston Common, IMAX Digital [3-D]$10.00$13.50$15.50
Jordan's Furniture Reading, IMAX [3-D]$11.50$11.50$11.50
New England Aquarium, IMAX [3-D] N/AN/A$12.95

All prices at AMC and Jordan's are for Shrek Forever After; the Aquarium prices are for Avatar (they show one second-run IMAX film a day; the 40-60 minute IMAX documentaries cost $9.95). All prices are adult tickets as of tonight.

More than ever, there is some real cost-benefit analysis to be done when going to the movies. Personally, I find the IMAX digital screen a very tough sell - the quality at Jordan's is much better, and while it takes me time to get out there and back, the ticket price is often cheaper for what is undeniably a better product, even if I order online and pay a $1.25 service charge. And while it's nice, is it up to a 66% price hike nice for 2-D films (even in the evening, it's about 35%)?

Looking at those numbers, I sort of doubt that I'll be using this new screen much - it doesn't offer the same "wow" as the film-based IMAX screens, and since I don't mind the hours tacked on riding the bus out to Reading on the weekend Saturday, I'll generally opt for that. I can actually go either way on IMAX Digital versus Real-D; I'm honestly not sure whether the new screen is that much better, but $1 out of $9-$15 isn't a big surcharge. I will not be seeing movies converted to 3-D in post-production in 3-D; it's too much for for something that generally looks pretty poor.

It's a nice screen. It kind of kills me, though, that the Aquarium doesn't play more first-run films. As I said, calling both what the Aquarium has and what AMC has "IMAX" does an incredible disservice to the truly gigantic IMAX screen, which is often actually a better bargain - for a few weeks this year, both were playing the same film (Avatar), one on IMAX and one in digital 3-D, and at the late-afternoon/early-evening hours when Avatar was screening at the Aquarium, you would save $1.50 seeing it on the much larger, louder screen.

Anyway... When the eccentric millionaire gives me a chance to open my own dream theater, it will have "real" IMAX, and that's where my preferences still lie after seeing the new screen downtown. But if Reading is not practical for you, it's not a bad second choice.

Shrek Forever After

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2010 at the Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

It sounds kind of damning that I'm spending so much time talking about the screen upon which Shrek Forever After was projected but relatively little on the movie itself, and it shouldn't, really. It's just that by the time you get to the fourth movie in a series, there's not a whole lot new to say. We know the characters. We know the animation style. We know the sort of soundtrack and pop-culture references that are going to get thrown in.

And that's okay. This combination of things has tended to work for Shrek - digging back through my memories of the series, I remember the first being pretty darn good, and clever (especially since DreamWorks hadn't yet made it the template upon which most of their animated films would be based); the second got big points for introducing Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots and John Cleese as Fiona's father, but I'll be darned if I can remember a single bit of it beyond the giant gingerbread man using Godzilla sound effects and the brilliant use of "Hero" on the soundtrack; the third was pretty dreadful, just going through the motions. The fourth isn't as good as the first two, but it's certainly not the vortex of bland that the third was. It's funny at points, and has a few takes on fairy tale bits that work pretty well.

The big plus this time around is Walt Dohrn, a story and art guy who does the voice of Rumpelstiltskin and helps him become one of the series' most memorable villains. The character is younger than I tend to think of him - he looks to be in his twenties, rather than a shrunken old man, and is very funny to go with being bitter and nasty. I suspect this is one of those cases where Dohrn was doing the voice as placeholder, much like Joe Ranfft in A Bug's Life, but they kept him because he wound up being perfect. Kudos on DreamWorks for doing that, as they generally tend to overdose on celebrity voices (heck, swing by IMDB and see how many recognizable names are playing ogres and witches with a line or two apiece).

The movie looks pretty good, although the frequently dark environment (necessary because of a plot point) certainly recalls attempts to disguise iffy CGI in the past. One interesting thing is that the models really haven't changed much since the first Shrek; human figures, especially the witches, tend to have a rubbery look that isn't state of the art, but consistent with earlier films. There are some nifty flying sequences, which I suspect are going to become de riguer in animated films made with 3-D in mind.

It's not a bad return to the well, and at the end, I even felt, yeah, that works. I don't need any more, but this does allow the series to come to a graceful conclusion.


Anonymous said...

Awesome post Jay...I want to find the best IMAX 3D place to watch Pirates: Stranger Tides, and your post was awesomely helpful: Jordan's in Reading over Boston!

DutchMasters said...

Thanks for the post. I just wanted to see Transformers as big as possible and Jordan's let me down. Looks like this is the next best bet.