Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Stalingrad and where Imax has gone

It wasn't that long ago that IMAX screens were mostly in science museums of various sorts, and that's what the pictures made for them reflected. Sure, there was an occasional "Santa vs. the Snowman", but the typical Imax film was 40-odd minutes, built with the expectation of being seen on a screen that required the audience would be using their peripheral vision. Even when they were built as part of a multiplex, they were treated as a sort of special attraction.

That hasn't been the case for a while - in a weird sort of cycle, studios started releasing movies in IMAX format, theaters as a result started putting in Imax screens, Imax developed a less-massive digital system that regular theaters could be converted to use, the demand for more Imax-formatted movies grew, and now it's no longer any sort of major event. I predicted a few years ago that while this may be more profitable for Imax-the-company - they've now got a lot more locations that cost a lot less to maintain - it would eventually devalue the brand. It hasn't completely happened yet - while I generally think the RPX screen 5 Green Line stops away from the "Imax" screen looks and sounds just as good, it's a rare movie that advertises any of the other premium formats that are generally chain-specific (and called something like AVX or UVX or the like; lots of X-es) - but it's slowly getting there.

The interesting thing is that Imax still seems to do enough proprietary processing on the image, presumably so that it can be put on its large-format film for the places still using it without it looking awful, that there are still only a relative few movies that show on those screens, and when something crashes, it must make things a little awkward for theaters, with hasty revivals of things from a few months back when something runs out of gas quicker than expected or just never has any to begin with. Places cleared out I, Frankenstein in a hurry to bring Gravity back. Fortunately, this also sometimes means that something unusual or interesting can grab the screen under similar circumstances.

Like this week; I doubt very many places would be showing Stalingrad if RoboCop was a hit, much like Flying Swords of Dragon Gate managed to stake out a couple of slow weekends, only to scramble when Paramount had the same idea with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, it makes me wonder if (hope that) whoever has the rights to Donnie Yen's Monkey King movie is eying any weekends that might look weak, just in case.

One unfortunate side effect seems to be that old-school IMAX movies (all-caps indicating movies run on 70mm film run through a projector sideways and illuminated with a bulb that can also be used as a death ray) seem to be languishing. The New England Aquarium seems like it hasn't put a new movie into the rotation for almost a year, and the Museum of Science mostly seems to be rotating existing movies in and out. Heck, the Aquarium hasn't even been picking Hollywood stuff up second-run any more, and I figured it was pretty likely they would do so for Gravity or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the latter if only because they eventually showed most of the previous features with segments shot on actual IMAX film before.

This change in what Imax is hasn't wholly been a bad thing - it did get Flying Swords and Stalingrad onto screens where they could be appreciated - but between how common the use of the brand as become and the way Jordan's Furniture downgraded themselves to digital projection a year and a half ago, it's not the exciting draw that it used to be. Now, if something is showing in Imax, I maybe head out to Reading if it was shot using the big cameras (they may be digital, but they've still got a screen with the classic square-ish shape, which Boston Common lacks) or if I otherwise really want that sense of scale, but I'm just as likely to walk to the RPX screen at Fenway or take the D-line to the SuperLux to get fed for about the same price/time commitment. After all, it's not like something marked "Imax" is shot differently from everything else most of the time, and it's just become a brand that suggests a small (real, but small) boost over what everyone else is doing.

It makes me wonder if they might try to go for more exclusive content like this going forward. Foreign movies probably won't be that big a deal, though, so likely they'll be pushing for early releases as happened a few times in recent years. Now that they're not head-and-shoulders best quality-wise, it's something they need to distinguish themselves.


* * (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2014 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Columbia Pictures is releasing Russian blockbuster Stalingrad almost entirely in 3D on Imax screens, and I only include that "almost" just to cover all bases. This is not a bad strategy, as this is the sort of film where projection onto a screen the size of a medium-sized office building does not particularly magnify its many flaws, but certainly does highlight the big, loud spectacle of the thing. If you'r going to see this movie at all, that's the way to do it.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the longest and bloodiest in the history of warfare, but this movie focuses tightly on a few days in one apartment building that is well-positioned to defend the best place to cross the Volga. After the Russians take it from the Nazis, five soldiers man this battlement: Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk), an artillery spotter; Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), a sniper; Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), an already much-decorated hero; Nikiforov (Aleksey Barabash), a former opera singer turned deadly hand-to-hand fighter; and Polyakov (Andrey Smolyakov), a widower old enough to be their father. Also in the building is its last remaining resident, 19-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), initially shell-shocked but brave. Across the way are the Nazis, with Captain Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) spearheading the attempt to retake this crucial building, although Colonel Khenze (Heiner Lauterbach) worries that Khan is spending too much time obsessing over Masha (Yanina Studilina), a Russian girl who reminds him of his dead wife.

There's also a Russian naval officer in the building (Oleg Volku), although for reasons the movie doesn't make terribly clear, he's not considered one of the "five fathers" of the present-day narrator who recounts this story for some German tourists trapped underneath the rubble during the recent Tokyo earthquakes. It's an odd way to frame the story on a number of levels - did writers Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin feel that two hours spent crawling around one devastated city wasn't enough? And while this story is a tale of bravery, it's the sort of war story where a lot of people die, and it seems like kind of a weird story for a Russian man to tell a German girl under any circumstance, even if it is about a war seventy years in the past between two countries that have been more or less disassembled and rebuilt since. More importantly, though, the main story never shows the strength necessary to justify it. Which soldier Katya would take as a lover is never a particularly interesting mystery, and once that's been established, it's hard to see them as of equal importance to her, especially since they don't establish that sort of identity as a unit.

Full review at EFC

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