Review: Interstellar IMAX

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The Pitch: 2014: In Space Inaudibly.

The Graphical Review: This review contains very mild spoilers for the first 40 minutes or so, and nothing plot critical. If you wish to remain completely unspoiled, come back when you’ve seen it.

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Interstellar 4

Why see it at the cinema: Nolan remains his strong sense of the theatrical and has once again, for better or worse, pushed the scale of his film making in another step. It’s also one of those films that everyone will have an opinion on in the pub afterwards.

Why see it in IMAX: Not only was so much of the visual side of the film shot in the IMAX format, including sticking an IMAX camera in the nose of a Lear jet, but IMAX makes unparalleled use of the sound field, and when the rocket took off I think the vibrations in my seat cracked a rib.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate threat, violence. A fairly MOTR 12A that doesn’t push any boundaries.

My cinema experience: I decided to head further afield than usual, to be able to see The Skeleton Twins and then Interstellar in IMAX at the Cineworld in Stevenage. However, this meant that the film didn’t start until 23:40 and didn’t finish until around 2:45 in the morning. The staff blearily wished us a good morning as we left; I just hope they got overtime. Worth it for the IMAX, although I no longer feel the need to grab one of the handful of 35 or 70mm film screenings having seen it once.

The Score: 7/10

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Various Formats)

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The HobbitThe Pitch: Middle Earth, Episode 1: The Phantom Appendices.

The Review: Yes, for the second time in blockbuster film history we have the start of a prequel trilogy to an original trilogy, and we all remember how well that turned out. So, given that the plan wasn’t originally to even make this a trilogy, the first expectation going into The Hobbit: An Unexpected First Part Of A Trilogy is that it’s going to be something of an endurance test. It’s a strange state of affairs; the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy is so beloved by many that longer versions of the first three films were welcomed when they arrived on DVD. The first three films had 30, 42 and 50 minutes respectively added in when they hit home formats, but even so the commonest complaint about The Return Of The King is that it was too long, specifically with too many endings. It’s oddly symmetrical, then, that the beginning of this Middle Earth sextet suffers from the opposite problem of too many beginnings.

I count myself as a big fan of the original films, so I share the thrill of many to be back in this world, but it seems that Peter Jackson can’t bear to leave it, so keen is he to spend as much time in it as possible. The structure could be lifted almost directly from Fellowship: we get a scene setting montage, followed by a journey to Hobbiton, where a visit from Gandalf then spurs us into action. Where this whips along in the original, here it takes almost 45 minutes to get going, with an extended framing device bringing back old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) being fundamentally unnecessary, and setting that tone. When we have another extended edition waiting for us on DVD and Blu-ray, material like this should have been saved, as a lean cut of this film (conceivably still running at around two and a quarter hours) would have brought us back to Middle Earth perfectly and still allowed us to wallow and luxuriate in a cut around an hour longer at home. It wouldn’t be so frustrating – or obvious – if so much hadn’t been added in to get the running time to this length, including further committee meetings at Rivendell with Galadriel and Saruman and an additional revenge subplot featuring Azog The Destroyer which feels like a desperate attempt to add peril to the longer running time. It may also be an attempt to recapture more of the tone of the first three films, as while this is a children’s book most of the additions are of a more serious nature and attempt to add dramatic weight, when actually a little more levity would help to ease the passage of time.

Those even more in love with Middle Earth than me may not find themselves caring too much, for this is very much the Middle Earth we know and love, with familiar areas lovingly recreated and every aspect of the production reeking of the same quality that oozed out of the original trilogy. It’s just a shame that more of the running time isn’t spent on getting to know the new characters rather than lazily revisiting old ones: Ian McKellen has perfected the passive smug look of Gandalf The Grey and gets plenty of chances to roll it out, along with a few other clichés, including an interminable number of shots of characters running over mountains and even shots of characters extending one arm while crying “Noooo!” in slow motion. This does tend to overshadow the fresher elements, and if you can identify more than four, possibly even three, of the dwarves on sight after a single viewing then you’re doing better than I am. Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott all make a moderate impression on this first outing, and there are a few other well-formed appearances from the likes of Barry Humphries as the CG Goblin King, but the other problem The Hobbit Part 1 suffers from is also its greatest asset.

For anyone that knows anything about the book, they’ll know that Chapter 5 is called Riddles In The Dark, and features the one appearance in this first Middle Earth story of Gollum. The effects work might have moved on in ten years, making Andy Serkis’ performance even more believable and more successfully bringing out the pathetic nature of the character, but it’s Serkis and Martin Freeman’s performances that make this scene such a success, playing out almost unbroken but leaving viewers dreadfully in suspense while waiting for its arrival. Freeman’s performance is one of the things that helps to moderate against that, proving even more successful as a hairy-footed nexus for the plot than Wood’s Frodo did in the original trilogy, a masterclass in emotion and comic timing. Crippling pacing and lack of momentum aside, there’s a lot to like here, and while the stakes aren’t as high yet or the urgency as compelling, those content to have a more gentle wander through Middle Earth should be generally satisfied. Let’s just hope that, as well as a dragon and a Bowman, we get to know a few more dwarves and a hobbit much better in the next instalment.

Why see it at the cinema: I wasn’t originally convinced by the quality of the CGI, but ten minutes of watching The Two Towers on TV when I came home from seeing this a second time quickly convinced me that the work of Weta and their colleagues has advanced significantly in the decade since LOTR. Due to the smaller scale nature of events, the big set piece here isn’t a Helm’s Deep or a Pelennor Fields but two characters in a cave, swapping riddles. That it still has the power to grip to the extent of the big battles is testament to the power of the story telling of both Tolkien and the four scriptwriters who’ve adapted his work, and if you’re any sort of fan of the original trilogy then seeing this in a cinema is a must. Exactly how you see it is more up for debate, however…

Why see it in 3D: Your first debate will be whether or not to see it in 3D. The style of the original, featuring lots of beauty passes of people running over half of New Zealand, lends itself extremely well to the needs of 3D, giving your eyes time to focus and get the perspective. However, where other directors such as James Cameron and Ang Lee have adapted their style to account for this need for longer shots and less frantic editing, Jackson is only partially successful on this front, with goblin fights sometime shot from above in single passes and working well, but conflicts on the move often featuring quick cuts and making the 3D pointless. The style of the films is there, but Jackson needs to give himself over to it even more for the next two films to make them truly need the 3D enhancement.

Why see it in HFR: Unless you’ve been living in a hobbit hole for the last couple of years, you’ll be aware that The Hobbit trilogy has been filmed at a higher frame rate. While varying frame rates aren’t uncommon on TV, it’s pretty certain that every film you see in a cinema will be shot and exhibited at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit doubles this to 48 (still a shade short of what our eyes effectively work at, which is about 55), and the two main arguments for doing this are for additional clarity of the image and to reduce the eye strain that 3D provides.

In absolute terms, HFR is a success on both counts: the image is sharper, with everything from the pores on Martin Freeman’s face to the wisps of hair on Gollum’s head leaping out of the screen and the CGI feeling more in keeping with the live action, and the 3D image seeming to leap off the screen even more, suffering less from motion blur. In relative terms, it’s pretty much a failure: this is a fantasy film, and making it look more real unwittingly has to make you work harder to wilfully suspend your disbelief, and since Jackson hasn’t yet nailed the editing and shot composition for 3D, making it less blurry feels like a cheat to avoid moderating his techniques for the format, and consequently doesn’t work.

Factor into that the fact that HFR doesn’t do anything to address either of the other main complaints about 3D itself (and when taken together, Life Of Pi did address them, only last week): it doesn’t in any way address the loss of light, so many sequences in caves are still frustratingly dark, and it doesn’t actually add to the storytelling in any noticeable way. While I would probably watch The Hobbit Part 2 in HFR if I was seeing 3D, nothing at the moment has convinced me that it’s a better experience than 2D. These things need time to bed in, but if someone doesn’t use this tool effective and quickly, it might just turn out to be an expensive gimmick.

Why see it in IMAX: This one’s a little easier: if you like seeing big images, then IMAX does the job, and the 70mm print I saw this on at the BFI IMAX in London really brought out the detail in some of the grander scenes such as the Rivendell stop-off. It’s immersive, but as it’s not been filmed on IMAX cameras, not essential.

The Score: 7/10

IMAX Review: Inception

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For my standard review of Inception, with all the normal bells and whistles, see here. However, I followed this up with a visit to the IMAX; some thoughts on that viewing and then some further thoughts on the movie itself, after the jump. There are no big spoilers here but I would still recommend seeing the movie before you read too much further.

Why see it on IMAX: There are pros and cons, actually. The cons are all in the picture; there are a few points when the picture is a little muddy or out of focus, and blown up to gigantic proportions this looks so much worse. The picture also appears to have been cropped slightly; while not filling the whole screen, so it’s not down to the 1.44:1 IMAX ratio, it’s not the 2.35:1 ratio you’ll get in most other cinemas.

The pros are in the sound; Hans Zimmer’s amazing score comes over in a much clearer way and captured me in ways that it didn’t manage in a normal cinema. In addition, the 40 speaker system of the IMAX packs plenty of bass, and Inception is not short of ways to exploit it.

I’ve now seen four films on the IMAX format (The Dark Knight, Avatar and Journey to Mecca being the other three). Of the four, this has the worst picture but the best sound. So your choice to see it will depend entirely on your priorities.

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Watching movies and the collapse of the universe

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I love watching movies on the largest screen possible, which is why I’ve booked tickets for Inception and Toy Story for next weekend at the BFI IMAX in London. As London is a little bit of a trek for me, doubling up to save on the travel seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the reality is beginning to sink in; unless I go and live in a cave for the next eight days, I am unlikely to remain unspoiled for these movies before I go and see them.

I can still remember seeing the first movies on VHS when I was a kid – my very first ever was Superman III. It was a kinder, more innocent time, when the only likelihood of a movie spoiler was the kid with the big mouth on the playground, and running away was a fairly effective option.

But everything took longer to filter down in those days. It could be six months or more before a movie made its way out of cinemas, and three or four years before that movie ended up on TV. But if there was a movie with a big twist, somehow it would make its way at least to the second stage of that process without discussion about it taking place in the wider world.

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IMAX Review: Journey to Mecca

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The Pitch: What drives a man to spend 18 months of his life journeying across the desert?

The Review: The IMAX format was, until a few years ago, the domain of nature documentaries and the occasional space exploration movie. Then big budget directors cottoned on to the potential of the format, and movies like Avatar and The Dark Knight have added significant proportions to their box office take with their extended runs in the format. Now that 3D is entering the home, it remains the last real experience that you cannot in some way capture in the home cinema (unless you have a 70 metre hole in your back garden you need to find a way of filling).

But in among the blockbusters, it’s still possible to find original IMAX content. Occasionally, something comes along that can only truly successfully be expressed as an idea with the scope that the IMAX format provides, and Journey to Mecca is such an idea. Ibn Battuta was the original world traveller; over nearly 30 years, he ventured from his home in North Africa and crossed continents, visiting China and India and many places in between. But his original motivation was to leave home to conduct the pilgrimage to Mecca that his faith required of him, a journey that would take him 18 months and see his willingness and commitment tested to the full in the process.

So this is not a movie about the lifetime of travels, but rather an attempt to use a historic character to put that journey in the context of what the Hajj means to Muslims. The fact that the pilgrimage is made significantly easier by modern forms of travel does not diminish its importance within the faith, but seeing the desolate landscapes stretching out as far as the eye can see on the big screen does help to give some sense of what level of commitment would have been required in Battuta’s time to make the journey. Chems-Eddine Zinoune, who tragically died in a car accident before this film was released, brings both a sense of the arrogance needed to take on the journey in the manner he did originally, and the humility needed to see it through to its conclusion.

But other than the desert scenery and occasional shots of pilgrims in the caravan from Damascus to Mecca, there’s not a huge amount in that part of the story to require the IMAX format. What does demand that view, and what adds perspective to our view of the journey, is the modern day footage of the Masjid al-Haram mosque that forms the focal point of the Hajj. The photography, especially the time lapse shots showing the sheer volumes of people engaged in the rituals, is able to give a sense of the devotion inspired in individuals by their religion, without the need to preach about that religion. While anyone looking for a deep understanding of Islam may be better served elsewhere, anyone looking to understand how someone’s faith can require them to make such a long and testing journey need look no further.

Why see it on IMAX: The combination of the desert vistas from the historic elements, and the contemporary footage showing the sheer numbers taking that journey today, make this worth seeing on the big, big screen.

The Score: 7/10

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How far would you go to see a movie?

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Well, even I wouldn’t trek to the South Pole (unless they put a massive IMAX there), but any serious movie obsessive like myself will, from time to time, take things to extremes. For most normal people, a trip to the cinema is simply a question of what’s playing at the nearest cinema. Be that one screen or 24, the decision making process for anyone else I know simply consists of looking at the local listings to see if the movie you want to see is playing.

Fair enough, but I don’t see the amount of movies I see just by just popping to the local. I’ve seen 41 movies so far this year, at six different cinemas. Five of those are within a half hour drive for me as I live in the countryside between a city and a large town, but already this year I found myself with nothing to watch one Saturday evening when my wife was out, so I embarked on a 100 mile round trip to catch two I hadn’t seen at a multiplex further afield.

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