The Cerrito Opens

The Cerrito Speakeasy Theater opens for business this week. Built in 1937 and dark for nearly 50 years, the city of El Cerrito has given it’s neighborhood theater a restoration and update.

Although the city owns the Cerrito, Speakeasy Theaters of Parkway fame will run it. That means we can expect something very much like the Parkway–couches, good food, a sense of community involvement, and upstairs and downstairs screening rooms. I haven’t yet been inside the Cerrito, so I can’t tell you more about the physical theater.

The Cerrito opens Wednesday with Casablanca downstairs and Pulp Fiction upstairs. At press time, nothing else has been announced, but I suspect the programming will be very much like the Parkway–mostly open-end runs of new movies, with a sprinkling of the old, the oddball, and the charity benefits.

If An Inconvenient Truth left you reluctant to drive your car, you’ll be happy to know that the Cerrito is only about two blocks west of the El Cerrito Plaza BART station. I’m even happier; it’s also only a short bike ride from my home.

In other news, the International Latino Film Festival opens next Friday at the Castro. It will show 80 films at 17 venues around the Bay Area.

And here’s what else is going on this week:

Not Recommended: Root of All Evil?, Rafael and Roxie, opening Friday. Biologist Richard Dawkins doesn’t like intolerant religious fanatics. No problem there. But in his insistence that all religion is bad, that open-minded, tolerant people of faith are enablers, and that raising children to believe in God is a form of child abuse, he proves himself every bit as intolerant and fanatical as those he attacks. He stacks the deck mercilessly in this two-part TV show (which comes complete with cues for commercial breaks), interviewing one closed-minded zealot after another. When he finally gets around to talking to a token religious moderate, he dismisses the man (in narration, not to his face) as a “fence-sitter.” This scientist isn’t as open-minded as he thinks he is.

Recommended: Pulp Fiction, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.

Recommended: Casablanca, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly.

Recommended: Half Nelson, 4Star, opens Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers. On a double bill with American Hardcore.

Recommended: The Departed, Balboa, opens Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Lark, opens Friday. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances for commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and cuts between the sleuthing story and interviews with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy sex scenes cut from other movies. But the effect is diluted by a strong bias and factual errors. On a double bill with Al Franken: God Spoke.

Recommended, with Reservations: Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. China’s Cultural Revolution was a bleak time of horrible oppression, but at least it was colorful. Or so it seems in Yan-Ting Yuen’s documentary on the stage-and-screen musical extravaganzas that met Madame Mao’s cultural and political requirements. To modern American eyes, the clips from actual Yang Ban Xi movies walk a strange line between stunning choreography and unintentional hilarity, like Agnes DeMille meets her Uncle Cecil. But the modern interview sequences are hit and miss, and a couple of modern dance sequences shot for the movie seem forced. Most of all, I found myself wanting more information. When did the government start making these shows? When did they stop? Why were only eight shows produced? I also wanted more of those outrageous clips.