Big Screens–German and American

Technology will one day eliminate the image quality gap between home theater and real 35mm. But it will never eliminate the audience gap, because it can never replace the thrill of watching a movie while surrounded by hundreds of your fellow homo sapiens.

Or so I was reminded last Saturday when I caught Rear Window at the Cerrito. The Cerrito’s downstairs auditorium was packed, and enthusiastic. You forget how funny Rear Window is when you watch it by yourself or with a couple of friends (I know–I own the DVD). With a crowd, there was good solid laughter at every point where Alfred Hitchcock wanted it. And when things get scary in the third act, there’s nothing to enhance the dread like people gasping with fear all around you.

The weekend Cerrito Classics series is a big hit, and with good reason.

Speaking of watching movies properly, I made it to the Castro Tuesday for a bit of the Berlin & Beyond festival. The first movie I saw, the Swiss drama Going Private, was superb. As intimate as chamber music, Going Private sticks to one day, one location, and a cast of nine to explore the lives of the rich and insecure. The plot involves an investment banker in serious trouble and the small garden party he throws for his boss. Things don’t go well for anybody. Let’s just say it’s the sort of party you’d only want to experience at the movies.

My second treat of the night was the recently-restored silent epic Nathan the Wise. This tale of Jerusalem during the Crusades is spectacle of the Cecil B. DeMille/D.W. Griffith variety, with a large cast, huge sets, and oversized emotions. But the film’s call for peace and religious tolerance in the Middle East seems more relevant today than when the movie was made in 1921, or when the stage play was written by Gotthold Lessing in 1779. (Come February, Oakland’s TheaterFIRST will revive the stage play, little known in this country.)

Filmmuseum Munich Director Stefan Drößler spoke before the movie and answered questions afterwards. Dennis James accompanied the movie on the Castro’s organ, pausing or lowering the volume so we could hear the read-aloud English translation of the German intertitles.

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It’s too late to catch anything else at Berlin & Beyond, but here’s what’s worth seeing (and worth missing) this week.

Children of Men, Balboa and Presidio, opening Friday. Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government is rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

A Hard Day’s Night, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British musical phenomenon, they wanted a picture fast and cheap. Reasonable demands, as The Beatles’ popularity was limited to England and Germany and could likely die before the film got into theaters. Turns out UA had nothing to worry about. Part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Seven Samurai, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made.

Trouble in Paradise, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. What’s so fascinating and entertaining about witty, sophisticated crooks that makes us want to root for them? The perfect pre-code screwball, and yet another wonderful Lubitsch comedy about sex, love, money, and larceny. Part of the Archive’s Lubitsch Touch series.

Grizzly Man, SFMOMA, Saturday, 3:00. Werner Herzog’s fascinating nature documentary (well, more of an anti-nature documentary) about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor and untrained naturalist who lived peacefully with Alaska’s grizzly bears for 13 summers until one ate him. You don’t learn much about bears here beyond “Keep your distance,” but you learn a lot about Treadwell, who comes off as manic, enthusiastic, charismatic, delusional, and paranoid. Part of SFMOMA’s Werner Herzog Retrospective.

Vertigo, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. Part of the Archive’s A Thousand Decisions In the Dark series hosted by David Thomson.

North By Northwest, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for a murderer. And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. Danger has its rewards. Part of the Cerrito Classics Best of Alfred Hitchcock series.

Babel, Cerrito, opens Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, affecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I saw in 2006.

Night at the Museum, Cerrito, opens Friday. Yes, it’s predictable Hollywood family fare (Why must every children’s film preach that you should believe in yourself?), and half the jokes fall flat. But a cute idea, lively performances, and a reasonable number of jokes that remain standing keep it entertaining. And as much as I disapprove of product placement, it’s nice to see a movie that works as one big commercial for New York’s Museum of Natural History.