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Baltimore's outdoor summer film series overflow with personality

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What's the best way to fill an open space with smiles for a summer night?

Fit in a big, bright movie screen, and hundreds are sure to follow. Every summer, in every corner of Baltimore, the light of the silvery moon turns outdoor silver screens into magnets for fun-seekers.

Even a movie presentation expert as exacting as restoration whiz Robert A. Harris ("Lawrence of Arabia") has taken a turn at open-air presentation. "We did it with 'Napoleon.' We sat 5,000 people outside the Colosseum. The Colosseum. In Rome." In other words, Big Italy.

Open-air film series bring Harris back to his boyhood days, when he beamed a 16-millimeter "King Kong" from his attic for his friends in his backyard, onto four sheets stitched together. "For what it is, it's great. It's about holding hands and eating popcorn."

Baltimore's open-air film series, each with an indelible personality, offer all that — and a lot of local color and a touch of magic.

An enduring tradition

TheLittle Italy Outdoor Film Festival has become internationally famous for providing a warm, casual and rapt moviegoing experience. John Pente provided the ideal projection spot from the third-floor window of his house at 222 S. High St. So the neighborhood breathed a gale-force sigh of relief when Raymond Lancelotta, Pente's nephew, bought the house after Pente's death and vowed to follow his uncle's custom.

"I'm doing it in his honor," Lancelotta said. "Let's just keep up the tradition."

Once again, on every Friday night in July and August, the intersection of High and Stiles will become an ideal environment to celebrate films ranging from "Moonstruck," set in New York's Little Italy, to "Cinema Paradiso." This year's varied slate also contains the wildly underrated Peter Sellers comedy "After the Fox," and the Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly musical "On the Town." As always, Little Italy's restaurants will offer special movie-night menus and carryout fork-and-finger food.

Big laughs, big hand

This year's edition of the American Visionary Art Museum's "Flicks from the Hill" boasts a glee befitting the AVAM's record-breaking exhibition, "What Makes Us Smile." The list includes "Airplane!," "Some Like It Hot," "Duck Soup" and the original "Pink Panther."

The setting is always one of this series' true special attractions — it's both life-affirming and bigger-than-life. AVAM's Rebecca Hoffberger said that when she was opening the James Rouse Visionary Center in 2004, she looked back at Federal Hill and thought, "If I had all the money in the world, I couldn't build a more perfect amphitheater — without cutting down any trees or anything." She added her own theatrical coup: Adam Kurtzman's Giant Golden Hand, which appears to be holding a 30-foot wide screen.

The museum opens its doors for free from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. on movie nights. You can make your own picnic, eat or order carryout at Mr. Rain's Fun House restaurant, or buy hot dogs, popcorn, snowballs and pies.

Family-friendly fest

Tom Brzezinski has been the host of Columbia's Lakefront Film Festival for 40 years, scheduling "great films for the whole family" on Mondays and the slightly edgier "something for everyone" on Fridays. He said there's a family-party atmosphere before and after each movie. "Sometimes, after a film, high school students will set up their CD players and get up on stage and start dancing."

The Lakefront Film Festival (like most of Baltimore's open-air festivals) will not show movies rated stronger than PG-13. So Brzezinski lucked out when Harvey Weinstein made his bizarre decision to release a PG-13 version of the R-rated "The King's Speech." Ever alert to films he feels have been undeservedly neglected, he will also present the area premiere of Rob Reiner's coming-of-age comedy-drama, "Flipped."

The audience picks

Megan Isennock runs the Johns Hopkins Summer Outdoor Film Series for Hopkins' Office of Summer and Intersession. But she really runs it for the students, in a big way. Isennock even conducts an online poll to pick her final selections.

Isennock polls her own family to create her preliminary list of 14 or 15. Then online voters pick the actual slate. Most years, it's four or five films, but this year it's just two: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" and "The Social Network" — both spectacular movies. Since "The Social Network" was shot partly at Hopkins, seeing it at Gilman Quad may give you the tingle of real-life 3-D. Isennok said that students love the laid-back atmosphere of watching movies in the quad, where purists won't scold them for checking their emails on their smartphones. Neighborhood parents also feel comfortable bringing smaller children.

The right R

The Village of Cross Keys MovieFest kicks off its June run of Saturday-night movies with "Shakespeare in Love," the first of four Oscar-winning films, including "The Blind Side." According to MovieFest spokeswoman Julie Gilbert, this series aims for a slightly older demographic: "15-95." So the right R movies are welcome, like the original version of "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire." Both should have been rated PG-13 anyway. Gilbert said the large courtyard at Cross Keys is transformed when "the trees are lit with twinkle lights ... and the flowers are in bloom ... and all the while, the stars fill the evening sky overhead."

If you go

For a complete lineup of area film festivals and show times, go to baltimoresun.com/findlocal

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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