No places in America's cities should be more celebrated than their movie palaces, those opulent showplaces of yore where people of every strata could gather four, five or six times daily to see their fantasies played out larger than life on the silver screen, where they could escape from whatever warranted escaping, sit in a dark room and surround themselves in alternate realities that changed on an almost-weekly basis.
Unfortunately, in today's world of giant multiplexes and homogenized mass-market entertainment, those palaces have become dinosaurs. They're too big to fill on a regular basis, too expensive to maintain, too difficult to park near. They should be cherished and protected; instead, they're being abandoned and demolished.
Next week, Highlandtown's Grand Theatre will probably fall prey to the wrecking ball. Opened in 1918 as a vaudeville house, the theater welcomed generation after generation of East Baltimore moviegoers before closing in 1981. It's lain dormant since then, and, despite a flurry of activity a few years back, there was never enough genuine interest in reopening it. Within the next few years, a giant new Pratt Library is scheduled to be built along Conkling Street, where the Grand has stood for nearly nine decades.
The Grand's likely demolition comes just one month before another one of Baltimore's beloved movie palaces, the Hippodrome, reopens as a legitimate theater. Its inside restored, its outside polished, the long-dormant Hippodrome will once again offer a home for such big-budget, large-scale Broadway shows as The Producers and Mama Mia!
The Grand deserved a similar fate. In a city with only three operating movie theaters (including the Senator, whose continuing operation is a civic blessing), it's hard to believe it couldn't have filled a niche.
With Oscar talk beginning to permeate the cinematic air - nominations will be announced Jan. 27 - Cinema Sundays this weekend is offering a first area glimpse at the emerging favorite in the best actress race.
Charlize Theron plays serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, director Patty Jenkins' look at the life of the woman, executed last year in Florida, who murdered six men, including a policeman, while working as a prostitute.
The film also stars Christina Ricci, but the real selling point so far has been Theron, who gained enough weight and lathered on enough makeup to transform herself from one of the movies' most beautiful actresses to a disheveled, pock-marked embodiment of rage. Already nominated for a Golden Globe, she's emerged as the early favorite in the Oscar race.
The film starts at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St. Baltimore-born filmmaker Paul Zinder, a professor of film at American University in Rome, will lead the post-film discussion. Admission, including pre-film coffee and bagels, is $15. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.cinemasundays.com.
Also at the Charles this weekend, Luis Bunuel's The Milky Way (La Via Lattea) is the latest offering in its Saturday afternoon revival series, this month and next focusing on films by European directors.
Bunuel's 1969 film stars Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff as two men traversing Spain to visit the tomb of St. James. Filled with religious undertones and figures (even the devil makes an appearance), it's probably Bunuel's most overtly religious film. It's also a fascinating piece of work, given that Bunuel was a professed non-believer who once made the tellingly contradictory statement, "Thank God I'm an atheist."
Film times are noon Saturday and 9 p.m. Thursday. Call: 410-727-FILM.
French director Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise (L'Enfants du Pardis) will be the topic of discussion at January's Filmtalk, the Pratt Library's monthly opportunity for film buffs to gather and gab about movie classics.
Released in 1945, the movie, made under the noses of Nazi censors and starring several Resistance fighters, centers on the romance between a theater mime (Jean-Louis Barrault) and his true love (Arletty).
The film, which clocks in at over three hours, will be shown and discussed in two parts. Part 1 will be shown Saturday in the central library's Wheeler Auditorium; Part 2 will be shown Jan. 17, in the Old Maryland Department, on the building's second floor.
Admission to the screenings and discussions, which begin at 10 a.m. both days, is free. The Pratt is at 400 Cathedral St.