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For movie buffs who long for the good ol' days of giant screens and picture palaces, the movie theater at Coolidge Corner--Boston's only non-profit moviehouse "with a big screen"--is offering up a weekly treat from cinema heaven. Every Wednesday at 7:30 pm during the month of July, one has only to take the T (Green Line) down to the Corner and queue up for a ticket to see one of four films that comprise the "70-mm series."
Seventy-millimeter means big screen. Very big screen. It's a wave of nostalgia for those who lived through the '50s and '60s; a new experience for those accustomed to the economy-size compartments of mall movie theaters. And what films! They've already played "Lawrence of Arabia" and Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet." Still to come are "My Fair Lady" and "The Last Emperor."
Admittedly, the best has come and gone. For those of you who were lucky enough to catch "Lawrence of Arabia," either in the '60s or last Wednesday, it's surely an unforgettable experience. More than any other film from Hollywood's so-called Golden Age (with the possible exception of "Ben-Hur"), David Lean's epic deserves to be seen on the big screen. The sweeping expanses of sand and sky, desert cliffs, even the startlingly blue ribbon of the Mediterranean Sea; the small, pencil-thin figure of a lone rider, shimmering in the distance like a mirage; the long convoys of Bedouin warriors, dwarfed by the sea of sand--all of these, seen in 70-mm and magnificently accompanied in stereo by Maurice Jarre's glittering music, are worlds away from the reduced-version, letterbox format to which they've been downgraded, albeit unavoidably, on video. The desert cinematography isn't as sensuously poetic as that of "The English Patient," which has evoked comparisons; but there's a stark grandeur to its vision that suits the nature of the story far better.
The big-screen and big-sound effects also further accentuate the nuances of expression in the acting, highlighting just how good the acting is. Peter O'Toole gives an incomparable performance as "El-Orence"--his first major motion picture: now there's a stunning debut. He's worthily supported by a powerhouse cast--including Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Claude Rains.
The more recent "Hamlet" also looks great in 70-mm showing, though the extra screen size isn't quite as crucial to a film which, despite some lavish and breathtaking cinematography, centers primarily on the expression and delivery of the actors.
Next on the list is "My Fair Lady," one of the most beloved musicals to emerge from the '60s--certainly one of the loveliest and wittiest. And finally, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," which may come close to "Lawrence of Arabia" for benefits from big-screen presentation: few can match Bertolucci for sheer richness of visual style. One can also look for Peter O'Toole again, this time in a supporting role, and alas, much older, but still retaining terrific poise and those deep blue eyes.
The series isn't without its share of technical glitches. There were a number of reel "jumps" and discontinuities in "Lawrence"--due, perhaps, to the sheer age of the reel); and more frustratingly, occasional sound lapses in "Hamlet" (if there's anything that absolutely shouldn't have sound problems, it's a Shakespeare film). This is also not exactly paradise for people who hate crowds. To get a good seat, you need to come early and wait in a line reminiscent of a Disney World ride; but once seated, you need to wait until the theater is filled to capacity. The movie doesn't start until every seat is occupied.
But a big crowd can be fun, too, especially with such a classic as "Lawrence of Arabia"; the applause as the music started and as the words "and introducing Peter O'Toole" appeared on the screen; and, of course, as the end credits rolled. Applause is a must. Go see the two films that remain, and remember to applaud loudly. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
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