Film

CinemaDope: Open House

The theater as town hall

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Thursday, September 29, 2011
Photo Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Circumstance won the Audience Award at Sundance

It's hard to overestimate the hole that was left behind when Northampton's Pleasant Street Video closed up shop this summer. As it wound up its loose ends—managing, along the way, to get much of its storied collection donated to the Forbes Library—the most common lament I heard from patrons wasn't about the loss of a video store. It was about the loss of a community: movies may have first drawn them together, but the shop had long been a de facto town common where locals came to laugh, debate and chew the fat.

So it's been nice to see long-time neighbor Pleasant Street Theater continue to carry the community torch. This month, their new midnight series opened to sell-out crowds that sparked that same sense of togetherness that the video store was so good at fostering. ( This week brings the redneck-murder-comedy of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.) And for those of you who haven't seen midnight in years, the theater continues its decades-long tradition of Wednesday morning films, as well as the newer tradition of a weekly baby-friendly film. (Not a kids' movie, just a screening of a current film where new parents don't have to feel bad about bringing their infants.) All in all, the theater seems to be firing on all cylinders lately.

This week, the theater is screening Drive, a bloody action caper from the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising). For his Hollywood outing, Refn cast Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) as a movie industry stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for hire. A decided loner—Gosling's character is simply listed as "Driver" in the credits—he nonetheless gets involved with his neighbor Irene (An Education's Carey Mulligan) when her ex-con husband pulls her into danger. And danger there is; Drive features some Grand Guignol moments that go beyond the usual action cliches, including one character getting stabbed in the eye with a fork.

Indeed, just as those moments of red move past the tired eruptions of most cinematic violence, the film as a whole transcends its genre. Helped along by a great supporting cast—Albert Brooks shows up as a shady film mogul, and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) appears as Driver's mechanic—Refn's film concerns itself more with the stoicism that great violence makes necessary, aligning itself more with classics like Bullitt than the gaudy new car movies (see the Transporter series) of today.

Also at PST is Circumstance, winner of the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. A glimpse inside the rarely seen world of Iranian youth culture, writer/director Maryam Keshavarz's first feature tackles not only the usual issues of a coming of age film—sex, drugs, and rebellion—but also what it means to experience all those things in a country where oppression is a (sometimes dangerous) fact of life.

*

Also this week: After a short run at Amherst Cinema earlier this year, the documentary Project Nim has returned for a longer stay. Charting the life of a chimpanzee who spent most of his life in the strange reality of a long clinical experiment, the film takes viewers on an emotionally exhausting ride—each moment of awe at the evidence of Nim's consciousness is tempered by the knowledge of his surroundings, and by a gnawing feeling of shared guilt whenever we see him mistreated.

It began as a well-intentioned venture during the permissive 1970s: under the aegis of Columbia University, Nim would be raised from infancy by a human family. The thought was that a chimp could learn to communicate in our language if it was brought up in the same manner as our children, eventually learning enough to tell us, in English, what it thought and how it felt.

We should probably be glad Nim couldn't tell us what he thought of humans. When his physical development outpaced his hoped-for linguistic development—when, in other words, he became too much for his adoptive family to handle—he was retired from the program and disappeared into the world of medical testing. A rescue and final denouement would provide a last sad footnote to Nim's remarkable life, one that, despite its sorrows, can still teach us something about animal behavior—namely, our own.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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