The Station Agent (2003, Thomas McCarthy)
The Station Agent was the second film that I saw at the festival starring Patricia Clarkson and a girl from Dawson’s Creek. That’s where the similarities end, however. You may have already heard the buzz about this film–it’s got nothing but (in my opinion deserved) rave reviews.
The story is one of those that I wish I could have come up with. A reclusive dwarf, Fin (Peter Dinklage) with a thing for trains moves into an old railroad depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Only seeking to be alone, he finds himself for the first time surrounded by people who are interested in more than his size. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) runs a hot-dog cart and can’t keep quiet for ten minutes. The once again wonderful Patricia Clarkson plays Olivia, a beautifully damaged artist hiding out from her estranged husband.
In a more conventional movie, we’d get a love triangle, but writer/director McCarthy isn’t going to be conventional. He introduces lovely young librarian Emily (Michelle Williams of Dawson’s Creek), who is pregnant by her loser boyfriend but has a crush on Fin, and grade-school train enthusiast Cleo (Raven Goodwin), who can’t understand why Fin doesn’t want to come speak at her school. Both of these girls contribute to Fin’s ability to accept friendships back into his life, though Joe and Olivia are ultimately the friends that he values the most.
What you get rather than a dramatic love story is a story about people–nuanced, human people, with good points and bad points, but always deliciously real ones. Funny how a gimmicky story (in Hollywood, they’d call it ‘high-concept’) becomes such a simple, human story. There are parts of all of us in Fin, Joe, Olivia, Cleo, and Emily.
Pieces of April (2003, Peter Hedges)
Pieces of April is one of those films, like last year’s Personal Velocity, that are ruining the claims of film students everywhere that they can’t make good films because of budget considerations. According to writer/director Peter Hedges, the movie was shot in 16 days for a $300,000 budget.
Hedges, the writer behind What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, crafts a moving story that manages not to be saccharine and still to be humorous. Katie Holmes is April, the black sheep of her family, or, as she puts it, “The first pancake. The one you’re supposed to throw out.” Her mother (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson) is dying of cancer, and April is trying to reconcile with her family by cooking Thanksgiving dinner in her New York City apartment. While this may not sound like material for a comedy, the movie is terribly funny. April’s attempts at cooking will resonate with anyone who’s never seen why cooking is supposed to be fun, and Clarkson is particularly hilarious as the mother whose sickness has given her license to say everything she’s not supposed to say.
Hedges referred to the film as his tribute to his mother, who also died of cancer, and it is a tribute that any mother could be proud of. In addition to Holmes and Clarkson, wonderful performances are given by Oliver Platt as Jim, April’s father, and Derek Luke as Bobby, her boyfriend. These two play very similar supporting roles–not just in the Hollywood sense, but in the sense that these two men quietly support the women they love, and help them reach the point where they can reconcile.
The digital video photography is perfect for this film–it feels like a home video, like you’re sneaking a peek into these people’s lives, and ultimately, I like what we see.
Breakfast with Hunter (2002, Wayne Ewing)
Hunter S. Thompson is one of America’s foremost writers, and yet a generation of people probably knows him best for his prolific drug use. I’ve been both intrigued and annoyed by this at times, because so many people seem to use Thompson, as well as many of the Beat writers, as excuses to do lots of drugs. I was thrilled to see this documentary focus less on the pill-popping, scotch-guzzling aspects of Thompson and more on the politically aware, immensely passionate man behind the insanity. The film ends with a clip of Thompson’s son saying he admires his father because he really lives his life, and that is a good point to end with.
Wayne Ewing was Thompson’s neighbor near Aspen, Colorado, and rather than filming people talking about Hunter and interspersing them with old footage, he combines older clips such as one from Thames TV on Hunter’s run for Sheriff of Aspen with tapes he made of Hunter’s everyday life over several years.
Though he says the film was 18 years in the making, starting in the 80’s as a proposed pilot for TV, most of the footage centers on the 25th anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the trials and tribulations of turning the book into a movie. Johnny Depp makes several appearances, most notably in a scene where, after agreeing to wait to start production on the film until they can find a director agreeable to Hunter, he requests in return that Hunter teach his bird to talk. Other notable characters making appearances are John Cusack, Benicio Del Toro, George Plimpton, and P.J. O’Rourke. However, Hunter is always the star of this film, and one gets the feeling that no one has ever managed to upstage him. He comes off as wild, funny, stubborn, passionate, but never, as he would be happy to hear, a cartoon.
A few parts of the film were unclear. Ewing starts to tell a couple of stories and then never finishes them, but Hunter makes even a flawed documentary worth watching more than once. I sincerely hope this film gets wider distribution, so that more people get to see the human side of a man so easily and often turned into a caricature.