Thursday, December 29, 2011

plots are overrated — ondine and the station agent

Movies are a great form to tell stories, but some of the best out there forgo traditional narrative for a slice of life. These films offer glimpses into people's lives; lives that seem full and real and would go on whether the audience was in the theater or not. There may be a love story woven into the film, and dramatic scenes, but the romance isn't the point of the movie, nor is the drama engineered so that the characters learn some valuable lesson. They live and we watch them.

Syracuse and the catch of the day
Two great movies of this sort are Ondine and The Station Agent. Both movies, apart from letting us spend time with some great characters, are also set in places that are off-the-beaten-track. They feature people who live outside of big cities, whose lives don't center around plots involving saving the world, or seeking revenge, or getting the girl (or boy).

I have to admit that besides the great acting, a big appeal that these films have for me is their total lack or need of anything big or big city about them. I love to watch a blockbuster movie, but not all the time. I also love big cities, and have lived in two (New York and D.C.) and visited many (London, Paris, Cairo, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice, Amsterdam) but at this time in my life the lure of a big town is about null. 

When I was young and in my twenties being somewhere with a lot of visual and aural stimulation was great. I wanted all of that noise: "You've got to try this place, see this show" and so on. Being in the navel of the world, feeling that everything is happening in your town, can make you feel not just that your finger is on the pulse, but reassured. You're never alone. There are so many others there for the same reason, after the same, indefinable "it" experience. But now that I am more removed from that sort of hustle and bustle other things take more precedence. I notice nature more. Have time to shoot the breeze with total strangers. Get caught up in nuance. These films touch on that type of experience.

In Ondine, Syracuse (Colin Farrell), nicknamed "Circus," is a recovering alcoholic and fisherman. He is divorced and devoted to his only daughter, Annie (a very good Alison Barry). His life is pretty basic. trying to spend as much time as he can with Annie, make a living off the sea, and stay off the booze. His friends and neighbors aren't convinced he isn't still a drunk, but he is a man who is trying hard to live a better life. Annie is on dialysis, due to serious kidney problems, and must frequently use a motorized wheelchair. They have a close relationship, which can handle some teasing banter.
Annie, "You sure it's not some kind of wish-fulfillment kind of thing?"
Syracuse, "Where did you learn words like that?"
Annie, "I go to school."
Syracuse, "And I didn't ..."
Annie, "No. Let's be honest, you didn't. You move your mouth when you read."
As the film opens, Syracuse fishes a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) out of the sea. She tells him her name is Ondine, like the water spirit. When he tells Annie a story about a fisherman who found a woman in his nets Annie does a little research and becomes convinced that Ondine is a selkie. The movie strikes just the right tone between real life, despair, and fantasy. The setting, County Cork, Ireland, is gorgeous, as are the actors. It's a fairytale, but never twee — a lyrical film from the great Neil Jordan.

Alison Barry and Colin Farrell
In The Station Agent Peter Dinklage plays Fin — quiet, handsome, and a dwarf. A train enthusiast, he has inherited the station house in a small town in Newfoundland, New Jersey, from his recently deceased closest (and only) friend. He wants to keep himself to himself, but he can't help getting involved with four of the locals.
Fin, "You said you weren't going to talk to me if I sat here, Joe."
Joe, "I haven't said anything in like twenty minutes."
Fin checks his pocket watch, "Nine."
Joe "You timed me? "
Fin, "Mm-hmm."
Joe, "That's cold, bro."
One, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), nearly runs him over as he walks down the road (twice). She has her own troubles — her young son died two years ago and she is separated from her husband and is trying to sort out her life. Another, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a loquacious food truck vendor, as soon as he meets Fin is determined to be his friend whether he likes him or not. The third, Emily (Michelle Williams), a young woman who works in the local library, sparks his interest. And the fourth, a young girl named Cleo, shares his love of trains and wants him to come and talk to her class at school. Fin has spent so much of his life dodging stares and stupid "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" remarks that he is unprepared for people who like him for himself, aren't put off by his stature.

Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale

Fin, "I'm retired, actually."
Emily, "Aren't you a little young to be retired?"
Fin, "No, dwarves retire early. Common fact."
Emily, "Yeah, lazy dwarves."

Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy has assembled a great cast. Dinklage is wonderful, as are his costars, in this slice of life about love and grief and loneliness and friendship.  They all make Newfoundland, New Jersey a great place to spend some time.

If you like to get caught up in nuance, or would like a break from the latest animated extravaganza, romantic comedy, high-tech thriller, or zombie apocalypse, I highly recommend a slice of life film. Ondine and The Station Agent are two great places to start.

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