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Secret agents 

Two new films explore unusual relationships in highly usual ways

At the Sundance Film Festival last January, I made a point of avoiding The Station Agent, despite the fact that everyone seemed delighted by it. In synopsis form, this film about a lonely dwarf who inherits an abandoned railway depot in rural New Jersey and comes gradually out of his shell just seemed unbearably saccharine and contrived. Even after The Station Agent won the audience award, I had no regrets about missing it.

But, after seeing a steady stream of good reviews over the last month as the film was released in larger cities, I began to look forward to The Station Agent. Now that I've finally seen it, I can see why it's such a crowd pleaser and why it will most likely have a successful run here. But, scrooge that I am, I still don't like it.

It's certainly not the fault of Peter Dinklage, the diminutive star of the film. He's a good-looking guy with a dark sexual edge and he carries himself with a charismatic gravity that's entirely free of pathos. When we meet his character, Fin McBride, he's working in a small town railroad hobby shop and living alone in a dismal walk-up apartment. His only friend is his boss and fellow train enthusiast. It's a solitary life with minimal pleasures, and Finn is a wary, aloof and taciturn man.

Dinklage, whose prior credits include very funny appearances in Tom DeCillo's Living in Oblivion and the Charlie Kaufman-penned Human Nature, has flawless timing as he coolly sizes up the lesser humans in his orbit, just as his character checks his timepiece to see if trains are on schedule. But I'd like to think that Dinklage's haughty character would take a similarly dim view of the lame comedy and sentimental contrivances that make up the bulk of The Station Agent.

Although Fin's new home, the railway depot, is in the middle of nowhere, he somehow meets his two future best friends on his first day. First, there's Joe, a Goofy Ethnic Best Friend from central casting who's played very, very broadly by Third Watch's Bobby Cannavale. Since Joe runs a coffee stand that's conveniently situated outside the railway depot, he's always nearby for a reaction shot or a handy quip, just like a sitcom next-door neighbor.

Considerably better is Olivia, a ditzy artist who's recovering from the death of her young son and coping with a failing marriage. The increasingly formidable Patricia Clarkson (Julianne Moore's backstabbing best friend in Far From Heaven) plays the role with an agreeably light touch, but even an actress of her gifts can't do much with her meet-cute with Fin, in which she nearly runs him over with her car, not once but twice.

There are no surprises in this film, even when you think there might be one in the offing. For example, our hopes for a union between Fin and Olivia suffer a setback when she confesses that she's still in love with her estranged husband. But when we meet this husband, he turns out to be an insensitive lout, chomping on gum and staring contemptuously at the dwarf in front of him. In other words, Tom McCarthy, the film's writer and director, doesn't want any messy complications in his film--it's so much easier to give us an asshole and usher him off the set quickly. Likewise, when Joe asks Fin about his sexual experiences, the film quickly cuts away before reality can complicate our notion of the dwarf as sexual naif.

Although there's nothing overtly offensive about The Station Agent, my problem with the film is its predictability and its bland desire to soothe. Here, as in other Sundance-approved films, we meet a diverse group of troubled, lonely people--everyone has a tragedy--and then we're treated to the satisfying spectacle of them overcoming their differences and becoming friends.

Okay, The Station Agent is a nice, harmless little film. But it's also thoroughly inconsequential.

If I went into The Station Agent with skepticism and low expectations, the opposite was true of Eitan Gorlin's The Holy Land. I'd heard some good things about this Israeli indie film, and the subject matter is certainly enough to pique anyone's curiosity.

The premise is pretty simple, in the manner of a 19th century opera: A young Orthodox Jew in a provincial village is so inflamed with impure, lustful desires that he's having trouble with his studies at the yeshiva. His rabbi, apparently citing a very loose interpretation of some Talmudic sub-clause, suggests that the young man remove himself to Tel Aviv and do a little whoring to get the lust out of his system. And so the young man does, only to fall in love with (literally) the first prostitute he meets. And no, she isn't Jewish.

The young man's name is Mendy (Oren Rehany). The kid isn't handsome, but he's an earnest, lanky and bespectacled sort. He masturbates furtively in the bathroom of his family's home, and he's given to reading Herman Hesse when he should be studying the Torah. In Tel Aviv, he meets Sasha, a fetching young Russian whore. Indeed, Sasha is gorgeous--she has lush, curly red hair, muscular dancer's legs and a wide, toothy smile. However, her first encounter with Mendy is a bit of a bust--the over-anxious young man climaxes a little on the early side--but Mendy is hooked, lined and sunk.

As Sasha, Tchelet Semel does a nice job of faking it, both for us and for Mendy, for it only becomes clear later that her inviting smiles and caresses are strictly for hire, even though we, if not Mendy, should know better. When he presents her with a gift at their next meeting, she's understandably irritated. The foolish young man has crossed a forbidden boundary.

But Israel is full of boundaries, and this film starts to lose its way when it turns its attention to the everyday political realities of life in that violent country. Our entree into the wider Israeli situation comes courtesy of Sasha's friend and frequent customer Mike. He's a guy in his 40s who's seen a lot of bloodshed, thanks to his former occupation as a photojournalist. (He's played, quite badly, by American actor Saul Stein.) A big bear of a man--he alternates between teddy and Grizzly--Mike talks a lot about his past in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. But now, in his retirement, he runs a cosmopolitan Jerusalem bar called Mike's Place. It's a joint of intrigue, where every third person is an arms dealer and every fourth is a crazy old drunk. In fact, Mike's Place and the people in it are reminiscent of a certain Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca, Morocco, 60 years ago.

In the place of a hot-blooded drama of a young man's love for a fallen woman, we're treated to a very awkward and clumsy examination of the forces that are tearing Israel apart. These are important issues, to be sure, but the film's insistence upon making a connection between young Mendy's sexual desires and the unsustainability of the Zionist enterprise has the effect of weakening every argument the film tries to make.

In the end, there's not enough sex in The Holy Land, nor is any significant political argument advanced. In other words, this film manages the remarkable feat of not having its cake and not eating it, either. EndBlock


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