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Avoiding humans, then blowing them up

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Have you heard the one about the dwarf, the clinically depressed artist, and the goofy Cuban? It sounds like the setup for the worst joke imaginable, but under the steady hand of debut writer-director Thomas McCarthy, The Station Agent (opens Friday, November 14, at the Little) becomes a leisurely paced character study about three very incomplete people who find wholeness in each other's company. Yeah, it sounds like a ridiculously sappy premise, but it works quite well thanks to solid efforts both in front of and behind the camera.

            Fin(n) is a popular name at the cinema lately, though Jack Black will probably get way more attention for his School of Rock role than 4-foot-6-inch Peter Dinklage, who plays Finbar McBride, a train aficionado in Hoboken, New Jersey who takes refuge in the backroom of a model shop. It's there the tiny man repairs tiny trains in solitude, a welcome respite from the looks and the taunts he endures ("Hey, where's Snow White?") when he steps out into the real world.

            When the owner (Paul Benjamin) of the store dies, Fin finds himself out of a job. But he is also the surprised recipient of an inheritance that includes a piece of land, home to an abandoned train depot, in rural Newfoundland. Hoping to enjoy the solitude, as well as the proximity of train tracks to his new digs, Fin packs his bag and makes for the sleepy New Jersey burgh. But instead of peace and quiet, Fin gets Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a loquacious Cuban-American running a sandwich truck near the depot, and Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), an accident-prone painter who nearly runs Fin over on two separate occasions.

            Of course, Fin is miserable about Joe and Olivia and their inability to leave him the hell alone, as he is obviously not well-equipped to deal with people. But he eventually opens up, and we learn more about what makes Fin and his new friends tick. Along the way, we're treated to a perfect score from Hedwig & the Angry Inch's Stephen Trask, lovely photography from German cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, and smaller but still effective roles via Michelle Williams, who plays a librarian, and Raven Goodwin, whose young Cleo can't quite grasp the fact that Fin isn't a kid like her.

            I'm hoping Agent will be the film that launches a bunch of careers. I'm not sure what kind of demand there might be for diminutive actors (though Tom Cruise has a pretty lucrative thing going on), but Dinklage is very good here, giving a fairly layered performance with more expression than you see from most male leads these days (he's probably best known now for the Will Ferrell-attack scene in Elf). Cannavale has logged a bunch of memorable performances on television shows like Kingpin, 100 Centre Street, and Third Watch, but he has never been more likable than he is in Agent.

            Clarkson already has it going on: She won one of Agent's three awards at Sundance. (The film was also the audience's choice for Best Drama and it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.) But Boston Public actor-turned-writer-director McCarthy comes off as the talent with the most to gain from Agent. His debut is thoughtful, not agonizingly lengthy, and extremely subtle without being pretentious. It plays like Ulee's Gold, except with trains instead of bees.

The Weather Underground (opens Friday, November 14, at the Little Theatre) is about as good as a non-Errol Morris documentary can get. The subjects are the radical domestic terrorists who called themselves the Weathermen and, throughout the first half of the '70s, detonated explosive devices in dozens of carefully chosen buildings. They were even responsible for capturing a hefty bounty for the prison liberation of Timothy Leary.

            We see --- via scads of home movies, news footage, and present-day interviews with the interested parties --- the origin of the group, which began as a powerful splinter of the Students for a Democratic Society. It took its name from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" lyric: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," and took control of the SDS at their annual meeting in 1969. Their message was "Bring the War Home," and their practices were so extreme and so intent on taking down The Man that even the Black Panthers were like, "Dude, that's too extreme for us."

            Which is funny, on account of the Weathermen's belief they were fighting for, among other things, an end to the war in Vietnam and a halt to the government's persecution of groups like the Panthers. Were these just confused white kids with nothing better to do, or were they on to something? If you think it's the former, Underground is probably just going to make you mad. Its two filmmakers (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, who also created documentary shorts like Pie Fight '69 and The Rainbow Man/John 3:16) are a little too compassionate towards the group's political views. This is a pretty one-sided movie.

            Underground is narrated, at times, by Lili Taylor and is scored by the likes of Fugazi's Brendan Canty and Ian MacKaye, and it's really jam-packed full of great stuff, including what appears to be a real 8mm clip of a Weathermen orgy. Bottom line: They make today's protestors look like a bunch of wimps. Fight the power!

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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