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TORONTO ’08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | “Gigantic” Breaks Out; “Pedro” Does Justice To Activist; Auds Dig “Ev

TORONTO '08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | "Gigantic" Breaks Out; "Pedro" Does Justice To Activist; Auds Dig "Ev

Nobody in the Toronto International Film Festival audience at the Monday evening premiere of “Gigantic,” a lovely, funny, unabashedly odd romance from first-time feature filmmaker Matt Aselton, mentioned the name Wes Anderson in the post-screening question-and-answer sessions. But they would have been correct to reference the director of critical hits “The Darjeeling Limited,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore” and I imagine that Aselton would have relished the comparison.

A standout cast featuring up-and-comers Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel as the film’s shy lovers and veteran actors John Goodman, Edward Asner and Jane Alexander as their eccentric parents, together with a vibrant New York City backdrop provide Aselton a strong template for a likable youth romance with strong box office potential. The wonderful surprise is that Aselton, helped by co-writer Adam Nagata, does so much more with the audience friendly formula. “Gigantic,” while pretty to watch, engaging from start to finish and funny in all the right places, offers audiences a surreal twist in the form of a mystery character stalking its romantic lead. It’s an odd creative choice for Aselton, one that intentionally upends his audience-friendly movie. Yet, it works brilliantly, distinguishing “Gigantic” from other films in the genre and shows Aselton to be a filmmaker with a bright future.

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Brooklyn mattress salesman Brian (Dano) falls fast for Hariette (Deschanel) when she comes to his store to buy a bed for wealthy father (John Goodman). Their love affair, while tentative, moves quickly. But the childlike Hariette runs away upon news that Brian intends to become a single dad by adopting a Chinese baby.

Dano, best known for his role as a young preacher in “There Will Be Blood,” offers “Gigantic” a dead-on lead performance, equal parts charming and timid, and huge commercial value to the film’s box office potential. Deschanel, while failing to break new acting ground as Happy, plays the type of quirky role audiences have come to expect from her. She connects sweetly with Dano and gives the film heart.

For a first-time filmmaker like Aselton, someone with zero name recognition, it’s the greatest gift he could hope for from his young leads.

Longtime fans of MTV‘s “The Real World” reality TV series and cast member Pedro Zamora, an openly gay cast member from 1994 who died of complications from AIDS while the show was being aired, may be convinced that no film can do Zamora’s tragic story justice. First-time director Nick Oceano proves them wrong with “Pedro,” a compelling youth drama equal to the heartache of Zamora’s short life, one that transpired in the media spotlight.

Pedro (newcomer Alex Loynaz), is a young Latino in Miami. An activist teaching HIV/AIDS awareness, Pedro finds a powerful platform on the popular MTV reality series. When he becomes ill, he refuses to hide his diminishing health. Instead, he uses the show to spread his message of safe sex and tolerance to a wider audience. His is a message of hope, and “Pedro” more coming-of-age drama than illness movie, more social message melodrama than TV movie of the week, does Pedro’s story justice.

Oceano, who has yet to graduate from film school, shows the technical skills necessary to be a filmmaker in the professional ranks. Editor Jonathan Alberts and cameraman Mark Putnam keeps the storytelling fluid and cinematic. But it’s “Pedro’s script that’s most impressive; a strong biography tale from Dustin Lance Black, scriptwriter for the upcoming Harvey Milk drama starring Sean Penn as the famous gay San Francisco politician and activist.

Alex Loynaz, making his debut as a lead actor, is a worthy hero; charismatic, handsome, heartfelt and compelling. Justina Machado, also a new face to movie audiences, complements Loynaz perfectly as Pedro’s caring but less tolerant sister.

Produced by “Quinceanera” co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, ‘Pedro” was originally planned by financiers Brian/Murray Films as a straight-to-TV release. But “Pedro” would be a smart acquisition, especially in the U.S. market where Zamora’s profile remains high. With a film that claims dramatic material as heartfelt and engaging as “Pedro,” its chances at crossing over to numerous audiences, gay, Latino, MTV fans, as well as traditional art-house moviegoers, looks bright.

A scene from James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s “Every Little Step.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Finally, when it comes to comparisons, or the Herculean task of matching source material, co-directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo have it tough with their documentary “Every Little Step,” a behind-the-scenes story of multiple dancers trying out for a recent revival of the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line.” Thanks to a massive crew that captures every human drama, triumphant or sad, and pinpoint editing that keeps the story moving, “Every Little Step” becomes a welcome companion piece to the Michael Bennett‘s beloved stage show. Repped by William Morris Independent for North American sales, “Every Little Step” recreates the passion and the drama of Bennett’s original show via the stories of a new generation of dancers hopeful for their own chance at fame. “Every Little Step,” while perhaps a bit long, is fun and moving thanks to can’t-miss material and compelling documentary subjects. Followers of the show will leave thrilled and audiences who’ve yet to see “A Chorus Line” will become newfound fans.

By the time “Every Little Step” ends, at the premiere night of the revival, Stern and Del Deo have earned any and all comparisons to Bennett’s landmark show. Their film is a worthy follow-up, which is a fantastic comparison to achieve.

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