Friday, May 1, 2009

Odds, ends and a bit of animated sci-fi

The most interesting movie opening on the "art" scene this week is "Gigantic," a first film from director Matt Aselton. The movie, which begins its run Friday at the Starz FilmCenter, isn't much good, but it shows that Aselton has a knack for catching you off-guard, and, just as impressive, that he has good luck with casting. Paul Dano -- still most familiar to viewers for his work as the speechless brother in "Little Miss Sunshine" -- seems perfectly suited to playing an inward-looking mattress salesman who falls for a young woman named Happy (Zoey Deschanel). For years, though, Dano's Brian has been dreaming about adopting a Chinese baby, and he's constantly checking on his application. The good casting extends to John Goodman, who's agreeably offensive as Happy's rich dad, and to Ed Asner, who signs on as Brian's dad, a man with the hyperbole to match a generous spirit. The script doesn't always make sense, and the parts can't get anywhere near a satisfying whole. I reacted to "Gigantic" a bit like the late Pauline Kael reportedly reacted to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore." She told him there was something there, but she wasn't sure what it was.

Michael Caine provides the only one reason to see "Is Anybody There?" a story about the relationship between a 10-year-old boy (Bill Milner) and an aging magician who reluctantly checks into an old-age facility operated by the boy's parents. As The Amazing Clarence, Caine gives another fine performance. Clarence, a minor entertainer whose career has hit the skids, alternates between the sweet and sour sides of his personality. That's the easy part. More difficult is the way Caine allows his character's vulnerability to show through in scenes that demonstrate that the actor has hold of something deep: regrets about how Clarence treated his late wife and a fear of losing his mind to the ravages of dementia. Other than that, "Is Anybody There" offers a bit of English-style quirkiness (not much more appealing than American-style quirkiness) and a gentle spirit that too often lapses into outright dullness. If you happen to fall asleep during the movie -- a possibility -- you'll wake up to find that things have gone pretty much as expected.

"The Battle for Terra" mixes a wistful drawing style with some deep-space battling. This animated movie -- available in 3D at some locations -- isn't nearly as brassy as the entertainments we're used to seeing from the creative minds at Disney and DreamWorks. Canadian director Aristomenis Tsirbas tells the story of Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), a young creature who floats around the planet Terra. (See above photo.) Eventually, alien forces from Earth -- survivors who've been living on a space station after making several planets uninhabitable -- try to take over Mala's planet. Maybe violence can be avoided. Mala meets an Earthling pilot (Luke Wilson) and the two strike up a relationship. Alas, it's not strong enough to keep the Earthlings from invading Terra in hopes of finding yet another planet to despoil. Ultimately, "Battle for Terra" is a green-leaning, sci-fi adventure that builds toward a noble sacrifice. I'm not sure that the littlest children will love it, and I'm not quite sure how adults will react to it, either. But "Battle for Terra" definitely deserves credit for daring to diverge from the road taken by most of Hollywood's animated fare. As for the 3D. I enjoyed it for a while, but soon grew weary of it and those damnable glasses.

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