Friday, July 2, 2010


Two opening in the Valley Friday:

Cyrus—John (John C. Reilly) is an LA video editor who’s been divorced & seriously depressed for a few years now. His ex (Catherine Keener), concerned about his funk, drags him to a party where, wonder of wonders, he actually meets somebody. Indeed, he meets the woman of his dreams, Molly (Marisa Tomei)—gorgeous, eccentric, sexually avid. If you’re guessing that this isn’t the end of John’s troubles, you’re no fool. Before too long he meets Molly’s grown son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a chubby experimental musician with a soft-spoken manner & an aggressive, wide-eyed stare.

Cyrus still lives at home, & he & his mother have an unnervingly boundary-free relationship. Though he feigns supportiveness of her new relationship, he’s enraged at John’s encroachment, & privately wages war on him.

This indie was written & directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, the brothers behind the interesting if uneven 2008 horror comedy Baghead. At times Cyrus seems like it, too, may take the plunge into all-out psychothriller territory, but the Duplass Brothers once again keep it light & unpredictable, & focus on the performances. Reilly has gradually become one of the great screen everymen—I found myself worrying about poor John the same way his ex-wife does—& Tomei is sexy & poignant. Hill, part of the Judd Apatow Mafia that has taken over popular movies the last few years, is first-rate, too. I thought he was a scream in The 40-Year-Old Virgin & Knocked Up & in his scene opposite Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. But as Cyrus—maddening & creepy, yet also pitiable, yet also smart & funny—he shows a range I might not have guessed.

The Last Airbender—Channel-surfing last week I happened upon M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, about 20 minutes in, & stopped to watch a while, marveling again both at the cunning structure & at the heartfelt punch of the performances. It’s a classic, I thought, & if Shyamalan never makes another good movie, he’ll still have earned his place in movie history.

But it looks like he really might not, alas. Almost every movie he’s made apart from Sixth Sense has been an interesting but severe misfire. My favorite of his subsequent efforts is one that everybody else seemed to particularly hate—The Village (2004). I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, certainly, but it’s coherent, well-acted &, for me at least, not without chills.

His latest, The Last Airbender, is a sort of martial-arts action-fantasy based on some animated show I’ve never seen. It’s in an alternative Earth, maybe the far future or a fairy-tale past, in which the world is divided into feudal realms based on the traditional “elements”: Earth, Water, Fire & Air. These kingdoms are policed by “Avatars” (the original title was Avatar: The Last Airbender, which had to be dropped for obvious reasons): warriors who can manipulate their elements through Tai-Chi-like moves, flinging them at their enemies as offensive weapons or summoning them up as defensive shields.

At the beginning, a brother & sister living in an arctic, Inuit-like culture—though they look like junior-high kids from Appleton, Wisconsin or someplace—are out hunting & find a boy frozen in the ice, along with a gigantic mammal. They thaw them out, & the kid (shaven-headed, pained-looking Noah Ringer) turns out to be a.) not dead, & b.) the title character, an air-bending avatar with the power to overthrow the cultural dominance of the Fire-bending kingdom. The mammal turns out be a sort of cross between a yak, an otter & a Pekingese, except he can also fly.

A complicated plot involving the intrigues of the Fire Kingdom’s royal family ensues, along with many attempts on the poor little airbender’s life, lots of choreographic martial arts moves, & loads of New Agey bromides. There’s a big battle finale in an ice city that looks like a blend of Maxfield Parrish & Thomas Kinkade.

Maybe some kids will get into this; I confess it just seemed too dumb for me—like Tolkien infused with Hannah Montana or the Beach Party movies. Or something.

All I can say is that there were moments of splendor in the design & captivating fanciful images, like warriors riding on giant monitor lizards, or like the huge ironclad warships of the Fire people, but these pleasures are outweighed by the stubbornly vapid dialogue. There was nobody to root for. The heroic kids are vastly less interesting & complex than the Fire people—by far the best performances are by Dev Patel & Aasif Mandvi as, respectively, a conflicted Prince & the villainous general trying to beat him to capturing the LA. But then again, these two have the meatiest roles.

Anyway, for my money this is yet another unfortunate miss for Shyamalan. But the film is optimistically subtitled Book One: Water, so perhaps he plans to have three more tries to get it right.

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