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On Movies: 'Cyrus,' 'I am Love' and 'Stonewall Uprising'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - "Cyrus," an uneven but sometimes blisteringly funny new comedy, takes shrewd advantage of the fact that much humor comes out of the infliction of pain. In this case, the pain is psychic and the inflictee, most of the time, is John (John C. Riley), a lovelorn middle-aged divorced doofus who despairs of finding love again. Dragooned by his well-meaning ex-wife (Catherine Keener) into attending a mixer, he becomes desperately, karaoke-crazed drunk and somehow falls into the loving arms of a sexy single mother named Molly (Marisa Tomei). She, against all reason, finds him irresistible.

The only obstacle in the way of love ever after for John and Molly is her son Cyrus, a lumpy 21-year-old played by Jonah Hill, whose portly physique and considerable comic talents generally bless more rambunctious offerings - like the current hit "Get Him to the Greek." This time, Hill lets his dark side slither into view, and it's a little scary.

Cyrus still lives at home with Molly (Marisa Tomei) and he has no intention of moving elsewhere. The relationship between mother and Mom is borderline Oedipal and borderline creepy. When John the interloper comes along and seems to win his way into Mom's heart, Cyrus begins a passive-aggressive - and sometimes just plain aggressive -- campaign to break up the romance, walking in on the couple at highly inappropriate moments, or darkly hinting that he literally cannot live without the constant attention of mommy. When John and Molly are together, Cyrus is always there, even when he's somewhere else. We'd like to feel sorry for Cyrus, if we could just stop detesting him.

For a while, John has no chance - after all, Cyrus has a 21-year head start on manipulating Molly, and the bond between mother and child is a tenacious one. The battle becomes increasingly nasty, and increasingly funny, as the two men abandon any shred of subtlety and just go at each other, their hatred for one another apparent to everyone but Molly. (This may be a weakness of the movie - Molly is a pretty sharp cookie, and you have to figure she would have some insights into her only son after all those years and, presumably, all of those scared-off suitors.)

"Cyrus" has a cast of terrific actors who were given plenty of room to improvise dialogue, and it is filmed simply and with dispatch with handheld cameras that commendably avoid calling attention to themselves. The comedy is the latest collaboration by Jay and Mark Duplass ("Baghead"), notable figures in the so-called "mumblecore" movement of young independent filmmakers.

The film maintains its wire-taut tension most of the way through, and occasionally even seems to be at least hinting that something horrible might befall Cyrus or John if the duel is not halted. I found myself wondering how the Duplass brothers were going to come up with an emotionally satisfying ending while maintaining the undertow of irreconcilable anger that fuels the film's comedic thrust.

The answer is that they couldn't, and the relatively soft ending is a bit disappointing. On the other hand, the alternative might have been something out of "Lord of the Flies," only this time with Piggy winning.

Opens Friday, July 2

'I Am Love'

In his feverish new movie, "I Am Love," Luca Guadagnino tantalizes us for what seems like a very long time with the possibility that a wealthy Milanese wife and mother named Emma (Tilda Swinton) is going to have an affair with a handsome young chef who is a friend of her son. The director even teases us with very brief glimpses of romantic gropings that may only be occurring in the fervid imaginations of the principals.

Then, more than halfway through the movie, on a sun-splashed Ligurian hillside, the couple finally explodes in an outdoor love scene that seems perilously close to something you'd have to pay extra for on cable.

In case we fail to get the message that nature is a force not to be denied, the director makes languid cuts between kiss-smothered human flesh and bugs doing erotic dances on the lips of flowers. Pretty soon, the whole thing becomes kind of ridiculous, like something you might get if Playboy took over the Discovery channel.

By the climax, or rather the denouement, which is triggered by a death that is as much slapstick as tragedy, the movie, which has received some ecstatically favorable reviews, has become as grandiosely, chest-beatingly absurd as its title. The irritating John Adams musical score goes ballistic as Emma plows through the scenery to follow her bliss. Unfortunately, the only reason we have been given to care one way or another about this confused rich woman is that she is really nice to her maid.

Opens Friday July 2

'Stonewall Uprising'

In 1969, we learn from the valuable documentary "Stonewall Uprising," homosexual activity was illegal in every state except Illinois. All those state laws have since been overturned, in part because of events that began on June 28 of that year.

New York police were conducting a routine raid on a crowded gay bar in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, when customers began objecting to being shoved around and herded outside with nightsticks. They fought back and eventually were joined by thousands of other protesters in what one of the participants describes as "an uprising."

Uprising or riot, what happened on Christopher Street that night became a rallying point for the gay rights movement. The event is observed in the Gay Pride marches that take place in late June in cities across the country, including in St. Louis.

The film by Kate Davis and David Hellbroner does a good job of giving us a portrait of gay life in the closeted 1960s, and vividly recreates the action at the Stonewall. Effective use is made of films and television programs of the period that portray homosexuality as an illness that could be cured by electro-shock "aversion therapy." The movie is a worthwhile addition to our recent history.

Opens Friday July 2

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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