Film review of Liberal Arts

December 21, 2012

(Note:  This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 December 2012.)

Directed and written by Josh Radnor

Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron and John Magaro

“Liberal Arts” is a totally delightful and small romantic film about finding yourself, mentoring and growing up.  That the superbly handsome Josh Radnor (Ted in “How I Met Your Mother”) wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced this film is a bonus.  “Liberal Arts” is, at heart, a great “date” film.  I felt good watching it – knowing that I was “emotionally safe” (no nasty Hitchcockian twists here) – and the feeling remained for some days afterwards.

Radnor is a film-maker to watch.  He is thoroughly Jewish, the product of an Orthodox Jewish day school in Columbus, Ohio, and has a form of classical good looks that has already placed him in the next generation of Jewish writer-director-actor stars in the making:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Segel.  In “Liberal Arts”, he plays Jesse Fisher, a 35 year-old university (“college”) admissions officer living unhappily in New York City.  He is drifting and unhappy; his girlfriend has left him and even his laundry gets stolen.

Then comes an invitation to attend the retirement dinner of a former mentor, Peter Homburg, a college teacher of English at his old college in Ohio (played by the wonderful Richard Jenkins).  Jesse goes, unprepared for the revitalising experience that this visit will turn out to be.  Aside from Peter, he comes across another significant English teacher, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). (Did you ever wonder why almost every American college teacher on screen teaches English; it must have something to do with what screenwriters studied while in unie).

But it’s actually the students that Jesse meets who shift his life course. Revisiting his alma mater allows enables him to shed his depressive, unexpressive and failing adult self and be re-born as a wise and romantic being.

The desperately depressed and introspective Dean (John Magaro, another Jewish actor born in Ohio) gives Jesse the opportunity to become a helpful big brother (“stop reading David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’”, Jesse tells him).  By contrast, Nat (played by heart-throb Zac Efron), is a puck-like wispy free spirit who seems to understand just how to pull Jesse from his self-absorption. And there is Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, best-known for her role as Martha in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), the 19 year-old daughter of Peter’s friends, with whom Jesse, against his better judgment, falls in love.  The scenes between Radnor and Olsen, including a cute formal letter correspondence, all seem to work without any sense of sleaze, primarily because both actors seem so … wholesome is the best word.  And what is the fate of this May-September romance?  You will need to see the film to find out.

There is also the film’s Ohio setting:  an un-named historic and very pretty Midwestern college, complete with gothic stone buildings, set in a small town with a nice intellectual bookshop and a clean and well-lit coffeehouse.  The film was actually shot at Kenyon College, where Radnor received his undergraduate degree and where he was voted best actor in his year.  Stay through the final credit sequence to hear the witty a cappella song “I Want a Kenyon Man”.

Generations of Americans long for that lost and passionately felt world of ideas, literature and music that they experienced during their university years.  Radnor consciously set out to give his character Jesse the opportunity to re-connect with his creative and romantic self through his relationship with Zibby.  He has created a film in which the characters do something very unusual:  they talk about books that matter – as they reportedly also do for Radnor himself.

Ultimately, “Liberal Arts” is probably too small, too sweet and lacks sufficient fireworks to grab a large audience.  There are no “I’ll have what she’s having” scenes like the one in “When Harry Met Sally”, no transformations into a Chassidic character at the dinner table (Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”) and no desperately mis-matched mild Jews and tough WASPs (Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro in “Meet the Parents”).  It’s not that kind of film.  What Radnor gives us instead is a meditative and thoroughly pleasant romance where the main characters grow and the world seems that much nicer at the end.

Watch the trailer for the film here:


Interested in the “I Want a Kenyon Man” song which features at the end?  You can listen to it through this web page.

Below:  Radnor and Olsen walking on the Kenyon College campus:


(Final note:  “Liberal Arts” astonishingly only grossed $391,176 in the North American box office earlier this year.  This is in no way a representation of how lovely this film is.)

Ad watch: one cool ad for the iPad mini

December 9, 2012

Here’s a cool ad for the iPad mini which appeared on the back cover of the November 26, 2012 edition of The New Yorker:

iPad Mini ad with New Yorker cover Nov 26 2012

And why is it so cool?  Have a look at the cover of that edition.  Look familiar?  (I suspect that The New Yorker won’t be too upset at my reprinting their cover, as they already have ….).

New Yorrker cover Nov 26 2012


Why do films come in pairs?

December 4, 2012

So, why do films come in pairs?  I wonder.

For that, I mean two films with very similar themes being released in cinemas – unexplainably – almost simultaneously.  How did this happen?

I am not the only person to notice this; here are some examples:

1993/1994 – Tombstone and Wyatt Earp
1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact
1998 – The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan
1998 – Antz and A Bug’s Life
2003, 2004 – Finding Nemo and Shark Tale
2004, 2005 – Ray and Walk the Line
2006 – Flight 93 and World Trade Center
2006 – The Illusionist and The Prestige (Can you remember which is which from the titles?  I can’t.)

And how about body swap stories, end of the world stories, Truman Capote biopics, baseball films, Joan of Arc biopics, etc.

The latest pair – both currently playing in Australian cinemas – is “completely disabled man finds happiness and sexual fulfilment”.  We have The Sessions (from the USA) and The Intouchables (from France).  Both are quality films, but this time – incredibly – the French film is easily out-performing the American one in the box office in both countries, as the box office table below indicates (figures current as of 3 December 2012, although The Intouchables North American box office does not include Canada, which would improve its standing by at least ten percent, and possibly more because of French Canada.

Film North American box office (US$) Australian box office (AUS$) Ratio: North America to Australia
The Sessions




The Intouchables




Note:  the standard projected North American box office to Australian box office is 10:1; on that basis both films are doing comparatively very well in Australia and much more popular than would normally be expected.

(Prediction: The Intouchables may feature high on Oscar nominations, especially for best foreign language film and its two lead actors.  It’s a crowd-pleaser.)

From Brooklyn to Manhattan

December 2, 2012

One of the most quoted lines about New York City is the one from Norman Podhoretz:  the first sentence of his 1967 memoir, Making It, goes: “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan”.

This is, of course, not simply a geographical journey, but a journey between worlds.  It’s one travelled by many in the film and entertainment worlds, both the real (Woody Allen) and the fictional (John Travolta’s character Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever).

In the case of Woody Allen, Nathan Heller (“Little Strangers” in The New Yorker, November 19, 2012, pp. 85-90) describes Allen’s film Annie Hall as a prime example of “disparate worlds” and “a narrative of horizontal identity, a story about being born ‘out of step’ with your family and joining a community alien to your parents’ milieu”.  In this case the Alvy Singer move from “the deep-seated Brooklyn coral of roller coasters, diabetees, and tallis salsemen” to a Manhattan “post-Freudian paradise of entertainment-biz parties” is the massive shift.

A great quote, and a good idea. But we are forgetting the second half of that first sentence from Podhoretz, one which follows the hypen: “— or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.”

A qualification to be sure.  So Manhattan is an idea – sophistication, fame, fortune – and Brooklyn, in this instance, is the opposite – working class, mundane, pedestrian.  Hmm, tell that to the residents living in Brooklyn Heights living in their multi-million dollar homes with outstanding views overlooking the East River and the skyline of Manhattan.

Annie Hall slide

Images of New York City in the Movies

December 1, 2012

Surely one reason why New York City has a lock on our imagination is that we have seen it on the big screen so many times.  Yes, Los Angeles also does this (often, however, on a “back lot” of manufactured place), but for pure energy and distinctiveness, New York City wins hands down every time.  LA became LA and a major movie headquarters (ironically, taking over from New York) in the early 20th century in part because of the weather, in part because it was away from the old guard and in part because it could stand in for just about anywhere.  Some things have not changed much.

A number of books capture different elements of New York and film.  One of my favourites is Murray Pomerance’s edited collection City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination (Rutgers University Press, 2007).  Pomerance points out that there are so many ways to view New York:  as a geographic entity; a “cultural production with a history and power structure”; a “political residue”, with reference to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the classic book about Robert Moses; a place where politics plays out (Boss Tweed, Fiorello L Guardia, Robert Moses, Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump – and add to that Ed Koch, David Dinkins and everyone else); or even an urbanisation case study which profound world impacts.

For Pomerance, New York City is a “dream and not a place”, and he identifies not one but three different New Yorks on film.  The first is the classic, older New York, which is:

tough minded and (where) aggressive explorers work their way through an urbanised jungle that is flooded with beams of arc light, flickering with neon or with the luminescence of fast-moving traffic at night or in a shadowy constant twilight – all this raised up as far as the eye can see with monuments to a sleek and arching modernism, vast avenues, countless eager windows and vitrines … where multitudes always seem to be scrambling …, where elevators seem always to be whisking the dignified and the stylish to private aeries halfway to the clouds … where big business everywhere accelerates zeal, pressure, movement and rhythm, where endless riveting is piously undertaken to make endless miles of skyscrapers, and where a burgeoning traffic wafts up and down the proud rivers moving the spirit of the place outward, over the ocean, until it meets the world.

Films in this New York include Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Philadelphia Story (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Fountainhead (1949), Grand Hotel (1932), Spellbound (1945), North by Northwest (1959), The Band Wagon (1953), Living it Up (1954) and even recent films such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005).

He identifies a second New York, one of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a “serious” New York, the city of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Wall Street (1987), All That Jazz (1979), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and even the comedies Barefoot in the Park (1967), Plaza Suite (1971) and – my all-time favourite – Annie Hall (1977).

Finally, his third New York is the “contemporary” or “anxious” New York, one of “close up experience and diffuse stress”, with “fashionable clothing, witty talk, and psychological neuroses of people trying to get through the day in what seems an interminable and indefinable war”.  Think of Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Marathon Man (1976) and the 1980s and 1990s work of Woody Allen, On page 9, Pomerance writes, “There is no place like New York that is also not in fact New York.  New York City, then, is a true personality of the silver screen, even more than a star.”

There are other wonderful books about New York and film, notably the fabulous guidebook New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – the Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie New York by Richard Alleman (Broadway Books, 2005) and the lavishly illustrated Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies by James Sanders (Bloomsbury, 2001; check out the book’s fascinating website here).  More on these two engaging books at another time.  (And here is a link to a nice bibliography.)  Also try Sanders’ later Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York (Rizzoli, 2006).

In the two months I spent living in New York City last year, I spent many hours each week wandering the streets  – not quite aimlessly, but not quite purposefully either.  Part of the fun was looking for the tell-tale posted signs announcing a film shoot – usually with a generic title that tries not to give away too much (and thereby avoid the inevitable crowds, if, for instance, one was labelled “Godfather, Part 4”).

Unlike Gertrude Stein’s (in)famous dictum about Oakland, California – in which she pronounced “There’s no there there”, New York is well and truly “there” and in fact has so many “theres” that it sometimes is in danger of being overwhelmed by its powerful sense of place.  Maybe that’s why I can feel suffocated in New York, but maybe that’s just me, the suburban New Jersey-born guy who was never fully, 100%, completely at home in the “city”, as much as it fascinates, thrills and excites my imagination.  So with that said, here are some “theres” that are well and truly lodged in my imagination, in part because they have appeared on film so many times and in so many different stories over so many years that they have taken on a certain life of their own.

So here, as a beginning, are some of my favourite New York City landmarks which appear on film.  That there are so many is a testament to how rich New York is with iconic images and to their power to plant themselves in our imagination, even when we (sometimes) have never seen the real place.

The Brooklyn Bridge – I first walked over the Brooklyn Bridge just over a year ago, the “right” way – from Brooklyn to Manhattan – the more exciting way to watch the skyscrapers of Manhattan loom in front.  Movies include The Siege, Enchanted, Godzilla.

The Plaza Hotel (Fifth Avenue), for its romance and setting (across from Central Park), and which has featured in The Way We Were, Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite (of course), Bride Wars, Home Alone 2, Crocodile Dundee, Big Business and The First Wives Club.

The Plaza Hotel, New York, street view

The Plaza Hotel, New York, street view

The Plaza Hotel, New York view from Central Park

The Plaza Hotel, New York view from Central Park

Katz’s Delicatessen (Houston Street) – When Harry Met Sally, Enchanted, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Across the Universe.  Yes, this is the one with “THE SCENE”, where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm (to Billy Crystal’s intense embarrassment) and Estelle Reiner (mother of director Rob Reiner), sitting nearby, says the classic movie line “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue, between 42nd and 40th Streets) – In the film The Day After Tomorrow, a group of characters survive a terrible ice storm by – horror! – burning the library’s books to keep warm; a true advertisement for the printed word – I don’t think that computer disks will warm in the same way in an emergency.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (When Harry Met Sally, Keeping the Faith, The Nanny Diaries, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps)

Tiffany and Co:  Breakfast at Tiffany’s of course – and of course all of Fifth Avenue as seen in Tootsie (a personal favourite), Crocodile Dundee, Ghost Town, Gentleman’s Agreement … I could go on.

Washington Square Park – and the “Arch” (When Harry Met Sally, I Am Legend, Searching for Bobby Fischer)

Empire State Building (An Affair to Remember, King Kong x 2, Sleepless in Seattle)

Empire State Building

Empire State Building

Empire State Building classic poster

Empire State Building classic poster

New Yorker cover 19Nov2012 Empire State Bldg

Flatiron Building (I Am Legend, Spiderman)

Grand Central Station, still a marker of the “old” New York, and featured in North by Northwest, I am Legend, the Gossip Girl television series, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Revolutionary Road, Duplicity, The Fisher King, Superman, Madagascar and the list goes on.


Interested in reading more?  Check out the “On the Set of New York” website top forty locations an unbeatable website resource.