Indie Snapshot: Josh Radnor Takes a Crash Course in the Liberal Arts

The How I Met Your Mother star tries to sweet-talk his Liberal Arts leading lady, Elizabeth Olsen, into playing his love interest this season. Also, our reviews of Arbitrage, Solomon Kane and two documentaries.

Liberal Arts
Josh Radnor may not look very much like Woody Allen, but his sophomore directorial effort Liberal Arts bears a certain family resemblance to the legendary New York filmmaker. Specifically this story of a directionless thirtysomething college grad (Radnor) is a descendent of Allen's 1979 classic Manhattan, in which another overly intellectual nebbish contemplated the rights and wrongs of pursuing an affair with a much younger woman. Because that movie was made in the free-spirited '70s though, Woody's 42-year-old alter ego was allowed to actually be getting it on with his 17-year-old lover (played by Mariel Hemingway) while feeling guilty about it. Radnor's 35-year-old Jesse Fisher, on the other hand, breaks out into a cold sweat at the thought of even kissing his 19-year-old paramour, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). That name, coupled with her love of classical music and handwritten letters, pretty much seals her status as a manic pixie dream girl, which is only appropriate since no real-life woman would find Jesse's constant naval-gazing attractive in the least. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense why Jesse is dazzled by Zibby -- besides being stunning, Olsen is one of the least grating MPDG's since Natalie Portman helped invent the cliché in Garden State.

Beyond the May-December romance, the plot of Liberal Arts follows the disillusioned Jesse's return to his college campus -- the only place he was truly happy -- to speak at the retirement dinner for one of his favorite teachers (Richard Jenkins). While there, he wallows in nostalgia and reconsiders the direction his life has taken, both professionally and personally. In addition to Zibby, the other people who guide him on this journey of self-discovery are an irascible stoner (a completely unconvincing Zac Efron, wearing what appears to be the same hemp hat Chris Barron sported in the "Two Princes" music video) and a chain-smoking veteran professor (Allison Janey) who he had a serious crush on back in his college days. Like any self-respecting wanna-be Son of Woody, Radnor peppers his screenplay with plenty of literary references and self-analysis, but the authentic emotions and alternately hilarious and painful sense of humor that distinguish Allen's best movies is absent here. What we're left with is a formulaic indie comedy that's as stale and familiar as the network sitcom that its writer/director currently stars in. If Radnor wants a recommendation for a Woody Allen film to model his next feature after, go with Celebrity or Melinda and Melinda -- two Allen productions that could certainly be improved upon.

Two or three decades ago, a star-powered adult-oriented thriller like Arbitrage would have been bankrolled by a major Hollywood studio and given a prominent wide release. This movie's leading man, Richard Gere, was a regular presence in those old-school entertainments: think titles like No Mercy, Final Analysis and Primal Fear. These days though, the big guys have all but given up on this kind of mid-level production, which is why Arbitrage writer/director Nicholas Jarecki -- of the prolific Jarecki clan, whose ranks include his brothers Andrew (director of Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (director of Why We Fight) -- had to fund the movie independently and took it to Sundance to find a distributor. After its Park City run, it was acquired by mini-majors Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate and is opening in limited theatrical release and on VOD, a strategy the studios successfully employed with last year's Margin Call, another independently produced thriller with an all-star cast. Arbitrage is a better movie than Margin Call, so it should do solid business following this release method. It's just a striking reminder of how much the movie industry has changed when a highly commercial film like this can't book a nationwide theatrical release just because it stars a guy in a suit that's not made of iron or comes with a utility belt and Bat-ears.

Gere plays Robert Miller, a New York financial wizard who is on the verge of selling his profitable hedge fund so he can spend more time with his family, including wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling). While Robert is a loving husband and father, he's not above taking advantage of the benefits of his Master of the Universe status, including the requisite hot European mistress (Laetitia Casta) whom he has installed in a swanky lower Manhattan apartment. But a series of unfortunate events soon turns his comfortable life upside down, making him a person of interest for a dogged cop (Tim Roth) and Brooke, who steadily gathers evidence that her father's company is built on a lie. For the first two acts, Jarecki paces out the story's various twists and turns quite well, drawing us to Miller's world and then dropping the floor out from underneath him. Gere gets great dramatic mileage out of Robert's attempts to put his life back in some semblance of order; he's the kind of actor who is always more compelling when his feathers (and perfectly coiffed hair) are ruffled. Unfortunately, the film builds to a climactic half-hour that doesn't pull all the various threads together in a convincing or satisfying way. Instead of continuing to push Miller out of his element, the final act turns him into more of a conventional in-control hero, albeit one whose potential victory is destined to remain hollow. It's a disappointing conclusion, but hey, not every Richard Gere thriller can end as strongly as Primal Fear.

Solomon Kane
We've been treated to a spate of big-budget movies recently that have attempted to revive early 20th century pulp heroes for the present day, among them Andrew Stanton's John Carter, which bombed during its theatrical release in March, and Marcus Nispel's Conan the Barbarian, which sank without a trace when it opened in 2011. Although it's only hitting U.S. screens now, the British-made Solomon Kane can boast about being the first movie to kick off this trend, as it was released overseas in 2009. It can also claim bragging rights for starring the most obscure pulp hero. The brainchild of Conan creator Robert E. Howard, Solomon Kane made his first appearance in a 1928 issue of Weird Tales, the same magazine that would premiere a certain barbarian in its pages four years later. A Puritan warrior who fought his way through various supernatural-tinged adventures in the 17th century, Kane never achieved the instant name recognition as Conan or Carter, but sold well enough to recur throughout the pulp era.

For the movie version, director Michael J. Bassett tapped James Purefoy to assume Kane's black cloak and Pilgrim hat and gives the character a new, more tragic origin story. After being cast out of his home by his father (Max von Sydow, cashing a paycheck), young Solomon entered a life of banditry that eventually led him to a face-to-face encounter with the Devil itself. Escaping from that battle by the skin of his teeth and the knowledge that he's damned to go to Hell the minute he kicks the bucket, Kane dedicates himself to a life of non-violence and hooks up with a pilgrimage of Puritans bound for the New World. Before they can reach the shores of America, they're set upon and attacked by the army of a terrifying sorcerer, who slaughter the entire party save for one young woman (Rachel Hurd-Wood). To avenge their deaths, Kane renounces his pacifist credentials and rides off in search of the kidnapped girl, killing anyone who crosses his path. Bassett admirably tries to bring pulp-style grit and gravitas to this fantastical tale, but both the movie and the hero are too relentlessly dour to offer another key ingredient present in those old stories: fun. Watching Solomon Kane quickly becomes a tedious slog, as Purefoy grimly stalks from set-piece to set-piece (all of which take place in gloomy, rainy settings, no doubt to help cover up the discount special effects) vainly in search of an interesting storyline or, failing that, another facial expression. If Solomon Kane was largely forgotten before, this movie isn't going to do anything to restore him to the pop-culture consciousness.
(Solomon Kane is currently playing on VOD and will open in limited theatrical release on September 28.)

Detropia and Step Up to the Plate
If you're looking for a few compelling real-world stories to balance out the season of fantasy (The Hobbit), action (Taken 2) and high drama (The Master) we're about to rush headlong into, here's a pair of interesting documentaries that will be opening slowly around the country over the next month or so. (In case they never reach a theater near you, keep your eyes peeled for their impending VOD/DVD release.) Made by the Oscar-nominated duo behind Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Detropia is an eye-catching city symphony about a major metropolitan area -- specifically Detroit -- in steep decline. Ewing and Grady's cameras record the city's empty streets and abandoned buildings and give voice to its citizens, who express their frustration and sadness at all that they've lost. Some of the most dramatic moments involve the members of a local union chapter for a major car company, who face the impossible choice between losing their jobs or agreeing to a new contract that slashes their salaries and benefits. The images of urban desolation are striking and, in a strange way, even beautiful, but the directors are careful to include signs of silver linings as well so that the movie doesn't become a prolonged cry of despair. On a much lighter note, Paul Lacoste's Step Up to the Plate offers a portrait of celebrated French chef Michel Bras that could have been titled Good Eats. Filmed three years ago, the movie depicts Bras's decision to turn his signature restaurant Laguiole over to his son and heir, Sébastien. If you're anticipating this transfer of power to inspire lots of heated arguments and emotional meltdowns, you're better off watching old episodes of The Restaurant. Sébastien transitions into his new duties without much fuss, which, to be honest, does put a damper on what's set up as the movie's big dramatic arc. On the other hand, it allows Lacoste to direct the viewer's attention to what we all care more about anyway: plate after plate of delicious-looking French dishes. Step Up to the Plate is essentially food porn for serious eaters, but if you belong to that cult already, you'll have few complaints. I know I'm booking my tickets to the Aveyron region right now.

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