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It’s Back-to-school At The Movies This Week

 

September 12, 2012



For millions across the country and the world, school is back in session. But what about for those who have long ago matriculated? Feeling a bit nostalgic? Longing to relive that campus experience? This week, movies fill that void as we look back at those fun-filled days of high school and college with 10 YEARS and LIBERAL ARTS.

10 YEARS

Hopefully, you haven’t tired of Channing Tatum yet because he’s back, heading up his fifth film of the year. Just shy of racking up $500 million in box office receipts since January, this time Tatum joins forces with the “It Girl” of the moment Ari Graynor, Rosario Dawson, Chris Pratt, Justin Long, Anthony Mackie, real-life wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum, along with Oscar Isaac and Kate Mara, the latter two who turn in A+ performances, in the fondly nostalgic and fun 10 YEARS!

It’s been 10 YEARS since high school graduation and the old gang gets back together for their 10 year reunion. Disillusioned with how life - their lives - has turned out, friends, enemies and frenemies find common ground to drink, relive the golden moments of days gone by, laugh, cry, drink, reminisce, drink some more, and learn truths about themselves and each other that were once masked by the rose-colored glasses of youth.

The cast is likeable beyond likeable and talented beyond talented as each embodies much of the image the public already has of them in real life. As Jake, Channing Tatum puts on screen the love and adoration he has for his real-life wife, Jenna Dewan Tatum, who plays his long devoted girlfriend, Jess. Despite his great love for Jess, Jake just hasn’t been able to make the leap or take the plunge into engagement or marriage. Something keeps nagging at him; something that he needs to resolve before a commitment like marriage. Surprising is the total lack of romantic chemistry between Tatum and Dewan-Tatum. More like BFFs than husband and wife, this was a real shock and it makes one wonder if they worked at hard at restraining themselves. However, Tatum never hides, can’t hide, his puppy dog fawning love for Jenna as it shines through in his eyes. On the flip side, we have Rosario Dawson as the once love of Jake’s life, Mary. The chemistry between Tatum and Dawson is palpable and believable. They make a very "complete" couple and have you wondering throughout the movie (until revealed) what happened to these two since graduation. So strong is their connection, that definite and different audience allegiances develop during the course of the reunion.

Chris Pratt does what he does best - be funny. As one of Jake’s best buddies, Cully, Pratt excels at being the one-time bully trying to atone and make amends for his once bad behavior. Only problem is that Cully’s intended sincerity takes on comedic tones as his apologies and fawning are done under the influence...a lot of alcohol. A real treat and surprise is Ari Graynor. The current “It Girl” with her patented comedic perfection on display in Celeste and Jesse Forever” and the hysterical “For A Good Time, Call...”, she does a 180 here as Cully’s wife, Sam. Gone is the funny woman we know so well and we meet a Graynor presenting as a mature responsible wife and mother which only serves to tell me that we should be seeing more adult roles, more dramatic roles, from her in the future. She is as adept at being serious as she is at being funny and thanks to her comedy chops and timing, makes a perfect foil for Pratt.

A really fun pairing are longtime rivals, Marty and AJ, who have spent their lives constantly trying to one up the other, gamesmanship that continues reunion night. Played by Justin Long and Max Minghella, respectively, these two are impishly cute, and nevermore so than when trying to impress the once coolest girl in the class, albeit by tailing her home and toilet papering the trees in her front yard. Long and Minghella exemplify the fun of “boys being boys.”

But the real winners in 10 YEARS are Oscar Isaac and Kate Mara. As rock star Reeves and Elise, the girl he was too shy to talk to in school but who is the inspiration for his greatest hit, they soar. They are the two characters and the couple in which you really become invested. Absolutely love them together. So charismatic and electrifying, that I can’t wait to see them work together on another project. Each generates interest in the individual character with nuanced subtleties of facial and physical expressiveness and when joined in the more intimate sit downs in the after-reunion-bar blossom into truly beautiful moments of "young love". Isaac and Mara are the #1 reason to see 10 YEARS.

The rest of the name case all do what they do best and add their own personas and known character personas to their individual performances, e.g., Aubrey Plaza's droll deadpan. The one drawback, however is that this is such a large ensemble, and such a talented cast, that many of the performances don't get the attention they deserve, leaving me with a sadness that some good actors were very under-used, like Anthony Mackie, although I am thrilled to see “The Hurt Locker” boys of Mackie and Brian Geraghty reunite in this film.

Making his directorial debut is screenwriter Jamie Linden, who also pens this fun and entertaining trip down memory lane. Although there are no car chases or explosions, no action sequences, no horror, no blood and guts (although there is some puking), no hard pressing questions to ponder, we meet people like many each of us knows or has known, giving us as the audience our own 90 minutes of reflection. Credit for the casual ease and familiarity of the various characters and storylines, goes to Linden’s collaborative style of creating the characters with the actors themselves after casting actors he and the senior filmmaking team wanted to work with. Perfect example is Tatum and Mackie who, when they get together in real life, behave the same as we see them on screen. Linden also provides an interesting tacit commentary on society and generational changes and viewpoints over the decades.

A real testament to both the writing and directing abilities of Jamie Linden is the fact that with all the characters and the various multiple storylines, none of the storylines ever get lost in the shuffle. We easily keep track of them all and are never wondering, "Huh? What?" Linden succeeds where Garry Marshall failed with “New Year’s Eve” and in some respects, “Valentine’s Day”, which became so convoluted that at times you needed a GPS to navigate through the story. As with Linden's acclaimed “We Are Marshall”, he keeps the audience engaged and the film easily on track without anyone on or off screen getting lost.

From the production design viewpoint, the reunion scenes have a very very lo budget-no budget feel to them which is quite in keeping with real reunions in Averagetown, USA, going miles in adding to the reality of the film, making it resonate even more.

If there is a cautionary tale to be viewed in 10 YEARS, it comes with Chris Pratt's Cully: don't be a butthead in high school because you will live to regret it, and once you realize your mistakes, you may still not be able to atone for your youthful stupidity - especially if you're nervous and drunk.

Save the time and expense of going to your own reunion. 10 YEARS covers it all.

LIBERAL ARTS

Moving on from a nostalgic high school reunion to the ivy-covered collegial memories of Josh Radnor’s LIBERAL ARTS, we meet Jesse Fisher. An aspiring writer who is very uninspired in his current job as a college admissions counselor, books, reading, writing are everything to him. Unfortunately, since graduation, none of his dreams have panned out, making him long for the green lawns, cool breezes, the rich smells of the campus library, the coffee klatches and poetry readings, and beloved professors of college life. So isn’t Jesse lucky when his all-time favorite professor announces his retirement and invites Jesse back to the hallowed halls of campus life to speak at his retirement dinner. And for Jesse, things seem to just keep getting better when once back on campus he meets Zibby.

A sophomore 16 years Jesse’s junior, Zibby is like a lightening bolt, sparking interest, curiosity, connection and inspiring life in the empty pages of Jesse’s soul. Corresponding via pen and paper once Jesse leaves campus and returns to the “real world”, his interest in Zibby (and a return to campus life) not only continues, but grows, as does hers for him, perhaps a bit too much.

Writer/director and star, Josh Radnor is likeable and loveable almost to a fault. As Jesse, you want this guy to be your best friend. Radnor has great expressiveness and when he smiles, he lights up and you light up watching him. His voice provides a comforting and sincere warmth, even when being impishly sarcastic. An opening montage of guidance counselor speeches is beyond hysterical and so true to life. Leaving no stone unturned in his character development, he makes certain that Jesse always having a book in his hand, always “looks” the youthful part of a college student. As a writer, Radnor has sprinkled little pearls like these throughout the film in a very organic way.

It is wonderful to see Elizabeth Olsen NOT in a horror film or frightening situation. As Libby, she is smart, funny, carefree and trying so hard to be more mature than she is - undoubtedly to (1) match her intellectual maturity and (2) to snare an older guy given her fantastic romanticized view of older guys. Olsen adds a level of innocence to Libby that is refreshing. When she sits in a coffee shop and says "I just puked", she says it so innocently with such wide-eyed wonder that instead of going "ugh", you just want to say, "poor baby, are you okay." It's this combination of innocence and intellect that make Libby so appealing to Radnor's Jesse and to the audience.

A real shining star in the ensemble is Zac Efron and his performance as Nat - the wise Kahuna of the film, the 21st century version of the 60's pot-smoking hippie imparting sage (albeit, common sense) advice to those around him. With a freeing soul and quirkiness, Efron embraces Nat. You just smile whenever he is on screen with his little bit of well meaning and insightful goofiness. Similarly, John Magaro's Dean is an important lynchpin in the development of Jesse. As a troubled young student with emotional issues and like Jesse, an obsessive attachment to books, and one book in particular, Magaro brings a silent emotional strength that is palpable and resonating. With the character of Dean essentially representing the past and the future of Jesse, we are able to see both sides of the coin with clarity and understanding. Nicely played by Magaro.

Allison Janney is absolutely delicious as the most unromantic romantics professor ever born. Cynical but pragmatic, she knows what life is all about and has taken off the rose colored glasses a long time ago. Only thing is, when she took off the rose colored glasses, she stripped away all of her youth. The trick is - and I think Radnor conveys this well with the film - is to grow and mature with life but keep some of the youthful exuberance and inquisitiveness as you go. Again, a character tool to help move Jesse along into emotional adulthood and Janney just runs with the character.

Richard Jenkins is, as always, an anchor. As Jesse’s favorite professor, Peter Hoburg, Jenkins makes Peter's joy at retirement emotionally tactile and you are happy for him. But he also makes you feel the sorrow and pain of a man floundering after 37 years in a cloistered "prison" as Peter puts it. A safe, warm, happy place that he is now losing. The same safe, arm, happy place that Jesse also wants to hold on to. A delicate balance that Jenkins perfectly performs.

Driven by writer/director Josh Radnor’s own college experiences at Kenyon College and his passion for collegiate life, LIBERAL ARTS is a his follow-up to 2010's charming “HappyThankYouMorePlease”. Written by Radnor with his beloved Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio in heart and mind, he was also fortunate enough actually shoot the film on campus. Writing this film with a college campus setting, and a beautiful "eastern" campus at that, with the personal, intimate touches one finds at many of the smaller colleges, and then to take advantage of the vibrancy of the landscape, the warmth of the red brick buildings and hard wood floors, and even the small but brightly apportioned dorm rooms add an unspoken appeal that heightens the film's production values and the enjoyment of the audience. Sharp, crisp and clean visuals fuel the collegiate concept of bright shiny faces in a classroom, soaking up knowledge, sharp as tacks. Heightened color adds to the ambient sensibility.

The characters resonate and each, no matter how limited in screen time, is detailed in their emotional construct. With such well written characters, and such well cast actors, Radnor had no where to go but soar higher with the performances.

The overriding theme of a young person wanting to grow up and be older, an older person who still feels young but must accept that he is old, and a guy approaching middle age who doesn't want to let go of his youth but doesn't want to move on into the unknown world of aging, is all perfectly set out and will resonate - strongly - with every age demographic.

However, like a befuddled student who can’t declare their major, the problem arises that with all these great characters, these great reflective points in life, the film feels like Radnor didn't quite know how to end it all, as if he didn't want to end it all as it might close a chapter in his own life. We are so invested in these characters that by film’s end we know what we want to see. We know the lives we want to see play out. But what we get is less than emotionally satisfying, much like life for so many after graduation.

Despite a few problems, including the lackluster ending that doesn't live up to the excellence that precedes it, with LIBERAL ARTS, Radnor has painted an indelible and engaging portrait with well constructed and likeable characters, beautiful visual tone and great attention to dialogue and detail. All in all, LIBERAL ARTS is more than above average with a nice take on nostalgic romanticism, filled with sweetness, charm and a lot of wisdom.

And after his freshman and sophomore films, I want to see what Radnor brings next. He has a voice that is welcoming and one that has a standing invitation into my viewing world.

 

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