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Review: The Red House, 21 & Over, Liberal Arts and Broken City

By March 20, 2013September 3rd, 2013No Comments

The Red House posterAlyx Duncan’s The Red House is a lovely example of how ideas that evolve, adjust, trans­form over time can pro­duce work that is just as coher­ent and com­plete as if it arrived fully formed. Originally con­ceived sev­er­al years ago as a doc­u­ment­ary about her age­ing par­ents who were think­ing about leav­ing the house she grew up in and start­ing again over­seas, her film is now a poet­ic and impres­sion­ist­ic – as well as fic­tion­al – med­it­a­tion on place and belonging.

In the fin­ished film – unlike real life – Lee (Lee Stuart) fol­lows Jia (Meng Jia Stuart), his wife of 20 years, to Beijing where she has trav­elled to care for her own frail par­ents. He packs up the few belong­ings he is able to take with him from the years of assembled memen­tos, books and treas­ures, burn­ing much of what is left over. Voiceover from both char­ac­ters lets the audi­ence know how dif­fi­cult this trans­ition is, as well as telling the back­story of an unlikely – and lovely – relationship.

I was fas­cin­ated by the many con­trasts that the film offered dur­ing its 75 minute dur­a­tion – between rur­al New Zealand and urb­an China; watch­ing a char­ac­ter who has ded­ic­ated his whole pro­fes­sion­al life to fight­ing unne­ces­sary devel­op­ment in his back­yard move to a street where the neigh­bour­ing build­ings are demol­ished and replaced every ten years or so; there are many subtle riches in this quiet and impress­ive little film.

21 & Over posterMore con­trasts next – two altern­at­ive views of American col­lege life. 21 & Over is a fantasy about the non-stop party­ing life of the mod­ern under­grad. Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) are vis­it­ing their best friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) at his uni­ver­sity so they can cel­eb­rate his 21st and he can get trol­leyed leg­ally in bars for the first time. We are told often that they are all best friends so it must be true, but the way they always refer to Chang as “JeffChang” – like his name is just one word – sounds more like a play­ground bully.

Anyhow, Jeff demurs as the fol­low­ing day he has a very import­ant inter­view for med­ic­al school and his over­bear­ing fath­er is in town. His bud­dies insist, some alco­hol is imbibed, best inten­tions fly out the win­dow and hijinks ensue. 21 & Over is writ­ten and dir­ec­ted by the two dudes who came up with the idea for The Hangover and here they prove that light­ning can strike twice – par­tic­u­larly if you don’t mind recyc­ling your one good idea.

This is faint praise, truly it is, but 21 & Over is a lot more of a film than last year’s gross-out teen com­edy Project X. There is some char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, some nicely con­nec­ted plot strands and the theme of male friend­ship often fail­ing to stand the test of time actu­ally gets an air­ing in the final act. None of that may be enough to over­come all the epis­od­ic and idi­ot­ic sequences of priv­ileged young people behav­ing badly.

Liberal Arts posterJust as much a fairy tale – although argu­ably more benign – Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts fol­lows a Radnor-like 35-year-old on an odys­sey back to his alma mater where he meets a pretty young fresh­man (Elizabeth Olsen) who helps restore his zest for life and love of the romantic poets. Liberal Arts is – in fact – extremely romantic. It roman­ti­cises just about everything it touches. Thankfully, Radnor has cast his film extremely well – except per­haps for him­self – and superb per­formers like Richard Jenkins (as Radnor’s retir­ing ment­or), Allison Janney (an ice-queen pro­fess­or) and Olsen go some way towards flesh­ing out what might have been clichéd char­ac­ters. Olsen in par­tic­u­lar con­firms the prom­ise she showed in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Her char­ac­ter is still too good to be true but Olsen at least gives her a heart­beat of her own.

The biggest prob­lem I have with the gen­er­ally affable Liberal Arts is the con­ser­vat­ive con­clu­sion. I wish the film had been braver but I sus­pect that may not be Radnor’s thing.

Broken City posterMark Wahlberg is a frus­trat­ing per­former. Well-directed – and inside his fairly nar­row range – he can be an affect­ing pres­ence as he was in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, or the Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. When he is giv­en no meat to work with and – appar­ently – left to his own devices in pulpy rub­bish like Contraband he is pretty much unwatch­able. His latest, Broken City, is almost totally dis­pos­able and he is giv­en no sup­port from either Brian Tucker’s script or Allen Hughes’ dir­ec­tion. Even Russell Crowe as a New York City may­or with a Donald Trump hair­cut can’t ignite this limp polit­ic­al thriller.

Wahlberg is a former cop, driv­en out of the force by a scan­dal sev­en years befor and now a private eye. Mayor Crowe is up for reelec­tion to his third term and ques­tions about cor­rup­tion are dog­ging him. When the Mayor hires the dick to tail his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones) to get evid­ence of an affair, the evid­ence that he uncov­ers isn’t about romantic infi­del­ity at all. The biggest prob­lems here are everything. Wahlberg’s banter with his pretty assist­ant (Alona Tal) is sup­posed to remind you of oth­er flir­ta­tious private detect­ives, which it does but not in a good way. His rela­tion­ship with his act­or girl­friend (Natalie Martinez) doesn’t ring true when they are togeth­er or when they are break­ing up.

But the sub­text here is what’s so ugly. It’s all macho pos­tur­ing: real men versus effete intel­lec­tu­als and artists. The rich and the edu­cated fall apart under stress but her­oes like Wahlberg know when to shoot first, when to tor­ture inno­cents and when to take the law into their own hands. Not even fun.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 March, 2013.