Friday, January 30, 2009

Disappointing helpings of violence and love

I'd been looking forward to "Taken," mostly because Liam Neeson always has the capacity to be interesting. Playing a character who's as focused as a heat-seeking missile, Neeson doesn't disappoint, but the same can't be said about a thriller in which Neeson's Bryan Mills -- a retired CIA agent -- tries to rescue his virginal daughter (Maggie Grace) from Albanian mobsters.

Bryan opens the movie as a retiree who's trying to make a connection with his teen-age daughter. The young woman lives with her mother (Famke Janssen) and her stepfather. Having spent most of his life spying, Bryan hasn't developed much of a relationship with his daughter. He's not even sure he knows how. When the girl heads for Paris with a friend, he worries. Bryan knows the world's a dangerous place.

Turns out Bryan has good reason to fret. Upon arriving in Paris, the girl is abducted. The rest of the movie focuses on the 96 hours that Bryan has to find his daughter before she disappears forever, having been forced into anonymous sex slavery.

To save his daughter, Bryan winds up rampaging his way through Paris, dispatching any and all who interfere. Need a little torture? Bryan's your guy. If a corrupt French official proves uncooperative, shoot his wife. Hey, it's only a flesh wound. Neeson gives Bryan the finely honed instincts of a man who has spent his life making split-second decisions.

Violent, visceral and frequently distasteful, "Taken" reminded me of something I read in an obituary of Vincent Canby, the late New York Times film critic. His then colleague at the Times, Janet Maslin, quoted Canby as instructing her that the time to get excited was not before a movie, but after -- providing, of course, that the movie's good. It's advice I should have heeded before I began thinking I might have a good time at "Taken."


In "New in Town," a female executive (Renee Zellweger) is sent by her company from Florida to a small town in Minnesota. Her mission: retool a plant for a new economic moment. That's a serviceable enough premise, but it's quickly undermined by inept writing and lackluster direction. It's difficult, for example, to identify with a character who makes the trip to Minnesota in the middle of winter and is shocked to discover that the place is really cold. But that's how Zellweger's Lucy Hill -- the proverbial fish out of water -- reacts to a Minnesota winter that makes Siberia seem like a resort. A script that makes its main character look this dumb loses immediate points, and the comedy follows suit, shriveling as the temperature drops.

"New in Town" is supposed to work as an inspirational but quirky romantic comedy in which most of the characters sound as if they've been imported from "Fargo." Not only does the humor feel recycled, but Zellweger and a bearded Harry Connick Jr. ignite few real sparks. She's management; he's a labor organizer. Can management find love and happiness with labor? If you don't know the answer offered by "New in Town," you've been asleep during genre class.

The supporting cast includes the talented but underutilized J.K. Simmons, the equally talented but even more underutilized Frances Conroy (of "Six Feet Under'' fame) and Siobhan Fallon, as a local who deals with all problems by making tapioca pudding.

There's nothing inherently wrong with predictable comedy, but this drab effort -- which includes a fair measure of pratfalls -- lands on a backside that's heavily padded with cliches.

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