Although movies had been set in Minnesota before Fargo (notwithstanding its misleading North Dakota title), movies as disparate as The Farmer’s Daughter, The Heartbreak Kid, Purple Rain, Grumpy Old Men, it was the Coen brothers who converted that territory into grist for the mill. On the laugh meter, Wisconsin and Iowa don’t even register. New in Town, set specifically in the small town of New Ulm, and directed by the Danish-born Jonas Elmer in his Hollywood debut, is nothing if not laboriously ground out, a campaign of cynical populism that simultaneously satirizes and sentimentalizes the natives, in a milky image that might or might not be meant to suggest the lens-fogging frost of a Northern Star winter, snowed under by the standard quota of pop songs decreed for romantic comedies. Renée Zellweger, as the fish-out-of-water hatchet woman dispatched from Miami headquarters to downsize the local food plant but (in due time) digging in to fight for its survival, gauges her charm at about half wattage, which proves to be about twice as charming as full wattage. (Cf. Leatherheads, another pinch of Minnesota grist for the mill.) Her reactions to snow, ice, and subzero wind are nicely mimed, and the scene of her untamably erect nipples at her welcoming dinner party is one for the books. Harry Connick, Jr., the uninteresting love interest, has been written as a Carolina transplant to protect him from ridicule and preserve him for romance. Meantime, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, as a friend of Jesus with a secret tapioca recipe, does the heavy lifting on the Scandihoovian accent; and the character’s surname of Gunderson, shared with the heroine of Fargo, seems an open tribute to the Coens. The casting of J.K. Simmons in a supporting part might be another.
Coraline is a piece of 3-D stop-motion animation about a little girl with blue hair and ski-jump nose (everyone hears her name as Caroline, and her last name of Jones will only encourage confusion in anyone who remembers the Morticia of TV’s Addams Family, Carolyn Jones), who, unhappy with her preoccupied parents, is lured into a parallel universe of idealized replicas — a sort of Stepford Mom and Stepford Dad — but for their button eyes. Her price to pay for permanent residence in this universe is to trade her own eyes for buttons: “Soon you’ll see things our way.” (Distant echoes of Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers: the lobotomy bugaboo.) Director Henry Selick, heretofore of The Nightmare before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, pays a lot of attention to landscape and surface, such that the film cultivates an aggressive tactility. But the dream world opens the door also to a self-indulgent succession of oddities and bizarreries — here a mouse circus, there an audience of Scotties — without much narrative drive. And it’s plainly a higher priority to be dark and edgy and Tim Burton-y than to be kid-friendly. The catered-to adult is still apt to feel something extra was needed, and the distracting 3-D neither provided it nor disguised it.
In Taken, a ring of Albanian white slavers (Middle Eastern buyers) has the bad fortune to shanghai the virgin daughter of a retired American superspy — “I was a preventer,” he understates — on her first morning of vacation in Paris. There is no satisfaction in the quick-as-a-blink detective work that leads him to them, only satisfaction, for those who can take it, in watching him mow them down, a Weedwacker in a field of dandelions. (Too late to “prevent” the kidnapping, but not too late for the defiling.) Nor is there satisfaction in watching an eye-lifty Liam Neeson playing Steven Seagal. Nor in watching the native director, Pierre Morel, sell out his country on top of himself. Catharsis, you learn anew, can’t come out of crud. A hot shower afterwards would be your closest approximation.
The Pink Panther 2 commissions Steve Martin to carry the Inspector Clouseau torch into a sequel, thoroughly doused though the flame may be. (Kevin Kline got out while the getting was good, leaving the role of Clouseau’s superior to John Cleese, with unaltered British accent. And previous director Shawn Levy handed the bag to Harald Zwart.) The juggling of bottles from a teetering wine rack is the only flicker.
The Uninvited, an unwelcome remake of a Korean shocker, dispenses wicked-stepmother mechanics tricked up with pseudo-supernatural “visions” and a hopefully mind-blowing ending. Fuse-blowing, more likely. Elizabeth Banks, in case you’re counting, shows up in her fourth film in as many months. Direction is credited to “The Guard Brothers” (Charles and Thomas), stoutly defended against Coen-brother brilliance. With some people, two heads are no better than half a brain.
Funny what turns up at the art theater these days. On its merits, Olly Blackburn’s Donkey Punch, following François Truffaut’s elegant Wild Child at the Ken, amounts to hardly more than grindhouse fodder, cheaply and shoddily made, to do with three girls from Leeds on holiday in Mallorca, who hook up with four guys from home for a seafaring night of illicit drugs, rough sex, and accidental homicide that spirals into thinly motivated intentional homicide. One of the girls and one of the guys mark themselves as sentimental favorites by showing some misgivings from the get-go. Everyone else is treated as if they were asking for what they get. You have the feeling when watching it that it’s not so much meant to be a movie unto itself as an application for a bigger budget next time.