GO THE CLASS Compare and contrast Laurent Cantet’s terrific The Class (which reopens this week following a late-December Oscar-qualifying run) with Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dangerous Minds. Note the structural similarities: misbehaving students, a charismatic educator who wants them to succeed, and big thoughts about the classroom as urban microcosm. Discuss the difference between Hollywood’s triumphal individualism, and Cantet’s delicate examination of what counts as success — and failure — in a representative corner of the global village. Played with febrile vitality by François Bégaudeau, a teacher who adapted The Class, with Cantet and Robin Campillo, from his novel, François, a junior high teacher in a moderately high-risk area of Paris, uses language as a kind of dance that suits the scattered attention spans and compulsive back talk of the multiculti grab bag that is his class. Cantet, who also made the extraordinary Time Out, builds thickly detailed experiential worlds through which he slowly leaks the pressing problems of our age — in this case, the changing meaning of education in a heavily immigrant environment where a unifying culture has all but broken down. At the end of a very long day, François may have scored some pedagogic victories and one human failure, and we watch the teacher’s retreating back, on which rests nothing less than the fragility of democracy in a racial tinder box. (The Landmark; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)
NEW IN TOWN A corporate tool, but a stylish corporate tool, single and ambitious Renée Zellweger is dispatched from sunny Miami to rural Minnesota to close the local factory. She has no personal backstory or identifying characteristics other than her Bettie Page–height boardroom fetish heels. She’s Mitt Romney in a mini, and the business of New in Town is to soften her MBA-hardened heart. In doing so, we get a standard assortment of sitcom-ready characters: oversharing rube secretary (Siobhan Fallon Hogan); gruff foreman (J.K. Simmons); and hunky bachelor (Harry Connick Jr.). The effect is like Fargo without the woodchipper. Economic pain and the downsizing debate soon cede the screen to Zellweger’s snowy pratfalls, Lutefisk-out-of-water gags, and makeover montages (widowed Connick’s got a tween daughter, doncha know). With a cheap, for-hire Danish director (Jonas Elmer) and a co-writer (C. Jay Cox) whose major credit is Sweet Home Alabama, the movie wrong-foots Zellweger from the start. She’s not enough ice queen, like Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, for us to accept her transition into adorable Melanie Griffith. “I will not get attached to this town or anyone in it,” Zellweger says. Ultimately, we feel the same about her. (Citywide) (Brian Miller)
OF TIME AND THE CITY One of the major British filmmakers of his generation, Terence Davies revisits his youth to decidedly mixed effect in Of Time and the City — a personal documentary evocation of post–World War II Liverpool. Davies, 64, is only a few years younger than the Beatles and grew up in a similar, working-class Liverpudlian milieu, but, suffering acute Catholic guilt for his sexual orientation, recalls a wholly different history. Of Time and the City communicates acute, if not bitter, ambivalence: Davies can’t decide whether he wants to remember or forget the childhood ecstasy of attending Hollywood musicals or the “dark desire” of his adolescent fascination with professional wrestlers. Shots of miserable, misbegotten housing estates are accompanied by Peggy Lee’s rendition of the saccharine “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Korean War footage is set to “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Davies concludes another tour of failed urban development by citing “the British genius for making ‘The Dismal’” — a national characteristic he immediately demonstrates with a lugubriously hummed version of Brahms Lullaby. The filmmaker’s incantatory, pompous delivery seems designed to create maximum distance from the material. He has nothing but scorn for a royal coronation, and the ascension of the Fab Four is greeted with a sarcastic “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah.” No nostalgic “Penny Lane” or “Strawberry Fields” here. The filmmaker prefers an angrier form of sentimentality. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)
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SAM’S LAKE A group of friends travels with their recently bereaved compadre Sam (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra’s Fay Masterson) to her cabin at the mountain lake she was named after, only to encounter — natch — a creepy gas-station attendant and a local legend about a Michael Myers–like escaped lunatic. Two of the producers on this would-be “horror” film, Guy Oseary and Mark Morgan, count Twilight among their credits; that, presumably, was enough to buy this 4-year-old production a one-week run in New York and L.A. Perhaps it’ll have some appeal to all the Stephenie Meyer fangirls — much like that author’s take on the vampire mythos, Andrew C. Erin’s film works familiar horror tropes and neuters the hell out of them, here presenting the most metrosexual, well-coiffed family of backwoods killers you’ve ever seen. Also, pretty much all the acts of violence happen offscreen, and there’s no sex. But for some stray profanities, this could be a TV movie, except then, the acting would probably be better. The nicest one can say about Sam’s Lake is that it’s well-shot, and that its major plot twist is genuinely surprising ... if only because it makes no sense at all. (Grande 4-Plex; Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)
TAKEN is one dumped-in-January film that’s better than it needs to be but, alas, still isn’t good enough. Retired from his job as an ass-kicking American operative to be closer to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), Bryan (Liam Neeson) can only listen in horror when she calls from Paris while human traffickers abduct her. Directed by Pierre Morel, whose French hit District B13 only worked when its characters were pummeling and chasing each other, Taken tells a pretty standard not-my-child! revenge story concerning Bryan’s one-man mission to bust heads in the City of Light. As one would expect from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen — the writing team behind the pleasingly ludicrous, pseudosophisticated Transporter series — the film gives action fans a few glimpses of picturesque international locales before the story gets down to the business of shooting, maiming and torturing vaguely foreign baddies. Neeson’s tormented weariness lends an air of dignity to the film’s pulpy, grubby nastiness, but as striking as he is in action-hero mode, the truth is that Taken doesn’t need dignity. It requires tongue-in-cheek machismo that mocks the story’s B-movie inanities while playing them to the hilt. What, was Jason Statham busy? (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS The original Underworld, released six years ago, introduced a high-concept/low-excitement war between vampires in fetish gear and video game–caliber werewolves — and “in the spirit of equanimity,” someone wrote at the time, “the movie both sucks and bites.” No such draw here: This deadly prequel explaining the roots of the bloodsucker-fangface grudge match is a 92-minute detainment in Sucksylvania. Like the first two movies, it’s too glum and humorless to wring any fun from its dorky premise: At least seven-eighths of this one takes place in a dreary, monochromatic castle, and much of that’s in a dungeon. Though he’s chained up with other “lycan” slaves, werewolf messiah Lucian (Michael Sheen) pursues a love that dare not howl its name with vampire princess Sonja (Rhona Mitra), while her aristocratic dad, Viktor (Bill Nighy), skulks around like a Balkan Ming the Merciless. In lieu of advancing a story, the third Underworld repeats incessantly — multiple bloody floggings, multiple captures, multiple trudges back to the dungeon — while the cinematography does its best to evoke the many-hued visual splendor of an ashtray. Mincing around like a bored old glam rocker and hissing threats from behind electric neon eyes, Nighy seems to be the only person on set who found a glint of amusement in his part. He fares better than poor Sheen, a scraggly Wolverine who made a more credible vampire-slayer opposite Frank Langella’s Nixon. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
THE UNINVITED Two weeks after the reach-out-and-touch gore of My Bloody Valentine in 3-D, the splatter-free teen chiller The Uninvited feels sweetly old-fashioned. Sixteen-year-old Anna (Emily Browning), who attempted suicide after her mother’s death, leaves a psych hospital and returns to the gorgeous Maine lake house of her novelist father (David Strathairn). Soon she’s visited by the decayed corpse of her mother, who warns Anna that her father’s new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) is a murderer. A remake of the 2003 Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters,The Uninvited is a Hand That Rocks the Cradle–type thriller that’s been dressed up as a horror movie. For the most part, the mix works, although the film’s twist ending seemed to irritate a recent preview audience. We’ve seen it all before, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of first-time directors (and brothers) Charles and Thomas Guard, who clearly believe that a creaking door is scarier than a gouged-out eyeball. Hats off to them, although one can’t help but wonder how the great Strathairn ended up in a teen-beat horror flick four years after his triumphant Best Actor Oscar nomination for Good Night, and Good Luck. In Hollywood, the horror never ends. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)