Elizabeth Banks and Arielle Kebbel in The UninvitedTHE UNINVITED

Based on a South Korean horror film from 2003, The Uninvited begins with ... .

Wait! Don't go! I swear, this one isn't that bad!

Based on a South Korean horror film from 2003, The Uninvited begins with a novel genre twist: a sinister dream sequence in which, from the start, voice-over narration tells you it's a dream sequence. Granted, such a prelude isn't all that novel, but throughout its smartly paced 87 minutes, this American debut by British directing brothers Charles and Thomas Guard is more gripping and clever - and is certainly better-acted - than most take-the-opening-weekend-money-and-run fright flicks. As a troubled teen haunted by both a recent family tragedy and ghostly apparitions warning her of an impending family tragedy, the lovely, grave Emily Browning provides empathy and rooting interest, and offers believable reactions to the standard shocks (which include shrieking corpses, blood spilling from keyholes, and that Kubrick-ian favorite - well-dressed, blank-faced twins moving in unison). Browning also seems perfectly cast as the daughter of the equally grave David Strathairn, who adds to any movie's credibility merely by showing up; much of The Uninvited's goings-on are expectedly silly, but these two - and Arielle Kebbel as Browning's sister - continually prevent you from giggling.

You might, though, find yourself giggling at Elizabeth Banks here, but only because she's so fantastically, enjoyably creepy. Portraying dad's new live-in girlfriend - a perky, vibrant nurse who might also be a child-murdering lunatic - the actress appears to be having a blast playing against her typically sunshiny persona, and her every scene gives the movie a lift; with a disarmingly cheerful grin and focused gaze that can switch from maternal to malicious in a snap, Banks offers a jolt of delirious black-comedy magic. All in all, The Uninvited is a surprising amount of fun, and the only major irritation I felt while watching it came from the sextet of pre-teen girls who sat in the auditorium's front row and spent almost the entire film staring into their illuminated cell phones; there are plenty of cheap-o, PG-13 horror films that I'd absolutely recommend texting through, but this actually isn't one of them.


Renee Zellweger in New in TownNEW IN TOWN

The previews for New in Town made the movie look excruciating, and for most of the film's length, they didn't disappoint. Renée Zellweger plays a power-hungry, Miami-based suit sent to oversee, and eventually shut down, operations in a food-processing plant in rural Minnesota, and before you can say "fish out of water," director Jonas Elmer's romantic comedy has all but shown you its entire hand: plucky, pinch-faced Renée will grapple with the tundra (this corporate whiz is apparently too stupid to realize that Minnesota winters get kinda cold), find herself horrified by the locals' customs and patois, bicker with - and quickly fall for - Harry Connick Jr.'s burly union rep, and finally grow to appreciate the down-home charms of Ordinary Americans. In other words, New in Town is the sort of loathsomely condescending, two-faced Hollywood offering that demands that you laugh at the small-town hicks and, in the same breath, laugh at the leading lady for laughing at the small-town ticks - it forces audiences to feel superior to everyone - and it's all about as subtle as it is witty. (Regarding the failing Minnesota plant, Renée's hateful Miami boss says - actually says - "It's worth more to this company dead than alive." Boo! Hiss!)

Yet I wouldn't be surprised if New in Town became a moderate-sized hit anyway - the matinée audience I saw it with seemed to have a great time - and if it does, it likely won't be because of Renee and her wet-eyed grins, or Harry and his dimples. It'll be because of comedienne Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who plays a dopey-rom-com variant on Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson in Fargo. (And whose character here is named Blanche Gunderson. Homage, or larceny?) Her material isn't better than anyone else's, but the performer invests her scrapbooking, tapioca-obsessed sweetheart with so much infectious happiness and warmth that she's absolutely irresistible, and Hogan manages to get chuckles even through her umpteenth reading of "Okey-dokey!", which is no small feat. New in Town is expectedly stupid; Hogan, thank heavens, is blessedly smart.


Liam Neeson in TakenTAKEN

Action porn for over-protective fathers, director Peirre Morel's Taken opens with ex-CIA bad-ass Liam Neeson warning his daughter (a dementedly shrill Maggie Grace) about the dangers of traveling overseas, and while there was no doubt that he'd eventually be called upon to rescue the giggly nitwit from her Parisian "vacation," I'll admit to being mildly surprised when she found herself in peril the minute she stepped off the plane. Sadly, this is also Taken's last legitimate surprise. With its relentlessly formulaic and idiotic plotting, ludicrous dialogue, and pummeling (albeit mostly bloodless) violence, this low-rent French revenge fantasy veers so close to parody that you oftentimes don't know how to take it - at one point, Neeson infiltrates an apartment complex by hiding behind a grocery sack of baguettes (!) - and, in the end, feels like nothing so much as its country's retaliation for the whole "freedom fries" thing.

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