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By Tony Sheppard

Last Chance Harvey
Directed by Joel Hopkins
&
New In Town

Directed by Jonas Elmer

The recently released "Last Chance Harvey" is an extremely formulaic romantic comedy that works, despite its predictability, because of the endearing quality of its truly delightful leads (Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson) and the characters they play. You know what's going to happen, but it's such a pleasure to watch them together that it's likely you won't care.

Hoffman plays jingle composer Harvey Shine, who finds himself the relative outsider at his own daughter's wedding. He meets Thompson's Kate Walker, an airline employee with an overly demanding mother and a distinctly lackluster love life. The mother (Eileen Atkins) and other supporting characters are solid, but it's clearly not their story.

"New In Town" (opens January 30th) feels quite different. While the stars, Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr., have the requisite amount of screen time and the appropriate number of cute moments (in accordance with the same writing formula), the humor and warmth is driven by the secondary characters. Most notable are Siobhan Fallon, as Zellweger's assistant, and J.K. Simmons (who demonstrated how one can steal an entire movie with barely any screen time in last year's "Burn After Reading"), as the crusty, veteran factory shop steward.

Zellweger plays a corporate executive shipped off to snowiest Minnesota to streamline a food factory and lay off half the workforce. She, of course, is a Miami-based clothes horse of the highest order who finds herself in a winter environment where long flannel underwear would likely be considered skimpy if it wasn't quilted. It's a fish-out-of-water story with a touch of "Wow, these people are the salt of the earth" sentiment, rolled into the romantic comedy genre.

But the two movies are different in other ways. "Last Chance Harvey" takes place over a couple of days and, despite being able to watch the screenwriter's gears turning (especially as you shift from act two to act three: "They've fallen for each other so now something unfortunate has to force them apart again"), the pacing is always clear and appealing. By comparison, the pacing of "New In Town" is a mess: She's sent to town to take care of things, supposedly in a hurry, but then the passage of time is measured by the passing of major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and Valentine's Day all pass by. Very little happens and we're told that months have gone by , with at least a couple of months at the factory during which this accelerated downsizing seems to have been limited to a meeting and a couple of phone calls. The pacing of the onscreen movie itself, and the pacing of the story that it is attempting to tell seem strangely out of phase, as though heavy editing has occurred. One of the outcomes is that nothing seems especially natural as it unfolds – we assume the leads like each other because they are kissing, rather than expecting them to kiss because they apparently like each other.

On balance, fans of romantic comedies will probably enjoy both of these movies, but perhaps for different reasons. During "Last Chance Harvey," I wanted to see more of Hoffman and Thompson, to the point of mild annoyance when they weren't on screen. During "New In Town," I wanted to see more of the supporting characters-Zellweger and Connick seemed almost like a distraction from the more appealing things going on in the background. If only Hoffman and Thompson had met in Minnesota!

Outlander
Directed by Howard McCain

I described "Outlander" to somebody as "Alien meets Beowulf" and was immediately asked whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. I responded that it didn't matter if my overall reaction was good or bad if the description itself is reasonably accurate. If you love both "Alien" and "Beowulf," you'll probably dig "Outlander" too. If you don't like either, then you don't have much of a chance of liking this one. And if you have mixed feelings about the two earlier movies, you'll probably have more mixed feelings now.

James Caviezel (perhaps best remembered as Jesus in "The Passion Of the Christ" – and don't get me started on that movie…) plays Kainan, a humanoid alien who crashes on Earth in the geographical and chronological middle of Viking civilization. The problem is that he can't just wait for the interstellar tow-ship as he's also lost his cargo, a glow-in-the-dark, distinctly less humanoid alien straight out of the worst childhood nightmares. And this "Moorwen" has a grudge against people, given a prior slaughter performed by Kainan's people while colonizing the Moorwen's homeworld.

I was expecting a lot of adaptation of futuristic technology to the Viking circumstances, but it's mostly just a protracted series of fight sequences between hairy guys and the Moorwen's computer-based animator. Most of this concept was done better ten years ago in "The Thirteenth Warrior," back when Antonio Banderas was still a star. And, for the record, I loved "Alien" and hated "Beowulf."


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