Video Verdict: ‘Taken 2,’ ‘To Rome With Love,’ ‘The Possession’

Liam Neeson reprises the role of former CIA agent Bryan Mills in the action thriller “Taken 2.”

Liam Neeson reprises the role of former CIA agent Bryan Mills in the action thriller “Taken 2.”

This week’s home video releases include a new Woody Allen dramedy, a horror film starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a sequel to the hit movie “Taken.”

Taken 2

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Director Pierre Morel’s “Taken” was a surprise hit in 2008, and it helped turn Liam Neeson into a full-fledged action star. In the film, Neeson introduced us to Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative with an uncanny aptitude for finding and dispatching bad guys. After learning that his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), fell victim to a human-trafficking ring, Bryan travelled to Europe and put his skills to work, eventually recovering her.

In “Taken 2,” Bryan is still dealing with the fallout from those events. The father of one of the criminals that Bryan killed in the first movie is out for revenge, and he strikes when Bryan invites both Kim and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), on a trip to Istanbul. Wisely sensing that it would be too redundant if Bryan were again asked to save his daughter, screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (both returning from the original film) offer a twist. This time it’s Bryan who is kidnapped, but he isn’t alone. The thugs, led by a nasty old man named Murad (Rade Serbedzija), grab his ex-wife, too. That means Bryan can’t simply strong-arm his way out of the situation. What’s more, he knows that Kim is a likely target as well. So, he has to escape his predicament rapidly.

“Taken 2” doesn’t bring anything new to the table, as director Olivier Megaton seems perfectly satisfied presenting it as a straight-ahead action film. That means character development and plot get less attention than fight sequences and shootouts, but that’s not such a bad thing. Neeson is great in this role, and the fun lies in watching him figure out how to escape and what to do next. Megaton, director of “Colombiana” and “Transporter 3,” is at his best with this sort of material, and his pacing for “Taken 2” is breathless.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a short feature on the special effects and an alternate ending.

To Rome With Love

2½ stars
Rated R for some sexual references
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Despite his illustrious reputation, Woody Allen is a hit-and-miss writer-director, and this has been particularly true in recent years. Gems like “Match Point” (2005) and “Midnight in Paris” are contrasted against lesser works like “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” meaning viewers can never be sure what to expect. Fortunately, second-tier Woody Allen is still palatable, meaning even troubled films – like “To Rome With Love” – have worthwhile elements.

The best parts of “Rome” include beautiful Italian backdrops, a first-rate cast and some fantastic dialogue. Sadly, these things are wrapped in a larger package that doesn’t really gel. One problem is the conceptualization. Allen begins the movie by zooming in on a Roman traffic cop who tells us that he has witnessed many of the city’s great stories. We are then treated to four fanciful tales that are individually interesting but baffling as a collection.

The best of the four centers on John (Alec Baldwin), a famous American architect who uses a return trip to Rome to reexamine his past. Allen allows this by introducing John to a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg), prompting the older, wiser man to provide commentary to his youthful counterpart. Eisenberg and Baldwin are terrific, and they benefit from supporting work by Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig.

Less successful is a fanciful tale about a working-class Italian man (Roberto Benigni) who awakes to find that he has become a celebrity. For no apparent reason, the people of Italy are enamored with the most mundane details of his life, like what he had for breakfast. Allen is surely commenting on modern media, but his message isn’t clear.

The writer-director treads equally bizarre ground with the story of an American music producer (Allen himself) who believes his daughter’s soon-to-be father-in-law has what it takes to be an opera star. The only problem is, the man can only sing in the shower.

Allen’s fourth story is more believable and fun. It centers on a pair of newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who travel to Rome for their honeymoon but end up spending their first day philandering with other people. This bit features a sharp, flirty performance by Penelope Cruz.

Watching “To Rome With Love,” one wonders if the project would have worked better as a series of short films. The tone and structure of each individual narrative is so different that blending them into a package seems forced.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a featurette on the making of the film.

The Possession

2 stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

There have been so many movies about demonic possession that a filmmaker has to do something really special to make a work in the genre stand out. With “The Possession,” director Ole Bornedal seems satisfied to simply restructure scenes that horror fans have already seen, leaving us with a movie that’s as tired as it is creepy.

The action begins with a sequence where an elderly woman is plagued by a voice issuing from a box on her mantle. When she’s had enough, she approaches it with a hammer, only to have her body violently twisted and contorted by an unseen supernatural force. Not long after, Clyde Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) buys the box for his youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), at a garage sale. Almost immediately, Em becomes possessive of the box, and it doesn’t take long for her to start behaving oddly.

At first, Clyde and his ex-wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), think Em’s behavior is due to their recent divorce. This seems plausible as Em’s older sister, Hannah (Madison Davenport), is also broken up by her parents’ marital problems. As time passes, however, Em’s behavior grows so erratic and strange that Clyde becomes convinced she has fallen victim to a demon.

“The Possession” contains all the requisite sequences for a movie about evil spirits. Em is often seen glowering and performing creepy acts that no normal pre-teen would consider, and there is an eventual attempt at exorcism. None of these bits are handled badly, but they aren’t presented in an inventive way either. Folks who have seen “The Exorcist,” “The Last Exorcism,” “Paranormal Activity” or any similar offerings have already experienced the best “The Possession” has to offer.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature on the real-life story that inspired the film and two audio commentaries (one with Bornedal and one with writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White).

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Won’t Back Down”: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis star as mothers working to improve the education system in their children’s inner-city school. Co-written and directed by Daniel Barnz (“Beastly,” “Pheobe in Wonderland”).

“Life’s Too Short” – The Complete First Season: Mockumentary series featuring Warwick Davis as a fictionalized version of himself. The show, shot in documentary style, looks at Davis’ supposed problems as a little person working in show business. Created and written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much”: New digital restoration of director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller about an average British family that gets drawn into an international assassination plot. Leslie Banks and Edna Best star. Hitchcock remade this film in 1956 with American actors James Stewart and Doris Day.

“The Tin Drum”: Criterion Collection reissue of director Volker Schlondorff’s 1979 film about a boy growing up in Danzig in the 1920s. Disgusted by the adult world, he decides to stop growing at age three. The movie won a number of awards, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the 1980 Oscar for best foreign language film. Presented in German with English subtitles.

“Anthony Jeselnik – Caligula”: New stand-up special from comedian Anthony Jeselnik. Bonus features include extended cuts of his appearances at high-profile roasts of Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen and Roseanne Barr.

“Men of a Certain Age” – The Complete Second Season: This TNT dramedy was cancelled, but fans can now revisit every episode. Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula star as best friends trying to cope with middle age.

“I Am Bruce Lee”: Documentary film about the martial arts legend. The movie features interviews with many celebrities who share their thoughts on Lee’s legacy. Directed by Pete McCormack.

“Perry Mason” – The Eighth Season, Vol. 2: Final 15 episodes of the classic 1950s and ’60s television series. Raymond Burr stars as defense attorney Perry Mason, William Hopper portrays detective Paul Drake and Barbara Hale plays legal secretary Della Street.

“Merlin” – The Complete Fourth Season: Thirteen fresh episodes of the British fantasy drama inspired by Arthurian legend. The show focuses on the wizard Merlin during his coming of age.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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