Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown”)
Written by: John W. Richardson (debut), Chris Roach (debut), & Ryan Engle (debut)
In his mid to late 50’s, something strange happened with Liam Neeson’s career: he became an action star. Kick-started by his “special set of skills” in “Taken” in 2008, Neeson began taking on roles usually reserved for guys like Bruce Willis and Jason Statham. At age 61, the roles continue to pile in, this time with our hero trying to save an airplane full of people from an anonymous texting killer in “Non-Stop.”
During an international flight from New York to London, alcoholic U.S. Federal Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) receives a text message from someone on the airplane stating a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into a bank account. Racing against the clock and not knowing who he can trust, Marks must find a way to smoke out the aggressive texter.
Using technology to enhance the story and an interesting wrinkle to the premise as bodies start dropping, “Non-Stop” starts off as strong entertainment. Neeson delivers what one might expect given his recent track record. He uses his now trademark and gravely suspect American accent to bark orders and angrily explain to another agent on the phone what is happening 30,000 feet in the air. It’s a far cry from the type of performance that netted him an Oscar nomination in “Schindler’s List,” but he plays it straight which is appropriate for this type of film.
There’s a nice level of tension throughout the beginning of the film, as Neeson’s character assesses the situation, trying to figure out who on the plane is sending the threatening texts. Unfortunately, other than Julianne Moore, who provides the bonding relationship Neeson’s character needs, many of the other secondary characters add little to the story. Corey Stoll in particular, who was incredible in Season 1 of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” is given a stale and overused role as the angry guy demanding to know what is going on.
Somewhere around the midpoint, the film’s once interesting plot slowly starts to dissipate into a sort of whodunit that, quite frankly, isn’t that difficult to figure it out. From there, the movie features a final act that is predictable and absurd, even considering the ridiculous synopsis that requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Not to mention, there’s a political message that feels completely shoehorned. As a result, “Non-Stop” squanders its tense and unique set up and becomes typical action movie fare.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza
Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (debut)
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (debut)
For an actor turned director/writer who has never stepped foot behind a camera to shoot a feature film before, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Inception”) makes a commendable debut with “Don Jon,” a flawed yet jaunty adult-themed comedy that puts the spotlight on male sexuality and the desires that drive some to obsession.
As the second film to hit theaters in as many weeks that takes a comedic angle to the subject of sexual addiction (“Thanks for Sharing” being the other), “Don Jon” is less about the method of controlling the problem as much as it is stripping it down to reveal the real individual behind an amplified version of something, arguably, all men do.
Gordon-Levitt stars as the title character, Jon Martello, a porn-addicted New Jersey bartender, whose only interests in life include working out, club hopping and hooking up with good-looking women, and, most importantly, spending any other free time he has firing up his laptop to get his fix of visual pleasures via adult entertainment websites. When he meets Barbara Sugarman (a perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson in one of her best roles ever), however, his secret indulgence has to become even more guarded since she is an old-fashioned Catholic who just doesn’t understand why guys watch dirty movies in the first place.
In Jon’s case, it’s not so much a question of why as it is why so much? And why, if he can easily attract a new girl to bed every night, does he always find more gratification from images on a computer screen? It’s an interesting character study Gordon-Levitt presents, although a large portion of the narrative does become rather repetitive as the film continues. For example, in one ongoing joke, Jon visits the church confessional regularly to admit his sins of the flesh (sex out of wedlock, masturbation), but after the same scene plays out again and again, the effectiveness is lost. The same thing happens with other routines in the script like the sound of his Apple computer turning on (an indication to audiences he’s about to partake in some online porn) and having dinner with his family (Tony Danza plays his dad; Glenne Headly his mom; Brie Larson his disengaged sister), which always ends in the same cliche argument (they don’t understand why he can’t find an nice girl to settle down with).
Julianne Moore (“Boogie Nights”) enters into the third act of the film as Esther, a fellow college classmate of Jon, who is basically added to the narrative so Jon can have a reason to follow some type of character arc and not come out as the same douchebag he started as at the beginning. It works marginally, although it’s hard to picture Jon as anything but a sex fiend even when he’s trying to kick his habit and learn to love someone unconditionally.
“Don Jon” is a very risky choice by Gordon-Levitt. The decision to tackle this sort of topic doesn’t leave him unscathed, but he manages to wrap everything up without writing himself into awkward corners. All in all, he definitely has a future as a director in some capacity just in case that whole acting thing doesn’t pan out like he planned.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Directed by: Scott McGehee (“Bee Season”) and David Siegel (“Bee Season”)
Written by: Carroll Cartwright (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and Nancy Doyne (debut)
It’s a statistic stated so many times in the past few decades it is practically an axiom: half of all marriages end in divorce. While these days the stats show the number is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent, it seems unlikely that author Henry James could have known how timely his novel would end up being when he wrote it in 1897, a year when the divorce rate was a mere 6 percent. As a modern film adaptation of his novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” tells the story of a bitter divorce and custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.
Set in New York City, rock ‘n’ roll musician Susanne (Julianne Moore) and her successful husband Beale (Steve Coogan) are embroiled in a failing marriage. As their relationship crumbles, a bitter custody battle ensues, causing their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) to get caught in the middle. Both parents quickly remarry and eventually dump off parental responsibilities to their respective spouses, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard) a bartender, and Margo, (Joanna Vanderham) who serves as Maisie’s nanny.
Moore and Coogan both give very strong performances, and Moore is especially good at being completely selfish and unhinged. Both actors are particularly strong at conveying tension, especially during the scenes where they butt heads and argue. As the film progresses, it is clear that Lincoln and Margo become more parental figures than Maisie’s actual parents. Though Vanderham is good, Skarsgard is a nice surprise in this role. His character and Maisie’s are thrown together quickly and slow to warm up to each other. As the film progresses, the two actors show tremendous magnetic chemistry and Skarsgard’s charm and interactions with Aprile become very enjoyable to watch.
What keeps “What Maisie Knew” from being a completely upsetting film is both the age of the character and the brilliant performance from a young actress. Maisie is a happy child and one that is largely oblivious to the neglectful and vindictive actions of her parents. It is always a risky move to have a child actor be the anchor of a film, but Aprile’s natural delivery and screen presence is such a wonderful revelation. The young Aprile is able to express so much with a simple gaze or facial expression and she never feels overmatched or misplaced in an ensemble piece with such strong acting all around. Of course, a child actor’s instincts can only go so far and much of the credit should be given to co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel for knowing how to coax a nuanced performance out of her and capture the blissful innocence of a child pitch perfectly.
Since much of the film focuses on Maisie rather than her parents, directors McGehee and Siegel cleverly step around melodrama in a few ways. When her parents have nasty screaming matches or sling verbal barbs at each other, rather than focusing on those characters, they are heard in the background as the camera stays with Maisie sleeping or playing. There are also very few scenes where huge fights, arguments or major emotional scenes feel over the top. A very delicate touch is present throughout the film, never more apparent than in the wonderfully understated moments where Maisie is heartbreakingly neglected. Part of what makes “What Maisie Knew” so effective is that the majority of what is shown in the film is firmly rooted in reality.
“What Maisie Knew” isn’t exactly uplifting. It is clear throughout the film that Maisie, while certainly loved by her parents, is being used as a tool for them to get back at each other. A lack of communication and effort often leaves Maisie in terrible situations or the responsibility of taking care of her dumped off to her respective stepparent. What makes “Maisie” such a beautiful film is showing that a child’s unconditional love is infectious and though sometimes aided by ignorance and obliviousness, how strong and perseverant a child can be in such painful circumstances.
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra (“I Love You Phillip Morris”) and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Tangled”)
Forget marriage counseling. If you really want to know the status of your relationship, pay attention to what’s happening under the dinner table during a romantic evening out. Playing footsies means there’s still some spark. Flatfooted and aloof? You might as well start drawing up those divorce papers.
At least that’s where loving husband and father Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) finds himself during the opening scenes of the surprisingly pleasant albeit conventional and ineffectively titled romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” There’s no footwork here. In fact, his wife and high school sweetheart Emily (Julianne Moore) fesses up to an affair and pulls the plug on 25 years of marriage. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Tangled”) doesn’t give much explanation as to how their marital problems have reached criticality, but you know things are extremely broken.
Drowning his sorrows at a posh local bar,Calbecomes the pet project of smooth-talking ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who takes pity on him and his middle-aged lameness. Their goal (besides referencing “The Karate Kid” and inventing the verb “Miyagied”): to rediscover Cal’s manhood and – most importantly – get him laid.
Fogelman doesn’t end his matchmaking venture with Cal. As in 2003’s British rom-com “Love Actually,” the narrative in “CSL” is layered with smitten characters and sometimes-underwritten secondary storylines. Here, Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is infatuated with his babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who actually has a crush on Cal; aspiring lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) hopes her nerdy boyfriend (Josh Groban) will pop the big question before she falls prey to Jacob’s charm.
While clichés are no stranger to “CSL,” the all-star cast is able to class up the situations to make them feel as funny and original as possible. Most of the film’s emotion hinges on Carell’s dramatic turn now that he’s proven he can be both hilarious and poignant in dramedies like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Dan in Real Life.” In CSL, Carell trades barbs with Gosling and tears withMoore, but through subtle dialogue and gesture.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind the gay jailhouse romantic comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris”), “CSL” doesn’t offer anything on the marital front we wouldn’t have learned from watching a rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” But like Cal, there’s something genuinely refreshing about its soft heart, honesty, and squareness, even while our hero mismatches tennis shoes and khakis with a straight face.
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Atom Egoyan (“Adoration”)
Written by: Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”)
It’s evident from the start how much director Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Exotica”) wants to keep the title character in “Chloe” as enigmatic as possible. It’s surprising, however, when he doesn’t pull back the curtain in the slightest to give us a glimpse of a real character. By the end, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) – no matter how intriguing she is at first – never develops into more than a mere set piece in a cumbersome story.
Lacking drama, passion, and genuine seductive moments, “Chole” feels like a bargain basement romance novel with little spirit and intention. The story follows New York gynecologist Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore) who suspects her college-professor husband David (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her with one of his students.
While there is some evidence of his infidelity, Catherine wants to be certain. She decides to do what any other woman would (yeah right) and hires Chloe (Seyfried), a high-class prostitute, to assist her with a social experiment on her husband. Catherine asks Chloe to present herself to David like any two strangers would meet on any given day, flirt a bit, and see if he takes the bait. As these rendezvous become more consistent, Catherine wants detailed reports of their meetings. Chloe obliges and reveals every steamy scenario that plays out between her and David.
But as the bizarre love triangle continues, director Egoyan wrestles with the exact tone he wants for the second half of the film. When Chloe begins to show interest in Catherine and then in Catherine and David’s disrespectful teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot), the air of sexual tension is slowly let out of the narrative as Chloe extends her screen time by adding needless mischief to the already far-fetched premise. Once “Chloe” hits the “Fatal Attraction” plateau it’s a lost cause.
“Chloe” would have worked much better as an intelligent character study, but instead Egoyan shifts back and forth from tasteful to tawdry without much explanation. While Moore, Seyfried, and Neeson do as much as they can with their characters, the script expands in too many directions for Egoyan to make sense of anything with a deeper meaning than just the sex itself.
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode
Directed by: Tom Ford (debut)
Written by: Tom Ford (debut)
While “A Single Man” is the most self-involved film in recent memory, debut filmmaker and fashion designer Tom Ford has created a work of art that is both flawless and haunting. Not only is it admirable for its pristine production value and attention to detail, actor Colin Firth gives the most gripping performance of his career. I would have loved this movie more if it could have stopped loving itself.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”)
Written by: Don McKellar (“The Red Violin”)
With 2004’s “City of God,” Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles quickly became one of the most talked-about directors of the new century. That’s why you hope projects like “Blindness” are mere flukes in a career that started off so impressive.
Adapted from the novel by Jose Saramago, “Blindness” tells the story of a group of people who are quarantined when an epidemic causes them to lose their sight. The plague starts when a man goes to an unnamed ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) when he suddenly loses his sight while sitting in traffic. The following morning, the good doctor has lost his vision as well.
Soon, a handful of people are infected with the “white blindness,” an idea that somehow gives Meirelles reason to whitewash most of the film with extra lightning and overexposing some scenes. The visually aggravating cinematography, however, is the least of the film’s problems. Although it’s an interesting idea, McKellar’s narrative is ineffective.
As more people become sick, they are sent off into hospital wards where an aggressive pecking order amongst the blind community slowly begins to take shape. Julianne Moore (“The Hours”) plays the eye doctor’s wife, who goes to the ward with her husband despite being the only person who can see. It’s never explained why Moore’s character doesn’t lose her vision, which isn’t that big of a deal. “Children of Men” never tells us why Kee (the pregnant girl) is the only one in the world who can bear a child. The difference, however, is that Kee in “Children of Men” was a symbol of faith. In “Blindness,” Moore’s character is so frail, there’s really no reason to develop her into anything more than collateral for the heathens that live among her.
There is so much Meirelles wants to say about the blind leading the blind, his metaphors come off heavy-handed and wasted. “Blindness” may be reaching for some deep-seated ideas about the brutality of society, but there’s no way to describe exactly what he wants us to know when he’s delivering it in incoherent, sometimes laughable, pieces.