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One of the year's best movies has only one special effect: An astonishing performance by a 7-year-old.
That kid is Onata Aprile, and she's at the center of "What Maisie Knew," a searing drama set in modern-day Manhattan, but adapted from a Henry James novel published in 1897. Aprile plays Maisie, a normal kid who observes what happens when her self-centered parents, a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), go through an acrimonious divorce. Maisie gets shuttled between the two, but ends up mostly being cared for by the people her parents married, a frazzled nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and a laidback bartender (Alexander Skarsgard). Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel let the drama unfold naturally, taking Maisie's wide-eyed view of the shortcomings of the adults in her life.
The big studio movie this weekend is "After Earth," a dimly conceived and weakly executed science-fiction survival story. Will Smith and his son Jaden star, as a military man and his rebellious son, living about 1000 years from now on a human colony until an interstellar trip that ends with their ship crashing on Earth, which has turned wild in the millenium since humans left it. The story, dreamt up by Smith and fleshed out by Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli") and director M. Night Shyamalan, is dull and drawn out with too much ridiculous mythology and overwrought psychology.
The other wide opening is "Now You See Me," an exciting but ultimately not-so-bright heist thriller revolving around four master magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco). They devise an illusion that looks like they're robbing a Paris bank all the way from Las Vegas. But when a Paris bank really gets robbed, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol cop (Mélanie Laurent) are put on the case. It's action-packed, but the last half hour reveals the holes in the plot.
For LDS audience, there's "Ephraim's Rescue," which focuses on Ephraim Hanks (Darin Southam), a lieutenant of Brigham Young who was dispatched to rescue the Willie-Martin Handcart Company, Mormon settlers caught in a Wyoming snowstorm in 1856. Director T.C. Christensen covered the same ground in last year's film "17 Miracles," which focused on the settlers' plight, and this one feels more like a Sunday School lesson than a compelling drama.
Now to the rest of the art-house slate. "Frances Ha" is an engaging comedy-drama, starring Greta Gerwig (who wrote with director/boyfriend Noah Baumbach) as a 27-year-old New Yorker who's realizing that her childhood dreams aren't turning out as planned. Gerwig gives a full-bodied performance as a woman frantically dealing with late-onset adulthood.
"Blancanieves" is a visually arresting take on the Snow White tale, as director Pablo Berger transforms it into an homage to '20s silent movies. His heroine, Carmencita (Macarena Garcia) grows up to become a bullfighter, but is pursued by her evil stepmother (Maribel Verdu). It's inventive, and a little whacked out.
"Kon-Tiki" was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category, but this version of the Norwegian adventure drama is in English. (Dialogue scenes were shot twice, to appease international investors.) It recounts the journey launched by Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), who helmed a balsa-wood raft 5,000 miles across the Pacific to prove that ancient sailors made the same trip from Peru to Polynesia. The ocean scenes are breathtaking (though similar to those in "Life of Pi"), but the drama seems oddly truncated.
Lastly, there's "Something in the Air," in which director Olivier Assayas ("Carlos," "Summer Hours") tells a semi-autobiographical tale set amid the student turmoil in France in the late '60s and early '70s. It centers on students torn between political activism, artistic expression and sexual awakening. It's a tad rambling, but emotionally heartfelt.