Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
Matt Reeves' magnificent Let Me In is an Americanized adaptation of Let the Right One In a Swedish horror film which itself is based on an acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (also Swedish). As such its setting has been moved from frigid Scandinavia to the more familiar but no less frigid Los Alamos New Mexico a town depicted as so bleak and uninviting as to provoke a lawsuit from the state’s tourism commission. Its atmosphere is particularly inhospitable to timid loners like 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a spindly late-bloomer who suffers regular humiliations at school courtesy of a trio of pubescent sadists.
Owen’s home life isn’t much better: Dad’s gone for good pending a divorce from mom who’s an aspiring wino and something of a religious nut. He seeks refuge nightly in the solitary confines of his apartment complex courtyard where he meets and befriends Abby (Chloe Moretz) a new neighbor and apparent kindred spirit whose quirks include a penchant for walking barefoot through the snow. That along with her professed inability to recall her exact age provides Owen with the first clues that his new friend may not be entirely normal.
She is in fact a vampire. And like any vampire Abby requires blood for sustenance. But since the sight of a little girl chomping on the necks of locals is certain to raise eyebrows at Child Protective Services she entrusts the duty of procuring nourishment to her haggard elder companion (Richard Jenkins). First believed to be Abby’s father but later revealed as otherwise he (his name is never stated) trots out wearily on occasion to find a fresh young body to drain of its blood. His skills appear to be slipping in his old age (like Owen he is a mere mortal) and his sloppiness soon attracts the attention of a grizzled local cop (Elias Koteas) who has no idea how far in over his head he is. (The film is set in 1983 when the vampire-detection tools available to law enforcement officials were woefully inadequate.)
Meanwhile Abby and Owen’s relationship blossoms and notwithstanding the inevitable complications that arise in every human-vampire relationship they develop a profound and sweetly innocent bond. Still lurking in the back of our minds is the knowledge that Abby at her core is a remorseless bloodsucker and one significantly older than her pre-teen visage would have us believe. Is her affection for Owen sincere or is she merely grooming him to assume the role of her caretaker once her current one exceeds his usefulness?
There’s a great deal of manipulation at work in Let Me In both on the part of Abby and director Reeves who alternates between tugging on our heart-strings and butchering them. Abby is one of the truly great horror villains — so great in fact that I suspect many audience members won’t view her as one even as her list of mutilated victims grows. Reeves does well to preserve an element of ambiguity resisting the urge to proffer a Usual Suspects-esque denouement inviting us instead to connect the story’s dots ourselves. The film’s unique and affecting juxtaposition of tenderness and savagery combined with a slew of stellar performances makes for an experience unlike any other in recent horror-movie memory one whose effects will linger long after the closing credits have rolled.
Director Steven Soderbergh creates a $60 million dollar art film aimed to be an epic look at the life of famed Argentinean rebel Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro). Split into two parts that may be shown either together or in separate engagements the director seems intent on rewriting the book on biopics and in doing so has completely muted a potentially interesting study of the man who became a revered figure in Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Part I aka The Argentine charts Che’s beginning career as a charismatic young doctor who meets Castro and sails to Cuba with the common goal of overthrowing corrupt dictator Fulgenico Batista. Proving himself to be a crafty and smart fighter particularly when it comes to guerilla warfare Che becomes a heroic figure among his colleagues and the Cubans. In Part II aka Guerrilla Che is portrayed after his peak power days when he mysteriously disappears only to re-emerge in Bolivia where he organizes the Latin American Revolution. Largely focusing on the grunt work of the battles this section details his dedication to a cause that ultimately will also become his tragic downfall. When an even LONGER version of Che premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival international reaction to the film was decidedly mixed at best -- even though Benicio Del Toro’s performance was universally praised. Although he’s physically perfect for the role his approach is to basically mumble through the proceedings like a faux Marlon Brando in his Viva Zapata period. If Del Toro was indeed born to play this part it doesn’t really show as he fails to connect with the audience. In the livelier first section -- in which the material is more political and intriguing -- Del Toro almost comes alive especially when visiting New York and the U.N. but frustratingly he mainly chooses to underplay to the point of tedium. The shootouts in the last part of the film come across as amateurish something out of a ‘50s TV Western. The rest of the mostly Spanish cast does what they can with the hackneyed script with standouts Rodrigo Santoro as Raul Castro Catalina Sandino Moreno as Che’s second wife and Demian Bichir who manages to be quite convincing as Fidel Castro. Unlike the lively portrait director Walter Salles achieved in the far more engaging and pertinent The Motorcycle Diaries the usually talented Steven Soderbergh (Traffic Ocean's Eleven) paints a dry profile of Che Guevera diminishing whatever excitement may have existed in his life. By concentrating on these two narrow portions of Che’s life the director fails to deliver even the tiniest proof or argument as to why this man was so revered and remains so iconic to this day. The film completely skips over major points and fails to find the character’s flaws. And the reported $60 million dollar budget is nowhere to be seen -- Che even looks dull and unexciting. It’s clear Soderbergh simply got too close to the subject after seven years of research and somehow viewed this wannabe bio-epic as his own Lawrence of Arabia. Far from it. See it only if you need a good nap.