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.
Move over cupid; it’s time for the angel of death to play matchmaker in Life As We Know It a rom-com from director Greg Berlanti and first-time screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson which proves the old adage that there’s no better catalyst for love — and comic hijinks — than the sudden tragic demise of loved ones.
Holly Berenson (Katherine Heigl) and Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel) could not be more different. He’s an aspiring television sports director and an unrepentant cad whose casual seat-of-your pants approach to life is best symbolized in the ratty baseball hat that perpetually adorns his dome (always worn backwards — classic movie shorthand for “slob”). She’s a successful caterer with a five-year plan and a strict intolerance for disorder of any kind. He has a penis; she a vagina. We’re talking Israel and Palestine here folks.
The mutual disdain between Holly and Messer is palpable and intense but the two are always able to put their differences aside when in the presence of their goddaughter Sophie the unbearably adorable spawn of his best friend Peter (Hayes MacArthur) and her best friend Alison (Christina Hendricks). When the youthful parents perish suddenly in a car accident (the tragedy of which is compounded by the loss of Mad Men star Hendricks on-screen for all of a few minutes and annoyingly clothed throughout that span) there’s little time to mourn before hilarity comes calling in the form of an estate lawyer who reveals that Peter and Alison mischievous rascals that they were mandated in their will that Sophie be raised by Holly and Messer in the event that the child is abruptly orphaned.
One’s heart really goes out to Duhamel’s character here: Not only does he lose his best friend but he’s saddled with both a helpless one-year-old and Katherine Heigl. What sort of mass-murdering past life is this guy being forced to atone for? Put this material in the hands of Clint Eastwood and it’s got Oscar potential. And yet not only does Messer not strangle Holly in her sleep he falls in love with her! And she for him! Their romantic bond flowers unexpectedly as they devote themselves to the task of caring for Sophie within whose many noxious emissions it seems is housed some sort of powerful aphrodisiac that renders even the most unappealing people somehow irresistible.
The effect spreads to the audience as Duhamel and Heigl conspire to win our affections establishing a keen romantic chemistry that almost makes Life As We Know It’s far-fetched (and occasionally bizarrely macabre) plot palpable. Duhamel hits that sweet spot between eye candy and everydude as well as any actor working today and his easy charm rubs off on Heigl whose trademark busybody antics aren't nearly as cloying as in the previous seven chapters of her “Men Are Pigs” rom-com decalogy. In fact she’s downright likable in this film. Maybe there's some truth to all that nonsense about babies being little miracles after all.
Attractive college co-ed Casey (Odette Yustman) finds herself the target of the diabolical Dybbuk a spirit which has bided its time since her birth to make its nefarious presence known. Is it perhaps a manifestation of her twin brother who died in the womb all those years ago? Since dear old Dad (James Remar) is away on business -- seemingly for the entire length of the movie -- concerned Casey seeks answers from Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) a survivor of the Holocaust who may hold the key to Casey’s past. Needless to say those to whom Casey confides her fears often find themselves in danger of being offed in gruesome fashion. (Misery may love company but the Dybbuk doesn’t.) In a last-ditch effort to rid herself of the evil spirit Casey turns to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) who finally agrees to perform an exorcism after he too sees the signs. Aside from acting terrified (and looking good doing it) Yustman (Cloverfield) is totally at the mercy of the story which shows little mercy when it comes to providing any concrete (or even shaky) answers to the questions it raises. She’s attractive but there’s not much else to the character. As Casey’s respective boyfriend and best friend Cam Gigandet (Twilight) and Meagan Good (Saw V) are merely functionaries offering the typical mixture of skepticism and support before learning for themselves -- too late of course! -- that maybe Casey’s suspicions have validity. Adding a (misplaced?) touch of class to the proceedings are Oldman who doesn’t embarrass himself and Alexander who isn’t so fortunate. It’s also a wonder why Carla Gugino seen occasionally in flashback as Casey’s deceased mother even bothered. It’s a nothing role which might explain why the actress has no billing other than in the end credits. There’s no question that writer/director David S. Goyer has a deep love and appreciation for horror and science-fiction given his previous credits which include the scripts for Dark City Blade and The Dark Knight but as a director his work (which includes Blade: Trinity and last year’s The Invisible) leaves much to be desired. There are some good ideas here and some individual scenes are reasonably effective but the parts don’t add up to a satisfactory whole. The Unborn suffers from a botched delivery.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.