Thursday, July 8, 2010

Aliens, animated villains vie for attention

Gru works hard at dreaming up new pathways to evil.

Despicable Me doesn't quite have the courage of its nastiest convictions, but at times, it comes admirably close. This often funny and nicely executed helping of animation (available in 3D at many locations) mixes action, character and humor in an appealingly silly way. The story focuses on two villains, each of whom wants the title of world's baddest bad guy. Gru (Steve Carell) -- the former top-ranked villain -- is being challenged by Vector (Jason Segel), a youthful newcomer. The plot contrives to have Gru adopt three orphans so that they can penetrate Vector's lair under the guise of selling cookies. The girls are cute and funny, and although the movie ultimately yields to its sentimental impulses, much of it (quite happily) employs humor with a slightly dark edge. Additional characters abound: Julie Andrews, for example, gives voice to Gru's mom, a sour puss who has spent a lifetime belittling her ambitious son. The backdrops are cleverly conceived and brightly drawn under the guidance of directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, and Despicable Me turns out to be a pleasant seasonal surprise, an animated movie that's just different enough to make it feel fresh. (I saw the movie in restful 2D and was happy to forgo 3D pleasures so that I could concentrate on the characters and the story.)


Predators makes no mystery of how its aliens look.
Director Nimrod Antal (Armored and Kontroll) assumes directing chores in Predators, a mid-summer helping of alien-planet grit. With Robert Rodriguez backing him up as producer, Antal -- who has a demonstrated flair for unpretentious action and B-movie tough talk -- adds a variety of special effects to the expected butt-kickings and mangled flesh. The story: A group of earthly miscreants finds itself facing off against aliens on a jungle planet where the humans are prey. Led by Adrien Brody, who proves he can play tough, the cast includes support from Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo and others. Forget character development: These are types. We're talking a doctor, a drug runner, a Yakuza gangster, a rapist and more. The jungle settings on this distant planet are convincingly created, and Antal wastes no time leaping into action, eventually making room for Laurence Fishburne in a small role. Antal displays little interest in background, opting instead to deal with what it's like to wake up in the middle of a nightmarish situation and have no other goal but escape. The movie's pulp dialog is nothing special, but Antal keeps things moving as his group of misanthropic earthlings tries to work together to fight aliens who are capable of appearing out of nowhere. More fun at the outset than the end, Predators has some liabilities: The creature design -- reptilian with hints of anthropomorphism -- is not the most imaginative, some of the action is confusingly presented and the movie tends to be hampered by a lack of smarts at crucial points. Call Predators a better-than-average B-movie; a touch more inspiration have turned it into a bona fide down-and-dirty delight. And by the way, after being dropped into an alien world, our heroes don't hesitate to open fire at anything that moves. Somehow, though, they never run out of ammunition. Hmmm.*

*Won't replace Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 Predator, which was a far better "B.".

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