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Predators prowl, Despicable Me is a sweetheart and Airbender is a lot of hot air

by Mark Burger

 

 

For those keeping score at home, Predators is the fifth in Twentieth Century Fox’s sci-fi franchise, begun 23 years ago with the original Predator. Basically ignoring the two Alien vs. Predator films, this one pits a Predator hunting party against yet another unlucky group of humans. But there are a few crucial differences this time around.

For one thing, the humans selected for the hunt are all highly skilled professional killers, each of whom has found him- or herself awakening while parachuting into a tropical hellhole. But this is no ordinary tropical hellhole; this is Predator territory. If they didn’t have enough of one before, what with their size, strength and high-tech weaponry (including a cloaking mechanism), the Predators now have home-field advantage.

Working under the auspices of producer Robert Rodriguez, director Nimrod Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch here have essentially made a throwback to the original Predator, and the result is an enjoyable, if often quite violent, jungle romp, duly (and nicely) augmented by the makeup and visual effects. Predators isn’t going to win any awards for originality or artistry, but it may well win new fans to the franchise, and it ought to do just fine at the box-office.

Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Louis Ozawa Changchien and Danny Trejo are the various soldiers of fortune who find themselves battling for their lives in extremely hostile territory, and it’s giving nothing away to reveal that many of them lose that battle, often in spectacular fashion. Predators does not skimp on the gore and gristle of the previous installments.

Late in the game, after the casualties have started mounting, Laurence Fishburne pops up (and exits rather early) as a loony scavenger who’s been trapped in this galactic game preserve too long. It’s little more than a cameo, but Fishburne nevertheless manages to chew the scenery. (In a film like this, one can hardly blame him. You’ve got to make your mark quickly, because you may not be around for very long.)

The action scenes are enjoyable, although the exposition (i.e. idle chit-chat) could’ve been trimmed a bit to enhance the momentum, and there’s a plot twist involving one of the principal characters that might have better been revealed a bit earlier in the proceedings, but for those Predator fans who have wanted to see the concept get back to basics, Predators does so. And, yes, the door is left wide open for another installment. No surprise there. But if it’s as solid and capable as this one, another jaunt through the jungle might not necessarily be unwelcome.

The animation in Despicable Me is so good, and the voice players (headed by Steve Carell) so energetic and enthusiastic, that it’s quite easy to overlook a simpleminded story and a string of jokes more amusing than uproarious.

With a faux Russian accent, Carell’s Gru is a super-villain who delights in acts of transgression both large and small. His latest scheme is clearly one of the former, as he plots to steal the moon itself.

Yet Gru’s nasty aspirations are compromised when he encounters three little orphan girls (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher) who slowly but surely (and predictably) melt his heart and make him rethink his nastiness.

Despicable Me is very much aimed at children, although it’s certainly not a chore for grown-ups to sit through. The presentation is world-class, with gorgeous, gloriously colorful animation (either in 2-D or 3-D) and a star-studded vocal line-up that also includes Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett and Danny McBride, the latter one of the more illustrious UNC School of the Arts’ graduates of late.

With The Last Airbender, a messy and manic big-screen version of a Nickelodeon television series, writer/producer/director M Night Shyamalan has used up whatever good will was due him for his 1999 breakout film (and still his best), The Sixth Sense.

Set in what might well be a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away, The Last Airbender is a muddle-headed, earnestly played costume fantasy overloaded with visual effects and meaningless exposition.

Endless narration does nothing to clear things up, and more often than not Shyamalan uses special effects to try and mask the (many) holes in the plot. The 3-D process, grafted onto the film after its completion, proves incidental.

The film seems to have gleaned its inspiration from a variety of sources, including (but not limited to) the Bible, Star Wars, Buddhism, Walt Disney, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, tai chi, Irwin Allen, any number of comic books and martial-arts movies and, if one considers the extensive use of CGI effects, perhaps even feng shui.

The pivotal (and title) character in the film is Aang (Noah Ringer), a boy blessed with the power to control the elements: earth, air, wind and fire. Others, such as the noble and heroic Katara (Nicole Peltz) and the less noble and less heroic Prince Zuko (Dev Petel), possess only the ability to control one of the elements. This makes Aang the only surviving Avatar (which was the title of the original TV series but was of course used by James Cameron for his film) and therefore much sought after, particularly by the nasty Fire Lords, of which Zuko is one.

For all the talk of “bending” the elements of earth, air, fire and wind, one half-expects the ’70s funk/rock group Earth, Wind & Fire to somehow rate a nod in the film.

The Last Airbender is an expansive film (to say nothing of an expensive one), yet its epic proportions feel hollow and empty. Grandiosity doesn’t equal grand, or great. Nowhere is that more painfully evident than in The Last Airbender.

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