Devil

One of the most jaw-dropping things we witnessed at the movies this year took place before the movie started. Attached to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was a trailer for a claustrophobic thriller in an elevator. It’s doing a pretty good job of selling itself, and then a title card comes on that says, “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.”

The audience burst out laughing. Wow.

Granted, the man’s output since, well, 2000’s “Unbreakable” has been spotty at best – and his other 2010 release, “The Last Airbender,” was terrible – but to laugh at the sight of his name? That’s just cold, and “Devil” never recovered from the association, settling for $33 million at the box office. That’s triple its budget, mind you, and therefore a financial success for the studio, but it is still viewed as another failure on Shyamalan’s resume.

But here’s the thing – it’s actually a decent movie. One wonders how much better it would have done had Night’s name not appeared in the trailer or the credits. That’s a terrible thing to say, but hey, we didn’t make those people in the audience laugh when his name came up.

Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is investigating the death of a hi-rise jumper in downtown Philadelphia (natch). The case leads him to a nearby building, where more trouble is brewing. Five people are trapped in an elevator, and as Bowden gets to know their back stories, he finds that each of them has a checkered past. As lights flicker and people start getting hurt, everyone is on edge, but only the superstitious elevator security monitor suspects the truth: that the Devil himself is in there, ready to claim a soul.

The biggest knock on Night since his breakthrough is that he’s a better director than he is a writer, that his reliance on the twist undermines his visual accomplishments. “Devil” gives that notion a good kick in the teeth, though the story isn’t without its flaws. It’s always a warning sign when a movie only uses narration at the beginning and the end – it speaks to a lack of confidence in the storytelling – and “Devil” succumbs to this as well, even though it really doesn’t need to. Night’s story, which was adapted by “Hard Candy” screenwriter Brian Nelson, is wisely stingy with the facts and the limits in terms of communication (the authorities can see and communicate with the passengers, but the passengers can’t communicate back), and while he can’t resist the urge to use yet another twist ending, this one actually works, even if you have a 20% chance of guessing it right before the (awesome) title sequence is finished rolling.

So yes, Shyamalan is down, but if “Devil” is any indication, he’s not out. If we’re lucky – and he’s smart – he’ll head down this road again before making another star-studded mess like “The Village.”

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Weekend boxoffice: Ben Affleck steals the weekend, but “Easy A” hangs onto to its virtue

A surprise this week. A film that seemed to skew towards an older and more male audience actually grabbed more box office lucre than a high-concept comedy aimed largely — albeit on a weekend where no one made anything close to a cinematic mint.

Ben Affleck and Rebecca Miller in

He might look down in the pic above, but Ben Affleck — whose taken his share of sometimes deserved and sometimes not so deserved lumps as an actor over the years — has something to celebrate today. To be specific, the cowriter-director-star’s heist drama, “The Town,” swiped an estimated $23.8 million for Warner Brothers according to Box Office Mojo’s weekend chart. I’m guessing that the film got a boost from pent up demand for a the kind of plot-centric thriller we adult males seem to crave, as well as the budding  potential superstar presences of Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, and Blake Lively, not to mention female lead Rebecca Miller. Since older people usually pay a bit more attention to critics, it’s actually possible that the unusually good reviews helped here.

If Cinemascore means anything — and I’m not all that sure that it means all that much — “The Town” might have also gotten a boost from word of mouth, since Anne Thompson tell us it got a better than average B+ all around. Thompson also quotes Warner’s distribution chief Dan Fellman, saying that the studio is looking ahead to award season for the thriller. Moreover, Fellman also reminds us that the film is the largest September opening in Warner’s history (that is to say, September kind of sucks for box office). Though it’s not the kind of movie that usually wins Oscars, the loosened up Best Picture category certainly helps a well-reviewed and reasonably popular film’s chances.

Emma Stone in The PG-13 not-having-sex high school comedy with promising youngster Emma Stone,Easy A,” which was supposed to be #1 as of Thursday night, didn’t quite get there. However, seeing as its budget is reportedly $31 million less than the actually rather modestly budgeted “The Town,” it is by far the most profitable film of this frame with  respectable estimated receipts of $18.2  and an extremely respectable $8 million budget. It’s another fiscal win for Sony/Screen Gems, which has been on a sort of hot streak of late.

The M. Night Shymalan-produced “Devil” took the hindmost of the top 3 with a less than spectacular $12.58 million for Universal, which by now is used to disappointments. Though not directed by Shymalan, the PG-13 film was promoted as if it was and Uni and the man they call “Night” may finally be paying the price for all the almost universally disliked but oddly successful films that bore the once hugely promising filmmaker’s name. Anne Thompson wonders if the two other scheduled films drawn from stories by Shymalan to be directed by up-and-comers on low budgets, “The Night Chronicles,” will happen now. Mr. S., I grew up watching Rod Serling productions, I know Rod Serling’s work. You’re no Rod Serling.

The weekend’s other new release proved that audiences can spot a cheaply made 3D animated family film rather easily for something that is likely a far, far cry from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. “Alpha and Omega” came in below the predictably sinking-like-a-stone-in-week #2 “Resident Evil: Afterlife” with an anemic $9.2 million.

A number of new films came out in limited release this week. The most impressive per-screen average of the week was $30,000 for the Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, “Never Let Me Go.” The British science-fiction romantic drama earned $120,000 on four screens for Fox Searchlight, though it’s muted reviews may dim its Oscar hopes, which is really the only root to major success for a film like this at present. The highly buzzed, probable documentary (there are doubters, though everyone agrees it’s no “I’m Still Here“), “Catfish,” may have better Oscar hopes if it reassures the Academy that it really and truly is a documentary. It did well this weekend for Rogue with a $255,000 in only 12 theaters.

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Weekend box office preview: dissembling teens, bank robbers, cheap looking wolves and an elevator demon (update)

Folks, you  have no idea how tired I am as I write this. Therefore, while we have four new wide releases this weekend, all interesting in their own way, I’m be keeping it as short as possible tonight/this morning.

Emma Stone in

Jolly Carl DiOrio expects the weekend winner to be the Emma Stone comedy vehicle, “Easy A.” I, an adult male, personally found the trailer and premise for this movie about a girl using a false reputation for promiscuity to various ends, which is supposed to appeal primarily to female teens, pretty amusing. Moreover, it’s getting unusually good — if slightly muted — reviews for a teen film.

Though M. Night Shymalan’s name is hard-to-spell-and-pronounce version of “mud” with hardcore fans, the PG-13 scare-suspenser, “Devil” — which Shymalan did not direct but produced and wrote the story (with a twist, no doubt) — is expected to do relatively well. It is being carefully protected from bloodthirsty critics.

Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner in The movie I’m most looking forward to is actor-writer-director Ben Affleck’s crime thrilller, “The Town,” co-starring Jeremy Renner and marking the big-screen semi-starring debut of “Mad Men” star and Mercedes pitchman Jon Hamm. Never a critic’s darling as an actor, Affleck is turning into one critically liked auteur and the highly positive reviews are making me anxious to see this one.

The movie I doubt I’ll ever see — and which is expected to make a shockingly low amount for a 3-D animated family film is “Alpha and Omega.” The cheaply made and critically unloved animation should at least should help some kids learn what are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

UPDATE: One quick thought I meant to include last night. Jolly Carl said there might be a slightly depressive effect on the box office this weekend because  Friday night and Saturday until sundown is Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday on the Jewish calendar. The interesting part of this is that we Jews are only 2% of the population — though if you live in New York or L.A. you’d never know it and some of us almost completely ignore these things. Are we that overrepresented as moviegoers that our impact is felt beyond places like NYC, L.A., and Chicago?

  

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Midweek movie news, the Lamont Cranston and Kent Allard memorial edition

Comic-Con’s been over for a week and a half and the geek news is flying.

* Mike Fleming is claiming a Finke “Toldja!” for the news that Disney and “Tron: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski are going ahead with a film version of the comic book, “Oblivion.” I’m not familiar with the book so, should I be more excited about this than I am? Of course, having recently rewatched the original “Tron” I’m even less excited about his other movie. I’m sorry, but it’s got to be one of the thinnest excuses for a piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen. A few interesting visuals aside, it’s easily one of the weakest efforts Disney has ever been associated with as far as I can see. It’s lingering appeal is a complete mystery to me.

* As rumors of the day go, I find this one even less believable than most. That idea is that Quentin Tarantino may be “attached” to what had previously been Sam Raimi’s new version of William Gibson’s influential pulp character, the Shadow — who became best known via a popular thirties radio show starring a very young Orson Welles.  I’m a fan of the character and of Tarantino, so I certainly wouldn’t mind this being true. It just feels significantly off from Mr. Tarantino’s many obsessions, though considering his delving into thirties and forties cinema for “Inglourious Basterds,” you never know.

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