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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 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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It’s a villain vs. vampires, and some predators vs. an airbender

Things are crazy for me this weekend, so forgive me if I cross the line between succinct and downright terse, and I make no typo-free or anti-cliche guarantee either. Even so, this is an unusually interesting box office weekend, though inevitably a far less lucrative one than last weekend’s holiday free-for-all.

The major new entry that just might hit the #1 spot is the PG-rated 3-D animated comedy, “Despicable Me.” Though not every film geek loves this movie about a James Bond-style super-baddie redeemed by instant parenthood — veteran animation critic Charles Solomon was particularly cool to it on the L.A. area public radio show, FilmWeek — it’s being noted for having a bit of a more of a Looney Tunes/Spy vs. Spy vibe than your typical family animation and is getting solidly good reviews.  Indeed, the only thing that looks bad about this film is that it’s come out only two weeks after all-but-univerally praised and hugely successful “Toy Story 3,” but then Pixar exists in a world of its own anyhow, where a perfectly entertaining little movie like “Cars” somehow becomes the “bad” one.

Jolly Carl DiOrio at THR is predicting a $30-35 million weekend. Since “Despicable Me, helmed by two first time French directors, is from a new animation division from beleaguered Universal, every little of good luck is badly needed right now. Jolly Carl says that all the suspense will be over the holding power of last week’s huge winner, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” which has already passed the $200 million mark. It’s all up to the Twi-hards now.

The other major new release is “Predators.” Produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal, it’s an attempt to revivify the old action/monster franchise with a straight-forward multi-star action plot largely lifted from one of the most frequently borrowed of all horror/suspense premises, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which even spawned an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” This version has been getting relatively good reviews for a movie which is decidedly not critic’s bait and it appears to be very much in the spirit of the effective, if not wildly brilliant, original. It’s Rotten Tomatoes stock has lowered considerably over the last 24 hours or so, however.

Preying on “Predators” is the widely unloved yet successful family action picture from M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount, “The Last Airbender.” This weekend will be an interesting test to see if there’s any effect from all that critical hate and a lowish Cinemascore result which has to have translated into some poor word of mouth, at least among adults. In any case, “Predators” should almost certainly emerge victorious in terms of profits considering that the frugal and innovative Rodriguez has kept the budget to an extremely reasonable $38 million — a minuscule budget for an effects-heavy action film based on long-running franchise. The production budget of “Airbender,” we are told is nearly four times as much. Jolly Carl says the R-rated action-monster picture should earn $20-25 million.

On the limited release front, the movie getting all the attention this week is the highly lauded dramatic comedy from Focus Features with a title borrowed from the Who, “The Kids Are Alright.” Even considering the no-longer-terribly-edgy subject matter (gay women raising children), this movie stars two of the best and most famous actresses of our day in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, it’s a little sad this is considered a “small” film, but then I keep writing stuff like that.  Welcome to 2010.

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Big weekend at the box office: Twi-Hards turn out; proof that young men don’t listen (to critics)

This week, most of whatever suspense there was was not at all about which movie will be #1 or, as it turns out, #2 (not quite a 100% sure thing earlier). It had to do with what actually matters when the show business rubber meets the audience road: how much cash did the movies generate from the summer’s biggest holiday weekend but amid gloomy news and gloomier punditry regarding the economy? The answer seems to be what Joel McCrea learned at the end of “Sullivan’s Travels,” people in dire straights need entertainment and fantasy more, not less. I only wish they were getting something as thoughtful as “Ants in Your Plants of 1939.”

Edward and Bella...ooooohhhhhhhhhOver the three day Friday-Sunday weekend, Summit’s “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” earned an estimated $69 million according to the Box Office Mojo chart. For the broader and potentially confusing numbers covering the extended movie weekends for the two new major new releases this week, I’ll rely on Anne Thompson’s pal Anthony D’Alessandro. He tells us “Eclipse” earned an estimated $175 million and change, just a few million bucks below the similar six-day frame of 2004′s “Spiderman 2,” though not adjusted for ongoing movie-ticket inflation.

This is the point in the series ordinarily where some might wonder if interest is starting to flag, but this is a long-running movie/book soap opera and a continuing tale similar to the Harry Potter in terms of fan interest/involvement. Also, this entry overall got significantly better reviews than the second film in the series, which might indicate the film itself is more boyfriend friendly for this very female-driven franchise.

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It’s your just barely pre-holiday weekend movie news dump

I was going to try and avoid doing this this week and meant to gripe about the Los Angeles Film Festival’s rather serious problems in terms of how they treat the human beings who attend, but there was simply too much interesting news stuff going on to ignore, even if some of it is outside of what I usually cover.  So, LAFF, you get another reprieve…

* I don’t do gossip and the content of an argument between a director/star and his ex-mistress certainly qualifies. On the other hand, when that star is Mel Gibson and he has the history he does and he says something as noxious as this, you just can’t ignore it. People say terrible stuff when they’re in the thrall of extreme anger, but Gibson keeps going back to the racist and misogynist well when he becomes unhinged. It’s not nothing.

Also, I hope he avoids anything that looks like preaching ever again. I’m no theologian, but as I understand it,  a devout fundamentalist anti-Vatican II Catholic who openly cheats on and leaves his wife is not exactly walking the walk, but it’s only anyone’s business because of the way he’s made religion part of his career and it’s hard not to think of him as complete hypocrite, on top of everything else. I truly don’t believe that people should decide not to see movies based on a particular actor’s behavior, not matter how bad, but this comment is so repulsive, and the man is so clearly out of control, that I’ll understand if people would just prefer not to look at him anymore.

On the other hand, for those in the talking and making fun of people business, it can be a good thing, and it’s already started, largely via Twitter. Jeff Schneider of the Wrap has compiled some of it.

* I usually also try to avoid stories that are vague and unconfirmed, but this one is a bit too interesting and potentially big to ignore. There’s also a various obvious Gibson connection to the biggest unconfirmed glorified rumor of the day. It’s that it’s just barely possible that two back-to-back “Mad Max” sequels are being directed down-under even as we speak by the Max man himself, George Miller. Certain aspects of the story, especially the putative titles, are hinky, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.  If it’s true, I’m guessing Miller is a bit relieved that Gibson isn’t involved this time. (Though can they really be sequels in the usual sense without him, or at least his character?)

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