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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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Latest “Twilight Saga” installment to eclipse “The Last Airbender” (updated)

If you’re the kind of person who lives or dies by box office news and, if so, you have my deepest sympathies,  this weekend’s box-office is already partially old news. As I write this late Thursday night, we know that Summit’s “The Twlight Saga: Eclipse” has already raked in a massive $68.5 million, though that’s actually a bit less than the prior installment got on its first weekday release. Nevertheless, its very mixed reviews are actually an improvement on  the poor critical performance of the last entry and there’s general agreement that, whatever else may be the case, this is the most action-packed installment so far. Decent word of mouth could give it a boost.

Ah, the eternal choice: lycanthrope or bloodsucking parasite?

In any case the $150 million or more total for the vampire romance’s first five days that jolly Carl DiOrio has confidently predicted seems like a good guess, especially with Nikki Finke‘s report of a promotional strategy involving 20 cast members fanning out across the country to intro the movie in area theaters.  This can’t hurt. Go to any revival screening in L.A. at a venue like the American Cinematheque or the L.A. County Museum of Art, and you’ll be lucky to see a half-full house. Advertise that a famed cast member will be speaking, and you often get sell outs. Never underestimate the appeal of a live celebrity appearance. If it works with film snobs, it’ll squeeze some more repeat viewings from the Twi-hards.

There’s actually another new genre film debuting this week. It’s the more kid-and-geek-male friendly, PG-rated “The Last Airbender” from M. Night Shameicantspellhisname. The Indian-American director has been pilloried by Asian groups for casting the tale, adopted from an animated series with a definite Asian flavor, with primarily white actors. It’s also been a long time since he’s had a hit, or even a movie that anybody liked much. It gets worse because “Airbender” is getting some of worst reviews of the year, with critics like our own Jason Zingale taking a moment to criticize the film’s retrofitted 3-D as even worse than the film as a whole. Even so, the martial arts fantasy got off to a decent start at midnight screenings Thursday morning with $3 million in the coffer for Paramount.

The Last AirbenderStill, if word gets out that this film is the stinker it sounds like, rather than the franchise-starter it’s supposed to be, it could do very disappointing business. With a $145 million budget, that’s not good tidings for the director or the studio. On the other hand, fans of the animated series could pull the film towards a solid, but certainly hugely distant, second. In any case, it seems clear that the massive and assuredly leggy success of “Toy Story 3” will be nipping at its heels. One thing is certain: the film originally titled “Avatar: The Last Airbender” will not be emulating its former namesake commercially over the long haul.

Among other limited releases this week, we have “Love Ranch,” which is the first film starring Helen Mirren to be directed by her husband, Taylor Hackford (“Ray,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”). Sadly, it’s getting very bad reviews. That is not good for a limited release, even if Joe Pesci is also in the cast. Amazing that a film about murder and legalized prostitution in Nevada is considered dull, but making movies is an uncertain business. Right?

“The Killer Inside Me” starring Casey Affleck as a brutally psychopathic cop is dividing critics in the kind of way that indicates it’s either an honorable near-miss or a cult film in the making. The adaptation of the pulp novel by novelist and Stanley Kubrick screenwriter Jim Thompson, which has a couple of scenes of very brutal and graphic violence that have generated a ton of ink and bloggy pixels, though its admirers tell us there’s lot more to the movie that that, will be expanding significantly from four to seventeen screens this weekend as per Box Office Mojo’s theater counts,. If you want to see it in a theater, I suggest you do so quickly. I don’t think all that many people are in the mood for this kind of thing right now.

UPDATE: Nikki Finke has the Thursday box office which indicates both “Eclipse” and “Airbender” are on track for their respective expected strong performances. Still, I’m curious to see if word of mouth catches up with the latter.

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No fooling, it’s Thor’s-day at the movies

I don’t usually do these kind of posts on Thursdays, and it’s April Fools’ Day. However, there’s simply too much apparently non-joking, actual movie news to leave for Friday. So, here we go.

* Of course, in Hollywood, it’s not always easy to spot the April Fool’s story from the real thing. That’s why IESB frontloads their big possible, eventual scoop today with all sorts of promises that they’re not joking. Anyhow, it appears that #1 cult creator Joss Whedon, most recently of “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” fame, is supposedly on the short list to direct “The Avengers,” currently being penned by Zak Penn.

avengers

If you’re skeptical about this, you’re far from alone. Just check out the slightly quizzical reaction from Whedon’s robotic and slavishly devoted cult — of which I am a known member — over at Whedonesque. (I’ve even forgiven Whedon for listening too much to Rahm Emmanuel and selling out to big pharma and not fighting hard enough to keep the public option in the health care bill….Oh, wait, wrong blog.) Still, Whedon’s known for staying in touch with his fans. I strongly suspect that, if the story were completely unfounded, he’d have posted something about it by now.

One creative point. Some fans seem skeptical that a collaboration between Penn and Whedon could work. Well, of course, Whedon has actually done any number of rewrites and polishes on other people’s scripts — a lot of folks give him credit for most of the wittier portions of “Speed” — and though Penn has been involved with some pretty conventionally dull flicks in his day, he’s not completely lacking imagination and humor. His little seen 2004 comedy-thriller mock-documentary, “Incident at Loch Ness,” has some remarkably hilarious moments,  most of them courtesy of Werner Herzog, playing himself and also taking a cowriting credit. If Penn’s good enough for Herr Herzog, he’s perhaps good enough for Joss Whedon.

* Speaking of “The Avengers,” the movie about the only actual deity in the group, “Thor,” is currently in production and director Kenneth Branagh talked about the film and his affection for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/et al comic books in today’s L.A. Times. This was not some random publicity glad-handing but a deliberate effort to squelch some unpleasant — and, to my ear, unlikely — rumors being reported in the tabloid press which allege open on-set criticism/anger directed at newcomer-lead Chris Hemsworth from venerable master thespian Anthony Hopkins, presumably relating to the 26 year-old star’s relative lack of experience, at least compared to Hopkins.  Hopkins, who’ll be playing Thor’s even more venerable dad, Odin, and Branagh have strongly denied the rumors and painted a picture of a happy set.

I was fairly impressed with Hemsworth’s work in the opening of “Star Trek,” so I tend to lean towards the official story here. He’s also a veteran of an Aussie soap, “Home and Away,” and history teaches us that soap vets tend to become pretty good actors when actually allowed time to learn their lines properly and develop characters. I don’t know much about Hopkins on a personal level except that he’s gotten this far in his career without these kind of incidents being an issue that I can think of. I suspect it would take a titanic lack of talent/ability to visibly annoy him at this point.

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