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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Devil

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle

Produced by: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle, M. Night Shyamalan, Sam Mercer

Screenplay by: Brian Nelson

Story by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Chris Messina, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Geoffrey Arend

Music by: Fernando Velazquez

Cinematography by: Tak Fujimoto

Editing by: Elliot Greenberg

Studio: Media Rights Captial, The Night Chronicles, Blinding Edge Pictures

Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Release Date(s): September 17, 2010

Running time: 80 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Budget: $10 million

Gross revenue (as of publication): $37,498,001

Followed by: Reincarnate

Unfortunately the "surprise" review is now null and void for complicated and boring reasons being the fact that the movie came out on limited release last year. The film was The Road and I loved it. As a sort of consolation, I went to see this film and have reviews for Cemetery Junction and MacGruber coming up. Todays film is a film which has been doing the rounds of the cinemas by the name of Devil. It has been getting whispers because the concept of the film is that one of five people stuck in a lift is the devil. The whispers have been emerging because the man who is behind the concept (but didn't write the screenplay) is one M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan is of course the man who in the past directed and wrote terrific suspense films such The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Of late though, he has had a bad run, including the critically-slated Lady In The Water, alongside the absolutely terrible The Happening and his most recent offering The Last Airbender. It seems that with Devil, the first in a planned trio of films known as The Night Chronicles, his collaboration with Media Rights Capital is being used a time for him to meditate on just what exactly he has been doing wrong with his films of late. Also, if the films mess up, it falls back on everyone else involved (not least the director), so hey, it's better than getting the blame for making another bad film. Nevertheless, Shyamalan, like him or not, is an ideas man, whether or not he can get the job done, and this provides a great opportunity for the young directors working on this three-part project.

Getting to the crunch, five people stuck in life, one is the devil, nuff said. To start with, as per usual, the good, of which there is a relative amount, certainly in stark comparison to Shyamalan's recent output. By no means does the acting prove to be outstanding, quite the contrary in the case of Chris Messina as Detective Bowden, but I feel that the emotion displayed by the five actors who remained for the most part of shooting the film in the lift (Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine and Geoffrey Arend) created a very tense atmosphere. None delivered particularly impressive roles, but as a cohesive unit working together, this was highly skilled synchronised acting which helps make bigger things of a simple idea. This is helped greatly by the furiously paced dialogue by Brian Nelson, who transforms this concept of the supernatural into something vaguely believable which can exist in the real world. John Erick Dowdle, who in the past directed Quarantine, a remake of a Spanish-language horror film called REC which I reviewed a few years ago, does the job efficiently and delivers by all means a pretty good, solid horror/thriller (I'm still undecided). For someone who directed a horror-remake which to be honest never needed to happen, he impressed me enough. On that topic though, this is his fifth film, and Tom Six, who directed The Human Centipede, gives us similar welly in his first attempt at making a film. For me, the standout component of the overall composite that makes up Devil is the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. He has shot three of Shyamalan's films. Despite being known recently for his work on these projects, Fujimoto has also shot films such as The Silence Of The Lambs, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Badlands, a film with superb photography, so clearly we have on our hands a man who knows what he is doing. The film opens with a really disorienting and unnerving series of shots to play over the opening credits. They are really simply done, but the more you think about it, you realise how wise this sequence is in setting up the mood for the film. Shot from a helicopter above the city, flying alongside the side of a bridge, alls normal, except for the fact that it is upside down, the cityscape at the top of the screen and the sky at the bottom and every time it looks like the shot is going to revert to a normal perspective, it cuts back to the upside down perspective, except from a different point. For a film that spends much of its duration inside a small, enclosed space, he manages to capture all of the necessary details while still maintaining a strong sense of claustrophobic tension. This is really tremendous work that stands out in the midst of what is truthfully a six out of ten film, bringing me swiftly on to my next series of points, el negativo (I know, it's the singular translation in Spanish, at least I think so, I certainly don't know the plural, but hey, language is transcendent, I think you get the point).

While there are unquestionably a number of good elements about the film, Devil is a highly flawed film. The main flaw is the structural problems involved the script. Being an ideas film, the entire story revolves around the characters that are stuck in the lift. Being an idea-driven film and not character, it must have awkward trying to write around the problems that could arise from this. For starters, the film is heavily unbalanced in terms of consistency and enjoyment. Everything inside the lift is great, and would have been better had it not been for the highly-flawed sections of the action occurring outside the lift. The dialogue in these sections is poorly written and the action does not unfold in a logical manner, but instead comes across as awkward and forced attempts to drive the plot forward or fill in the rest of the running time. Despite trying to look at it objectively and what could have been made of these sections, I can't help but feel that film would have been better if the action had have remained inside the lift. This would have placed high restrictions on all involved and forced them to make the better film that this could have been. The script's problems affect virtually all aspects of the film. For example, the characters outside the lift are badly written and overly simplistic, not even serving their purpose as characters which are symbolic and not meant to be fully fleshed out. This does not do the actors, Chris Messina and Jacob Vargas coming prominently to mind, any favours, causing them to deliver no more than very wooden (Messina) and too emotional (Vargas) variations of the acting craft. It also forces compromises on the editing of the film, which, bar the final "twist" if you will, becomes predictable (cue lighting as signal for important event) and begins to make the audience start to guess what is happening next. If I was criticise another aspect, unrelated to script issues, it would be the score by Fernando Velazquez. Like last week's film The Special Relationship, the score does everything murder by numbers. It plays heavy on the minimal, deep string/brass combo sound whenever the tension builds and of course, rattles and screeches and pounds exactly at the moments you would expect it to.

Why the hell do scores which do nothing original exist? Is it because we need to sieve through all of the shit in order to find something of genuine substance? If you want a masterclass in horror/thriller scores (and a masterclass in tension, film-making and everything else to boot), look no further than Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper's score for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is enough to scare most people without having to see the film. If you want to go for the whole strings thing, why not hire someone like the band Apocalyptica, who with cellos alone can be very terrifying.

I digress. Perhaps it's because there isn't really much else to say about Devil bar my aeon's old argument about the fact that I feel that not enough effort was put into the film. Besides some outstanding elements, it is pretty nuts-and-bolts, and a case of another group of film-makers writing the film whilst re-enacting that ubiquitous painting of the dogs playing poker: it is film-making that comes across, bar Tak Fujimoto's genuinely inventive photography, as lazy and a wasted effort. This trend of factory assembly line films coming from Hollywood, a former haven of cutting-edge inventiveness for the film industry now limited to the rare studios such as Pixar, must stop, and I believe it will stop, because Hollywood will sooner or later wake up to the fact that we, the audience, demand more for our buck: if cinema prices are going up, we should expect nothing less from the industry than a quality of films that parallel these prices.

So, Devil? It is a film that is not without its flaws, not least Brian Nelson's script, which outside of the lift, really falters and affects a number of different aspects of the film, a poor score and the assembly-line mentality that prevails throughout. However, the action, acting wise and script-wise in the lift is really great and we are given the pleasure of some really great cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, so Devil is certainly worth at least one viewing, and is definitely better than Shyamalan's recent offerings.

The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 6.1/10

The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis - Underwhelmed

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