10-21-97: The Devil’s Advocate

This Week at the Movies

The Aisle Seat, by Andy Dursin

Two weeks of smaller-scale, though not necessarily smaller-minded, studio pictures get released before the Holiday season shifts into high gear with STARSHIP TROOPERS on November 7th. This week we get the science-fiction picture GATTACA, with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, plus Danny Boyle’s A LIFE LESS ORDINARY, a supposedly whacked-out comedy-thriller that Boyle decided to do instead of ALIEN-RESURRECTION. I can’t comment on the former (some of the early reviews have liked it, though it apparently moves at a snail’s pace), but I can say that word-of-mouth is decidedly not positive on the latter. I’m more interested in next week’s Richard Gere- is-unjustly-accused-of-murder-in-China thriller, RED CORNER, so it may be a stay-at-home weekend for yours truly. Oh wait! I didn’t see I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and hey, it made $16 million, so that’s obviously where the college girls are. I’ll report back on that one next week…same on-line time, same on-line channel.


If you’ve watched one second of the World Series, then you surely know that Halloween weekend brings HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN 1997 to television sets everywhere on NBC. This weekend, ABC gets into the act of making warmed-over genre retreads with THE DEVIL’S CHILD (10/26, 9pm). You can almost hear the voice over now… “Tonight, NYPD BLUE’s Kim Delaney has a problem. A REAL problem. She’s made a pact with the man from down under, and it’s eeeeevil. THE DEVIL’S CHILD. The ABC Sunday Night Movie….next! Parental discretion advised.” If it’s anything like this past weekend’s hilarious Kristy Swanson laughfest BAD TO THE BONE, I’d say it’ll almost be worth throwing a tape in for.

ABC must really be feeling the rating points tumble on Thursday nights, as they’ve pulled their controversial “Nothing Sacred” show for the Network Premiere of John Carpenter’s box-office dud VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (10/23, 8pm). Even though this will obviously not be letterboxed (a key ingredient in enjoying any of the director’s films), it’s worth a look if you missed it, since it sports a seriously strong performance by Christopher Reeve (just prior to his tragic accident), and marks Carpenter’s first watchable production since BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA in 1986. If Game 5 of the World Series is snowed out, you may just want to click on over.

In other Halloween-related programming, CBS is showing IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN this year–on Halloween night itself at 8pm. And don’t forget, the “expanded version” of cult fave ARMY OF DARKNESS gets rebroadcast twice on USA this weekend, Friday night (10/24, 11pm), and Saturday afternoon (10/25, 4pm), with the latter probably (and thankfully) NOT featuring Gilbert Gottfried.


THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (***): Taylor Hackford’s wildly uneven cinematic tale of the Devil dabbling in the legal system features several things I never thought I would ever see at the movies–first and foremost being a credible performance by Keanu Reeves, who proves he can give a strong dramatic turn without resorting to Valleyspeak. Al Pacino, as Old Scratch himself, is dynamic and predictably flamboyant, tempting Keanu’s knockout wife Charlize Theron one moment, and suckering Keanu in a complicated murder case involving Craig T.Nelson the next. Clearly, there is something to be said for a 145 minute supernatural courtroom horror movie featuring a bevy of topless women, mutating demons, and a barrage of climatic special effects, though THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE is almost as guilty in committing a few cinematic sins as it is in entertaining the audience. The big problem is that the movie’s tone meanders all over the map, from pulpy horror to believable psychological melodrama, shifting gears rather abruptly in spots without properly setting the table for those changes. Pacino’s scenes are the best in the picture, perhaps not surprising since screenwriter Tony Gilroy was brought in to clean up the ending, and redo some of the actor’s lengthier monologues. Unfortunately, it also seems as if Gilroy didn’t touch up the often draggy midsection of the picture, where there’s much unnecessary plot exposition, the kind of deadly, bloated set-up material that provokes the old, “oh, just get on with it!” response from viewers. As proof that the filmmakers weren’t entirely clear what direction the film was heading, large chunks of the movie also seem to have been cut out, as characters are introduced and then disappear completely out of the film! It’s a shame Gilroy and Hackford didn’t polish off the main storyline (the murder case is a real drag, as is Theron’s descent into madness), since the movie does get its act together at the end with brilliant work by Pacino, culminating in a zinger of an ending that suggests the whole story is an allegory for the lawyer’s struggle with his own conscience. It’s a sophisticated, witty finish to a handsome, off-the-wall, though never consistently rendered supernatural tale. Nevertheless, seeing that Halloween is just over a week away, it’s still worth seeing for the strong lead performances, some devilishly clever dialogue, elaborate sets, widescreen cinematography (Hackford is becoming a master at that), and a nightmarish tone that is genuinely unsettling from start to finish. Extra kudos go out to James Newton Howard’s superbly effective score, one of the best non-Williams works of 1997 without a doubt. [R]