In Theaters: January 9, 2009

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    Be afraid.  Be very afraid of The Unborn.  Because it sucks.

    The Unborn
    Directed by David S. Goyer
    Starring Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good
    *

    As a film critic, my job is to review the movie and not the audience watching the movie, but I couldn’t help but notice how drastically the crowd’s reaction shifted during the 96 minutes it took to get to the end of The Unborn, 2009’s first big horror release.  When the lights went down, applause and cheers could actually be heard from the packed theater, which was filled with folks ready for some good scares.  That jovial mood continued through the film’s early scenes, which offered a few solid “gotcha” moments and one or two creepy images.  But as The Unborn went on, mocking laughter started to drown out the scattered shrieks.  Eventually, even the laughter died out and the audience sat in stone silence as this train wreck of a movie careened towards its finale, crashing and burning in a giant CGI-enhanced fireball.  On my way out of the theater, I overheard a few boos, lots of groans and a random “What the fuck was that?”  Come to think of it, that might have been me…

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    I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that The Unborn stank up the room as badly as it did.  After all, it’s become a tradition for Hollywood to dump an awful horror movie into theaters the first weekend of every year.  In 2008 it was One Missed Call, the year before that it was Code Name: The Cleaner (okay, that technically wasn’t a horror movie, but it was frighteningly bad) and two years ago came the one-two punch of Hostel and BloodRayne.  But I still held out a small sliver of hope for this one, mainly because it was written and directed by David S. Goyer, who knows his way around genre pictures.  His resume includes the scripts for all three Blade movies (he also directed the final installment in that franchise, Blade: Trinity), story credit on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and he’s also attached to pen two in-development comic-book pictures, X-Men Origins: Magneto and The Flash.  Of course, superhero sagas require a different skill set that horror movies and Goyer’s track record in the latter area—director of the blink-and-you-missed-it 2007 release The Invisible and writer of such direct to video fare as Demonic Toys and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys—hasn’t been as impressive.  In fact, here’s how I’m imagining the pitch session for The Unborn went down.

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    Scene: A beautifully decorated office on a Hollywood studio lot.
    Suit #1: So David, congrats on the success of The Dark Knight.  I know you didn’t actually write the script or anything, but your name is in the credits and the movie made $500 million, so we want to be in business with you.  What do you want to do next?

    Suit #2: Any chance you wanna write and direct another superhero movie?  We just picked up the rights to Steel and Shaq is eager to get back into the acting game…

    Goyer: Thanks guys, but I’ve got too much capes-and-tights stuff on my plate already.  But I’ve got a killer idea for a horror flick.  The Exorcist was playing in the background last night while I was editing my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah video and it hit me: I wanna remake The Exorcist…but with a rabbi!

    Suit #1: Huh…a Jewish Exorcist?  I dunno Dave—do Jews even do exorcisms?

    Goyer: Who cares?  It’s not like I’m actually going to do any research anyway.  But think of all the freaky shit I can get the demon to do.  It can twist its head upside down and walk like a spider…

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    Suit #2: Like The Exorcist.

    Goyer: It can inhabit the body of a spooky little boy.

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    Suit #1: Like The Grudge and every other Japanese horror movie ever made.

    Goyer: And it was created during the Holocaust!

    Dead Silence

    Goyer: What?  Schindler’s List won a freakin’ Best Picture Oscar!

    Suit #1: Well Dave, at least you’re stealing from the best.  Who plays the lead?

    Goyer: I’m thinking Megan Fox.

    Suit #2: Forget it.  She’s B-list now thanks to Transformers.  Pick a Megan Fox-clone from the C-list.

    Goyer: How about that Cloverfield chick Odette Yustman?

    Suit #1: Who was she in Cloverfield?  The annoying chick that exploded, the annoying chick that got on the helicopter or the annoying chick stuck in the apartment building?

    Goyer: The annoying chick in the apartment.

    Suit #2: Oh yeah, she does look exactly like Megan Fox.  You’ve written in lots of panty shots, right?

    Goyer: Don’t worry—this flick will have maximum pantyage.

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    Suit #1: Well, we’re sold.  Here’s $30 million.  See you in January!

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    Still dying to know more?  Okay, here’s the plot rundown.  Casey (Yustman) is suffering from a series of bad nightmares filled with freaky creatures, like a dog with its head upside down.  As if that’s not bad enough, these horrific visions are starting to appear to her during the day as well.  After doing a little light reading on the subject (specifically a rare book of Jewish mysticism that she swipes from the library) she heads straight to a rabbi (Gary Oldman) and demands an exorcism.  The poor guy declines at first, but after his synagogue—which looks suspiciously like a recital hall, by the way—is visited by a demon, he decides this crazy girl might not be so crazy after all.  Meanwhile, Casey discovers that all of these bad vibes are emanating from the vengeful spirit of a great uncle she never knew she had, one who perished as a small child during the Holocaust at the hands of Nazi scientists.  Ever since his death, he’s been hanging around waiting to re-enter the world through another body.  Originally his target was Casey’s twin brother, but that plan went to shit when the boy died in the womb.  Now this ghost has another opportunity to be re-born, but only if he’s able to stop Casey’s planned exorcism from going forward.

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    You know, using the Holocaust as the basis for a horror movie is pretty distasteful, but what offended me the most about The Unborn is how sloppy it is.  Even though it’s only the first week of 2009, I’ll be surprised if I hear a more cringe-inducing line of dialogue than “It’s up to you to finish what began at Auschwitz” by December 31.  Goyer also shows that he learned all of the worst lessons from The Exorcist, going overboard on demonic special effects instead of building a palpable atmosphere of tension and fear.    And while Yustman definitely rocks the panty shots, she’s hopeless as an actress.  Of course, her peers don’t fare any better.  Playing Casey’s lunkheaded boyfriend clearly isn’t much of a stretch for Cam Gigandet and Meagan Good continues her lucrative career of being the sassy black girl who always dies before the credits roll.  As for Oldman and Idris Elba—another great character actor that got roped into this disaster—one can only hope that their generous paychecks allowed them to buy that summer vacation house they’ve always dreamed of.

    Verdict: Skip It

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    Also In Theaters: Catch-Up Edition

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    Doubt
    Directed by John Patrick Shanley
    Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

    ****

    Almost two decades after his filmmaking debut Joe Vs. the Volcano crashed and burned at the box office, John Patrick Shanley gets a second chance behind the camera, adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the big screen.  On stage, Doubt, which tells the story of a nun (played here by Streep) who becomes obsessed with proving that her church’s priest (Hoffman) molested a young boy, was an effective chamber piece that almost felt like an episode of Law & Order: Papal Victims Unit.  For the movie version, Shanley has opened up the action a great deal, but does so without losing the intimacy of his theater piece.  One of the things the writer/director does extraordinarily well is show how exactly this church operates.  In fact, the first twenty minutes or so offer an almost a real-time chronicle of a typical day in the lives of the nuns and the priest, who pull double duty as both religious leaders and teachers in this community—the Bronx circa the late ’50s.  Once the “crime” is uncovered (or is it?), the film returns to its claustrophobic roots, trapping viewers inside a series of small rooms as Hoffman and Streep square off.  Their scenes together are worth the price of admission alone, but Doubt is more than just an actor’s showcase: it’s also a potent (if a little too pointed) thesis about the titular noun.  If you walk out of the theater still not certain you know what happened, then you’re feeling exactly what Shanley wants you to feel.

    Verdict: See It

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    Valkyrie
    Directed by Bryan Singer
    Starring Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy
    ***

    A Hollywood-ized version of an important chapter of World War II, Valkyrie is mostly useless as history, but works quite well as a thriller.  Based on the exploits of German soldier Colonel von Stauffenberg (played improbably by Cruise), who helped organize and carry out a top-secret plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, the movie offers a tense minute-by-minute account of how close that mission came to succeeding.  Before you get to that point though, you have to slog through 30 minutes of dull exposition punctuated by shots of Cruise striking various movie star poses in a fruitless attempt to portray von Stauffenberg’s internal conflict.  But then the assassination plan goes into effect and Valkyrie finds its footing.  It helps that Cruise recedes into the background at that point, allowing the excellent supporting cast—which includes Wilkinson, Nighy, Eddie Izzard and Thomas Kretschmann—to take center stage.  In its best moments, Valkyrie actually makes you forget that you already know the ending to this drama—namely that Hitler survived and the insurrection was crushed.  Still, I have to agree with those critics who have pointed out that the film never really explores the motivations of the men that organized this plot.  Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie would like us to believe that they hatched the plan for patriotic reasons, but they never answer the million-dollar question: if these men really did put country first, why didn’t they stand up to Hitler sooner?

    Verdict: Rent It

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    <br />

    The Wrestler
    Directed by Darren Aronofsky
    Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
    ***

    The Wrestler is first and foremost an exercise in career rehabilitation for its star and its director, both of whom burst onto the scene to great acclaim, but saw their careers nosedive thanks to self-indulgence.  It’s no surprise that Rourke and Aronofsky use The Wrestler as a back-to-basics boot camp. The film’s visual style is raw and stripped-down, lacking any of the beautifully stylized cinematography seen in Aronofsky’s last film The Fountain.   Rourke’s performance–to say nothing of his physical appearance–is similarly glamour free.  The actor is subjected to dozens of emotional and physical blows throughout the film and one gets the sense that he’s enjoying taking the pain as much as Aronofsky is enjoying dishing it out from behind the camera.  From a plot standpoint, The Wrestler bears a passing resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s final Rocky flick.  As in that movie, an over-the-hill fighter is given one last shot at the big time, while also trying to patch up his relationship with an estranged child (played here by Wood). There’s also a flicker of possible romance in each film; Rocky struck up a friendship with a local barmaid while Rourke is drawn to a stripper (Tomei) at a seedy New Jersey dive.  Cleary, The Wrestler isn’t going to win points for originality, but it’s a solid, sturdy melodrama that tells its familiar story well.  It is a shame that Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel are unable to flesh out the female characters. Both Wood and Tomei do the best they can in those roles, but they’re saddled with the film’s worst clichés.  Fortunately, they’re also the two people in this movie whose careers don’t require rehab.

    Verdict: See It

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