Friday, October 23, 2015


(US - 2015)

An absolutely atrocious EXORCIST ripoff, THE VATICAN TAPES was directed by Mark Neveldine, best known as half of Neveldine/Taylor, the duo behind the brilliant and insane CRANK (2006). Unfortunately, they've made nothing but unwatchable garbage since (CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE)  and in stepping out for his debut solo joint, Neveldine just has nothing to say and only succeeds in further proving CRANK was a fluke. How many more of these generic, PG-13 possession movies do we need? It's been 42 years since THE EXORCIST--anyone making a demonic possession movie has to realize they have nothing new to bring to the table, right? With the pointless THE VATICAN TAPES, we just get more of the same, only dumber: attractive young woman (Olivia Taylor Dudley as Angela) gets possessed by a demon after accidentally cutting her finger. As her erratic behavior increases--vomiting; speaking an archaic language she couldn't possibly know; trying to drown a baby in the maternity ward; willing a detective to smash light bulbs into his eyes--she's discharged by the hospital shrink (Kathleen Robertson) into the care of a priest (Michael Pena) who appeals to the church higher-ups until a cardinal (Peter Andersson) who, natch, is some kind of legendary possession whisperer, is dispatched from Vatican City. In between all that, there's lots of mandatory found footage snippets (with a bunch of footage the Vatican couldn't possibly have on file), as the framing story of the film has a vicar (Djimon Hounsou) watching the already-occurred events on what must be the Vatican's top secret "Exorcism's Greatest Hits" YouTube channel.

THE VATICAN TAPES is shameful in the way it wastes overqualified actors: I expect to find Dougray Scott scowling as Angela's overprotective military dad and Michael Pare slouching as a detective, but why is two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou slumming through this, completely wasted in such a frivolous, nothing supporting role that anyone could've played? Why is Pena prominently billed but stepping aside while Andersson's Cardinal does all the exorcising? Swedish actor Andersson, with his unusual screen presence and strange performance (he looks like a shaven-headed David Gilmour and practically growls his dialogue like Christian Bale doing his Batman voice), is the only remotely interesting element of this otherwise miserable waste of time, unless you count an absurd scene where Angela vomits three whole eggs ("The Holy Trinity!" the Cardinal gravely declares) in a moment more reminiscent of AIRPLANE! than THE EXORCIST. It's insultingly bad, and might even be worse than THE DEVIL INSIDE and THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. Lionsgate knew they had a turd on their hands--they shuffled this off to their Pantelion division, specializing in films aimed at Latino audiences, and only released it on 420 screens. There's nothing here specifically geared toward Latino moviegoers (or any moviegoers, for that matter), unless you count the presence of Pena, and if that was their only justification for slapping the Pantelion logo on this, then the level of audience contempt is just off the charts. Fuck this movie. (PG-13, 91 mins)

(US/Switzerland/Iceland - 2015)

Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a confused adaptation of the 1974 sci-fi novel by Robert C. O'Brien, whose Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was made into the 1982 animated film THE SECRET OF NIMH. Director Craig Zobel (COMPLIANCE) and screenwriter Nissar Modi take so many liberties with O'Brien's novel--for no real reason--that by the end, you'll wonder why they even bothered. The novel centered on two characters: Ann Burden and John Loomis, the apparent sole survivors of a nuclear disaster. The film starts out the same way, with Ann (Margot Robbie) encountering John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) exploring near her farm in a contamination suit. Ann's farm rests in a deep valley that somehow managed to avoid radioactive contamination. John is a chemist who was working in an underground science lab. Ann welcomes John into her home and for a while, the two live a life of platonic domesticity, fishing, farming, and surviving. Things get complicated when Ann makes romantic overtures and a hesitant John is afraid of ruining what they have, instead holding her and telling her they've got plenty of time to take that next step. Zobel and Modi have already dramatically strayed from the novel: Robbie's Ann is about a decade older than the 15-16-year-old girl O'Brien created, and in the book, it's John who makes mostly unwelcome advances on the underage girl, leading to tension for the duration of the story that escalates into violence by the end. At the point where John tells her they should wait, the filmmakers complicate things in the most cliched way imaginable with the mid-film introduction of Caleb (Chris Pine), a character completely invented by the filmmakers. The presence of Caleb immediately creates a standard-issue love triangle, made even more hackneyed by the racial element that didn't exist in the novel because John was white and is now being played by a black actor, with Ejiofor's John even making a snide comment to Ann about her now having a white guy in her life.

If this sounds familiar, that's because instead of an adaptation of O'Brien's novel, Zobel and Modi seem to have just gone ahead and made a rural farmland remake of the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, where an abandoned NYC is inhabited by two survivors--black Harry Belafonte and white Inger Stevens--whose peaceful existence is complicated by the arrival of a third, an erudite and vaguely bigoted white guy played by Mel Ferrer. They don't even bother to explain the novel's meaning of the title Z FOR ZACHARIAH. The actors bring their A-games: Ejiofor and Robbie are very good and even with the earlier deviations from the book, things are working because they work so well together. Through it's not his fault, the film skids into a ditch when Pine's Caleb shows up and whatever is left of O'Brien's story basically gets tossed so he and John can glower at each other over who's going to get in Ann's pants first. Shot in New Zealand and West Virginia, Z FOR ZACHARIAH looks great, but nobody seemed to have any idea what direction to head in with this thing, rendering the entire project pointless. (PG-13, 98 mins)

(US - 2015)

The 2010 remake of Meir Zarchi's 1977 grindhouse rape/revenge cult classic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was surprisingly not terrible, brutal as hell and one of the relatively better torture porn outings, with a committed, ferocious performance by Sarah Butler as a young woman who's gang-raped and, to put it mildly, goes medieval on the asses of the men responsible. One wouldn't think it would spawn a franchise but then, 2013's terrible I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 was really just another remake, minus Butler, with the setting moved to Bulgaria and with Jemma Dallender as another victim of gang-rape who turns the tables on her attackers. Butler returns for this third installment, which ignores the second film and functions as a direct sequel to the first. Here, Jennifer (Butler) is now calling herself Angela and is in regular sessions with her therapist (Harley Jane Kozak sighting, and she's a long way away from PARENTHOOD and ARACHNOPHOBIA) and attending a weekly rape victims support group. She still encounters creeps everywhere she goes (even a homeless guy grunts "Nice tits" as she gives him some spare change) and is so stand-offish that her co-workers think she's a bitch. She finally befriends group member Marla (Jennifer Landon, Michael's daughter)--whose grating behavior has to be a nod to Helena Bonham Carter's Marla in FIGHT CLUB--only to lose her when she's killed by her crazy ex-boyfriend, who's set free due to lack of evidence. This sets off Jennifer/Angela's vigilante within, and she becomes an angel of vengeance, getting rid of all the male pigs that have caused so much pain and anguish in the group. Of course, hapless SVU detective McDylan (Gabriel Hogan) and hard-nosed homicide investigator Boyle (Michelle Hurd, a long way from the first season of LAW & ORDER: SVU) don't take long to figure out that Angela is a prime suspect, along with the bitter, frothing-at-the-mouth Oscar (Doug McKeon, a long way from ON GOLDEN POND), the lone male in the support group, there to find closure over the suicide of his teenage daughter, a victim who lost her will to live when her rapist got off on a technicality.

Though the reveal isn't handled very well, there's actually a fairly interesting third act plot twist that's telegraphed in distracting ways but probably looked great on paper. Even if director R.D. Braunstein and first-time screenwriter Daniel Gilboy didn't botch their admittedly ambitious whopper in the finale, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE III would still be a pretty dumb movie. The deck is completely stacked, with every human being with a penis a leering, salivating threat. Every cop is an idiot, the legal system is useless, Jennifer/Angela's character arc is a tired cliche, and Butler, so strong playing it straight in the first film, just goes for a grinning, crazy-eyes approach here and comes off as cartoonish, especially when she starts busting out the Freddy Krueger one-liners, like quipping "Just the tip!" when she spits out the bitten-off head of a guy's cock after starting to suck him off, slicing it in the middle and opening it up like she's peeling a banana with both hands; or "You don't deserve the lubricant but it won't go in otherwise" as she's about to shove a long pipe with a daunting circumference up the ass of a man regularly molesting his stepdaughter. Looking at her performances in the first and third films, it's obvious Butler's a strong heroine when playing tough and pissed-off, but she doesn't do nearly as good a job going over-the-top crazy. It's completely skippable, especially since the two big splatter moments (the "just the tip" bit is so graphically over-the-top and so instant-NC-17-worthy that it's actually funny) are likely to become YouTube favorites rather quickly. (Unrated, 91 mins)

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