Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Generation X (1996)

Over the years, thousands of characters have appeared in the books published by Marvel Comics. Few, however, have been able to match the success of the X-Men. It took a little while for them to take off following their creation in 1963, but since then they've developed into one of Marvel's biggest cash cows, with no less than six comics related to the X-Men currently being published.

And it's no secret that they've seen success in pop culture beyond comics too. The most obvious is the five movies produced by 20th Century Fox, but the X-Men have also been adapted into video games, toys, and cartoons. People forget, however, that there was almost a live-action television show based on the X-Men. The massive boost in popularity that the X-Men enjoyed during the '90s (which was probably due to that awesome Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1992 to 1997) led Fox to try their hand at a live-action X-Men TV show.

Rather than the X-Men at large, the show would instead focus on the "Generation X" spinoff created by writer Scott Lobdell and artist Chris Bachalo during the "Phalanx Covenant" storyline that ran in the X-Men books during 1994. The comics' version of the team was popular enough that their book would run for 75 issues between 1994 and 2001, but the show would not do as well. It began simply enough, as a made-for-TV movie that aired on Fox on February 20, 1996. But the ratings for the movie were so bad that plans for the show were dropped. And after seeing how awful the movie was, maybe the show not taking off was for the best.

Generation X takes us to a world where, much like every other depiction of the X-Men, humanity is split into two classes. There are the normal human beings, and those born with a genetic anomaly that grants them a particular superpower. These "mutants" are feared by the general public, loathed and shunned by a society that doesn't understand them.

Some of these mutants eventually find their way to the Xavier Institute for the Gifted, a very selective private school where teenage mutants can learn to use and control their developing mutations. As the movie begins, the Institute's headmasters — powerful telepath Emma Frost (Finola Hughes) and Sean "Banshee" Cassidy (Jeremy Ratchford), who possesses an intense "sonic scream" — have recruited Jubilation "Jubilee" Lee (Heather McComb) and Angelo Espinoso (Austin Rodriguez) into the school's ranks.

As Jubilee and Angelo grow accustomed to their new surroundings and acquainted with their classmates, an enemy soon presents himself. Five years earlier, Emma worked with a mad scientist named Russel Tresh (Matt Frewer). She'd had him fired from a prestigious institute because of his unethical experiments on mutants, and he's spent the intervening time swearing revenge. In those five years, he's developed a machine that allows him to enter someone's dreams and leave subliminal commands. It starts innocuously enough, with Tresh using his machine to get kids to play more Virtua Fighter at an arcade. But being a mad scientist, his sanity quickly slips away and world conquest starts looking like a pretty good idea. When he discovers that Emma is teaching a class of mutants, Tresh decides to use that to his advantage and use her students to perfect his machine.

If anything can be said about Generation X, it's that it most certainly fits the "mid-'90s action/fantasy TV for teenagers" mold seen in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's just so aggressively mediocre that it's no surprise it didn't get picked up as a series. Much like what would have happened if that Justice League of America pilot got turned into a series, it probably would have ran for six or seven episodes before getting cancelled or shuffled off into syndication, airing on local UHF channels after Saturday afternoons reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess.

Helming this dumb little pilot is Jack Sholder, whose directorial output has mostly been within the realm of the horror genre. And all I can think to say is that his work here is really, tremendously bad. The camera's always moving or sitting at some cockeyed Dutch angle, which gets really old really fast. You just want Sholder to stop trying to be hop and stop all the wannabe music video crap. And it doesn't make the movie any less boring, either. Yeah, it's dull as dishwater. I can forgive mediocrity, but I can't forgive being boring. While some of this can be blamed on the lackluster script, Sholder should take some of the blame as well. For all his tilted camera angles and neon-colored lighting, he doesn't do anything to inject any energy into the movie.

But like I said, the writing is just as bad as well. Penned by Eric Blakeney, the script is just boring and uninteresting. The characters are just plain hollow, while the plot is stupid and goes nowhere. It takes forever for the story to actually start rolling. We get nearly halfway into the movie before anything even remotely resembling a plot kicks in. And because of that, I found myself struggling to care about anything in this movie. There was only so much I could tolerate before I wanted to just give up and find something better to watch, like paint drying or grass growing.

And then there's the cast, many of whom are underutilized and nearly all of whom are forgettable. Finola Hughes plays Emma Frost as a typical '90s TV bitch. There's nothing impressive or special about her performance, and it feels like she was trying to audition for Melrose Place more than anything else. And if Jeremy Ratchford's Irish accent sounded any faker it would border on silly. Ratchford's not bad here, but that accent is so bad, so unconvincing that you can't take him seriously.

Austin Rodriguez is trying very hard, which I respect, but he ultimately falls flat. It's like they hired Taylor Lautner or something. Randall Slavin, on the other hand, spends more time looking like a cross between Billy Idol and Matthew Lillard's character from Hackers than he does actually acting. In regards to Heather McComb's performance as Jubilee, I just rolled my eyes every time she spoke. They couldn't have hired a better actress? Hell, they couldn't have hired a better cast? They probably would have actually replaced some of the actors had it become a series, but still, you couldn't find anyone better?

But if you're going to watch Generation X, watch it for Matt Frewer. His overacting is absolutely astounding. Imagine Robin Williams cranked up to eleven and covered in a fresh sheen of mid-'90s neon. You can actually hear his overacting in scenes he's not even in. He's a ton of fun, making him the one bright spot of this whole awful movie.

Did you think X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were the worst X-Men movies? Then you haven't seen Generation X. It's to the X-Men what The Star Wars Holiday Special was to Star Wars. The movie is 87 minutes of crap that simply isn't worth your time. That's probably why it has to get any sort of DVD release that I'm aware of. I had to download a bootleg from the Internet, and I still feel like I overpaid. So yeah, don't feel like you should be in any rush to check out Generation X. It isn't worth it.

Final Rating: *

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)

Much like zombie movies in recent years, "found footage" movies have basically become a dime a dozen. For every good one, there are a zillion crappy direct-to-video "found footage" movies made by some joker that managed to get his hands on a camera and some editing software. But there are some good ones out there. Take The Last Exorcism for example. The movie absolutely scared the crap out of me when it was released in 2010, which is why I got really excited when I heard that there was going to be a sequel. Unfortunately, I got my hopes up for nothing, because The Last Exorcism Part II is a tremendous letdown on all fronts.

The movie picks up not long after its predecessor's fiery conclusion, and Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) has somehow managed to survive and escape. Shell-shocked by what happened, she eventually finds her way to civilization and is rushed to a hospital. Nell is given a quick evaluation and sent to a halfway house for troubled young women in the heart of New Orleans. Her new surroundings spur Nell to try forging a new life for herself. She makes friends with the other girls in the halfway house, gets a job as a hotel maid, and even begins an innocent courtship with an equally shy coworker (Spencer Treat Clark). But Nell's crippling fear of the demonic entity that possessed her still lingers. Try as she may to put her old life behind her, that malevolent being refuses to be ignored and will stop at nothing to retake Nell.

I'm honestly unsure of where to begin. The truth of the matter is that The Last Exorcism Part II is such an all-around disappointment that not one thing is to blame for its failure to succeed. Instead, everything is to blame. Only one or two elements really manage to rise above the dreck that makes up the rest of the movie. It's dull and lifeless, with only the briefest amount of tension and the cheapest of scares. You really get the feeling that the filmmakers simply could not be bothered to care. The irony there is that there isn't much in the movie I cared about either.

Some of the blame should be saddled on the director, Canadian filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly. I've never heard of Gass-Donnelly before, and looking at his IMDB profile, I haven't heard of his previous work either. And if The Last Exorcism Part II is any indication, I'd probably be just as unimpressed with his other efforts. Gass-Donnelly is obviously trying as best he can, but outside of some great cinematography, he could have done a lot better. He occasionally builds some suspense but very rarely can sustain it, and the few actual scares to be had are all of the "cheap jump scare" variety. And even those are so few and far between and so cheap that it's like they were a complete afterthought. Nothing ever really pays off from one scene to the next, and up until the climax, the movie is just kinda monotonous. Say what you will about the first movie, but it at least tried to avoid being boring. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about this piece of crap. I actually spent most of the movie thinking up sarcastic jokes about the movie as if I were a cast member of Mystery Science Theater 3000. How sad is that?

Further dragging the movie down is its terrible script written by Gass-Donnelly and Damien Chazelle. Seriously, this script is friggin' awful. The story briefly mentions certain plot threads left over from the first movie before abandoning them as if it casn't be bothered to develop them any further. Like what happened to the Satanic cult from the end of the first movie? And what about Nell apparently giving birth to a demon baby? Things get oh so briefly brought up and then never referenced again. It leads me to think that maybe this was just some random direct-to-video exorcism movie that somehow ended up having the "Last Exorcism sequel" deal shoehorned into it. It's just a piss-poor excuse for a sequel in any regard.

But that's not the only thing wrong with the script. Every character with the exception of Nell is forgettable and uninteresting, and even if the whole movie focuses on one character, you'd think that Gass-Donnelly and Chazelle could have at least attempted to make them worth something too. The movie's climactic exorcism feels really forced too, like they crammed it in there to justify the whole "exorcism" part of the title without really building to it. The movie's just cruising along at its own pace and then some voodoo lady suddenly pops up and hijacks the third act of the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if much of the buildup (assuming it was there at all) was left on the cutting room floor to keep the movie under two hours. If it had been crafted a little differently, it might have turned out a little better. Instead, things just happen and we're supposed to roll with it.

And I mentioned previously that all the characters outside of Nell felt vestigial, but it turns out I can say the exact same thing about the cast. None of the supporting cast makes any sort of meaningful contribution to the movie, but then the movie isn't really about them either. The whole thing revolves around leading lady Ashley Bell, who ― much like she did in the first movie ― completely knocks it out of the park. Bell is a million times better than this movie deserves, as she approaches Nell in a way that makes the character sympathetic and likable. You want to root for her, to give her a big hug and tell her everything is going to be just fine. In a better movie, Bell would quite possibly be an award contender of some sort. She's that good, and I hope that this will help lead to her becoming a breakout star in the horror genre (or down a path greater than that). Even as this entire movie crumbles around her, Bell's performance is a shining light in a realm of darkness.

The decision to abandon the first movie's "found footage" approach and make this sequel a traditional movie was a brave one. Unfortunately, it turned out less like [•REC] 3 and more like Blair Witch 2. I'll give The Last Exorcism Part II credit for at least attempting something, but it falls flat regardless. One talented actress, some well-done cinematography, and a couple of creepy moments simply aren't enough to elevate the movie to the same plateau as its progenitor. And how telling is it that the best parts of the movie were the stock footage from the first movie and the theater I saw the movie at showing the trailers for World War Z and the remakes of Carrie and The Evil Dead? In any event, I would totally see a third Last Exorcism movie if I thought it would improve upon this one. But as it stands, you're better off sticking with just the first movie. Crazy ending or not, the original Last Exorcism is light years ahead of this one.

Final Rating: **