Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jem and the Holograms

Director: John M. Chu
Starring: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau, Juliette Lewis, Ryan Guzman, Molly Ringwald, Nathan Moore, Barnaby Carpenter, Ryan Hansen
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When envisioning a big screen adaptation of 80's cartoon and Hasbro toy line, Jem and the Holograms, it's unlikely anyone expected to see this. Or if box office is any indication, possibly never see, as it barely recouped its $5 million budget on route to becoming one of the biggest financial flops of 2015. The undereported story is just how insane and ambitious it is, admirably, if misguidingly, attempting to appeal to two entirely different audiences that couldn't be further apart on the moviegoing spectrum.

While small in number, fans of the original show (with which I'm only mildly familiar), now in their 30's and 40's have no reason to see this unless its a painstakingly faithful interpretation of what they grew up on. And yet there's this entire segment of the female teen demographic too young to even know of it who also needs catering to. On top of that, you have to also make a good film from a fairly ridiculous material that definitely doesn't lend itself to the big screen treatment at a budget that low.It's important to get that out the way because those circumstances heavily inform the fascinatingly flawed end result.

As an adaptation of the cult cartoon, it's a failure, if we're assuming the goal of a successful adaptation is to remain true to the source material and service its fans. But as a standalone film, its kind of intriguing how (for a while at least), the property is taken dead seriously, and why as a filmgoing culture, we take issue with that unless your name is Christopher Nolan. Using that criteria, the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises were more of a bastardization of the original material than this because of the silliness and constant winking at the audience. Well, that, and they're terrible. And as a fan of both in my youth, it's easy to imagine how Jem fans feel knowing the movie in their heads never materialized because its creators insisted on a "reinterpretation" for current audiences that sucked the spirit from the original. But let's be honest: a big budgeted Jem movie loaded with mindless CGI action could have actually earned all the vitriol this received. So at least be glad they didn't go there.

Chu's version has serious issues, but many of them are reined in by the fact that it's low-budget indie that feels like one. With its documentary-style approach, ruminations on fame and identity and its incorporation and examination of social media, the movie has its moments, a few of them strangely moving. Its closest cousin in tv-to-film adaptation just might be Michael Mann's disappointing reboot of his own Miami Vice. Like that, this abandons all semblance of its inspiration in favor of sometimes causing exhausting bouts of narrative boredom. And also like that film, its beautiful to look at, with cinematographer Alice Brooks making the absolute most of what she's given while the costume design will come close to matching what fans had in their heads.

Where Jem veers of course is in its predictably desperate attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience of teen girls who likely have no interest in it. Had it truly committed to the tone of its material in the first half and plowed straight through without blinking, this could have been a far different conversation. It would have also made even less money, if that's possible. But this isn't disposable, manufactured junk, and while it's fun to kick a movie while its down, I'd at least prefer it be one with no artistic ambition whatsoever. This contains worthwhile ideas, as woefully executed as they may occasionally be.

Shy teen Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), and her younger, biological sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) are living in San Bernardino Valley, California with their Aunt Bailey and foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). With the family about to be evicted from their house, Jerrica and Kimber are still trying to process the death of their scientist father, whom we glimpse in home movie flashbacks with his final invention, a small robot called Synergy. To cope, Jerrica pours her heart out in song, belting out acoustic ballads in her bedroom late at night. But when the social media obsessed Kimber uploads one of those performances onto the internet, chaos ensues, with Jerrica's singing alter ego "Jem" becoming a viral sensation that catches the attention of coldy ambitious Starlight Enterprises CEO Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), who wants her on her label.

Desperately wanting Jem on her label, Erica reluctantly agrees to a package deal that would include Jerrica's sisters as her backing band. So it's off to L.A. where the girls will undergo training to launch their massive transformation into worldwide pop stars with Starlight employee Rio (Ryan Guzman) acting as their chaperone. But after originally singing to escape, Jerrica's suddenly facing an identity crisis in the midst of such attention, eventually finding herself torn between fame and family.

The movie opens in a documentary-style not unlike a found footage film and features some really good handheld camera work that takes us into these girls' lives and gives us a feel for their personalities. All of it seems surprisingly realistic, and Ryan Landels' script at least seems plugged in to what it's like for this age group to be living their lives online, cleverly incorporating actual viral videos into the narrative at inspired moments. While many of these choices could have easily been made for budgetary reasons, it fits the material and tone Chu's going for, even as little as it relates to the original property he's adapting.

There's no mistaking the intention was to bring these characters and the story very much into the here and now. Unfortunately, the Jem video that Kimber uploads is indistinguishable from the millions of others posted everyday from aspiring singers all over the world, making the resulting windfall of sudden attention seem a bit silly. She has a good voice, so how hard could it have been to pick a song that wasn't completely forgettable?

More memorable is the entrance of a scenery-chewing Juliette Lewis's Erica Raymond, who takes what has been a fairly straightforward, even occasionally touching depiction of orphan lives, a caring aunt struggling to make ends meet and a deceased parent, and appears to move this more toward what fans expected (hoped?) to see from a Jem movie. The handheld camera work stops exactly when Erica flies to the girls out to L.A. to be taken under wing and makes them abandon all social media. This transition is a small, but important detail that's gone overlooked, proving this does contain ideas, if not necessarily ones fans of the cartoon could ever get on board with.

The expectation at this point is that the film seems destined to evolve into some kind of music industry satire in the vain of 2001's surprisingly subversive Josie and the Pussycats feature. Instead, it actually gets gloomier and more serious with much time spent on Jerrica's identity crisis, as the very persona she cultivated to hide is suddenly the most famous singer in the world. The line the screenplay attempts to draw between the two is so thick it's tempting to draw comparisons to something like Supergirl, until remembering this is neither a superhero or action movie and the closest we get to fantasy is a complicated scavenger hunt involving the Synergy robot (which eerily resembles EVE from WALL-E).

For a project even very loosely based on a cartoon, it's still it's kind of remarkable just how moody and angsty it gets. There's a lot of soul searching from Jerrica, dragging the film to 118 minutes for the purpose of bludgeoning viewers over the head with a simplistic message of female empowerment that turns this into the cotton candy convection we initially feared it could be with the director of Justin Beiber: Never Say Never at the helm. And that's too bad because even in the midst of this nonsense are some genuine flashes of inspiration, like the band's improvisation during a blackout performance or Jem's comical encounter with an overzealous security guard.

Even the developing romance between her and Rio isn't pushed down our throats, paying off with believable restraint, which in all fairness probably has more to do with the studio's desire to maintain a PG rating than screenwriting nuance. And they picked the right actress to play Jem, as Nashville's Aubrey Peeples (giving off vibes that land somewhere between Kristen Stewart and Zooey Deschanel) is not only pretty and talented, but has the pipes necessary to deliver on stage as Jerrica's alter ego. We're left with the impression she would have worked in any incarnation of a Jem movie that got released and comes out of this better than many others would. When Jerrica finally completes and accepts her complete transformation into full-fledged pop star, Ziggy Stardust face paint and all, Peeples even seems to look the part, which could only add to the frustration of hardcore fans wishing they got a different film. 

The rest of the girls make their strongest impressions in that opening half hour before literally and figuratively surrendering the spotlight to Peeples. Stefanie Scott follows not so closely behind in screen impact, with Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko eventually relegated to background players. That's kind of disappointing considering how integral they seemed in the opening minutes.

Similarly, Molly Ringwald radiates such pure warmth and kindness in her few scenes as Aunt Bailey that it's hard not to wish more were also done with her. But she does have one fantastic encounter with the aforementioned Juliette Lewis, who digs in her heels to absolutely kill it in a bitchy role that was originally filled by a man in the original cartoon, or more specifically Guzman's character. I'm still unsure Lewis' performance even necessarily belongs in the movie we got so much as the one she wants it to be, but it's hard to argue against her being the most entertaining thing in it.

The music performed by the band is mainstream pop, and as far as that goes, it's catchy enough and better than expected. In a perfect world with little regard for commercial prospects, we may have gotten something that veered closer to rock or even punk (think The Runaways or Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), but that was never going to happen. If this was to be a complete reimagining that takes the characters into the current musical landscape, only pop would have accomplished that. It's unfortunate, but also underlines the inherent difficulties in updating retro material that needs to be aimed at two generations with such wildly disparate tastes. It's actually the film, more than Jerrica, suffering from the identity crisis, eventually falling on the side of teen empowerment when the preceding hour suggested more serious potential. 

It speaks volumes that that fans and critics all seem to be in agreement that the best scene comes during the end credits. Not because they're right, but because it's systematic of the Marvelization of pop culture, in which movies have become "franchises" and "universes" littered with easter eggs and commercials for  sequels imbedded into the narrative. It might be the only scene that pays direct homage to the original material in a way any disgruntled fan could get behind. In other words, it's pure fan service and nothing more. The movie they "wanted to see" and never will. And there's a really good chance that would have been awful.

This somewhat misguided project has enough problems that I can't comfortably recommend it with a straight face, but at least they're understandable ones given the scope. And that's coming from someone with no dog in the fight, watching primarily to discover if it deserves its designation as worst of the year for reasons other than losing a lot of money. It doesn't. If anything, Jem and the Holograms is a case study demonstrating the perils and pitfalls of crafting an entire film as setup and origin story. But at times it also highlights the strengths of such an approach, culminating in one of the few near-misses worth seeing just to say you did. 

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