Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                         **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Some Plot Spoilers**
 
If conventional wisdom is to be believed,  the colossal cultural success of 1977's Star Wars permanently altered the cinematic landscape by ushering in the era of the blockbuster we're still living in today. For better or worse, every studio tried to duplicate it in some form or another without truly grasping the elements that initially made it work. Unfortunately, its biggest, most shameless imitator may have been George Lucas, whose uncompromising death grip on his own franchise caused him to eventually destroy it. It's a career trajectory that eerily resembles Darth Vader's, as a rebellious young man frustrated by the corporate machine rises to power, only to eventually evolve into the very thing he despises most. It's a parallel not lost on the filmmaker, who's even commented on it himself in various interviews. Anyone looking to pinpoint the source of today's movie industry woes needn't look further than the infamous prequels. They made it okay for overhyped films with expensive effects to rake in truckloads of money, regardless of quality.

Watching J.J. Abrams resuscitation of the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can't help but wonder what George Lucas must have been thinking while sitting in that theater during the premiere. He finally did the right thing by relinquishing the reins to Disney and in doing so freed up another filmmaker to give movie fans the experience they always wanted, but he stubbornly refused to deliver. And ironically, it's a movie so slavishly devoted to the original trilogy that it kind of cements his legacy once and for all, as difficult and complicated a legacy as it is.

It's far easier to root for Abrams, a skilled, if previously indistinct director who suddenly has to deliver the movie of his life in the clutch. And does he ever, by not only faithfully recreating the look and even recalling the plot of A New Hope, but triggering all the sensory feelings we had watching it. In fact, it's probably the closest we're ever going to get to seeing what a modern, shot-by-shot remake would look like without literally getting one. Some are calling it a retread. Others are saying it amounts to nothing more than fan service You can call it whatever you want but Abrams delivers exactly what's asked of him, doing right by a franchise that needed someone to step up and make smart choices.

In making the strongest, most satisfying installment since The Empire Strikes Back, Abrams follows through on his promise of more practical effects and a return to basic, character-driven storytelling. It's clear from the opening crawl that Abrams, a lifelong fan, is interested in blending the old and new, it's also the first time we can say a Star Wars movie some contains great performances. And not just great for a Star Wars movie. Providing pure, old school entertainment that greatly differs from the excessive emptiness of contemporary blockbusters, it wisely leaves us with more questions than answers, establishing a strong framework for the franchise to successfully move forward in the same awe-inspiring manner the original trilogy did.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and destruction of the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished and in his absence the First Order has risen from the remains of the fallen Empire. Led by the masked, Vader-worshipping Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), they seek to find and destroy Luke and topple the Republic. To do so, they'll have to obtain a map to Luke's whereabouts, located inside Resistance pilot Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac) droid, BB-8. But when Ren and his Stormtroopers destroy Poe's Jakku village and take him captive, the droid escapes, coming across scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the desert. Soon, she encounters Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper on the run whose conscience won't allow him to kill for the First Order. With Ren on their tail and desperately wanting possession of that map, they'll need help from some familiar faces to evade capture and hopefully discover the location of Luke Skywalker.

As much that goes on in this story, at its crux is something very simple that directly relates to the original trilogy, while still feeling like a very natural continuation of it. By centering the plot around the search for Luke a entirely new set of dramatic possibilities are introduced in a matter of minutes, letting us speculate on the events that happened post-Return of the Jedi that could have led to this. Just reading on the screen that Luke Skywalker has vanished  instantaneously invokes a reaction that harkens back to past, while effectively creating a scenario that lays the groundwork on which these next three films can be built.

The script (co-penned by Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) ingeniously presents Luke as almost a mythological figure, spoken about in hushed, muted tones by the newer characters who aren't quite sure whether he or The Force even exists. Hamill's mysterious absence from all print and commercial advertising for the film becomes clear very early on, as does the sound reasoning behind it. By hiding him for nearly the entire running time, Luke's importance grows to the point that his eventual appearance is practically transcendent. And it's all because of the journey taken to get there through Rey, Finn and BB-8.

Without giving too much away, there's hardly a moment in any scene that doesn't contain some kind of technical or narrative homage to the '77 film or its sequels, whether it be the scene transitions, John Williams' classic musical cues, a setting or even just sometimes a random character in the background Abrams took the time and effort to subtly squeeze in. And he doesn't digitally shoehorn them in for no reason, making sure their presence, no matter how large or small, makes sense within the context they appear. If extensive fan service is the worst problem this film has, we should all consider ourselves lucky since Abrams spares no expense in addressing the very real creative problems that torpedoed this franchise. It's great to see actual  land again, as well as real dirt. And real people instead of computerized trickery. It's unlikely that anyone thought we'd be seeing bloodshed of any kind, but that's just what we get in the opening minutes, upping the stakes considerably.

As familiar as many things are, it doesn't feel like a carbon copy because it serves to only enhance and underline what is new and original. It can't be stressed enough just how much the previously unknown Daisy Ridley is asked to shoulder as Rey, supplying the entire story with its beating heart and soul in a performance that can only be described as revelatory. As the scavenger unwittingly thrown into the battle between the First Order and the Republic, she's as essential as Luke was to the original, even if that comparison unfairly implies the character is in any way derivative. Tough and strong-willed but instantly likable and vulnerable, Ridley makes Rey so easy to pull for it's almost impossible to comprehend the results had another actress been cast.

Rey shares most of her screen time with a droid, as BB-8's importance and involvement in the action rivals that of any human character over the course of any of the previous six films.  Looking like a robotic soccer ball with a head and a winning personality to spare, it might be Abrams' most inventive creation, and a character completely on par with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. And about half-way through it occurred to me that if Artoo didn't appear at all I'd be okay with it since he's essentially been replaced. Though, it's hardly a spoiler to say he eventually shows up. It tougher to talk about Oscar Isaac's smaller role as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, but with minimal screen time, he slips right into the Star Wars universe, as natural a fit as any of the original players. 

The sarcastic humor and witty one-liners absent from the prequels are back, with much of it coming from John Boyega's Finn, whose backstory is only touched upon, but intriguing in the sense that we get to know the person behind a Stormtrooper mask. It's a luxury we've never been afforded, having long been depicted as nameless, faceless killing machines in previous installments. They still mostly are, but what happens when one of them can't kill or doesn't believe in what he's fighting for? It's a clever idea, with the bumbling Finn going from scene to scene constantly overwhelmed by every situation, until he can find his way, with Rey's help.

Boyega's strongest and funniest scenes are opposite Harrison Ford, who reappears as Han Solo as if no time has passed at all, slipping right back into the role that initially made the actor a household name. The character isn't dour or cranky, but the same smuggler and smooth liar we remember, with Abrams getting the absolute most out of Ford as Han that he can. You believe this is exactly where the character would be and it feels like a natural continuation of his story rather a nostalgic money grab. In other words, it's no Crystal Skull.

Abrams and company seem to have found the perfect balance between introducing new characters and using already existing ones to bolster their stories. This even extends to Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who has more to do here than ever, and the now General Leia Organa, whom Carrie Fisher plays with a more reserved, stately bent. Her scenes with Ford are an emotional highlight, even if it's hard to not wish there we got more of them. As for Hamill, he does appear, and while I'll withhold the details, it's pretty impressive how moving it is and the work that went into earning it. It's safe to say it actually may have worth waiting every one of those thirty years to get this moment.    

With only a few notable exceptions along the way, the acting was never a strong point in the original trilogy, while in the prequels it was often a flat-out embarrassment. Add Adam Driver to that list of exceptions as Kylo Ren, giving what's easily the most complete performance in the film. And as terrifying as he is under the mask, he's somehow even creepier after removing it. Having to follow Darth Vader isn't an easy task and at first glance it's easy to think this is merely a variation on that character,  but the more we learn about him, the deeper and more complex he gets. The script plays fast and loose with his identity, putting it all out there and letting Driver just go to town, having these moments that times make the character appear pitiful and sympathetic. And it works really well, leaving a lasting impact that should carry over into the next two films, and possibly beyond.

If forced to nitpick what's practically a flawless effort from Abrams, there are really only two issues. An Emperor-like, holographic GGI character called the Supreme Leader Snoke voiced by Andy Serkis in a performance that would be a far better fit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than this. It's especially out of place and jarring after the renewed commitment to more practical effects carried out so well throughout the rest of the film.

Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata is the more successful CGI, motion capture creation, even if I could do without them making characters like this a habit moving forward. It just brings back too many painful Jar Jar memories. On the plus side, at least Snoke's only a hologram and we're left with the feeling there could be more detailed explanation (excuse?) for his existence down the road. The more intriguing second-tier villain is Gwendoline Christie's Cobra Commander-like Captain Phasma, who we could easily stand to see more of. And given the choice, the first half of the film is slightly stronger than the second and a few of the longer action scenes could have probably been trimmed by a couple of minutes, but I'm admittedly grasping at straws here.       

At this point, anything written about The Force Awakens can't help but come off as a regurgitation since everyone who's seen it knows how good it is. It's a Star Wars movie to its core and skillfully sets the table for what's to follow. And as dark as this is, there's good reason to believe its sequel could be even darker given the director attached and what seems like Abrams' unwavering loyalty to the trajectory of the original trilogy. While I still believe releasing spin-off movies during off years is a terrible idea that overexposes the brand, there are few prospects more exciting than seeing a Rian Johnson-directed sequel to this film with Mark Hamill in an expanded role.

After envisioning for years what a follow-up to Return of the Jedi would look like, it's safe to say what ended up on screen met, if not surpassed, the highest expectations. And that's coming from only a moderate fan who went in with considerable skepticism after feeling burned by Lucas' prequels, which will likely now fade from memory, if they haven't already. It's true that this is about as close to a modern remake of the 1977 film that we're going to get. And that's not a bad thing. Lucas has called it "retro" and he's right. But we've already witnessed his definition of "new" so it's hard to blame Disney for passing on his offer for assistance, especially considering these results. When he owned Star Wars he could do with it as he chose, just as we were free to criticize those controversial decisions. But with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams brings to the forefront the revelation that Lucas hasn't really owned his own creation for a while now. Signing it over to the fans was just a formality.
                                          

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martian



Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis
Running Time: 141 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

When The Martian hunkers down and seriously focuses in on the nuts and bolts of its story, it's great, gripping entertainment that's almost worth every bit of praise thrown its way. When it doesn't and gets sidetracked with silly jokes and comedy, the filmmakers strive for less than what they should, perhaps out of concern audiences will be turned off by a heavy dose of science and space physics. This is one of those films where a hearty recommendation will seem like a pan because of the talented involved and expectations going in. But make no mistake about the fact that this is a strong film, and for director Ridley Scott, easily his best in years. While its problems may prevent me from fully joining in with those hailing it a "return to form," at least most of the framework is present for it to deserve that designation. There's something besides an astronaut that gets lost along the way, preventing this from ascending to the heights it should with this strong a set-up and central performance powering it.

Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel, the film centers around astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who's part of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and including pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), systems operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara),  flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and navigator and chemist Dr. Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). It's on Sol 18 of their 31 Sol expedition when a dust storm hits, forcing them to evacuate and leaving a believed to be dead Watney on Mars.

Rationing what food he has and taking up shelter in the crew's surface base, Watney uses his botanical knowledge to grow potatoes and hopefully survive until the Ares IV crew arrives in four years. But back on Earth, satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers photos revealing Watney has survived and it's up to Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to establish contact and formulate a rescue plan with the help of JPL director and engineer Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). This is all in the face of potential PR nightmare for NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), who not only has to inform the public of this situation, but the Aries III crew on their way home. What develops is a tight race against time with Watney's life on line, as well as whomever is assigned the dangerous task of retrieving him.

The Martian's opening hour is its strongest because it might be the only point where we legitimately have no idea what could happen, as the audience is left observing Watney in this perilous predicament as he comes up with solutions to extend his survival. He keeps a video log, which is also an ingenious idea because it gives us kind of a running commentary on the action and adds a lot some humor in a stretch of story when its most needed, both for the protagonist and viewers. Later on the comedy becomes a problem but here it isn't because Damon is a complete natural at sliding it in and finding just the right tone to play this guy, who we hardly know anything about because we don't need to. His performance takes care of everything, including frequent hard science-filled soliloquies to the video camera, which never failed to completely hold my attention.

The surface of the planet and cinematography also look great, likely in part because they were filmed in Jordan rather than a Hollywood sound stage. The space scenes have a similarly realistic feel and it's a relief that we do notice the toll all of this takes on Watney, both through Damon's weight loss and the fact that he suffers what seems like appropriate injuries from the physical ordeal he's put through. Ridley Scott definitely did his homework. And what might be the most impressive aspect of Drew Goddard's script is how little we know about Watney the person, forsaking the type of heart-tugging backstory that undermined Gravity's efforts. They just let Damon do his job, and does he ever, letting us know everything necessary about him through his carefully thought out actions to insure survival.     

It's when the action shifts to NASA that issues start to arise and what started as an intriguing character study shifts into something less captivating, with an outcome that isn't even the slightest bit in doubt. Not just the "what" but exactly the "how" is telegraphed pretty early, leaving the remainder of its two-and-a-half hour run time to be filled with bureaucratic arguing and comedy. A number of rescue scenarios are brought up only to be shot down until another one is explored, before again being shot down. It's almost as if Goddard's screenplay over-explains and justifies every little decision just to cover itself. They talk about how this will work because of that or that will work because of this, only to have Jeff Daniels' NASA director say it just can't be done because of x, y or z. For a far more rewarding Daniels performance this year in a faintly similar role, watch his award-worthy turn in Steve Jobs, delivering material that deftly avoids the cliches he's forced to trudge through here as a disapproving boss rejecting everything simply because the script requires it.

And at the risk of exaggerating, it felt as if there were about fifty scenes exactly like that aforementioned one, broken up only by jokes, clever one-liners or, at worst, moments of broad comedy that seem to have come from another film entirely. Take, for instance, Donald Glover's astrodynamicist who takes a pratfall on the floor in the middle of a dramatic scene for no good reason at all. It takes us right out of the story, creating an unnecessary headwind that prevents anyone from fully investing in what's supposed to be this life or death situation. Some levity is fine, and in the case of some of Damon's scenes even welcome, but I'm not sure how many times I need to be reminded either through dialogue or the soundtrack that Jessica Chastain's character listens to bad 70's music. Ironically enough, among NASA's stuffed suits and lab coats, Kristen Wiig gives the most serious performance in small role as their media relations director.  

The ending, as inevitable as it may be, is handled well, largely because when the script is focused on the retrieval of this character and the moral questions facing the crew that left him, it's firing on all cylinders. If anything, more time should have been spent on the latter, but the scenes we do get of it are no-nonsense and contemplative, held together by Chastain, who couldn't make a mockery of this material even if she tried. There's a point when the Ares III team have to make an important (if predictable) decision and weigh the pros and cons in a scene that contains the thoughtfulness and drama I wish were invested in some of the more jokey NASA scenes on Earth.

It's preferable to focus on the many things this does well since that's easier to explain, but there's still that nagging feeling. You know the one. It's when either the filmmakers or studio just can't seem to get out of the movie's way and trust what they have. Had they done that, this really would deserve to be mentioned in the conversations it currently is. Still, it's an enjoyable survival in space adventure that's more deserving of comparisons to Gravity than Interstellar. But while the latter earned its exorbitant running length with the sheer scope of its story and ambitions, The Martian isn't interested in those bigger questions that would put it in its company. That this got the full endorsement of NASA is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which involves the fictionalized depiction of their employees. It works, just on a level that's more entertaining than suspenseful or thought provoking.  

It's not a backhanded a compliment to label the The Martian as enjoyable mainstream entertainment Scott pastes together with impressive technical prowess, meticulous attention to scientific detail, and most of all, Damon's committed performance. But to uncover what's holding it back, you needn't look further than its bewildering Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical/Comedy. While that controversial categorization is clearly a stretch, there are far too many instances when you're wondering whether its inclusion is really as big a leap as it seems.            

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.