The best critic slams of ‘Jem and the Holograms’

24 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Corporate Synergy: The Focus-Grouped, Mundane Sci-Fi Mess of ‘Jem and the Holograms’.

In a movie weekend stacked with critically drubbed new releases, Jem and the Holograms stands out as the biggest boondoggle of them all. Hollywood repeatedly learns this lesson when fans clamor for a favorite TV show or movie to return…and are then inevitably disappointed by the reboot. Though the movie is supposed to focus on the positive aspects of finding and loving one’s own identity, many fans were outraged when the only two ethnic band members in the cartoon – Aja and Shana – were cast with a half-Japanese actress and half-African-American actress for the movie. ‘The reason I’m so angry right now (and I’m sure that many people will be able to understand this) is that I feel like my daughter – MY CHILD – is being attacked. Jerrica Benton (Nashville’s Aubrey Peeples) takes on the alter ego “Jem” and performs with her sisters Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Shana (Aurora Perrineau), and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). But then the movie’s lumbering, overstuffed, unfocused plot shows up, and whatever high hopes we might have had for this latest exploitation of 1980s nostalgia are slowly ground away.

Chu’s weaksauce adaptation of the 1980s Hasbro toy-turned-cartoon not only fails resoundingly as a film, it also fails as a nostalgia piece — which honestly might be the greater sin in today’s pop-cultureverse. She is being harshly and unfairly judged during a time when she should be relishing her accomplishments.’ The actor then went on to try to unravel why there was so much anger surrounding the casting decision, and suggested that perhaps detractors should put their energy elsewhere. ‘We live in an incredibly creative time, where it may not be necessary to have big money and power to have your voices heard. Maybe it’s to see how certain TV actors aged (“Dallas”); to hold out hope that this remake will be better than the last remake (“Batman Begins”); or even seeing old cartoons in CGI (“Alvin and the Chipmunks.”) But sometimes there’s just a complete disaster. Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about the truly, truly, truly terrible Jem is that it conjures up memories of another film with which it shares many surface-level similarities, but that manages to succeed in every way Jem fails: 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.

Why not use your power there?’ The cast of the film is a who’s who of young Hollywood talent, including Aubrey Peebles, 21, Stefanie Scott, 18, Aurora, 20, Eiza Gonzales, 25 and Hayley Kiyoko, 24. Enter the live-action “Jem and the Holograms,” a movie based on the delightful ’80s Hasbro syndicated cartoon about a music executive (rocking some seriously colorful hair) who doubles as a rock star. It’s almost as noisy as those films because it’s about a girl band that finds Internet fame and, apparently, a pile of rejected Katy Perry orchestration.

Now, granted, Josie wasn’t exactly a critical darling when it premiered — reviews could charitably be called “mixed” — and it was a certified box-office bomb. The revamped live-action movie version of the hit ’80s cartoon premiered on Thursday in Hollywood, and all the movie’s young stars wowed on the red carpet, showcasing their individual styles.

But when the film’s first trailer was released, its contemporary twist on the ’80s cartoon was criticized by some for venturing too far from the source material. Eiza on the other hand went for a slightly steamier look, and decided on black leather turtle-necked crop top paired with a sexy simple black dress with a seriously high asymmetrical split. In this version, Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples, probably best known for her arc on Nashville) is a modern-day girl living with three sisters (two of them adopted) and her aunt (an underused Molly Ringwald) in a comfortable but run-down house in the Valley.

Then the second trailer came out and introduced Synergy, Jerrica’s holographic computer that projected her stage persona onto her body in the animated series. Despite being perhaps the most “2001” movie imaginable — its pop-music world is one of Total Request Live, physical media, and brick-and-mortar record stores — Josie still plays well today as both a tweaked musical comedy and a dark satire of the music industry. Jerrica’s got a special gift, you see, but she’s shy about using it: Even though she loves to sing the songs she’s written late at night in her room, she won’t even think about putting them online. While it’s impossible to definitively predict the strange alchemy that creates a cult film, it’s a safe bet that Jem will not enjoy the same sort of appreciation down the road. So her wily baby sister does it for her under the Jem pseudonym she’s created—and faster than you can say Snapchat or Boomerang or whatever the kids are into these days, her strummy little homemade ballad has made her a bona fide, mystery-shrouded sensation.

That’s when Starlight Enterprises CEO Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) comes calling, sweeping all four girls away to her L.A. lair to mold them into superstars. Jem has same basic DNA as Josie: It’s a teen-focused musical with a music-industry setting, based on a cartoon property ages past its cultural expiration date. We know she’s nefarious from the start—but she’s also, against all biological probability, the mother of Jem’s requisite romantic interest (28-year-old Ryan Guzman, a.k.a. the guy who loved J.Lo’s cookies in The Boy Next Door). Further plot complications come from Synergy, a cute little robot who whirs like a highly evolved Roomba and leads the girls on an elaborate scavenger-hunt-style chase designed by Jem’s father for unknown reasons before he died. It’s coproduced by Justin Bieber Svengali Scooter Braun, and you can feel what the makers are going for — Pitch Perfect with a rock band — and laugh when it turns into accidental outsider cinema by virtue of its inane plotting and bizarre choices.

Chu, uses Synergy as an excuse for a treasure hunt subplot in which the girls, even as they’re riding the fame monster, track down pieces of the robot that Dad, for some reason, left in hiding places years ago and that, improbably, are still there. Jem is the moody, self-centered teenager to Josie’s “punk-rock prom queen,” and while that theoretically could make for a pointed modern update of the earlier film’s sunny worldview, Jem is too thematically and emotionally vacant to be afforded such consideration.

In that respect, Chu is certainly on the bleeding edge of contemporary filmmaking; by embracing an uber-democratic Gen-Z-eye view of cinema, one where everyone’s a star, he may literally be showing us the future. (Or maybe he’s just bolstering his movie’s microbudget with a lot of low-res video. I laughed out loud a few times, the hardest when Jem visits her childhood home in Los Angeles and it’s the same Angeleno Heights Victorian gingerbread house that played the whorehouse where Dick Whitman/Don Draper grew up. In honor of the movie that Jem could have been, let’s look at some of the lessons it could, and should, have learned from its vastly superior spiritual successor. It’s hard to tell.) Regardless, there probably isn’t a lot here for the greying Gen Xers who grew up with the cartoon Jem in their living rooms, unless they have tween daughters they really want to share this experience with.

When I heard they were making it into a movie I told my manager, “Get me in there, I want to get in there.” And when I got the role I was like “Oh, this is perfect.” I couldn’t have picked a better first movie role for me. It offers not a fantastically fabulous young woman and her equally bad-ass rock star friends, but rather a somewhat generic coming-of-age origin story,” Forbes wrote. “It’s a little disheartening to see the often spectacular and occasionally crazy source material turned into another generic ‘young girl doesn’t believe in herself and then gets corrupted by fame’ fable.” Naturally, the reviews are brutal. Instead, it shoots for a sort of middle ground between coming-of-age story and cautionary fame tale, piling too much narrative and emotional weight onto its tissue-thin cartoon foundation. Chu,1 responsible for several of the sequels in the immensely entertaining Step Up series and director of the two fascinatingly evangelical Bieber documentaries, has been tasked with making a musical for social-media-savvy millennials.

This isn’t to say that a kiddie cartoon couldn’t beget a serious-minded live-action adaptation, but movie history is not exactly brimming with successful examples of that approach. Separated from its source material—and the unfair expectations of original Holograms loyalists (nostalgia: it’s a hell of a drug) —Jem is probably much better for not being outrageous. And yet the film seems inexplicably embarrassed by its roots, instead serving up half-baked and self-consciously contemporary drama that no one in the sure-to-be minimal theatrical audience will remember quite so fondly some 30 years on.” And therein lies the problem. Jerrica is having identity problems — am I me or my rock star alter ego? — that were mined more engagingly in “Hannah Montana.” The movie doesn’t put enough effort into any of these subplots; it seems to be merely tossing ideas into the pot that it thinks might appeal to 9-year-olds. This is telegraphed through some experimental choices: location-establishing shots are shown on Google Earth and fake YouTube videos are woven throughout the film.

The default for live-action adaptations of kids’ cartoons tends to be a more or less straight tonal translation — think the Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films — and even more experimental efforts, like Robert Altman’s much-maligned (but secretly great) Popeye, know well enough to recognize and honor the material’s cartoon origins, even as they establish their own distinct tone. So if you’re going to exploit someone’s memories in order to get them to a movie that will, realistically, never move live up to their expectations, you have to at least treat the project with respect. Instead, it grabs for the YouTube generation by making Jem a heroine for every kid who has ever been fat-shamed, had parents who don’t listen, has been anxious about sexual identity and so on. Its bright colors and goofy attitude honor both the Hanna-Barbera cartoon and Archie comics that birthed the characters; but there’s a strong satirical bite to the story and humor that modernizes the musty material and makes it capable of sustaining its own film-sized narrative.

There’s even a throwaway joke where a seemingly useless character explains her presence by saying “I was in the comics.” Jem, meanwhile, is content to take a screamingly unoriginal movie premise and slap on elements of the original cartoon — the pink hair and makeup, the names, the magical earrings — in hopes of livening it up, like Lisa Frank stickers on a plain black Trapper Keeper. If you do a low-budget rush job (as “Jem” appears to be, with a reported budget of just $5 million) of any much-loved project, it only serves to make fans angry, and certainly won’t bring in any new ones.

The performance sequences are jarring, mostly because making Jem’s music sound like Mumfordcore stadium folk-rock with Imagine Dragons live drumming contradicts the band’s stylization as ’80s rock stars. But despite parroting all the right clichés, Jem doesn’t really have much of a point of view, beyond patting its viewers on the head and telling them they’re special and pretty. In today’s terms, that means they look to us like a 2000s electroclash band — with her pink triangular face paint and hair, Jem resembles a desexualized Peaches.

I was super surprised that they made it as current as they did, but I thought it was really cool because it makes a cartoon that’s however many years old super relevant today. Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook) and her bandmates (Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid) get caught up in a music-industry machine that churns through hot young acts and tosses them aside as soon as they stop being beneficial to the bottom line. Once it turned out that the “Jem” creator wasn’t even consulted, it should have been clear right away: The new producers could hype it all they wanted, but this project never had a chance. The movie’s “hit” song, “Youngblood,” combines shout-along folk rock with party pop but avoids veering into actual instrumentation or specificity. It really does come down to keeping yourself grounded and keeping good people around you, or else you can lose your head and have people just tear you apart in this industry.

Don’t sign that!” I just really felt for her, because when you’re young and naive, all you want to do is make music and do what you love, because you’re passionate about it. It’s unfortunate that people in the industry take advantage of that, but the lesson is that you need to keep the people that you trust and love around you and close — that’s really important.

Josie’s millennial pop-punk songs, like “Three Small Words” and “Pretend to Be Nice,” are similarly lightweight and of-the-moment, but the movie never suggests they’re anything more than rock-solid pop tunes that will appeal to a mass audience. It put an American twist on some anime tropes — a magical girl squad each of whose members are associated with a color (as in Sailor Moon), secret pop-idol identities much like those of superheroes, and, of course, a semi-sentient computer built by Jem’s dead father. Josie and her friends simply want to be rock stars, not become “the voice of a generation.” That lack of self-importance makes it easier to invest in their quest. The Jem cartoon was animated by Japanese studio Toei Animation, which did anime classics like Cutie Honey, Galaxy Express 999, Dragon Ball, and Sailor Moon. It’s an inherently ridiculous idea that could only be born of a ’80s cartoon conceived to sell toys and accessories to young girls, but it’s also an integral part of the property’s appeal and legacy.

The ’80s were strange in every possible way, and one of them was the innovation of reverse-engineering TV shows around which to build merchandising. That’s literally all Synergy does, besides beep-booping around the fringes of scenes and occasionally projecting a show not unlike those created by a children’s light projector. The idea of Jem has potential — bifurcating human identity into Internet/stage persona and real person is a rich vein mined by Hannah Montana and Perfect Blue alike. It takes that idea way, way over the top, and even if it isn’t always 100 percent successful — it can get too silly for its own good — it’s at least memorable. She’s fabulously high-camp as an evil record executive, in the grand tradition of Parker Posey in Josie and Gina Gershon in Showgirls — she knows what movie she’s in.

Aubrey Peeples does serviceable work as Jerrica (and, it must be said, she’s a pretty great on-screen crier), but she and the rest of Jem’s cast are all various flavors of vanilla, and the movie follows suit. Except the band in BTVOTD, christened the Carrie Nations, takes acid and gets naked and generally behaves in a way you might call rock ’n’ roll, including playing rock songs. Among the movie’s many odd choices is the one to depict the truly outrageous story in a semi-naturalistic fashion, rather than going cartoony or exaggerated. Throw in meaty cameos from the likes of Eugene Levy, Seth Green, Donald Faison, and Breckin Meyer, and there’s more than enough comedic fuel to keep Josie burning bright and lively. Jem, née Jerrica, finally discovers how to click her magic purple earrings, a transformation sequence that also clicked some weird nostalgic ASMR part of my brain that doesn’t remember much about Jem but instinctively remembers that much.

But she doesn’t even transform into Jem through this maneuver — it just triggers a hologram of her dead father to appear and explain his dreams for her. Ryan Guzman’s Rio is a character taken directly from the cartoon — he’s Jerrica’s longtime boyfriend and the Holograms’ road manager — but in this origin-story reimagining, he becomes the neutered son of Erica Raymond. This was the point at which I found myself hoping Jerrica’s deceased father the robot scientist would reveal to his daughter that she, too, was a replicant, that her empathy and humanity were just programs her mainframe had been built to run. Given that this is a “modern reimagining” and origin story, that’s believable enough, but Jem’s script makes the head-scratching decision to turn Rio’s acquisition of Starlight Enterprises into the film’s big happy ending.

It’s a neat — but annoying — summation of a Jem movie that was directed, written, and produced entirely by men, without the involvement of Jem series creator Christy Marx (who expressed her displeasure with not being involved in the film, but ultimately gave it her blessing). If you’re driven and talented and you want something, there is a way to make it happen, so don’t ever give up on that — and also, just get a good lawyer.

Instead, it turned the reins over to bunch of dudes who apparently knew little to nothing about the character, or her appeal, before Hasbro tapped them to bring the character back to life.

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