Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Movie Review: Annie (2014)

I’ve gone into films with low expectations before: The Best Of Me, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, of everything I’ve gone out to see this year (including a couple that I have yet to see), this is undoubtedly the one I was dreading the most. Whether it was my attachment to the 1982 version, the snippet of the music I got from the trailer or the general impression I got from its attempts to modernize the script, I couldn’t be looking forward to this any less. Really, the best thing connected to this film for me for the longest time was this tweet from one of my favourite rappers:



Can't say I disagree with him, either; as much as I prefer to let a film speak for itself without getting hit by my preconceptions as it talks, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t factor into the viewing experience. That said, as we look at today’s film, I will do my best to put my initial impressions to one side and let it stand or fall on its own: This is the 2014 remake of Annie.

The plot: Annie (played by Quvenzhan√© Wallis) is a foster child living in New York under the tipsy eye of Miss Hannigan (played by Cameron Diaz) when she literally runs into Will Stacks (played by Jamie Foxx), a business tycoon who’s running for Mayor of New York. After their chance encounter results in an increase in the polls, Guy (played by Bobby Cannavale), Will’s political advisor, thinks that Annie should stay with Will for a few weeks to give him some better publicity. As Annie spends time with them, Will and his assistant Grace (played by Rose Byrne) grow a liking to her and Annie might have found the family she has been looking for after all.

Most of the cast do a good job in their roles: Wallis shows off how she became the youngest actress to be nominated for an Oscar with a performance that can stand next to the older actors with ease; Diaz, while not having nearly as much screen presence as Carol Burnett, does well with how this film’s interpretation of Hannigan is written; and Foxx fills his rather assholey character with enough charisma to make for the best thing in the movie. Probably the main fault with the casting is Bobby Cannavale, who despite his rather impressive output in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is underwhelming in his role here, over trying at every turn to be funny and just coming across as annoying. Why he is trying so hard to be funny, however, is just one item on the laundry list of problems with this movie.

Pretense, much like irony, privilege and ethics in video game journalism, is so over-used by people who don’t know its real meaning that it has all but lost that meaning. It is mostly used in relation to more artsy films that are so obtuse in how they are made or in the message they’re trying to convey that they confuse the audience, with pretense being the easy word to fall back on to describe it. So why am I using it to describe this big-budget Hollywood musical? Because this film tries so hard to poke fun at its source material, and the musical genre in general, for how hokey it is that it fails to see just how hokey it itself is being. The literal first thing we see is a red-haired girl called Annie talking in front of her class and being mocked for being too boring, followed swiftly by our film’s Annie who engages her audience into an instrumental number that ends with the entire class cheering. I refrain from calling this blatant because it only gets worse from there: Constant in-jokes about the original film, fourth wall jokes about the characters singing out of nowhere; none of which actually land and instead are just annoying to sit through.

Easily the most insensitive part of this film’s need to mock everything that it itself is being is when Will takes Annie to the movies: Moonquake Lake, a pretty obvious spoof of paranormal romances like Twilight, with Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna lining their wallets with some random cameos. Grace makes mention of how Will’s mobile phone company paid 500 grand for product placement in the film, and then says that said product placement is the only thing keeping the film industry going. I cannot express in mere words how angry I was in the cinema hearing this cynical drivel in a film that’s this focus-grouped. However, this line has a bit more relevancy to the film proper once delved into a little bit: Sure, product placement may not be as integral to films as this claims (Unless your name is Michael Bay), but product placement does play a crucial part in another visual medium: Music videos, especially over the last decade or so. While in context to films in general it’s almost offensive in how little respect it has for the art of filmmaking, it makes perfect sense in context to this film as, with how shallow the end product is, this film is little more than a glorified long-form music video. What makes this even funnier is that the movie-in-a-movie is credited to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the filmmakers who managed to churn out the surprising successes of 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. I can only laugh at this, considering how much better a job Lord and Miller would have done with this film and its intent, ignoring how 22 Jump Street turned out.

While it may seem unfair of me to bag out this film for the changes in music from the original, since the 1982 version wasn’t exactly pragmatic in following the stage musical (I want NYC, dammit!), this is beyond the pale in how badly it treats the music. What’s worse is that the soundtrack had a very interesting idea buried in there somewhere: Whenever the orphans are singing, like in Maybe or Hard Knock Life, they make their own instrumentation; Thumping of brooms and mops on the floor to make the driving beat of Hard Knock Life, and hand claps and chest slaps for Maybe. During the opening credits, we get literal music of the city with car horns, bike bells and street musicians adding to the instrumentation. Then, there is a scene later on at a museum event for Will Stacks’ company where Annie sings Opportunity with an orchestra backing her. This could have made for a nice musical arc and added a layer to the overall film, if it weren’t for the fact that the above songs as well as every other one in this film still have studio instrumentation, shattering whatever nuance the soundtrack could have had. Said instrumentation is loud and very hip-hop with its thumping drums and stabs of brass, which detracts from the soundtrack immensely by all sounding extremely generic. To make matters worse, we have also have the scourge of Auto-Tune to deal with as well, most notably in their rendition of Tomorrow where it is more obvious than everywhere else that it’s being used. The singers themselves are a mixed bag: As Willow “Whip Your Hair” Smith was originally cast to be Annie, Wallis sounds golden by comparison and even standalone; Foxx, the only member of the cast who has some history as a singer, further proves why he is the best thing about this film; Byrne is way too soft-spoken to be made out half of the time; Diaz is just average; and Cannavale is incredibly bland, so they mercifully only give him one song to sing in.

I was originally just going to forgo any direct comparisons with the 1982 film, but since the film itself didn’t refrain from doing just that I won’t either. This is a remake of Annie in the same way that David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a remake: Only the framework of the story survived the adaptation process, in terms of story. While modernizing the plot of Annie isn’t a bad idea in it of itself, how it was done here is another matter. To start things off, we have Oliver Warbucks being renamed William Stacks. They literally named the American billionaire Bill Stacks, a name that sounds like the result of mating a lame rapper with a V.I.L.E. henchman. We also have the former’s relatively downplayed conservatism and elitism dialed up heavily with Bill’s visible disdain to be near the other 99%, showing the kind of modernizing and heavy-handedness that has made recent Dr. Seuss adaptations so bad. The plot’s linchpin, the reason why Will brings in Annie in the first place, is extremely cynical and something that should not be associated with a musical that is, at its heart, feel-good entertainment for the whole family. The biggest offence, however, is how they handled Rooster, famously played in the original by Tim Curry: Neither he or Lily St. Regis are in this version. The closest we get is Guy, who essentially carries out the same plan and whose actor tries desperately to ape Curry in his performance with numerous attempts to chew on the scenery and take the spotlight much like Curry did. Unfortunately, Cannavale abjectly fails at this and both he and the film as a whole come out worse because of it.

All in all, this is a train wreck. While with a mostly decent cast and some good ideas peppered throughout, the writing is hypocritical to an astounding degree, the changes to the original range from passable to dumbfounding, the music is cheap and not in any way fun and the plain disrespect that this film has for the source material makes it a painful watch. Jay-Z needs to stop producing movies, if this and The Great Gatsby are anything to go by. It’s worse than Love Is Now, as this seemed to dedicate more time to offending my sensibilities, but it’s still not as bad as Planes: Fire And Rescue, as this film at least had some good intentions behind its plastic veneer. Unless you actively want a nice heaping load of cinematic coal this Christmas, and you don't feel right about taking advantage of the recent Sony hack to get a copy of it, this is one to avoid.

2 comments:

  1. It's not a perfect movie, but for as long as it is up on the screen, it's an okay watch. Can't say I expected much else. Good review Mahan.

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    1. Glad someone out there liked it; you're luckier than I was.

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