Saturday, 6 August 2016

Jem And The Holograms (2016) - Movie Review

I’ve previously brought up the weird standards we have over here in Australia when it comes to cinematic releases, but it bears repeating in the face of something like this. Three Wise Cousins, a local production that barely qualifies as something ready for the big screen: Made it to cinemas. Mother’s Day, a film that has managed to become even more tragic in hindsight because it turned out to be the last thing the director would ever make (rest in peace, Gerry Marshall, I mean no disrespect), and no person should have something that awful be their final creative product that they give the world: Made it to cinemas. The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a made-for-VHS cash-in sequel that had no right being shown anywhere, let alone in cinemas: Nevertheless, made it to cinemas. Today’s film, based on a cheesy 80’s cartoon that my mother inexplicably had on DVD while I was growing up (and that I wound up watching on more than one occasion), never got a proper release over here despite plenty of posters, trailers and even session times posted on cinema websites. After what I’ve paid money to see over the last 12 months, is this really deserving of such treatment? Let’s plug in and find out.

The plot: Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), after making a music video under the pseudonym ‘Jem’ that made its way onto Youtube, becomes a viral sensation and gains the attention of music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis). Jerrica and her band, consisting of sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) and best friends Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau), get signed and make their way to Los Angeles to live their dreams. However, as Erica’s influence starts to separate the band, and Jerrica discovers what her father left her before he died, Jerrica needs to reconnect with her roots and stay true to herself in order to make it.

The production crew here thankfully didn’t go by old Hollywood rules for the casting (singing first, acting second) and it shows because they are actually quite good in their roles. Peeples is probably the closest this film ever gets to anything actually genuine, and when she’s required to show emotion she definitely delivers. Scott works best next to Peeples, as their sister chemistry is definitely good, and otherwise her, Kiyoko and Perrineau are supporting cast in every semblance of the term. They at least get the traditional band member characterisation down, in that they have characteristics that can be used to distinguish from each other: Jerrica’s the leader, Kimber’s the emotional core, Aja’s the bad girl and Shana’s the fashionista. Hey, it’s thin, but it’s more than most pop groups in the real world get nowadays.

Lewis just oozes venom with every word she speaks, and with an antagonist that’s this basic that’s the right approach to have. Molly Ringwald as Jerrica’s aunt just depresses me because of how time-capsule her entire appearance is, but it’s still worth it for the touché moment during the finale. Guzman is the stock love interest, but credit where it’s due in that he has an actual pulse; I don’t care what the old-school fans say, the Rio of the animated series wasn’t nearly this memorable. We even get a cameo from the Misfits, the rival band from the original series, during the end credits and… well, I’ll put it this way: Their pick for Pizazz, the band’s leader, is so precise that I almost want to see a sequel to this just so I can see how that casting would have turned out in the long run. Of course, for the numerous reasons I’m about to get into, a sequel to this film would be an absolutely terrible idea.

Jason Blum’s credit as a producer, initially, seemed nonsensical even considering how prolific he has become in recent years. However, as the film starts up, his involvement begins to make some sense. While this isn’t a horror film (in the traditional sense, at least), this does have quite a few found footage touches to it and it’s here where the film genuinely hits its strong points. Aside from the Super VHS footage of Jerrica and her sisters growing up, we also get inclusions of bits of Youtube-uploaded music vids that, honestly, work well within the context of their scenes. It’s mainly percussive, but in terms of creating tension and/or elation at certain points, it works surprisingly well. The use of found clips, especially those involving YouTube, also manage to make this extremely 80’s concept work in the modern age. No, seriously.

The film opens on Jerrica’s narration about online personas and where they stop and the people using them start and, as someone who got into this whole critical shindig through such channels, there is some truth about where the line is drawn. It manages to adapt the hidden persona plot line from the original cartoon and, through showing that it has since become a common thing online, give some odd poignancy for the audience of today. There’s been a lot of talk about how unfaithful this is to the original work, but being able to transfer probably one of the more exclusive aspects of said work in a way that doesn’t feel forced needs to be commended.

Sadly, that’s the only thing to be commended here. Well, that and the music if you’re into girly guitar pop. Otherwise, this film is a colossal mess. Let’s start with the whole found footage idea. Now, while it does help give credence to this film existing in the here and now, it also manages to cheapen the film’s look rather drastically as a result. It has the look of a fan film that would probably be found on YouTube, and the frequent use of lower-quality clips doesn’t help with that. There’s a happy medium between polished cinematic fare and sampled Internet material, but this certainly isn’t it. The only time that the film looks decent for any long period of time is during the musical segments, which given director Jon M. Chu’s history working on the Step Up movies is to be expected.

But that just amounts to a bunch of music videos strung together; what about the story that ties them together? Well, it’s about as clichéd as a story dictated by the lyrics of Streetlight People can get: Small upstart band, evil record mogul, solo contract that separates the group for about as long as the average toilet break, they discover ‘real music’, reunite, end credits. In terms of kitschy nostalgic franchises, I’ve seen episodes of Power Rangers do this plot line way better than what is shown here. It drags on for the nearly two-hour running time, ending long after the audience have ripped their Movie Cliché Bingo cards in half, and it fails to deliver on what I honestly thought was a good setup during the opening. Nothing even remotely insightful about the beginning question of personas, only just managing to not screw up its “be yourself” message as much as The Hannah Montana Movie did.

And while I’m being reminded of how freaking long this movie is, the pacing is absolutely ridiculous. Quite a bit of it is connected to how little the writer seems to understand how Internet fame and viral hits actually work, as I seriously doubt that any serious performer would be able to make their mark off of all of one song and nothing else. Show me a viral musical hit from the last five years, and I’ll show you the backlog and heavy grinding that they had to do in order to get that far. Nothing of the sort here, as from one Youtube video that got tens of thousands of hits last we get any direct confirmation, Jem gets a record deal. I could buy the world’s largest megaphone, and I still wouldn’t be able to sigh loud enough at that statement to show my contempt.

And it’s not just the career progression either: Character relationships, plot revelations, right down to the in-universe reason for Jerrica’s continuing narration; it all just speeds by without any thought put into why it’s happening, other than it has to for plot related reasons. I’d argue that in a film this lengthy that they’d have more than enough time to show what they needed to, but apparently they were too busy going on a scavenger hunt led by a WALL-E rip-off. In the closest this film gets to the original techno-weird tone, we get Synergy, a device that Jerrica's father was working on before he died, leading the girls around for a little bit. Unfortunately, this sub-plot not only seems to just stop and start unnaturally when required, but also manages to outdo the cartoon in terms of crap that is impossible to take seriously. When the first act tries so hard (maybe a little too hard) to ground this film in an Internet-savvy reality, introducing a hologram-projecting beatboxing robot into the mix is a pretty efficient way for them to shoot themselves in both feet at once.

All in all, while not quite so horrendous as to warrant the lack of cinematic release over here, this still sucks pretty damn hard. The acting is decent and the music is enjoyable on its own terms, and points for managing the plot-tied musical number trick better than it had any right to, the writing is absolutely awful and whatever attempts this film makes to give itself a reason to exist as a contemporary release just fall flat due to a fairly basic lack of forethought. It’s bad, but it’s still not the almost-legendary bad that I was expecting from this thing.

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