October 30, 2015


"Jem and the Holograms" is a live-action tween movie based on the animated TV series of the same name that aired from 1985-1988. Although I have been informed by some fans of the TV series that the film is not cleaving exactly to the TV version, it is nonetheless a delightful, "family-oriented" film that is innocent and fun, and skillfully avoids all kinds of pitfalls that a flick of this nature might have fallen into headlong. I was all prepared to say that in many ways "Jem" is the anti-"Pitch Perfect" movie (something I would relish), but then I checked the lyrics to the songs used in the film and in the complete soundtrack. Please read on because there is a major, major CAVEAT with this film.

What pitfalls does the film avoid? It is not cutsie. There is no Valley Girl talk or vocal fry. The teen girls are not stereotypes of today's radical feminist agendas, and neither are they Barbies. They seem like (albeit extremely well-groomed) regular gals. One is a little tougher than the others (she's a hacker and has spent time in juvie). The film does not drown us in song after song after song. In fact, the musical numbers are well-placed and are mostly power pop, with one initial soft ballad.


Most, most unfortunately, the lyrics to some of the songs are very, very risque and beyond inappropriate for tweens or teens or anyone (although the visuals in the movie do not match at all--the songs are not acted out in any way). It may be a bit difficult to hear all the lyrics as they're being belted out in the film, but of course young people don't have this problem. This is a huge, huge drawback to the film. Check out especially the words to "Mi mi mi": http://genius.com/albums/Various-artists/Jem-and-the-holograms-original-motion-picture-soundtrack which is used at least partially in the film (I don't remember hearing any of the most objectionable words from this song in the film, but still). Other songs used in the film: "Youngblood," "Alone Together," "I'm Still Here." If songs with objectionable lyrics (very objectionable) were not included in the film or on the soundtrack? There would be no problem here. But there is a problem. A big one. Why should we wonder why our young people engage in bacchanal-type sex on college campuses when they've heard this stuff from their tenderest years in "PG" movies? Sigh. I'm sad to say this film was too good to be true. Very sad to say. Unless you are willing to have a serious discussion with your young people about the lyrics to ALL the songs on the soundtrack, I'd say this is a "no" film. But why NOT have that discussion? Ask your young people what they think of these lyrics. Take this opportunity to do some Media Literacy and Theology of the Body with them. There are many, many good things about this film, but they are totally undermined and undone--perhaps even destroyed--by the lyrics to some (not all) of the songs featured in the film and on the soundtrack.


Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) whose stage name is "Jem," becomes an instant, viral internet sensation when she dons a crazy pink wig and sings a sensitive ditty into her webcam. Her three sisters (one blood sister and two cousins, all being raised by their aunt--but they all consider themselves true sisters) are her band. A star-making music company (appropriately called "Starlight") comes calling in the person of Erica (the inimitable Juliette Lewis, digging her fangs into every scene and stealing it). Lewis could really make a new career out of playing luscious modern-day villainesses.

After seeing the trailer, I thought the film might be a good exploration of what "fame" means today, and it is, but it's even more focused on family. Jem and her sisters are all about family, about being a family. And they're all about their music. The "famous" thing for them is a just a great way to spread the love, and get some badly-needed cash so they don't lose their house. (Molly Ringwald, as the devoted aunt, has one of the best lines in the movie--aimed at Erica--that pretty much sums up the whole fame thing).

Jem lost her Dad when she was young. He encouraged her in her musical abilities and gave her words of wisdom to live by. He was also working on an invention before he died: an adorkable little robot named "Synergy" who gets mysteriously activated at the same Jem's career takes off. Synergy is the most fantastical part of the film, which otherwise might pass as a non-sci-fi film.
Jem's relationship with her Dad is really the heart of the story. He is the unseen guiding light. There is a mild romance between Jem and Rio (Ryan Guzman), Erica's son, which culminates in a kiss at the end.


The entire feel of the film is that of an after-school special. It's not a "big" film, and it's pretty low on hype. The girls remain incredibly grounded through their whole experience, even through their one big crisis and band breakup--which alone can speak volumes to a starry-eyed, "everyone-is-having-their-15-minutes-of-fame-now-in-our-digital-world" world. Jem video-narrates to us, the audience, the entire saga of her rise to fame. She and her sisters critique and are highly aware of the ersatz nature of "social media"--even as they use it. It's great social commentary.

The clever, thoughtful backbone of the soundtrack is actual uploaded-to-the-internet amateur musician videos (often just doing rhythms and beats). How do we know they're videos? Because we see them briefly, intercut with our characters' story. There are also lots of fake "Jem and the Holograms" fan vids throughout the story that feel very authentic.

Stay for the credits or you'll miss the lengthy zinger leading directly into a sequel where rival band "The Misfits" will thicken the stew.

October 16, 2015


"Hyena Road" is the latest film about the war-with-no-end-in-sight: Afghanistan.* Canadian writer-director-actor, Paul Gross, delivers what is now a standard, sand-infiltrated, khaki-camo-dappled screen adventure in the nouveau tradition of "Jarhead," "Hurt Locker" and "American Sniper." "Hyena Road" looks and feels pretty much the same as these movies, except that this tale is exclusively about Canadian troops and one of their slices of the battle--a lethal supply route in Afghanistan's notoriously inhospitable terrain, riddled with IED's and "insurgents."


My main question about this film was: "Is it a Canadian film?" And if so, what makes it Canadian or not? Canadians are known for their non-bellicosity. It's not that they don't have the stomach or skills for war. They don't have the heart for war--which isn't a bad thing. Having lived in Canada for over a decade, I can testify that Canadians are a truly peaceful and genteel people. But Canada is an ally of the U.S. and part of the free world that opposes terrorism and is willing to combat it with force. So why are "they" making this ostensibly glam war film? I haven't seen or read any interviews with Paul Gross, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that it may be from motives of national pride to honor (honour) the Canadians who fought and those who lost their lives in this maddening desert morass.

One Canadian film critic went so far as to call "Hyena Road" "jingoism," and there was a bit of that. However, patriotism is coupled with a somewhat cheesy voiceover beginning and ending the film with Alexander the Great's deferent words about this indomitable land and people. The film is trying to make sense of it all by showing us the big, big picture while zeroing in on the smallest human details of this particular war--which, in reality is "many different wars." Unlike American films about the Gulf Wars, the enemy is not as demonized in black and white--rather the point seems to be that it's individuals who choose to be and do evil during war time or any time.

War quickly becomes personal and deeply conflicted for the idealistic and/or duty-driven North Americans. As with many war-weary populations, Afghans have learned to switch allegiances to suit their own purposes, survive and thrive. Nothing is clear-cut and there are layers of purposes and strategies that  Pete (Paul Gross)--the PR "heart and minds" guy--doesn't even share with his company until they're in the thick of it.


Perhaps the greatest dilemma posed in the film (a dilemma in all wars) is "the greater good." (The distinctly American phrase "collateral damage" is not used.) When children are abused and become pawns, it's too much for the men to "do nothing" as they are ordered. They righteously and naively assume that war is about doing heroic and worthy things like protecting children. That's why they signed up. That's what they're here for. But they forget it's not their war and that they too are pawns of far bigger and more powerful forces and entities. When it comes to light that Pete is OK with this arrangement, there was an opportunity to really cut open the dark underbelly of the  amoral soul of war. Instead the filmmakers made nice.

Art imitates life here. A recent article in the Toronto Star reveals a scandal wherein Canadian troops were told by their superiors not to intervene when Afghan troops and interpreters sexually assaulted  young Afghan boys: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/10/14/canadian-military-probe-of-alleged-afghan-sex-assaults-drags-on.html

The acting is a bit bland (sorry, Canadians!) and lacks any kind of star power, juice or chemistry. The swaggering, scenery-chewing Paul Gross character brings some, but he never quite nails the role--I felt that he was  working hard at drumming it up and going through the motions. The firefights are quite tense and well-done, except that no Canadian soldier ever gets hit (for most of the movie), even though they are impossibly exposed. The cinematography is on point except for a few strange, experimental (the experiment fails) camera angles and pans here and there (in non-combat scenes). The soundtrack is lush, exotic, operatic and conjures throbbing war drums.

Exposition? Too much showing and telling at the same time. And lots and lots of telling by Pete who frequently goes on disclosure binges that feel like...disclosure binges (helpful as they are). The story actually begins with no plot or stakes and proceeds rather episodically. But maybe that was on purpose, to show the subtle futility of war's Sisyphean tasks.

Canadian Rossif Sutherland (son of Canadian Donald Sutherland) is a main actor, but his New York-ish accent is odd. The native actors are OUTSTANDING. One captivating elder figure in particular takes the cake.


"Hyena Road" had the potential to be a much greater film. It has some powerful set-ups and tackles some powerful human dramas. But it needed to "go there." It needed to go all the way and not back off, back down. It needed to show us WHY people return from war with PTSD, as well as truly mine why we (as nations) really go to war. War can't be about protecting innocent people and not protecting innocent people at the same time.

In the end, I think this is a Canadian film. Simply, perhaps, because Canadians know it's not all about them.
Canada pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014.


--Canadians are terrible at cursing.

--The film avoids twee Canadiana. Just the requisite hockey and a funny little scene where a Canadian soldier very naturally and casually uses elegant language. There's one misuse of the word "medievalist," but that might have been intentional. Oh, and "Quebec" must be the code name for the letter "Q" because it's used ad nauseam--to the point of ludicrousness throughout the film, especially at the direst moments.

-- Paul Gross is famous from the delightful TV series "Due South," about a Mountie (Gross) and a Chicago cop who team up to fight crime. (This Canadian creation was delightful until the Americans took it over and ruined it.)

--A few lovely pro-life (as regards new life) scenes.

--Filmed in Manitoba and Jordan.

--Because of the episodic-ness, there is no prolonged or sustained suspense (except for the gun battles). You never feel like something really bad is going to happen....

--This film made me think about suicide and war. The elements of suicide in every war.

--How do you measure "winning" in a war like this? Pete says it's not about winning, it's about preventing the craziest crazies from getting in power.

--War movies are the real horror films.

--It was good for history to be reiterated through this film, in order to put the saga that is Afghanistan in perspective (from B.C. to the recent Russian fiasco).

--A lovely little documentary:  "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0439130 Also a book: "Kabul Beauty School." I also recommend the 2010 war doc filmed in Afghanistan: "Restrepo." My review: http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2010/07/movies-restrepo.html#.ViFMRfmrSM8

--The deeper question of "why does the USA/Canada go to war?" has become even more problematic than ever in an "anything goes" world. Are highly-trained, highly-disciplined, self-sacrificing soldiers fighting to preserve the right of people back home to do absolutely anything they want? Are they fighting for wanton license back home and using the rule of law to flatten laws, create a climate  of lawlessness  or create tyrannical laws based on pure subjectivity? When there's no longer a common goal and ideals, no shared ethics, no agreement about what human dignity even is--how do you fight to uphold it?

One of the last sacrosanct taboos is to harm a child. Yet abortion is legal and there are those pushing for the "rights" of a child to be free from the upbringing, mores, morality and religion of their parents (which, of course, is swiftly replaced by those of the State). There are those pushing for the "right" of a child to be "sexually active" (including with adults) and to do away with the "discriminatory" concept of childhood altogether. Perhaps these incongruous realities are subconsciously as crazy-making to a soldier's psyche as an IED.

October 9, 2015