(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Teen Tunes & Tales

For those of us who came of age in the late 1970’s-1980’s, the songs of Journey provided much of the soundtrack for our adolescent lives (along with Queen, Eurythmics, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and, of course, Pet Shop Boys).  The popular rock band put out such now-classics as “Open Arms,” “Faithfully,” “Who’s Crying Now” and “Any Way You Want It,” and even provided a couple of tunes for Disney’s groundbreaking Tron in 1982.

Don’t Stop Believin’:Everyman’s Journey opens today in Southern California theaters and will be available on VOD beginning tomorrow. Drawing its title from one of the group’s biggest hits, which has been re-popularized in recent years thanks to covers in Glee and Rock of Ages, it documents the rise to stardom of current Journey front man Arnel Pineda.  Pineda was born and raised in the Philippines and, following decades of singing with local bands, was chosen by longtime Journey members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain in 2007 after they saw Pineda’s YouTube videos.  They were particularly impressed by how much Pineda sounds like Journey’s original, distinctively-voiced lead singer, Steve Perry.

Pineda had much to overcome beginning at a young age.  His mother, who encouraged Pineda to mimic the vocal stylings of such expert singers as Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, passed away when her son was only 13.  Left with medical debts his father couldn’t pay, Pineda and his siblings were farmed out to other relatives.  Pineda quit school soon after and spent several years working odd jobs and living on the street.  Throughout all his struggles, he maintained his love for music and eventually formed a band in Manila with some of his friends.

As inspiring as much of Pineda’s story is, Filipina director Ramona S. Diaz (Imelda) may be a little too enamored with her subject and, subsequently, comes across at times as less than objective.  Don’t Stop Believin’ is a very by-the-numbers documentary (and overly long at nearly two hours) that keeps things positive and doesn’t delve into any potential current issues/tensions with either Pineda or Journey’s other members.  Although the band is big again thanks in large part to Pineda, they largely recycle former hits and don’t take many musical risks.  If that’s the way Journey wants it then good for them, but it doesn’t make for very compelling cinema.

On the other hand, today’s music-loving teenagers — at least a multi-ethnic group of them living in the South Bronx — are given a frequently invigorating big-screen treatment by experimental French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep).  Gondry’s The We and the I is now playing in New York and is set to open in Los Angeles on March 22nd before expanding nationally.

Set entirely on a city bus, the film follows several teens and their interactions with one another at the end of their last day of school before summer vacation.  The kingpin among them is Michael (played by Michael Brodie, a promising standout among the mostly amateur cast), who with two devotees commandeers the back of the bus.  His position also affords him a place to try to hide from Teresa (played by Teresa Lynn), a budding artist and Michael’s sometime girlfriend who, it turns out, did a drawing of Michael for which he posed nude.  The complex emotional interplay between them serves as the film’s center.

The We and the I represents a return to successful form for Gondry after 2011’s big-budget but wretched The Green Hornet, Christoph Waltz’s entertaining villain aside.  Though not as experimental or downright odd as some of his prior films, Gondry is still able to work in some of his trademark visual jokes and artistic references. The dialogue is graphic (usually amusingly so) when it comes to discussion of others’ genitals, sex acts, disabilities and/or race, including prodigious use of “the N-word,” but the screenplay (co-written with Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch) captures the modern teen spirit, lingo and reliance on technology exceptionally well.  It also illustrates a more tolerant, fluid understanding of sexuality among today’s teens than prior generations, with both gay and lesbian couples as well as a trans character on the bus.

As strong as much of The We and the I is, it suffers somewhat due to the cast’s more-often-than-not amateurish performances.  The film was made in collaboration with the Point Community Development Corporation, which is striving to improve the quality of life among South Bronx residents.  This is a noble effort that gives a lot of kids who likely wouldn’t have had a chance the opportunity to appear in a feature film by a world-class filmmaker.  Still, some of their line readings and reaction shots are painful and distract from an otherwise worthy production.  The screenplay also gets heavy-handedly serious toward the end.

Fittingly, The We and the I’s soundtrack boasts a cool mix of old school and contemporary rap and hip-hop.  The times may change but music will clearly always be foundational to the teen experience.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey: C+
The We and the I: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.

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