Friday, March 25, 2016

Nosh 8: 'Pee-wee's Big Holiday' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (review of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday)
Actor Paul Reubens’s arrest for indecent exposure, in a Sarasota theater in 1991, sparked a media storm that was like a juvenile joke on the old, sordid carnival of celebrity scandals. On leave from his popular, cultish gig as infantile but weirdly hip Pee-wee Herman, Reubens had gone to the local theater as himself. His dazed mug shot, in beard and T-shirt, was a career crusher. Crazed moralists clearly didn’t share the ironic recognition of some fans: that the winkingly suggestive but sexually neutered Pee had, at least, discovered masturbation. Reubens’s little empire collapsed.

In 1978 he had created Herman as a skit figure, who went viral (in pre-Web terms). Fans loved his silly, goof-dork version of their lost childhoods. He hired Tim Burton to perfect Pee-wee’s style package, and in 1985 their elegant comedy Pee-wee’s Big Adventure earned six times its $7 million budget (a 1988 sequel flopped, its Big Top humor having reached an apex when Chaplin made 1928’s The Circus). The saddest scandal victim was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, after five TV seasons of inventive, whimsically edgy comedy that kids loved (so did their parents, from a different angle).

Reubens, in and out of Pee-wee, has had many gigs since, including a Broadway show that rallied diehard fans. In the Netflix production Pee-wee’s Big Holiday he is, at 63, twice his age when he made Big Adventure. Despite great make-up and some digital nip-tuck, he seems both ageless and a bit baked (hints of midriff bulge, a touch of sag in profile). Director John Lee is no master of quirky revels like Burton, but he shows devotion with this genial throwback. The hero’s obscure sexuality remains hidden somewhere in the seam line where Herman merges with Reubens (who might as well, by now, change his first name to Paul-wee or Pee-Paul).

This time, the dapper little guy has a bromantic but innocent crush on massive Joe Mangianello, the HBO werewolf star and Magic Mike beef-dish. In Herman’s cozy Ike Era town, Joe reveals that he shares enthusiasms just as childish. Their fast bond lures Pee-wee to New York, which doesn’t work for him a whole lot better than for Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Still, the fun includes a snappy send-up of the  opening of On the Town, and before NYC another retro bundle has Pee-wee fending off aggressive hick chicks, like Tony Perkins nervously afflicted by similar cornballs in Friendly Persuasion. The episode of Herman making balloon fart-music sounds for Amish yokels achieves real purity of Pee.

Big Holiday provides overdue compensation for the cheesy scandal, that rather asinine fit of hysteria. There are some flat patches and the subversive streak is fairly anemic. I miss Pee-wee’s bike! But the soft laffs and numerous chuckles include the funny return of Diane Salinger, who was sexy Simone in the 1985 film. The new movie is a fond smile, like coming upon a Pee-wee doll that you lost years ago in the attic. You pick it up and giggle.    

SALAD (A List)
As usual there was debate about the latest top Oscar winner, though Spotlight was a good choice (if not, to my taste, better than Brooklyn, The Martian or the un-nominated Joy, Carol and Trumbo). Oscar has made plenty of mistakes, and as a sample here are 20 Best Pictures (and the Better Films They Beat):

You Can’t Take It With You (over Grand Illusion, 1938), Rebecca (over The Grapes of Wrath, 1940), How Green Was My Valley (over Citizen Kane, 1941), Mrs. Miniver (over The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942), Going My Way (over Double Indemnity, 1944), Gentleman’s Agreement (over Great Expectations, 1947), Hamlet (over Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948), All About Eve (over Sunset Boulevard, 1950), My Fair Lady (over Dr. Strangelove, 1964), In the Heat of the Night (over Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Rocky (over Taxi Driver, 1976), Ordinary People (over Raging Bull, 1980), Chariots of Fire (over Atlantic City, 1981), Out of Africa (over Prizzi’s Honor, 1985), Forrest Gump (over Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, 1994), Braveheart (over Sense and Sensibility, 1995), A Beautiful Mind (over Gosford Park, 2001), Million Dollar Baby (over Sideways, 2004 ), Crash (over Capote, 2005) and Slumdog Millionaire (over Milk, 2008). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In “Raising Kane,” her flawed but hugely readable 1971 essay on Citizen Kane, Pauline Kael had this to say about young Citizen Orson: “What I had once enjoyed but now found almost mysteriously beautiful was Orson Welles’s performance. An additional quality of old movies is that people can be seen as they once were … Many years later, Welles remarked, ‘Like most performers I prefer a live audience to that lie-detector full of celluloid.’ Maybe his spoiled-baby face was just too nearly perfect for the role, and he knew it, and knew the hostile humor that lay behind (writer Herman) Mankiewicz’s  putting so much of him in the role of Hearst, the braggart self-publicist.” (From The Citizen Kane Book, also found in Kael’s compendium For Keeps).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Nobody packed more versatile creativity into his movie breakout years than Alec Guinness. His finest role until The Horse’s Mouth was master thief “Professor” Marcus in Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing gothic The Ladykillers, in 1956: “His genius is foiled by an almost oblivious old doily (Katy Johnson) and, huge scarf trailing, buck teeth protruding, he is like a William F. Buckley vampire (closer to home: critic Kenneth Tynan). Devilishly sardonic, infallibly detailed, too refined for camp but too mordant for simple chuckles, he is perfection. Poor Tom Hanks got stuck with doing the pointless Coen Bros. remake.” (From the Guinness/Horse’s Mouth chapter in my book Starlight Rising, coming soon.)  

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (Lionsgate; director Alexander Mackendrick, cinematographer Otto Heller)

For previous Flix Nosh posts, scroll below.

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