Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

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fourstar

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Is it possible for someone to have an unbiased opinion on Pee-wee Herman in 2016? It seems like everyone in the world even remotely in tune with the pop culture landscape probably knows by now whether or not they’re on board with Paul Reubens’ man-child alter-ego & his home planet of eternal 50s kitsch. I guess for the purposes of this review I should go ahead & confess my own bias: I’m a wholly committed fan of everything P.W. Herman. The long-defunct television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse is one of my favorite examples of modern surrealism. His 1985 cinematic debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains my all-time favorite Tim Burton feature (though Ed Wood is a close second). I’ll even stand up for the much-hated sophomore feature Big Top Pee-wee, which I think is underappreciated for its off-putting sense of tongue-in-cheek camp. I love Pee-wee so much I should probably marry him.

So, yeah, to say that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a for-fans-only venture is a bit of a redundancy, since all Pee-wee content is something of an acquired taste. The direct-to-Netflix production is only different from earlier Herman outings in that it feels like it was made by fans (who now happen to be moderately famous). Heavy-hitter comedy producer Judd Apatow, Comedy Bang Bang regular & creator of the excellent Netflix series Love (also produced by Apatow) Paul Rust, and director/multi-media artist John Lee (who had an absurdly subversive/satirical run with the projects PFFR, Wonder Showzen, and Xavier: Renegade Angel) all come together to form a really geeky Pee-wee Herman fan club, making Pee-wee’s Big Holiday out to be something of a labor of love (or a dream come true, depending on your perspective). And the president of this fan club just happens to be none other than Magic Mike XXL star/popular kid Joe Manganiello, who appears here as the film’s hunky MacGuffin.

In the same way J.J. Abrams recently took the reins of the mighty Star Wars empire by mirroring past story lines in The Force Awakens, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tries to revive Herman’s prominence in the world by returning to the roots of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The similarities between Big Adventure & Big Holiday are unavoidable, even right there in the titles. Both films are road trip comedies. Both open with needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. Both feature surrealist dream sequences (this time with a Mac & Me-style alien instead of the much more terrifying clown surgeons of yesteryear). Both feature former new wave punk legends on their scores (this time Mark Mothersbaugh instead of Danny Elfman). Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished.

While working as a short-order cook at a 50s-style diner in the Pleasantville-esque town of Fairville, Pee-Wee is shocked to discover that his doo-wop band is calling it quits, a blow that pretty much puts an end to his social life. Stuck in a hopeless rut, it takes a chance encounter with Joe Manganiello (starring as his wonderful self) to convince Pee-wee to break free from his milquetoast lifestyle & explore the world outside Fairville on a quest to attend Manganiello’s birthday party in NYC. Along the way he meets a long line of eccentrics played by mainstays from past Pee-wee projects & minor comedic personalities. His run-ins with traveling novelty product salesmen, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!-style gangsters (who include among them Arrested Development/The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat wearing the exact angora sweater director Ed Wood spent a lifetime fetishizing), strange mountain men, Amish folk, and sassy beauty salon weirdos are all entertaining in a lighthearted, episodic sort of way, but they all exist merely to support Herman’s madness-in-repetition comedic stylings, which are just as top notch as ever.

It’s easy to see why Lee, Rust, Apatow, and company would return to the road trip format for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s also billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops. All else should be pleased to know that Big Holiday is more like Big Adventure than Big Top (which I still contend is under-loved) and should pretty much already know whether or not they’ll have fun with what’s delivered.

-Brandon Ledet

40 Indignities I Suffered to Watch John Waters’ Cameo in Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip (2015)

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John Waters is my favorite director of all time. He may even be my favorite human being of all time. His own personal sense of irony & self-amusement knows no bounds, though, which is how I ended up in a movie theater in the middle of the afternoon watching the fourth live-action Alvin & The Chipmunks feature, Road Chip, despite having never seen a Chipmunks movie prior. Much of the Internet was freaking out over the weekend about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is an undeniable phenomenon, but there was also a lot of confused excitement about John Waters, who is his own kind of phenomenon, appearing in the latest Chipmunks feature.

At first the John Waters/Chipmunks connection may seem a bit arbitrary & absurd, but the two entities aren’t entirely unrelated. For instance, I’ve never seen a Chipmunks movie before, but I do remember a trailer for one of the earlier entries (possibly the first?) involving a gag in which one of the Chipmunks eats a turd (because who wouldn’t love to see one of their favorite childhood cartoon characters do that?). Of course, this gag parallels one of Waters’ more infamous stunts: the time he filmed Divine eating dog shit at the end of his gross-out trashterpiece Pink Flamingos. I could’ve saved you the gruesome details of that connection just by informing you that Waters is an outspoken fan of the Chipmunks & probably simply requested to appear in a cameo for the franchise, but where would be the fun in that?

I am going to save you the emotional turmoil of actually watching Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip by describing here the entirety of John Waters’ brief scene in the film. He appears as himself, flying first class alone on a flight to Miami. Alvin, the star chipmunk, sloppily eats a plate of spaghetti or some such next to Waters, who feigns being disgusted. Alvin asks something to the effect of, “What’s the matter, you’ve never been on a flight with a chipmunk before?” Waters scoffs, “Actually, I was on on a flight with the Chipettes [more on them later] and they were ladies.” Alvin then closes the exchange with the punchline, “Don’t you judge me. I’ve seen Pink Flamingos.”

And that about wraps it up. In order to witness this brief exchange, which is admittedly pretty cute, I suffered through a 90 minute Alvin & The Chipmunks feature I could’ve happily died without ever seeing. There were too many indignities to count haunting this embarrassment of an experience, but I’ll do my best to list as many that come to mind below. Please do not repeat my mistake. Love yourself.

1. Purchasing a ticket for Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip. I currently work at a movie theater, so my ticket was comped, but still. It was mildly embarrassing to have to ask for one adult ticket for Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip in the middle of a rainy afternoon. Funnily enough, in Waters’ interviews about his cameo in the film, he expresses his delight about when he’ll be able to see the film in the theater, since he’ll have the perverse delight of requesting one senior ticket for Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip. I guess it’s a pleasure that improves with age.

2. Watching Road Chip alone among parents & young children. This sometimes feels awkward for me in children’s movie screenings, especially as an adult male. I feel like I’m always giving off at least low-level creep vibes when I watch kids’ movies alone in the theater. It was especially undignified this time, though, because the movie was for a very young audiece. Like, babies.

3. Watching two advertisements for Road Chip prior to the film beginning. In ads for the Road Chip soundtrack & a Road Chip-themed gift card, scenes from the film I resigned myself to sitting down & watching were sadistically warning me of what was soon to come. It was redundant at best, hopelessly cruel at worst.

4. A young child’s forced laughter. Okay, this one kinda makes me out to be a monster, but hear me out. Since the pint-sized audience at my screening was so young, just barely outside of baby range, I ended up seated near a super young child who had no business being in a movie theater. Instead of really watching or interacting with the movie, the kid was faking loud laughter at very odd, arbitrary moments in order to get a reaction out of their very patient, willing-to-please father. I’m not faulting the kid at all for trying to have a good time, but there was something about their loud, forced, fake laughter that rang a little too true to my own experience of desperately trying to find some amusement in a film I also had no business watching.

5. The Chimpunks’ awful voices. I mean, there was a reason I avoided the first three Alvin & The Chipmunks features. Their auto-tuned helium voices are annoying enough in the short-form ads. Experiencing them for an entire full-length feature was near torturous.

6. Feminized versions of Alvin & The Chipmunks. For some reason, this franchise (and possibly its animated source material?) decided it needed female versions of each of the Chipmunks just to wear cute clothes, suggestively gyrate their hips to dance music, and flirtatiously remind you of the meaningless of existence & the random cruelty of life & the universe.

7. A “music by” credit for Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s not enough that my favorite director of all time has a cameo in this film, I also have to deal with the fact that the front-man for my favorite band of all time was even more heavily involved? I know Mothersbaugh has been doing this kind of thing for decades,  but that’s still rough.

8. A cameo from LMFAO’s Redfoo. I can’t tell if this cameo makes Waters’ contribution more or less subversive, but it hurt too watch either way.

9. Urban line dancing.

10. Country line dancing.

11. A fart joke about “pizza toots”.

12. The Chipmunks butchering Gloria Estefan’s “Conga”

13. The following line [delivered by a Chipmunk to their “dad” Dave]: “Any girlfriend of yours is a girlfriend of ours.”

14. The multiple weird insinuations about whether Dave is The Chipmunk’s “real” father or adoptive father.

15. A Chipmunk butchering Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”

16. Being tricked into watching American Idol.

17. Having suffered through the film’s ad campaign frequently enough to recognize that there were gags from the trailer missing in the film.

18. “Dave liked it & he’s gonna put a ring on it.”

19. Watching comedy greats Retta, Jennifer Coolidge, and Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale slum it in larger-than-cameo roles. Hale easily got the worst of it on that front, as he thanklessly plays the film’s antagonist & The Chipmunks’ ever-thwarted foil.

20. The implication that Alvin has watched Pink Flamingos.

21. “I have a very particular set of skills.” Can we retire this reference now?

22. The Chipmunks butchering The Dixie Cups’ [and many others’] “Iko Iko.” This one actually hurt the most out of all the auto-tuned karaoke in the film. It’s a New Orleans classic, a song I grew up loving. And now it’s been soiled.

23. An extended tangent filmed in New Orleans. This included a cleaned-up version of Bourbon Street busking, off-season Mardi Gras beads, a “New Orleans jazz parade”, and a thick-accented local yokel in a mumu demanding that the out-of-towners drink her moonshine.

24. A second-line themed cover of “Uptown Funk”.

25. A gag in which Hale takes a nut shot.

26. A gag in which a parrot shits on Hale’s shoulder.

27. Beats by Dre ad placement.

28. Chuck E. Cheese ad placement.

29. An honest-to-God Santigold song on the soundtrack. Her last record, Master of My Make-Believe, was really fantastic stuff, but it was released over 3 years ago and I feel like I’m just starting to hear her songs in various movies & advertisements. I’m glad Santigold’s getting paid for her legitimately awesome music, but I had no interest in hearing songs I actually like in this film.

30. “Teens today” social media shaming.

31. A false death crisis following a car accident. Oh man, that character totally died, which is a bummer. Except that they’re fine, which is awesome! It’s a common trope in a lot of recent media, one I can’t help but dwell on thanks to critic Tasha Robinson’s excellent piece on The Disney Death.

32. A “Turn Down for What” dance break.

33. A mostly-wasted Taylor Swift archetype.

34. An original song sung at the climax that included a rap breakdown.

35. “Does this look like a face that would survive prison?”

37. A who-cares romantic subplot.

38. A legal proceeding conclusion that recalls the gloriously idiotic conclusion to Mac & Me, except way, way less fun.

39. Finding myself oddly compelled to stick around for scenes playing in tandem with the final credits to receive closure on Tony Hale’s storyline.

40. Three separate incidents of Dave screaming, “Alvin!”. One would’ve been a decent callback. Two is an understandable indulgence in excess. Three is cruel. There’s no need for three “Alvins!”, just as there’s no real need for four Alvin & The Chipmunks movies, but here we are.

I love John Waters with all of my heart, but I can’t say that the emotional toll of these 40 indignities were worth the comedic payoff of his brief cameo. I hope he had fun filming the scene & I hope he has even more fun ordering his senior citizen movie ticket as soon as he has the free time. That’s the only good thing that could’ve come from this. I had no business being there.

-Brandon Ledet