Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

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One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

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