Pee-wee’s Big Holiday
What a wonderful world we live in that Pee-wee Herman is returned to it for the long-delayed second-coming he, and his audience, deserves. If the delay was closer to three decades than the canonical three days the clergy proposed when it foresaw Pee-wee’s eventual arrival into the world centuries beforehand, the sabbatical he took is mostly worth it. It’s true that the screenplay for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday feels a touch too hipster-speckled for its own good, but the writing – and Paul Reuben’s not-a-beat-missed (or a year for that matter) performance – is refreshingly jejune, absent even a whiff of cloying post-modernism or stultifying irony.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday feels a little like the second Pee-wee film Tim Burton might have gotten around to had he not been lured down the money-making rabbit hole of superhero entertainment. Pee-wee, in his own way, is a much more robust role model for the modern age than Batman ever was, precisely because Reubens’ hothouse of insouciant charm is not entwined in the plastic neoliberalism so constantly reified by each and every superhero film that nominally proposes a critique of said modern political individualism. Pee-wee, after all, is a rebel, and his rebellious first feature film was certainly a more bonafide hero’s journey tale than Burton’s sacrosanct first Batman picture (Burton, admittedly, got it right with Edward Scissorhands, the depressive downside to Pee-wee’s manic overdrive, and again with Batman Returns, a German expressionist carnival ride masquerading as a superhero film to accrue an audience and nothing more).
Then again, part of Pee-wee’s appeal is his relative mystique, his plasticity, the fact that he exists more as a vaguely nebulous conglomerate of unfettered ticks and closeted traits rather than as a dogmatic scripture to be held to. Someone like Batman is too engulfed in decades of mythology to even emerge from his own innards, but Pee-wee feels like a cosmic force of nature beholden to no one but his own whims. He’s an instantly malleable confection, and the film understands that by casting him as a short order cook with a heart of gold, a beacon of forever youth in a time when the world seems to be getting older by the minute. The moral of the film, wonderfully architecturalized in its go-for-broke fleeing from scene-to-scene structure, is to remain on our toes, to exist in the moment, and to find off-kilter beauty wherever life takes you. A somnambulism-prone figure like the Dark Knight could never pull that off, especially when encased in Zack Snyder’s funereal gloom.
This Pee-wee is closer to his television incarnation than the more brashly anarchistic, even destructive harbinger of Looney Tunes insanity essayed by Reubens in Burton’s feature film debut. But his revelry here is still pinched by the neatly supple undercurrent of renegade road rage bubbling underneath his heavily-manicured veneer of innocence. Director John Lee understands the barely-sane energy necessary to cultivate Pee-wee into more than a one-joke pony, and he and his production team cascade the screen with nicely trimmed, pastel-ornamented, screen-real-estate-occupying beauty that shines brightest in the amusingly Reagenesque, Sunnyvale, CA town of Fairville Pee-wee calls home. Until, of course, he’s confronted with his diametric opposite in hulking adventurer Joe Manganiello, who takes a liking to Pee-wee and beckons that he cross-country venture to his birthday party in New York City.
Along the way, Pee-wee meets a motley crew of temperamental types, most salaciously a trio of vamps out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (the Pee-wee crypto-’50s spirit alive and well). The journey isn’t perfect, nor is the film; as with any episodic journey, the whole is necessarily less than the sum of the best parts. But the episodism itself is an apt, playful expression of living life for the moment. The un-complicated, uninhibited homoeroticism between the two male leads ain’t half bad either. It’s certainly a step up from the neutered, disfigured Big Top Pee-wee. And in the age of sequelitis, it’s nice to find a follow-up that is lithe and light-on-its-feet, rather than one that doubles and triples down on the calories until its corpulent form can barely stand at all.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
Yuen Woo-ping’s sixteen-years-later sequel to Ang Lee’s magisterial Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – still the highest grossing foreign language production in the US box office, perhaps inspiring the English language treatment of this sequel – wears the venerable spirit of its predecessor less like a soul and more like a diaphanous cloak. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) returns, and Woo-ping, who choreographed the original feature’s martial arts, isn’t flairless in the director’s chair. But this feature feels less like a riposte or paean to that production and more like dry run through everything Woo-ping’s US efforts (The Matrix, most notably) have done to stop action filmmaking dead in its tracks over the ensuing decade and a half.
That’s not an assault on Woo-ping, mind you, but a critique of how US production-house wolves have handled him more like a blunt tool than a pen capable of dynamic flourish and artistic resplendence. Ang Lee, a director known by now for his meddling in B-genres with wishes to transform them into soul-fire beauties and ballets of psychology and geometry, was a bosom buddy of Woo-ping, a fellow traveler who brandished his choreographer like an incisive calligrapher’s utensil. Alone, in this sequel, Woo-ping reduces himself to the tendencies he expects American producers to pine for – or perhaps the ones those producers slobbered upon him. The results are a back-to-basics, bare-bones action flick calibrated for maximum efficiency and zero poetry.
Which isn’t inherently a flaw; after all, in recent years, works like The Raid and John Wick have discovered the harmony between tangible efficiency and fluid, if not florid, ballet, but the key for both was the art-house grotto veneer that descended into their skeletal beings. Their guiding lights were the lean-and-mean Melville, Peckinpah, Fuller and the like, not the Tarkovskys or Malicks wedded to Lee’s aesthetic. The potential appeal of Woo-ping’s more flash-bang aesthetic is slashing away extraneous material to render a beautiful bloody pulp of a film.
The potential is especially promising in light of Lee’s predilection as a director for cloying symbolism. Even at his best, he is too wedded to narrative and character, too assured in the composure of his images, to indulge the sublimity of those Tarkovskys or Malicks at their most wandering-camera best – where images go beyond calibrated meaning and into the exalted realm of exploratory transcendence. If Sword of Destiny has any value at all, it is exploring its own more carnal, corporeal, physical impulses stripped of the more intangible, feather-light flight of Lee’s admittedly pretentious, self-consciously airy but radiant imagery.
Yet Woo-ping’s film arrives encased in a digital halitosis of soft-focus beauty less resplendent, as in Lee’s film, than noxious, weirdly indulgently reveling in its New Zealand photography – much like an ugly stepchild of The Lord of the Rings dressing up in its parent’s clothing. The plastic sheen draped over Sword of Destiny is an incriminating act of self-sabotage, denying the piece its passable pleasure as a throwback Shaw Brothers style flick bred in the grotto or the gutter.
Instead, we’re watching a film perilously pining for both art-house beauty and fleet-fingered pummeling, impulses that aren’t wedded – in this film, at least – at all. With the exception of a shimmering pas de deux atop a starlight frozen pond, a sequence that achieves a lovely incorporeality, we’re watching a simulacrum of Lee’s elegance clashing with a screenplay that foregrounds cartoon characters more notable for their choice of weapon than their psychology. The true quarrelers in Sword of Destiny are not any human players on the screen, but the clashing tones in a film vying for homage to its eminently poised predecessor and appealing to the baser, more cutthroat impulses of a chop socky film. In trying to have it both ways, the film not only isn’t playing fair, but it ends up succeeding at neither.