Where’s the sequel/reboot/rehash action right now, before Batman v’s Superman and a second Greek wedding takes place to boot? Not in theaters, where the first part of the two-part (groan) Divergent wind-up Allegiant is playing, and only the few committed fans gave a damn. No, it’s on Netflix, where Pee-wee Herman has returned, in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
TV has been kindest to Paul Reubens’ lovably eccentric man-child, with HBO showcasing Pee-wee in an HBO special in 1981 and the Emmy-winning Pee-wee’s Playhouse delighting a generation of kids whose own kids don’t know what Saturday morning programming was all about. (There’s none left on the major networks.) Reubens converted Playhouse into a Broadway hit in the 2010-2011 season. The movies were up–then way, way down. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a surprise hit in 1985, did more to define the character for an audience of a certain hip-to-the-vibe age (me) than any other incarnation. But Big-Top Pee-wee (1988) was an atrocity, one that killed my interest in Pee-wee long before Reubens’ porn theater antics.
Big Holiday rewinds the clock to some semblance of Pee-wee’s glory year of 1985, and the first part–another, more elaborate, contraption-happy series of wake-up gags, and an introduction to the town and townspeople of placid Fairville, Pee-wee’s home–works like a charm. It doesn’t take long, however, to recall that much of what made Big Adventure a big adventure was the sensibility of director Tim Burton, composer Danny Elfman, and a production team that caught cult figure lightning in a bottle. My kids adore Big Adventure, and Playhouse; psyched for Pee-wee’s return, they were restless after 20 minutes, and so was I. What happened?
Partly, age. Reubens was in his 30s in Pee-wee’s prime, a good man-child age; at 63, he’s pushing it, and the makeup has turned to glaze. It’s not Mae West/Sextette-level horrifying, but we’re more aware of the seams holding the character together. (It doesn’t help that he’s given Pee-wee a girlish shriek, heard once too often, and seems to have lost command over quirks and mannerisms we’ve all internalized.) Mostly, it’s the story he and co-writer Paul Rust have devised, which is longer on whimsical doodling than actual laughs. (But, at 90 minutes, much shorter than producer Judd Apatow’s baggier two-hour comedies.)
Working as a short-order cook at the neighborhood diner, Pee-wee meets actor Joe Manganiello, playing…actor Joe Manganiello, co-star of True Blood and Magic Mike. (“You think I would’ve heard of that one,” giggles Pee-wee at the latter credit, coyly tip-toeing to the sexual identity that dare not speak its name. I know you are, but what am I?) Pee-wee and Joe wax bromantic for a few minutes, and Pee-wee, upset that his band (the clean-cut “Renegades”) has disbanded, accepts Joe’s challenge–to leave Fairville for a few days and come out to New York for Joe’s birthday party. What begins as a simple car ride quickly goes haywire, as Pee-wee is abducted by a girl gang (“Are you witches?” he asks), takes flight with an aviatrix (played by Diane Salinger, a holdover from Big Adventure), falls in with the Amish, and falls into a hole in Central Park.
My kids leaving the TV room when they did wasn’t the worst thing to happen–they missed the male stripper scene with the girl gang (whose number includes the gentler “Pee-wee,” played by Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) and some other innuendo. None of it terribly edgy, just unexpected, and unlikely to sit well with nervous parents given Netflix’s family-friendly marketing. Director John Lee is a veteran of Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and numerous Adult Swim shows, so I assume the mildly “grownup” tone was his addition. But it clashes with Pee-wee’s candy-colored attitude; worse, it isn’t funny. Then again, not much else is. This is a painless return, but a puzzling one. Are there things we couldn’t, shouldn’t understand about Pee-wee Herman? Paul Reubens has torn his playhouse down, and left his character spiritually homeless.
Pee-wee isn’t the only audience favorite to return to Netflix. Sixteen years after its release, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the most successful foreign-language film ever released in the U.S. Those were the days: The belated followup is streaming only in this country, and was filmed in English to boot. Stripped of the magical, ethereal qualities of Lee’s classic, the continuation, Sword of Destiny, is pretty much on the level of a competent Hong Kong production, with only the regal presence of Michelle Yeoh connecting the two. She’s back as Yu Shu Lien, up to her exquisitely frocked neck in intrigue involving the Green Destiny sword, which is pursued by various adventurers. These include a former flame and occasional stealth protector, Silent Wolf (Ip Man star Donnie Yen), Snow Vase, a young woman with a past (Australian model Natasha Liu Bordizzo), Wei Fang (Glee co-star Harry Shum, Jr.), who has some connection to the sword, and the bad guy, the balefully named Hades Dai. He’s played by Jason Scott Lee, an actor I’ve liked since Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), and seeing him in a movie with HK godz Yeoh and Yen was a little thrill.
The problem with Sword of Destiny is that it’s all little thrills–like a mediocre musical that’s wall-to-wall with undistinguished songs, there’s an action scene every five minutes, with few that stand out. (An ice battle toward the end, one that benefits from taking place on an actual set, Shaw Brothers-style, than the too-frequent CGI-scapes, is a highlight.) Renowned choreographer and director Yuen Woo-ping gets the job done, with neither fuss nor personal investment. On its own, this is workmanlike entertainment for your queue; as a proper sequel to Lee’s film, Sword of Destiny doesn’t cut it.
So: What to do with foreign and foreign-language films anymore? Theatrical audiences for them are tiny. After extremely modest releases, the answer is, stream them. With Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu pouring money into their own films and buying higher-profile English-language movies on the festival circuit, it’s hard to predict what will happen to this distribution channel, but for now, it’s a viable niche.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to see a Norwegian disaster movie, and you’re not living near one of the 37 theaters showing it, you can catch The Wave here. I suggest you do so: it’s good, and the subtitles make it more refined and educational than if Pierce Brosnan were in it, worrying about rock formations cleaving off, tumbling into a fjord, and generating a 300′ tall tsunami that threatens a tourist town. Other than the wave, however, the movie is small scale–more The Impossible than San Andreas–allowing for some character development along the way, as a geologist identifies the problem (the film was inspired by an actual incidents) and balances work/life issues before havoc strikes.
Under siege is the pastoral village of Gerainger, which is so folksy a fellow geologist says things like “yessiree Bob” (no subtitles). When it’s given ten minutes to evacuate as the growling water slaloms down, the terrifying events transpire in real time, and the movie (tricked out with fine effects work) ratchets up the suspense. The aftermath, staged largely in a flooded hotel, is effectively staged, with the sort of breath-holding suspense that translates across all language barriers. (Will the geologist’s teen son take off his headphones and get off his skateboard in time to avert catastrophe? Stay tuned.) Sure, director Roar Uthaug’s take on the genre is utterly familiar, but it works the nerves efficiently, and earned him a shot at reviving the Tomb Raider series. With a name like “Roar,” he’ll go far in Tinseltown.
Canada, which flexed its muscles with the tough-minded kid pic Snowtime!, gets even burlier and more macho with the expensive-ish epic Hyena Road. Playing in 10 theaters “down south,” it’s grossed $1,403, a sum I pretty much have in my wallet. I admit it’s money that got me to watch the movie, when the ever-amusing Guy Maddin went on the offensive against the film. As of this writing, I declare Maddin the Stateside “winner,” as his recent film, The Forbidden Room, has grossed–$34,000. Justin, we have an export problem. This being Canada, Paul Gross, the director and star of Hyena Road (beloved in my home for Slings and Arrows) says he has no hard feelings toward Maddin.
It’s difficult for an outsider to have any feelings toward Hyena Road, a chronicle of Canada’s ten-year involvement in the Afghanistan conflict, with Gross as an intelligence officer who enlists the aid of a sniper (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald) to track down “The Ghost,” an Afghan freedom fighter who could turn the tide against the Taliban. Gross, a veteran of a First World War movie equally unknown here (Passchendaele), is the best thing about his movie, which is predictably plotted and despite the domestic flavoring adheres to a Hollywood template in every significant way. Streaming has is a useful tool for finding movies that have gone off the grid; the movies themselves could take a few more risks.