Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I’ve Been Watching at home. Some of this is catch-up that missed the cut last time due to memory loss, so consider this a handy wrap-up of 2016 home viewing to date. I think. More or less. Not counting Netflix series, anyway.
* Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday: Pee-Wee’s back, and Netflix has him! Sure, he’s older and trying not to look or act it, but deep down he’s the same eternal man-youth who quested for his bicycle, built the snazziest playhouse ever seen on Saturday mornings, taught entire generations that weirdness is okay, and…uh, got arrested, served out his sentence, and spent time away from the limelight till the noise from the tabloid hype machines faded. Also, he made Big Top Pee-Wee, possibly the least exciting Pee-Wee project ever. That one took a while for me to get past.
28 years later, it’s time for his next sequel! Once again Our Hero is the strangest guy in his idyllic small town, with his fondness for making up his own schoolyard catchphrases and setting up Rube Goldberg machines across several blocks that someone apparently has to reset for him every single day. When his special new friend Joe Manganiello invites him to a birthday party on the other side of the country, it’s time for Pee-Wee once again to do what else he does best: super daffy road trip! Another series of roadside attractions and antics, another lineup of unreal oddballs to frighten or bemuse, another reason to root for the twee patron saint of naivete and bow ties.
I’m unreasonably picky about my comedy movies nowadays, but within ten minutes I’d set aside my skeptical expectations and laughed at an above-average per-gag rate because of actual amusing sights and dumb rejoinders, and not out of polite reflex nostalgia. I admit I lost out on some appreciation because I’m not a fan of True Blood or Magic Mike and therefore had absolutely no idea who Joe Manganiello was. But Joe obviously means a lot to Pee-Wee, and that’s good enough for me. Easily the second-best film of Pee-Wee’s Big Trilogy.
* Rosewater: Somehow this widely overlooked true-story drama got overlooked in the last two “MCC Home Video Updates”. I refuse to let it go without at least praising Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance as an earnest, defiant captive of Iran’s version of The MAN, at turns alarming and amusing and visually poetic, sometimes all at once. Hopefully first-time director Jon Stewart won’t let the public’s quiet response discourage him from pursuing his next passion project, whatever it may be.
* Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s eccentricities can be fun to indulge whether they’re earnest or precious, but they’re not a guaranteed win for me (cf. The Life Aquatic). There’s value to be had in watching big-time actors like Bruce Willis and Edward Norton acting like overly arch storybook characters, but I lost some sympathy after the part where two young teens mingle in their underwear and I’m supposed to find it…I dunno, sweet? Quaint? Endearing? Nostalgic? I answered None of the Above and shook my head through the rest of the movie.
* Downfall: Once upon a time it was a critically acclaimed Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film, a historical ensemble drama set during WWII’s final days that haunted and guided viewers through the dreary, desperate corridors of Hitler’s bunker like a Bizarro-World West Wing. Then someone online snipped out Hitler’s showiest outburst, rewrote the subtitles, and launched the first of a hundred thousand quickie videos spoofing any and every known source of internet outrage, great or small. In context, after a parade of losses and humiliation (sometimes the Allies’ doing, sometimes their own), the claustrophobic come-to-Adolf meeting is a harrowing moment for Der Führer’s closest toadies, knowing too well the boss they’ve followed through the worst of orders would fire or execute all of them on the spot if he could afford to lose any more head count. Even after that dressing-down, the worst was yet to come. Skip the memes and see the real thing in all its unflinching candor instead.
* The Hit: I’d never heard of this obscure 1984 British gangster drama till it showed up on the Criterion shelf at our local Barnes & Noble. Terence Stamp is an affable ex-informant wrested from witness protection by hitmen looking to score money off locating him — a grizzled John Hurt trying to play it cool and silent, and a then-unknown Tim Roth as his hot-headed motormouth of a partner, a mere pup of 23 when the film was released, several years before Reservoir Dogs inspired America’s first Roth fans. Their battleground isn’t the England of Oscar-winning royalty biopics, but the distant, desolate countrysides where the creatures borne of its seedy underbelly drop off the bodies. It’s by no means a cheery standoff between the trio, but the collision between the differently macho generations is at times mesmerizing. Brownie points for giving a bit part to young Ric Olie from Marvel’s Agent Carter.
* The Ten Commandments: The years-ago DVD release helpfully parted the movie in two like Moses and the Red Sea, dividing it neatly for me into a two-night event, like the networks used to do with miniseries back when those were a thing. I’d love to be able to enjoy and recommend more films about the Bible, but this one occasionally drags as the Very Important Epics of yesteryear tended to whenever they aimed for comprehensive, sprawling, unedited narrative as if twentieth-century audiences would rather spend an entire weekend in the theater and never go home. I’m usually fine with Charlton Heston’s commanding presence, but when that burning bush pushes the limits of my threshold for cheesy special effects, and Moses descends Mount Horeb with a new wig three sizes too big…actually, that livened up the proceedings, but maybe in not quite the tone that the makers intended. And I love that Anne Baxter doesn’t just chew the scenery as Nefertiti; it’s like she’s playing an aging Eve Harrington from All About Eve bitterly playing Nefertiti after her own fall from Hollywood favor and delivering a stellar meta-performance for savvy TCM fans.
* Bring It On: From the director of Ant-Man! The only other Peyton Reed film I’d seen prior was Down with Love, but I can see how all those dynamically shot scenes of stylized gymnastic intensity made a strong case for Reed’s potential as an action-comedy director. In a fairer world Gabrielle Union and the East Compton Clovers would be the stars here and Kirsten Dunst’s accidental cheer-plagiarists would be a one-scene diversion dispatched with an eye-roll and a hand-wave. In an even fairer world I wouldn’t laugh at Jesse Bradford’s faint trace of a fake sneer and his upper-class punkster rebellion against cool kids or Top-40 or whatever. I recognized a few lines that went on to be quoted forever, and Eliza Dushku, near the time when the Buffyverse would become her big thing, goes a long way toward saving the day and papering over the California adult-teen veneer.
* Inside Llewyn Davis: The semiannual Criterion Collection half-off sale strikes again! Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens relaunched the galaxy and launched a few careers, Oscar Isaac had already enjoyed the chance of a lifetime working with the Coen Brothers on this fictional tour through the 1960s NYC folk-music scene in its primitive days, when mousy housewives and plucky soldier boys alike could take a stage and croon to their heart’s content. Alas, poor Llewyn Davis stumbles his way through the tatters of a wannabe career hobbled by early tragedy, stubbornly sticks to his wandering-minstrel lifestyle to the detriment of enablers like Carey Mulligan and Neelix from Voyager, blows his one chance to impress F. Murray Abraham, prides himself on not selling out and snaps at doting fans who assume he takes requests. Outside of a nighttime road trip with John Goodman and the Tron: Legacy guy that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film (it’s just Coen characters riffing as they’re wont to do), it’s educational watching Isaac’s forlorn troubadour trudge through the moody cityscape in search of a gig or just a buck, only to realize too late that if you can’t connect to the people around you on a basic level of decency, you’ll have nothing but uphill battles trying to connect to entire audiences full of them.