Friday, January 22, 2010

The Pee-Wee Herman Show (2010)

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have gone by since the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse TV series ceased production, and nearly 30 years since Pee-Wee Herman’s stage debut, but these unavoidable facts are even harder to believe when witnessing the new live The Pee-Wee Herman Show currently playing in Los Angeles. The seemingly ageless Paul Reubens has finally returned to his most famous role, and in dusting off his Pee-Wee character he has also recreated the colorful, puppet-filled environment of the TV show in gasp-inducing detail. It’s as if someone sealed the TV show in a time capsule and finally decided to pop the cap this month to rediscover its fondly remembered treasures. That’s not to say it’s all kitsch and reminiscence, as Reubens includes a few nods to modern times and a sly dig at his most notorious moment, but for the most part the new show is a direct continuance of the TV show and the original stage show.

The show opens with Reubens emerging solo from side stage before the curtain goes up, giving the audience a chance to register that yes, it really is him and yes, he can still fully pull off the character. Then the curtain rises, unveiling the resplendent Playhouse in all of its glory. The jaggy padded door! Chairry! Globey! Conky the Robot! Mr. Window! The gang is all here, with plenty more visitors dropping by as the show progresses. Reubens has reassembled key human players from the original show: Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Mailman Mike (John Moody), and Jambi the Genie (John Paragon), and they all admirably keep up with Pee-Wee’s youthful exuberance. Cowboy Curtis has been recast with Phil LaMarr, doing a fine job filling Laurence Fishburne’s large boots. As for new arrivals, there’s a handyman named Sergio, a firefighter, and a seemingly mute bear who acts as a foil for Pee-Wee through most of the show, dropping in to annoy him from time to time. There’s even a word of the day, eliciting the expected fanatical response from the crowd whenever it’s uttered throughout the show.

Viewers looking for a strong story came to the wrong show, but the two nominal plotlines involve Pee-Wee’s wish that he could fly and a budding romance between Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis. The story is really just an excuse to continue the guest visits to the Playhouse, and therein lies a slight weakness to the final product. Where the TV show excelled in its half-hour format, providing just enough time to visit all the characters and revel in Pee-Wee’s humor without wearing out its welcome, the stage show’s nearly 90 minute running time makes it seem like an overly long episode. While it’s thrilling to see the old characters make their initial appearance on stage, by the time they pop back around for their second, third, and more visits it starts to get a bit tiring. Still, there’s enough variety and continual humor that it’s difficult to find any real fault with the show’s structure. Mostly, it’s just great to see Reubens back in the gray suit, and it’s hopefully the start of Pee-Wee’s long-overdue return to glory.

The Pee-Wee Herman Show is currently playing at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles through February 7th, 2010. For ticket availability, visit Ticketmaster.

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Monday, January 18, 2010


American laziness reaches its peak in the futuristic thriller Surrogates. In the film’s look at the future, citizens have been completely replaced by their robotic avatars, idealized versions of themselves who carry out their daily duties while their human controllers stay home in their jammies jacked into their control chairs.

When an unregistered robot is destroyed under mysterious circumstances, ace investigator Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is called in to find some answers. Greer is a damaged individual still grappling with the accidental death of his son that also left his wife disfigured and despondent. Their robots still interact, but his wife has completely sequestered herself from all human contact including Greer, leaving him lonely and longing for a real relationship. This longing leaves him decidedly less enamored of the impersonal robot life than his fellow citizens, so when his robot is destroyed in the course of his investigation he’s only too happy to get back into action as a real person.

Greer’s investigation leads him to the creator of the robot avatars, an unstable tycoon named Canter (James Cromwell) who is also mourning the death of a son. As an inventor and the head of the massive conglomerate responsible for the growth of the robot culture, he’s in a position to take some drastic and unorthodox measures that could impact both the robot and human population. While Greer and Canter clearly start out on opposing sides, there’s little surprise that the combination of a grieving inventor and a disillusioned cop will result in some global implications by the final frame.

The movie was based on a little-known graphic novel of the same name and translates fairly well to live action as a concept, but not so much as compelling entertainment. The need for highly idealized avatars means that all of the “actors” in the film look and act like they were recruited from modeling agencies, a plus for their perfect bone structure and physiques but a definite minus for acting talent. Willis is basically the only real actor with substantial screen time, and his interactions with the other no-name cast members expose the deep chasm in acting abilities between them. Also, the film’s wig department went crazy with their quest for mannequin-like hair, in particular giving Willis-as-robot a ridiculous floppy blonde ‘do and foisting a preposterous dreadlock mess on Ving Rhames. It’s difficult to take the film seriously when the hair is so distracting. Finally, director Jonathan Mostow seems asleep at the wheel here, failing to create any real emotional resonance, drama, or even decent action set pieces. As a result, the film just exists as a curiosity for viewers interested in the concept but fails to deliver any truly memorable moments. Thankfully, it clocks in at less than 90 minutes long, so it’s a brief distraction at best.

The Blu-ray presentation exposes the source film as being oddly grainy, like it was shot on low-grade film stock. It’s strange that a futuristic study of perfection has such imperfect images. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack has decent separation and is suitably bass-heavy during the rare action moments. The disc’s bonus features include a featurette on the reality of mind-controlled robots, an exploration of the evolution of the concept from graphic novel to film, four deleted scenes, and a music video. Surrogates is available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 26th.

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