Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and eight more movies

Today, a mysterious man's nine appointments, a smile frozen on Frankenstein, anti-nuke mutants living downtown, adolescent singing punks, toking through time three times, a bloated music video, and a boy's bike gets stolen.



Nov. 28, 2022

• The Bill & Ted trilogy (1989, 1992, 2020)
Captain EO (1986)
Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965)
Future-Kill (1985)
Holy Motors (2012)
Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
We Are the Best! (2013)

The big surprise is We Are the Best!, because I'd never heard of it and it's terrific.

The oddest is Holy Motors.

The big disappointment is Captain EO.

And the best of today's movies is… an impossible choice, between Pee-wee's Big Adventure and We Are the Best! You should see them both.

— — — 

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1992)
Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are best buddies and teen stoners in an imaginary band, but they're flunking world history in high school. Ted's going to be sent to military school in Alaska, which would totally break up the band, unless they can somehow earn an 'A' for a presentation on history.

"Strange things are afoot at the Circle K" when Rufus (George Carlin), their guide from the future, shows them the way to gather a dozen famous people from the past and learn history in person.

Napoleon on a water slide is a laugh, and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos plays Joan of Arc. There are probably other inside jokes, but music isn't what I'm about and she's the only face I recognized among the many historical figures here. It's lowbrow but infectious, and Reeves and Winter have such marvelous chemistry I always want them to kiss.

The first movie (Excellent Adventure) is not quite excellent, but it's worth watching, and worth re-watching a few decades later.

The sequel (Bogus Journey) is kinda lame, as sequels usually are.

The reunion (Face the Music) is a mess, and for my money (didn't spend a dime, of course) it's too giddy about its visual effects at the expense of its story, which can't be followed without Google Maps and breadcrumbs. It gets kinda fun toward the end, though, and includes a brief but fitting memorial to Rufus (the late George Carlin).

Verdict: YES, NO, and MAYBE, in chronological order.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Captain EO (1986)

Two confessions up front: ① Michael Jackson was a brilliant pop star and a serial child molester, which makes it hard for me to enjoy his music. ② I know that ① is ridiculous, and art has to be judged separately from the artist, or we'd have to empty 3/4 of every library and museum.

This short film was made — in 3D and 70mm — exclusively for Disney amusement parks. I remember reading a rave review when it opened, and I'd always heard that it's great, so it pissed me off that you had to go to Disneyland or Disney World to see it.

Luckily or unluckily, modern technology allows easy pirating, so now I've seen Captain EO, and it is a gold-plated yawn.

Jackson is surrounded by preening, squealing, joking muppets, in a story laden with special effects but absent any story. Anjelica Huston pays an evil queen or something, Jackson is her nemesis, and in the middle of this muddle he sings a Michael Jackson song I hadn't heard before. It sounds like lots of his other songs from the era when his songs all sorta sounded alike.

I did not see Captain EO in 3D or 70mm, but that's not the problem. The problem is, everything  except the song is piffle, and at 18 minutes, it's mostly not the song.

Misdirected by Frances Ford Coppola, written by George Lucas.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965) 

Lou Cutell (Amazing Larry from Pee-wee's Big Adventure) sorta stars in this OK C-movie about a man-made man who's an astronaut. There's also a Martian plan to round up pretty Earth women.

The movie looks like it was made by someone who likes movies but didn't really know how to put a movie together. It features James Karen, a familiar-faced character actor best known as "There's nothing to worry about" from Poltergeist.

Kinda cool make-up, especially on Amazing Larry, who's not bad as a subdued and effeminate space alien. The soundtrack is catchy, and several times breaks into the same pleasant early-1960s rock/folk song. The effects are mostly footage borrowed from NASA, and what's made for the movie is cheap but not laughable.

"Not laughable" is my highest praise for this, but I loved the scene introducing the movie's Frankenstein, which has him malfunction during a press conference, so he's frozen with a big dopey grin on his face.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Future-Kill (1985)

This is an amateur movie, made by college kids playing college kids, so you'll need to lower your standards if you're going to try watching this. I couldn’t lower mine far enough, but I tried.

Some of the kids wear mildly KISS-style makeup and wreak havoc, and they're at war with other college kids, with brief mention of anti-nuke mutants living downtown. The bad guy is named Splatter, and he's a violent character who's kicked out of some non-violent group. He's the only character distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd of college kids, but that's mostly because he has a kooky outfit. 

When I'm able to hear the dialogue it's dumb, but the sound is fuzzy except when music is playing. I gave up midway through, when Splatter killed a perfectly nice prostitute.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is set in Paris, and follows Mr Oscar as he's chauffeured around town, keeping his nine 'appointments' for the day. For each appointment, Oscar alters his appearance, so he never looks like he did fifteen minutes earlier, and none of his looks are really work-appropriate.

Trying to make sense of Holy Motors seems futile. It's best seen as nine short stories, barely connected, and what it means is up for discussion over a cup of coffee afterwards.

Here's a taste, at random:

For his next appointment, Mr Oscar is a redheaded semi-dwarf with a missing eye, wearing a too-tight green suit. He comes up from the sewer, and spastically walks through a graveyard while smoking a cigarette. He grabs a bouquet of flowers from some stranger's grave, eats them, spits them out and tries different flowers scattered about. He walks past a tombstone that says "Visit my website: www.tobeornottobe.com," but he doesn't loiter (actually, he walks so fast that I had to rewind and pause several times to read the tombstone). He finds a bigger bouquet that tastes better, eats it, and runs away while the theme from Godzilla plays. He knocks a blind man down, bites a woman's fingers off, then licks another woman's arm pit, and she's Eva Mendes.

That's about five minutes of Holy Motors. The movie's intent is to be strange in every way, and it's often repulsive, sickening. 

"Beauty? They say it's in the eye of the beholder."

"And what if there's no more beholder?

As the moviemakers intended, I was repulsed and sickened, but enjoyed it.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

This is a love story between a boy and his really radical bike, only the boy is Pee-wee Herman, a 6-year-old man in a tight suit. His bike gets stolen, but the thief doesn't realize that Pee-wee has a very particular set of skills.

I'd remembered this movie as funny, but it's funnier than that. It's simply top-notch silly, with laughs all the way through. I don't think it goes thirty seconds without a laugh.

So many marvelous moments: Pee-wee's angst as a hundred bikes roll by after his is stolen, are the Soviets involved?, Amazing Larry, I'm a rebel, Large Marge, in the mouth of the dinosaur, Pee-wee and the hobo, every word from Jan Hooks, "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "Remember the Alamo," I know you are but what am I?, and much, much more.

It stars Pee-wee Herman as himself, with James Brolin as Pee-wee Herman. Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol, based of course on the character created by Reubens. Directed by Tim Burton, and it's still his best, maybe because he wasn't involved in writing it. The music by Danny Elfman is perfection. I haven't gone a month without playing the score (evolving from cassette to CD to MP3), and I've gone too long without re-watching the movie. That's a mistake I won't make again.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

We Are the Best! (2013)

Feeling all angsty and alienated is almost universal in adolescence, so why is it so rare that a movie catches any of that without feeling fake? This one's from Sweden, and captures it perfectly.

Bobo and Klara are best friends, 13, and they have no friends except each other. It's the 1980s so of course they start a punk band.

They want to at least slightly carry a tune, so they ask Hedvig, a nerdy Christian girl who plays classical guitar at the school concert, to make the band a trio. Eventually, of course, they have huge arguments over things that seem so very important in 7th grade.

Early on, for lack of participation, their gym teacher orders the kids to jog laps. Instead they walk at a normal pace, while brainstorming the lyrics for what becomes their anthem, "Hate the Sport," about the bullshit of athletics.

Hate the sport,
Hate the sport,
Hate hate hate hate hate the sport
People die and scream
But all you care about is the basketball team
Children in Africa are dying
But you're all about balls flying

I like the song so much, I'd add it to my perpetual playlist if I could find a cover in English.

All through the story the kids are taking chances, and big or little things could go wrong. Being a boring grownup, this worried me. Would the movie doublecross itself and get tragic or serious?

Nah — spoiler — despite the occasional cuss word and a few kids' conversations about Christianity (smarter and more reasonable than ever heard in my family) there's never a misstep, and We Are the Best! is a delight all the way to the end.

Obviously, not forming a punk band when I was a kid was the biggest mistake of my life.

Verdict: BIG YES.

— — —

Coming attractions:  

• Arena (1989)
• The Boat that Rocked (2009)
• The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
• Gremloids (1984)
• Harvey Middleman, Fireman (1965)
• JoJo Rabbit (2019)
• Sorry We Missed You (2019)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

— — —

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. >Michael Jackson was a brilliant pop star

    My deep, dark confession is this : I have never liked MJ as a musical artist. He has made some absolutely catchy songs, but I just never got why he was considered "The King Of Pop."

    Just not my bag, baby.

    1. He made lots of catchy pop, but yeah, not much that really rises above 'good'. "Thriller," for example, was an excellent music video, basically a short movie, but it wasn't particularly great music.

      If it's quantity, Mariah Carey is the solo singer with the most chart-topping hits.

      And for total sales, Elvis is still the king.

    2. America's top five selling cereals:

      Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
      Rice Krispies.
      Frosted Flakes.
      Lucky Charms.
      Honey Nut Cheerios.

      All but Rice Krispies are overloaded with sugar and carbs and are actively bad for children. Rice Krispies provides little of the daily nutrition humans require over time.

      Leaders in cumulative global unit music sales (as of 2022):

      The Beatles - 183,000,000
      Garth Brooks - 157,000,000
      Elvis Presley - 139,000,000
      Led Zeppelin - 122,500,000
      The Eagles - 120,000,000

      Unlike cereal, there are no objective standards of healthfulness in music, but I think Garth Brooks is bad for the liver and mammalian auditory acuity; Elvis didn't publish a worthwhile album after leaving Sun, very early in his career; overall though, the music does a little better than the cereals.

      So what's wonderful and beautiful in foods and music and most cultural artifacts is largely ignored, while people will buy Beanie Babies and Garth Brooks (and Justin Bieber) and sugary cereals by the boatload.

      Michael Jackson's label called him the King of Pop. No responsible parties which were not bound to Jackson financially followed suit.

      Popularity says something about the culture but little about the quality of the objects in question.


    3. It's brainwashing, really. For years, the line was that Michael Jackson was the king of pop. I heard it and absorbed it, never really questioned it. I remember a conversation with someone when Jackson died, both of us wondering who the new king of pop would be. Such absurdities...

      The king of cereals, though, is shredded wheat.

    4. Dude, I heard shredded wheat died after molesting Sugar Pops. Maybe it remains king despite the post-mortem mopery conviction.


    5. >It's brainwashing, really. For years, the line was that Michael Jackson was the king of pop.<

      Nobody calls it brainwashing. It's Public Relations and it's a recognized art form. Nobody can fool you about the climate crisis, poverty in America, the Republican Party, pills that make your penis rock-hard, or public transportation as a utility. Each of these subject areas has full-time Public Relations staff working to make you believe lies, and there are thousands more areas that employ PR professionals. But they can't fool you because you've informed yourself about broad issues like poverty in America and the changing environment, and more discrete issues within each of the larger subject areas.

      So how did the Public Relations staffs employed by Michael Jackson, his agent, his label, and his family fool you into thinking that he was the king of pop?

      Since you are my brother I care about you and I hate to see you bamboozled. Fortunately, the Michael Jackson stuff won't kill off entire species in the next decade or so. So we have that going for us anyway.


    6. Michael Jackson's people insisted that he was to be termed the King of Pop whenever his name was mentioned in a press release. There were plenty of sarcastic mentions of this in the music press, maybe not the mainstream but elsewhere. It's a bit extreme but it's just PR. Personally, I liked his Off the Wall album just fine. Thriller didn't do much for me. I never had to buy it because it was always on anyhow. When things get that big and repetitious, I zone out. I think a lot of us do.

      As per Elvis P, he never made an album at Sun. RCA released an album called 'Sun Sessions' in the '70s that collected the singles and some outtakes that were recorded Sun. Elvis' albums in the '50s on RCA usually included a cut or two from those Sun singles. While Elvis made terrible movies throughout the '60s, the '68 Comeback Special on NBC was very good, musically, and a number of those late '60s/early '70s albums are much better than anything since Sun. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater there. Elvis made some very good music with RCA. -- Arden

    7. As usual, Arden has his facts right. Sam Phillips didn't have the capital to promote Elvis properly, and, while people make fun of Sam for selling Elvis' contract to RCA for $35K or so (details like future revenues on already recorded material make it more like $45K). Elvis' move to RCA made Elvis wealthy and RCA wealthier. I own The Sun Sessions album(s), and I stand by my assertion that Elvis never consistently made music that good with RCA. Certainly his time in the Army cut into his most productive years, but when he got out, there was simply more money to be made by getting away from rockabilly and producing more "suitable" material: Return to Sender, Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello, etc.

      So it sort of depends on who you think Elvis was. If he was the white Richard Penniman, then he peaked with Sun, although RCA made him sound better in stereo; if he was the Southern Sinatra, then he peaked with RCA. I'm not a particular fan of the Vegas Elvis, but anybody who is will prefer the RCA stuff.

      Somebody should note that, had "Colonel Tom Parker" been willing to leave the United States for tours, Elvis would have been a significantly bigger international star than he became and would have been able to afford multiple Gracelands. As it was, "Parker" was afraid of arrest and deportation, and remained in the warm confines of his adopted country.



    8. I dig it when you two talk rock'n'roll. I'm interested enough to read along and definitely enjoy it, but being once removed from the dialogue I don't have to come up with anything intelligent to say in response. :)

      What could I say, anyway? I like Elvis but don't love him, and my favorite Elvis song is one where modern-day music profiteers amped everything up, long after he'd died.

      As for shredded wheat, the real thing seems to have actually died. Bite-size is all I can find these days. Curse you, Sugar Pops.


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