‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Finds Another Chapter Worth Exploring

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster

What life has taught me is that doing a series finale to an acclaimed television show, let alone any television show, can be a truly thankless task. Wrapping up everything in a nice bow after years of following a group of characters throughout their lives typically leaves fans infinitely frustrated as they always expect something far more epic than they are given. Seriously, just ask the fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter,” as the utter disappointment from those finales remains never ending. With “Breaking Bad,” however, Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) criminal saga in a way which seemed perfect and totally fulfilling to everyone. No need to go any further with the story, right?

Well, Gilligan has continued to tap into the “Breaking Bad” well with “Better Call Saul” which started off as a prequel, but which may eventually turn into a sequel. And now Netflix has just dropped “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” which follows the show’s other main character, Jesse Pinkman, who is once again played by Aaron Paul. It turns out there is a bit more story than what we were led to believe, and while the end result might seem unnecessary to some, it results in an exciting motion picture which proves to be as good as the average “Breaking Bad” episode.

“El Camino” starts at the exact point “Breaking Bad” ended, with Jesse driving like hell in the car this movie takes its title from. While reveling in having escaped from his cruel and sadistic Neo-Nazi captors, he also realizes he is not out of the woods just yet as the police are looking for him here, there and everywhere. After meeting up with his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) to get some rest and gather his thoughts, he plots his next move which will hopefully lead him away from the long arm of the law.

The movie’s opening scene serves as a flashback to what is about to transpire, and it sets down the gauntlet Jesse wonders if he can pull off. During a friendly conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Jesse asks him where he will go once he gets out of the drug dealing business. Mike says he will go to Alaska as he sees it as “the final frontier” and a place where one can do anything. Jesse sees the appeal to Mike’s plan, but he also wonders if he can get out of the drug game and manage to make things right for those he has hurt or wronged. Mike tells him he can never make things right, but with this scene, Gilligan leaves us wondering if Jesse can do both as the look on his face shows a wealth of guilt which needs to be dealt with.

There have been countless movies which deal with characters who are caught up in the drug trade and looking to retire from it, or they are trying to atone for a brutal past which continues to hover over them despite their best efforts to go straight. The ones which quickly come to mind include “Carlito’s Way” and “Light Sleeper,” and those two had their main characters facing consequences which karma was not done with them yet. Gilligan plays around with our knowledge of these movies as we wonder if Jesse will ever be able to escape his crimes and atone for them in some way, or if karma has something in store for him which he cannot see coming.

Having a “Breaking Bad” movie centered around Jesse Pinkman feels more than appropriate as Paul has proven to be every bit the actor Cranston had been on the show. Jesse was not even supposed to survive the first season, and it is a testament to Paul’s portrayal that he made it all the way to the end as he gave us a character who was not necessarily a bad person, but one who had made foolish decisions in life and was now being thrust into devilish situations he never intended to get into. When we meet up with Jesse again in “El Camino,” he is a broken man, picking up the pieces of a life which has been forever shattered while living in fear of being apprehended by the law. And in today’s technologically driven society, one can only hide from the law for so long, if at all.

Paul is outstanding as always as he continues to take Jesse from one extreme to the next. His attempts to escape his scary predicament result in him enduring a tremendous level of unease and anxiety as he puts in Jesse’s shoes to where we feel as helpless as he does. The world is on his tail, and one can only be so lucky in escaping their past deeds. Paul is superb in portraying Jesse’s mindset without ever having to overdo it, and his performance is another example of an actor who inhabits their character instead of acting it.

Gilligan returns to write and direct “El Camino,” and he has melded it into a non-linear journey as it shifts from past to present. What results adds more weight to what we have already seen previously, and it makes Jesse’s predicament all the rawer and more unsettling. He also reminds you of how, when it comes to “Breaking Bad,” you need to expect the unexpected. The show was always about playing with your expectations to where you had no idea of what would come next. This movie keeps this tradition going as Jesse tries various methods to make it out of New Mexico in one piece even as some nasty road bumps are constantly being placed in his path.

Now I am writing this review of “El Camino” some time after its release, so many of you may already know about the various cameos by “Breaking Bad” characters who appear here. All the same, I will not spoil any of them for you as audiences deserve to discover them on their own. Still, I have to point out the one made by Robert Forster as the actor, in a sad and cruel irony, passed away on the day this movie was released. Forster returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner salesman who also relocates people who are running from the law and gives them new identities, and his performance is a reminder of what a priceless character actor he was. His inscrutable poker face shows how close Ed keeps his cards to his chest as he is not about to expose himself to outsiders. Forster was always great at taking every character he ever played and gave them an added dimension which may or may not have been in the screenplay. The same goes with his performance here as he shows Ed to have just a bit of vulnerability in him to give the character a conscience we were never sure he had.

Does Jesse escape his fate and make things right? Well, “El Camino” keeps you wondering about this all the way up to its closing credits, and it proves to be an engrossing ride for “Breaking Bad” fans who still get enough of what Gilligan has up in that head of his. While seeing Jesse burn rubber in the series finale as he escaped his imprisonment served as an excellent end for the character, there were still many who wondered where he could have gone from there. Whether or not you believe “El Camino” ranks alongside “Breaking Bad’s” best episodes, it is a thrilling ride which kept me engaged right to its final moments, and it is a fitting epilogue for a character who proved to be more complex than we initially realized.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Check Out the Stranger Things Intro Creator

Stranger Things logo

Bruno Orlandi and Nihey Takizawa of Kassel Labs have done it again. After finding much success with their Star Wars Intro Creator, they have now done the same with the opening titles of the incredibly popular Netflix series “Stranger Things” which debuted its third season this summer. These titles were created by Imaginary Forces and scored by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of the electronic band Survive, and they have since become some of the most memorable titles of any television show released in the past decade. With the intro creator, you can take these titles and make them your own, and you can download the video you create for your own use.

Please keep in mind, downloading an intro creator from Kassel Labs will take time, a lot of time. Since their “Star Wars” intro creator debuted, many people have flocked to their site to make their own, and the waiting time threatens to be infinite. However, you can make a donation of $7 dollars to Kassel Labs which will allow you to move to the front of the line. I did this when I created my own “Strangers Things” intro, but it took five months for me to get my download. Just saying.

I ended up creating a thank you video for those who donated to The Pablove Foundation on my behalf. It is a non-profit organization which is dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer, and I ran the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon in support of it. I put this video together just before the marathon commenced this past March, but it is only now that I have gotten a download of my work. Still, I really want to give thanks to those who still took the time to give even if it is coming a little late.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN USE THE STRANGER THINGS INTRO CREATOR.

CLICK HERE TO DISCOVER HOW YOU CAN DONATE TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

‘Duck Butter’ Examines the Joys and Perils of Intimacy

Duck Butter movie poster

When it comes to the films released under the banner of Duplass Brothers Productions, I have found many of them to be fearless in the way they deal with intimacy and vulnerability. We come into this world feeling free and uninhibited, and then we get our hearts broken in a way which leaves a scar that never disappears. From there, we build up our defenses to keep strangers from getting too close because we don’t want our feelings getting gutted, and the thought of being vulnerable with another person can seem terrifying sometimes. Movies like “The Skeleton Twins,” “Tangerine” “The One I Love” and “Blue Jay” have dealt with these themes effectively, and they are presented in a very intimate fashion to where you don’t feel like you are watching a movie, but instead real life unfolding before you. It serves as a reminder of how much we want intimacy and of the euphoric highs and terrifying lows which come with it.

The latest Duplass produced movie to deal with this is “Duck Butter,” and if you want to know what its title means, you have to watch it to find out for yourself. Alia Shawkat stars as Naima, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who has just snagged her biggest role in a movie written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. But while Naima may find a certain freedom in acting, we see she is a bit repressed emotionally and has developed a bleak worldview as the daily news is filled with nothing but bad stuff like the inability of humanity to control global warming which, by the way folks, is very real. For those who do not believe me, please check out Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World.”

At night, Naima goes to a club where she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring singer who is everything she isn’t: a free spirit who is open to taking risks the average person would be quick to avoid. Sergio asks Naima to dance with her, and it gets off to an awkward start to where Sergio has to shake Naima’s arms in order to get her to loosen up. I remember a female friend having to do this with me, and it did work in releasing the stiffness which has enveloped certain parts of my body. It certainly works between these two women to where they just fall into each other’s arms in a way which spells out how they have found a strong connection not easily discovered.

From there, Naima spends the evening at Sergio’s house with friends of hers, all of whom encourage Naima to come out of her protective shell and express herself freely. After that, the two of them are left alone with each other and make love in a way which feels not the least bit choreographed and totally authentic. Both discuss the dissatisfaction they have had in dating and romantic relationships which came to be destroyed by dishonesty. So caught up they are in their truly intense chemistry, they decide to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex every hour on the hour in the belief they can transcend the deceit which usually plays a part in most relationships.

Van Halen, when Sammy Hagar was their lead singer, once sang, “How do I know when it’s love?” Watching Shawkat and Costa here is to know, or so it seems at first. Their intense connection is intoxicating to witness, and I hope to discover it in my own life sooner rather than later. These actresses make their attraction seem not only real, but exhilarating. As a result, I really got caught up in their relationship to where I didn’t want to see it fail. But as “Duck Butter” moves on to its second and third act, you can sense things will fall apart to where you wonder if things can ever be made right again.

Like many Duplass Brothers Productions, “Duck Butter” was made on a very low budget and with a shooting schedule which never seems long enough. Movies can suffer as a result from these factors, but this one benefits from them as the two main characters are confined to whatever locations they end up at to where we feel completely stuck with them. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be seriously scary when things fall out of our control and understanding.

“Duck Butter” was directed by Miguel Arteta who cowrote the screenplay with Shawkat. He is best known for directing “Star Maps,” “Chuck & Buck,” “Youth in Revolt” and “Cedar Rapids.” Each of his films deals with the insecure relationships people have, and this one is no exception. I reveled in the connection Naima and Sergio have with one another to where I wanted nothing to come between them. But as the story rolled along, I sensed something would, and it made me both nervous and resigned to an inevitable fate the even the writers could not avoid.

Shawkat is best known for her work on the television shows “Arrested Development” and “Search Party,” and we are long past the point where we have to realize what a talented actress she is. Watching her take Naima from being a repressed individual to one eager to embrace the love she has found is entrancing. From start to finish, she makes Naima an individual desperate for a connection she feels has been denied to her, but she also makes us see a character who eventually comes to see how her own needs are equally as important as her partner’s.

I am not familiar with Costa’s work, but she did win the Lola, the biggest award one can get from the German Academy of Cinema, for her performance in the critically acclaimed “Victoria.” Costa makes Sergio into the free spirit many of us wish we could be, and she makes the character into a romantic force to be reckoned with as she tests Naima to come out of her protective shell more than she has already. Costa appears like such a free spirit to where I wanted to be swept up in her orbit, and this is even though speed bumps in this relationship felt inevitable.

What I admired most about “Duck Butter” was how emotionally naked these two actresses were. Whatever you think about the art of acting, this is not as easy as many think it is. Both Shawkat and Costa have to break down their own defenses to make the plights of their characters all the more real, and you have to admire what they pull off here as their emotions infect us in a way we are not typically prepared for. We revel in the chemistry these two have, but we also fear their intimacy will lead them down a path which will destroy it irrevocably.

Many may see “Duck Butter” as a gay relationship movie or a part of queer cinema, but we are now in a time where putting things into one particular category only speaks of a person’s limited worldview. The screenplay originally had a heterosexual couple instead of a homosexual one at its center, but the trials and tribulations of love are the same no matter what side of the sexual spectrum you reside on. This movie shows how love can be exhilarating and damaging all at the same time, and I was captivated by it from start to finish.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

“Duck Butter” opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 27, and it will premiere on digital formats starting May 1.

Mike Flanagan Makes the Unfilmable ‘Gerald’s Game’ a Cinematic Reality

Geralds Game movie poster

Of the many Stephen King novels, “Gerald’s Game” is one of my favorites. Hearing the author talk about it on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I was instantly intrigued by its premise of a couple’s sex game gone wrong to where the husband dies and the wife is left handcuffed to the bedpost with no means of escaping. The more King talked about it, the quicker I was to leap out to the bookstore to buy a copy (albeit, when it came out in paperback).

I was also intrigued at the possibility of “Gerald’s Game” being made into a movie as it presented unique challenges to daring filmmakers; how can you stage the action when much of it takes place in the character’s head? Furthermore, how many actresses would be willing to play such an emotionally draining role? Many have described this particular King novel as “unfilmable,” but I always had a feeling this would be proven wrong.

Well, Mike Flanagan, the director of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” accepted the challenge of adapting “Gerald’s Game” as he is also one of its biggest fans. Along with screenwriter Jeff Howard, he has made this seemingly unfilmable novel a cinematic reality as he puts us right in the head of its main character as she is trapped in a predicament which presents her with physical and emotional terrors we live to avoid in real life.

We are introduced to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) as they pack their bags for a weekend getaway to their house by the lake. It is filmed to look like an average vacation with them gathering their things. That is, until Gerald puts two pairs of handcuffs in his bag. Once they arrive, it doesn’t take long for them to get up to the devil’s business as Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed. You can see in her eyes she is really not into this sex game of his, and she tells Gerald to stop. Gerald, however, suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack as the result of taking one Viagra pill too many, and he drops dead right there on the bedroom floor. Just like Renton told Begbie in “Trainspotting 2,” “Remember not to exceed the stated dose.”

Jessie is then trapped in a most unfortunate situation as she and her husband picked a time to vacation when everyone else is not, so it’s unsurprising to realize is no one around for miles to hear her screaming for help. I have seen this a lot in horror movies, a married couple vacationing at a time when the tourist season is non-existent, and it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. Heck, “Gerald’s Game” would make for an inspired double feature at New Beverly Cinema along with “Honeymoon” as both deal with the same predicament.

Flanagan sets up things for us cleverly as he shows how isolated Jessie and Gerald are from regular society. We meet the dog who will later become hungrier than ever even after Jessie offers him a piece of steak which Gerald tells her costs $200 a pound.  Beyond that, the two of them even leave the front door open as if the house represents Pandora’s Box. This all adds to the growing tension as we know how badly this game will turn out for the two of them.

Once the action focuses on Jessie being handcuffed to the bed, Flanagan gleefully tightens the screws. A cellphone is on the nightstand next to her, but it’s just out of her reach. There is a glass of water nearby, but she cannot bring it to her lips. And then we become witness to her hallucinations as her situation becomes increasingly precarious to where we feel every bit as vulnerable as she does.

The way Flanagan handles Jessie’s hallucinations is quite brilliant as they take the forms of herself, her dead husband, and even her younger self (played by Chiara Aurelia). Flanagan also edited the film, and he keeps us guessing as to where we should be looking next as the focus changes before we realize it. I loved how successful he was at catching the audience off guard as the POV shifts constantly as I had no idea where it would go next.

“Gerald’s Game” does feature a music score by The Newton Brothers, but the film works best when the only sound, other than what’s outside Jessie’s window, is silence. I don’t know about you, but I need some form of sound, soothing or otherwise, to calm my brain just to even fall asleep. When everything is silent, I cannot help but be all too aware of my surroundings and feel like Dee Wallace’s son hiding under the covers in “Cujo.” Flanagan seizes on this silence as every single sound takes on a new, and much more frightening meaning.

Things get even more unnerving when we are taken back to a time when young Jessie was watching a total eclipse with her father. While watching it with special glasses, her father ends up doing something no father should ever do to their child. We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s enough to make us squirm in our seats as we know it’s something very inappropriate. Henry Thomas, years removed from “E.T.” and “Cloak & Dagger,” turns in a fantastic performance as Jessie’s father, Tom. Just watch him as he carefully manipulates Jessie into keeping this event a secret from her mother. The way he slyly gets Jessie to see things his way reminds me of what a good actor Thomas still is, and that’s even when you want to break his character’s nose.

Some horror movies either show very little or show everything, and with “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan finds a balance between this. We never see much of Gerald’s body once it flops onto the floor and out of Jesie’s eyesight, nor do we get a specific view of which body parts the dog is feasting on (what did you expect? He almost got to eat a $200 steak). He does, however, show us Jessie’s ever-so-delicate movements as she retrieves a glass of water without breaking it just as Eddie Murphy had to carry one over a bottomless cavern in “The Golden Child.” Of course, this moment is completely dwarfed by the method Jessie undertakes to free herself as it provides us with a cringe-inducing scene on the level of James Franco amputating his arm in “127 Hours.”

If there is anything wrong with “Gerald’s Game,” it is the inclusion of the Raymond Andrew Joubert character (played here by Carel Struycken) whom another describes as “the man made of moonlight.” Indeed, this was also a big problem with the novel as Raymond figures prominently in its last half to where it felt like I was reading a whole other book. Flanagan would have been best to leave this part out of the movie as it never fits here in any meaningful way, and the ending suffers because of it. Having said this, the character’s inclusion is almost worth the trouble as Struycken makes him a terrifying presence, especially when he first appears out of the shadows in the corner of Jessie’s bedroom. It is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.

Carla Gugino would not have been my first choice to play Jessie, and this ends up saying more about me than anyone else. Her work in the “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” and on television shows like “Spin City” and the short-lived “Karen Sisco” should have made her a bigger star, and yet she still seems to be flying below everyone’s radar. Her performance in “Gerald’s Game,” however, should quickly remind us all of how fearless an actress she can be. This is not the most appealing role for anyone to take on as it is emotionally draining, and actors can fall into the trap of emoting rather than acting here. Gugino never does fall into this trap though, and she never backs away from portraying Jessie’s most agonizing moments as her privacy is invaded in different ways.

As for Bruce Greenwood, you can never go wrong with him. While he in no way fits the physical description of Gerald in the novel, it doesn’t matter because he makes the character both loving and undeniably creepy. Just wait until you see the look in his eyes. Even after Gerald dies, Greenwood remains a strong presence as he takes the form of one of Jessie’s hallucinations, and he makes Gerald as creepy in death as he was in life.

The images King evoked in “Gerald’s Game” still remain strong in my mind even though it has been over 20 years since I read it. Thanks to this novel, I will never listen to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in the same way ever again. I even got my dad to read it, and he later told me, “Why did you make me read this? It’s so revolting!” While many consider this novel one of King’s lesser works, I completely disagree as it still permeates my consciousness to this very day.

With this cinematic adaptation of “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan has succeeded in making a motion picture both compelling and agonizing to sit through. Even though I know how the story turns out, my eyes were glued to the screen as I wondered how the director would visualize the novel’s most extreme moments. In a year where King adaptations have ranged from excellent (“It”) to utterly disappointing (“The Dark Tower”), this one delivers as it prods at our deepest fears in the real world as they prove more terrifying than anything from the supernatural realm.

Speaking of “The Joker,” I kept waiting for that song to come on. Maybe issues with song rights kept Flanagan from using it. Or perhaps, after our first look at Raymond and his box of bones, it is clear he is not about to speak of the pompatus of love.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ultimate Rabbit Exclusive Interview: Bryan Fogel Talks about ‘Icarus’

Bryan Fogel Icarus photo

Actor, writer and filmmaker Bryan Fogel first came to the world’s attention with “Jewtopia,” a play he co-wrote and starred in which went on to become one of the longest running shows in off-Broadway and Los Angeles history as it was seen by over a million viewers. Now he is set to reach an even larger audience with his documentary “Icarus” which will debut on Netflix on August 4.

Icarus documentary poster

“Icarus” follows Fogel as he went on a mission to investigate doping in sports. Like Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me,” he becomes the main experiment of his own documentary as he dopes himself with performance enhancing drugs to observe the changes they have on his body, and to see if he can avoid detection from anti-doping officials. By doing so, he aims to prove the current process of testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs does not work in the slightest.

During this process, Fogel comes to meet Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s “anti-doping” program who aids the filmmaker in avoiding doping detection through various processes which include being injected with various substances as well as collecting daily urine samples which will be smuggled from one country to another. But as Fogel becomes closer with Rodchenkov, he soon discovers the Russian is at the center of his country’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. From there, “Icarus” goes in a different direction as it delves deep into Russia’s program and discovers the illegal activities go all the way up to the country’s highest chain of command which includes Vladimir Putin. The deeper this documentary goes, the more aware we become of how truth can be an easy casualty as others die under mysterious circumstances.

I had the opportunity to speak with Fogel about “Icarus” while he was in Los Angeles to promote it. He spoke about the documentary’s evolution from being a simple exploration into sports anti-doping programs to becoming a geopolitical thriller where witnesses are forced to go into hiding. Also, he spoke of how Lance Armstrong’s admission of using performance enhancing drugs was merely a needle in the haystack as many athletes were utilizing the same chemicals and threw him under the bus to save their own careers.

Check out the interview below.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon-sword-of-destiny-poster

Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is one of those few movies I can describe as being truly exhilarating. It combined amazing martial arts sequences with a great story filled with compelling characters you were eager to follow along with from start to finish. To simply call it a martial arts movie was not fair as Lee gleefully subverted the genre to give us something completely mesmerizing, and it went on to become one of the most successful foreign films ever made.

So it’s a shame to see its eagerly awaited sequel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” doesn’t come even close to recapturing the spirit of the original. Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien and Yuen Woo-ping, who choreographed the action of the original, steps in as director, but those who loved the original are bound to feel like something is missing. While Woo-ping still delivers some amazing action scenes, he lacks Lee’s poetic touch.

“Sword of Destiny’s” greatest strength is definitely Yeoh who looks fantastic at 53 years old and can still kick ass and do her own stunts like nobody else’s business. She is the only cast member from the original to appear in this sequel, and she makes it almost worth a recommendation as her performance is as powerful and heartfelt as it was before.

The movie takes place 18 years after the events of the original and sees Yu Shu Lien coming out of solitude and heading back to Peking where her lover Li Mui Bai’s legendary sword, the Green Destiny, is being held. However, it doesn’t take long for her to encounter resistance as her carriage is attacked by several warriors. In the time she was away, various clans have wreaked havoc in the martial world in an effort to gain control of it, and many have their eye on stealing the Green Destiny which will allow them to rule it with unimpeachable power.

The Green Destiny was a major focal point of the original as Jen Lu (Zhang Ziyi) stole it in an attempt to engage in the warrior lifestyle she had become envious of. That sword is a focal point in the sequel as well to where I began to wonder if perhaps destroying it instead of keeping it safe and locked up would have made more sense. It certainly would have saved the martial world a lot of trouble. Then again, destroying that sword would also have meant destroying the past, so perhaps that’s why the characters are not eager to obliterate it even for their own safety.

We get a lot of characters thrown at us this time around like Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) and Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), both of whom want the sword for their own purposes. There’s also Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) who faked his own death because he was in love with Yu Shu Lien and preferred a life of solitude as he knew Li Mu Bai was the one she loved more. And then we have Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), the West Lotus warlord who learns he must obtain the Green Destiny as it will allow him to rule the Martial World.

With all these characters and their various plot threads, it’s hard to get involved in their individual dramas and they are nowhere as compelling as the ones from the original. Many of the characters we see here feel like typical kind martial arts movies tend rely on. Snow Vase in particular feels like a generic version of Jen Lu, and the latter only appears a footnote in this sequel. They all fight like the best warriors, but the action feels ordinary and less than thrilling because we don’t care that much for them.

Another thing about “Sword of Destiny” is the actors speak in English instead of Mandarin, and this proves to be a big mistake. While there are many who can’t stand subtitles, seeing the dialogue spoken in English makes it seem all the more clichéd and uninspired. It’s like watching the original “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” dubbed in English; it’s still cool to watch, but everything sounds rather laughable in another language. In Mandarin, there was at least a beauty to the words they otherwise would not have had.

But perhaps “Sword of Destiny’s” biggest sin is its overall look. While the original only used CGI effects to remove the wires which helped the actors to fly all over the place, this movie looks like it bathed in them. As a result, everything looks artificial to where “Sword of Destiny” has the appearance of a video game, and not a very good one at that. In fact, the movie at times looks quite ugly because you can easily tell that what’s on the screen is not at all real. While Lee made collapsing buildings look exciting, Woo-ping is not able to recapture that magic as scenes of warriors crashing through floors of a tower looks inescapably fake and all done on a computer.

Coming out of this sequel, I wondered if “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” even needed one. The stories of both movies connect, but this one looks like it exists on a different planet. Time will only tell if there is to be a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 3,” but “Sword of Destiny” doesn’t make much of a case for one. Yeoh is great as always and Woo-ping does pull off some nice stunts, but this sequel feels uninspired and routine at best. Perhaps it’s time for the Green Destiny to be laid to rest once and for all. Just look at what Harry Potter did with the Elder Wand in the “Deathly Hallows;” problems were solved and the wizarding world was balanced out. It’s that simple.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * out of * * * *

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

Pee Wee Big Holiday poster

Pee-wee Herman was a big fixture in our young lives whether we liked it or not. Ever since the character’s first appearance at The Groundlings Theater, he amassed a large audience that grew infinitely beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Both he and Tim Burton realized their big screen dreams with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” and soon after he had his own Saturday morning show with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Then he disappeared for a time and if we were sick of him, his absence made us realize how much we liked and got used to having him around.

Well in the past couple of years he has made a welcome comeback, and now it culminates in his first big screen adventure in decades, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” Don’t let the fact it is debuting on Netflix turn you off (and why should it?). It’s an infinitely giddy movie which will have kids and adults alike laughing hysterically more often than not. While it seems to take place in an alternate universe where “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” never took place, please rest assured that this man child has not changed and hasn’t aged a day.

When we meet up with Pee-wee, he lives in the picturesque town of Fairville where everyone seems more than willing to help him out with his Rube Goldberg-like devices and machines which get him up and out of his house in the morning. He is perfectly happy to work as a cook at Dan’s Diner and rehearse with his rock group to where the thought of going outside the city limits seems unthinkable. But this all changes when Joe Manganiello shows up as he plays… Well, you’ll have to see for yourself.

Anyway, Manganiello encourages Pee-wee to go beyond Fairville’s city limits and to find out more about life, and he even invites him to a birthday party taking place in New York City. Despite some hesitation, Pee-wee agrees and endures all sorts of adventures and mishaps as he makes his way from one side of America to the other.

What’s great about “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is how the humor succeeds in appealing to both kids and adults without condescending to either group. The kids will definitely enjoy Pee-wee’s antics as he braves a snake farm which is not all it appears to be and performs a balloon trick which has to be seen to be believed. Adults on the other hand will get a huge kick out of the subversive elements hidden throughout the screenplay which includes references to cult classics like Russ Meyers’ “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” There’s even a great moment where “Magic Mike” is mentioned, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you here.

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, whose movie careers exploded after the success of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” weren’t around for this one. This particular adventure was directed by John Lee who became best known for his work on the MTV2 comedy series “Wonder Showzen” and episodes of “Inside Amy Schumer.” Lee keeps the pace of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” tight to where the movie never drags. Granted, the jokes are at times hit and miss, but the ones which do hit had me laughing harder than I had in some time.

Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh composed the film score, and he seems like a natural choice to succeed Elfman. Both Mothersbaugh and Elfman have had long working relationships with unique film directors (Elfman with Burton, and Mothersbaugh with Wes Anderson), and their scores perfectly capture the playfulness and creativity we see unfolding onscreen, Whether or not you think Mothersbaugh’s work equals what Elfman pulled off years before, he is a terrific fit for this material and captures the infinite innocence of Pee-wee.

But what’s really nice is how Paul Reubens brings his man child alter-ego of Pee-wee Herman back to life after such a long hiatus. I figured Reubens had long since grown tired of this character to where it seemed like he had engineered a rather embarrassing escape from playing him. Reubens even went on to show his acting range with terrific performances in “Blow” and “Life During Wartime,” proving to the world there was way more to him than Pee-wee. But you can see on Reubens’ face throughout just how super enthusiastic he was about bringing this iconic character back to life, and he makes you realize just how much we have missed him lo these many years.

The only thing which could possibly take away from Reubens’ thunder here is Manganiello who steals every single scene he’s in. He could have easily screwed up here by playing his role like he was in on the joke, but he doesn’t and it help makes “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” all the more fun to watch. Manganiello looks like he’s having a blast here, and his fun is very contagious.

There have been a lot of popular characters from the 1980’s resurrected over the past few years with varying degrees of success, and Reubens’ is more successful than others in doing so. His passion is sincere in bringing this character back from the land of syndication and reruns, and seeing him in action makes it seem like he never left us. Here’s hoping we see Pee-wee Herman taking on more big adventures in the near future.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

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Sarah Hyland and Graham Phillips Discuss EDM and ‘XOXO’

XOXO Sarah Hyland and Graham Phillips

The Netflix drama and music film “XOXO” follows six strangers whose lives collide at a most vibrant EDM festival. Among those strangers are Krystal (Sarah Hyland) who is hoping to find true romance in a place she expects to find it, and Ethan (Graham Phillips) who is about to make his DJ-ing debut at the biggest EDM festival of them all, XOXO. During their time there, Krystal and Ethan come to find now what they wanted, but what they need most as will the other characters around them.

“XOXO” offers a cinematic glimpse into the world of EDM which has gone from being played in illegal underground rave parties to becoming a major part of musical festivals around the country. We see all the characters get dressed up in exotic costumes as if they are headed to another planet, and drugs of all kinds are in heavy supply to where some innocent fans don’t realize right away when they have just been given some. Either way, they are all there to experience the glorious emotions EDM gives off, and none of them can wait for the bass to drop.

Both Graham Phillips and Sarah Hyland recently dropped by the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California to talk about their experience making “XOXO.” Courtney Fairhurst Howard from Sassy Mama in LA asked them both if they had knowledge of EDM music and if they had attended any EDM festivals before shooting began. This would soon lead into my question about the preparation Graham underwent to become a truly talented DJ.

Sarah Hyland: I have been a fan of EDM music for a while. I had never been to a rave so to speak, but I have been to places like Coachella where there’s always rave tents. So I kind of experienced something like that before, but it was really cool to just indulge myself in this culture. It was great. I learned a lot from it, and it was a lot of fun.

Graham Phillips: I too have enjoyed EDM for a really long time. I’ve sort of been drawn to more of the sweeping symphonic vibe of EDM like Above & Beyond or Madeon. Whenever they can integrate some organic sounds as well into all the electric sounds, I tend to really like that. I came from a musical theatre background as did Sarah, so maybe that’s why. I actually started DJ-ing my freshman year in college just to meet the social chairs of the eating clubs at Princeton and just because as a freshman male you’re the bottom of the social ladder and you can’t really get access to any of these clubs until you’re in a fraternity. And so I learned to DJ and they needed DJ’s so I was like okay, I will learn to DJ. I like the music anyways. I did start liking it more and more, and I started to throw some parties in Orange County with some of my friends who actually liked the music even more than I did. They were the people who were finding these new tunes as they were coming out. I loved hosting parties and still do, and that’s sort of what it grew from. I guess sophomore year it kind of petered out, but when I got this script at the end of my sophomore year I found it so funny because this was just what I experienced but on a much smaller level. Actually Chris, the director, didn’t even know that I had any DJ-ing experience when he cast me, so that was kind of a fun surprise for him. He didn’t have to teach me everything.

Ben Kenber: Was there any specific research you had to do in terms of understanding the equipment your character uses?

GP: I actually used almost all my own equipment for this. I just brought it to the set and asked if I could please use this instead of something completely foreign (to me), and they were like yeah, sure. It didn’t require a lot of research for me which was really nice because a lot of the shots we grabbed at real festivals where we had a five-minute slot onstage in front of 80,000 people. So when you have just a small amount of time to get the shot, the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling around with the knobs. It was nice that I had some background in it.

It was great to learn how Phillips had plenty of experience in DJ-ing before filming “XOXO,” and his expertise with it certainly shows when you watch the movie. “XOXO” is set to debut on Netflix on Friday, August 26. Please be sure to check out the poster and the trailer below.

XOXO movie poster