J.C. De Leon's blog

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitIt's been 12 years since the character of Jack Ryan has graced the silver screen, and following in the footsteps of Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck is Chris Pine, known as the star of the revamped Star Trek franchise. The Jack Ryan films have all seen great box office success no matter the critical reception (don't worry about The Sum of All Fears, Ben, you moved on to bigger and better things) so now seems like the perfect time to venture back into the world made popular by author Tom Clancy. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is taking on a film with a bit of a larger scale than what he's used to working with.

Young Jack Ryan is a masters student in London in 2001. One fateful day in September turned out to be one of the worst days in United States history (try and guess which one) After the New York attacks, Jack enlists in the Marines. Too smart for his own good, he's often questioned why he joined such a dangerous branch given his immense intelligence and on another fateful day, he never gets to answer that question. A helicopter crash nearly paralyzes him and forces him into retirement from the military. One day though, a stranger (Kevin Costner) comes calling with an opportunity for Jack to continue to serve his country, as a financial analyst for companies on Wall Street that are suspected of funding terrorist groups. Naturally, Jack discovers a plot with the potential to send the United States into an economic meltdown we would likely never recover from.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit borrows from plenty of other action/spy films. There are elements of Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible, and many other film franchises throughout this movie. Oddly enough, since this is a reboot of sorts of the Jack Ryan character, it doesn't appear to borrow from previous Jack Ryan movies.

Branagh has proven to be a great director, fully capable of a movie like this, and he does well with what he's given. The problems lie in the inept writing, especially of the many side plots that are ever-present. Jack's girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley, crashes a mission in Moscow because she suspects Jack is having an affair, and then after being forced to come clean to her that he is a spy, puts her in a position where she must play a vital role in a covert op distracting the dangerous Bond villain played by Branagh himself.

Review: Grudge Match

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Grudge MatchIf you mention the names Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro and ask what their single best movie each is, eventually you'll come across more than a few people who will name Rocky (any of them, except for the fifth one) or Raging Bull. Those people wouldn't necessarily be wrong either, especially in the context of boxing movies. For a lot of people, the list of best boxing movies is topped one of the Rocky films and Raging Bull.

So when it was announced that Sly and Robert De Niro would be entering the ring once again in a film called Grudge Match, why was there so much concern? Oh, that's because it was going to be played out like throwaway comedy rather than an intense sports movie drama that could have been really great.

When boxing was at its height of popularity, two boxers ruled the roost, Bill "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Sylvester Stallone). The two light heavyweights dominated the competition, except each other. They each only had one loss in their careers and it was to each other. When it was decided they would fight a third match to truly determine who was the best, Razor mysteriously walked away from boxing.

Thirty years later, despite the unanswered questions, everyone moved on. The Kid became a business man riding the fame of Eighties celebrity while Razor lived a quiet and unassuming life working in a factory. Along comes Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), Dante is the son of a sleazy ring promoter, and it's his job to get the aging fighters to agree to let themselves be characters in a video game so that people can virtually relive the rematch they never saw. Trouble brews when the two fighters are in the same room, and fisticuffs occur while someone catches the action on a cell phone video and then all of a sudden, demand for the fight is at an all-time high.

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Hunger Games: Catching FireIt's been almost a year now since Jennifer Lawrence has captured the collective hearts of America with her adorable quality and humility paired with her humor. To look at anything Lawrence did in early 2013 you'd think she could do absolutely no wrong. As is typical of American culture, her illustrious shine is still amazingly bright, but now we're ready to see what she can do onscreen again. Can she impress us, still? Her first major release of 2013 is the sequel to the hugely successful franchise, The Hunger Games.

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lawrence's character Katniss Everdeen remains a polarizing figure in the dystopian society of the future. Her success in the previous year's Hunger Games, a competition held annually in which a tribute from every district is randomly selected to participate in a fight to the death where only a single winner is to remain, elevated her status as a living example of the type of courage that is present in the poverty stricken districts of the country.

Her victory didn't come easily, and without controversy though. Her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) also came away from the previous year's Hunger Games as a victor due to some clever posturing by Katniss. Now that she has fully grabbed the attention of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), forces are conspiring to eliminate Katniss from causing any more trouble, but there are also forces looking to join Katniss and her fight for survival and survival of her people.

The strengths that were present in the first film are more pronounced in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Lawrence's character seems to carry the world on her shoulders now, and it's appropriate since, on a weird parallel scale, Lawrence seemed to always be on everyone's mind in the last year in a way similar to Katniss in the film's universe. Her combination of ease and uneasiness with the burdens that are now ever present is handled beautifully. When Katniss has to act confident and complacent, she does so with a smile on her face that seems genuine, but is able to maintain that uneasiness in her eyes.

Review: Rush

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Rushhere have been all kinds of sports movies: ones that focus on teams coming together, teams facing mighty odds as underdogs, or a lone athlete and the story that built his/her legendary status. Recently, there has even been a film, Warrior, focused on two opponents but neither was a villain, putting the viewer at odds as to who to root for.

Rush focuses on two opponents as well, but it does something Warrior didn't, bringing a fresh spin on the sports movie genre. While focusing on the story of the opponents, Rush also manages to focus on the psyche of each individual and what really drives them as competitors. You understand so much about each of these two men, especially Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who can't be seen as a simple "villain" to James Hunt's (Chris Hemsworth) "hero" because neither fits the role.

In the 1970s, Formula One Racing had just ascended to the ranks of the more popular sports in the world at the time, and at the height of that popularity, one man became the face of it. James Hunt was charismatic, handsome, carefree and in general the type of man that all men wanted to be. Bursting onto the scene was a hypercompetitive individual that couldn't have been more of a polar opposite of Hunt. Niki Lauda wasn't conventionally handsome, was curt with other drivers and not well liked. The feeling was often mutual. While there was a lengthy roster of drivers, every race seemed to boil down to these two men who captivated the world with their competitiveness, but few ever understood the respect these two men had for each other.

While the driving sequences are spectacular, they are secondary to the performances that the two leads accomplish in Rush. Brühl, at Ron Howard's direction, takes you into the mind of a competitor like no other sports movie ever has. You understand that he will let nothing stop him from achieving what he has worked so hard for, not even spending close to a minute in an 800-degree inferno of a car crash. He's not great at emotions, as his proposal to his future wife illustrates hilariously in a sad sort of way. No matter what you end up feeling about Niki Lauda, you can't ever think of his as a villain, because James Hunt never did.

At the same time, Hemsworth's turn as James Hunt is that of what you might think of any professional athlete. He chases women, drives away the ones closest to him, and competes for a championship not because he's worked for it, but because he feels like his presence alone is worthy of being named champion. Most of the movie is spent conveying the fact that Hunt hates that Lauda is constantly there, but the moments where his respect for Lauda comes through make this a remarkable sports movie about two competitors.

Review: Kick-Ass 2

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Kick-Ass 2 posterThe movie Kick-Ass 2 has already seen a bit of controversy as of late -- one of its stars, Jim Carrey, decried the amount of violence in it and announced his change of heart about gun violence on film after the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut late last year. He said he would not participate in any promotion of the movie, he just took his check and went about his way.

As it turns out, the gun violence is actually one of more tame elements in the sequel to the breakout hit from 2010. Homophobia, pedophilia, sexualization of minors and rape humor are much more stinging in Kick-Ass 2.  All of that ickiness (the only word really) turned what was a highly anticipated sequel with some really well-shot and kind of cool action scenes into something that makes you feel dirty for watching at times.

The story begins a short time after the events of the first film. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is enjoying the legacy that his superhero alter ego has left on the city, but he's not done being a hero. Neither is Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz). Every day she uses the fighting skills her father taught her, and she skips school and continues to train to become even more of an ultimate bad-ass killer than she was in the first movie.

Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass train until she has a change of heart, leaving Kick-Ass to fend for his own until he joins a band of similarly motivated superheroes. Meanwhile, a new supervillain is emerging (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and his name is one that I won't utter here, but he is the son of the crime boss Kick-Ass killed in the first movie.

A lot of Kick-Ass 2 feels like a retread of the first movie, which is a sure-fire way for a sequel to immediately feel inferior to the first one. The movie also has this incredibly strange subplot with Mindy (aka Hit-Girl) trying to fit in with the popular mean girls at her school. If you've ever wanted to see a short film version of Mean Girls with the naive girl fighting back in a pretty disgusting way, you'll get to check that off your bucket list here.

Review: Red 2

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Red 2 posterThe grouping together of a cast of great actors like Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and even Mary-Louise Parker would seem like a sure-fire way to generate a hit movie. In 2010, that was the case with Red. Based on a graphic novel from DC Comics, the action movie put some older actors in a position to do some pretty heroic and badass things.

With the moderate success of that film, plus its star power, obviously a sequel had to happen. But did it, really? Red 2 places a lot of faith in you the viewer being a huge fan of the original, and doesn't deliver on much else. If you are a fan of Red, though, this might just be an enjoyable trip to the movies for you this weekend.

In Red 2, we're catching up with Frank (Willis) and Sarah (Parker), who are in a relationship rut since there doesn't appear to be anyone trying to kill them anymore. That safety won't last long, though, when Marvin (Malkovich) tries to get Frank to come along with him to kill the people who are now trying to kill them both over a botched mission from the late '70s when they worked for the CIA.

Multiple governments are out to kill Frank, Sarah, and Marvin, and the U.S. even hires the world's most dangerous assassin, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee). Han Cho Bai still harbors a lot of anger towards Frank over being double-crossed long ago. The old gang's journey to clear their names -- and save the world in the process, of course -- takes them to many places and they cross paths with a lot of interesting people along the way.

What Red 2 does incredibly well is film action and fighting scenes. They're some of the best you'll see all year, especially seeing Byung-hun Lee do his thing. He should be a much bigger star in the United States than he is. Thankfully, he's a big star in Korea and he is in some truly fantastic movies there. No one else in the cast seems to be mailing it in, which is reassuring because for a sequel like that, it's almost expected that a lack of effort would be evident on screen.

What's frustrating about Red 2 is that it isn't a bad movie. Far from it, actually. But it's just so bland and inconsequential that it feels as though a sequel wasn't needed at all. It's not good enough to create the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that will sustain a good box-office run. Despite the effort by the cast, it still feels like something no one put much of an effort into creating.

Review: White House Down

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White House Down posterThis summer brings us not one but two movies that feature the overtaking of the White House. Some may scoff at this idea in general. And when you hear that Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) directed the latest of these two films, White House Down, not only might you wonder how a man can so easily destroy the White House again, but you might also wonder how silly a movie it will be.

White House Down, however, could end up being one of the more surprising movies of the summer. Not because it's better than it seemed it would be -- it's an action film after all, and surely would have been entertaining on at least some level. What is surprising about this movie is how tight the script is. It makes for an ultra enjoyable summer action flick that's got some great and smart moments that make it a complete picture, rather than an overblown hyperviolent actionfest (looking at you, Olympus Has Fallen).

On what starts as a normal day in Washington, D.C., the President (Jamie Foxx) declares that now is the time to pull all U.S. soldiers out of the Middle East. While this delights some, a lot of defense contractor money is at stake, so there are detractors to this plan. In the wrong place at the wrong time is John Cale (Channing Tatum), an aspiring Secret Service agent who happens to be at the White House for a job interview when the takeover happens. With no one left to protect the President, it's up to him to get the leader of the free world out safely. Oh, and he's gotta find his daughter, too.

A lot of pieces are at play in this story, which is standard for an Emmerich film, and some pieces tend to feel worthless and unnecessary. This is not a problem in White House Down. It's subtle when it needs to be (especially with foreshadowing), and never too over the top. The movie plays safely in the highly coveted PG-13 rating that makes summer films a huge success, and which is something that Olympus Has Fallen didn't even try to aim for.

Above all, Tatum and Foxx are fantastic as a duo. Trailers made it seem as though White House Down would be too silly, and maybe even kind of stupid, but that will be the furthest thing from your mind when you watch this movie. Every piece in this puzzle performs admirably, even the role of Cale's little girl, Emily (Joey King).

Photo Essay: ATX Television Fest 2013

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ATX Fest 2013 marquee

The annual ATX Television Festival brings to life the personalities and characters that we invite into our living rooms on a weekly basis, and showcases them where fans can interact, asking questions about plots and the future of their favorite shows.

In just its second year, the list of celebrities hobnobbing in and around downtown Austin during the fest's four days was impressive. Among them were Party of Five alums Lacey Chabert and Scott Wolf; Mae Whitman pulling double duty for Arrested Development and Parenthood panels; and Paul Scheer of The League. In addition, a few film actors who've made the transition to television presented at panels this week. Recognizable actors like Mark Strong and Rachael Leigh Cook made their way to our lovely city.

The festival started with a lively community screening of Friday Night Lights, a show that has its stamp all over broadcasting with former cast members who've gone on to other shows since living in the heart of Texas.

ATX Television Fest 2013: Reviving Linklater's '$5.15/Hour'

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America Ferrera

Last weekend, I spent time at the second annual ATX Television Festival, dedicated to celebrating the medium by paying homage to the past, and looking forward to the future of television. One of the highlights of the fest is its category of unaired/never-picked-up pilot episodes. Every year, hundreds of television pilot episodes are created that few if any people will ever get to see. Usually, the pilots into the hands of studio executives, and if they don't like it, those pilots are dead.

Such is the case with Richard Linklater's pilot $5.15/Hr., a comedy show filmed in Austin nearly 10 years ago and pitched to HBO, which was the focus of a panel on Saturday morning. It follows the daily antics of the graveyard or "third shift" of Grammaw's Home Cooking. The employees are crabby, they hate their jobs, they don't make enough money. All of this adds up to the potential for a hilarious premise, but how would it be executed?

The comedy is written for the average everyday worker. While mostly nailing down the dullness and monotony of low-wage food service, many of the situations are applicable to retail work (as I can personally attest). The $5.15/Hr. pilot is smart and incredibly funny with a fantastic cast, with only one semi-household name: America Ferrera (pictured at top), who attended Saturday's screening. Unfortunately, Linklater was unable to attend because he was in Greece promoting Before Midnight.

Review: The Purge

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The Purge posterProducers don't often become big figures in the public consciousness of moviegoers unless they are doing truly great things. Jason Blum is doing those great things. He is the man behind the Paranormal Activity franchise, Insidious, Sinister, Dark Skies -- pretty much any great (and original) horror film that's come out in the last few years, he's probably behind it.

The Purge is Blum's most recent movie. It's got an admittedly ridiculous premise, one that could justifiably be mocked and therefore dismissed. In a utopian and not too distant future, crime, unemployment and poverty are virtually wiped out in America due to an incredibly ambitious new law that allows for any and all crime to be legal for a period of 12 hours. This is called the annual purge, and it is a ritual that the entire country takes very seriously.

As with any government initiative, there are detractors and advocates. Some think the purge is a way to legally eliminate the poor since they cannot protect themselves. Most of the time, however, they actually take care of each other while the rich lie safely in their well equipped and armored homes. One such family is the Sandins. James (Ethan Hawke), Mary (Lena Headey) and their two kids, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane), live in a lavish house in a nice neighborhood. It's a gated community and the neighbors are neighborly if a little gossipy. The Sandins prepare for the purge like they always do, but as kids get older and question things, it's obvious that this night is not going to be like other annual purge nights.

The fascinating concept lends to mind the possibilities of so many scenarios -- not just a plain old home invasion, a completely unoriginal horror film subgenre. As tired as this plot is, though, The Purge makes this situation feel like a completely original concept as a whole. It goes places you don't expect, and there's never a dull moment, even in the first act . It's such a deep film, it fills in the gaps of the conflict that is the debate of whether or not an annual purge does any good.

What makes this movie pop is the amazing acting from Hawke and Headey. An even more important performance in the movie is the kind what makes horror films what they are. The faceless villain eventually has a face and although he isn't representative of the purge as a whole, his reasoning and need to kill makes you side with him (slightly). Plus he's incredibly creepy. That helps too.

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