J.C. De Leon's blog

Review: The Kings of Summer


The Kings of Summer posterWe all remember those moments from our childhood when we wished we could run away from home. We didn't know what we would do, or how we would survive. We just knew we were smarter than our parents, and we had to get out. That thought is what drives the main characters in The Kings of Summer. The indie darling that delighted fans and critics at Sundance (when it was called Toy's House) opens in Austin theaters on Friday, and it offers lessons and laughs that could benefit and amuse both teenagers and parents.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso) are your average everyday high-school freshman. They have chores, are interested in girls and are extremely annoyed at their parents pretty much all the time. Joe's conflict stems from living with his father (the great Nick Offerman) in the wake of Joe's mother's untimely death. Occasionally, his sister Heather (Alison Brie) comes to visit, and Joe begs to leave with her. Joe and his dad are both very headstrong, and neither is willing to budge on their point of view.

Patrick is more submissive and obedient -- his issue is that his parents are just plain annoying. That feeling you used to get where you wished you could shrink yourself and not be seen every time your mom or dad said something embarrassing is evident on Patrick's face whenever his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are onscreen.

When the two friends have had enough, they decide to run away to the woods and build a home and live off the land with their strange new friend Biaggio (Moises Arias).

Where The Kings of Summer excels is ... pretty much every aspect of the film. Robinson as Joe perfectly embodies the broodiness of an angsty teenager who for all intents and purposes has grown up to be a good kid. He's clearly very mature for his age, and his dad just doesn't know how to handle it. Offerman is as hilarious here as his turn on TV's Parks and Recreation. As a chop-busting father, he's got some excellent one-liners from Chris Galletta's very well-written script.

Review: Now You See Me


Now You See Me posterWhen you assemble a cast like the one in Now You See Me, something magical happens. Terrible pun aside, an ensemble like this really is capable of pulling off some onscreen magic. As clichéd as it might be to say, there's a part in a lot of us that wants to believe in something as cool as magic. What may seem like impossible tricks often have very simple and logical explanations, but where's the fun in that? It's better to sit back and enjoy what the great cast of Now You See Me delivers.

The incredibly charismatic Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a talented all-around magician; a beautiful illusionist, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher); a mentalist, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson); and an elusive pickpocket, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are four street magicians who are brought together under mysterious circumstances by an unknown force. A year after we're first introduced to them, they are the stars of their own traveling magic show. At the finale of their first show, they seemingly rob a back in Paris, all the way from Las Vegas in under five seconds. This draws the ire of investigator Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent).

Now You See Me isn't told like your typical heist film. We are almost entirely with the investigative perspective of the movie, which gets us in close with Ruffalo and Laurent's characters. That isn't a bad thing at all because they are fantastic actors, and they are given a lot to do with with the clever writing of the script. The same goes for the four actors playing the magicians. Every character is given their moment to shine, and with a cast like this that also includes screen legends Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, this is without doubt a fun film to watch in the summertime.

Review: Fast and Furious 6


Fast and Furious 6How do you up the ante of the high-octane blockbuster that was Fast Five in 2011? You take  action that was already ramped up to 11, and you crank it up to whatever insanely high number you can conjure up in your head. But Fast & Furious 6 isn't just a good action film, it's done something far more fascinating. It has made the entire Fast and Furious series one of the great movie franchises out there.

We didn't know it at the time, but on June 18, 2001, when a silly Point Break ripoff about street racing hit theaters, we had just entered Phase One of a classic action franchise that didn't even exist yet. The Fast and the Furious spawned a silly sequel, and we figured that'd be the end of it. A third one came out, different plot, different characters, was it even from the same universe? Just when we thought we had enough, a fourth had arrived, and it brought back the original band and one of the characters from three. We had to have been done with the franchise because the fourth entry was kind of weak, but we were treated to a fifth, and treated is absolutely the appropriate word.

Fast & Furious 6 begins where Fast Five left off. Dom (Vin Diesel), Bryan (Paul Walker) and the rest of the family are living in a country that doesn't extradite. With plenty of money from their last job, they're living the high life. Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), however, never let them out of his sight. Now, Hobbs needs their help catching some ultra-ruthless thieves who plan to build a particularly dangerous device.

The entire team comes back, and they do what they do best. Yeah, it's a paper-thin plot, and only two new characters are introduced. None of that matters because the film is fantastic, plain and simple. Ultimately, what Fast & Furious 6 is, is the best reward imaginable for those fans who've been with this franchise from Day One. If you've loved every film in this franchise, and every time you've left the theater after watching these movies you've wanted to race the guy next to you leaving the parking lot, this sequel is better than the best-tasting candy.

Hyperbole aside, yes, it's a dumb action movie. It's not going to win any awards, but it doesn't need to. The most important thing this movie has done is make a series that is now six movies deep a classic action franchise. Fans can sit down and watch all six of these back-to-back and not flinch through any one of them, because this sixth one ties it all in so perfectly. There isn't one that's a little off, or has to be defended as kind of okay. Every Fast and Furious movie is essential to this point, and you just don't see that kind of quality in franchises anymore (I'm talking to you, Resident Evil).

DVD Review: Upstream Color


Upstream ColorSome movies simply aren't going to be for everyone. That's not to say that they aren't good movies, or that the director didn't try hard enough to make a great film -- the problem only lies with you. Upstream Color fits that bill with every frame of its being. From the writer/director of Primer, Shane Carruth this time takes his audience through a strange world of interweaving storylines and has constructed a strange, but beautiful film ... one that is incredibly well made and acted, especially by lead actress Amy Seimetz.

Upstream Color is told in several different parts, but they all interweave in some form or fashion. Seimetz plays Kris, who's gone through some hardships -- her story involves drugs, kidnappings and a cute little piglet. That's all fine and dandy, but it can be confusing at times. The story starts to make a little more sense once Jeff (played by Carruth himself) comes along. As a love interest/threat to Kris, his turn onscreen is a fascinating one.

To be vague in a film review is often the mark of an incomplete review, but in this case it would suffice. What can be plainly seen and heard while watching Upstream Color is an extremely well-made film, one that deserves to be studied and rewatched. It is impeccably acted -- Seimetz is quickly becoming a legend in her own right in the indie film circuit. The amazing score was written by Shane Carruth. There are moments where you're enveloped in some truly fantastic sounds. A good comparison to how essential the score feels is Cloud Atlas.

Despite all that praise, I am someone that this film was not made for, although it did benefit from a rewatch. Movies like Upstream Color tend to stand the test of time, and while it's a little early for a film like this to make that distinction, it could get there. It would have been nice if this combo DVD/Blu-ray package, released by New Video Group/Cinedigm, would have had some special features. However, the disks have great visuals and at times perfect quality sound. The DVD/Blu-ray is still a great purchase for Shane Carruth fans or fans of Upstream Color.

Review: Stoker



Chan-wook Park might not be a familiar name to you, but one of his greatest films is one you've more than likely at least heard of -- Oldboy, the Korean drama that is heavy on violence and style. His American debut feature film, Stoker, has a lot of the familiar tones that are right in Park's wheelhouse. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney and Matthew Goode all bring some great performances to an otherwise textbook drama about a family that is shrouded in secrecy among themselves.

India Stoker's (Wasikowska) world turns upside down when her best friend in the world, her father (Mulroney), suddenly dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday. To help the family settle in during these rough times, an uncle India never knew about, Charles (Goode) emerges and unsettlingly has charm and wit that is evident to everyone except India.

Review: 21 and Over


21 and Over

It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that the team that delivered the ultra sophomoric Project X would create another stinker in the new movie 21 and Over. It isn't quite the mess that Project X was, and not being a found-footage film, it's more structured and therefore at least slightly better than the mangled mishmash released last year. 21 and Over already had a lot going against it, and to see it cleverly deliver a few laughs was a pleasant surprise, but it still has the same level of immaturity and homophobia as its predecessor, plus an out-of-nowhere romantic ending it doesn't deserve.

This time around, instead of three high-school losers desperate for popularity, the three leads are in college. The character of Miller (Miles Teller, also in Project X) is a mashup of the three Project X losers mixed with a crappy impression of young Vince Vaughn. His friend Casey (Skylar Astin) is a level-headed senior who's got his eye on his future. Surely there's no way he can be lead astray, right? And finally, Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) is the birthday boy who's more concerned about a med-school interview set up by his oppressive and intimidating father. Jeff doesn't want to go out, but of course he gives in to peer pressure, and then -- as so often happens -- wackiness ensues.

Review: Snitch



2013 will be The Year of The Rock. With G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast Six, Pain and Gain and this week's new release Snitch, four movies this year will star the most charismatic and talented professional wrestler to make the jump from wrestling superstar to action movie superstar. It's a move that guys like Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and others have tried, but haven't been nearly as successful.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson brings something different to the table. He's been a relentless bounty hunter, an ultraviolent assassin and even a family-friendly tooth fairy. He's played nearly every type of action movie archetype except an everyman who's in the wrong place at the wrong time. While his role in Snitch isn't a true wrong-place/wrong-time character, it might be the closest we ever get because he is, after all, an intimidatingly huge man.

Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is a normal everyday kid who makes a really dumb mistake when he lets his drug-dealing best friend mail him a package of Ecstasy. When he's caught, he learns the hard way about the minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. He's offered a deal to reduce his sentence if he can provide information that leads to more drug arrests, but he won't send anyone up the river, even though that's exactly what happened to him.

Review: Safe Haven


Safe Haven posterThis Valentine's weekend, if moviegoing is you and your significant other's thing, you'll be presented with two choices: the very dude-centric shoot-em-up fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, or a movie based on yet another Nicholas Sparks novel, Safe Haven. Guys may try very hard to convince their ladies of the positive and word-saving attributes of John McClane, but let's face it, you'd rather watch the Die Hard movie with your boys anyway. So there you'll inevitably sit, in a theater watching a movie based on a novel written by the same author who gave us The Notebook. But guess what? Safe Haven is actually a pretty good film, with two incredibly charming leads.

Safe Haven doesn't start out like most Nicholas Sparks adaptations. With music that sounds like it's from some gritty crime drama, the movie opens on a frightened young woman (Julianne Hough) soaked with blood, running away from a house in the rain. Seeking shelter with a neighbor, we then see her at a bus station being chased frantically by a detective (David Lyons).

For a second, you might not believe you're watching a film based on a Sparks novel. Safely on a bus, it's clear the woman is looking for a new start or a way to erase the memories of whatever she was running away from. It isn't until she arrives at a seaside North Carolina town that she decides to settle down with a job, a new name -- Katie -- and a secluded home. While there she meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower with two adorable children, and the sparks fly ... but she's never really comfortable, because she's still afraid whatever she escaped might come looking for her.

Playing charming and charismatic isn't all that hard for Duhamel. Whats new is the emotional vulnerability his character is living with, so he comes off as a guy you're rooting for. Hough's character has a similar kind of vulnerability, and together they're a couple that is remarkably different from other couples in Sparks' movies and films. In The Notebook, and Dear John particularly, the female leads at times made decisions that didn't make them characters to root for. In Safe Haven, both romantic leads are so cautious while they feel each other out that their feelings develop organically, and it doesn't feel like overly sentimental fluff that causes eyerolls or groans.

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard


A Good Day to Die Hard

In July 1988, Hollywood introduced movie audiences to John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the movie Die Hard. An everyday man, a guy with nothing but good intentions, trying to make amends with his wife -- he's simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. When an office building is overtaken by greedy terrorists, he saves the day, despite nearly killing himself in the process.

Since then, we've been treated to three more films in the Die Hard series and in each film, despite his age, McClane seems to become more and more superhuman, losing just a little bit more of the charm that made us fall in love with him as a hero in the first place. That problem is still very much evident in the now fifth entry to this franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard.

In McClane's latest adventure, we discover he's rekindled his relationship with his daughter, who needed rescuing in the previous film. She's dropping him off at the airport to he can go to Russia and see his son Jack (Jai Courtney), who's gotten in some trouble after killing a Russian gangster. It doesn't take long for the elder McClane to cause trouble.

Review: The Last Stand


The Last StandThe Expendables 2 was only a mild teaser of the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to making action films. What we've really been waiting for is his own action vehicle, and it finally hits theaters this week in The Last Stand. There's an added element to this movie that makes it special and ramps up the anticipation, at least for a few movie fans.

The Last Stand marks Korean director Jee-woon Kim's first American film. He's directed some amazing films, among them I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters. He's proven to be a director who can handle violence with ease, and is able to get great performances out of some memorable villains. The quality of The Last Stand isn't quite up to par with the level of quality in his earlier Korean films, but some of his signature elements are still here and make it overall a good time at the movies.

Arnold plays Ray Owens, a small-town sheriff of an Arizona border town. On a light weekend, when most of the town leaves to watch the local high-school football team, an escaped fugitive attempts to cross the Mexican border, and the only town in his way is the home of Sheriff Owens. In the words of Schwarzenegger's Jack Slater from Last Action Hero, this fugitive just made a big mistake.

As expected, Jee-woon Kim handles violent action brilliantly, full of unflinching gore, and lots of mostly practical blood. There's a great villain in Peter Stormare. Wisecracking, intimidating, has just a silly an accent as Arnie. 

The Last Stand has one main problem throughout, though and it's the writing. It's hampered by a weak first act, and very cheesily written. This shouldn't dissuade too many people from watching it though, because it is an action vehicle starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, it isn't Shakespeare with guns. Once you get past the anemic first act, sit back and enjoy the ride because it is a fun one.

The rest of the cast, Arnold and Stormare aside, do a pretty good job, and all have comedic moments to shine, Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzman especially. For a Texas connection, Friday Night Lights alum Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen) has a nice role in the film.

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