My Week in Movies – January 30th

This week I ventured into theaters to see Kevin Hart (ugh) in Ride Along and Aaron Eckhart (yay?) in I, Frankenstein.

Ride Along
I repeat, ugh… I’m not a big fan of comedies in general, and as comedians go, I really dislike Kevin Hart. I’m not sure how anyone finds him funny actually. So with those biases in mind, I declare this an awful movie. Hart’s character is a man-child trying to convince his live-in girlfriend’s brother, played by Ice Cube, that he is a worthy suitor. Cube tests Hart with a ride along. Hart attempts to prove his worth both as a potential cop and potential husband and Ice Cube in turn attempts to submarine his efforts by having Hart deal with petty public nuisances all day. Eventually, they do get into a serious situation, finding out that Ice Cube’s partners are dirty and in the employ of Laurence Fishburne’s nefarious dealer, Omar. Hart saves Ice Cube by imitating the reclusive kingpin, but the bad guys escape and kidnap the girlfriend/sister. Hart and Cube have to work together to save her, they succeed, they accept each other, roll credits. Part of planning to watch 100 movies means seeing some films that are below your standards and fail resonate with you. Ride Along is both of those things for me, to an extreme extent. Not only was this movie’s plot predictable, the situations were not particularly funny and Kevin Hart is terribly not funny enacting them. Ice Cube’s grumpy, protective brother isn’t any good either. Fishburne’s reveal was about the only interesting development in Ride Along, and it most certainly was not worth watching the other hour and a half of Kevin Hart inanity.

Grade: D-

I, Frankenstein
Aaron Eckhart takes on the titular monster role in I, Frankenstein. Well… sort of. One thing that constantly bothers me about Frankenstein adaptations, expansions, and re-tellings is that everyone seems to forget that the monster doesn’t actually have a name. In this version, an adaptation of a graphic novel, Aaron Eckhart’s monster is caught in the middle of a war between Demons, led by Bill Nighy, and Gargoyles, led by Miranda Otto. The Demons wish to possess human bodies and rule the Earth; the Gargoyles, created by the Archangel Michael, watch over and protect mankind. The action truly takes off once Adam (the name given to the monster by the Gargoyle Queen) returns to the the Gargoyle’s sanctum and allows a police officer to get killed. Nighy and Otto’s followers battle multiple times while Adam is drawn further and further into the fray. One of Nighy’s scientists, played by Yvonne Strahovski, has been researching corpse reanimation for sinister purposes. Lo and behold, Adam ends up saving the day and lives happily ever after with this scientist. A bit messy, but, hey, at least, I, Frankenstein was entertaining. The gargoyle-demon battle scenes are well-done and engaging, particularly the ascension/decension effects which are beautiful. The characters have understandable motives. It’s most certainly not a great movie, but there are already several far worse choices, it’s still only January, I’ll allow it.

Grade: C-

After last week’s rise to “just barely below average,” Ride Along weighs down a mediocre I, Frankenstein and leaves us all the worse for the wear. Fortunately, there looks to be some relief in the near future! (And no, it’s not one of the hundred other movies in theaters starring Kevin Hart, who’s haunting me like a poltergeist.)

Ride Along

In a lull in the numbing action that fills so many of Ride Along’s comic set-pieces, as the film gears up for the first of its three climaxes (this is a picture with two too many climaxes), Kevin Hart’s plucky but pathetic Ben Barber, an aspiring cop, discovers that his girlfriend’s brother has been gleefully playing him for a fool all day, sending him to clean up the annoying messes no cop wants to deal with. It should be an emotional moment for Ben, a real gut punch, and in an uproarious but brilliantly human comedy like last year’s The Heat, these sorts of moments did resonate in exactly that way without taking anything away from gross-out, blood-spurting, profanity-laden moments to come. But here the punchline is just too good (or too bad) for the writers of Ride Along to pass up; the scene ends not with Ben processing his disappointment, but with Ice Cube (for he’s not really gruff though honest cop James Payton but rapper-turned-toothless-actor Ice Cube in this moment) looking directly into the camera and gloating “Today was a good day.”


I actually looked left and right, back and front, to check if that line had landed with as much of a thud with anyone else in all the world as it had with me, and was reassured to get, after a frightening moment, an acknowledging headshake from a nearby seatmate. I was literally removed for a full minute from the world of the movie (not that I minded necessarily, so unconvincing is this film’s notion of Atlanta’s grimy, high-larious underbelly), spat out of the picture like I’d just lost at a level of Super Mario 64.

Look, it takes a great deal of elbow grease and envelope-pushing in other areas for a comedy to get away with a metatextual reference that lazy (and, if one pauses to think about the context of that legendary song and Cube’s overall rap persona, particularly in relationship to the Los Angeles police force, that despairingly baffling). Arrested Development, working overtime to gild itself with so many lilies, Winklers and Minellis, could get away with that line and make it worthy of a belly laugh. Community could probably get that line a passing grade, and pretty much did when it used Michael K. Williams to play and quote Omar while dressed as a biology teacher and not do much more.

Ride Along, considering it is acting merely as a vehicle to get Kevin Hart from one insane situation to another so that he may finally ascend through buddy comedy to the level of the anointed one, Eddie Murphy (speak not of Chris Tucker here) – this vehicular metaphor made literal by title and plotting if this were not apparent enough – does not have even the slightest metatextual inclination, and so it earns this call-back not at all. If Michael Bay had the restraint to feature Mark Wahlberg in a 90s-set comedy and not feature a single explicit Funky Bunch reference, you’d think Ride Along, a middle-of-the-road action comedy that tries and fails at everything The Heat tried and incinerated with the holy fire of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s blistering chemistry only a few months ago, would have the decency to recall that Ice Cube has been a cuddly comedian for so long that even if Ride Along were Rated-R (it is not), many of those who could gain admission would know the man for nothing more.

But it is moments like this one (and another where Mr. Cube incredulously looks us in the face and essentially begs us to wonder with him if his career since N.W.A and Boyz N’ the Hood has really led him to wearing a police badge while watching Kevin Hart take down Furious Styles, raking in that cameo paycheck money) that actually make the film’s most laugh-worthy lines those in which Ice Cube tries to convince us that he is not Ice Cube but James Payton, protective brother with deep-seated trust issues born of a troubled childhood and Atlanta’s seemingly only honest cop.

Let this not be mistaken for me saying that Hart, an able and willing comedian, contributes nothing that is laugh-worthy. His strut as he enters the fray imitating never-before-seen-by-anyone crime lord Omar (boy does the script tie itself in knots to get us there, but it pays off) might be worth the price of admission alone. Actually, Hart, antic and overmatched at every turn as a high school security guard with dreams of more, is a brilliant comedic presence. He is so convincing as a shut-in nebbish physically overshadowed by anything in his path, including small children, that you find yourself, in spite of your better judgment, agreeing with the monstrous schemes perpetrated by James Payton in the name of keeping Ben as far away from the force as humanly possible, in principle if not in execution. Ben is, no matter how sympathetic (and often he is not), a man who should, in all honesty, be kept as far away from the force as humanly possible. You only wish, as an invested viewer, that James would find a nicer way to break it to him; instead it is this film’s belief that it must be broken to James that this hyperkinetic chihuahua of a man is the future of the Atlanta Police Department, because… acceptance?

In the end, the film seems to argue that Ben’s countless hours spent memorizing catalogues of Serbian weapons while playing off-brand Call of Duty, as well as his tenuous but absurdly beneficial connection to a man reclined in an intense gaming rig who goes by Assface and who will always be listening in to your at-home conversations via a gaming mic whether you are engaged in dirty talk or being held hostage by dirty cops, justify his desire to ride sidecar with a badass like Ice Cube as they clear Atlanta’s streets of nameless, faceless Serbian thugs (a very big problem in Atlanta, as I understand it.) Hart, as this film’s jaw-dropping box office take argues, is a massive star in the making, and, while the script and cast around him falter, he does nothing to contradict that argument in Ride Along; though one hopes that as Hart becomes one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars in the years to come, it does not continue to be at the expense of the (very high, I’m sure) admissions and graduation standards of the Atlanta Police Academy.

2013 in Film Part 1

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles kick off their review of films in 2013. We talk about our biggest disappointments, some big surprises and our bottom 10 list. We save our top 13 for the next episode but you don’t want to miss this one.

My Week in Movies – January 23rd

Welcome back for another installment of “My Week in Movies”. This week I managed to see two 2014 releases, Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan and Cuba Gooding, Jr’s Life of a King.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stars Chris Pine as Tom Clancy’s CIA hero. We start the movie in London where Ryan is a student who watches the September 11th terror attacks on TV after stirring from a nap on a bench. We fast-forward a bit and Ryan is now a Lieutenant in the US armed forces and aboard a helicopter where he’s pressing a superior over the phone to read a report he submitted. the chopper is it by an explosive and we spend a chunk of the movie at Walter Reed where Pine works with Keira Knightly’s PT resident. Kevin Costner also enters the movie As a shadowy commander watching Pine from afar and considering his approach. He recruits Ryan to work as an undercover financial analyst on Wall Street and the movie starts rolling from action scene to action scene after that. I enjoyed this movie far more than I expected. It’s a bit slow in the early going but that’s mostly due to the introduction of Pine and Knightly as they setup for a multi-movie franchise. The plot falls apart once the action starts going. But nothing unforgivable. I wonder where the next installment will take us and if we’ll get more thriller or more action.

Grade: C+

Life of a King

Cuba Gooding, Jr. takes on the role of Eugene Brown, an ex-con and estranged father, who tries to improve his life and the life of some neighborhood kids. The movie starts off with Eugene being released after nearly two decades in prison. He struggles to find a job and re-connect with his family. Eventually, he lies on an application and gets a job as a janitor at a local school. He ends up taking over detention duties and teaching chess to his students. From here we drop into the very expected inspirational mentor mixed with tragedy plot. Life of a King will stick with me because of the vehicle used to inspire, chess, and the lead actor. But will end up mostly forgotten as an average film in a mass of movies I plan on watching this year. It’s “based on a true story” line doesn’t bother me too much here but the expected plot points make me think it’s been embellished quite a bit. This film can (and will) be safely ignored.

Grade: C+

This week ended up better than last week but still not a great week. Jack Ryan could prove to be a good start to a new franchise and Life of a King is touching but just another inspirational mentor story. Maybe next week will be bettter but I have my doubts, we’re still in the wasteland of the early year.

2013 in Review

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, all the Culture Conquistadors, Ben, Charles and James, get together and talk about their favorite games, television shows, music and everything but film. Did Ben and James even play any of the highly awarded video games of 2013? Listen to find out.

My Week in Movies – January 16th

Welcome to a new year with the Culture Conquistadors! This year, we’re all planning (and hoping) to bring you new content more frequently. For my part, I’m starting a new series of movie reviews. Each week, I’ll write about a paragraph on each film with some plot synopsis and opinion. I’ll grade each film I see and then part with some general thoughts on the week.

The Legend of Hercules

My first movie for 2014: Legend of Hercules. As usual, I did not see this movie in 3D.1 The screening I saw was advertised as 2D, though it’s hard to argue that this film has more than one dimension. This 99 minute action flick was likely meant to be the beginning of a franchise but it’s inevitable failure at the box office got it re-titled and released in the January wasteland. I caught glimpses of a larger narrative arc, likely meant to be drawn out in subsequent installments, but as its own film, Legend of Hercules fails to string much in the way of good plot together. Hercules is sent away to Egypt to die at his earthly father’s behest. He and his company’s captain survive at mercy of their ambusher’s hands. They are quickly sold into slavery and fight their way back to Greece in hopes of saving Hercules’ love interest from an arranged marriage to his wimpy half-brother. Not much stands out in this movie except for the freeze framing of the fight sequences, meant to promote the 3D version that I never saw. The other thing that stands out is just how far they strayed from the mythological source texts. The only resemblance this Hercules has with the Greek Heracles is that they’re both supernaturally strong men.2 The names of the characters in the movie mirror the myth. Yet this movie could have just scratched off the serial numbers3 and used any name out of a hat for the story they tell. I might have been more willing to accept this movie as just a new Hellenic myth; instead it plies the name of Hercules in for marketing purposes. I’m honestly not sure it could be a worse film. Or that any other 2014 film could be worse. So it looks like I got my worst movie of the year out of the way early. Hopefully the other Hercules production later this year (starring The Rock!) will be better.

Grade: D-

I also happened to catch Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor this week, but seeing as that movie counts towards last year, I’m leaving it out of this post. Hercules was pretty bad and I think it will stay near the bottom of my 2014 rankings; fortunately, Marky Mark evened out the balance this week with his great 2013 performance.

  1. Podcast listeners will know that 3D makes me ill. 
  2. I’m fairly sure this is a far worse adaptation than even Kevin Sorbo’s television Hercules. Or Disney’s animated Hercules. 
  3. The use of a character, object or place and only renaming it. For example, as a RPG game master I need a diverse cast of enemies but I am often limited to a small set of usable monsters with approrpiate game mechanics. So I file off the serial numbers of an orc, removing all the exposition and description that makes it an orc and re-write it as if it were a goblin. I then use the newly minted goblin as an enemy instead even though, through the lens of game mechanics, it’s just an orc. 

Oscar Nomination Predictions

For the sake of posterity, and because why the heck not, let’s make Oscar predictions so we can all have a good laugh about this later, huh?

I have “Will be Nominated” sections, and then my “Wish List” sections. For the sake of keeping this from being a Top Ten List, let’s keep that wish list to films that are in the conversation/have a realistic outside chance of a nomination come tomorrow morning. (Note: I’ve seen every picture likely to be in the conversation nominations-wise with the exception of August: Osage County, Ernest & Celestine, and The Wind Rises.)

Best Picture

Will Be Nominated: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Dallas Buyers Club (Intentionally keeping this one small. Anywhere from 5-10 films can be nominated, but in years where a lot of first place votes get thrown the way of a small batch of films [like Slave or Hustle] the likelihood of a large field of movies with less animated support is unlikely, so I’m including those movies about which people seem to be absurdly passionate, and have left off movies that will end up third or fourth on a lot of ballots but first on very few like Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks. Still, I’ve been realistic and left off darlings that will be in first on ballots they show up on, but not on enough ballots, like Inside Llewyn Davis and Before Midnight.)

Wish List: Her, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Blue is the Warmest Color, Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club, Before Midnight, Fruitvale Station, The Butler (Give me ten slots to play with, these are the ten Oscar hopefuls I’d pray for. Notice a distinct lack of Captain Phillips and American Hustle; I believe those films are more than adequate but there’s better stuff out there to honor. I think hopefuls Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks are even further down my totem pole, I’d actually be a bit sad to see them nominated, moreso in Banks’s case. Note that this is not my top ten list. I’ve left tiny films like Short Term 12 and Gimme the Loot, as well as comedies like The World’s End and About Time, off this list because the notion their names might be called tomorrow is sadly laughable.)

Best Actor

Will Be Nominated: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street) (This is a stacked field. It is also pretty set, with little hope of a lock like Hanks being switched for a pleasant surprise like Forrest Whitaker in The Butler. I’ve opted for one sort-of-surprise in leaving out Robert Redford, the movie legend ascending, for his near-silent performance in All Is Lost, instead deciding to include Leo, who many think will be left out in the cold for starring in a controversial movie in which he holds a lit candle clenched in his buttcheeks.)

Wish List: Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Michael B. Jordan (Fruivale Station), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), (That said, please let Leo finally win his Oscar for a movie in which he holds a lit candle clenched in his buttcheeks. Also, instead of Hanks, who is pretty mundane until the last ten or so minutes when he finally reaches virtuosic levels, and Dern, whose old crank routine hardly seems Oscar-worthy to me, lets include Michael B. Jordan for one of greatest breakout performances of all time and Oscar Isaac for portraying an unsympathetic crank sympathetically.)

Best Actress

Will Be Nominated: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Amy Adams (American Hustle) (A set of frequently nominated actresses line up behind Blanchett, to whom everyone agrees to lose in splendidly outlandish fashion. But which actress sneaks in to that last spot, the most recognized actress of all time, Meryl, or the newish kid on the block, Amy Adams. Meryl’s film is the only one I haven’t seen, but it’s been savaged enough that I think Amy Adam’s heavily praised performance gets in here. But Iron Lady was torn apart too, and Meryl didn’t just get nominated for it; she won for it. Can anything stop her?)

Wish List: Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Judi Dench (Philomena) (I call shenanigans on this whole darn category, with the exception of Sandy, who I would not mind winning. While I appreciate what Cate does for Woody Allen, I don’t quite see the universal adoration and locked-in win. I’d be willing to trade her in for the Dame, who gives a very delicate and gentle performance in a film that is less delicate and gentle, for my last slot. But for me that fifth slot is a toss-in anyway. The first four are the ones that matter here. I bonded with these four woman this year. I felt like, while I was in the theater with them, I was a part of the lives of Dr. Ryan Stone, Adele, Grace, and, of course, Celine, in her third go around with Jesse. Ebert called movies empathy machines, and my empathy was most in lock-step when these ladies commanded the screen.)

Best Supporting Actor

Will Be Nominated: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), James Gandolfini (Enough Said), Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street) (Call me crazy, but I think the Academy is less offended as a whole by Wolf of Wall Street than they’ve been made out to be. If they nominated Jonah Hill for Moneyball, they can nominate him over Bradley Cooper for this. Let’s say hypothetically they have enough of a funny bone to laugh at Jonah on Lemmons; they probably also can see appreciating Gandolfini in a romantic comedy as more than just a memorial award. Following this line of reasoning, they would be appreciating the warmest comedic performance of the year.)

Wish List: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), James Gandolfini (Enough Said), Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street) (Believe it or not, I won’t change a thing. This would be perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some supporting performances outside the Academy spectrum I loved: Matthew Goode in Stoker, Bill Nighy in About Time, Nick Frost in The World’s End, Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies. But if we’re talking likely picks, and, out of the field, this would work swimmingly for me.)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Be Nominated: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), June Squibb (Nebraska), Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave), Oprah Winfrey (The Butler), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) (Fruitvale Station, once the talk of the town, has a strong chance of being nominated for nothing. I expect those who care about the film to rally around most-likely-nominee Spencer, she of past wins. [Melonie Diaz would be an equally valid rallying cause for this movie, but Spencer has Academy clout Diaz does not.] This would knock out Julia Roberts for a film no one seems to like or Sally Hawkins for a film people seem to like for one reason, and that reason is not Hawkins.Which seems fine with me.)

Wish List: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), June Squibb (Nebraska), Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave), Scarlett Johansson (Her), Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) (I’ve already voiced displeasure with Hustle and Nebraska, but Lawrence and Squibb are so far and away the best things about those films, nominations are absolutely merited. They, like Nyongo, don’t steal the scenes they’re in, they make the scenes they’re in electric, upping everyone else’s game. Johansson is so unlikely to be recognized for her voicework as an Operating System, she may as well appear at the ceremony the same way she appeared physically in Jonze movie – not at all. Too bad. Samantha the OS may be one of the most complete, interesting film characters ever created, which is fascinating because we are only given her experience through our male protagonist’s eyes. Woodley should have been nominated for her role in The Descendants, 110%, and wasn’t. She won’t be for this teen romance either, which is a sad sad crime.)

Best Director

Will Be Nominated: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Spike Jonze (Her), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) (If I expect the Academy to punish Wolf of Wall Street anywhere it’s here. Marty won recently, finally, so he’s not owed, and the director’s branch seems to love doing new weird things now. But having both Jonze and the Coens would be too weird, so only one can come. Jonze’s film goes down smoother for most, so Jonze it is. As for Greengrass, the parts of his film’s that work, the down-the-middle thriller stuff, should get recognition here.)

Wish List: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall Street), Spike Jonze (Her), Edgar Wright (The World’s End) (Well I’m not going to punish Marty, am I? His film is brilliant. As for Wright, I know I broke my own rule since this nomination is so far off it’s science fiction. That said, Academy, recognize Wright and I will love you forevermore.)

Best Animated Feature

Will Be Nominated: Frozen, The Wind Rises, The Croods, Ernest & Celestine, Despicable Me 2 (No Pixar?!? No Pixar…)

Wish List: Frozen, Epic, The Wind Rises, Monsters University (Have I seen The Wind Rises yet? No. Even I’m not hard-hearted enough to take away Miyazaki’s chance on his [probable] last try. Come on! And wherefore art that fifth film? Didn’t want to add one. My wish list, I can do what I want. Didn’t see anything else that deserved it.)

Let’s see how absurdly far off I am in the morning kids!

The Wolf of Wall Street

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James discuss David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Which movie is causing controversy and which one is better? Find out in this episode!

Dungeons & Dragons

In this, slightly out of order, episode of the Gaming Guerrillas Podcast, Ben and James discuss their experiences in the various editions the pen and paper role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Which edition is their favorite and what does the future hold?