Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ready Player One (Movie Review)



Based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One marks a much-welcome return to science fiction blockbuster fare for Steven Spielberg, a genre he'd helped bring to the public consciousness over the years with movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jurassic Park and Minority Report. The fact that some of those works had served as inspiration for the source material only makes his choice as director here a no-brainer.

The year is 2045, and our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio, known here as the stacks for the way its various mobile homes and trailers are stacked upon one another in true shanty town manner. Everyday life in the stacks is tough, and rather than face those challenges head on, Wade takes refuge in a virtual reality world called the OASIS, where he takes the form of his avatar, Parzival. It is a world of limitless possibilities, and one with the promise of a very special reward.

Following the death of its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a message is broadcast to all users of the OASIS, revealing an elaborate Easter Egg hunt. In order to complete the hunt, players must complete three tasks while gathering clues from Halliday's past, a past that is heavily steeped in a love of 80s and 90s pop culture. The first person that discovers the Easter Egg would not only inherit Halliday's riches, but also assume complete control of the OASIS itself. And thus began the hunt for the Easter Egg, a hunt that's been going on for 5 years when the movie opens.

Parzival is one of the many gunters (that's short for egg hunters) looking for the egg, and he is joined on this quest by best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe), love interest, Art3mis (Oliva Cooke), and fellow gunters, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zao). They'd collective come to be known as the High Five when they manage to beat the first task after Parzival cracks the clue hidden in one of Halliday's many recordings. This puts them on the radar of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of IOI, a company that is willing to go to any lengths to gain control of the OASIS.

Much like last year's Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One is a film worth experiencing on the largest available screen. I saw it in IMAX, and looking back, I can't imagine seeing it in any other format. The film is a visual spectacle; everything from the highspeed thrills of the first task, to the breathtaking final battle that surrounded the third one manages to one-up everything that came before. Even the quieter moments of the second task remains noteworthy for its photorealistic recreation of the Overlook Hotel from the Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick horror classic, The Shining.

Ready Player One isn't merely a love letter to pop culture and video game history. It is a celebration of blockbuster filmmaking. It is Steven Spielberg proving once again that he knows how to dazzle with awe-inspiring visuals and action that put the Michael Bays of this world to shame. The fact that none of that comes at the expense of a thought-provoking narrative is icing on an already-delicious cake.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Movie Review)



One of my favorite movies from 2013 gets a much-anticipated sequel in the form of Pacific Rim: Uprising. It's taken half a decade, due partly to the first movie's lukewarm reception at the North American box office. Thankfully, it made enough bank in China to guarantee a sequel was greenlit, but not before the project lost its director, Guillermo del Toro (who had to step down to direct the Academy Award winning The Shape of Water instead, but still serves as Producer). He was replaced by Steven S. DeKnight, and marks the Daredevil showrunner's feature-film directorial debut.

Set 10 years after the events of the first movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising explores the aftermath of mankind's survival in a future where they were almost wiped out by giant monsters known as Kaiju. In that future, war with these monsters was waged through Jaegers, giant robots that are so large that they require two pilots to operate. We are introduced to a fresh batch of Jaegar cadets, who are led by Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who you remember sacrificed himself to close "the breach" from the first movie's climatic battle.

He is helped by Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), a rival ranger and former co-pilot. They are joined by Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and doctors Newton Gieszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who reprise their roles from the first film (though oddly enough there is no mention of Raleigh Beckett, that movie's hero, or any explanation given for his absence). The group must work together to ensure mankind's continued survival, even as the Jaeger program faces the danger of becoming obsolete in the face of a drone program championed by the villainous Liwen Shao (Jing Tian).

We've all seen giant robots beating the shit out of each other before, no doubt. But nowhere else was it as fun or exhilarating to watch as it was in Pacific Rim. The sequel does its best to ramp up on the action, as should be expected, but a change in directors also meant a change in overall tone, shedding much of the first film's dark imagery in favor of brightly lit cityscapes and colorful robots. This comes at the expense of the sense of majesty and splendor we got during the fights in the first movie.

Also, the film lacks much of the first movie's heart and otherworldliness, replacing that with a campiness that wouldn't feel out of place in your typical leave-your-brain-at-the-door blockbuster. But even at its loudest and very dumbest, the film still towers above all the recent Transformers films, which says more about the quality (or lack thereof) of the movies in that franchise than anything else.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Black Panther (Movie Review)



Leave it to the marketing powerhouses at Disney to turn another one of the lesser known superheroes in the Marvel catalogue into one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. But that is precisely what they've achieved with Black Panther, a movie that has already broken advance ticket booking records and is already poised to do more of the same when it releases worldwide this weekend.

The film opens with a history of Wakanda, a technologically advanced nation in Africa that develops from five warring factions, after its people learn how to mine a meteorite for the alien metal, Vibranium, having been united by a ruler who'd become the first of the eponymous Black Panthers. Following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T'Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returns home to take his rightful place as king of Wakanda. But first he needs to prove himself worthy by accepting challenges from any of the other four tribes.

His claim to the throne is solidified when he bests the rival tribe leader, M'Baku (Winston Duke), in armed combat. Soon thereafter, he learns that the arms dealer Ulysses (Andy Serkis) was trying to peddle off some stolen vibranium on the black market. He sets off to South Korea where the deal was to hold, accompanied by Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Dania Gurira), members of the Wakandan royal guard, the Dora Milaje. And there he has his first encounter with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a criminal with a mysterious past and an equally strong claim to the Wakandan throne.

I'll admit that I had approached the idea behind a Black Panther movie with much skepticism. This was true even after his incredible debut in Captain America: Civil War, and that skepticism only seemed to grow along with the buzz surrounding the movie. I understood that the movie was notable for being the first of its kind to feature a predominantly black cast, but was afraid it wouldn't deliver in the storytelling department. So if like me you've been harboring such fears, let me just put those concerns to rest.

Black Panther delivers on all fronts. It tells a compelling story that is populated by equally compelling characters. It boasts one of the best villains to emerge since the likes of Loki and Wilson Fisk, and that villain is brought to life beautifully by Michael B. Jordan, who I think we can finally forgive for the role he had in the hot mess that was 2015's Fantastic Four. But of all the characters to be introduced in this movie, by far my favorite one was Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's younger sister. She is smart, funny, and has a killer music and fashion sense, a woman after my very heart.

In retrospect, I guess I should've known that Black Panther would live up to the hype, given the pedigree of actors and filmmakers who were working on it, and Disney's propensity to knock such movies out of the park. There seems to be no end to their current winning streak, and with two more movies on their roster this year, the future looks brighter than ever.

Monday, 29 January 2018

My Thoughts on the 60th Grammy Awards


The 60th Grammy Awards were held last night, during which Bruno Mars basically pulled an Adele, cleaning out in all six categories in which he'd been contending. These included the three biggest awards of the evening, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year, taking home the awards for his songs, That's What I Like, 24K Magic, and his 2016 album of the same name. This of course came at the expense of Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, who were also contending for those very same awards.

But at least Kendrick managed to clean out in the rap categories, winning five awards in total, which is five more than Jay-Z received from his eight nominations. Yep. That's right, Jay-Z went home empty handed despite leading the nominations going into the awards. This is particularly disheartening for the jigga man and his fans alike when you consider how critically acclaimed his 4:44 album was, but it can be argued that it had been eclipsed by Kendrick's own critical darling, DAMN!

Elsewhere, I was admittedly disappointed that Nothing More didn't win in any of the three categories they'd been vying for. But the band is relatively young, at least compared to the likes of Foo Fighters and the late Leonard Cohen, so if they keep churning out great music in the years to come, it is only a matter of time before they receive some much-deserved recognition.

Other notable wins include The Weeknd, who won Best Urban Contemporary Album for Starboy, although it is a bit of a head-scratcher why this album didn't get any recognition outside that category. Ed Sheeran also got some love in the pop categories, winning both Best Pop Album for ÷ and Best Pop Solo Performance for Shape of You. It is also worth noting that Despacito didn't win any awards, to my great relief, but we did have to endure a performance of the song during the telecast.

Speaking of performances, there were ballads aplenty, but the performance that had everyone talking was by Ke$ha, who was joined by Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Andra Day and Bebe Rexha for a rendition of her song, Praying. All in all, it was a very safe and politically correct Grammys last night, with Bruno Mars being singled out by the voters for honor due mainly to the fact that the music he'd released during the eligibility period was the most appropriate and in tune with their sensibilities.

Friday, 29 December 2017

2017 in Review: Looking Back

Today marks the end of my 2017 in Review series. A brief recap for the benefit of those just joining in. The series was started on Monday with a rundown of my favorite video games released in 2017. This was followed by a rundown of my favorite songs on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I highlighted my favorite albums. And yesterday, I revealed my favorite movies. Today, I'll be looking back at some of the events that shaped the year, and trying to make sense of it all.


In October of 2016, Nintendo stunned gamers with the reveal of the Nintendo Switch, its then-rumored hybrid video game console. This was followed by months of speculation sparked by the promise depicted in the first look trailer above. Expectations were high by the time the device launched at the beginning of March, but no one could have anticipated just how successful the device would prove to be. In just 10 short months, the hybrid console has sold more than 10 million units worldwide, as well as produced what many consider two of the greatest video games of all time.


On July 20th, Linkin Park vocalist, Chester Bennigton, was found dead at his home after committing suicide. I can't even begin to describe how heart broken I was when I'd heard the news. This was a man whose music and words had shaped my thoughts and feelings for many years. I still get goosebumps when I listen to his vocals on Hybrid Theory and Meteora, feeling the angst, pain and sadness they so skillfully convey, as though the emotions were my own. Now we know that those emotions were a cry for help that went unanswered for far too long.


Ever since the sexual misconducts of movie producer Harvey Weinstein were brought to light by The New York Times in October, there have been several more sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood celebrities in a trend that has since been dubbed the Weinstein effect. Celebrities to be hit by this wave of allegations include Steven Seagal, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Stone and Ryan Seacrest, to name a few. But perhaps the hardest hit is actor Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct allegations have led to the suspension of the final season of the Netflix series, House of Cards, and his complete removal from the recently released movie, All the Money in the World.


Reeling things back home now, those who'd read my reflection post from last year would remember that my 2016 was darkened by some very tragic events. So for me, 2017 was all about getting back up and moving on, easy words for what is essentially a mammoth task. They've been days when I found that almost impossible to do, when all I wanted was to be left alone to wallow in the pain I was going through, or scream as loud as I could as I tried to make sense of an otherwise senseless world. But I always found the strength I needed to push through it, all thanks to the people I care about.

That's right, it is the relationships we forge that give us that sense of purpose we need to make it through each passing day. And though those relationships may be fleeting like everything else in this world, it is best we never forget to cherish them while they last, and the memory of them long after they are gone. I've been blessed with quite a few people I could call friends, and a few others I consider "more than friends." You guys are the reason for everything, so I would like to take a moment to tell you that you rock. Thanks for being there in my time of need, even without knowing it.

Happy New Year in advance everyone. Here's hoping that 2018 is full of peace, joy, love, and all that jazz. Let's do this again sometime. 😉

Thursday, 28 December 2017

2017 in Review: Favorite Movies

Get Out



Get Out is a satirical horror comedy about an interracial couple whose relationship is put to the test after they pay a visit to the girl's parents at their countryside estate. Jordan Peele knocks the ball out of the park in this, his directorial debut. The film also boasts a breakout performance from Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the black boyfriend, and one of the most wildly original plot twists to be seen all year.

Logan



Hugh Jackman was back as Wolverine this year in his last outing as the beloved X-Men character. And what a final outing it was too, as the Australian actor gave what was easily his strongest performance as the character till date. Logan is far from your typical superhero movie. It is a movie that eschews the tropes of the superhero tentpole in favor of shedding light on what makes its central hero tick.

John Wick: Chapter 2



John Wick: Chapter 2 is the rare sequel that manages to surpass its predecessor in every way. The movie boasts more thrills and action, while also expanding upon the lore of the assassins hiding in plain sight in its mysterious underworld. Keanu Reeves reprises the titular roles, but this time, he is joined by Common, who plays a rival assassin, as well as Laurence Fishburne, who plays an underground crime lord.

Wonder Woman



Following her brief appearance in last year's Batman v Superman, fans of the DC heroine, Wonder Woman, have been looking forward to her first solo outing. Thankfully, they didn't have to wait very long before she received the superhero origin story treatment. The fact that said treatment didn't suck was of course a welcome relief, and a much-needed win for the faltering DC Extended Universe.

Baby Driver



Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby in this unconventional heist movie about a getaway driver struggling to get away from a life of crime. The film also stars Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, and was directed by Edgar Wright, the man behind the Three Flavours Cornetto film trilogy. What sets Baby Driver apart from others like it is the fact that the entire movie is set against a killer soundtrack, resulting in some truly unbelievably kickass moments.

War of the Planets of the Apes



The final installment of the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy was met with high praise this year. The movie brings the story of Caesar and his band of ape companions to a satisfying close, with one of the strongest endings to a film trilogy in recent memory. Continuing the trend set by previous entries, the movie once again sets a benchmark for CGI and performance-based special effects.

IT



2017 was a great year for Stephen King adaptations, with both The Dark Tower and IT receiving some big screen love. But of the two movies, it was IT that proved to be the runaway success, opening to rave reviews from critics and going on to become the highest grossing horror film of all time. Bill Skarsgård plays the eponymous IT, a shape-shifting clown terrorizing children in the small town of Derry, Maine.

Blade Runner 2049



Not very often does a sequel take 35 years to make. But when that sequel is as exceptionally good as Blade Runner 2049, then you can say that it was well worth the wait. Set several years after the events of the 1982 original, the new film sees Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard, a retired blade runner who has since gone into hiding. He is joined by Ryan Gosling who plays K, a new class of replicant who works for the LAPD as one of the eponymous blade runners.

Thor: Ragnarok



Thor: Ragnarok is the third film in the Thor franchise. It has Chris Hemsworth reprising his role as the titular god of thunder, but this time around, he is joined by Mark Ruffalo as the Incredible Hulk. Following a string of unfortunate events, the duo find themselves stuck on an alien planet where they are forced to fight in the gladiatorial Contest of Champions. Directed by Taika Waititi, the man behind the Team Thor series of shorts, the film marks the most comedic entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



The most anticipated film of the year also happens to be the last one to make the cut in my list of favorite movies. Star Wars: The Last Jedi picks up where Star Wars: The Force Awakens left off, in what is essentially the latest chapter in the Skywalker saga. In the film, Rey tries to convince a reluctant Luke Skywalker to train her in the ways of the force, while The First Order, led by the villainous Kylo Ren, moves to crush what remains of the Rebel Alliance.

And the winner is...

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



It's been roughly two weeks since I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the cinema and dear lord am I still trying to recover from the pure awesomeness of it all. I've already waxed lyrical about the things I loved about the movie in my spoiler-free review, so no point rehashing the same points here. What I would say though is this: the filmmakers had a choice between doing something fresh and something that was ultimately safe. I'm more than pleased that they'd gone with the former. The consequence of that decision is that we now have a worthy addition to the franchise that we can look back on fondly, as we revel at just how bold and groundbreaking it had been.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

2017 in Review: Favorite Albums

Jamiroquai - Automaton


For their eight album, Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay had revealed that he wanted to share his thoughts on the current state of our human existence in an increasingly technological world, namely the loss of our ability to interact face-to-face in favor of interactions over the internet. But he also finds time on the new record to sing about his love for women, the night life, his daughter, and himself. Highlights include Automaton, Cloud 9, Superfresh, Hot Property, and We Can Do It.

Linkin Park - One More Light


From the moment I'd heard the lead single, I could tell that the new Linkin Park album, One More Light, was going to spark a lot of outrage. In their attempt to craft a wholly pop album, they'd left fans of their heavier material disappointed. I was one of those fans, and I admit that I was quick to dismiss the effort as selling out. But given a few more listens, the record began to grow on me and some real gems started to materialize. Highlights include Heavy, Good Goodbye, and Sharp Edges.

Nothing More - The Stories We Tell Ourselves


What does it take to craft a solid rock album? Deep, reflective subject matter? Check. Choruses that are singalong worthy and larger than life? Check. A degree of musical showmanship that leaves "nothing more" to be desired? Check. By all accounts, it would appear that The Stories We Tell Ourselves has got all the essential ingredients. But it is ultimately Nothing More's love for their craft that shines through. Highlights include Don't Stop, Funny Little Creatures, Go To War, Tunnels, and Fade In/Fade Out.

Paramore - After Laughter


After Laughter was Paramore's long-awaited follow-up to their 2013 self titled release. The new record was a sort of homage to the music of the 80s, leaving behind the punk rock and emo trappings of prior albums. None of the old edge was lost though, with Hailey Williams sounding her most vulnerable as she shared her experiences with love and heartache. Highlights include Told You So, 26, Pool, Grudges, Caught in the Middle, Idle Worship, and No Friend.

Lorde - Melodrama


Another album that was highly anticipated this past year was Lorde's Melodrama. And as far as follow-up albums go, the album managed to beat the dreaded sophomore slump by taking everything that worked on Pure Heroine, like its minimalist production for example, and turning it on its head. The result is an album that is undoubtedly more commercial, but one that still manages to retain Lorde's signature sound. Highlights include Homemade Dynamite, The Lourve, and Hard Feelings/Loveless.

Katy Perry - Witness


Creepy album covers aside, Katy Perry is one artist that hardly disappoints when it comes to the quality of her studio albums. Her ability to churn out radio-friendly fare like clockwork exemplifies everything fans love about her brand of pop music. Witness is an album filled with said radio-friendly fare. Highlights include Chained to the Rhythm, Roulette, Bon Appétit, Déjà Vu, and Swish Swish.

Kesha - Rainbow


For her third album, Rainbow, Kesha ditches her go-to subject matter of unrestrained, excessive partying for themes of forgiveness and female empowerment. Similarly, she also expands her sonic repertoire beyond the electropop with which she'd found fame, incorporating glam rock, neo soul, and most notably country music into the fold. And in so doing, she exhibits the kind of maturity that few pop artists can claim to have made after just three albums. Highlights include Let 'Em Talk, Finding You, and Boots.

Papa Roach - Crooked Teeth


This past year, I rediscovered my love for Papa Roach and their nu metal sound of old. But ever since their 2004 album, Getting Away with Murder, the band had opted to drop that sound in favor of a more modern hard rock sound. Crooked Teeth serves as a sort of middle ground between both eras of the band, catering to the needs of both fans of the old and new. Highlights include Periscope, Help, and Sunrise Trailer Park.

Taylor Swift - reputation


For her previous record, Taylor Swift had drawn inspiration from the decade of her birth. This time around, that inspiration comes from her superstar status, or reputation as the album is named. The album builds upon the synthpop of her 1989 album, and introduces some more contemporary flavors into the mix, as she further distances herself from her country roots. Highlights include ...Ready For It, End Game, Getaway Car, and Dancing with our Hands Tied.

Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.


No year-end albums list would be complete without the inclusion of Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. Revered by critics for managing to surpass the highs already established by good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, the album finds Mr. Duckworth once again at the top of his rap game. A definite forerunner for Album of the Year at next year's Grammys. Highlights include DNA, LOYALTY, HUMBLE, LOVE, and XXX.

And the winner is...

Nothing More - The Stories We Tell Ourselves


Very few bands today are able to craft a record as diverse and yet cohesive as Nothing More's The Stories We Tell Ourselves. The album takes listeners on a journey, one that feels just as personal as it feels all-encompassing. We can just as easily relate to Jonny Hawkin's call for change in "Do You Really Want It?" as we can with his father's words in the beautiful album closer, "Fade In/Fade Out." The fact that the record starts off on a high note and doesn't seem to lose any steam by its end points to the craftsmanship of a band that is at the top of its game. Whoever said that rock was dead?