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?

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

2017 in Review: Favorite Songs

Ed Sheeran - Shape of You



Few songs were as ubiquitous as Shape of You this past year. The song had the A-Team singer step outside of his comfort zone with its dance-hall and tropical house influences. But leave it to Ed Sheeran to make what should otherwise be a hot mess work, and in the process create what would become the bestselling single of 2017.

Jamiroquai - Automaton



The acid jazz band for the ages was back this year, and they came with some new tricks up their sleeve. With an electronic sound that was reminiscent of the French duo, Daft Punk, Automaton showed Jamiroquai fans that after a career spanning more than 20 years, the band was still willing to evolve and experiment.

Katy Perry - Chained to the Rhythm (feat. Skip Marley)



Katy Perry was another singer whose music seemed to be everywhere at every time this past year. But out of her deliciously catchy string of hit singles, Chained to the Rhythm remains the most successful and very best. It didn't hurt of course that she'd managed to score a performance of the song at the 59th Grammy Awards, in what would be remembered as one of the few standout performances of the show.

Halsey - Heaven in Hiding



Riding off the success of her collaboration with The Chainsmokers on the 2016 smash hit, Closer, Halsey was quick to produce the followup singles, Now or Never and Bad at Love. It is her song Heaven in Hiding though that featured most prominently on my playlist this year. Strangely enough, the song can only be found on the deluxe edition of her second studio album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.

Maroon 5 - What Lovers Do (feat. SZA)



Ever since Maroon 5 branched out into the realm of mainstream pop with their 2011 hit, Moves Like Jagger, there has been no looking back as the band moved further and further away from the blue-eyed soul infused pop rock of their earlier records. There isn't much cause for complain though, not when the result of that shift is filled with as much earworm goodness as their latest effort, What Lovers Do.

Papa Roach - Periscope (feat. Skylar Grey)



Papa Roach is one of those rare bands that has managed to stay relevant over the years. Nine albums in and their music still resonates with long-time fans and newcomers alike. And nowhere is that resonance more apparent that on the third single off their latest record. Periscope is a song that just begs to be left on constant repeat, with its smooth production and relatable lyrics.

Nothing More - Go To War



The band that gave us the unbelievably incredible This is the Time (Ballast) was back this year with yet another musical tour de force. That song was Go To War, the first single off their latest record, The Stories We Tell Ourselves. The song serves as yet another vehicle for lead singer Jonny Hawkins to showcase his vocal prowess, and he proves that he is more than up to the task.

Kygo & Selena Gomez - It Ain't Me



It Ain't Me is a beautiful blend of acoustic and electronic parts, a mashup that is reminiscent of the 2013 Avicii and Aloe Blacc collaboration, Wake Me Up. Norwegian DJ, Kygo, joins forces with Selena Gomez for this ode to a love lost to excessive drinking and wild nights. The result is a song that shows just how much artistic growth both artists have undergone since making their respective debuts.

Charlie Puth - Attention



Despite going on to become the bestselling song of 2015 and earning Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth multiple Grammy nominations, I still think that See You Again is one of the worst songs ever recorded. There. I said it. Deal with it. But as much as I'd like to equally dismiss his 2017 single, Attention, I've got to admit that the kid's got some mad talent, singing, writing and even producing what is easily one of the most memorable pop songs in recent memory.

Zayn - Dusk Till Dawn (feat. Sia)



One Direction's Zayn Malik teams up with Sia for this beautiful power ballad, Dusk Till Dawn. It is amazing just how well their voices compliment one another, in a seemingly effortless show of range and control. This is easily one of the best duets to come out this year. Why it didn't receive any Grammy nominations for next year's ceremony though, save for a Producer of the Year nod for Greg Kurstin, is anyone's guess.

And the winner is...

Nothing More - Go To War



Nothing More is one of the bands whose music I stumbled upon this past year. And boy am I glad I'd found them. Their music sits in that sweet spot between hard rock and heavy metal. Go To War is a metaphor for how being in a relationship can feel like fighting a war sometimes. It has the distinction of being the bands most successful song till date. And with the song currently vying for two Grammys in the Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance categories, the future looks bright for the San Antonio quartet.

Monday, 25 December 2017

2017 in Review: Favorite Games

'Tis the season to be jolly. It is also the end of yet another year and, like previous years, time for me to highlight a few of my favorite things from the past year, as well as reflect on the events that shaped the year into what it was. Interested parties can check out posts from my 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 Year in Review series by following their respective links.

This year, I'll be kicking off the week-long series with a list of my favorite video games. That's right, no TV shows or books this year; guess I didn't see and read that much of either to warrant putting together a list. Also, 2017 has turned out to be quite the kick-ass year for gaming, producing some of the medium's greatest titles. So without wasting anymore time, here are my favorite video games of 2017.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild



Nintendo released the latest installment in its long-running Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, alongside its hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch, all the way back in March. Since then it has gone on to sell over 5 million copies across both the Nintendo Switch and Wii-U consoles. The game received praise from fans and critics alike for breaking series conventions while setting a new standard and benchmark for open-world game design.

Horizon: Zero Dawn



Guerrilla Games, the studio that brought us the Killzone series, released its brand new IP this year, Horizon: Zero Dawn. The action RPG takes place in a far future where mankind has regressed back to a primitive state, while animal-like robots have taken over the vast wilderness that remains. Players control Aloy, a hunter from one of the game's many tribes, who must hunt said robots for survival, as well as uncover the mysteries of the ancient civilization whose technology gave birth to the machines.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice



Take one look at Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice and you'll be hard pressed to tell that it is the product of a small independent studio. Such is the artistry of the latest game by Ninja Theory. The game itself is a melding of different genres, with its hack-and-slash gameplay and survival-horror elements complimenting its dark fantasy setting. It is also notable for exploring the effects of mental illness on a person, with Senua's journey to Helheim mirroring her descent into psychosis.

Cuphead



I've been having the "video games as art" argument for as long as I can remember, but nowhere is my position more clear than with the debut release of StudioMDHR's Cuphead. The game is beautiful to behold, with an art style inspired by hand-drawn animation from the 1930s. Looks can be deceiving though, for beneath that beautiful veneer lies a punishing run-and-gun gameplay that is guaranteed to bring even the most seasoned Contra players to their knees.

Super Mario Odyssey



Super Mario Odyssey is a love letter to fans of Nintendo's beloved mascot. It also marks the return to the sandbox gameplay found in Super Mario 64. The game introduces a key new mechanic in the form of Mario's companion, Cappy, and his ability to capture certain enemies and objects in the game. This opens up some very unique approaches to solving puzzles, as Mario tries to collect enough power moons to power his ship on his way to thwarting Bowser's wedding to Princess Peach.

And the winner is...

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild



There is no doubt that 2017 would go down in history as a landmark year for video games in general. But no other game this past year has managed to reignite my love for the medium like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with its vast open world brimming with possibilities at every turn. I mean, I've invested well over a hundred hours into the game, spread over several months, and I am still discovering new shrines and things to do. That alone is an accomplishment that few games can boast of. Couple that with a beautiful musical score and solid overall presentation and what have you? One of the greatest (if not THE greatest) video games of all time.

P.S: Merry Christmas everyone! Thanks for reading, and be sure to check in tomorrow when I reveal my favorite songs for the year.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Movie Review)



It is no surprise that I am a huge fan of Star Wars. I mean, no other movie franchise was such an integral part of my growing up years, helping ignite my current love of movies and movie reviews. So of course, when Disney acquired the rights to the franchise and released The Force Awakens in 2015, I was right there on Day 1, grinning like a little kid. And while I was too excited to settle down and review it at the time, it still appeared on my list of favorite movies for that year.

It's been two excruciatingly long years since then, even though this was softened by last year's release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But the question remains: was it worth the wait? The short answer: hell yes! And for the benefit of the two or three people that are yet to go and see for themselves, I won't be discussing spoilers or touching on specific plot points as I expand on why I believe it is a worthy follow up, just my overall takeaway after seeing the movie.

The movie picks off right where The Force Awakens left off, with the First Order launching a retaliatory attack on the Resistance for blowing up Starkiller Base. This forces the Resistance, led by General Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), to evacuate their base, with the First Order in hot pursuit. Elsewhere, Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives at Ahch-To to enlist the help of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) on behalf of the Resistance. But what she finds on the secluded planet isn't the Jedi master of legend, but rather a damaged old man that has cut off all ties to the Force, following his role in the rise of the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is without a doubt one of the best Star Wars movies ever made, with many critics even considering it the best one since the highly venerated Empire Strikes Back. I won't go as far as giving it that designation, but I must say that it is the most artistically and technically impressive one till date. The movie is beautifully shot, with several jaw-dropping shots that will stick with you well after the credits roll. The actors were also more than competent in their roles, with Mark Hamil's portrayal of Luke Skywalker being the obvious standout.

The movie also boasts quite possibly the best light saber duel since The Phantom Menace, but to say anything more about that particular scene would risk spoiling one of the most shocking moments in the movie.

All that said, the movie did have some notable flaws. There were specific plot lines that felt inconsequential, as well as some CGI work that looked especially cheap and unconvincing. But here's the thing: even The Empire Strikes Back had its own flaws. But that hasn't prevented it from taking its place as one of the greatest cinema experiences of all time. The same principle applies here.

The Last Jedi was precisely the kind of sequel we needed after The Force Awakens. It takes the groundwork laid by the previous movie, and turns the whole thing on its head, shattering expectations at every given opportunity. At a runtime of two and a half hours, it is the longest Star Wars movie till date. But the fact that director Rian Johnson has been able to cram this much awesomeness into that runtime is a feat in its own right.


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Justice League (Movie Review)



The most eagerly anticipated entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is finally here. And after four movies (and not nearly enough backstory between them), comic book fans and moviegoers in general get to witness the superhero team up meant to rival Marvel's The Avengers. So how does it measure up to Marvel's beloved franchise? Read on to find out as I try to answer just that in my non-spoilerific take on the movie.

Justice League is set about a year after the events of Batman v Superman. Superman has been gone for all that time, while Batman has been busy trying to assemble a team of metahumans to staved off the threat he foresaw in a vision from the previous movie. And just like clockwork, it isn't long into the movie before that threat manifests in the form of Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons. Their mission, it seems, is to bring forth some sort of apocalypse, which involves the joining together of three ancient artefacts known as Mother Boxes. Sounds familiar?

The movie does what it can to introduce the members of the Justice League within its two hour runtime, but once again, the franchise's greatest shortcoming is not allowing for enough room to explore the arcs and backstories of these individual characters, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman most especially. There is also that palpable sense that the directors (Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon) had made a concentrated effort to lighten the tone of the film, making the shift jarring in places, but it works for the most part.

I have to admit that I went into Justice League with lowered expectations, after the huge disappointment I suffered after Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. And all through its overdone, cartoony CGI, and hard-to-follow action sequences, I kept asking myself one question: was it any good? The answer to that question is a reassuring yes. I mean, this is the moment every DC fanboy has been waiting for. And while the film isn't without its fair share of flaws, it is still a general step in the right direction and a hopeful indicator of things to come.