Monday 28 December 2020

Soul (Movie Review)

The latest Pixar animated film, Soul, finally debuted on Disney+ and select international theaters this Christmas, after being delayed from its original theatrical release date back in June. But unlike the similarly delayed Mulan that attracted a $30 premier access fee when it landed on Disney+, this one is free to watch by all Disney+ subscribers, at no extra charge, as the streaming platform went head to head with HBO Max, where Wonder Woman 1984 had also made its streaming debut.

The movie features the voice talent of Jamie Foxx, who voices an aspiring jazz musician named Joe Gardner. Having spent most of his life chasing after his dream of playing in a jazz band, he is now relegated to teaching a middle school music class. But after he is involved in a fatal accident on the very day he'd finally gotten his big break, Joe proves reluctant to move on to the afterlife, and decides instead to team up with an unborn soul called 22 (Tina Fey), in a bid to find his way back home.

The first thing that struck me about Soul was its beautiful animation. Pixar have always been known for the quality of their productions, but they somehow manage to keep raising the bar with each subsequent release. And Soul is at their current pinnacle, with scenes that often look photorealistic at first glance, and a fluid animation style that proves why they are the best in the business. 

This extends to even the afterlife sequences, which adopted a chibby art style that stood in stark contrast to how its real-world sequences were animated. This was reminiscent of the dreamlike worlds from Inside Out, but the whole thing still blends together nicely to create a surprisingly coherent whole.

In terms of the story itself, the writing is just as topnotch as ever, showcasing all the emotional depth that the studio is known for.  The subject matter might be heavier than most of their prior work, but they infuse it with enough lighthearted humor that it should be perfectly accessible by younger audiences. That said, it doesn't quite reach the emotional heights of an Up or a Toy Story 3.

Not that every single one of their movies need to, but it is still something worth noting. And between this and their previous release of the year, Onward, I'd give that other movie a slight edge, mainly because it resonated with me more on a personal level, so your mileage may vary.

Soul joins the ranks of movies we've had in 2020 which we can only wonder how they would have performed if given a traditional box office release. Pixar had scored immense success in the past with original productions like Inside Out and Up, so the precedent was there for Soul to be another hit. But the mere fact that we are getting a film of this level debut on a streaming platform makes it the perfect holiday gift for Disney+ subscribers and fans of Pixar animated films alike.

Friday 25 December 2020

2020 in Review: Looking Back

We've come to the end of my week-long 2020 in Review series of posts. But before I proceed with today's look back at the year as a whole, here is a quick recap of everything that went down during the week. On Monday, I went over my Top 10 video games released in 2020. This was followed by a rundown of my Top 10 TV shows on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I highlighted my favorite songs. And yesterday, I revealed my Top 10 movies. Today, we'll be capping off the series with a look back at events that shaped the year into what it was.

To say that 2020 was a tough year for everyone would be like the understatement of the century. 2020 was brutal to say the least, from the impending threat of World War III at the start of the year, to a global pandemic that still continues to grip the world as we speak. We all know the details at this point, so going over each and every one in great detail should not be necessary. What I'll be doing instead is recapping those events that affected me on a personal level.

So pretty much the whole world went into lockdown around Mid-to-late March, in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus. All of a sudden, it was no longer okay to congregate in large gatherings, or shake hands with friends and loved ones, as social distancing slowly became a concept we'd come to accept. Many were forced to work from the safety of their homes, and many still no longer even had jobs.

We watched as event after event was cancelled, from the Olympic Games to conventions like E3 and San Diego Comic-Con. Conspiracy theories became the order of the day, as everything from 5G internet to opposing political views were being blamed for the current situation. There were toilet paper shortages, but through all the inherent madness of those early months, we persevered and slowly settled into the so-called "new normal."

Then there was the Black Lives Matter movement, which reached a fever pitch after both Breonna Taylor and George Floyd had lost their lives to police brutality. Thousands took to the streets in protests, ignoring curfews and their own safety just so that they could ensure the issue received the audience it demanded. But things quickly spiraled out of control, and protests turned into riots, as looters took advantage of the situation.

And just like déjà vu, we watched as the same pattern of self destruction took place here in Nigeria, after peaceful protests advocating for the complete abolition of the notoriously brutal police unit known as SARS were hijacked by hoodlums. This would culminate in the Lekki Massacre on the 20th of October, when peaceful protesters were fired at by military soldiers, which in turn gave birth to even more unrest and looting.

Amidst all that chaos and bloodshed, we'd also suffered a number of celebrity deaths. But to focus on those in a year where literal millions had lost their lives to the pandemic would be a bit callous. Except I'd also be remiss if I didn't at least take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer on August 28, after keeping his battle with the illness a secret for what had been his last four years.

The actor had touched so many lives in the brief time he'd played the character of T'Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was very much evident by the outpouring of grief that took hold of the internet that weekend and in the days and weeks after. But the fact that he had given us not one but two solid acting performances this year, in both Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, only goes further to solidify what was already a strong legacy.

2020 was also the year that gamers welcomed a new generation of game consoles, with both the Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Xbox Series S/X launching two days apart in November. This was following several months of drip fed information and anticipation, and the demand for these consoles had proven so great that they've remained pretty much impossible to buy today at regular retail prices, with scalpers and price gougers having a field day with the situation.

I personally don't plan on getting either console until they become widely available to buy at their  respective MSRPs. I've never been much of an early adopter in any case; I didn't get a PS4 until almost 4 years into its life-cycle. The one exception to that would be the Nintendo Switch, which I've owned since around its launch in 2017. And the console continued to prove to be a resounding success for Nintendo this year, with games like Animal Crossing: New Horizon selling close to 30 million copies and helping move even more units of the hybrid console in the process.

Reeling things back home now, I'd mentioned during my Year in Review wrap up post last year that I'd seen over 30 movies at the cinema in 2019. Well, this year, that number took a considerable nosedive, as I was only able to see 8, with theaters closed for the better part of the year here in Nigeria, due to the pandemic. On the flip side, I did manage to see and review even more movies than I had last year, with the final number being somewhere in the ballpark of 90 movie reviews.

What had spurred me to see and review that many movies this year was the fact that I had decided to approach doing so like it was my 9 to 5. The fact that I no longer work a regular 9 to 5 no doubt helps of course. So this has really opened me up to the possibility of upping my output and trying new things, and one of the ways I did just that was by starting my very own YouTube channel.

Yep. That's right. You can consider this my official announcement post, even though I've been embedding the videos I upload over there in my posts since July. And if for whatever reason you are reading this and you still aren't subscribed to the channel, then I've got to ask: what are you waiting for? Christmas? Well, as fate would have it, today is Christmas, so you know what to do.

It's hard to imagine that it's been 10 years since I started my annual Year in Review series on this blog. And what a wild ride it has been too, with so many ups and downs, milestones reached, and many more to come. Merry Christmas everyone, and here's to another 10 years of celebrating the things we enjoy geeking about the most.

Thursday 24 December 2020

2020 in Review: Top 10 Movies

It seems a bit unfair and one-sided to say that no other industry had been hit by the pandemic as hard as the movie industry was this past year, but it sure feels that way right now. Looking back at my list of Top 10 most anticipated movies for 2020, only 4 of those movies managed to get released in theaters, two of which had adopted the hybrid/simultaneously release model that seems might become "the new normal" heading into 2021. That's less than half, with the remaining getting pushed to next year.

There are even some movie pundits that believe the Oscars should be postponed next year, in light of the situation. But to say that we haven't gotten enough quality movies to fill out such a ceremony would be somewhat shortsighted. Not after we've had video-on-demand and streaming platforms come to the rescue of those movies in need of new homes in the absence of theaters. So out of all those movies we did managed to get this year, here are my Top 10 favorite ones.


The movie that was supposed to save theaters ended up barely making a dent at the US box office. None of that was reflective of the quality of TENET though, which had Christopher Nolan's penchant for high-concept science fiction fair. The director once again proved why he remained a visionary, weaving yet another complex tale that required multiple viewings to fully piece together. Unfortunately, it was released at a time that most viewers were already skeptical of going to see it once, not to speak of multiple times. Here's hoping it fares better now that it is out on Blu-Ray.

9. Onward

Released just when the pandemic was starting to take a hold of the larger world, Onward was one of the first films to feel its impact. I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening for the movie before our local cinemas were closed down, and it was a good thing that the theater I saw it in was largely empty, because I was a crying mess of a man that day. The writers at Pixar know how to elicit strong emotional responses from viewers, and I found Onward to be particularly heartfelt and relatable. 

8. Wonder Woman 1984

After going through several delays, Wonder Woman 1984 was finally released in international territories last week. And it was a relatively soft international debut too, according to its lower-than-expected box office results in China. But much like with TENET, this is not a reflection on the movie itself, as the DCEU sequel was packed with enough superhero action and high stakes to satisfy fans. And while it wasn't quite as strong an outing as the previous film, it is definitely worth watching on HBO Max when it gets a simultaneous release with US theaters on Christmas Day.

7. Mank

So I finally got around to seeing Citizen Kane this past year, after hearing nothing but good things about the classic 1941 film for most of my movie-watching years. And boy did it live up to expectations. None of that was in preparation for Mank though, a film I didn't even know was in the works until I caught a trailer for it. So you can imagine my delight when I did. And while the biopic is not quite "the best film since Citizen Kane," it is still one of the better ones we'd gotten this year.

6. His House

While 2020 could be considered its own horror film, there were plenty actual ones released throughout the year. From the stellar The Invisible Man, to the usually January and October duds we seem to get every year. His House was easily my favorite one of all the ones I saw, a film by first-time feature film director, Remi Weekes. His movie masterfully mixes traditional horror film elements with the refugee experience in the UK, and was according by a pair of great performances by Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku.

5. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Speaking of great performances, the late Chadwick Boseman had given one of the very best of his career in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a film about the real-life blues singer, Gertrude Rainey. Viola Davis stars in the title role, and together the pair had given two of the most Oscar-worthy performances we have gotten this year. Nominations for the ceremony won't be announced until sometime before the ceremony in April, but barring any unforeseen circumstances, we can expect nods for both actors in either of the acting categories.

4. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Another film you can expect to see at next year's Oscars is The Trial of the Chicago 7. The latest film by Aaron Sorkin tells the true-life story of the men that were persecuted for their alleged involvement in inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It marks the acclaimed screenwriter's second outing as a director, and features a strong acting ensemble that includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and others. Despite spending many years in development hell, the film is today heralded by most for the timeliness of its message. 

3. The Gentlemen

Guy Ritchie returned to his crime comedy roots this year with the release of The Gentlemen, a movie he'd developed in the spirit of earlier works like Snatch, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In the film, Matthew McConaughey stars as Mickey Pearsons, an American drug dealer trying to get out of the British drug trade after building an empire for himself. The film was one of the funniest I'd seen all year, and it has all the action, fast dialogue and quirky characters that fans have come to expect from such works by the director.

2. Black is King

Beyoncé is no stranger to making visual albums, having released the self-titled Beyoncé and Lemonade in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Black is King is easily her strongest one yet. The film serves as a companion to the music she'd curated for the 2019 remake of The Lion King, and it retells the same story of redemption from that other film, but in a contemporary African setting. It showcases both her flair for stunning visuals and her growing competence as a director, and helped to breathe new life into what was already an awesome collection of songs.

1. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is one of the few directors today that can be regarded as a true visionary. The acclaimed director had received some considerable Oscar love for his previous film, BlacKkKlansman, so expectations were indeed high for his next project. And that project was of course Da 5 Bloods, a film about a group of Vietnam veterans returning to the country to retrieve some buried treasure.

Released during the height of protests against police brutality in the US, the film proved to be indicative of current world situations. But more than that fact was the captivating performance of Delroy Lindo as a troubled vet dealing with a bad case of PTSD. His acting more than elevated the material. Then there's the director's decision not to de-age the actors in flashbacks, which were shot in 4:3 ratio.

The craftsmanship on display, the strength of the performances, and the timeliness of its message all come together to make Da 5 Bloods my favorite movie for 2020.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

2020 in Review: Top 10 Songs

One of the many downsides of spending the better part of 2020 in the middle of a pandemic is missing out on music festivals and concerts. The good news though was that there was no shortage of new music being released all through the year. Some artists in fact spent their time in lockdown composing new music, and many still held virtual performances for their fans. All that is to say that coming up with my Top 10 songs of 2020 wasn't any easier this year than previous years. So on that note, here are my favorite songs for 2020.

10. Master KG - Jerusalema

The South African DJ that gave us Skeleton Move two years ago was back again with his follow up hit, Jerusalema. And the song proved even more popular than that other one, after it went viral and spawned the dance routine that came to be known as the Jerusalema Challenge. It's simple melody and catchy beat did lend the song to just such a challenge, and it would go on to receive multiple remixes, one of which includes our very own Burna Boy.

9. Juice WRLD & Marshmello - Come & Go

Juice Wrld lives on through the legacy of his music, and that was very much evident this year following the release of his first posthumous album, Legends Never Die. The album was packed with multiple collaborations, but the one that seemed to resonate with me the most was Come & Go. The song featured production work from electronic musician, Marshmello, and it served as a best of both worlds as it marries the late emo rapper's signature style with the other's skill for crafting earworm melodies.


Poppy continued her descent into heavier music territory with the release of her third studio album, I Disagree. And no other track on the cut perfectly captured the rawness of the American singer's appeal like the song, Bloodmoney. The song would go on to earn her a nomination at the forthcoming 63rd Grammy Awards, in the Best Metal Performance category, making her the first ever female artist to earn one.

7. Halsey - Graveyard

It almost feels like a lifetime since Halsey released her third studio album, Manic. All the way back in January to be precise. This was before lockdowns became a thing, so I guess that is understandable. But in all the time since the album's release, one of its songs has remained a staple on my playlist. That song is of course Graveyard, a song that was produced by Jon Bellion and speaks of the almost blissful pull of lovers intertwined in what is effectively a destructive relationship.

6. Justin Bieber & benny blanco - Lonely

The Biebs sings about his experiences with superstardom at an early age in Lonely, his latest collaboration with producer-turned-artist, Benny Blanco. I confess that the song had sounded like a throwaway ballad the first time I heard it. But upon subsequent listens, you really start to feel some of the emotion the singer expresses. Also, Jacob Trembley plays a younger, Baby-era Justin Bieber in the music video, and you've got to love anything with Jacob Trembley in it.

5. Bring Me the Horizon - Teardrops

Following the release of their self-proclaimed pop album, amo, and its more experimental follow-up, Music to listen to, Bring Me the Horizon had long-time fans wondering what direction their music would be taking next. And it was with open arms that we'd welcomed Post Human: Survival Horror, the first part of their Post Human series. The album found the British rockers at their heaviest in years, with the single, Teardrops, serving as an effective middle ground for old and newer fans alike.

4. Lady Gaga - Rain on Me (ft. Ariana Grande)

Lady Gaga was yet another artist that returned to her musical roots this past year, with the release of her sixth album, Chromatica. Easily her best album in years (and quite possibly my favorite one for 2020), the record is reminiscent of the danceable beats of her The Fame era of music. On "Rain on Me," she joins forces with fellow pop singer, Ariana Grande, and they'll both be contending for the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award at the Grammys next year.

3. Taylor Swift - Cardigan

Taylor Swift has been very prolific this past year, releasing not one, but two albums, the aptly titled folklore and evermore. Both albums were released with very little fanfare, but still managed to smash all manner of records on their way to becoming the best-selling albums of the year. The first album contains the song Cardigan, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 100, before going on to earn her a nomination for both Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance at next year's Grammy Awards.

2. The Weeknd - In Your Eyes

One of the most glaring omissions in the nominations for next year's Grammy Awards is The Weeknd, who had put out what is quite possibly his strongest album this past year. In it, he continued to showcase his love for the music of the 80s, and nowhere was that love more evident than on the track, In Your Eyes, a song that features one of the best saxophone solos I've heard in a long while. That love also extended to his music videos for the album, which together served as an actual short film made in the style of an 80s-era slasher movie.

1. Disclosure - Douha (Mali Mali)

Disclosure once again teams up with Malian singer, Fatoumata Diawara, for the larger-than-life dance track, Douha (Mali Mali). The song is coming fresh off the heels of their previous collaboration on Ultimatum, which had earned the pair a nomination for Best Dance Recording at last year's Grammys. And this time around, the singer sings of her love for her home country, Mali, over one of the catchiest Disclosure productions we've been blessed with in a good while.

There's something undeniably refreshing about the song's fusion of deep house and traditional African music, with Fatoumata's vocals perfectly complimenting the slick production. It also doesn't hurt that the video for the song is beautifully shot with some truly stunning drone photography. It is all those elements that come together to make Douha (Mali Mali) my ultimate feel-good song and music video of 2020.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

2020 in Review: Top 10 TV Shows

Most of us had spent the better part of 2020 social distancing in our homes, so I guess it was a good thing then that there wasn't any shortage of quality shows to watch on the various streaming services like Netflix. And as the dust slowly settled on long-running shows like Game of Thrones, the void it left behind is already being filled by a number of new and ongoing shows. Here are the ones I consider my Top 10 for 2020.

10. Money Heist Season 4

I was admittedly a bit late in boarding the Money Heist hype train. But after a lockdown-inspired binge session of the first four seasons, I can finally see what all the noise was about. Like any great show, it has enough characters for fans to care about, and the execution of the increasingly-audacious plans of "The Professor" is something that needs to be seen to be believed. The whole thing does start to wear a bit thin after a while though. Still, that final season can't come soon enough.

9. Animaniacs

Any kid that grew up in the 90s should easily remember the Steven Spielberg-produced cartoon show, Animaniacs. The show was known for its slapstick humor and numerous pop culture references. This past year, it joined the long list of classic shows that recently received a revival, which aired on Hulu. The new 13-episode season proves just how timeless and relevant the show is; even though most of the gags have been updated to appeal to modern sensibilities, there's plenty for old and new fans alike to love.

8. High Score

Netflix had blessed subscribers with a number of high-quality documentaries this past year. But the retro gamer in me holds one of them above the rest. And that show is of course High Score, the 6-part documentary that chronicles several pivotal developments that paved the way for the current gaming landscape. I've been a gamer since the 8-bit era, so a lot of what was covered really spoke to me, more so than the similar CBS All-Access documentary, Console Wars.

7. Rick and Morty Season 4

The second half of the Adult Swim cartoon show, Rick & Morty, aired earlier in the year. And it proved to be the stronger of the two halves, leaving fans with instant classics like The Vat of Acid episode. And while, taken as a whole, the fourth season might not quite match the first one in overall quality, it still has all the self-deprecating humor and social commentary that fans enjoy.

6. Fargo Season 4

After taking a three-year hiatus since Season 3 aired back in 2017, the FX anthology series, Fargo, was back for its fourth season this year. This time around, the show was set in 1950, with Chris Rock serving as one of the main headliners. And while each season is usually considered standalone, it was revealed during a post-credits scene that this one actually had a very strong connection to the second season of the show.

5. Lovecraft Country

After only just gifting us with the stellar limited series Watchmen last year (which by the way was my favorite show that year), HBO made another claim for the King of TV Shows title this year with Lovecraft Country. The show serves as both an adaptation and continuation of the 2016 book of the same name, which itself borrowed heavily from the works of famed horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. The show boasts enough blood and guts to please gorehounds, while still managing to tell a thought-provoking tale for those viewers looking for something more cerebral.

4. The Queen's Gambit

And speaking of cerebral, things don't get more so than in a show about chess. The Queen's Gambit made its debut on Netflix this year, and the limited series starred Anya Taylor-Joy, who it seems is having a solid 2020 overall, between this and her appearances in both Emma and The New Mutants. She plays an orphaned girl who would become a chess prodigy, and she convincingly brings the character to life in what is sure to remain a career highlight for the young actress.

3. The Umbrella Academy Season 2

The Five Hargreeves siblings returned to Netflix for another season of The Umbrella Academy this summer. And once again, they had to deal with the threat of yet another extinction level event. I didn't actually get into the Umbrella Academy until a good friend of mine had questioned its omission from my list of favorite TV shows last year. I could easily see why, because it definitely has a quirkiness to it that is unlike any other ongoing show, which only adds to its overall appeal.

2. The Boys Season 2

One show I did thoroughly enjoy last year was The Boys, and if it wasn't for the fact that HBO had also put out Watchmen, I would have easily awarded it my favorite TV show for the year. The second season was even more bunkers, with exploding heads galore and more double dealings and conspiracies than you can shake a stick at. But I'm sure you must be wondering why it is sitting here at number 2 then, a fact that only speaks to the strength of the show at number 1.

1. The Mandalorian Season 2

The Skywalker Saga might have ended with what many considered a heap of a mess in The Rise of Skywalker last year, but Jon Favreau and crew have proven that Star Wars is still very much alive and well with the stellar second season of The Mandalorian. If the first season was renowned for introducing the ever adorable Baby Yoda to the world, then it was in this one that we witnessed just where the show fits in with the greater Star Wars timeline.

Crossovers were made with existing shows like Clone Wars and Rebels as we saw fan favorite characters from those shows make an appearance. The long-rumored return of a certain other Mandalorian was another highlight of the season. But the biggest achievement of all came in its final episode, where long-time fans were finally given what they'd been clamoring for since The Return of Jedi. All in all, the show is further proof that it is a good time to be a Star Wars fan.

Monday 21 December 2020

2020 in Review: Top 10 Video Games

With 2020 finally coming to an end, it is time for us to take a much-needed step back as we examine some of the things that have kept our minds off the many troubles of "these uncertain times." Throughout this week, I'll be counting down my Top 10 movies, video games, TV shows and songs. But unlike previous years, I'll be ranking my picks from 10 to 1, in keeping with all the Top 10s I've been posting over on YouTube.

I'll be starting the week-long Year in Review with a rundown of my Top 10 video games. But first, I must once again begin with the disclaimer that I'd skipped out on some notable games this past year. Most of them were PS4 exclusives, and there is no doubt that hardcore gamers will notice their absence on this list. That said, this leaves more room for some smaller indie games and hidden gems you'd typically not catch on these types of lists. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 video games of 2020.

10. Paper Mario: The Origami King

2020 was a comparatively quieter year for Nintendo, and one of the few first party titles to come out for the Nintendo Switch was Paper Mario: The Origami King. The game boasted the same witty writing and colorful paper-styled visuals the series is known for, and introduced a new ring-based battle system. And while it was not the return to the series' RPG roots that long-time fans had hoped for, it still managed to pack its own kind of thrills.

9. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

The battle royale genre received a surprising new entry this year in the form of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. The game featured up to 60 players competiting against each other in several game show-styled events, until only one is left standing, doing battle across several rounds filled with many obstacles and colorful perils. The game had exploded onto the scene in August, and while it might have fallen in popularity since then, it remains a major gaming highlight for many this past year.

8. Genshin Impact

Of all the games on this list, Genshin Impact was probably the one I'd never imagined would turn out as good as it did. But here we are. The game first got on my radar last year, after it made the news for its similarities to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the spirited reaction that caused in one particular Nintendo fan at a Japanese gaming convention. But what surprised me the most after finally getting to play the game this year, was its overall quality and the amount of content it offered for free, and how it has no doubt raised the bar for free-to-play games.

7. Streets of Rage 4

My 90s beat-em-up itch was very much scratched this past year, thanks to Streets of Rage 4, the long-awaited entry in the once-popular game series. And by long awaited, I mean that it has literally been some 26 odd years since fans last got to throw punches and kicks at random thugs milling about the crime-ridden streets. The latest entry replaces the 16-bit graphics of those earlier games with some beautifully handrawn sprites and backgrounds, and has original series composers, Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, returning to help compose and curate some truly incredible tunes for the game.

6. Resident Evil 3

My favorite video game released last year was none other than the Resident Evil 2 remake by Capcom. So you could imagine my excitement when we'd first learnt that we would also be getting a remake of the original game's sequel, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, and just one year later. The new game somehow manages to improve on the previous game's already lifelike visuals, as well as ratchet things up several notches with even more action setpieces. The game was accused of being comparatively shorter though, a shortcoming it attempts to assuage by coming bundled with an online multiplayer mode called Resident Evil: Resistance.

5. Doom Eternal

The 2016 version of Doom was already every bit the perfect first-person-shooter game, but the developers at id Software were obviously not satisfied. And following a short delay from its original 2019 release date, its sequel, Doom Eternal, was unleashed onto the world (along with a certain other game further down this list). The introduced even more hordes of enemies to do battle against, as well as new platforming abilities and a fleshed out story mode. But the one facet of the game that resonated with me the most during my long play sessions was its rocking soundtrack.

4. Hades

I've never been particularly keen on roguelike games, even though I did feature both Dead Cells and Cadence of Hyrule in my list of favorite games last year. But all that changed with my discovery of Hades this past year, the latest game from acclaimed indie developers, Supergiant Games. The game marries a beautiful art style with a fun gameplay loop that involves hacking and slashing your way through its procedurally-generated underworld. Like most roguelikes, players would die often and things reset at the start of each run. But the fact you unlock new abilities and upgrades ensures that you also get that sense of progression regardless.

3. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

While Sony and Microsoft were busy preparing to launch their respective next-gen consoles this fall, Nintendo was quietly prepping its big holiday title. And if we were going by the sheer magnitude of its eventual reveal alone, then Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity would most likely be topping this list. Billed as a prequel to the events that transpired in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the hack and slash adventure game would take that other game's story in a bold, new direction. And despite being marred by performances issues, it still stands tall as one of the better games to grace the Nintendo Switch this year.

2. Cyberpunk 2077 (PC Version)

It is almost impossible to discuss Cyberpunk 2077 without first acknowledging the current state of its console ports. The game has had the rockiest of launches to say the least. And while those versions of the game continue to get patched into a more playable state, we can't overlook the gem of a video game hidden underneath all those bugs and glitches. And that gem currently shines the brightest on PC, with all the next-generation bells and whistles gamers could possibly hope for. Its massive open-world is filled with delights and side attractions at almost every turn, while its main campaign offers the high-quality storytelling fans have come to expect from CD Projekt Red.

1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Was there ever even a doubt that Animal Crossing: New Horizons wouldn't be topping my list of Top 10 games of 2020? I mean, you only need to take a scroll through my Twitter page to see how much it dominated my free time this past year. No other game had managed to fill a void the way the latest in the series of life simulation games from Nintendo did when lockdowns began in mid-to-late March.

And through all the craziness and uncertainty of 2020, this game continued to provide a respite from all of it for millions of players all over the world. Some 26 million players to be precise, at least going by the last reported NPD numbers. Those numbers speak for themselves, which is why I feel that no other game was as significant this past year to the gaming landscape as a whole.

Friday 18 December 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Movie Review)

It might be winter time in several places around the world right now, but the Oscar race just keeps on heating up. And the latest film to stake its claim for some Oscar consideration this awards season is the eagerly-anticipated Netflix drama, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Based on a play which was itself based on the real-life recording of the titular song, the movie is perhaps on most people's radars because it marks the final film appearance of the late Chadwick Boseman, who passed away earlier in the year.

Set in the late 1920s, the movie centers upon a single session at a music recording studio in Chicago. Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey, the real-life singer that is often credited as "The Mother of Blues." A prima donna in every sense of the word, she is just as difficult to please as she is talented at what she does. And on this particular day, she is running late for her session at the studio.

Chadwick Boseman plays Levee, an ambitious trumpet player with dreams of putting together a band of his own. He has written a new arrangement of the song they were to be recording, one that his band mates have reservations about rehearsing despite the producer signing off on it. But when Ma Rainey arrives and insists on doing her own version, amidst several other demands, her manager (Jeremy Shamos) must do everything in his power to ensure that cooler heads prevail.

There's a lot to unpack in the relatively short runtime of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. And at the top of the list is the pair of stellar performances given by both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The former was oftentimes unrecognizable as she fully embodied the character of Ma Rainey. Her larger-than-life presence was felt in every scene, and to say that she deserves a nomination at next year's Oscars is itself an understatement, not when she should be considered the current front runner.

Chadwick Boseman on the other hand was every bit her equal. He played the smooth talking yet hot-tempered trumpeter so well that I literally caught myself holding my breath during one particularly heartfelt monologue. And while he has given a number of transformative performances in the short time we've spent with him, no one can say that he didn't go out on a high note. Between this and Da 5 Bloods earlier in the year, the Black Panther actor had given two of his strongest performances.

But beyond the top-notch acting and period-accurate production design, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has things to say about interracial relations during the 1920s. Most of us already know what it was like for African Americans during those times. We've seen countless depictions in countless other movies. But it is the poignancy of this particular depiction that makes it so relevant to the experiences of the modern day African American.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is one of those rare gems of a movie where a solid script, stellar performances, great production design, and beautiful cinematography come together in the hands of a capable director. And as stacked as the competition for next year's Oscars is fast becoming, it is hard to see a ceremony where the film isn't represented in at least a few of those categories.

Thursday 17 December 2020

Wonder Woman 1984 (Movie Review)

It's funny to think that the last superhero movie released in theaters was Birds of Prey all the way back in February. At the start of the year, we had a good slate of tentpoles to look forward to. But then the pandemic happened and the countless release date changes and delays began. One of the films affected was of course the highly-anticipated DCEU sequel, Wonder Woman 1984.

The film had burned through its own share of release dates, before it was finally announced to be getting a simultaneous release on both HBO Max and theaters. But having been starved off big-budget superhero fare for the better part of the year, I was quite eager to see if Wonder Woman 1984 would be able to satisfy my craving for such. I'm pleased to report that the film not only meets those expectations, but in fact packs a few surprises worth experiencing on a big screen.

Set roughly 70 years after the events of the first movie, the film finds the exiled Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot) fully integrated into life in 1980s America. But when she is faced with a new threat in the form of two villains, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) and The Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), she is forced to fallback on the teachings of her childhood as she goes toe to toe with the powerful pair.

The less said about the plot of Wonder Woman 1984 the better, as even the trailers for the movie had done their best to paint the movie's story with the broadest of strokes. All you need to know is that it contains all the elements of your standard superhero fare. A villain that desires to rule the world? Check. A hero that is forced to overcome both said villain and some personal demons along her journey? Yep. That's here too. A rousing score by Hans Zimmer that is sure to get your blood pumping? Present and accounted for. 

But where the movie excels is in the way all these elements come together to create something truly epic. The film does a decent job of capturing the spirit of its 1980s setting. This extends beyond the presence of 80s movie staples like colorful fashion, big hair and the music, to the way the film is shot and presented. It had that throwback look and feel that classic superhero films released during that decade tended to have, and as such, serves as a sort of homage to that era of superhero filmmaking.

The film was also never light on action, presenting several setpieces that helped shake things up between its more dramatic moments. None of it quite managed to reach the same heights of the No man's land crossing from the first movie, but they did manage to reach heights of their own. I especially loved seeing more of Themyscira during an extended flashback sequence at the start of the movie, and a part of me wished we had gotten more of that in the movie.

Another highlight is of course the villains. Rather than the typical one-dimensional villains we usually get in these types of movies, the movie boasts two fully fleshed out villains with a surprising amount of depth. And both Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal put in their best to help bring both characters to life. This is not to say that they were on the same level as top-tier DC villains like the Joker, and they did get to do their fair share of mustache twirling during the course of the movie.

One of my major gripes with the movie was its overall length, as well as its pacing during its opening acts. The film clocked in at two and a half hours, and not all of that runtime was well utilized in my opinion. It tended to drag in bits, and I would've personally preferred if they were able to tighten its pacing by shaving off an additional 10 to 15 minutes of the film. That said, the film never became a slog to watch, so there's that.

And for those people wondering if the movie has a mid or post credit scene, well, it does have one (unlike the first) and it is totally worth staying back to see, as it managed to put a smile on my face that was bigger than any I'd had while watching any of the past DCEU post credit scenes. This one was specially done for long-time fans of Wonder Woman like myself.

A part of me can't help but wonder (no pun intended) how moviegoing would have fared this past year had Wonder Woman 1984 swapped places with TENET. After all, the latter was accused of being confusing and joyless by the few who ventured outside their homes to see it, while the former is just the kind of crowd-pleasing event movie that moviegoers look forward to. I suspect that we wouldn't have had that much of a different outcome, but still, where was Wonder Woman when she was most needed?

Wonder Woman 1984 is the much-needed jolt in the arm that theaters have been deprived of for all these months. It does more than enough to ensure that fans of the DCEU and superhero movies would be pleased. And while I still consider the first movie the superior of the two, this one is very much a worthy follow-up in more ways than one.

Monday 7 December 2020

Sound of Metal (Movie Review)

The Oscar race continues as more hopefuls land limited releases in those theaters that are open, as well as on the various streaming platforms that have become the go-to destinations for such movies. The newest kid on the block is Sound of Metal, a movie that acts as a vehicle for the immensely talented actor, Riz Ahmed. Released in theaters last month, the movie is now streaming on Prime Video.

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a punk metal drummer who performs alongside his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), in a two-person band. After many years of playing small gigs, he suddenly begins to lose his hearing. Devastated by the development, he is convinced by their sponsor to seek out the leader of a deaf community for help. But Ruben struggles to accept his fate, and he is willing to do anything to get back a semblance of his former life.

Sound of Metal succeeds at emulating what its like to lose something most of us take for granted every day. It lets viewers experience the world through the ears of its protagonist, Ruben, as he comes to grips with the loss of his hearing, and this is accomplished by a combination of some effective sound mixing, as well as a heartfelt performance from Riz Ahmed. The actor has given great performances before in films like Nightcrawler and the limited series, The Night Of, but here he gives what is arguably a career best, which should hopefully be enough to garner him some consideration at next year's Oscars.

The film also brings to the forefront the experiences of those living in the deaf community. But rather than romanticize those experiences, it presents them in a manner that is very much grounded in reality. These are people that have chosen not to approach their condition as something that needs to be fixed, but rather as one of life's many challenges to be accepted and dealt with.

In terms of cons, I don't really have that much to complain about, other than the fact that I had hoped for a stronger focus on the musical aspects of the film, which was admittedly what had drawn me to the movie in the first place. But we didn't really get to see or experience much of Ruben's life as a struggling musician, save from an opening performance or two at the start of the movie.

Sound of Metal is a heartfelt drama that explores the human condition from a unique viewpoint. The fact that it is expertly presented and made only goes further to enhance its overall message. Ultimately, the film is about finding acceptance amidst unprecedented change, and how such changes don't have to spell the end of everything one cares about, or impede one's ability to find inner peace.

Friday 4 December 2020

Mank (Movie Review)

Any film critic or enthusiast worth his or her salt probably already knows that Citizen Kane is regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. But just in case you are uninitiated, the black-and-white classic was released all the way back in 1941, and would mark the feature film directorial debut of talented theater director, Orson Welles, who also starred in the leading role. Talk about making a good first impression.

The film had earned a total of 9 nominations at the 14th Academy Awards, going on to snag the award for Best Original Screenplay. But they'd been much debate about who actually wrote that screenplay. Mank is the story of that man, a biographical drama directed by a man who is no stranger to biographical dramas himself, David Fincher.

The film stars Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, an American screenwriter tasked with coming up with a screenplay in just 60 days. This was mere days after he'd broken his leg in a car accident. Considered eccentric by most of his peers, he struggles with an alcohol dependence that has helped spur most of his notoriety. And with the deadline for the latest work fast approaching, he channels his past experiences as he comes up with his magnum opus.

Mank is both a biography and the story behind the writing of the screenplay to one of the greatest films of all time. As such, it takes a lot of inspiration from the work whose inception it is centered upon, including its striking black-and-white presentation which is evocative of the time period being depicted. The film paints a vivid picture of 1930s Hollywood, with a cinematography that not just mirrors the great Citizen Kane itself, but oftentimes rivals it in sheer mastery.

But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Mank is the character of Mankiewicz himself, who was brought to life by Gary Oldman in yet another Oscar-worthy performance. We saw him literally transform into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and here it is hard to imagine the actual Mankiwewicz being any different from his portrayal of the character. His co-stars also gave stellar performances, with Amanda Seyfried in particular being another standout.

Mank is without a doubt one of the better films we have gotten this year. It serves as a love letter to the 1930s Hollywood era of filmmaking. And much like The Disaster Artist, which had chronicled the making of a different type of noteworthy motion picture, this one also manages to reach unprecedented heights of its own.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Happiest Season (Movie Review)

It's almost Christmas and you can expect to see more holiday-themed movies popping up just in time for the holidays, ensuring that we should have no trouble finding that Christmas spirit come December 25th. I personally enjoy watching romance comedies like Love Actually, which has been a Christmas Day staple in my household for many years now. But it looks like it is in trouble of finally being dethroned by a new romantic comedy that is all but guaranteed to become another holiday classic.

The movie stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a lesbian couple living together in Pittsburgh. It's just days before Christmas and Harper invites Abby to come and spend it with her and her family back home. Abby plans on seizing the opportunity to pop the question, despite the objections of her best friend, John (Dan Levy). But things do not go according to plan when Abby finds out that Harper was yet to come out to her parents.

And so they arrive at Harper's parent's house, with Abby having to pretend to be Harper's orphaned friend and roommate. Her father (Victor Garber) is currently trying to secure some backing for his forthcoming campaign for mayor of their town, which puts additional pressure on the entire family to be on their best behavior. But when that pressure begins to reveal a side of Harper Abby didn't know existed, she begins to have second thoughts about her proposal plans.

Happiest Season is one of the better romantic comedies out there right now. It features a solid acting ensemble, with Dan Levy in particular being a standout for his dry wit. Kristen Stewart was also decent as Abby, even though she never quite managed to soar to the same heights as the other actors. It was always a joy to see these characters play off of one another, and those were the moments were the film shone the brightest.

My only problem with the movie was with the character of Harper. There was nothing inherently wrong with the character per say, and Mackenzie Davis did a solid job overall in the role. But in the context of a romance, it was hard to see how anyone could fall in love with her, much less stay in a relationship for that long. She came across as a douche bag half the time, by making selfish decision after selfish decision, so some suspension of disbelief might be required.

All that said, I'd still recommend Happiest Season on the strength of its ensemble alone. The movie was funny and heartwarming at the same time, and shows how the holidays and family in general can bring out the best and worst in people. If you're like me and you've been looking for a movie to put a much-needed smile on your face this holiday, then you don't need to look further than Happiest Season on Hulu.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Freaky (Movie Review)

With most major tentpole movies having been pushed forward to next year, it is no wonder that smaller-scale genre films are getting their moment in the sun. This is definitely the case with the horror genre in particular, which has seen the release of quite a number of noteworthy releases this past year, with films like The Invisible Man coming to mind. We can add Freaky to that conversation, the latest Blumhouse production from the director of Happy Death Day.

The movie stars Vince Vaughn as the Blissfield Butcher, a serial killer that inadvertently switches bodies with a teenage girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton), after he stabs her with a cursed dagger. Socially awkward and frequently bullied by the kids in her high school, Millie has a hard time convincing her best friends, Nyla and Josh, that she is not who she appears to be, while the Butcher continues his murderous spree with her body. And she has just 24 hours to reverse the curse, before the switch becomes permanent.

Freaky successfully marries two movie styles that have never been seen together before, the slasher and the body swap, and the result is glorious. The film has the most fun factor of all the Blumhouse productions we have gotten this year, and most of that can be attributed to how well the whole thing fits together. It borrows quite liberally from works that came before it, for sure, but it balances horror and comedy so effectively that it never starts to feel too derivative.

Vince Vaughn also helped sell the concept even further, by giving another one of his ace performances. He was especially hilarious as Millie, with his girlie mannerism standing in sharp contrast to his imposing frame. His appearance as Millie never failed to garner a laugh from the people in the theater where I'd seen the movie, and it was easy to see why.

My one main gripe with the movie was the fact that it didn't really kick into gear until after the body swap occurred roughly 30 minutes in. This led to those first 30 minutes following a rigid by-the-numbers approach typical of most slasher films, except this was not your typical slasher film.

Freaky is a horror-comedy that is just as gruesome as it is laugh-out-loud funny. The film has some of the most over-the-top kills I have seen in a horror film, so gorehounds should be pleased by all the carnage on display. It is currently showing in theaters, but would be available on the various video on demand platforms this Friday.