Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado – Film Review

The title Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado evokes memories of straight-to-DVD Blockbuster Video exclusives. The embarrassing marketing, with a skeleton holding an assault rifle, draped in a US flag, doesn’t help. Topping it off with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering at a disappointing 64%, it seemed safe to say that this would be a Sicario sequel in name only.

Perhaps it helped then, that I watched the original Sicario just two days before. With the original fresh in my mind, I felt like I watched a very different sequel from many critics. Sicario 2 takes the pessimistic worldview of the first film and dives in even deeper, leaving behind Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer as the one idealist we could root for. We’re left with the morally-ambiguous fixer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and revenge-fueled hitman Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), off on a new mission to shake the hornet’s nest at the US/Mexican border. Continue reading Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado – Film Review

Best F(r)iends, Part 1 – Film Review

Best F(r)iends, Part 1 might be a carefully crafted, perfectly executed attempt to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle that was The Room. It might also be another unintentionally hilarious trainwreck from disaster artists Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. That this is only part one of a four hour epic only serves to complicate things — is Best F(r)iends the result of incredible hubris on the part of its creators, or a brilliant marketing ploy, ensuring all of Part 1’s guinea pigs return for Part 2 with additional friends in tow?

Best F(r)iends could have been so many things. I had half-expected something darkly serious, with director Justin MacGregor somehow wrangling Tommy Wiseau into a coherent performance. The only other option seemed to be that Best F(r)iends would try to be The Room 2, ultimately failing because you just can’t do something like The Room on purpose. Continue reading Best F(r)iends, Part 1 – Film Review

Ready Player One – Film Review

It’s tough to review Ready Player One (the film) on its own merits when so much has been said about Ernest Cline and Ready Player One (the book). I never read the book, so I can’t comment on the minutiae that sets Spielberg’s adaptation apart from the original, but I do know some of the broad strokes.

Cline’s novel obsesses over 80s pop culture, while the film is a free-for-all, referencing everything from Atari games to The Iron Giant and Overwatch. Cline’s novel also gets into some messy territory, mishandling its female characters, dipping its toe into transphobia, and just generally being kind of creepy. The film, conversely, strips out most the problematic details, striving to develop its primary female character with more purpose and agency.

With these changes and streamlining, writer Zak Penn and director Steven Spielberg have crafted a crowd-pleasing, mostly inoffensive adventure (Asian stereotypes notwithstanding — this is Hollywood, after all) packed with surprisingly well-done CG action sequences. They’ve also streamlined to the point of absurdity, presenting a poorly-realized world that makes it difficult to get invested in anything that happens. Continue reading Ready Player One – Film Review

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

The original Pacific Rim left a lot of room for improvement. The film had so much promise, referencing Godzilla and mecha anime, but with a big budget and recognizable actors. There were ideas at the heart of that first film — the whole concept of drifting, where two people merge their minds to pilot their mecha successfully, for example — that elevated it beyond things like the Transformers films. The world-building of Pacific Rim was unmatched. Unfortunately, it stumbled when it came time to drive a plot around that world. The end result felt like a mash-up of the anime Evangelion, and the 1995 US Godzilla movie. It was really weird.

Pacific Rim: Uprising brings nothing new to the table, nor does it manage to succeed at the basics of storytelling. Rather than build on the cool ideas established in the first film, it quickly acknowledges the ideas before going for the lowest common denominator. Continue reading Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

Red Sparrow – Film Review

Watching Red Sparrow felt like deja vu. Just six months ago I was in a theater watching mother!, another poorly-received, Jennifer Lawrence-led film. Just six months ago I was watching Lawrence give, perhaps, a little too much of herself to a role. Both films show her character beaten, punished, disrobed, tortured, and gas-lit by men in power. In both instances, I wouldn’t blame viewers who thought it was all a little too much. Yet, in both instances I was also pleasantly surprised. I absolutely loved mother!, and Red Sparrow was far from the train wreck I was led to believe.

The film that some had hoped would be the Black Widow film we’ll never get, or another Atomic Blonde, is in-fact, neither. Red Sparrow is a graphic, deliberate, and convoluted spy fiction tale. The Sparrows are Russian secret agents that use their bodies to manipulate men in power. They are trained to find weaknesses and exploit them, all the while ignoring their own sense of shame or pride. Continue reading Red Sparrow – Film Review

My Favorite Games of 2017

As I said in my previous post, the games listed there could easily be someone’s actual top 10 list for 2017. It was getting so bad that I had a hard time believing I actually had ten more games to talk about that I liked even more. Yet now, with this list in front of me, it’s clear how the following games rose above and meant so much to me this year. Most of these games won’t just be the best games of 2017, they will go down as some of my all-time favorites. If you know me, expect to hear these names over and over whenever it’s time to recommend something. The following is listed in descending order, with my overall favorite game of 2017 at the bottom. Enjoy!

No one ever claimed that Dark Souls was too simple, but that didn’t stop Team Ninja from combining the structure and challenge of From Software’s masterpiece with a robust Diablo-style loot system, crafting, companion spirits, a weird clan system, multiple combat stances, and so much more. The crazy thing is that, although Nioh is complex and layered and brutally difficult, it all works. Nioh borrows many ideas from Dark Souls, but Team Ninja put a ton of effort into forging a unique identity. The world of this game walks a line between Japan’s feudal history and its spirituality, painting a somber world influenced by demonic forces that only a few powerful individuals can see. The total package is so good that it escapes the massive shadow of the games that inspire it.

Outside of giving a handful of indie developers their blessing, Sega does not deserve Sonic Mania. This loving tribute understands what made the original games fun, and it  even surpasses them with clever boss fights, retro remixes, and excellent new stages. I want to believe Sonic Mania is the doorway to a new era for Sega, where they give their franchises to talented fans that understand what makes the games so special. Yet, it’s hard to get too excited when Sonic Forces was released in the same year. Either way, we still got Sonic Mania. If this is the last great Sega game, that’s still okay.

Walking simulators get a bad rap — they’re often seen as short and cheap. What Remains of Edith Finch may be concise, at around 2-3 hours in length, but it is certainly not cheap. In those hours, developer Giant Sparrow lays out an ambitious journey through a series of vignettes. As you learn about the Finch family, you explore wildly different gameplay experiences and visual styles. The story of life and death is engrossing, but also quite dark and sad, its meaning open to interpretation. This is the kind of game you show your non-gaming friends and family.

Pyre fell deep into my backlog for many months. I picked it up again right before finalizing this list, and I’m so glad I did. This blend of mystical NBA Jam and a visual novel is filled with stunning art, heartfelt characters, and deep gameplay. The story is only possible in a video game, with tough choices that are seamlessly accounted for. When you reach the end, the game provides an epilogue for every major and minor character. Their circumstances are the direct result of choices you made along the way. The next time someone complains about the end of Mass Effect 3, or the lack of meaningful choices in Telltale games, tell them to go play Pyre.

On paper, Resident Evil 7 is not the scariest horror game ever made. The trouble is, Capcom made the brilliant decision to let you play the entire game from beginning-to-end in VR. The result? It is BY FAR the scariest video game I have ever played. I’ll never forget running from Jack Baker, ducking into a trap door with him inches away, and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a shame not everyone has the stomach for a VR experience like this, and I’m so glad I do. Resident Evil 7 isn’t just the best and scariest game in the series since the original, it’s the best VR game I’ve ever played.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is easily the most flawed game on my top 10 list. The first few minutes are an incoherent nightmare, and it only gets slightly less confusing over the next couple of hours. But then something magical happens. Origins begins to coalesce. The story starts to come together. The new systems and combat stop feeling awkward. Every hour after the first is better than the last, such that by hour 70 I was in awe of what I had experienced. Bayek’s journey is the new gold standard for the franchise. The series’ present day conspiracy plot may be in shambles, but the story of the assassins’ beginnings is mature, heartfelt, and powerful. Egypt is jaw-dropping, and I want to spend more time exploring it. Bayek is better than Ezio — there, I said it!

Developer Ninja Theory has officially become one of my absolute favorite studios. Their take on Devil May Cry was right up my alley. Enslaved was no slouch either. More recently, the developer has re-organized with the goal of creating great B-tier games — games that look big and expensive but are made by a small team on a small budget. Hellblade is their first crack at it, and by far my favorite game of theirs. It tells an intensely personal story of love, loss, and guilt, filtered through the mind of a protagonist suffering from mental illness. Played with headphones, the game simulates the sensation of having voices in your head, seeing things that aren’t there, and so much more. The experience gave me intense empathy for Senua’s struggle, making every fight feel like a fight for her life. This exploration of mental illness accomplishes something truly special — it gives those who struggle to understand what their loved ones may be going through a brief window into their world.

I was so sure Cuphead was going to be a gimmick. It was in development for so long. When concerns that the game was just a boss rush surfaced, we were shown side-scrolling levels that looked terrible. When the game finally came out, it was a relief to be so incredibly wrong. Cuphead is a brilliantly-designed 2D action game from top-to-bottom. The game is, for the most part, dozens of boss fights. But they are all so multi-faceted and well-constructed that it doesn’t matter. Every death in Cuphead is a lesson. Yes, you have to die a lot to learn the patterns of the various bosses. And yes, there are times when the game can feel unfair. But every time I called bullshit on an unfair attack, I later realized there was a way to consistently avoid it. Bonus points: it may be the must visually-stunning video game…ever?

The Evil Within 2 was the biggest surprise of the year. I didn’t think the first game was nearly as bad as people made it out to be, but even I can see that EW2 is a massive improvement. Nothing from the first game is wasted, or tossed aside. Instead, this is a true sequel, revisiting characters and concepts from the first game, but improving on all of them. The gameplay is expanded with an open world element and satisfying stealth. The story is willing to poke fun at itself, but it is also deadly serious and earnest at the right moments. The Evil Within 2 is a huge game, and it would have been easy to lose steam towards the end. Instead, the last few hours are an emotional rollercoaster that left my jaw on the floor.

All year I put Horizon: Zero Dawn against a gauntlet of amazing games and every time it stood out as my clear favorite. It’s an open world game that refuses to waste your time with busywork. It’s a mainstream graphics showcase that gives players full control over their character, rather than stiff Arkham Asylum-style combat or QTEs. It’s a game about killer robot dinosaurs, but the sci-fi mystery behind their origin is one of the best game stories in years. It’s not afraid to stop the action for an hour of exploration and storytelling, nor is it afraid to kick your ass when the time is right. Horizon defies expectations, fires on all cylinders from beginning-to-end, and refuses to take shortcuts, providing a wealth of things to do that are all carefully crafted. It has the best qualities of big-budget games, without all the sterilizing and safe choices that so many triple-A games fall victim to. It is everything I come to video games for in one incredible package.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato