Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Report: "The Dead Zone"

The key to "The Dead Zone" is the way Stephen King sets up false premises, only to knock them on their side as he takes you in unexpected directions.

With a title like that, as well as King's usual subject material, I expected a horror tale, or at least something heavily involved with the spirit world. Instead, the novel is free of ghosts, hauntings and horror and instead a matter-of-fact rumination about what it would like to be blessed/cursed with psychic powers.

The burden of foresight in the land of the blind is heavy. The protagonist has a superpower that makes him capable of winning big at roulette or tracking down a serial killer, but it shoves him into impossible ethical situations.

The politically-charged latter half of the book focuses on a charismatic Congressional candidate whose potential path to success would spell the doom of millions of people. The quandary that arises is to what degree it's beneficial to derail that candidate's career. As the stakes rise and increasingly drastic methods become visible, the story becomes a drama set nearly almost entirely within the character's mind.

"The Dead Zone" is an unorthodox King book, and allows him to show off his off-brand skills. He proves to be as strong and lively a storyteller as usual, and that's a result it doesn't take a psychic to predict.

Monday, December 30, 2019

"World War Z" Review

It's tough to find a spot to stand out in the saturated zombie genre, but "World War Z" makes an attempt as persistent and fierce as an undead creature hungering for brains.

The co-op focused third-person shooter harkens back to "Left 4 Dead," with the emphasis on communication and complementary skills and roles key to survival.

Diverse mission sets, an elegant menu system that allows players to adjust gameplay parameters and join whatever session fits their mood. You can squad up with buddies, take your chances with strangers or seek out custom games. No matter how you go about the task,

Developer Saber Interactive prioritizes ease of use and speed above all else, and still manages to craft a game with impressive visuals, sound and animation.

The community has responded in kind, creating a thriving support system that means there are always players to link up with. That X factor is key, because without that level of commitment, there would barely be a game here.

"World War Z" continues to grow month after release, with Saber distributing regular content updates to keep things fresh and vibrant. The war against the evil dead will always be a perpetual struggle, and "World War Z" is out to ensure that the fight won't turn monotonous.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 27, 2019

"XenoRaptor" Review

Loaded with frenzied attacks from enemies, high-powered weapons and screen-searing explosions, "XenoRaptor" keeps you hooked with its brand of wild, frenetic energy.

The twin-stick, top-down shooter from developer Peter Cleary is a callback to arcade games of yore.

Although the game brings little new to the table, it manages to fire up the nostalgia factor while sticking on the cutting edge of graphics and sound. The visceral experience into which the game hurls you wouldn't have been possible in the 1980s or 90s.

The main hook is the weapon upgrade system, which lets you scoop up remnants of vanquished enemies that you can assemble on the fly into souped-up means of attack.

A strategic facet that doesn't often show itself in other bullet hell shooters comes into play here. You may find yourself looking for specific paths to upgrades that force you to be judicious about your targets. A studied, pragmatic style will yield rewards when you acquire game-changing weaponry.

"XenoRaptor" may not break much new ground, but it does enough to differentiate itself to keep things fresh.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Top 10 Movies of the Decade

For my full list, click here.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"She Sees Red" Review

Full-motion video games so rarely come along anymore that a new entry that pushes the technological boundaries of the genre is worth a look.

"She Sees Red" is such an example. The effort from developer Rhinotales is closer to a branching-paths Netflix game such as "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" than it is the crude origins of the game type in "Dragon's Lair."

With game-altering choices placed along the way, leading to four endings to take in, there is plenty of replay value, even though the game falls on the short side, at less than 40 minutes. Subtitles or an English-dubbed track are available,

A strong script, solid performances and professional camerawork and effects give "She Sees Red" a layer of polish that you'd expect on a film released on a streaming app.

Released on Steam earlier this year, and now on iOS and Google Play, the story is a mature dive into the dark recesses of seedy Russian nightclub culture. With choices geared to be subtle and ambiguous rather than clear-cut right and wrong, it's best to go with your gut and see where the story takes you.

While it's hard to imagine going back to "She Sees Red" again and again. it's easy to imagine wanting to show it off to friends time after time. There is a clear, illuminating breakthrough here, and hopefully the game finds enough success to fund a follow-up.

Publisher provided review code.

For my full article, click here.

Monday, December 23, 2019

"Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition" Review

Some gaming classics are best left to memory.

"Neverwinter Nights," which laid the building blocks in 2002 that inspired countless games to follow, seems like one of the remakes that might have been best left as it was.

A sluggish and often jittery game that struggles to find its flow, "Neverwinter Nights" is saddled with several of the drawbacks of turn-of-the-century gaming, with too few quality-of-life improvements to make it accessible to all but the most dedicated and patient fans.

For those who want to relive one of gaming's seminal achievements, though, there is much here to enjoy. The Dungeons & Dragons"-based gameplay is sprawling and robust, with 10 separate missions challenging your skills as various characters in an array of elaborate scenarios.

The menu system remains largely unchanged from the PC games, which makes for an awkward and cumbersome fit on the Switch. Text size is less than optimal as well. You sometimes feel as though you're playing the game through a blurry pair of glasses.

The area in which "Neverwinter Nights" holds up best is storytelling. The dev team was clearly stacked with talented writers who were steeped in the legend and lore of the source material. The groundwork that eventually led to the likes of "Dragon Age" sometimes shifts into promising, if fleeting, focus, only to slip away like a miscast spell.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Shows Leaving Netflix in January 2020

For the full story, click here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Report: "It"

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It" is a young Stephen King's sprawling treatise on the connections between youth and middle age, the fragility and power of friendship and sinister monstrosities that lurk in the hearts, minds and imaginations of men.

King shows off his ear for the way the kids of the 1950s spoke, acted, played, hid and fought, as well as the ways yuppies of the 1980s schemed, maneuvered, bonded and bickered. The parallelism he uses to spin the tale is so elegant and rhythmic that it would be just about impossible for a movie to simulate. Maybe a 10-hour miniseries could do it justice, but we'll probably never see a better telling of the tale than in these pages.

The only flaws come in the scattershot nature of the antagonist's methods and origins. Awkward attempts to rationalize and explain the creature's nonsensical modus operandi just cause more confusion. He would have better served the mystery by avoiding the half measures and just leaving It as an unexplained entity.

"It" is a beautiful, dark, challenging and occasionally frustrating novel that lets King strut his stuff as a master yarn-spinner. Thought-provoking and resonant, it sticks with you like lingering memories forged in youth and saved to serve you in adulthood.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Assassin's Creed: The Rebel Collection" Switch Review

With the possible exception of Capcom, no publisher has been as gung-ho about getting its back catalogue onboard the Switch gravy train than Ubisoft. Following the likes of "South Park," "Child of Light," "Valiant Hearts: The Great War" and "Trials HD," the monolithic "Assassin's Creed" series is beginning to trickle onto the console.

The games included in "Assassin's Creed: The Rebel Collection" are rather obscure choices, and seem geared toward getting the franchise's feet wet on the Switch hardware. Rather than go with low-fi classics such as the original game, its follow-ups, the Ezio Collection, or the most recent blockbusters, "Origins" and "Odyssey," we get nearly-forgotten late last-gen entries.

The compilation includes "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" (2013) and "Assassin's Creed Rogue" (2014). As is usually the case with rereleases, both games are loaded with all previously-released DLC, and with games as microtransaction-happy as these, that means tons of extra levels, skins, weapons and items.

The games in the collection represent a turning point for the franchise, in which it branched off into naval combat in "Black Flag" and the saga through the perspective of the villainous Templars in "Rogue."

The games make an apt fit on the Switch because their guts don't do too much to stretch the hardware capabilities. Unlike the likes of "Wolfenstein" and "Diablo," these games are silk-smooth and polished on the device.

Returning to the middle games in the "Assassin's Creed" legend in 2019 is refreshing, and something of a spiritual reboot for the now grandiose games. Like the overarching storyline itself, the games are welcome jumps back in time to re-experience the sights, sounds, passions, struggles and triumph of eras bygone.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Arizona Theatre Company Review: "Cabaret"

A bold and brash rumination on humanity's capacity for freedom, joy, lust and evil, "Cabaret" is a psychosexual explosion of a musical that sets out to disrupt the status quo.

If you'd think it would lose its edge after five decades, you'd be wrong.

Arizona Theatre Company's production reinvigorates playwright Joe Masteroff's artistic voice, joined with Bob Fosse's sense of electric movement. The story set in 1930s Berlin is every bit as relevant and poignant a mirror of 2019 Tucson. Or Moscow. Or Mar-a-Lago.

The tale of a dive sex club's gradual loss of spirit and soul in the backdrop of the Nazi takeover lulls you into a hypnotic flow of garish entertainment, only to sock you in the stomach with twists and revelations brought on by the knocking on the door from the outside world. It's a story of the loss of idealism and humanity's ability to rationalize any indignity as a necessity of day-to-day survival.

As thought-provoking as the show may be, it's never short of an Atomic fireball-flavored fun. Director Sara Bruner keeps every corner of the stage crackling with intoxicating movement and exhilarating sound.

Standouts among the superb cast include Michelle Dawson as the sultry Fraulein Kost, Sean Patrick Doyle as the lithe, naughty emcee, Madison Micucci as falling star Sally Bowles and David Kelly as the dark, subtly domineering Herr Schultz.

An able ensemble, which includes acrobatic performances from Shaun-Avery Williams, Tatumn Zale, Lisa Kuhnen, Spence Ford, Xander Mason and Antonia Raye, share a uniform brilliance and barely-restrained energy that resonates throughout the audience. Jaclyn Miller's seductively vigorous choreography keeps everyone busy.

A phantasmagorical explosion of sultry indulgence, boundary-blurring sexuality and cross-cultural  blending, "Cabaret" is a gasp-inducing rumination of a society's willful descent from freedom to tyranny. It's also a savage indictment against the flaccid defense of ignorance as an excuse not to stand up to the sight of liberty swirling the drain.

"Cabaret" plays in Tucson through Dec. 29, then moves to Phoenix from Jan. 4-Jan. 26. For more information and tickets, click here.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Book Report: "No Better Friend"

No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWIINo Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII by Robert Weintraub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Weintraub crafts a story tailor-made for movie adaptation. An inspirational and often devastating tale of survival despite onerous odds, "No Better Friend" is a captivating travelogue about a British sailor and his trusty dog.

Avoiding flowery descriptions and overdramatization in favor of economical, understated storytelling, Weintraub goes beyond his considerable research to place you inside the minds of his human and canine protagonists.

Through captivity in prison camps, long, harrowing voyages via sea and marches and cutthroat combat, the heroes endure, overcoming starvation, exhaustion and flagging hope in order to strive to see the next day.

A workmanlike profile in courageous friendship and sacrifice in the face of looming doom, this is a powerful historical document that doubles as a resounding fable, the novel is a triumphant accomplishment.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Kindle Kids Edition Review

Amazon's Kindle Kids Edition is a superb gateway into the realm of e-books for young readers. Its sturdy design and accompanying case makes it stand up to the rigors of careless youth.

Parental controls help keep a cap on overzealous readers, limiting use to preset parameters. And the most significant addition has nothing to do with traditional reading at all.

Bolstered by a recent update that allows the device to access Audible titles, the device now is a full-fledged audio reader.

The Kindle Kid's Edition, which is actually a standard 10th-gen Kindle, is built to hook kids on books in all their forms, encouraging skill-building via built-in vocabulary builders, pop-up word definitions and achievement badges that celebrate progress.

Adjustable, kid-friendly fonts and text sizes remove the intimidation factor in traditional adult e-reader setups. While battery life and brightness levels may not be ideal, the devices perform well under most conditions.

Built to foster a love of exploring and expanding the horizons of imagination, educational and explorative aspects that reading can grant to developing minds, the Kindle Kids Edition is fuel for bookworms in the making.

Manufacturer provided review sample.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Broadway in Tucson Review: "Jesus Christ Superstar"

You can't go wrong with "Jesus Christ Superstar" during Christmas season.

The creative team could be excused for soft-pedaling and hitting the easy marks, well-established by decades of success.

Director Timothy Sheader, however, isn't content with the status quo, and instead adds a fresh take on the classic, injecting it with fresh, vibrant energy that makes it seem as new as it must have during its initial run.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is peak Andrew Lloyd Webber. Thumping, rhythmic music pulses through the audience, and the performers expend maximum energy, leaving every ounce of their exertion on the floor with beet-faced abandon.

The latest touring production does away with the 70s rock opera aesthetic for a grungier, 1990s mosh pit-style feel. Drew McOnie's raw, charismatic choreography gives the tone a rustic elegance that blends with the aesthetic.

Above all, the refreshed take on the production makes the story Judas's personal story of anguish, divided loyalty and resentful fatalism. James Delisco Beeks commands the show in the role, belting out his songs with the gusto of Aaron Burr in "Hamilton."

Not to be upstaged, topknot-donning Aaron LaVigne thrives in the given lead role, leveling the audience with a rockstar performance that adds a welcome masculinity to the traditionally milquetoast interpretations.

Jenna Rubaii completes the masterful lead trio as Mary, delivering heartbreaking renditions of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright."

A passion play in both the traditional and emotional senses, the production revitalizes "Jesus Christ Superstar," somehow making the show even better than you remembered with a vigor that could be described as heaven-sent.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Monday, December 02, 2019

"Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" Switch Review

"Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" speaks to a sense of cultural fabric that makes up Americana, the joy of road trips and the historical texture that blends together to coalesce into culture.

Less a video game than a branching-paths graphic novel, the narrated text-heavy journey provides a barebones narrative structure to a succession of short stories. You travel an overworld, meeting eccentric characters along the way who spill their yarns, which you collect and deploy in the manner that you would currency and items in a traditional RPG.

After releasing on PC in February, the adventure game makes its way to Switch, where it's a natural fit for handheld mode. You can practically feel the dog-eared pages yellowing in the virtual paperback, and can just about taste the dust kicking up from the trail, as well as the pleasant sting of sunshine as you meander along your rocky paths.

Developer Serenity Forge takes an eccentric concept and plays it out to the defiant extreme, caring little about pacing or a cohesive plot. The threadbare narrative hook places you on the losing end of a poker game to a diabolical yet sagely wolf figure, who commands you to collect yarns from the road in order to redeem your freedom.

The joys of the game come not in advancing the storyline, but from bathing in the eclectic tales the game is stuffed with. A short story showcase disguised as a game, "Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" is every bit as poetic and obtuse as its title.

I crave offbeat experiences such as this, and if the premise intrigues you, you'll no doubt find yourself just as entranced by the strange marvels the game offers. Just a few sips will work up a fine buzz that will only have you craving more.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in December 2019

For my full post, click here.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

"Strange Telephone" Review

Since the telegraph introduced the prospect of long-distance communication, humanity has wrestled with the juxtaposition of isolation and instant connectivity.

The advent of the telephone and internet brought different media into the equation, further muddying the landscape, and presenting opportunities for romance, exploration and horror.

Developer HZ3 Software's "Strange Telephone" uses the awkward communication conundrum and mines it for its branching storytelling potential. A port of the 2D adventure game released on PC in January, the oddly entrancing "Strange Telephone' dials up the Switch.

Taking on the role of Jill, you are trapped in darkness. Her one outlet to the outside is Graham, a sentient digital assistant and telephone she uses to solve, cause and ruminate on all her problems.

You use Graham to enter various realms, each of which contains puzzles that unlock items you can use to unlock new passageways. With the end goal of finding your way through the dark labyrinth to make your way home, you sink into the increasingly murky cross-dimensional catacombs.

While the puzzle difficulty ranges from insultingly simplistic to find-me-a-walkthrough-right-now impenetrable, the storytelling remains consistent enough to keep pulling you along.

Appealingly offbeat, the one-note tale leans on its intrigue to draw you back for multiple playthroughs to see where different choices take you. A slim, spirited package, "Strange Telephone" keeps you guessing as you meander your way through its sprawling telephonic web.

Publisher provided review code.