Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Bayonetta & Vanquish: 10th Anniversary" Review

With two stunning releases in the span of a few months in late 2009 and early 2019, PlatinumGames redefined the action genre.

The games were the stylized proto-feminist hack-and-slash romp "Bayonetta" and the kinetic shooter "Vanquish." The last-gen gems topped out the pinnacle of what was possible with the Xbox 360/PS3 generation's hardware, and were memorable enough to sporadically cross over into current-gen hardware.

The newly-released bundle that combines both games into a budget-priced $40 price point is not only a welcome leap into yesteryear, but a surprising sign of what many modern games in the genre lacked.

Released in a time before microstransactions and games-as-service trappings became en vogue, both games stand as unadulterated, full-featured experiences that tell a complete tale from the get-go, leaving you satisfied rather than stranded. Both are polished, visually stunning achievements that show few signs of negative aging.

"Bayonetta," in particular, feels ahead of its time. While some of its sexual humor may be dated, its pre-Black Widow and Scarlet Witch heroinism was a harbinger of a brave new world of death-dealing females.

"Vanquish" is a bit of a relic, but its forward momentum-based attack style still rings out as distinctive. Building upon the likes of "Devil May Cry" and "God of War" -- with plenty of "Halo" flavor sprinkled in -- the cyberpunk action still jumps to life.

Both "Bayonetta" and "Vanquish" remain compellingly playable and invigoratingly enchanting. Fire them up if you're looking for fever-pitched combat the way it was done a decade ago.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Young Al Capone: The Untold Story of Scarface in New York"

Young Al Capone: The Untold Story of Scarface in New York, 1899-1925Young Al Capone: The Untold Story of Scarface in New York, 1899-1925 by William Balsamo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Balsamo takes dime novel-style liberties as he spins a painterly tale of Al Capone rising up the ranks of the New York mob scene. Gathering historical records, newspaper articles and biographies, he infuses his ear for the way tough-talking thugs thought and acted in the early 20th century.

The poetic license Balsamo takes in "Young Al Capone" helps the figures come to life as characters. He imagines the small talk, inner thoughts and negotiations that went on among the gangsters to tell a story that borders on historical fiction.

The approach is a blinding success for the most part, only occasionally backfiring into mawkish silliness. What emerges is the tale of a troubled, tremendously driven boy who was determined not to live a life of working poverty like his father and brothers. Delving into the underworld with gusto, Capone had a knack for sizing up potential allies and rivals, and ruthlessly dealing with both, ever-arranging everyone around him like pawns on a chess board.

"Young Al Capone" changed my perspective on the underworld king. Although his mind was addled by alcohol and illness in later life, sticking him with the reputation of a doltish, ham-fisted thug, this book shows how smart and clever he was to ascend to the dizzying heights to which he ascended before his talents left him and he devolved into a caricature.

The Audible version, narrated with gusto and admirable acting chops by Daniel May, breathes gangster film-style life into the films. May shifts his accents ably between Italian and Irish accents, giving Capone a distinctly understated voice that reflects his calculating confidence and simmering rage simmering beneath a collected facade.

Rapidly paced and elegantly told, "Young Al Capone" is a gem of a find for those who can't get enough true crime and mob history. It would shine as a TV miniseries, no doubt rising to dominance with the hurried force of Capone himself.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Book Report: "Little Women"

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The new movie didn't impress me when I first saw it, and pales even more in comparison to the source material now that I'm familiar with it. Episodes and exchanges that seemed forced and stilted in the movie make more sense and impact with Alcott's eloquent context.

The changes that Greta Gerwig makes to the plot and character outcomes, updated to take a more revisionist, evolved point of view, may be more politically correct but seem contrived and awkward. By comparison, Alcott's story -- while hokey and convenient -- rings with more of a feel of the harsh reality of the times.

From the perspective of time, it's easy to lose sight of how groundbreaking the book was for its time, and how it set the stage for continued progress in feminist literature while still managing to captivate the masses. Alcott walked a fine line with her philosophy, subtle satire and sly witticisms, and her bravery and execution stand the test of time.

The Audible version, narrated with knowing whimsy by Lauran Dern and delivered with a well-produced voice cast worthy of a radio play, hits many of the same lively notes that Gerwig's film went for. This version is a fresh and vital adaptation that captures the essence of Alcott's words in the way a film never could.

The decades may have dulled the book's message of self-determination, and its moralizing about sacrificing personal fame and gain in favor of family needs becomes more wince-inducing as time marches on. But taken on its own merits and given the society from which it sprang, "Little Women" is something of a literary miracle, and still deserves to be revered.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Broadway in Tucson Review: "The Book of Mormon"

Whether the medium is TV, film, video games or the stage, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are masters of good-natured yet biting satire. They disregard the rules in favor of their own brand of poetic, musical justice, and deliver their voice with a lighthearted yet severe vengeance.

In "The Book of Mormon" musical, the "South Park" duo teams with the incomparable double EGOT-winner Robert Lopez to unleash a mockery of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the material is incisive and unforgiving, it never comes close to cruelty. Throbbing behind the riotously ridiculous song-and-dance numbers is an earnest respect for faith and zealotry no matter how misguided it may be perceived by outsiders.

The story follows mismatched Mormon missionaries as they travel to Uganda in order to try to convert a misfit, war-torn, poverty and famine-ravaged village to their One True Faith. The protagonists struggle with their own insecurities and weaknesses as they stumble through their mandate to bring the message to the unwelcoming masses by any means necessary.

Liam Tobin plays cocksure Elder Price with oblivious panache, and scene-swiping Jordan Matthew Brown is an apt complement as his awkward, needy sidekick, Elder Cunningham.

The stagecraft, particularly in the "Spooky Mormon Hell" nightmare interlude, is strikingly outlandish. Bouncy, catchy tunes, pitch-perfect delivery of wickedly funny jokes and dance moves characterize the production. It's easy to catch you and the people next to you laughing so hard that you'll miss the next joke.

The exuberance of the clapping, jubilant crowd in awe of the soaringly hilarious sermon onstage makes for a religious experience.

"The Book of Mormon" plays at Centennial Hall through Sunday. Buy tickets here.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Book Report: "de Gaulle"

de Gaullede Gaulle by Julian T. Jackson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Author Julian T. Jackson loses the forest for the trees, spending far too much time obsessing over the mundane details of the minutiae of de Gaulle's movements, speeches and reactions to news of the day.

Charles de Gaulle lived a grand, exciting life, but it seemed droning and dull according to much of this book. It's an exhaustive and exhausting textbook rather than a film-ready biography.

Jackson's writing comes alive when he frees himself from what he deems to be the necessary play-by-play to step out and make grand-scale commentary on de Gaulle's vision and motivations.

A complicated leader who wore the burden of a nation's pride on his sleeve, de Gaulle served as the nation's defiant conscience in exile during the Nazi occupation, and took complex and hotly debated stances over controversial issues such as the beginnings of the Vietnam War, the establishment of Israel and the question of whether or not to grant independence to the people of Algeria.

De Gaulle thrived on his stature as a revered statesman who had a knack of predicting future geopolitical climates, but Jackson convincingly argues that his genius lied in his ability to adapt and alter his perspectives given the political needs of the time. De Gaulle managed to keep his leadership style relevant as time and tide shifted.

James Adams narrates the Audible version with admirable passion, pushing through the slower portions with a forceful urgency, while generating enthusiasm and vigor during the more interesting big-picture moments.

Only in the final pages does Jackson's fill-figured opinion of the majestic leader morph to its fullest life. The book ends with the sort of momentous eloquence that I hoped for and didn't receive through 90 percent of what came before.

If only it were true in this case that all's well that ends well.

Publisher provided review copy.

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PHIL ON FILM: "Birds of Prey"

For my full review, click here.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

"Arc of Alchemist" Review

Guiding the nubile heroine Quinn Bravesford on a quest to secure a paradigm-shifting force that could save humankind from itself, there are no lack of high stakes in "Arc of Alchemist."

You're stuck int he desert in search of the bluntly named Great Power. Armed with orb-controlling alchemic powers, you have the ability to shift the landscape and conjure weapons and defenses that make you an increasingly formidable force.

The action RPG from the dev team at Compile Heart emphasizes style and visuals above all else. With a painterly style and gorgeous dreamscape of a narrative, the saga rises to the occasion.

Taken as a storytelling experience, the game is rich and vibrant. Its gameplay, though, is rote and unfulfilling. The game's heart seems to be an anime rather than an interactive adventure.

The RPG elements and menu interfaces can be complex and daunting, forcing you to adapt to a steep learning curve to keep pace. You crawl along a more-or-less linear journey, with the gameplay amounting to repetitive, mundane tasks that you plow through until you can unlock the next piece of the story arc.

Whether or not the game interests you enough to continue tugging you along the path depends on your level of patience, as well as how entranced you become with the tale. "Arc of Alchemist" has plenty going for it, but to truly hook you it will have to transform you into someone willing to accept stiff elements in order to stay the course.

Publisher provided review code.