Sunday, December 24, 2023

Game Review: 'Pinball M'

The "Pinball FX" team manages to crank out a consistent flow of themed tables that appear to all niches of the geekosphere, and the horror-minded "Pinball M" continues that tradition in bloody fashion.

The five included tables span the likes of "Child's Play," "Dead by Daylight" and Lovecraftian horror in the form of "Wrath of the Elder Gods Director's Cut."

Each table bursts with fan service, appealing bonuses and funny/creepy audio-visual flourishes. As with just about all tables in the series, they make you yearn for the genuine arcade article. But there's much to be said for getting to plug away at your pinball obsession without having to run your credit card down while constantly refilling your play card.

While "Pinball M" doesn't have anything to offer those who aren't into the virtual Pinball scene, the cadre of retro delights should please most horror fans whose interests intersect with flippers and ricocheting balls.

Publisher provided review code.

Game Review: 'Fearmonium'

A challenging, "Cuphead"-inspired Metroidvania effort from publisher and developer Redblack Spade, "Fearmonium" sets you loose in a bizarre house of horrors with only your wits and twitch reflexes protecting you from inevitable deaths.

A dark, gothic feel pulses throughout the level and character design. Just as with "Cuphead," the visuals take cues from 1930s-style Fleischer Bros. animation. The expressionist art style juxtaposes seemingly innocent creatures with gritty touches, making nearly every entity you encounter a harbinger of impending death.

This is one of those games that ran away with my imagination with a well-crafted trailer, yet failed to fully deliver on its promise. Floaty controls and inconsistent hit detection had me scrambling to progress. My success seemed to depend as much on happenstance as it did the gradual sharpening of my skills. 

Still, the game managed to capture my interest with its intricate, Easter egg-filled levels and bizarre meta-story. The artistic choice to go with comic book panels and text dialogue harkened back to the NES and SNES, giving the game a haunting retro feel that also no doubt happened to save the shoestring budget a few bucks.

While often more trouble than it's worth, "Fearmonium" is worth a look for those who were obsessed with "Cuphead" and are looking for something of its ilk. Only those with steely nerves and a capacity to handle frustration should dare enter, though.


Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Saguaro City Musical Theatre Review: 'Roadl Dahl's Matilda the Musical'

 


Saguaro City Musical Theatre's spirited production plasters smiles on the audience.

Led by a boisterous title role performance from Miriam Howell, the cast breathes a vivacious punch to the 1988 Roald Dahl book, which was adapted for Broadway in 2010. 

Mandy Modic's direction and choreography casts a spell worthy of the sprightly character. An improbably talented and synchronized group of students performs meticulous choreography and pitch-perfect song-and-dance numbers. The dedication in rehearsal to reach this point of precision seems incalculable. Credit goes not only to Modic, but to the performers' parents, who rose to the occasion to help deliver Modic's vision.

The adult cast is also superb. Zach Wetzel and Nickole Custodio play Matilda's villainously self-centered and shallow parents, Tyler Wright chews scenery as the imposing Miss Agatha Trunchbull and Lydia Schmidt provides the emotional core as Matilda's sweet teacher, Miss Honey. Their chemistry with their younger counterparts is key to the show's success. As Dahl envisioned, most of the adults treat the children with casual cruelty.

The stagecraft, while workmanlike, has moments of elevated mysticism, including haunting silhouette projections that help illustrate the tragic episodic love story that Matilda recites. I was also floored by a climactic psychokinetic chalkboard inscription, which captured the spirit of Matilda's magic to dramatic effect.

While some of the song-and-dance numbers could have been cut to help maintain momentum, most of them nail their targets with aplomb. In particular, Schmidt's solemn "Pathetic" is a tender cry for help, "When I Grow Up" is a watershed sequence of self-reflection and "The Smell of Rebellion" is a rousing call to action for self-respect.

An adorable and endearing treasure, Saguaro City Musical Theatre's production o f"Matilda the Musical" deserves to be savored and appreciated. Perhaps its most amazing feat of magic was the way it kept my wild 2-year-old girl silent in appreciation throughout its 2-hour runtime. 

"Matilda the Musical" plays through Jan. 7 at Berger Performing Arts Center. Buy tickets here

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora'

A dazzling visual achievement, "Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora" is a canonical entry into James Cameron's ever-expanding Panbdora-based universe. Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment crafted the game in close concert with Disney and Lightstorm Entertainment, and the game both lives and dies by that firm link.

Just like the films and surrounding fiction, the rich cultural and vibrant visuals carry the narrative past its heavy-handed tendencies. And just like the films, the game is somewhat hollow, unintentionally cynical and exhausting.

There are hints of "Far Cry" and Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games throughout. The Ubisoft connection gives the game a certain heft and grounding that it would have lacked had Disney gone it alone or shirked it off to a bargain-basement dev.

You play as a Na'vi who sets off on a voyage across a rpreviously unseen portion of Pandora, known as the Western Frontier. You meet new tribes and battle and hunt new creatures, pick up an array of weapons and upgrades and explore what amounts to be a story of little consequence on the "Avatar" realm as a whole.

At the very least, I can say "Frontiers of Pandora" is far and away better than most film-to-game adaptations. This is a gamer's game, and bursts with artistic revelations and a sense of discovery. 

On the downside, there is a sameness to quests and a general sense of mucky writing and cut scenes that slows down the sense of momentum. At least with the game, unlike the film in theaters, you can stop for bathroom breaks whenever you like and not miss anything.

Overall, "Frontiers of Pandora" will thrill and satisfy major "Avatar" fans and even those who are dabblers. Obviously, anyone turned off by the entire scene should avoid this one. But I'm grateful for the opportunity to take another dip into Cameron's wild vision.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Game Review: 'Uno'

A classic travel and family card game, "Uno" is just as much fun in digital form, and negates the hassles of shuffling and gathering. On the other hand, some of the strategy is removed, because it's all too easy for competitors to see what cards others are holding on screen.

Even with the drawback, I prefer the game on PS5 rather than card form, at least while I'm at home. The convenience makes up for the competitive compromise, and there isn't a heck of a lot of skill involved in "Uno" anyway.

Available for free on PS5 for those who have the original PS4 version, the game also comes gratis for those who have a PlayStation Plus Extra membership. The Ultimate Edition includes DLC packs including "Fenyx's Quest," "Call of Yara" and "Valhalla."

You can play any version of the game with modifiable rulesets and win conditions, and players can jump into games. You can also play against other PS5 players online. It's a perfect way for siblings and old pals -- who now live too far apart to swap cards -- to reignite ancient "Uno" rivalries from days of yore.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Game Review: 'KarmaZoo'

A sunny, joyous indie effort, "KarmaZoo" is a teamwork-oriented puzzle game in which as many as 10 random players gather to pull together to complete common tasks or, more likely, bungle the objectives and aggressively grief one another.

As with nearly every multiplayer-focused game, you'll fare better if you take it on with friends and keep your lines of communication active throughout. But there's a certain charm in being stuck with a group of unknowns, which forces you to go through the motions to get a sense of which players are trustworthy and which you should ignore or actively freeze out.

An overall uneven effort, "KarmaZoo" is a light, rather flimsy affair that packs a punch in quick sessions but wears out its charm quickly. The fun you'll have largely depends upon the group you get thrown in with. It's like getting assigned to groupwork in high school. You may be stuck with goofballs who skate by as you shoulder the load, or, if you're lucky, a squad of likeminded, good-natured players who want to give each other a hand.

"KarmaZoo" may be silly and ludicrous, but its charms tend to outweigh its drawbacks. It will make you smile one minute, wince the next and shake your head in confoundment all the while. That's just the way karma has it.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Stand by Me' 4K Steelbook


The 1986 coming-of-age classic, which launched the careers of Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and River Phoenix, spins a stirring and nostalgic tale of tween friendships flowering in 1959 Oregon.

Adapted from the Stephen King story, the quotable, gloriously shot film stands the test of time and remains every bit as watchable as it did when it was originally released. Presented in a glorious 4K remaster, the film looks sharp and stunning.

Extras include picture-in-picture commentary with director Rob Reiner, Wheaton and Feldman, as well as Reiner's original commentary track. There's also the mini-doc "Walking the Tracks: The Summer of Stand by Me" and a music video.

Studio sent film for review.

 

Monday, December 04, 2023

Early Game Review: 'A Highland Song'

Set in the Scottish Highlands, "A Highland Song" is a whimsical puzzle-laden platformer that captures the mystery and majesty of its setting as it tells a delightful and stirring story.

You play as Moira, a teen who has longed to leave her small village to experience the sea. When her uncle Hamish sends her a letter asking her to visit his coastal, she ventures off on an 80-day journey that will lead her to the lighthouse near Hamish. 

Metroidvania aspects abound, with hidden paths and surprises beckoning around every corner. As you climb, slide and run through the environments -- all set to a captivating traditional Scottish-style soundtrack -- an overwhelming sense of discovery washes over you. The music plays a particularly important part during rhythmic sections, which challenge you to keep pace with the music to advance.

The dev team at Inkle, who are following up indie successes of "80 Days," "Heaven's Vault" and "Overboard!" continue to follow their distinct voice, unfettered by corporate mandates or the demands of deadline crunches. "A Highland Song" is a gorgeous and inspired effort that feels like a joyous treasure.

Replayability abounds. Because the game is so rich and dense, it's impossible to experience all of its inner secrets on a single playthrough. I'd advise shying away from walkthroughs unless you are hopelessly stuck, because they rob the game of its sense of exploration and reward.

"A Highland Song" is one of the most intriguing games I have played this year, and it continues to reward me the more I play. The story inspires chuckles and tears, and makes you fall in love with the Highlands just as the developers have.

Publisher sent review code.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Game Review: 'Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl 2'

 A sequel that manages to make up for nearly every shortcoming of its predecessor, 'Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl 2" revitalizes the franchise, making it a top contender for the throne held by "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" and challenged by the likes of "MultiVersus."

Loaded with characters, backgrounds, move sets and costumes that considerably ratchet up the intensity after the middling 2021 original, "Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl 2" manages to climb to the top tier of the party fighter genre. Crossplay includes all platforms, widening the player base and making sure there's always a game to be found. It also helps that a generous and engaging, single-player rogue-lite campaign is also included. 

Accessible, forgiving controls allow experienced gamers to play along with newer players with ease. The initial character roster provides a solid mix of fighters that appeal to kids and adults, including the likes of Squidward Tentacles, Jimmy Neutron, the Angry Beavers and Azula.

Developer Fair Play Labs, publishing under the banner of GameMill Entertainment, manages to check all the boxes and react to player feedback, ensuring the sequel is a wholesale improvement over the original. There are some cringey choices, such as free-to-play trappings including a $20 costume pack, a $25 season pass that includes four lackluster fighters and a $7 price set for future DLC fighters.

Luckily, there is more than enough in the base game to keep players who don't want to be nickel-and-dimed from enjoying themselves. There's a bright future in store for the genre as a whole, as well as this particular franchise.

Publisher provided review code.

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations'

Peeking behind the curtain to show how the Temptations were able to produce a cavalcade of hits in the 1960s and 70s, "Ain't Too Proud -- The Life and Times of the Temptations" brings the vivacious pop group to vivid life.

From the outset, a tone-setting performance of "The Way You Do the Things You Do," the show bowls the crowd over with an energetic and faithful interpretation of a Temptations concert. With shortened versions of most mega-hits the band produced acting as a Greek chorus to comment on the dramatic interludes, the show is a toe-tapping, clap-over-your-head force of nature that plasters smiles across faces.

Nominated for 12 2019 Tony Awards -- winning Best Choreography -- the show is taking victory laps on a national tour.

With many cast members having starred on stage and screen, competing in "American Idol," it doesn't seem like too much of a leap to declare that the bulk of the cast -- led by the likes of Michael Andreaus, E. Clayton Conelious, Jalen Jarris and Harrell Holmes Jr. -- are every bit as talented, if not more, than the performers they are playing.

The dramatic throughline is Otis Williams' efforts to maintain the band's image and integrity in a ruthless manner, throwing out established members who go astray and taking flyers on up-and-coming performers to fill the holes. As the Temptations pump out 42 top 10 hits and 14 number ones, they struggle to keep pace with the political climate, racial tensions and the trappings of business and fame.

Just as with the real Temptations, the performers show a remarkable commitment to synchronicity and teamwork, with clockwork choreography and harmony that meld together with jigsaw-style precision. The demands of rehearsal must be excruciating, but the incredibly hard work pays off in what appears to the audience as effortless bliss.

It's all too easy for the audience to let the Temptations run away with their imaginations.

"Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations" plays through Dec. 3 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Game Review: 'Wizard with a Gun'

Magic wand-wielding wizards are imposing enough, but if they're packing heat then they are truly forces to be reckoned with. Developer Galvanic Games' "Wizard with a Gun" brings the absurdly comical concept to life in co-op sandbox survival style.  

Set in a landscape in which a wizard empire has been taken apart by a force known as Chaos, you grab your firearm and set to battle magical enemies who are preventing the wasteland to returning to its former glory.

The gameplay is fluid and peppy, with an engaging rewards loop that has you seek out artifacts and items you use to bolster a headquarters that grows in stature as you play. You build up your capabilities and seek to take over more treacherous enemies and environs. There are hints of "Diablo" at play.

Combat is the main draw, with an inventive mix of spells and gunplay allowing you to shape your character to your vision.

While some more powerful storytelling would have bolstered the total package, the game is exciting enough -- particularly in co-op -- to keep you coming back for more. There is wizardry at work here.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Resident Evil Limited Edition 4K Ultra Steelbook,' 'Columbo: The 1970s,' 'Mean Streets'

COLUMBO: THE 1970s BLU-RAY

Peter Falk chews up scenery in his iconic role as a tough-talking LAPD detective who rounds up murder suspects in the series, which ran from 1971 to 1978 on NBC. The series looks far better on Blu-ray than it did in earlier DVD iterations, and bursts with special features, including the 1968 Movie of the Week "Prescription: Murder," the 1971 pilot "Ransom for a Dead Man" and a shortened, 71-minute cut of the film "Etude in Black." There's also a new slipcase intro illustration by Tony Stella. 

MEAN STREETS (CRITERION)

The 1973 Martin Scorsese-directed masterpiece gets a 50th anniversary edition restoration on 4K. Harvey Keitel plays a small-time hoodlum who copes with debts owed by his wildcard best pal (Robert De Niro). The film marks Scorsese's entryway into the crime genre he would redefine again and again throughout his career.

The set includes a disc with the film on 4K, as well as a Blu-ray version of the movie that includes special features including a conversation with Scorsese and Richard Linklater from 2011, as well as audio commentary from Scorese and actress Amy Robinson. There's also a tribute essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

RESIDENT EVIL LIMITED EDITION 4K ULTRA STEELBOOK COLLECTION

All six films in the hit-or-miss series, looking better than ever in 4K, are packaged together in a gorgeous steelbook set. The films, which spanned from 2002 to 2016 and came to define the career of lead actress Milla Jovovich, include "Resident Evil," "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," "Resident Evil: Extinction," "Resident Evil: Afterlife," "Resident Evil: Retribution" and "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter."

Extra features include cast and filmmaker commentary, making-of featurettes, music videos, deleted scenes and documentaries.

Studio provided screener for review.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Game Review: 'DreamWorks All-Star Kart Racing'

Drawing from DreamWorks franchises including "Shrek," "Puss in Boots," "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Kung Fu Panda," "DreamWorks All-Star Kart Racing" tries its hand at the "Mario Kart" formula that so many others have ridden, and winds up on the same road to mediocrity on which most have wound up.

There is a charm and novelty in ramming Shrek or Donkey off the road as Hiccup or the Boss Baby, the sound-alike voices are distractingly poor, and the repeated dialogue snippets are dull and overused. There isn't much thought or imagination in the endeavor, which feels like a paint-by-numbers affair.

The AI doesn't offer much of a challenge, even with the rubber band effect constantly at play. Power-ups, jumps and speed-ups help you make your way through the themed tracks. There is a general sense of floatiness at play, and not much of a sense of speed.

Multiplayer is the best way to enjoy the game. Experienced players and noobs alike will be able to trade paint and smack each other off the track. There is little learning curve, making the game's accessibility its greatest asset.

More of a bizarre curiosity than something the fulfillment of DreamWorks fans' dreams, the oddball kart racer is innocent enough to put a smile on your face, yet cynical enough to make you at peace with waiting for it to hit the bargain bin.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Game Review: 'WWE 2K23 Bad Bunny Edition'



Capitalizing off of Bad Bunny's head-turning romp over Damien Priest in a WWE Backlash 2023 street fight, "WWE 2K23 Bad Bunny Edition" wraps itself up in the trappings of the King of Latin Trap in a Game of the Year-style special edition that far surpasses the successful original.

Fresh on the heels of the release of his latest album, "Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar MaƱana," the $140 package includes all the content from the "WWE 2K23 Icon Editon," as well as the "Bad Bunny Superstar Pack."

A new playable version of Bad Bunny donning the Adidas Men's Tech Fall 2.0 Wrestling Shoe and outfit he wore in the Backlash match. There's also the Bad Bunny Diamond-toer MyFACTION EVO card -- upgradeable to Pink Diamond -- the Bad Bunny MyFACTION logo, background and nameplate, the LWO Puerto Rico shirt part that's usable in Superstar Creator and 15,000 in VC.

If you own the base game and are looking to add just the Bad Bunny Superstar Pack, it costs $9.99. The moderately downgraded "Bad Bunny Bundle," which costs $90, substitutes the standard edition for icon edition while including 32,500 VC.

While the package amounts to a fan service cash grab -- how long will it be until EA drops a Taylor Swift version of "Madden NFL 24"? -- it's hard not to feel the flow of the intersection of pop culture forces of nature. 2K Sports has captured the pop culture moment, and fans of both the musician and game get to benefit from the indulgence.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Game Review: 'Metal Gear Solid: Master Collection Vol. 1'

A compilation of some of the greatest and most groundbreaking games ever made, "Metal Gear Solid: Master Collection Vol. 1" should be an indispensable bedrock in any gaming historian's library. Rounding up visionary Hideo Kojima's entire "Metal Gear" oeuvre from 1987 to 2004, starting with the creaky, adorably odd "Metal Gear" and "Snake's Revenge," which were released on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The prime attractions are the "Metal Gear Solid" games, which made the transition from top-down to 3D, and included "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater" (2004), which many still hold as not only the best in the series, but one of the greatest games ever made. 

For my money, "Metal Gear Solid 4: Sons of the Patriots" (2008) is the best, but we'll have to wait for Vol. 2 of the collection to re-experience that one.

While most of the compilation we get is a rehash of the stellar 2011 PS3 collection, which has become something of a collector's item, there is some new stuff here, including "Metal Gear Solid: Integral," which makes its North American debut after previously only being available in Japan. Other minor additions include oddball disclaimers that excuse some of the edgier, outdated political and sexual views expressed in some of the content.

While it would have been amazing to have gotten a comprehensive "Metal Gear" collection, what we get here is more than enough to keep you busy for months, and a welcome addition to a series that may never return with Kojima at the helm. A treasured relic from the past, its curated return is a shining highlight of the 2023 gaming year.


Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Game Review: 'Just Dance 2024 Edition'

An excellent daily workout that manages to burn the calories as you allow yourself to look ridiculous inside the comfort of your own home, "Just Dance 2024" manages to maintain the annual release series standard with a compelling suite of solo and multiplayer modes, a compelling tracklist that's filled with a mix of popular songs and enduring classics, and low barriers to entry that allow players of multiple generations and skill levels to enjoy the antics together.

While I will always long for the series' glory days, when they were connected to Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move, allowing for video sharing, I've taken a shine to the Switch version, which allows you to either use the game's app to track your motion, or push the easy button and just use the Joy-Cons to match your moves to the TV screen.

The track lists spans from the likes of Olivia Rodrigo's "Vampire" to Bad Bunny's "Titi Me Pregunto" and calling back to a cover of "Rapper's Delight."

A quirky new addition to this year's game is "A Night in tthe Chateau de Versailles," which transports you to the 18th century in a backdrop resembling the world heritage site of the palace, including its gardens, the Latona Fountain and Hall of Mirrors as you groove to Lully's "Marche Turque" and Rameau's "Les Sauvages."

While the depth and breadth of content won't bowl you over, if you're a series superfan you'll find more than enough here to justify your annual purchase. It's a game that works just as well at parties as it does in privacy.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Game Review: 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III'

An exciting yet somewhat middling entry in a series that seems to be running low on energy as it scrambles to keep pace with the annual release cycle, the collaboration between Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III" marks the 20th mainline entry in the dominant franchise. 

Rebooting the title that debuted at 2011, when the series was nearing the height of its popularity, it tells a limp, groan-inducing story in a wisp of a campaign that seems to exist merely as a placeholder, largely repurposing existing assets from the likes of Warzone maps.

Even a top-flight "Call of Duty" campaign won't distract most players from the main attraction, the multiplayer suite. It's here that the game truly hits its stride, delivering the diversity of modes -- including the always-appealing Zombies and Warzone -- as well as state-of-the-art progression models, stat tracking and matchmaking. Continuing to thrive as an esport, "Modern Warfare III" is a must-buy, if only to avoid FOMO when your friends abandon "Modern Warfare II" for this one.

Upgrades and enhancements are everpresent, and there are strong senses of team-based play and collaboration throughout many of the modes, discouraging the immature loan-wolf griefers who tend to be drawn to the series. Appealing to fans who would rather not have their nightly pastime ruined by immature goofballs trying to make names for themselves on TikTok, there seems to be a more well-rounded community policing system in place, as well as ironclad user agreements that make players pinky promise not to behave like morons.

Despite the staleness of the annual release treadmill and the insipid campaign, I enjoyed my time with "Modern Warfare III," even as I found myself outwitted and outmatched on the battlefield. There is ample satisfaction in doing what you can, however limited, to help lift your team over the top in tense moments. And there is utter enjoyment in watching your level grind up toward the next rank, no matter how poorly you perform on the battlefield. "Call of Duty" may be wearing out its welcome, but it's still the go-to playground of choice for anyone with a PS5, Xbox Series X or gaming PC.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'The Equalizer 3,' 'The Nun II,' 'For All Mankind,' 'Spirited Away: Live on Stage'

THE EQUALIZER 3

Following a five-year break, the ageless Denzel Washington is back as former government assassin Robert McCall, who starts the story seeking peace in Southern Italy. As things tend to go for McCall, he finds himself in a battle with local crime bosses, forced to defend some new friends from oppression. Striking dialogue, excellent combat scenes and a fast-paced story help the film maintain the series' high standard.

Extras include a bevy of featurettes, including "Postcards from the Amalfi Coast," a look at the relationship between Washington and filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, as well as Washington's collaboration with co-star Dakota Fanning. There is also a profile of the lead character, called "Robert McCall: A Man of the People."

FOR ALL MANKIND: SEASON 1

The well-regarded 2019 Apple TV+ sci-fi miniseries stars Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones and Shantal VanSanten in an alternate-history saga in which the space race continued to escalate after the 1969 Moon landing. The 10-episode season is packed with twists and turns, accompanied by excellent visuals. 

THE NUN II

A step in the right direction after the limp 2018 original, the sequel expands on "The Conjuring" universe, the mid-20th century prequel follows the exploits of the demon Valak, who takes the form of a nun in order to torment the faithful. The cast of the creepfest includes Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Storm Reid and Anna Popplewell. 

Extras include the featurettes "Demon in Paradise" and "Handcrafter Nightmares."

SPIRITED AWAY: LIVE ON STAGE

Since its 2002 release, I've been captivated by Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and its cast of sublime characters, including the haunting, masked monster No Face. The new Blu-ray captures the stage show that was inspired by that film, showing the dizzying displays of emotion and stagecraft it took to bring the anime to life. 

The performance, delivered at Tokyo's Imperial Theatre, stars Kanna Hashimoto and Mone Kamishirashi. It's not to be missed for fans of the legendary animated effort who, like me, never got the chance to see the stage show.

Studios sent screeners for review.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Book Report: 'Pretty Boys are Poisonous'

 

Pretty Boys Are Poisonous: PoemsPretty Boys Are Poisonous: Poems by Megan Fox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A disturbing and disarming cry for help, "Pretty Boys Are Poisonous" is an excruciating spotlight into the actress's romantic relationships. It proves that there are inner depths to Fox that defy her public persona, providing insight into her tortured artistic vision and struggles with shame, loss and dissipating self-worth.

This is a hard one to get through. Fox proves her bravery by being willing to share her thoughts and reveal the heinous abuse she has been subjected to. The literary effort feels like the opening stanza of a deeper, more introspective narrative that is surely bubbling inside Fox's mind. Hopefully she feels empowered to tell her other stories and break free of the cycle that has driven her into despair.

View all my reviews

Book Report: 'Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI'

 

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Grann's thoughtful, driven exploration of the Reign of Terror murder conspiracies, in which bloodthirsty schemers attempted to siphon oil riches from Osage tribe members, is a brutal and thought-provoking, yet by nature incomplete tale of social exploitation of a vulnerable community.

I applaud Grann for shedding light on this uncomfortable chapter of history. He argues that the federal government simplified and whitewashed the crimes by grandstandingly solving a few of the murders, attributing them all to a single villainous entity -- who happened to be paroled rather than completing his life sentence.

Much of the book plays out like an intriguing detective potboiler, but the nagging threads left unsolved leave you with more confoundment than satisfaction. That ties in well with the lingering theme of abandonment left with the descendants of survivors. Here is hoping that the publicity surrounding the book and film inspire more of the untold stories to come to light, turning more pages toward completion of this horrific saga.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Review: 'Google Pixel 8'

Embracing generative AI with a gusto unmatched by Apple or Samsung, Google goes all-in on its Pixel camera suite, recognizing that many photographers want professional-looking, successful results with minimal effort or skill.

The star of the show of the Pixel 8 is its can-do camera system. The 50MP + 12MP ultra-wide camera boasts 2X optical zoom gets the most out of its center, nailing low-light images and taking shots with speed and razor-sharp clarity.

Best Take, Magic Editor and Audio Magic Eraser pitch in with a Harry Potter-style magic that makes your shots and videos sing. You can remove photobombers, excise ambient noise and combine several similar snapshots for an amalgamation that combines the best of the bunch into one shining, Insta-friendly moment. So what if it never really happened? 

While the device may not be quite as budget-friendly as the Pixel 8's predecessors, the 7 and 6, you get considerably more bang for your buck. And while other top-tier smartphone releases tend to be only minimal upgrades, the Pixel 8 is a bold, enterprising push into parts unknown.

Orchestrating device-taxing apps, games and streaming with ease, the Pixel 8 performs with smile-inducing ease on T-Mobile's blisteringly-fast 5G network. On road trips, elevators and in crowded situations, I never saw a bit of lag.

The switch to eSIM underlines the forward-thinking momentum behind the design, which includes a recycled aluminum, water-resistant chassis that makes you feel good that you're not destroying the environment.

Svelte and slim, the Pixel 8 has a futuristic feel that's easy to use with one hand and fits well in your pocket. All the better to whip it out to capture shots from the hip that the AI will touch up into masterpieces.

All the while, the 6.2-inch, 120Hz FHD + OLED screen shimmered at 428ppi. While some bells and whistles, including a lack of extendable zoom and a mediocre 2D face unlock, were minor chinks in the armor, the overall effect is a diminutive, gorgeous device that manages to face down its higher-priced rivals without blinking a 50MP eye.

T-Mobile provided device for review.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Game Review: 'EA Sports UFC 5'

Waiting three years to deliver a worthy sequel to the head-turning "EA Sports UFC 4," EA Vancouver manages to reinject energy into the mixed martial arts franchise.

A more brutal and punishing take than any UFC game I've played, the new entry revels in the crowd-pleasing violence of the sport, playing up the gritty realism that draws fans to the octagon. That said, the action -- while highly technical -- isn't close to a one-to-one match with the real deal. 

Matches in the game emphasize arcade-style elements, with high-flying kicks and wild knockouts. Even the ground game, which tends to slow down real-life fights, is entertaining, with stylish reversals, frenzied beatdowns and a nuanced grapple game.

The story mode helps you live out your UFC rags-to-riches fantasies, with a fighter creator that allows you to add personal touches to your avatar. With loads of game modes and an in-depth tutorial that shows you the ropes without making you feel overburdened by the flood of instruction, you feel as though the work you put in on the bag plays off when you're in a fight.

Arguably the most complete and successful of EA's 2023 suite of sports games, "EA Sports UFC 5" plays well to the crowd and nails the basics in order to emphasize free-flowing action. The period release schedule has paid off well.

Excellent commentary underlines the stellar presentation aspects, which manage to match the fanfare you'll catch on PPV.


Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Game Review: 'Alan Wake II'

A faithful sequel to the 2010 survival horror genre-defining original, "Alan Wake II" manages to shatter the high expectations in a detective thriller opus that will no doubt be a contender for 2023 Game of the Year.

Building on the momentum of 2021's "Alan Wake Remastered," which whet the public's appetite by reintroducing gamers to the classic, Remedy Entertainment delves deep into its bag of tricks to deliver an experience that works as a horror narrative, detective yarn and thoughtful exploration of the narrative process.

Ambitious nearly to the point of fault, "Alan Wake II" manages to tackle a dizzying variety of gameplay aspects, managing to blend them into a whirlwind of dazzling creativity, nonstop chills and moments of overwhelming suspense. 

What carries the game throughout is airtight writing. Nuanced dialogue, intriguing twists and ample blotches of dark humor pace the outing, ratcheting up the psychological horror to wild heights.

You make your way through parallel stories as tortured novelist Alan Wake and FBI sleuth Saga Anderson. You fend off creepy enemies through use of an unreliable flashlight, but combat is never at the forefront. As is the case with the most gripping of horror games, you find more thrills not in putting the beatdown on enemies, but from surviving seemingly impossible cat-and-mouse games to survive the dark night.

A compelling and replayable experience, "Alan Wake II" is packed with moments that tend to haunt you in between play sessions. The long wait for a sequel proved to be well worth it.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Expend4bles,' 'Gran Turismo,' 'Godzilla,' 'The Boys: Season 3,' 'Violent Night'

THE BOYS: SEASON 3


The consistently hilarious and action-packed Prime Video original series continues to thrill in its third frame, introducing twists while adding depth to established characters and arcs. The Boys track down an anti-Supe weapon, face off with the Seven and pursue the legend of heroic patriarch Soldier Boy.

Extras include gag reels, deleted and extended scenes, as well as a making-of featurette.

EXPEND4BLES

Sylvester Stallone, 50 Center, Megan Fox, Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Andy Garcia and Randy Coutoure gather for another explosive entry in the action franchise. The mercenary squad takes on a baffling terrorist who goes by Ocelot and plans to ignite clobal conflict. Director Scott Waugh keeps the globe-hopping antics flowing with excitement and verve, pepped up by an inventive, twist-filled script that pulses with quotable one-liners.

GODZILLA


The rightfully beleaguered 1998 film marks a low-water mark for the franchise. Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno and Hank Azaria star in this offbeat take on the kaiju legend, which seemingly spares its over-the-top budget by keeping the title character off-screen for a significant portion of the film. Director Roland Emmerich is unable to keep the pace moving.

Extras in the steelbook edition include visual effects commentary, a behind-the-scenes peek, a Wallflowers "Heroes" music video and a montage of Godzilla fight scenes.


 GRAN TURISMO


Continuing the trend of game adaptations to film that are far better than expected, "Gran Turismo" attaches itself to the improbable life story of Jann Mardenborough, who parlayed his obsessive training on the PlayStation racing series into a career as a professional racer. While product placement is exploited to an absurd degree in what amounts to an excellent commercial for the game, the bones of the saga carry the film across the finish line. Much of the credit belongs to the solid cast, which consists of David Harbour, Olrando Bloom and Archie Madekwe.

Extras include a slew of making-of featurettes, including looks at the visuals, stunts, cast and Mardenborough's tale. There are also deleted and extended scenes to rev your engine.

VIOLENT NIGHT

A surprise horror-comedy success from last year, "Violent Night" stars David Harbour, John Leguizamo and Alexis Hassell in a funny and tension-filled tale of a demented St. Nick who unleashes his fury on a gang of mercenaries who break into a wealthy home to try to ruin Christmas. Harbour's grandstanding performance is a crowd-pleaser.

Special features include feature commentary with director Tommy Wirkola and his team, as well as deleted and extended scenes and a making-of doc.

Studios sent screeners for review.





Monday, October 16, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Hot Wheels Unleashed 2: Turbocharged'

These are boom times for Mattel, with the "Barbie" film staking claim at the box office and Mattel Adventure Park set to open in Glendale next year. So now is as good a time as any to push out a sequel to one of last year's surprise racing game hits.

While "Hot Wheels Unleashed 2: Turbocharged" doesn't reinvent the die-cast wheel, it manages to succeed by playing it safe.

Back is the standard setup of wild, toy set-inspired tracks that pulse with power-ups and speed enhancements. You rev up your boost meter by completing drifts, then blow past the competition with strategically-timed bursts that you save up.

The game is firmly aimed at the family audience, making it a solid choice for experienced gamers to play with beginners. Although the proceedings are colorful, friendly and unoffensive, they are still occasionally unforgiving. 

Mistimed jumps can easily toss you off the course, sending you careening around the floor until you opt to respawn. I'm an adept racing game player, but still found myself thrown for a loss. That's a credit to the challenging design.

While it felt to me like "Turbocharged" was more of a glorified map pack than a full-blown sequel, it's undoubtedly a fuller, richer experience than the original, and manages to smooth out some of the rough edges of its predecessor. While far from a necessary for all but the Hot Wheels-obsessed, this isn't something you'd toss out of your toy box.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Game Review: 'Shark! Shark!'

Swimming in the slipstream of "Hungry Shark World," "Shark! Shark!" lets you follow along the evolution process by starting off as a tiny fish that chomps his way to bigger size.

The effort from BBG Entertainment is a simple yet satisfying affair. Profoundly replayable, the game boasts a frantic, Pac-Man-like feel in which you're constantly scampering for any opening to escape teh onslaught of creatures looking to devour you.

Once you've reached the tipping point on the size scale, it's you who paddles toward the apex side of the coin. There is far more satisfaction in tracking down smaller fish and chomping them so you can grow in size.

A pleasing soundtrack that enhances the onscreen action and simple yet satisfying visuals round out the package. This is most definitely a game that can instill the Tetris effect in you after you close your eyes once you finish long sessions.

While more depth to the gameplay would have made the package even more appealing -- the game often feels like a mobile venture or side mode to a meatier titles such "Maneater" -- "Shark! Shark!' is satisfying in its simplicity. An advanced class on barebones design and compelling replayability, the title is worth stocking in your Switch aquarium.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Game Review: 'Train Sim World 4'

Train hobbyists are an insular lot with particular tastes and demanding resolve. Dovetail Games' "Train Sim World 4," the latest entry in a franchise with tracks that trail back through the last half decade, is exquisitely designed to meet those demands.

Depending on your proclivities, this will either be a go-to obsession or something that you know you can't stand the instant you encounter the tutorial.

A proudly odd duck, "Train Sim World 4" allows you to live out every model train hobbyist's fantasy by entering the worlds of your creation as though they were life-sized.

The game includes routes from across the globe, including L.A.'s Antelope Valley Line, as well as routes from coast to coast and throughout Europe.

Licenses abound, including brands such as thee Flying Scotsman, Railpool Vectron. Class 323, 8F and Class 66 trains are all included.

Quality-of-life improvements from past entries abound. The user interface is slick and easy to use, force feedback on controllers is improved, and the weather and lighting visuals are enhanced. 

The area I suspect most hardcore players will spend their time is Free Roam, which lets your imagination come alive. You can set your own paths, spawn trains wherever you like.

There is so much to delve into in "Train Sim World 4" that you could spend hours with it every night and find much more to do and see every time you return. And there is just as much to avoid without any FOMO if you're not into this scene.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Wild Card Football'

Picking up where "NFL Blitz" left off, "Wild Card Football" -- released today -- delivers a playground-style, 7-on-7 football sim. The game is filled with over-the-top hits, ample powerups and fast-paced action that emphasizes arcade thrills over realism.

With customizable teams and logos, the game also takes cues from the "Super Mega Baseball" franchise. To ground things a bit, as well as add personality that will make the game relatablet o NFL fans, there are several licensed players, including, oddly, Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty of current star power included, with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Aaron Donald, Justin Jefferson and T.J. Watt. Teams are named after quarterbacks, and you can play through season modes, online showdowns with crossplay, as well as couch multiplayer.

As a player who always preferred "NFL Blitz" and "Tecmo Bowl" to "Madden," firing up "Wild Card Football" felt like coming home. And as a beleaguered Arizona Cardinals fan, it was also a pleasure to see that Murray was joined by the likes of teammates James Conner and Budda Baker. 

I found the powerups distracting and irritating rather than enhancements to the gameplay, breaking up the smooth, exciting on-field action that was every bit as thrilling as "NFL Blitz" at its finest.

A full player roster and NFL license would have benefitted the game greatly. Because there are so many genuine players in the game, it makes you notice those who are missing. Then again, the lack of an official NFL tie allows developers to get away with antics that the league may not have approved of.

Here's hoping "Wild Card Football" sells enough to warrant annual, or at least periodic, sequels, or at least roster update DLC.

I had fun with "Wild Card Football," and appreciated the occasional interjections of Chris Berman, whose boomingly iconic voice is an apt fit for the zany on-field action. 

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Game Review: 'Payday 3'

Whenever a sequel to a live service game comes along, the immediate question that arises is "why?" 

"Payday 3" fails to answer that question of the bat, and while the answer may well be buried somewhere deep within, I doubt whether it's worth the time and effort to discover it.

While there is nothing overtly wrong with the four-player heist mechanics, which are suitably refined and improved from the game's predecessors, there just isn't enough juice here to justify even the $40 entry fee, much less the $80 Gold Edition.

I suspect that much of the player base will come from the crowd on Xbox GamePass, on which the game launched day and date. Sunken costs of the subscription fee aside, this feels and looks like a free-to-play effort through and through. If your GamePass-subscribing buddies ate up the first two Payday games, then by all means squad up for this one.

For the rest of the crowd, you deserve better than what amounts to a map pack. Like one of its protagonists who dons a mask before breaking into a fortified sanctum to seize the goods, it doesn't deserve your hard-earned dough, and isn't even trying all that hard to nab it.

Publisher sent review code.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Book Report: 'Gravity's Rainbow'

 

Gravity's RainbowGravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Gravity's Rainbow" is not something you read, it's something you survive.

The divisive Pulitzer Prize-winning stream-of-consciousness brain dump from Thomas Pinchon is an intentionally abrasive, incoherent screed that reads like the mutterings of a fever dream-addled, drug-addled person shouting at the sky.

Sift through the wild, unkempt brambles and you can no doubt dig out poignant observations on the human condition, satirical digs against the military-industrial complex and guilt-ridden confessions of a life well wasted. But what you won't find is any lifeline for those longing for a sense of logic, or common sense or decency.

There were a few times where the book managed to cross its own squiggly lines of self-governance and outright angered me. I could barely withstand its onslaught of nonsensical limericks and sailor's shanties. Oftentimes, I was sure the book would never truly end, but just regenerate in a Pac-Man-like loop of punishing eternity.

Yet "Gravity's Rainbow" does finally end. This is no rainbow connection I'd recommend, but should you tread its murky waters and reach the other side like me, we will share the grudging mutual respect of having endured the impossible.

View all my reviews

Game DLC Review: 'Resident Evil 4: Separate Ways'

 The "Resident Evil 4" remake will no doubt go down as one of the best games of 2023, and its $10 DLC, "Separate Ways" is likely one of the best bargains of the year, granting a tantalizing story expansion for a minscule price.

Taking you through numerous familiar locations, each revisited with a sly twist, "Separate Ways" serves as a tantalizing desert course to the four-course meal it follows. It;s a revamp of a side mode included in the 2005 "Resident Evil 4."

Armed with Ada Wong's grappling gun, you race through the locales via a mix of stealth, survival and occasional brawling. As with the original, trategic thinking is a must to advance unscathed.

With spectacular boss fights that live up to some of the finest set pieces in the series' recent history, the DLC is a blisteringly paced roller coaster that rarely pauses for breath. If the remake thrilled you at the beginning of 2023, its waning months are an apt time to enjoy the follow-up.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Arizona Theatre Company Review: 'Barefoot in the Park'


In the 60 years since Neil Simon's masterpiece "Barefoot in the Park" debuted, what was once a daring modern take on relationships has evolved into a quaint period piece. 

That may sound like a knock, but it's quite the opposite. While the wickedly smart screenplay is still every bit as funny and romantic as it was when it first hit Broadway, the nostalgic, whimsical tone it has taken on since adds layers of reasons to appreciate it.

Director Michael Berresse does Young proud by staying faithful to his original intentions, while subtly playing up its now antiquated properties without making any concessions to a crowd who may or may not remember when manual installation of telephone lines or its more obscure cultural references were applicable.

The play thrives on its two lead performances, which are inhabited by a pair of dynamic treasures. Kyra Kennedy and Tyler Lansing Weaks inhabit young married couple Corie and Paul Bratter with penetrating, joyous charisma. They flirt, bicker, sarcastically snipe against one another and all the while, subtly show why each is smitten with the other.

The Bratters are newlyweds who have moved into a decayed Greenwich Village brownstone. The entirety of the drama swirls around their efforts to meld their disparate personalities into a working relationship in an effort to iron out the kinks of lust and romance into enduring love.

A smattering of periphery characters color, enhance and mute their disagreements. Each is a serial scene-stealer. Gayton Scott plays Corie's meddling mother, Harry Bouvy plays flamboyant upstairs neighbor Victor and Matthew Zimmer is the beleaguered telephone repair man, who idealizes the couple's plight.

Gorgeous, convincing set pieces, subtle musical cues and pitch-perfect line delivery characterize the production, which is top-heavy with laughs and tends to fade in momentum as the third act rolls out. Even the more laborious portions of the play are necessary, though, for the powerful emotional payoff at the climax.

Smiles, giggles and touching moments swirl at the core of the magnificent script, brought to life once again by a cast with a unified heart that beats strongly for the ghost of Neil Simon.

"Barefoot in the Park" plays through Oct. 13 in Tucson and Oct. 20-Nov. 5 in Phoenix. Buy tickets here.

Game Review: 'Whateverland'

There's so much love, wit and charm channeled into the indie darling "Whateverland" that you can't help but be captivated by the passion reflected in the pixesl.

The dev team at Caligari Games took the toughest route possible toward making their point-and-click, board game-inspired adventure. Opting for music created by a sextet and hand-painted art, the game has a homespun feel that gives it the air of something you'd find at a swap neet ir street fair. If games were sold that way.

Crammed with content, the game has a turn-based sports sim, loads of minigames and a branching story driven by dialogue choices.

Morality comes into play as well. You can treat characters the way you please, and your choices can come back to help or haunt you. You can even go so far as swipe items, and face the consequences for your larceny.

As much as "Whateverland" has going for it, it's definitely an acquired taste that some may find too shrill and smarmy. But it's an apt fit for those who are sick of the Triple A game grind and are yearning for something with a singular, fresh voice.


Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Review: iPhone 15

Just as it was once a status symbol to wield an iPhone that shed the 30-pin connector for the Lighting Cord, as well as it was cool to have a notch, now suddenly Lightning-using iPhones are relics from the past. 

In joining the near-universal technological embrace of USB-C, the iPhone 15 marks another sea change in smartphone elitism. Now the time has come that Android and iPhone users can share chargers. It's a glorious future, and even had Apple not taken any more initiative to improve the latest iteration of iPhone, it would be reason enough for me to take the leap forward and upgrade.

But there is far more to appreciate than the new adapter. While nearly every new iPhone feels like it comes from the future when you first take it out of the boss, the feeling is even more pronounced than usual with the 15. It feels impossibly light, thin and looks stunningly sharp. The future is here, and it fits in your pocket

And yet, I entered my iPhone 15 future with a measure of hesitation,

After spending the past seven years with giant-sized Plus/Pro Max size iPhones in my pocket, it was a little jarring to shift to the base-model iPhone 15. While I thought I'd miss the larger screen real estate, I was surprised to see how quickly my eyes and thumbs adjusted to the 6.1-inch screen. I found that the lighter weight and diminutive wingspan wore out my wrist and hands much less than the bulky iPhone 14 Pro Max I had been using. The comparative minimalism felt freeing.

The device, which starts at $800, offers a Super Retina XDR display that looks gorgeous and holds up strong at maximum brightness without sucking away battery life at a distressing speed. the 60 Hz refresh rate was deceptively smooth.

Tugged along from the iPhone 14 is the Dynamic Island interface, which allows you to multitask and check out notifications without disrupting your flow.

I was bowled over with the camera setup, even while foregoing a telephoto lense. The 12 MP, 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom camera takes stunning photos, and especially gorgeous panoramic shots. The 8 MP selfie cam, which boasts a 26mm lens, was nearly as capable. 

While I hold firm that the current state of iPhone bliss can be had, to a degree, with devices dating as far back as the 12, there are clear reasons to upgrade from the 15 from not only that generation or earlier, but even the bold, beautiful 14 line. Also, due to the USB-C integration, it won't take as much convincing as usual for Android users to consider making the leap.

If you see an upgrade in your future, the 15 is one to keep an eye on, even if you're playing the long game and waiting for a price drop in the coming months, when the inevitable 16 comes knocking on the door. The future starts here.

 Apple sent loaner unit for review.

Game Review: 'Mortal Kombat 1'

A wholesale series reboot that pays tribute to the series three decades of genre-altering history, "Mortal Komnat 1" is a massive, penetrating fighting title that is bursting at the seams with modes, characters an Easter eggs aplenty.

It was nearly exciting to download and fire up the latest effort from NetherRealm Studios as it was to saunter up to the arcade cabinet when I was a teenager, plopping quarters in the machine for a few minutes of outrageously bloody action.

A whimsical and often hilarious story mode serves as the flesh to the old yet sturdy bones, recalibrating the nonsensical narratives from the games, films and comic book offshoots in an effort to shepherd them into something of a cohesive hard reset. Familiar faces abound, but they are back in altered forms that seem to be cruel-yet-appropriate twists of the multiverse.

Every bit as gleefully gory as the series' original, more controversial games, "Mortal Kombat 1" thrives on its willingness to take its bloodiness to the gory extremes. This is stuff that would make Itchy and Scratchy wince, and the game is all the more appealing for it.

While the franchise has never seemed to be able to climb to the upper echelons of the esports world, the combat in this edition seems balanced enough to make a play for that aspect. Online matches are immensely watchable, with wild momentum shifts and glorious combos and breakers that tend to fill matches with drama and suspense.

One irritating aspect of the game is the DLC content, which seems to be deliberately held back in order to charge gamers piecemeal for additional characters. Having to cough up an extra $8 for such a traditional character as Shang Tsung is wince-inducing.

Overall, though, "Mortal Kombat 1" does far more to please the crowds than it does to chase them up. I had a wide grin on my face throughout nearly all the time I spent with the game. Now that it stands alongside "Street Fighter 6" on my virtual shelf, it feels like the best of the 1990s fighting game renaissance is back in all the best ways.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'

An oft-tormented soul who drew from her struggles to conjure a succession of genre-defying anthems, Tina Turner lived a hard, loud life that yielded timeless musical treasures. "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical," weaves her greatest hits into the tapestry of her complicated biography.

"Tina" is just as much a concert as it is a theatrical production. The lead performer -- handled alternately by Ari Groover and Naomi Rodgers -- interacts with the audience as Turner would have, playing to the crowd and feeding off its energy. Roderick Lawrence handles the multifaceted, often villainous persona of Ike Turner with masterful presence, and Wydetta Carter is triumphant in a small but powerful role as matriarch Gran Georgeanna.

Rather than smoothing over the rough edges of Turner's life, the book explores the ugly realities Turner faced. Confrontations with racism, domestic violence and drug abuse are tough to endure, but necessary to grasp the struggles Turner dealt with.

The musical, which opened on the West End in 2018 and launched on Broadway in 2019, pulses with crowd-pleasing hits belted out with gusto. The songs are complemented by fevered backup dancing that synthesizes the trend-setting energy of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Physical stagecraft is largely barebones, yielding to a mesmerizing succession of projections that supplement the performers with often flashy, sometimes muted notes.

"Tina" bowls the audience over with an engaging rush of emotional performances in the opening act, punctuated by a showstopping performance of "River Deep - Mountain High." While the meandering second act struggles to maintain that energy, it manages to send off the audience in a flourish with a dizzying post-bow encore. It's impossible not to smile, admire the energy of the performers and nod in agreement with the echoes of "Simply the Best" bouncing through the rafters.

"Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" plays through Oct. 8 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Early Game Review: 'Assassin's Creed Mirage'

Set in Baghdad in the year 861, "Assassin's Creed Mirage" is a deep dive back to the Middle Eastern roots of the franchise. 

Tighter and denser than most mainline entries in the franchise, the effort from the dev team led by Ubisoft Bordeaux delivers a meticulously crafted, endlessly entertaining adventure that draws on the series' heritage and paints a bold path toward the future.

Due out Oct. 5, the follow-up to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla," the game is set in a gloriously imagined version of Baghdad when it was a cultural and economic hub. Teeming with life, culture and audiovisual wonders, the city is one of the prime characters in the game. 

As you race over desert rooftops and romp through bazaars while playing out sequences, you feel as though you've entered via a rift in time. No game series makes history come alive as much as Ubisoft's flagship, and "Mirage" continues the tradition with gusto.

You play as Basim, a side character in "Valhalla," who is a master of stealth and parkour. More than in most games in the series' past, you'll need to rely on deception and sly maneuvering to stalk and kill targets with the most efficiency. The challenging, yet coolly forgiving nature of the gameplay manages to keep you intrigued while rarely frustrated.

As part of the fabric of the Hidden Ones -- the forerunners of the Assassin's order locked in eternal conflict with Templars -- you trade blows with the Ancient Ones, who will evolve into the Templars. Wrestling for control of the future of mankind, you must operate in secret against overwhelming numbers and strength, exacting your order's directives by chipping away at the Ancient Ones' power base.

Paced with deep storytelling, spellbinding cutscenes and compelling combat, "Assassin's Creed Mirage" is yet another triumph for the storied franchise. While some may crave the vast worlds of the more recent entries, the return to more succinct and penetrating quests on which the "Assassin's Creed" name was built. The title may be "Mirage," but there is substance to this trek to ancient Persia.

Publisher sent review code.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Early Game Review: 'NHL 24'

"NHL 24" is more like a measured, well-executed power play set piece than a thrilling breakaway. It takes calculated, smart risks that advance the gameplay in meaningful ways, building on the strengths of last year's title while minimizing its flaws. 

The hockey sim may lack the wow factor that convinces lapsed players to come off the bench in line-change masses, but its refinements and clever adjustments will satisfy its base.

Due out Friday, the game takes on the grit and forcefulness of cover star Cole Makar. Like the bruising Avs defenceman, the on-ice action delivers chilling hits that deliver crushing momentum shifts. 

Much of the on-ice improvement comes from the implementation of the new Exhaust Engine, which orchestrates the nuances in the ever-evolving interplay between offensive pressure and the goaltenders' alertness, energy level and overall effectiveness. 

The shift leads to the sort of questionable goal allowances and heroic saves you tend to see in real life, but which previous games had trouble simulating. Well-integrated into this dynamic are Vision Passing -- which lets you flick the left stick to size up a possible pass before you make it -- and Total Control Skill Moves, in which star forwards use flashy moves to work their way past defenders and clear up space to fire off shots.

Also spicing things up are Flex Moments, which deliver more than 75 new goal celebrations into the mix. The attention to detail is mesmerizing, with flourishes and nods from the gameplay to the color commentary and new snippets of atmosphere that capture the culture of each arena, that will make superfans smile.

When I'm blowing off steam in between more serious games, I spend some time with Chel, the franchise's take on street hockey. Chel, like standard multiplayer, gets current-gen crossplay that lets you take on frenemies on other platforms. While it remains to be seen whether a new World of Chel Battle Pass will hook gamers in or chase them away for its efforts to squeeze more money out of players via microtransactions, it's pleasing to see that developers channeled more effort into the mode.

While I would have appreciated more adjustments to franchise mode and Hockey Ultimate Team, the mechanics that remain in place are still as addictive as ever. Constructing your squad is something akin to shaping a Bonsai tree, tasking you to cultivate your squad by playing to its strengths and snipping out the weak spots.

Rugged and robust, "NHL 24" is the hockey fan's hockey game. It's proud to thrive in its insular world, ever ready to share its bounties with outsiders who decide it's time to suit up.

Publisher sent review code.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Early Game Review: 'EA Sports FC 24'

The FIFA license may be gone, but the essence of what made the series great remains.

Due out Sept. 29 but available now on early access for those who preordered it, 'EA Sports FC 24' is a capable reboot of the storied soccer franchise, built like a veteran team that's gotten a burst of energy from the addition of a new stud from the transfer market. Like Lionel Messi's Roman spring on Inter Miami, the game has a newfound spring in its step and is ready and willing to assault the back of the net.

On the field, the new animation engine dubbed HyperMotionV is proudly on display. Players react in lifelike ways to the situations they encounter, with bountiful PlayStyles-driven motion capture blended with lifelike physics to create a captivating result of players behaving in distinctive ways rather than following robotically predestined protocols.

The smooth onfield animations and balanced netcode come at a perfect time for the introduction of current-gen crossplay, which will democratize the player base and halt the irritation tradition of siloing that had forever plagued the game in the past. With the exception of the insular Switch title, current-gen gamers will be able to match up in multiplayer modes to swap bragging rights.

Ultimate Team continues to pull the load as the centerpiece fantasy-minded game mode, with cards based on current and former greats to mix and match as you piece together your dream squad. Continuing off the foundation of recent "FIFA" games, female players are integrated seamlessly into the fray. The purposefully equity-minded move shows how the series welcomes fans of the female game with open arms, and makes for some fascinating "what if?" matchups.

The career and franchise modes continue to grow in robustness of feature offerings, letting you live out your dreams a an up-and-coming star or grizzled GM who's trying to squeeze the most out of a club's meager offerings to climb up the ranks toward glory. The silly, street soccer-focused side mode, Volta, also offers smiles and ways to blow off steams for whimsical, trick-focused matchups.

Playing all weekend with my soccer-obsessed 11-year-old, "EA Sports FC 24" gave me loads of laughs along with moments of triumph and despair that the beautiful game tends to disperse in droves. An excellent jump-on point for faded FIFA fans of the past, the game shows that the present and future of video game soccer.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Review: 'T-Mobile REVVL Tab 5G'

The T-Mobile REVVL line of devices continues to grow in stature and capability. The latest shot across the bow of the big guys is the brand's venture into the tablet realm in the form of the T-Mobile REVVL Tab 5G.

Available for $200, or free to T-Mobile customers who activate a tablet line, the device is a handy, capable device that wields a gorgeous 10.36-inch screen and battery life that extends well past 10 hours of heavy, bright-setting use. It can do you proud on a series of long flights with connections, and still have some juice left over as you wind down at your destination.

While the tablet may not hang with the latest Galaxy and iPad entries of the world, it does work as a well-rounded, lower-cost option that can handle most of the functions of higher-end devices, and manages to compete with the likes of Amazon's Fire tablets.

Packing a long-lasting 7,040mAh battery, dual stereo speakers and an 8MP dual-camera system, the device can tackle the demands of mobile games, streaming apps and e-readers. The Android functionality opens it up to far more than the Fire tabs can -- including Vudu, the Chrome browser and the NFL app -- and manages to record video as a 30fps clip.

The REVVL Tab 5G is also durable, able to withstand some rough handling by my one-year-old daughter, who'd prefer to play her games on a larger screen rather than my phone. While I think too highly of the tablet to give it to her, I'm happily to lend it to her, as long as I can have it back to binge my shows during her naps. Like my daughter, the tablet is spunky, tough and never should be underestimated.

T-Mobile sent device for review.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Hot on Home Video: 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,' 'Matlilda,' 'No Hard Feelings'

Matilda (1996)

The beloved and devilishly subversive 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation, which starred Mara Wilson in the title role, continues to thrive as a family comedy classic. The supporting cast of Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Embeth Davidtz, who manage to thrive on similarly zany notes, lifts the source material to the peak of its potential.

Bonus features include new commentary with DeVito, who also directs, as well as a slew of making-of featurettes. The most charming of the lot is Wilson's own mini-film about the shooting of "Matilda."

No Hard Feelings

After a long break, Jennifer Lawrence gets back in the saddle in a charming rom-com about a woman with financial troubles who's hired by overprotective parents to date their 19-year-old son (Andrew Barth Feldman). Critics praised the coming-of-age story's savvy writing and snappy lead performances, which lifted it to a 71 percent positive rating.

Extras include outtakes, bloopers and character profiles, as well as the making-of featurette dubbed "A Little Wrong."

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The sequel to the 2018 Best Animated Film Oscar winner is a better film than the original in nearly every way imaginable, delving far deeper into the breadth and depth of Spider-Persons inhabiting the scattered multiverses and funneling them into a cohesive, invigorating tale of courage in the face of daunting odds. The stellar voice cast includes Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson and Jason Schwartzman. '

More than 90 minutes of bonus features are included in the Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo pack, including a spotlight on the more obscure characters, a deleted scene and a glance at the comic book influences.

Studios sent screeners for review.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Game Review: 'NBA 2K24'


This year's NBA 2K game gives Kobe Bryant the Michael Jordan and LeBron James treatment, with his visage plastered on the cover and a game mode dedicated to his greatest triumphs.

"NBA 2K24" strives to live up to the Black Mamba ethos, pouring effort into the minutiae with full awareness that the work will pay off on the macro scale.

Among the additions, the most exciting to me was the introduction of crossplay into current-gen systems. The expanded player audience and precision balance across the consoles vastly expands the pool of competition in the revered online mode.

Gameplay is geared to more realistic animations with tech dubbed ProPLAY. Players move with lifelike, motion capture-enhanced flow, and scrambles for loose balls look more fluid rather than stilted, pre-determined animations.

The stalwart MyCAREER and MyTEAM dovetail into a singular experience that reflects both your created player and the franchise you try to micromanage via card collection into a dynasty. There is solid support for the WNBA in The W mode, which is also blended into the throughline. The surface is a beachfront basketball paradise laden with challenges that help you bump up your experience and VC.

The Kobe Bryant-dedicated mode, Mamba Moments, takes you through his career highlights, challenging you to match his clutch performances.

I appreciated the way each team included alternate uniforms from memorable eras, as well as all-time great teams and a squad from the franchise's most impactful season. I always like delving into quick play games to get a feel for court redesigns, the looks of new uniforms -- I'm psyched for the soon-to-drop City Edition threads for the new season -- and the relationships between the new players. It was a thrill to see Bradley Beal charging down the wing on a fast break alongside Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.

While the latest version of NBA 2K may lack any massively game-changing moments, it's a must pickup for Kobe Bryant fans, and an invigorating appetizer for the upcoming season. This one does Mamba proud.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Aladdin'

 
 For my money, there is no single production -- theatrical or cinematic -- that matches the song quality of "Aladdin." The 1992 animated film bowls you over with a series of catchy, clever and timeless Alan Menken rainmakers that pulse with romance, whimsy and laughter.

The theatrical musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2014, captures the essence of the rollicking animated film, while expanding and grounding the flighty story and characters in meaningful ways. To watch the show is to be whisked away into a fantasy world of hopeless longing, redemption, wishes granted and denied and meteoric rises and falls. In short, it's Disney magic in the least ironic sense of the term.

Bulky, loud, bright and gorgeous, the touring production manages to distill the essence of the original film and bring it to stage in an arresting burst of creative heft. While the Bollywood-flavored production is padded out with a few songs that don't nearly rise to the level of the source material, the continuity the numbers add helps make the emotional pressure points pay off with more convincing payoffs.

The show lives and dies on the strength of its three leads, and this one is powered by three superstars in the making. Marcus M. Martin is a rambunctious force of kinetic energy as Genie. Adi Roy captures the devil-may-care charm of Aladdin, and the songbird-voiced Senzel Ahmady shines into the back rows as the proto-feminist princess Jasmine.

Crafted to bear the weight of a 150-minute musical, the writing is filled with pragmatic choices that strengthen the story. The jettisoning of the film's talking animals in favor of sidekicks helps ground the absurdist angles of the material, and workmanlike supporting performances from ensemble members polish the characters to lifelike sheen. Jasmine's attendants, in particular, pump up the crowd with their spirited dance breaks. Kudos to Alysssa Anani -- who doubles as the fortune teller -- Lizzy Marie Legregin and Sonia Monroy.

The projections and backgrounds are works of art, but some of the lighting choices are bizarre, such as a Cave of Wonders sequence that blinded part of the midsection of the crowd by shining lasers into eyeballs. But even that off-kilter choice helped drive home the majesty and wonder of the cave.

I had colossal expectations for "Aladdin," and the show obliterated them all. It lifts you on its magic carpet to a whole new world.

 "Aladdin" plays through Sept. 10 at Centennual Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Review: REVVL 6X Pro 5G

Now that smartphones that access 5G service have become commonplace rather than luxuries, the benefits trickle down to base users. It's not only possible, but expected, to get free or nearly-free 5G smartphones that are leaps and bounds above those that cost $1,000 or more just a couple years ago.

Once barely adequate for heavy users, the REVVL brand has now become something of a flagship for the T-Mobile-using common man. Engineers have figured out ways to cram efficient, effective technology into its lower-grade chassis. 

A nominal upgrade over last year's REVVL Pro 5G, the REVVL 6X Pro 5G is a spruced-up version of its already solid predecessor. 

The device, which is available to T-Mobile customers for free when adding a line, buying a REVVL Tab 5G and activating service on the tablet, or for $50 with a trade-in of any device in any condition, fulfills the needs of those looking for an entry-level Android smartphone that can hang with the big boys.

While the value you get for that rock-bottom price may not turn heads, it will free up your income while keeping you astride with the latest games and apps. Its 6.82-inch screen presents vivid, crisp images, and its 6GB of RAM and MediaTek Dimensity 700 5G processor lets you access the best of T-Mobile's impressive network without losing a step.

The 50MP rear-facing and 16MP front-facing cameras handle any social media or work functions you can hurl at it. 

While the REVVL 6X Pro 5G may struggle a little when confronted with some of the more battery and processor-taxing games and apps on the market, it still was functional with the punishing amount of usage I tend to put smartphones through. I admired the phone's hand-friendly feel and resilience.

While there is little reason to upgrade for base-level REVVL 6 Pro 5G users, those who have missed the past couple of generations will be pleased with the suite of ramped-up upgrades with the X model. The times when the REVVL name was synonymous with corner-cutting have long since passed.

T-Mobile provided review unit.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

 

Disney Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Beyond Halloween Town: The Story, the Characters, and the LegacyDisney Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Beyond Halloween Town: The Story, the Characters, and the Legacy by Emily Zemler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thirty years after it first hit screens, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" still stands as required viewing when holidays roll around. The fantastical melding of horror, whimsy and

Emily Zenker's gorgeous coffee table book delves into the mythos, hype and legacy surrounding the 1993 stop-motion masterpiece, finding nuggets of trivia that have likely eluded even the film's most obsessive followers.

Its 168 pages are crammed with anecdotes, photos, interviews and oral histories that surround the film's historical footprint.

There are also nods to the film's spiritual successors, such as "Coraline" and "Frankenweenie." There are also glimpses of the sundry merchandise that the film has sired, with its characters as firmly integrated into the fabric of holiday decorations as skeletons and Jack-o-lanterns.

While an outsider's perspective may have been more complete -- this book is clearly a Disney-sanctioned product -- the book served its passionate audience well.

View all my reviews