Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Diablo IV'

"Diablo" games don't really begin until they end.

After the main quest ends, your character's journey is just getting rolling, with new quests, rifts and treasure to seek out. Blizzard Entertainment's commitment to ongoing content additions is well established, and a reason why "Diablo III" is still wildly popular 12 years after release. Heck, even "Diablo II," re-released in 2021 with the subtitle "Resurrected," is in heavy rotation.

New to the family is "Diablo IV" -- due out June 6 --  a colossal undertaking for the developer that not only manages to lurk out from underneath the shadows of its predecessors, but will no doubt emerge as a giant in its own right.

"Diablo IV" thrives just as much on advancement as familiarity. From the jump, the game sinks you into its fresh take on its captivating realm -- a land called Sanctuary that's been ripped apart by demonic forces under the leadership of Lilith.

In the new outing, the focus shrinks away from the grandiose developments in the past, focusing more on the day-to-day politics and townsfolk who live, scrape by and die in Sanctuary. "Diablo" games have never been grounded, but this one feels as though it's deals with people with real problems.

The game unfolds in a vast open world with no loading screens, procedurally-generated dungeons. A morose, haunted feeling of dread hangs over the world like a weighted blanket, but within the gloom lies opportunity for thrill-seeking and fulfillment.

As always has been the case with "Diablo" games, and likely always will be, there is an irresistible gameplay loop that makes the progression grind a compelling thrill. You take down enemies, collect the loot they drop, craft and upgrade your armor, enhancements and weapons, then seek out bigger and badder enemies, who will drop even more valuable stuff.

The thrill of seeking out rare, ultra-powerful items is captivating, building the empowerment fantasy that the game casts upon you.

The upgrade economy plays into Angelic, Demonic and Ancestral power schematics, which bestow status effects

The classes, all drawn from previous games, include Barbarian, Druid, Necromancer, Rogue and Sorcerer. You're encouraged to develop multiple builds in parallel saves, with each character taking shape in wildly varied ways.

While season passes and cosmetic items are out there, looking to gobble up your credit card funds, at least there are no pay-to-win items for sale as there are in the franchise's mobile spinoff, "Diablo Immortal."

Everything in "Diablo IV" feels bigger and badder than in previous games. The in-game cut scenes are gorgeous and rendered with an enormous cinematic flair, and the combat and menu interfaces are silk-smooth and intuitive. Myriad quality-of-life improvements have been made, and as much as I love the previous two "Diablo" games, I can't imagine going back to them when "Diablo IV" has so much to offer.

While we're less than halfway through the year, the 2023 Game of the Year race already seems like a two-horse contest, with "Diablo IV" roaring down the back stretch to catch up to "The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom." 

While comparisons of the two are apples and oranges, it says something that when I carve out time for my gaming day, it's "Diablo IV" that's always top of mind. The dark obsession has returned, and like its predecessors, will no doubt be around for the long haul.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'Street Fighter 6'

A new "Street Fighter" release is a hallowed occasion for fighting game fans. Because Capcom typically only releases one new entry per console generation, taking great care to build out each release into a platform unto itself, the hard reset of a new numbered release is nothing short of a paradigm change.

Seven years after the release of "Street Fighter V," "Street Fighter 6" -- due out June 2 -- enters the ring with flash, style and vigor to spare. Continuing the trajectory established by 2008's "Street Fighter IV," Capcom's deep, robust effort is a treat for fighter fans, even if there is little left for those who aren't hooked by the initial concept.

The game is divided into three main phases: the story-based Fighting Ground, the training and casual match-centered World Tour and  multiplayer-focused Battle Hub. Now linked more firmly with Capcom's "Final Fight" universe, the game adds customization options that are new to the series. You're encouraged to build your own character, who will serve as your public-facing avatar for your online exploits.

The game launches with 18 characters, including a mix of stalwarts such as Ken, Ryu, Blanka, Chun-Li, with six new fighters to freshen up the mix.

Adding to the broadcast-style feel is a mix of play-by-play and color commentary, which helps boost the stature of each battle to tournament-level quality.

The e-sports focus permeates, with precision balance and a steady drip of choke points and momentum shifts meant to make for fantastic theater, reinforcing the legacy of "Street Fighter" as one of the most watchable and digestible spectator sports.

Among the hooks to keep players coming back for more, as well as emptying their virtual wallets, are season-driven Fighting Passes, cosmetics-focused Fighter Coins and challenge-based Drive Tickets, which reward gameplay success with premium items. Capcom says the purchases come with the assurance that they won't break the balance, with fighter boosts only affecting gameplay in World Tour and Battle Hub throwdowns.

The gameplay is meant to discourage turtling and routine, rewarding creativity and flourish with the Drive Gauge. With mechanics that let players unleashed parries, focus attacks and other specials, the wild, spirited fights will no doubt dazzle crowds.

While the barriers to entry for the upper echelons of online competition will always be intimidatingly high, "Street Fighter 6" challenges you to hone your skills as you aspire to climb the ranks. Bursting with an overall sensation of joyful exploration, the game quickly establishes itself as the contender to beat in the fighting realm.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Game Review: 'The Lord of the Rings: Gollum'

Every bit as sad, weird and creepy as its antihero star, "The Lord of the Rings: Gollum" is a complete mess. What little value it has comes in the forms of laughing at what a sloppy, bizarre and insipid experience.

One of the worst major releases I have ever had the misfortune of playing, the effort from Daedalic Entertainment probably should have been put to death when it was delayed from its original 2021 release. 

A mixture of stealth and platforming, the game is set decades after Bilbo Baggins wrested the One Ring from his control. In the custody of Gandalf, Gollum recounts his pathetic and desperate plight to the wizard as he scales walls and leaps across chasms.

Among the many off-putting aspects of the gameplay, the jarring standout is Gollum's awkward, unnatural jumping ability. He springs upward and outward like some sort of demented jack-in-the-box, and you have to force back a chuckle because the sight is so awkward.

The writing isn't much better. The story unspools with the grace and precision of middle school fan-fic, with the everpresent, unanswered question lingering about why it is this consequence-free story needs to be told.

Any goodwill built up by the "Middl-earth" series falls to the wayside. This is a far different animal, and it's something that's best quickly dismissed and forgotten. This poor oddball should have been ignored and left to rot in the caverns. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Game Review: 'Lego 2K Drive'

Adding some Lego flavor to the open-world driving concept popularized in series such as "Burnout" and "Forza Motorsport," "Lego 2K Drive" is a breezy, family-friendly romp on four wheels.

As you'd expect in a Lego-flavored racing game, you're allowed to unleash your creativity, crafting whatever wild, brick-fueled concoctions you can dream up.

Working your way up through various racing circuits and side missions to claim the Sky Trophy from rival Shadow Z, you boost, drift and jump across diverse terrain.

Set in the realm of Bricklandia, the effort from the dev team at Visual Concepts Loads of "Mario Kart"-style power ups spice things up and add elements of paradigm-changing chaos to the races.

Your ride adapts to the challenges that await it, transforming into a boat when you hit the water. The traversal is forgiving enough to be accessible to beginning gamers without making advanced racers feel as though they've got training wheels on. Nuanced controls can make the difference between victory and defeat.

As with the best Lego games, in-jokes and sight gags abound, with a lighthearted, free-wheeling sense of humor that's a joy to take in. Split-screen racing allows for couch competition, making it an ideal game for parents to play with kids.

While some mission objectives are obtuse, you're best off avoiding walkthroughs and exploring Bricklandia at your whim. There are enough Easter eggs hidden around the map to make your journey a fun, satisfying experience.

While some of the writing falls flat and not all of the jokes connect, "Lego 2K Drive" thrives as a charming playground that bursts with surprises and whimsy. Like a pair of fuzzy dice dangling from your rear-view mirror, "Lego 2K Drive" is superfluous and silly, but also too enjoyable to part with.

Publisher provided review code.

Phil on Film: 'White Men Can't Jump' (2023)

The best thing a remake of an overlooked film can do is draw attention to the original.

A remake of the 1992 Ron Shelton-directed sports comedy, which starred Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, the Hulu-exclusive takes the bones of the original, updates the humor and basketball moves and rolls the ball onto the court.

The result is a mixed bag, with a C-level cast and some plot points and character motivations that don't register.

Sinqua Walls plays Kamal, a flamed-out hoops phenom who angrily works a job as a UPS driver. He partners with Jeremy (Jack Harlow), a former Gonzaga star who tore both ACLs and hopes to recover enough to get his career going again.

Kamal and Jeremy both need money, so they team up to start a street ball hustle, with the eventual goal of starring in an -- oddly -- three-on-three tournament that could net them big dollars.

Jeremy's situation is hard to fathom, because he reasons that he needs to save up funds for an experimental treatment for his injury, yet is so good on the court that it's unclear why he needs the surgery at all. 

As with the original, the best moments come on the court and in trash-talking exchanges. While the film's perspective is understandably updated for the modern age, there are still plenty of charming jabs that make their way through.

If you can set the insipid story aside and enjoy the movie's better moments for what they are, you'll have enough fun to make your way through to the insipid, if oddly satisfying, conclusion.

Otherwise, you may be better off bailing out and finding the 1992 film, enjoying it for its unsanitized charm.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Report: 'Molly's Game'

Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground PokerMolly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Molly Bloom's tell-all about the Hollywood upper crust's poker addiction is fascinating. She doesn't hold back in exposing celebrities and power players, particularly sticking it to Tobey Maguire, who became her rival as she set up a standing poker game to the stars.

Shameless and bulging with an ego on the rampage, Bloom is also freely self-deprecating as she explores her insecurities and ambitions, making you feel as though you're on the ride along with her as she lures in free-spending whales to succumb to their gambling addictions and need to impress their peers.

My favorite part is the conclusion, in which Bloom -- who would end up serving prison time for her role -- says she would gladly do it all again. She is not a reformed criminal, but a proud rebel against society who treasured her role and will no doubt find another way to attain the dizzying heights she once ascended.

View all my reviews


Thursday, May 04, 2023

Review: 'Hogwarts Legacy Collector’s Edition'

The Warner Bros. Games wizards outdid themselves with this one. The floating wand is the coolest gaming pack-in since the "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" night vision goggles. I show off what the collection has to offer in this video.

Publisher provided review unit.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Star Wars Jedi: Survivor'

While "Star Wars" has gotten more fulfilling game adaptations than most other film franchises, there has yet to be a game that fully captures the essence of some of the saga's top-tier storytelling. 

"Star Wars Jedi: Survivor" -- due out Friday -- is the closest attempt yet to nailing the wonder and majesty of some of the series' most legendary character arcs.

The sequel to the criminally overlooked 2019 game "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," "Survivor" follows the exploits of Cal, one of the few remaining Jedi spared the scourge of Order 66, as he tries to stay a step ahead of the Empire's clutches.

The dev team at Respawn Entertainment takes the bones of that game and launches them into the stratosphere for the franchise's current-gen debut.

Back are the intoxicating Force powers, which you can tweak, upgrade and trick out as you advance through the story. As with the likes of "Elden Ring," "God of War" and "Deathloop" -- some of the greatest narrative triumphs this generation -- the key is consistent, blisteringly intense writing. The yarn told in the game can match up with the better Disney+ series offerings.

While the main thread is compelling enough, there are bountiful side quests to distract you, including bounty hunter pursuits and puzzles in Jedi shrines. There is always plenty to see, do and explore. Most importantly, the sense of giddy fun always abounds. The game has a consistent way of making you feel like you're a little kid pretending to be a Jedi in your backyard.

Exuberant and energetic while also somber and emotionally resonant enough to stay grounded, "Star Wars Jedi: Survivor" is an impressive accomplishment that will no doubt stand as one of the marquee games of the year, as well as a shining light of what's possible in a story-driven "Star Wars" game.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: 'The Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American Politics'


The Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American PoliticsThe Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American Politics by Gabriel Sherman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I respect authors who seek out and deliver stories that people actively try to prevent them from telling. In facing down Roger Ailes at the peak of his power, Gabriel Sherman fought the good fight, put his professional and personal life at risk, and managed to wring out the definitive biography of one of the most imposing media moguls of our time.

What emerges isn't anything close to a hit piece, but a rather sympathetic portrait of a complicated figure. You get a sense of grudging respect for Ailes' moxie and stubbornness in Sherman's prose.

While the author doesn't shy away from exposing the more embarrassing skeletons in Ailes' closet, "The Loudest Voice in the Room" reads like a fair, vibrant portrait of a man determined to succeed and push his agenda through at any cost.

Of course, it's impossible to tell Ailes' story without discussing his sadism, rage and monstrous tendency to exploit women. Sherman nails the facts that juxtapose the fall of Bill O'Reilly with Ailes' ability to sweep his indiscretions under the rug while retaining his power for years. A precursor to the "me too" movement, the postscript to the book is as intriguing as the work itself. The world may never see another Ailes, and that is no doubt for the best.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Game Review: 'Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster'

 As momentum builds toward the June release of "Final Fantasy XVI," Square Enix went back to the series' roots to pay tributes to the early games that laid the foundation for what the iconic RPG series would become.

"Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster" takes the first six games in the series and curates them with delicate care and painterly upgrades -- with the respect and nuance a master would use to refurbish a great work of art or storied piece of architecture -- and gives the creaky classics a spotless sheen.

Originally releases in 1987-1994 and best remembered on the NES, SNES and PlayStation consoles, the spirit of the original games has endured with an enduring sense of simplicity and innocence.

Developers took an impressive amount of meticulous care in making sure the games retain their old-school resemblance and feel, while subtly inserting visual and audio enhancements and quality-of-life improvements to make the games more vital and playable.

Chief among the additions is a makeover of the myriad fonts. The games all involved heavy reading, and the streamlined rendition of the text makes it much more palatable, 

Also added are gorgeous animations that retain the 1980s and 90s feel, respecting the sense of revelatory wonder brought forth by the originals. 

And the most welcome additions are anti-grinding upgrades that allow you to skip irritating random enemy encounters and also fast-forward leveling. The results are streamlined experiences that cherry-pick the endearing moments while brushing aside the dust and debris.

While it remains to be seen whether "XVI" manages to maintain the series' dizzying standards, the OG "Final Fantasy" titles will always stand as grand champions. This collection -- available a la carte for $18 each and together in a $75 bundle -- stands as something of a Mount Rushmore from the series, looking down from their majestic perches with grandiose elegance.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Game Review: 'EA Sports PGA Tour'

EA's first golf outing since 2015's awkward pivot to Rory McIlroy as the cover athlete following the Tiger Woods era, the blandly named "EA Sports PGA Tour" is a full-scale reset.

Without legacy tendencies to draw on, the reinvigorated franchise feels fresh and vital in a way that few EA Sports's annual-releases ever do. Bolstered with new shot mechanics, exhaustive course data and lifelike physics, sights and sounds, the game feels like a fresh news set of clubs and access to a newly built course.

The game is also technically sound in a way no golf game has ever had the opportunity to approach. Developer EA Tiburon integrates ShotLink data -- used widely to analyze player performance and statistics on the PGA Tour -- and the integration helps rounds play out with the tendencies of real-life pros.

As is usually the case with EA Sports titles, the licenses are ample. While Woods is nowhere to be found -- just as he commonly isn't on the leaderboards -- the likes of more relevant players such as Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. A selection of LPGA golfers are also included, echoing the gender equity trend in EA Sports's recent FIFA releases.

Even if create-a-player is your preferred lane, you can live out the dream of player in the Masters at Augusta National, one of 30 top-flight courses including Pebble Beach and St Andrews. 

The shooting mechanic, dubbed Pure Strike, offers more than 20 shot types, allowing you to tinker and adjust your shot selection as you line up and adjust your strategy.

Thoroughly satisfying and crammed with PGA fan service, the rebirth of EA's golf franchise deserves a raucous. Waste Management-style cheer rather than a golf clap.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Dead Island 2'

Twelve years after the open-world hack-and-slasher "Dead Island" surfaced, a sequel rises from the post-apocalyptic ashes to reascend its grim throne.

Deep Silver Dambuster Studios piles on the high-performance weaponry and nonstop gore for the new effort, ironing out many of the drawbacks of the original and powering the sequel to new heights with spectacular visuals and dizzying action. 

Due out April 21, the game has you taking undead enemies apart limb by limb. Set in the terrifying streets of Hell-A -- a once proud metropolis turned dystopia after the zombie apocalypse -- you scramble to find survivors and set up a foothold of civilized resistance against the enemy. You choose from among six lead characters, each with their own hang-ups and pizzazz.

You may be surrounded by unforgiving environs and ludicrously overpowered creatures who lust after your blood, but a sizable arsenal helps even up the odds. Card-based enhancements allow you to deliver outsized damage with skill boosts.

One innovation promised this time around is voiced-based Alexa game control, which allows you to take it easy on the controller and use your virtual assistant to shout commands that pull up maps, draw weapons and distract enemies.

Zombie minions are divided into classes such as Walkers, Shamblers and Runners -- each of which have subsets that specialize in certain weapons or mutations.

Even though the tone is grim, a steady flow of gallows humor pulses beneath the subtext. The fun factor recalls the likes of the "Dawn of the Dead"-inspired "Dead Rising" series.

Appealing and feature-rich out of the gate while promising loads of coming content with a steady stream of updates, "Dead Island 2" is an appealing destination for your upcoming summer travels. So long as maiming undead villains is your preferred vacation activity.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'God of Rock'

 Recalling button-tapping rhythm games such as "Guitar Hero," "PaRappa the Rapper" and "Elite Beat Agents," "God of Rock" applies the concept to fighting games.

As a flow of notes flows down a crawl at the bottom of the screen, you tap corresponding buttons in time, powering you up enough to unleash superpowered specials that can turn the tide of battle.

Your success influences the soundtrack, making you as much a conductor as a fighter, with your flourishes resulting in victorious crescendos.

With player enjoyment and AI adaptability at top of mind, the dev team at Modus Studios Brazil allows the difficulty level to adjust on the fly, with a rubber band tendency that not only allows you to get back in the game when you're out, but ramps up the challenge substantially as you begin to thrive.

While there's not much to the game outside of its introductory gimmick, the execution and toe-tapping rhythms manage to give the game more appeal than a content-slim title like this might usually entail. For those looking for a fighting game with musical flavor, "God of Rock" solidifies the unlikely union.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Game Review: 'Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon'

 While a sharp dip in quality from mainline, action-packed "Bayonetta" efforts, the isometric, adventure-oriented spinoff "Cereza and the Lost Demon" manages to retain the character's sultry charm while spinning a compelling side story.

PlatinumGames' Switch-exclusive first-party title, released under the Nintendo publishing banner, maintains the series' standard of eye-popping twists and kinetic confrontations.

The aim is to tell Bayonetta's origin tale through the lens of young Cereza - who becomes known as Bayonetta - and her demon, Cheshire. A rebel without a clue, Cereza struggles with typical trappings of  adolescent ennui, even being forced to do chores.

She soon breaks free of her humdrum routine to head out on her first significant adventure, which requires managing Cereza and Cheshire in concert to solve puzzles and dispatch enemies.

While past "Bayonetta" games had occasional emotional payoffs, the coming-of-age tale in "Cereza and the Lost Demon" is particularly stirring, focusing on idealism, destiny and the necessity to evolve in the face of devastating loss.

While not as full-featured or robust as the other "Bayonetta" games, this one is a sweet, engrossing side story that fills out the character and adds further to her intrigue. One of gamedom's most fascinating femme fatales gets her due in this rich dive into her past.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Game Review: 'WWE 2K23'

 With a hefty focus on cover performer John Cena, "WWE 2K23" refines the well-worn formula refined in previous versions of the annual release, continuing the steady progression for the 2K Sports wrestling sim.

Games with cover athlete-focused modes usually spend a significant amount of effort inflating the ego of his star and PR squad, but this one takes the opposite tack. The storyline in the interactive documentary focuses on several of Cena's most crushing defeats over his two-decade career. 

The Cena stuff is exciting and, to a bizarre degree, educational, but an impressive array of other big-name wrestlers steal share the spotlight with Mr. Hustle, Loyalty and Respect.

Supporting stars include the likes of Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns.

Outside of the Cena doc, the marquee mode is WarGames, a rousing three-on-three or four-on-four slugfests in side-by-side rings within a steel cage that are set up for dramatic momentum swings and exciting finishes.

World-building management modes include the likes of "MyFACTION" and "MyGM," which allow you to craft alliances and schedule bouts and career arcs, as though you are a WWE writer or producer. The online multiplayer aspect of card-based "MyFACTION" recalls the parallel experiences in EA's sports games.

"MyRISE," meanwhile, is the single-player build-your-own character mode that lets you go through the grind of the wrestling miners and showboat your way to Cena-like status. 

While there isn't a whole lot to draw you back into "WWE 2K23" if you're still satisfied with last year's version, this year's is a must for Cena fans. And anyone who isn't needs to watch "Peacemaker."

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Game Review: 'Roniu's Tale'

As a wily wizard running for his life, you scamper throughout frantic single-screen levels in "Roniu's Tale," an NES-flavored action-puzzler that brings the pain from the opening screen.

Developers at Kunjee Studios worked with publishing partnership 8-Bit Legit to create the game, which has vibes of "Dig Dug" and "Adventures of Lolo" with a touch of "Solomon's Key." The aim was to create a game meant for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-80s.

As you step on tiles, they disappear, making it impossible to backtrack. Meanwhile, enemies hunt you down as you try to grab a key and head for the exit. You deploy magical skills to dispatch enemies and bosses.

The simple concept is executed with precision. "Roniu's Tale" works far better on the Switch than it would as a mobile game, due to the necessity of precision controls rather than simple tap-and-smear action you can get away with on your phone.

The challenge starts with intensity and stays consistently demanding over 47 levels. You can swap out backgrounds with an array of screen borders, and to complete the 80s feel, there's even a full manual to peruse.

While plenty of trial and error is necessary to plow through "Roniu's Tale," the experience is usually lively and engrossing, making it not too much of a chore to bang your head against the same wall in particularly demanding levels before finally breaking through.

Filled with allusions and knowing winks to gaming's past, "Roniu's Tale" is a throwback joy that builds up a steady loop of aggravation leading to sweet satisfaction.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Flower Child to Open in Tucson April 4

I checked out restaurateur Sam Fox’s latest creation, the fast-casual, health food-minced Flower Child, at 2960 N. Campbell. 

The restaurant has an inviting, peppy vibe and delicious, reasonably-priced food. It’s a stellar addition to Tucson’s modern cuisine scene.

Here is what my wife and I tried at its friends and family preview event:

                              Seasonal sangria.

Chocolate chip cashew cookie.

                              Lemon cake.

 Smashed gold potato with roasted garlic and thyme.

                             Chicken Yakisoba noodles.

 Crushed avocado toast with soft egg, black sesame and white Cheddar.

For more information on the restaurant, visit its website.

Friday, March 31, 2023

My Goodbye Letter to KGUN

This looks like the end of my journalism career. It started in 1997, when I was a U of A student who the newspaper hired to cover high school sports. When I first started, there were still typewriters in the newsroom, the phones were dumb and there was no internet on the computers.

I was one of the youngest people at the paper, and even when I was laid off at age 35 in 2014, I was still one of the youngest people working there at the time. For my last eight years at the paper, there were no pay raises, constant layoffs and everyone was always grouchy and miserable. No one in management was interested in my input about our direction or strategy. When it came time for my head to roll, I was ready for something new.

Three weeks later, I started at KGUN, and it was a refreshing change. Suddenly, I was the old man. People cared what I had to say, and my opinions about what we should cover and how we should go about doing it mattered. I was only getting paid $13 an hour, but I was refueled. I felt just like many of my coworkers, a year or two out of college and eager to embark on a new career. Soon after I started, Scripps completed its acquisition of KGUN, and there was a philosophy of investment in place. Instead of layoffs, new positions were added.

There was something special about this place. I felt like I belonged. It didn't take long to see that being laid off by the paper and hired by KGUN was the best thing that could have happened to me.

In my nearly nine years at KGUN, I've gotten older, but most of my coworkers are just about the same age as when I started. The youthful energy and enthusiasm has always ignited me, and was shared by most of my colleagues here who were my age or older. I mentored the younger journalists all I could, but they taught me much more. 

It was always sad to see coworkers leave, but it was also inspiring, because they so often fulfilled the dreams they had that drove them as they paid their dues here and found their voices as they sharpened and discovered their talents. Over the years, KGUN embraced its role as a finishing school for the stars, launching journalists to greatness. 

I worked a little more than 2,000 shifts here in my 8 1/2 years. Every day was a fresh new challenge, and it fueled my competitive spirit to try to help us nail breaking news and finding stories before the competition. I thrived on being a part of the team.

I also did things I never believed would be possible. Thanks to support from managers who were willing to try wild ideas, I ended up reviewing movies on the website, and then on air, for more than six years. I even got to review some video games on TV.

I am grateful to everyone I worked with at KGUN in the past and today. I now have friends I met here who are doing amazing things all over the country, as well as this newsroom.

I have a deep respect for everyone at KGUN. You do incredibly tough jobs that take guts and commitment. You are truth-seekers and tellers, and it's been an honor to share that mission with you.

Wishing you the best,

ATTENTION LONGTIME CONTACTS: My new work email will be pvillarreal@arizona.edu

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Book Report: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'


Once Upon a Time in HollywoodOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somehow, Tarantino is every bit as incisive, edgy and heartfelt as an author as he is a filmmaker. Even though I love the film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and believe it to be one of the greatest films ever made, the novel's depth and voluminous insight make it far more astounding.

The filmmaker's love letter to bygone days of Hollywood, as well as a wistful alternate historical fiction wish, the novel bursts with scandal, nuance and conspiracies that Tarantino scooped up in his decades crafting some of the greatest films ever made.

An absolute treasure, this is a brilliant book that deserves to be savored, reread and used as a rabbit hole in which to dive through the connections and insinuations it implies. It makes me see the film in new light, and hope that Tarantino continues to write literature as well as direct.

View all my reviews

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Mean Girls'

 Adapted from the seminal 2004 movie, the touring production of "Mean Girls" elevates the core concept to its absurd magical realism breaking point.

A cavalcade of backstabbing, misdirection and political maneuvering in the cruel halls of North Side HS, the show bursts with personality, inspired performances and energetic choreography. Buttressed by an ever-evolving projection background of Burn Book etchings and social media flame wars, the show rocks with chuckles, swoons and show-stopping tap dance breaks.

The pride that progenitor Tina Fey takes in the production is evident from the radio spots to the pre-recorded introduction, in which she quips that there's no need to film the show, since it was already a movie.

Expertly cast with a cream-of-the-crop selection of possible Broadway superstars in waiting, the show seizes control of the audience with kinetic energy. Even though the story and lesson-driven second act loses some of the charm of the anything-goes opening act, the end result far exceeds the sum of its impressive parts.

The most dynamic force is English Bernhardt, who brings nuance and full-throttle commitment to the lead role of Cady, the outsider who penetrates the social stranglehold of the Plastics as she starts to lose her sense of self in a power-mad lunge at the teenage dream. Able to project wide-eyed wonder, conniving ruthlessness and withering insecurity -- often between dialogue lines -- English displays immense capability and captivating promise.

Nadina Hassan is impressive as Bernhardt's frenemy, Regina, swan diving into the delectable cruelty of the queen bee scrambling to avoid a tumble from grace. Jasmine Rogers delivers a spunky take on unappreciated sidekick Gretchen, and Megan Grosso is sneakily impressive as the doe-eyed Karen, bubbling with pizzazz in deadpan line delivery and flashy dance moves.

The serial scene stealers are the geek chorus of Janis (Lindsay Heather Pearce) and Damian (Eric Huffman), social outcasts who take Cady under their tattered wings, coaxing her to infiltrate the Plastics before snidely bemoaning the monster they create.

Adante Carter is solid as BMOC Aaron, and Heather Ayers channels Fey's cynicism as teacher Ms. Norbury, also ably tackling the roles of Cady and Regina's moms.

A sugary-sweet treat, "Mean Girls" falters only when it gets preachy, stumbling over its core nihilism to spread a weak message of unity and support. The show is at its best when it is cheerfully sadistic, playing to its core strengths. Like its core characters, it proves artfully hilarious at relating vindictive survival skills.

"Mean Girls" plays through April 2 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Arizona Theatre Company Review: 'Pru Payne'

Powered by a watershed performance by TV and film star Mimi Kennedy, "Pru Payne" is an insightful and emotionally devastating look at a great mind being rapidly washed away by dementia.

Kennedy, who was a part of the original Broadway cast of "Grease" before appearing in TV series such as "Mom" and "Dharma & Greg," as well as films including "Erin Brockovich" and "Midnight in Paris," delivers a passionate and incisively observant performance in the title role. 

A globally renowned theater critic who finds herself in a rapid downward spiral as she tries to cobble together her memoir, Pru is bewildered, bubbling with anger and on the verge of depression as she loses her faculties. Kennedy's stunning command of the stage reverberates through the theater.

Gordon Clapp is nearly as impressive as Gus Cudahy, a  soft-spoken, blue-collar worker Pru meets in rehab who sparks a long-dimmed light within her. Clapp's magnetism and chemistry with Kennedy helps color the romance and make it seem real.

In the periphery are Pru's son, Thomas (Tristan Turner), Gus's son, Greg (Art Cudahy) and Dr. Dolan (Veronika Duerr).

Sean Daniels' direction of the tight, intense 90-minute drama  pulses with energy and creative stagecraft, with giant background slats that represent Pru's mental state lifting and lowering in time with her moments of lucidity and cloudiness.

Steven Drukman's script recalls "The Father" -- the 2020 film for which Anthony Hopkins won a best actor Oscar -- and is filled with clever references and acknowledgments, but perhaps stacked a bit too densely with showy nods for its own good. 

A dynamic and riveting experience, "Pru Payne" is a stunning experience to behold, as well as a priceless specimen of a powerful actress using her vast experience to approach the peak of her massive potential.

"Pru Payne" plays through March 25 in Tucson and March 30-April 16 in Phoenix. Buy tickets here.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra dazzles, delights

Boasting an impressive camera setup, robust battery life and smooth S Pen stylus integration, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra flexes it’s muscles at the top of the Android high-end smartphone pyramid.

In my time with it, the device juggled  apps, games and video with ease on T-Mobile’s blisteringly fast 5G network.

The dizzyingly detailed 200mp camera is the showpiece, capturing images and video with effortless ease from distance, in dark or overly bright conditions and at high speeds. It has a way of sharpening your touch and making your shooting skills look better than they actually are.

On the flip side, the 12mp selfie cam is also remarkably dynamic and efficient.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor makes its presence known with silk-smooth multitasking and audio-visual presentation.

While the 8.2-ounce weight and overall bulk of the phone may be a slight hindrance, efficient and smooth design makes the form factor feel impressively simple to handle. As with a high-performance sports car, you can simply feel the muscle purring beneath the hood.

A quantum leap above the comparatively tiny and mighty Samsung Galaxy S23, the Ultra gave me the feeling of Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone.

Although I was impressed with the Galaxy S23, I was blown away by the majesty and capability of the Ultra. This is a high water point for Samsung’s smartphone engineers.

Review unit provided by T-Mobile.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Book Report: 'Moneyball'


Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michael Lewis's book is so well-written that it can make anyone a fan of the intricacies of baseball, as well as the late 1990s/early 2000s Oakland A's.

Benefitting from incredibly intimate access and an obsessive research bent, the tale breaks down the superstitions and "magic" involved in the game into similarly incongruous beliefs bolstered by higher math and scientific applications.

What it amounts to is an analytical breakdown of how exactly David will take down Goliath.

The unfortunate postscript is that the Goliaths will eventually adapt to the same analytic methods, griding the Davids further into the dust. But Lewis's snapshot of baseball history captures the once-in-a-lifetime moment when the smartest guys in the room worked for the poorest owners, and just about anything was possible.

Please, oh please, give baseball a salary cap.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Book Report: 'Atlas Shrugged'

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It was exhausting to get through this one. Finishing it is a triumph of the will over my nagging urge to cast it aside to give up.

While I enjoyed Rand's "The Fountainhead," this one is the monstrosity that resulted in the author's unchecked whims running unchecked or challenged.

Characters speak in idiotic, pages-long diatribes. There are disturbingly detailed love scenes that seem like sad expressions of the longings of the romantically challenged. The story is a nonsensical fever dream that is comical for its childish idiocy.

Do not make the mistake I made. Avoid this book, even if you liked "The Fountainhead."

View all my reviews


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Phil on Film: 'Linoleum'

 For my full review, click here.

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Dear Evan Hansen'

With my first experience with "Dear Evan Hansen" having been the mediocre 2021 film, I went into the beloved show with tempered expectations. 

From the initial curtain, marked by a blast of cell phone notifications and a background screen cluttered with frenzied projections of social media posts, the touring production defines its presence and ensures that you'll be in for 150 minutes of captivating, moving, thought-provoking and envelope-pushing entertainment.

It's immediately apparent that "Dear Evan Hansen" never should have been a movie. Such is the spell cast by the stagecraft, the orchestra perched on a high-rise in the background and the thunderous emotion related by the performers that this is a stage show at its heart, and to take the stage out of the equation is to take away its pulse.

Anthony Norman is a powerhouse in the lead role. Rather than trying to imitate the iconic mannerisms and voice fluctuations of Ben Platt, he makes Evan thoroughly his own. Norman's Evan is an endearing jumble of jitters, stutters, tics and self-loathing that captivates throughout the entirety of the show.

Evan is at the center of an adolescent hellscape, surrounded by others who only seem to have it together, barely concealing their own inner torrents of doubt and despair.

Coleen Sexton is an empathetic, frazzled battlefield of conflicted interests as Heidi, Evan's single mother who desperately tries to help his son cope with his debilitating social anxiety while scrapping together enough income to get by while working and striving for a more lucrative career while going to night school.

August Emerson delves into distressingly dark territory as Connor, the boy whose suicide serves as the focal point of Evan's descent into self-actualization via deception. After Connor's death, Evan starts masquerades as his secret best friend. Through Evan, Connor's family -- including Evan's No. 1 crush, Zoe (Alaina Anderson) -- as well as the rest of the community, grieve through the lost boy they never truly knew, using Connor as their touchstone.

Anderson, whose tender, guarded demeanor masks her growing attraction to Evan and her conflicted feelings about Connor, thrives in a tour de force performance that is nearly equal to Norman's revelation of a central role. Together, they capture the tragicomic madness of teen romance.

Other standouts include Micaela Lamas's turn as Alana, the alpha female who spearheads Evan's efforts and Lady Macbeths him into realms far over his head, and Pablo David Laucerica's comic relief turn as Jared, Evan's frenemy, co-conspirator and one-man Greek (geek?) chorus.

Bolstered with an uplifting soundtrack and buttressed with the steady background patter of the mindless, irrepressible force of social media pressures, "Dear Evan Hansen" obliterated my expectations, leaving me stunned, heartbroken and oddly hopeful that I was not alone.

"Dear Evan Hansen" plays through Feb. 26 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Game On: 'Like a Dragon: Ishin'

For the full review, click here.

Game On: 'Hogwarts Legacy'

 For the full review, click here.

Phil on Film: 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania'

 For my full review, click here.

Arizona Theatre Company Review: 'The Glass Menagerie'

Tennessee Williams' 1944 autobiographical memory play "The Glass Menagerie" is an exquisite example of how dense writing can combine with subtle performances to extract riches that far exceed the sum of their parts.

Part tone poem, part coming-of-age drama, part elegy for faded promise, the play offers a stunning insight into the origins of one of the most lauded American playwrights.

Director Chanel Bragg orchestrates a dynamite cast. Aaron Cammack owns the stage as the wise-cracking narrator, Tom, who recalls the limbo of living with his delusional, domineering mother and church mouse sister while stuck at a dead-end job.

Lillie Richardson delivers sass and punch as Amanda, the mother, and Michelle Chin provides the delicate emotional core as Tom's sister, Laura. Paul Deo Jr. provides a much-appreciated burst of scene-shifting energy in the second act as Jim, the gentleman caller Amanda badgers Tom to bring home in hopes of kindling romance with Laura.

Thems of fragility, withering hope and steaming angst fume throughout the play, which becomes a metaphor for Deep South society struggling to assume a new identity in the early 20th century. 

Looming in the background is the neon sign from a dance hall, which promises escape from the daily routine while also serving as a hollow metaphor for the act of longing for adventure and romance.

I was stunned at the majesty of the production, which filled my soul, crushed my heart and teased my brain with its intricacies. 

I watched the show starring Amy Adams in London's West End in August, and found that the ATC production compared favorably in almost every respect, from performances to stagecraft and actor chemistry. This is truly a special production, and its kinetic energy flows through the audience.

"The Glass Menagerie" plays in Tucson through Feb. 11, then moves to Phoenix Feb. 16-March 5. Buy tickets here.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Phil on Film: 'Somebody I Used to Know'

 For my full review, click here.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Sizzles on Top-Flight Network

I used to be a hardcore Samsung Galaxy smartphone user, but haven't checked out a device since the Galaxy Note 9. which was released in 2018.

When I got my hands on the Galaxy 23, I was impressed with the myriad advancements. Boasting considerable growth in processing, multitasking, battery life and camera areas, Samsung's latest entry-level smartphone manages to fight to the top of the heap in the battle for Android supremacy.

Comparable to Google's Pixel 7 Pro, the device excels in the realms of heavy gaming, video editing and high-taxing app use, such as GPS.

I was impressed with the tone and range in colors and depth that the 200-megapixel sensor -- equipped to a 50-megapixel main camera -- managed to capture.

Likewise, the 3,900-mAh battery -- an upgrade from the Galaxy S22's 3,700-mAh unit, managed to maintain a charge through hardcore days of use and abuse among T-Mobile's blistering 5G network and intermittent switchbacks to WiFi. 

While I was distressed at how long it took the phone to rise to full battery life on my induction charger, it managed to hold its percentages well enough not to cause me any anxiety of needing to charge up mid-day.

The performance and efficiency is largely due to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, which handles the demands of Android 13 with ease, juggling and prioritizing resource drain in your apps and connectivity needs.

The generous 128gb internal storage -- ugpradable via SD card -- also was a stress-reliever. It's pleasing to see Samsung equip the device with adequate storage, not demanding an immediate expansion.

Operating at impressive speeds and handling my abusive demands with ease, the Galaxy S23 had the muscle and heart to meet my needs as a daily driver. Galaxy smartphones have come a long way in the last half-decade.

T-Mobile provided review unit.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Book Report: 'The Fountainhead'


The FountainheadThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While long-winded and overbearing in the way it shoves its social theories down your throat, I appreciated the storytelling and strength of characters.

Rand goes all-in on her dogged ideals of individualism and proud antisocialism. While the plot twists are ludicrous to the level of YA fiction, her passion and reverence for their ideals rings home.

Rand doesn't have much of an ear for the way human beings communicate with one another, her novel works as a spirited piece of evangelism for hardcore conservative beliefs and ideals.

Unlike "Atlas Shrugged," "The Fountainhead" shows that Rand has the skills and vision it takes to tell a compelling story. I enjoyed the experience.

View all my reviews

Game On: Fire Emblem Engage

 For the full review, click here.

Game On: "Dead Space"

 For the full review, click here.

Fentonelli's Pizzeria & Bar Opening in Oro Valley

Reilly's Craft Pizza's Oro Valley location is rebranding as Fentonelli's Pizzeria & Bar. 

The restaurant, located at 7262 N. Oracle Road, is aiming for what restaurateur Tyler Fenton calls "A New York, red sauce joint, Italian-American vibe."

The original Reilly Craft Pizza, at 101 E. Pennington, will remain unchanged.

Here are some dishes the restaurant offers:

Crispy brussels sprouts, hot sauce, pecan brittle

Marinara braised beef meatballs, garlic bread

Gelato swirl

Classic Moscow Mule

Iron Horse old fashioned

Pepperoni Pizza with tomato sauce, mozarella and fontina

Rigatoni with vodka sauce and meatballs

Spaghetti, Uncle Al's Sunday gravy and sausage


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Blue's Big Play'

Bolstered with impressive puppetry and generous interactivity, "Bluey's Big Play" manages to connect with its preschool audience while helping parents see through the eyes of their youngsters.

A thoroughly entertaining, 45-minute, one-act experience, the show draws chuckles and cheers.

Adapted from the Aussie show, available on Disney+, about a mischievous Blue Heeler dog and her family, the series delivers gentle lessons on manners and morals while providing colorful, relatable entertainment.

The play understands its audience and caters to the needs of parents with short-attention span youngsters. Far different from a typical stuffy night at the theater, the actors and their characters encourage the audience to express themselves as the show unfolds.

The plotline, in which Bluey and her sister swipe their dad's phone in order to convince him to spend more time playing with them, also has pointed parenting advice. Surely, twinges of sympathetic guilt went down the spines of moms and dads who recall moments spent glued to their devices rather than taking part in the fleeting moments of childhood.

"Bluey's Big Play" helps remedy such guilt. The thrill and sheer joy of watching your little one get one of their first glimpses at theater is priceless.

"Bluey's Big Play" plays through Jan. 25 at Centennial Hall. For tickets, click here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

As a stirring rumination on childhood memories and moral foundations, as well as the kernel of the push for introspection that would shove the Deep South from Antebellum oblivion to the skirts of the Civil Rights movement, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a substantial and powerful story renewed as a passionate play.

Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's source material is powerful and vibrant, if a little long-winded for its own good. The flourishes he adds and moments he subtracts tend to revitalize the novel, adapting it to the 21st century. 

Wielding a convincing cocktail of accent and mannerisms Melanie Moore thrives as Scout, the show's heart and soul as well as the projection of innocence that the surrounding characters strive to protect.

Most of the grandiose moments, of course, go to Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch. Channeling the delivery of Jeff Daniels in Sorkin's "The Newsroom," he stands in for the auteur's take on the conflicted moral crusader, who struggles with his tendency to favor passivity, weighed against his demands to topple injustice with all his might.

Steven Lee Johnson is a meek, aloof presence as a note-perfect Dill, and Justin Mark conjures a boastful Jem, making up for his insecurities with a feigned imitation of what he perceives to be manhood.

Also standing out is a stately performance by an autoritative David Manis as Judge Taylor, as well as the scene-stealing bubbling angst of Yaegel T. Welch as falsely accused rapist Tom Robinson and Jacqueline Williams as suppressed-rage simmering servant Calpurnia.

Several of the monologues boom with such power and precision that the audience reacted with spontaneous applause. At times, the court drama lifts to the raucous vibrance of a basketball game. When the judge bellows "All rise," it's not necessary. The spiritual effects of the play, accented by the music, lift spirits so high that the legs can't help but follow.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" plays at Centennial Hall through Jan. 22. Buy tickets here.