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'


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. 


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.


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'


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."


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. 


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."


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.