Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Dave's Hot Chicken Opens in Marana



Wednesday was a glorious day for those who live in my corner of suburbia. The lauded Dave's Hot Chicken expanded to the space formerly occupied by a lowly, ignored Burger King that long lurked in Costco's shadow.

Now the intersection of Thornydale and Orange Grove is suddenly a power center, with Top Golf holding things down and Freddy's, Firehouse Subs, Smoothie King and Popeye's beckoning from the southwest corner.

For my money, no chicken joint comes close to hanging with Dave's, which continues to expand after opening a Tucson location in 2022. The new location, at 3915 W. Costco Drive, opens for real on Friday. This one comes with a drive-thru, and will undoubtedly become my go-to when I'm looking for a cheat day on my ever-struggling weight loss journey.

I caught up with Von Dyer, Director of Operations, who beamed at the soft opening as crowds swarmed in to devour the ludicrously delicious sliders, tenders and shakes.

"As we embark on the journey of opening a new Dave's Hot Chicken location in Marana, AZ, I am filled with a sense of pride and excitement," he said. "For me, this endeavor represents more than just launching another restaurant; it symbolizes the opportunity to become an integral part of the local community, to create jobs, and to provide a memorable dining experience for our guests. Opening this new location is a testament to our team's hard work, dedication and commitment to delivering excellence in everything we do. We look forward to serving the Marana community and sharing the unique flavors and hospitality that Dave's Hot Chicken is known for.

Here are some shots I took while enjoying an introductory meal on the house.














Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Game Review: 'Contra: Operation Galuga'

 A reimagining of the original run-and-gun NES classic, "Contra: Operation Galuga" looks, feels and plays like a breezy blast of 1980s nostalgia.

Capturing the spirit and look of the original game while blessed with wholesale quality-of-live improvements and visual and storytelling flourishes, the game is rock solid in single-player but, like the original, truly blossoms when you're playing with a friends at your side.

Over the years, the "Contra" franchise had lost its way as it tried to fall on too many grenades, attempting to follow rather than lead. "Operation Gulaga" is a stubborn return to form, following the path set by the likes of Double Dragon," "Mega Man," "Sonic" and "Mario" as the franchises returned to the side-scrolling glory of old.

The old formula remains intact: You scour the background for power-ups, switching among your left and right hand, which can both hold a firearm with varied capabilities. You can also call for reinforcements, and the traditional platform scaling returns, buttressed by an ability that lets you hang from pivot points.

Outrageous battles, wild explosions and goofy cut frames grant the game its easygoing brilliance. This is a title clearly designed for gamers exactly like me, who grew up wasting away afternoons with a best pal while blasting through the endless reams of minions and larger-than-life boss fights. "Contra: Operation Galuga" is just about perfect for what it sets out to be.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Lisa Frankenstein,' 'Night Swim'

LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse star in this offbeat, necromancy-themed coming-of-age/rom-com. Based on a script by Diablo Cody, Zelda Williams directs the darkly humorous, 1980s-set tale of a social outcast girl who meets a resurrected, zombified teen who died in the 19th century who helps her along her journey and becomes something of a soulmate. Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest and Carla Gugino round out the cast.

Extras include five deleted scenes, a gag reel and a slew of featurettes, including "Resurrecting the 1980s" and a look at the filmmaking collaboration between Williams and Cody.

NIGHT SWIM

A supernatural thriller from horror maestros Atomic Monster and Blumhouse, "Night Swim" stars Kerry Condon, Wyatt Russell, Ameli Hoeferle and Gavin Warren in the story of a former pro baseball player who moves with his family to a new home with a swimming pool that tends to be linked to a dangerous force that could rip the family apart. While critics griped about the script and effects, the film does manage to pack plenty of intensity.

Extras include feature commentary with filmmaker Bryce McGuire, McGuire's breakdown of the nightmarish Marco Polo scene and a look inside the underwater sequences.

Studios provided screeners for review.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Broadway in Tucson: 'MJ - The Musical'

Bolstered by a blistering lead performance by Roman Banks, "MJ - The Musical" is a relentless surge of energy that pays tributes to the King of Pop while glossing over some of the most nefarious allegations that plagued his career.

The 2021 Broadway smash comes to life on its tour, with relentless momentum and a penchant for working its story to use bombastic performances of Jackson's greatest hits to amplify messages of loss, frustrations and perseverance that Jackson references in the framework, an interview with MTV.

Banks doesn't so much as capture Jackson's energy as he channels it. A dynamic performer who wields moves, vocals and kinetic energy that comes eerily close to that of Jackson himself, he hurls his entire being into creating a crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping spectacular.

Devin Bowles anchors the show with a dynamic dual performance as Jackson's domineering father, Joe, and manager Rob. The characters are so diametrical that it's jarring to see the same actor flip back and forth between the two so frequently, but the actor's presence provides a haunting link between the two that adds poignance to interactions with the troubled star.

The story, set before the 1993 Dangerous World Tour, is something of a wasted opportunity that fails to dig into the true fabric of the pop superstar, but that stance was likely mandated by the Jackson estate, which no doubt pushed for a warts-free hagiography rather than an honest look at a complicated, and, as many believe, nefarious figure.

It's best to check those concerns at the door and bop in delight to Banks' lights-out performances of such classics as "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Smooth Criminal," "Thriller" and "Bad." "MJ - The Musical" aims to be a rollicking tribute to a music icon that ignores the darkest corners of his personal life, and accomplishes that task with panache.

"MJ - The Musical" plays through April 7 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Game Review: 'Open Roads'

 A bittersweet dose of flip phone-era nostalgia, "Open Roads" is an introspective story of discovery that blossoms along a mother-daughter road trip.

The latest adventure from Annapurna Interactive, masters of subtle design and known for the likes of "Stray," "Florence" and "What Remains of Edith Finch," maintains the studio's high standard of intriguing writing with compelling gameplay hooks.

You guide Tess, a burned out teenager, as she tags along with her mother, Opal, on road trip that unlocks uncomfortable truths and discomforting memories among multiple generations. You start by packing up the room of a home you're leaving, then pass time behind the wheels, sometimes intentionally annoying your mother. 

Along the way, dialogue trees let you craft your own version of Tess, rendering her guarded, confrontational, conniving or some ever-changing combination thereof. Your choices don't seem to affect the narrative, but instead shed different lights on plot points that unfold.

A gorgeous and understated travelogue that boils over with astute observations and muted emotional epiphanies, the game is a short, powerful tale that begs to be re-experienced. This is one road trip that is truly about the journey rather than the destination.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Hot on Home Video: 'Amelie,' 'The Book of Clarence,' 'Saint Omer'

 AMELIE

Audrey Tautou stars in her career-defining title role in this 2002 slice of whimsy, about a French waitress who performs covert acts of kindness for those around her. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's playful storytelling style and Tautou's wide-eyed performance pace the film's beating heart, making for an irresistible experience as the film resurfaces on Blu-ray in steelbook form.

Extras include a Jeunet retrospective, the filmmaker's feature commentary and featurettes on the film's visuals. There's also a Q&A with Jeunet, audition footage and storyboard comparisons.

THE BOOK OF CLARENCE

Religious metaphors thrive in this bold, star-studded drama, which rounds up Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Alfre Woodard and LaKeith Stanfield. Director Jeymes Samuel offers a revisionist revitalization of the Biblical epic, spinning a tale of a struggling man who uproots his life to follow the rising Messiah. The film wowed critics, garnering a 92 percent Tomatometer rating.

Extras include commentary with Samuel and Stanfield, a cast roundup and featurettes on the film's music and the chemistry on set. There's also a charming gag reel.

SAINT OMER (CRITERION)

The 2022 Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner features Kayije Kagame as a novelist who travels to Saint-Omer, France, to attend the trial of a Senegalese woman (Gulsagie Malanda) who stands accused of killing her baby daughter. The women's lives merge as the tale deconstructs the interconnected web of the mother-daughter bond, post-colonialism and the struggle of migrants.

Extras in the Criterion edition -- sporting a fresh 2K digital master -- include new interviews with filmmaker Alice Diop, a conversation between Diop and filmmaker Dee Rees and a tribute booklet with an essay by critic Jennifer Padjemi.

Studios sent screeners for review.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Game Review: 'Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons'

Released in July, "Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons" managed to punch some life into the old bones of a long-decayed franchise by delivering some goofy, "River City Ransom"-style world-building elements and animation to the standard beat-em-up formula. 

Now the underappreciated game is set to a shot in the arm with the April release of "New Beginnings," a DLC pack that will add new modes, characters along with other upgrades and additions.

I missed the original release and wasn't expecting much from the game, even though I'm a sucker for just about anything in the "Double Dragon" realm. Now bolstered with a pair of female characters who join forces with the traditional male duo, the game is more diverse, open-ended and nuanced than the titles that munched my quarters in the 80s and 90s.

The challenge level has been significantly smoothed out, the move sets and combo-driven combat has gotten a boost, and the parade of villains is adorned with more personality and intricacy.

Easter eggs abound, with hidden areas that offer more enemies and loot to plunder. There's also a store that lets you bank your cash for upgrades.

I enjoyed my time with "Rise of the Dragons" and eagerly await the DLC drop. There may be some fire left in these dragons' bellies after all.


Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Book Report: 'Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s'

 

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980sShowtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even as an avowed Lakers hater, I find myself drawn to the mythos and majesty that was the 1980s Showtime dynasty, which tormented my Phoenix Suns-loving heart as a child.

Pearlman delves into the fabric of what made the team as dominant as it was. He kneels at the altar of Magic Johnson while dropping subtle hints of his Machiavellian maneuverings that wielded as much or more power as owner Jerry Buss.

Pearlman also performs a full-blown character assassination on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Norm Nixon, even while quietly admiring their mental and leadership strengths. He also spins fascinating tales about goings-on inside the locker room, the boardroom and in the coach's huddle.

While oddly repetitive -- Pearlman sees fit to reintroduce several recurring people almost every time he mentions them -- the book is a hearty meal for basketball fans of any stripe. The book manages to capture a fleeting moment of time that, at the time, seemed as though it would go on forever.

View all my reviews

Game Review: 'Outcast: A New Beginning'

 A goofy, joyful lark, "Outcast: A New Beginning" seems as though it was as much fun to make as it is to play. You play as a shamelessly dorky hero who clumsily interacts with an overly serious culture that seems to be based on corny fantasy tropes, and jumps around from spot to spot via jetpack.

It's nary impossible not to have a good time as you work your way through the tale, which boasts lavish cut scenes with heartfelt voice performances that you feel bad skipping because developers worked so hard on them.

The sequel to a little-known 1999 game that managed to develop a staunch following over the years, "Outcast: A New Beginning" takes joy in its modest ambitions. The gameplay amounts to a series of mainline and optional fetch quests, which rarely grow tedious because each is filled with fresh, playful concepts that build on what came before.

You can spend lots of time collecting materials and weapons, gearing up and readying for the challenges that lay ahead, but you can usually get by just fine with little prep and letting your sense of whimsy tug you along for the ride.

While "Outcast: A New Beginning" may not break much ground, it manages to satisfy the yearnings of a gamer looking for a light, breezy distraction in between more serious offerings. Engagement and glee take top priority here, making this outcast one worth taking under your wing.


Publisher provided review code.


Thursday, March 21, 2024

Game Review: 'Star Wars Battlefront Classic Collection'

As with so many "Star Wars" products, the lens of nostalgia casts an adoring light on formative entries that don't necessary retain their punch and pizzazz in the years that follow. 

"Star Wars Battlefront Classic Collection," a port anthology perhaps too lovingly dedicated to the originals, epitomizes the Star Wars fade. Originally released in 2004 and 2005 and showing every bit of their age in the clunky revitalization, the collection serves mainly to remind you of all the aggravations you put up with but overlooked in the PlayStation 2/Xbox era.

Stodgy, stiff and brittle, the game briefly allows you to experience the same wonder you once did when you first got to simulate large-scale battles in the "Star Wars" universe. There is a certain innocence and sense of wonder at play, because the games were released when the last of the prequels was still fresh, and the grim barrage of sequels, superfluous spinoffs and TV series managed to dull the franchise's sheen.

It's still a thrill to gain power-ups that allow you to jump out of the skin of a drone and take control of one of the heavy-hitting, sea-changing heroes and villains who adorn posters and T-shirts. 

To re-experience all that good stuff, you'll have to put up with long periods of loading and aimless wandering. The too-vast maps tend to let the action get away from them, and an archaic interface makes it a chore to set things up. On the whole, the revamped games have more to offer in the single-player modes than they do in their awkard, underpopulated multiplayer spaces.

Still, I admit that I was charmed by the game's overbearing attempts at fan service. My sons grew up playing the originals, and it's a thrill to be able to revisit their old play grounds with them once more. But what this game accomplishes best is not in proving how great the originals were, but showing, the hard way, how badly a reimagined, modernized "Star Wars Battlefront III" is needed.

For now, those hopes are far, far away.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Review: Samsung Galaxy S24 shines on T-Mobile 5G network

In the 14 years since Samsung first launched the Galaxy brand, there have been far more ups than downs, and a significant period of platforming. 

While the Galaxy S24 may not call back to the days of rapid advancement, the latest iteration continues a moderate upward trend in the past few years, positioning the Galaxy at the top of the smartphone hill alongside the latest iPhone releases.

Streaming video, making blisteringly fast game downloads, app updates and multitasking with triumphant ease, riding the curl of T-Mobile's impressive 5G network with a cool confidence.

Most impressive is the suite of AI features, which acquit themselves well against those of the latest Google Pixel models. The promise of seven years of steady update support also feels as though you're future-proofing by taking the S24 ride.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 for Galaxy CPU can keep up with seemingly any demands, and will no doubt grow more efficient as eventual updates are rolled out.

The device managed to hold up well under my abusive testing regimen, which involves a steady loop of sports highlights, gaming, video browsing and news consumption. 

While the aluminum build and general feel of the device seem somewhat cut rate -- as though every effort were made in order to keep material and design costs down -- the phone feels sturdy and capable overall. Its lightweight feel and diminutive bulk makes it an ergonomically sound daily driver.

The 6.2-inch display, a modest upgrade from the S23, glistens in 2340x1080 resolution, delivering clear, crisp images that eschew blurring or choppiness.

The 4,000mAh battery is amped up considerably from the S23, and offers rapid 25W wired and 15W wireless charging speeds. The device held strong for more than 12 hours of heavy use without needing a charge pitstop.

While the camera suite remains largely unchaged -- a main 50MP camera with a 12MP lens, as well as a 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom capabilities. The ability to snap images that weigh in at as many as 50MP is astounding, if a little absurdly over the top. The same goes for the 8K video capabilities.

Chief among the AI enhancements are the Circle to Search feature, which lets you hop off your current screen for a quick Google Image scan, as well as Object Eraser imaging touch-ups, are colossal quality-of-life improvements, helping the phone keep pace with its Pixel 8 rival.

The S24 manages to continue Samsung's steady hike to the pinnacle of the smartphone peaks, and while it may lack the wow factor of the bulkier Z Fold 5 or the zippy muscle-flexing of the S23 Ultra, it cuts a sleek, efficient figure that delivers loads of impressive features in a diminutive factor.

T-Mobile sent device for review.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Game Review: 'Valiant Hearts: Coming Home'

A decade after its release, the original "Valiant Hearts" has managed to stick with me. The point-and-click, QTE-heavy travelogue through World War I tells interlinked stories of loss, triumph, woe and endurance with respect, dignity and pathos. 

The sequel, "Valiant Hearts: Coming Home" digs up even more thoughtful stories from the oft-neglected trenches, building on the strengths of the original while minimizing its weaknesses.

While the first game sometimes struggles with obtuse bottlenecks, the sequel's puzzles have more of a natural flow and rarely impede your progress. 

There is also a heck of a lot more action from the jump. Early on, you find yourself chasing down a runaway plane, dodging flocks of birds and enemy fire while airborne and floating through U-boat debris to sift through wreckage and rescue sailors from both sides of the conflict who are grasping at what shreds of life still remain.

At turns heartbreaking, invigorating and chilling, "Valiant Hearts: Coming Home" quickly etched a spot in my heart, as well as allowed for some nostalgic bonding with my 17-year-old son, with whom I played the original game at age 7. This will no doubt go down as one of my favorite titles of 2024.


Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Phil on Film: 'French Girl'

As ageless as Paul Rudd, Zach Braff is still plugging away at the rom-com scene as he reaches his late 40s. "French Girl" find him as a goofy high school teacher names Gordon who's struggling to rustle up the nerve to pop the question to his girlfriend, Sophie (Evelyne Brochu).

The rom-com is due out in theaters Friday and will be available digitally March 19.

The complication is that Sophie has a shot at following her culinary dreams by auditioning for a job under TV chef, Ruby (Vanessa Hudgens), who also happens to be her secret ex who seemingly has designs on rekindling their romance. Sophie's family is as cool to Gordon's presence as they are starstruck and enamored of Ruby, who promises to save the family farm. Gordon tags along to Quebec, struggling to make inroads with the French-speaking family and hold off his insecurities while supporting Sophie's career trajectory.

Braff's flighty, whimsical performance is the main event, with Brochu and Hudgens reduced to comparatively dull showings. The writer/director team of James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright lean into Braff's strengths, crafting a winning, "Garden State"-style dynamic that shows you can still come of age even as the age you approach is 50.

There are chuckles and squirms aplenty, and even though just about every beat of the script-by-numbers is predictable, the film is never at a loss for charm. Braff proves there is still more to his game than musical Super Bowl commercials with Donald Faison.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Early Game Review: 'Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story'

The quirky British gaming visionary who inspired legions of developers and placed his unique spin on loads of influential titles, Jeff Minter is an icon who is well deserving of a tribute anthology. He gets his just treatment in "Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story," which not only collects his often obscure games into a singular package, but chronicles is impact and accolades in interactive timelines.

Minter's successes include the likes of "Abductor," "Gridrunner," "Centipede," "Tempest" and "Mutant Camels" games. His work spanned genres, created their own subsets and managed to squeeze untold hours of intriguing gameplay with often limited resources.

Much of Minter's work came on such ancient platforms as the Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX81. He was also a major player during the Atari heyday, sticking with the publisher all the way through its bungled Janguar release.

Each of Minter's titles is remastered and granted quality-of-life improvements, such as screen sizing and rewind. While not all of his exploits hold up, the throughline of his creativity, humor and daring shine throughout. To sink yourself into the collection is to relive gaming history, and discover gems that may have eluded you. I pride myself in my deep knowledge of gaming's origins, and some of the titles here managed to catch me by surprise because I'd never heard of them. 

A joyous, encyclopedic treasure trove, "Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story" is an essential pickup for gamers who take pride in the art form's origins. 


Publisher provided review code.


Hot on Home Video: 'Anyone but You'

Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell pair up for a winning romcom effort that managed to thrust both actors into the upper reaches of young stardom. Stuck together at a destination wedding in Australia, the mismatched couple is forced to pair up and fake a relationship. Alexandra Shipp, GaTa, Hadley Robinson, Michelle Hurd and Dermot Mulroney round out the cast.

Extras include outtakes and bloopers, deleted scenes, ASMR pickup lines and featurettes dubbed "He Said She Said," "Aussie Snacks" and "Everyone Down Under."

Studio sent screener for review.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Game Review: 'WWE 2K24'

Compared to most other annual-release sports titles, there's little turnover from year to year in the top-level rosters. That means it takes a superlative effort from developers to make a new entry a must-buy every year. 

That's exactly what Visual Concepts sets out to do -- and largely nails -- with the kinetic "WWE 2K24."

Bringing the thunder with an engaging array of WWE superstars, storylines, move sets and game modes, "WWE 2K24" maintains the franchise's impressive reputation and considerable momentum.

As is often the case with the franchise, this year's edition strives to pay respect to the WWE/WWF's storied past.

Iconic moments from yesteryear pace the content, recreating memorable showdowns including Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant, the Undertaker's grim dominance and the human highlight reel who was Shawn Michaels in his prime.

There are nods to various generations that built up the stature of the entertainment phenomenon. Luminaries including Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena, Roman Reigns and Rhea Ripley also join the stacked cast.

New match modes include Ambulance Match and Special Guest Referee Match, as well as a duo of MyRise selections. The all-around visuals and gameplay get significant spit-shines, with the vast majority of facial animations getting updates, a movable camera during live matches between AI opponents and a rousing new slate of combat mechanics.

Other enhancements include the addition of new weapons, Super Finishers, a clash-style Trading Blows minigame that gives the action a hint of "Injustice: Gods Among Us" flavor, and the presence of real-life WWE refs.

MyGM and MyFACTION continue to be modes that draw micromanagement-focused players back for daily sessions, even though some players may bemoan the continued focus on microtransactions.

The Creation Suite offers a remarkable array of design options, letting you compose arenas, signs, wrestlers and intros and outros to perfection.

The soundtrack, executive produced by Post Malone, sets a thumping tone to the proceedings, blasting your speakers with rhythms that echo the ribald action within the squared circle.

Even though I'm no longer a regular wrestling viewer, I continue to be drawn into the franchise through the video game backdoor. The opportunity to catch up with the WWE's latest developments and offer a creative hand in crafting my own experiences is empowering and invigorating. The game makes the WWE's future look every bit as bright as its past.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Review: 'Cirque du Soleil: Crystal'

A mystical vision of ice dancing blended with aerial gymnastics, juggling and trick skating, "Cirque du Soleil: Crystal" is a breathtaking spectacle that makes you gasp, gawk and cheer.

The show, which has been touring since 2017, follows the story of a social outcast bearing the show's name. A dreamer whose creativity is suppressed by rigid society, she ventures off on a short-lived journey of self-discovery that leads to a life-threatening accident. The bulk of the show takes place within her mind as she reconciles her drive and sense of purpose with the demands and expectations that surround her.

The ever-changing sets act as a primary character, evolving from a series of ramps to a house of mirrors or stackable furniture. The settings act as props for physics-defying displays of strength, balance and body control, with high-flying set pieces that get the crowd roaring just as loudly as any hockey match would. In a nod to the regular inhabitant of the building, the lead character spends a significant chunk of the stage time wearing a Tucson Roadrunners jersey.

A succession of musical interludes highlight the most glorious and edgy choreography, with covers of Sia's "Chandelier," U2's "Beautiful Day" and Beyonce's "Halo" standing out as the most gorgeous.

"Crystal" may include a few interludes that seem to pad out the show, but they likely exist to give the performers a moment to breathe in between the more electrifying outbursts. I enjoyed the experience, as well as the shared sense of wonder with the audience. Crystal refracts your expectations into a stunning rainbow of exuberance.

"Crystal" plays through March 3 at the Tucson Convention Center. Purchase tickets here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Game Review: 'Geometry Survivor'

Single-screen bullet hell survivor games have been making a comeback since "Vampire Survivors" set the scene ablaze in 2021. Along comes "Geometry Survivor," which rides the full head of steam established by the likes of "Brorato" and its ilk.

The premise is simple: Guide your tiny ship through ceaseless waves of rapid-spawning enemies for 20 minutes. You're by no means meant to do this on your first, or even fiftieth try, but as you pick up the ebb and flow of the devilishly difficult proceedings, you pick up little tricks that edge you ever closer to that milestone.

Every death amounts to progress, because you accumulate gems you can spend to make the game a little easier on your next playthrough. You also accumulate power-ups at intervals throughout each run, deciding whether to add a second ship, initiate black holes that suck enemies -- and possibly you -- out of existence, or equip yourself with chonky lasers that can annihilate opponents at your whim.

I am a sucker for single-screen survivors, and "Geometry Survivor" scratched my itch well. My 17-year-old son was able to reach the 20-minute plateau after a few playthroughs, but was still interested in returning to unlock more power-ups. I find myself stuck at the 15-minute mark, ever taking part in the Sysiphean task of putting myself in a better position to fail less badly next time. 

"Geometry Survivor," you've hooked me, and there's no going back.


Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Game Review: 'Inkulinati'

A single-lane, turn-based strategy game, "Inkulinati" makes the move to PlayStation after starting last year ago on Xbox. 

The effort from the dev team at Yaza Games captures a whimsical feel. Playing like an interactive storybook, the hand-drawn creatures pivot along parchment scrolls to combat, heal and, when they're tuckered out, nap.

The battles put a smile on my face as I maneuvered adorable characters into position to maximize their effectiveness. There's an admirable amount of strategy at play, making the game easy to pick up but difficult to master.

While its quirkiness and gimmickery can only take it so far, its lighthearetd storytelling and workmanlike combat system manages to keep it engaging from one mission to the next. There is also a stiff challenge confronting you. "Inkulinati" is often so difficult that it's humbling. Some battles can be so traumatizing and exhilarating that you may well need a nap afterward.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Contagion,' 'Migration,' 'Poor Things,' 'Wonka'

CONTAGION

Steven Soderbergh's prescient 2011 thriller tells a grim tale of a rapidly-spreading disease, becoming all the more poignant nine years later, when the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. The stunning ensemble cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cottilard, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle.

The 4K ultra HD steelbook includes three featurettes: "The Reality of Contagion," "The Contagion Detectives" and "Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World."

MIGRATION

The crowd-pleasing animated tale rounds up an impressive voice cast, including Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina and Danny DeVito to follow the story of the Mallard family, who head toward Jamaica from New York City. The flightpath is full of comical misadventures and family-friendly chuckles.

The set is loaded with extras, including the short films "Fly Hard," Mooned" and "Midnight Mission." There are also cast interviews, drawing lessons, a making-of documentary and a bird call tutorial. 

POOR THINGS

Visionary director Yorgos Lanthimos's stunning effort, which landed 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and actress, features Emma Stone as a woman who is brought back to life by a Frankenstein-style scientist (Willem Dafoe), who undergoes an awakening of consciousness and sexuality, leading her on a winding, allegorical journey that satirizes class, culture, gender dynamics and the human condition. 

Mark Ruffalo turns in a powerful supporting performance as an attorney who becomes entangled in her journey. Stone's powerful lead performance has thrust her to the front of the best actress Oscar conversation.

Extras include a making-of documentary and three deleted scenes.

WONKA

Timothee Chalamet channels a young Gene Wilder in this musical sequel to the legendary "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." The story finds a young Wonka who endeavors to unleash his wild imagination on the candy industry, only to fall victim to a scam that renders him an indentured servant. Hugh Grant steals scenes as an Oompa Loompa, and Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Matthew Baynton round out a strong cast in character roles. 

Extras include a slew of making-of featurettes, including "Unwrapping Wonka: Paul King's Vision," "The Whimsical Music of Wonka," "Welcome to Wonka Land," "Hats Off to Wonka" and "Wonka's Chocolatier."

Studios sent screeners for review.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Hot on Home Video: 'Paprika'

The cult favorite 2007 anime from Satoshi Kon, which no doubt inspired Christopher Nolan's "Inception," weaves a twist-filled tapestry about a contraption that records dreams, as well as a therapist who seeks to track down its whereabouts before nefarious forces capture it and use it for self-serving purposes.

Released in a dazzling steelbook format and looking dapper in a new 4K restoration, the spellbinding visuals pop more than they ever have on home video. The set is loaded with extras, including filmmaker commentary, a making-of doc, storyboards and a featurette that explores the dream world. In addition to Japanese, there are also English, French and Spanish dub traacks. 

Hopefully the rerelease inspires a new generation of anime fans to give it a look. The film was far ahead of its time when it was first released, and continues to stand on the bleeding edge of genre-bending animation.

Studio sent screener for review.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Early Game Review: 'Tomb Raider Remastered I-III Starring Lara Croft'

Released in a whirlwind of innovation from 1996 to 1998, the original "Tomb Raider" trilogy marked a seismic shift in gaming culture, thrusting gaming into the teen and adult markets and turning heads globally.

The dual-wielding, crop-topped heroine defined the era, and has continued to stay relevant in this generation of consoles, thanks to an evolution that embraced the likes of the "Uncharted" series, which it also partially inspired.

Going back to its roots, Crystal Dynamics and Aspyr break into the vault and resurrect Lara Croft's earliest adventures in a budget-priced, remastered anthology. The result is mixed, with glorious nostalgia mitigated by blocky controls that stay too loyal to the original.

It's hard to go home again, and this collection proves that adage with a pronounced thud. While the updated visuals round out some of the rough edges, floaty and stiff controls make the game seem like a relic from the past.

A wholesale reimagining on the lines of what we've seen with "Final Fantasy VII" and the "Resident Evil" series would have been a more intriguing way to go.

Still, the flair and late-1990s goofiness of the gameplay is not without its charms. I smiled as I clumsily renegotiated the adventures I had as a teen, and enjoyed the myriad tweaks and upgrades that offer a light modernized touch to the proceedings.

But all told, my further adventures involving Lara will involve her more recent games -- even the cut-rate, top-down offshoots, rather than these dusty archives. Lara has moved on to bigger, better things, leaving this realm behind for the history books.


Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' (Criterion)

Robert Altman's 1971 revisionist Western paired Warren Beatty and Julie Christy as two carpetbaggers new to a Northwest mining town who put together a house of ill repute that transforms the town. They take on a robber baron-run mining company that seeks its undoing.

Slick dialogue, iconic performances and a gorgeous visual flair all flourish in the film, which benefits from Altman's steady hand and a glorious 4K restoration. Well-rounded characters and Altman's flair for characters who talk over one another put an impeccable stamp on the material.

Criterion dug up tons of extras to make the disc the de facto definitive release of the film on home video. Extras include Altman's 2002 commentary with producer David Foster, a making-of documentary and a discussion on the Altman mythos between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. There's also a vintage featurette from the 1970 filming, excerpts of Dick Cavett interviews with Altman and film critic Pauline Kael, as well as a tribute booklet with an essay by critic Nathaniel Rich.

Studio sent screener for review.

Game Review: 'Skull and Bones'


A swashbuckling adventure a decade in the making, "Skull and Bones" has finally set sail after tantalizing pirate-obsessed gamers with peeks at gameplay for the past several years. 

Once you choose your character skin, you embark on the choppy waters solo or team up with as many as two allies as you vie to outgun and plunder the competition. 

The concept evolved as a spinoff of the Ubisoft seafaring gem "Assassin's Creed: Black Flag," and the finished game reflects its origins well. The controls are sharp and precise, with an arcade-style ability to start or stop your ship nearly at will. Commands that lift or cut your sails act as a veritable throttle and break, allowing you to navigate with almost absurd dexterity. What the game loses in sailing accuracy it more than makes up for in the satisfaction of precision movement.

Risk and reward comes into play, with higher-intensity contracts offering larger payoffs. On the whole, the game figures to become a more realistic replacement for the likes of "Sea of Thieves," which first forged similar waters in 2018.

The four Ubisoft dev teams that worked on the game managed to craft a tight, invigorating loop of looting, upgrading and questing. You face constant bombardment from not only environmental obstacles, including storms, sea life and maritime obstacles, but other players who are looking to either beat you to plunder an outpost or take you down and sack you for all you're worth.

You work to grow your reputation by committing nefarious deeds at sea. The loot you grab allows you to build up ships and increase your arsenal.

A few initial connection issues aside, the game is off to a roaring start. And while time will tell the true tale of whether the game succeeds or fails at reaching its promised shores, it's hard to imagine a more impressive launch for a game with such grand aspirations.

While some may wince at the persistent internet connection, the irritation is a small price to pay for the grand, ambitious vision finally coming to light. "Skull and Bones" waves its Jolly Roger proudly, and it's all you can do to salute it and take the helm as you attack the wild, unfriendly seas.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Book Report: 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer'

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert OppenheimerAmerican Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kai Bird delves into the fascinating life of Robert Oppenheimer, examining his contradictions, awkwardness, genius and cunning.

I was drawn to the book by Christopher Nolan's brilliant film, and hoped for even more insight and context. That's exactly what I got. Bird manages to make even the moribund aspects of Oppenheimer's life fascinating, and is able to frame the man he became with enough details of his youth to craft a convincing pshychodramatic portrait.

This is a book to savor and absorb. Even though there is a decided slant to the writing, making Bird seem to be a hagiographic apologist, the author allows for enough balance for the readers to make their own conclusions.

A fascinating read from start to finish, "American Prometheus" is an even greater achievement than the landmark movie it inspired.

View all my reviews

 

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Game Review: 'Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth'

Few RPG series manage to maintain the release frequency while upholding the quality level the way Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does with the "Like a Dragon" franchise, which evolved from the "Yakuza" games. 

Just about every year, a new entry comes down the pike and dares gamers to invest hours into its intense combat, intriguing social sim aspects and bewildering slate of minigames that sink you into the high-flying culture of the Japanese mob.

With a turn-based combat system that seems to nod to the "Final Fantasy" games of yesteryear, you maneuver your party into opportunistic positions to enact the most damage with your strikes, special abilities and status-altering maneuvers. Battles become complex chain reactions that you orchestrate with strategic tweaks and adjustments, watching your decisions unfold in a satisfyingly brutal manner.

Oftentimes, battles rage on with the elegance of a John Woo film, with characters improvising attacks with objects that they weaponize to thrilling effect.

In between missions, you can blow off steam in minigames including a dating app, a Pokemon-like creature training game and a "Crazy Taxi"-style delivery escapade. The non sequiturs the franchise's side distractions offer have always made the series stand out, adding considerable charm and whimsy to the often grim procedings.

With a stirring story -- expect hours of cut scenes unless you are impatient and prefer skipping them -- and strong character development, "Infinite Wealth" continues the series' storied tradition, and will no doubt keep its fans salivating for the next entry. Nine games into the stalwart franchise, "Like a Dragon" shows no signs of folding up its wings.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Game Review: 'Tekken 8'

With the release of "Tekken 8," the fighting genre has completed a fresh round of reinvigorating triumph.

Bandai Namco Entertainment, no doubt looking to top last year's successes of "Street Fighter VI" and "Mortal Kombat 1," 

Locked and loaded with a fresh, fast-paced battle system, a dizzyingly ludicrous story mode and airtight online play, the franchise manages to reach a peak that it's been steadily building toward since the release of the original game in 1994.

The opening slate of fighters is a tantalizing mix of styles and intensity levels, with players geared more toward strategic deployments of specials, tank-like bruisers and lithe masters of aerial acrobatics. The balance at play is impressive, with no standout cheap or weak characters. 

Each battle takes on a chess-like game of psychology and strategy, testing your mental faculties as much as your twitch reflexes. The spoils come to those who master the finer moments of the game's inner rhythms.

The dev team was unafraid to go against the grain, shattering the shackles of previous entries while blazing new trails. While the game plays like something fresh and vibrant, it also remains decidedly true to the Tekken spirit.

I'll be sending out strategic texts to my old dorm friends, so we can renew our arcade battles online. Even though the "Tekken" franchise is now three decades old, it feels as though it's just getting warmed up.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League'

The rowdy band of mercenary convicts known as the Suicide Squad is used to facing impossible missions that just about guarantee death. The latest attempt: To turn the tide of early griping from gamers about their new game.

Although some players complained of a buggy launch, my time with the game was silk-smooth and thoroughly enjoyable. I reveled at the opportunity to take control of King Shark, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn and Deadshot in their madcap caper to take down the world's superheroes.

The effort comes from Rocksteady Studios, which developed the Batman-centered Arkham trilogy, that redefined superhero gaming. The new effort leans hard -- probably too much so -- into the live-service aspect of multiplayer, dreaming of topping the mindshare of the Fortnights and Call of Duty games of the world.

The game entered early access Jan. 30 and officially releases Friday, looks to capitalize off the momentum of James Gunn's 2021 reboot film and follow-up "Peacemaker" series.

Whip-smart writing that's filled with gallows humor permeates the game, which offers a sardonic, sacred cow-roasting take on the DC mythos. The visuals also delight, blending into the lightning-fast traversal that gleefully overpowers its characters in an effort to replicate the free-swinging fun of the PlayStation Spider-Man games.

As a result, Harley Quinn is a drone-toting grappler who can traverse buildings at rates that would make Superman dizzy. Deadshot ditches his stealth reputation as a speedster who occasionally stops and pops heads with his sniper rifle. And the lumbering King Shark can rocket across canyon through the force of sheer will.

All players have diverse abilities, but also can pull out firearms to lay waste to faceless enemies en masse to rack up kill counts. As a result, there's a sameness to the ways each character controls, but that's likely for the better. The name of the game is high-caliber, team-focused action rather than diverse gameplay experiences with each character.

While I would have liked to have seen some more cohesive storytelling and interaction with the Justice League heroes, I admire the game's gusto and moxie, and will be returning to button-mash my way through the adventures time and again when I'm in need of something light and breezy. 

"Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League" may not win over the haters who are determined to knock it off its pedestal, but it's carved out its share of my PS5 hard drive for months to come.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Game Review: 'Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown'

Returning to seize its crown after a 14-year absence, "Prince of Persia" wall-jumps back into excellent form with a retro-flavored, Metroidvania twist dubbed "The Lost Crown."

Filled with satisfying combat tinted with "For Honor"-style parrying, "God of War"-influenced boss battles and a fast-paced level design that had me thrilled from the opening, "The Lost Crown" is a pizzazz-filled revitalization that refills the series health as though it were a powerful red potion from the game itself.

Lavish visuals, humorous writing and a freewheeling spirit course through the game's DNA. The 2D take on the escapades recall the early days of "Ninja Gaiden," and make for an excellent reset point for the franchise. Here's hoping Ubisoft sticks with this format rather than forcing it back awkwardly into the 3D realm.

I played the game on Switch, which seemed to me the ideal platform to experience the game, echoing its earliest days, in the late 1980s and early 90s. The earliest entries were somewhat blocky and clumsy affairs, while the new game is as slick and polished as a stalwart fan would dare hope.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with "The Lost Crown," relishing the intensity, numerous flourishes, Easter eggs and gorgeous scenery. A refreshing take on well-worn material, the game manages to revitalize the legend for a new generation. For the first time in decades, the future of the series looks brighter than the past.

Published provided review code.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Hot on Home Video: 'Journey to Bethlehem'

A surprisingly poignant and impactful take on the Nativity story, "Journey to Bethlehem" brings musical life to the age-old tale. Director Adam Anders weaves a delightful whimsy along with solemn notes in the story, which stars Fiona Palomo as Mary and Milo Manheim as Joseph. Spirited, nuanced performances lead the way, making the family-friendly film a worthy go-to Christmas season pastime for families. The film manages to stay heartfelt without stumbling into cheesiness.

Extras include three deleted scenes, as well as spotlights on characters including Mary and Joseph, Mary's sisters, Antipater and a making-of featurette titled "The Heart of 'The Journey to Bethlehem.'"

Studio provided review screener.

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Review: Galaxy Z Fold 5 sizzles on T-Mobile network

As the ever-expanding smartphone arms race rolls on, it becomes increasingly tough to trigger the "wow" factor that was common 10 or 15 years ago when new devices debuted.

Enter the Galaxy Z Fold 5, which reclaims that wow factor with a vengeance. 

Released in August, the wondrous device seems as though it comes from the future. At a family Christmas gathering, the device sent "oohs" and "aahs" throughout the living room. 

A multitasker's delight, the phone can juggle four screens running different apps simultatenously. You can easily keep an eye on the football game while tapping out texts, googling facts about players and checking out your fantasy stats, all at the same time.

It helps that the device was running on T-Mobile's stunning 5G Magenta MAX network, which pumps the gigabytes of data necessary to keep this top-tier smartphone swimming in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset-flowing waters for which it was born.

When it came time to take the customary group photo, we placed the device as an L frame, then signaled it to take the shot with a hand gesture. No one dared try to display bunny ears behind anyone else, because we could all see the image it was capturing.

At home, my 2-year-old daughter's eyes bugged out when she could watch "Yo Gabba Gabba" in vivid, larger-than-life aspect ratio when the phone opened up. Many phones have strived to be a tablet you could keep in your pocket, but the Z Fold 5 actually delivers on that lofty promise.

The camera suite is impressive, led by a 50mp stabilized main camera that sports 12mp ultrawide capabilities, as well as a 10mp 3x telephoto lens. Video records in mind-bending 8K, which you can downscale to capture 4K shots instead. There's also a nifty 4mp under-display camera that checks in for on-the-go video calling.

No gaming or streaming task I hurled at it could come close to slowing it down. Its capable battery also lived up to the task of insanely heavy use without batting an eye or heating up. One drawback is that the Z Fold 5 takes a while to charge up, but that is a small price to pay for its extended, worry-free utility.

A true pioneer among the latest and greatest of smartphone elites, the Galaxy Z Fold 5 makes you feel truly proud to possess. To use one is to also become its walkings spokesperson, giddily fielding questions from all who spot it. And when you see someone else with the Z Fold 5, you nod in a knowing, shared assurance that you have tapped into the futuristit present that Samsung has made to offer. 

What a feeling, and what a phone.

T-Mobile provided unit for review.