Tuesday, March 26, 2024

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


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.


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.


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.