Reviews by Phil Villarreal. Phil is an author, blogger and Twitterer.


Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D
(3DS, $35, Everyone)
The 2010 Wii platformer, one of the highlights on Nintendo’s old console, gets a handheld remake/expansion that recaptures the old magic and adds enough to make it worth another go-round.

The game expands upon the Super Nintendo classics, letting you romp and roll as Donkey Kong – and if you’ve got a co-op partner, his hyperactive little son, Diddie Kong – as you collect bananas and a bunch of other junk, die at parts that seem impossible until you try them 30 more times, scream at the screen, then finally catch on and get past them.
The 3D visuals add impressive depth to the zany backgrounds, and the mission’s quick-hit structure lends itself well to short-term, handheld play. There may not be enough here to entice those who’ve had their fill of the original, but those looking for a refresher or an introduction will be fulfilled.

Sanctum 2
(360, $15, Teen)
The real-time strategy and first-person shooter genres make sweet love in this simple-to-pick-up, difficult-to-master mash-up. You and your co-op partners protect a power source, and it’s up to you to build and upgrade towers to protect it as waves of ugly, demented alien beasts storm through to make life miserable.

An impressive array of weapons and tower enhancements help keep what otherwise might be monotonous at least sort of invigorating. Beware of steep difficulty climbs that make the game seem cruel and unusual in its efforts to torment you. At least you get to keep your upgrades after you fail – and fail you will, miserably so – letting you chug back into the grind on the way to sweet, inevitable victory.


Samsung Galaxy S4
($200 on contract, $700 off-contract)
Samsung’s thin, sexy iPhone killer out-performs the S3 in every conceivable way — ease of use, performance battery life, video picture clarity — but still feels like a perfunctory sequel rather than a game-changer. That’s partly because the S3 was such a smart, sexy device that did everything right, but mostly because Samsung seems to have maxed out relevant features to add.

Still, the S4 shows off some neat party tricks, including a photo mode that snaps you and your target at the same time, an infrared sensor that lets you use the device as a universal remote and motion sensitivity that responds to your hand movements as it would screen taps. The S4 is an absolute beast that can manhandle any app you throw at it, but maybe its most impressive accomplishment, simply by existing, is making the old, reliable S3 so much cheaper — less than $100 on most carriers. If you must have the best, go S4, but if you wouldn’t know any better and are looking to save a buck or hundred, stick with the S3.


Beautiful Creatures
($23 Blu-ray, $15 DVD)
A tale of forbidden teen supernatural love is another try at tapping the lucrative, Twilight-obsessed market. Alden Ehrenreich plays a regular dude who falls hard for a secret witch (Alice Englert), called “casters” in this movie. She’s on the verge of her 16th birthday, meaning she’ll learn whether she’ll use her powers for good, evil or strictly to create sequels. Emmy Rossum shows up as a hot, scantily-clad relative who tries to coax her to the dark side, just as she will in your dreams tonight, if you’ve been a good boy. Jeremy Irons is her proud warlock papa, and Viola Davis is the bad witch of the south, or something. Solid performances overcome silly plotting and pathetic special effects to keep the thing mostly watchable. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo packs in deleted scenes and featurettes that look closely at aspects of the story, characters and costume design.

Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro
($28 Blu-ray, sold separately)
Two of anime superhero Hayao Miyazaki’s best movies get an HD spit-shine, courtesy of Disney, which owns the catalog of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. A star-studded voice cast delivers convincing English dubs of both movies. My Neighbor Totoro — a 1988 film about a little girl and her older sister who befriend a mysterious, invisible-to-adults creature — provides a look at the voice-casting process, storyboards and studio. Howl’s Moving Castle — a 2004 tale of a girl who’s transformed into an old woman and tries to remove the curse by befriending a flying-castle-owning wizard — has the same type of features plus interviews with Pixar’s Pete Docter and footage of Miyazaki doing his thing. Both movies, blessed with gorgeously clear transfers of the hand-drawn magic, are worth picking up for any anime lover.

Lego Batman: The Movie — DC Superheroes Unite
($18 Blu-ray, $14 DVD)
The video game Lego Batman 2 gets a lazy yet still entertaining feature film adaptation, rounding up Batman and his buddies to take on Lex Luthor and Joker. The action is light and silly, peppered with lame, scattershot jokes that are so goofy, they sort of work. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo comes with a Clark Kent Lego minifigure, a Legoland California coupon, a fan-made stop-motion Lego video and a few episodes from Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Teen Titans animated series.

($22 Blu-ray, $18 DVD)
Jason Statham branches out from his usual tough-guy-on-the-run routine to play… just kidding, he’s a tough guy on the run again. This time he’s a criminal on one last heist who’s been screwed over and left for dead by his posse. As he seeks vengeance on his enemies, he takes a real estate agent hostage (Jennifer Lopez) who evolves into his willing partner and possibly — as her character gets into Lopez’s Out of Sight mode — something more. The action flick doesn’t do much to wow you, but keeps things exciting. The best thing going? At least it’s not another Transporter or Crank. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo includes director Taylor Hackford’s commentary and a slew of tiny, pointless featurettes.

True Blood Season 5
($40 both Blu-ray and DVD)
HBO’s nutso sexy soap opera — in which vampires, witches, fairies and just about every other sort of fantasy creature you could imagine spend all their time trying to either seduce or kill each other — continues to up the crazy. The storylines make little sense, the acting is as over the top as a local used car salesman commercial and episodes tend to end in head-scratching cliffhangers with anticlimactic resolutions at the beginning of each new episode. I continue to watch because I’m addicted to the nutso vibe. My devotion has nothing to do with the nudity. I swear. (Tugs shirt collar). The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy set lets you sink your fangs into five commentary tracks, in-depth recaps of each episode, in-character interviews, loads of featurettes and a pretty cool enhanced viewing mode that lets you watch each episode with pop-up trivia and behind-the-scenes facts.

Screeners were provided by the publishers for review.

Is This a Good Idea? New “Star Wars” Cartoon Coming to The Disney Channel
Is This a Good Idea? New “Star Wars” Cartoon Coming to The Disney Channel
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