Black Snake Moan, An Unreasonable Man, Film School, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, Standing Still, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List: Season 1, Shooter

Black Snake Moan (R, 2006, Paramount Vantage)
You might have seen a commercial for “Black Snake Moan.” And you may have noticed that, in that commercial, a craggily Samuel L. Jackson had a bedraggled Christina Ricci literally leashed to his house by way of iron chain. And you might be wondering what that’s all about. It’s simple, really: “Moan” is, like many films before it, a tale of co-dependent redemption — one soul trying to save itself by saving another’s first. But “Moan” turns this theme on its ear by repackaging it as a snarling, muggy and somewhat sultry look at two people who are on opposite ends of the world but still holding hands at the brink. To say this movie won’t speak to everyone is some kind of understatement: This likely will be one of 2007’s most potent “love it or hate it” films. But for those to whom “Moan” speaks, it sings. Watch it with abstract eyes, and it might be one of the best you see all year. Justin Timberlake also stars.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.

An Unreasonable Man (NR, 2006, Weinstein Company/IFC)
Hey look, it’s that guy who cost Al Gore that election in 2000! Actually, no it isn’t — and if you don’t believe this review or Ralph Nader himself, take it from a Gore supporter who did the hard math on Nader’s supposed spoiler job. “An Unreasonable Man” covers Nader’s run in fantastically compelling detail, in the process shaming both the powers that be who tried to shut him down and the two-faced American left that turned on him after 2000. More than that, though, the film serves as reminder of all the incredible, planet-altering things Nader did to catapult himself into such a position in the first place. While “Man” gives voice to both sides of the election issue and remains consistently evenhanded throughout, Nader’s body of work is hard to deny (unless you’re, say, anti-seatbelt). It’s also, beyond any contrived controversy, an inspiring lesson about the power of an outsider who isn’t afraid to remain an outsider.
Extras: Deleted scenes, a second disc with seven bonus features.

Film School: An IFC Original Docu-Series (NR, 2004, Docurama)
If you liked the idea of “On the Lot” but had no appetite for yet another faux-reality show that more closely resembles a gimmick-riddled game show, this far superior 2004 series might be more your taste. “Film School” follows a handful of New York University film students as they complete a highly exclusive 10-week class (and, ideally, come away with a finished film for their efforts). On the reality show scale, “School” scores a zero in terms of interference and producer contrivances. That’s a good thing. A 10-piece documentary about the perils of film creation is fascinating enough to stand on its own, and the students IFC chose to spotlight are far more interesting than most of the also-rans Fox’s show trotted out.
Contents: 10 episodes, no extras.

The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (NR, 1990, Shout Factory)
In case the two volumes of “The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!” didn’t overwhelm you with top-shelf animated entertainment (and yes, that’s sarcasm), perhaps this third helping will finish the job. Piggybacked on top of the “Captain N” cartoon, “The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3” more or less resumes where the previous Mario cartoons left off, only with the “Super Mario Bros. 3” video game as its inspiration instead of “Super Mario Bros. 2.” That means everything from Bowser’s kids to the raccoon suit making an appearance. The episodes in which Mario (who sounds like Louie from “Taxi”) and Luigi (Barney Rubble, for some reason) travel to America to save Hollywood, the White House and Milli Vanilli? Harder to explain. As with Shout’s other video game cartoon compilations, “TAOSMB3” gets a 10 for nostalgia and presentation and a generous six for actual show quality.
Contents: 26 cartoons, plus concept art galleries, jukebox, character profiles, two other mini-features.

Standing Still (R, 2005, Weinstein Company)
“Standing Still,” about a group of friends who reunite on the eve of a wedding between two of those friends, doesn’t exactly make the best of first impressions. At first, it resembles a weak episode of “Entourage” that features neither Turtle nor Johnny Drama and replaces Ari Gold with some lousy parallel-universe substitute. But once the fronting subsides and all the introductions are made, things turn around. “Still” comes equipped with a huge cast (Colin Hanks, Amy Adams, Menu Suvari, Jon Abrahams and several more star), but it manages to give just about everyone some meaningful face time. The surprising mix of humor, likeability and generally competent storytelling transforms a potential disaster into what feels like a mid-twentysomething version of “Can’t Hardly Wait.” If you liked that film’s mood and style, chances are high this one will leave you similarly satisfied.
Extras: Cast interview.

Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List: Season 1 (NR, 2005, Bravo/Universal)
The opening episode of “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List” finds the celeb-baiting comedian acting very much like a pampered celebrity herself — which, despite her self-deprecating claims, she is. After delivering 44 minutes of Griffin trying to get lots of stuff for free despite having more money than roughly 95% of the planet’s population, there’s nowhere for “D-List” to go but up. And that, gradually, is where it goes. Griffin isn’t much more loveable after six episodes than she was after one, but “D-List” nonetheless is a fascinating and strangely entertaining look at the incredibly tiring amount of work that goes into Griffin’s overwhelmingly phony existence. If being famous is fun, it’s certainly news to this show.
Contents: Six episodes, plus a rather lengthy season two preview and Griffin’s stand-up special, “Kathy Griffin Is… Not Nicole Kidman.”

Shooter (R, 2007, Paramount)
Marine rifleman-turned-hermit Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) has no interest in serving the government again, but when a group of supposed government officials dangle the chance to prevent a possible presidential assassination, he bites. Too bad the group isn’t what it claims to be. “Shooter” eventually reveals itself to be another man-on-the-run film, albeit with sniper rifles instead of the usual pistols. It also reveals itself to be, after some rocky beginnings, pretty entertaining. It won’t tattoo itself to your consciousness the way “The Fugitive” or the “Bourne” series perhaps have, but it might make for an entertaining couple of hours if you don’t expect your mind to be blown. Not the world’s most glowing recommendation, but that’s the way it goes. Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Donny Glover also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 6/27: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii
Also available for: PC, PSP, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The summer of bad movie-based games is far from over, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take a break. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” promises to be an uncommonly good summertime movie sequel, and the game of the same name — while certainly flawed — follows suit.

To EA’s great restraint, “Phoenix” doesn’t try to be something the movie and book are not. Harry doesn’t run around Hogwarts unleashing hell and lightning bolts on Slytherin students, for instance, and the game is appropriately light on conflict outside of the story’s key showdowns. Most of the action revolves around assembling Dumbledore’s Army and completing various side quests that increase your abilities and advance various plotlines. You occasionally step into the shoes of other characters, but only when the story dictates it.

Such faithfulness won’t excite the non-fans, but “Potter” fanatics will find plenty to love in spite of the oft-ordinary objectives.

For starters, Hogwarts Castle has truly come alive. And with assists from the Marauder’s map and/or Invisibility Cloak, you’re free to explore the whole thing at your leisure, pending objectives or not. The Great Hall, Hagrid’s hut, moving staircases and wisecracking portraits — it’s all here. “Phoenix” sports some sporadic graphical and framerate hiccups, but it does an incredible job of replicating Hogwarts in exquisite detail.

That goes also goes for the game’s overall presentation, which is lively and appropriately dramatic. Those unfamiliar with the source material won’t always know why they’re doing what they’re doing — playing “Phoenix” is akin to reading every fifth page of the book — but fans should love it.

Control-wise, “Phoenix” plays out like a typical third-person action game. The key exception is the right analog stick (or, in the Wii’s case, motion controls), which handles spellcasting duties instead of camera control. The absence of an on-the-fly manual camera is felt in tight spots, but the various spellcasting commands work so well that it’s a completely acceptable loss. The spells also give rise to some puzzles that, while simple, are pretty fun to solve.

“Phoenix” doesn’t reinvent anything, and seasoned gamers have done most of what it offers (outside of Wiimote spell-casting) a dozen times before. But “Potter” fans have ached to run free around Hogwarts since the first “Potter” game appeared on the original Playstation, and “Phoenix” grants that wish with authority. That alone makes it easy to recommend.


Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

One of the best things about the Nintendo DS’ “Brain Age” — and a feature sorely missed in its spiritual follow-up, “Big Brain Academy” — is a daily training feature. In it, you can take a short battery of tests once a day, and the game charts your progress. Simple, yes, but it’s also a stroke of genius that gave a fairly no-frills game a bona fide sense of attachment.

It’s also something “Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree” could really have used. Nintendo’s first big-screen brain game makes a solid translation from the small screen, but it’s missing that same sense of attachment that would have made it a daily ritual.

Like the DS “Academy” game, “Degree” tests your brain in five different areas: identification, computation, analysis, memorization and visualization. A test mode puts you through the paces in all five categories, ultimately grading your performance by calculating the figurative weight of your brain.

Each area contains three different challenges, and all 15 use the Wiimote as a point-and-click device, which works fine given their cerebral nature. For the most part, the challenges are fun and indeed challenging, at least at higher levels when you’re on the clock. You can sample every challenge in a matter of minutes, but the randomness of the problems keep you on your toes and prevent mini-game fatigue from taking over.

Also like the DS game, “Degree” features a multiplayer component — in this case, two pass-the-Wiimote games (Mental Marathon, Brain Quiz) and one (Mind Sprint) that features two teams simultaneously racing through a series of problems. All three are fun in some way, but the frantic Mind Sprint is the clear gem. It’s just unfortunate Nintendo didn’t include support for four simultaneous teams. That might have been crowded on smaller televisions, but it would have made a good thing even better for those who could handle it.

There’s no question “Degree” could have benefited from a few more challenges, but the game remains strangely replayable because of the nature of what it has. The real bummer, then, is the stats system. “Degree” keeps records of your brain’s weight and best scores in each mode, and even allows for score trading online. But there’s no system for progress tracking, which even the freebie “Wii Sports” had. You can always create your own chart in Excel, but where’s the charm in that?


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PS2 and Wii (see last paragraph), Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

Not since perhaps the days of The Great War has a synonym for “good” been so repeatedly misused. Since 2005, “The Fantastic Four” has inspired two insipid movies — and now, with “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” two rounds of wholly mediocre games.

To be fair, the game has its moments — if you play it right. Visual Concepts has fashioned “Surfer” into a “Marvel Ultimate Alliance”-style brawler, and as with that game, you play as one of four team members while either the computer or up to three friends handle the other three. Co-op mode alleviates the game’s enormous issues with stupid A.I., while playing solo allows you to switch between characters on the fly.

But unless you’re controlling The Thing, “Surfer” is pretty much a mess. For whatever reason, The Thing not only has the best special movies, but an increased ability to actually land a punch as well. Johnny Storm is near-worthless unless he’s launching fireballs from a distance, and Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman are about as menacing as chessboard pawns. Those playing alone generally can avoid playing as these two (one solo mission each excepted), but whoever gets stuck as anyone but The Thing in a co-op game will not be happy.

Alas, even playing as The Thing gets old quick. “Surfer’s” aesthetics are wildly inconsistent, with some characters (again, The Thing) and levels (New York City rooftops, the very destructible final level) looking good and others looking like something out of 2001. The level designs are another story: Most consist of an endless labyrinth of brawling, hitting switches and riding elevators. Lots and lots of elevators.

Additionally, the film’s story doesn’t exactly translate, and those who haven’t seen the movie will have little idea what’s going on. Despite being in the title and on the box, the Silver Surfer is almost a non-factor — ironic, considering he was a hidden playable character in “Ultimate Alliance,” which also featured The Thing.

You can beat “Surfer” in a day, and there’s no online equivalent to the offline co-op mode. That makes this a rental at best for fans of the Four. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the PS2 and Wii versions, which come courtesy of a different developer (7 Studios), amplify every problem the PS3/360 versions have, and tack on shoddy controls to top it off.

Games 6/20: Forza Motorsport 2, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Surf's Up

Forza Motorsport 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Forza Motorsport 2” has a problem, and that problem’s name is “Forza Motorsport.” Microsoft Game Studios’ first attempt at a hardcore driving simulation was such a knockout, there’s precious little for the sequel to do to improve on the formula.

But improve it does, particularly if you have an Xbox Live Gold Account.

While “FM2’s” single-player component is wonderfully deep, its online community is giggle-like-a-schoolgirl incredible and likely will remain so until the day “Forza 3” releases. The insanely deep car customization features practically comprise a game in their own right, and it’s a thrill to race your creations against the world’s best armchair drivers and mechanics. The paint and decal options allow your artistic juices to run absolutely wild, and you can even sell your cars on a live auction block in exchange for in-game currency, which can be used to purchase new cars within the game. How brilliant is that?

Elsewhere, the improvements are more subtle but equally important. Team 10 has tweaked an already-incredible physics engine, further bridging the gap between the game’s 300 vehicles and their real-life counterparts. The difference in how vehicles and even various parts perform is tangible even to casual observers. Such dedication to realism isn’t for everyone — success in “Forza” demands a much more subtle touch than a game like “Burnout” requires — but those who crave it will reap almost endless reward from “FM2’s” attention to depth and detail.

All that content and detail — along with a fantastically smooth framerate — has its drawbacks, at least visually speaking. While “FM2” produces some gorgeous car designs, the tracks don’t look quite as good as what other Xbox 360 racers have produced. Worse is the omission of an in-dash camera: It’s wholly understandable (good, even) that recreating 300 car interiors wasn’t at the top of Turn 10’s priority list, but a few generic options for us less picky sorts would’ve been nice.

Those issues aside, “FM2” is a monster of a game, and there’s so much more to it than a 375-word review can cover. Just know that if you love cars and love a good, exciting driving simulation, few games will spin in your 360 as long and as frequently as this one.


Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence)

If there’s a Nintendo Wii-related trend more disturbing than the explosion of mini-game collections that comprise too much of its library, it’s the similar sprawl of Xbox and Playstation 2 ports that developers have tried, with awkward results, to wedge onto Nintendo’s hot new property.

“Mortal Kombat: Armageddon,” which surfaced last October on the Xbox and PS2 and just now arrives on the Wii, painfully illustrates why.

On its own merits, “Armageddon” is a good fighting game. Midway offers support for three control configurations, two of which allow you to play the game the traditional way (via Wavebird or Classic controller). On this level, the action is as solid now as it was last October, and Midway backs up a fun fighting engine with a huge roster of fighters and modes both complementary (create-a-fighter, story mode, practice, multiplayer) and irreverent (a humorous kart racing game that’s surprisingly well made).

But it’s that third control configuration — the motion controls — that’s got people talking about an eight-month-old game. It’s also the reason Midway is selling “Armageddon” for $50 — or more than double what it retails for nowadays on Xbox and PS2 — despite the omission of online play on the Wii version.

Sadly, it’s also the biggest letdown. For starters, the motion controls are limited to a scant handful of special attacks. Regular punches and kicks are regulated to the Wiimote’s tiny D-pad, which is as clumsy as it sounds. Forget about pulling off combos you could execute with ease on other controllers.

Worse, the few moves that do use motion controls are contrived attacks that don’t even match up with whatever motion you’re making. If you were hoping to punch your opponent simply by mimicking the motion yourself, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The 1:1 immersion that drives games like “Wii Sports” and “Tiger Woods” is completely absent here, and the motion controls merely serve to complicate matters for no good reason.

It’s hard to knock “Armageddon” too much, because it is a good game. But it’s a good game that lacks both its chief selling point and the online play cheaper versions have. If you need a fighting game and don’t have another system, there’s fun to have here, but it’s not the fun you had in mind when you dropped $250 on that Wii.


Surf’s Up
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Nintendo Wii, Gamecube and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, language)

Honestly, who doesn’t expect a kids-centric licensed game based on a film about surfing penguins to not be horrible? If “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” couldn’t rise above the crushing tide of disappointment, what chance does this game have?

Here’s the thing, though: We haven’t had a surfing game of any kind in a few months shy of five years. How this drought came to be is a mystery, but Ubisoft seems to have received the memo. Instead of churning out some unfocused drivel that cashes in on the movie’s assumed popularity, it has instead produced a competent, fun and family-friendly surfing game that’s a more pleasant surprise than all three aforementioned games combined.

That’s not to say “Surf’s Up” is exceptional or even worth a buy. It has problems, including a doozy we’ll get to in a moment. The on-rails design — your surfer of choice constantly is moving forward, with a wave off to the left or right and all manner of obstacles straight ahead — will feel too simple for those hungry for a serious surfing game. There’s also the occasional weird problem with physics and collision detection that sometimes will cause you to tricks you could otherwise land with your eyes closed.

Still, the game is strangely fun on a very simple level. The trick system is solid in spite of the random issues, and nailing a combo after launching off a monster wave at just the right time is quite a bit of fun. The 10 playable characters each feature their own distinct bag of tricks, and the game offers a few side objectives in addition to racking high score after high score. Meeting those objectives nets you new characters, customizable surfboards, character accessories and (on the Xbox 360) achievement points.

Unfortunately — doozy time — “Surf’s Up” is almost comically short. An hour and change is all it takes to complete the game’s main objectives, and two or three more should take care of all the side objectives. None of the versions feature online play, and all that remains is a four-player split-screen mode. That’s not a lot of value for a game that costs between $40-$50. Ubisoft did a nice job exceeding gameplay expectations, but it’s hard to recommend anything higher than a rental until the price drops.

DVD 6/19: Maxed Out, Things to Do, The Prisoner, Breach, Henry Rollins: Uncut from NYC/Henry Rollins Show, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, Kill House

Maxed Out (NR, 2006, Magnolia)
“Maxed Out” is the second documentary to surface in as many months about the American plague known as credit debt. But while “In Debt We Trust” served up enough damning information to make the blood boil, “Maxed Out” sends it bubbling over the pot and all over the floor. Yes, America’s credit woes are, in many ways, a self-made problem brought on by impulsive spending and careless disregard for long-term consequences. And yes, “Maxed Out” doesn’t adequately address this part of the equation to the degree that it should. But you can have all of that sitting in the back of your mind and still be devastated by the human carnage the film leaves in its wake. “Maxed Out” won’t teach you how to fix your credit problem if you have one, but it might be the match that lights the fire. And if you don’t have an issue, one viewing will fiercely compel you to keep it that way.
Extras: Uncut “Wise Use of Credit” filmstrip, explanation of a credit report, bankruptcy feature, personal responsibility feature (hey, here it is!), feature.

Things to do (NR, 2006, LifeSize Entertainment)
A quote on the DVD case describes “Things to Do” as a less self-serious version of “Garden State” mixed with a little “My Name is Earl.” It’s not exactly model journalism to swipe another critic’s thoughts in a review, but this is exactly what “TTD” is, only without Zach Braff’s character’s prescription drugs and Earl’s long list of people in need of an apology. Instead, we get a guy suffering a garden-variety quarter-life crisis (Michael Stasko) and another guy (Daniel Wilson, who isn’t as pretty as Natalie Portman but is funny enough to let that slide) who serendipitously helps him stave it off. “TTD” starts off awkwardly, and it’s not immediately clear whether it’s something special or just another indie also-ran. Before long, though, it starts to find its footing. The familiar premise develops a personality, and some genuinely funny moments follow suit. “TTD’s” busy plot cuts some corners, but its characters are so affectionately developed that it barely matters. By the time it ends, it’s hard to believe only 85 minutes have ticked by.
Extras: Director commentary, outtake, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (NR, 2006, Magnolia)
We’ve heard stories about the way Saddam Hussein used brutalize his prisoners, and we’ve read accounts (and seen pictures) of the things certain American soldiers did to detainees at Abu Ghraib. Iraqi freelance cameraman Yunis Khatayer Abbas is one of the few people in the world who has experienced both firsthand — three months in Saddam’s prison, nine more in Abu Ghraib. In both cases, Abbas ended up imprisoned simply for doing his job. That isn’t where the similarities end, either. “The Prisoner” provides an unfettered and damning account of the Abu Ghraib calamity, but don’t mistake this very stylish documentary for yet another indictment of all things American. To the contrary, “Prisoner” gives ample face time to Benjamin Thompson, an American soldier who inherited the prison, post-debacle, and developed a friendship with Abbas and other prisoners that may have saved their lives. In spite of all the devastation “Prisoner” lays bare, it’s this bond that elevates the film to must-see status.
No extras.

Breach (PG-13, 2007, Universal)
It didn’t receive a tremendous amount of buzz in the news, but the 2001 takedown of traitorous FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) marked the end of the single worst intelligence breach in American history. Sounds like a thrill-a-minute thrill-o-rama that’s destined to stop your heart, right? Well no, not really. “Breach” is a very capable movie on a number of levels — as long as you don’t expect the kind of skin-crawling thrills several critics puzzlingly implied were coming. The film’s explosions are almost exclusively cerebral, and the burden of storytelling falls heavily on the interplay between Hannssen and the young agency hotshot (Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill) charged with both befriending and sniffing him out. Fortunately, what “Breach” sets out to do, it does very well. Hanssen’s fate is old news to anyone who follows the stories of the day, but his journey there is another frontier entirely. Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert also star.
Extras: Commentary with O’Neill and director Billy Ray, “Dateline NBC” segment from 2001 about Hanssen, two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.

Henry Rollins: Uncut From NYC (NR, 2006, IFC/Genius)
The Henry Rollins Show: Season One (NR, 2006, IFC/Genius)
Henry Rollins’ fans should be pleased with this twofer, but what about the rest of us? That’s harder to say. The 90-minute “Uncut from NYC,” which features a stint from Rollins’ spoken-word concert tour, is a mishmash of rants about current events (Bush, the war, Bush) and observational comedy. Problem is, you’ve heard these rants a million times before from a million different people. Rollins has good stage presence, but it’s not enough to elevate him past also-ran status. The less topical bits don’t fare much better, often running far too long and feeling out of place among Rollins’ bread-and-butter material. “The Henry Rollins Show” provides better entertainment value, but it’s due mostly to the guest selection (Kevin Smith, Peaches, Chuck D, Bill Maher) and their ability to rescue Rollins from his dodgy interviewing skills. The musical selections (Thom Yorke, Slayer, Jurassic 5) are pretty great as well. Rollins’ rants, on the other hand, too often feel like stock arguments wrapped inside empty wordplay. They’re entertaining, but neither substantial nor thoughtful enough to carry out the host’s presumed mission of educating and mobilizing those who tune in.
“NYC” extras: 13 bonus minutes of Rollins on politics and America.
“Show” contents: 20 episodes, no extras.

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (NR, 2003, Palm)
Sachiko Hanai (Emi Kuroda) is both a call girl and a private tutor … at once. Upon getting shot in the head, though, her senses and intellect spike to ridiculous levels, making her both smarter and capable of destroying the world. Encouraging her to do just that: A detached, cloned (and bright red) finger of George W. Bush, who is voiced by a man who sounds nothing like George W. Bush. You can watch “The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever understand it. The bizarre explosion of schizophrenic storytelling, manic acting, hilariously awful special effects and random blasts of nonsensical nudity makes for an awful film that nonetheless is a riotous good time when viewed with an open mind and a few friends. It’s so terrible, it’s wonderful. You’ll be hard-pressed to ever watch it a second time, though, so rent if you can.
Extras: The 65-minute film that inspired this film’s creation, bonus short, behind-the-scenes feature.

Kill House (R, 2006, Trinity)
It sure is rough what struggling actors sometimes must do for a credit and some rent money. A dozen or so of them, for instance, somehow agreed to appear in “Kill House,” a semi-farcical horror film about a murderous real estate agent. Then again, the acting is often so spotty that you wonder how serious some of these people really are about their careers. That, along with some tragically stupid victims (a girl hypothesizes that an intruder’s in the house, so she … puts on a bikini and goes swimming?) and amateurish kill scenes that don’t so much scream “low-budget” as bleed it from every pore, leave us with a film that won’t look good on any résumé. Still, “House” is as fine a selection as any for a group of friends in search of some “so bad it’s good” entertainment. If nothing else, you get a ton of plot inconsistencies to tear apart, along with lots of nudity that could not be more gratuitous. Solo film connoisseurs, on the other hand, should stay away.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes.

Games 6/13: Planet Puzzle League, Shadowrun, Mad Tracks

Planet Puzzle League
For: Nintendo DS
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Planet Puzzle League” has spent its life in some sort of video game witness protection program, having changed its name over the years from “Panel de Pon” to “Tetris Attack” to “Pokémon Puzzle League” to “Pokémon Puzzle Challenge” to “Dr. Mario & Puzzle League.”

If you’ve played any of those games, you know what to expect here. If you haven’t, imagine “PPL” as a perfect hybrid between the likes of “Tetris” and the likes of “Bejeweled.” Had it simply stuck to a consistent name over the years, it probably would sit right up there with those two games on the brand-name scale.

Digressions aside, “PPL” does everything and then some to endear itself to new and old friends alike. The modes list, for one, is insane: In addition to the game’s chief selling point (two-player online and four-player wireless play, both of which feature voice chat and function just as one would hope), the long list of single player modes includes the usual puzzle suspects (marathon, time attack), a versus mode against the computer, a ton of objective and mission challenges, a “Brain Age”-esque daily play mode and a few other surprises.

“PPL’s” stat tracking could be better, but its ability to save your best performances is pretty cool. The game’s options also are sufficient: Beginners can enable hints in order to get a grip on advanced chain and combo techniques, and you can hold the DS “Brain Age” style (like a book) or the usual way.

Most importantly, “PPL” plays better than ever. As was the case with “Zoo Keeper,” the touch controls speed up the action and allow one to rip off combos that previously were either impossible or close. Beyond that, the formula hasn’t changed. Those who prefer button controls still can use them — “PPL” shines with either configuration. Advanced players, however, will likely prefer the touch controls when contending with the game’s tougher challenges.

Aesthetically, “PPL” has come down with a pretty brazen case of “Lumines” fever, with generic but visually pleasing skins and electronic music replacing the parade of mascots and cutesy music that decorated previous editions. Outside of a lifeless and dull menu interface, it looks nice. But unless you buy games based on the quality of their menu interfaces, that’s pretty small potatoes in light of how good the other 99 percent of “PPL” is.


For: Xbox 360 (also available for Windows Vista)
From: Fasa Studio/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence)

Unsuspecting buyers may not realize “Shadowrun” is a multiplayer-only game in the vein of “Counterstrike.” Microsoft doesn’t satisfactorily explain this on the game’s case. So in case you didn’t know, and in case you don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account and don’t want one, consider yourself warned.

It’s a pity, though, because when not burdened by puzzling limitations, “Shadowrun” leaves some brilliant fingerprints on the formulaic first-person shooter genre.

On top of the usual roster of guns and grenades, “Shadowrun” adds an impressively large array of technological and magical abilities that allow you to teleport, summon creatures, heal, resurrect teammates, set traps, see through walls and more.

This alone is pretty cool, but it’s the incredible dedication to balance that really makes these abilities shine. Every skill has at least one significant downside to complement its upside, resulting in a giant game of rock, paper, scissors that rewards creativity, strategy and eventually mastery. (The same philosophy applies to the playable characters, each of whom has significant strengths and weaknesses.)

What all this brilliance inadvertently does is reiterate what a great single-player experience “Shadowrun” could have offered. Unfortunately, unless you count the training segments and an offline replica of the multiplayer game that uses A.I.-controlled opponents instead of live ones, no such thing exists. No story, no missions, nothing.

Even on the multiplayer side, “Shadowrun” lacks frills. The game includes a whopping three match styles, two of which are flavors of capture the flag. The third is team deathmatch. If you’re keeping score, that means no individual deathmatch, no territory battle, and no homegrown modes that take advantage of the game’s unique abilities. A mere nine maps lay at your disposal, and there’s no way to track your stats. That leaves Achievements as the only tangible thing to strive for in the entire game. At least the online interface is nice and easy to navigate.

The simple act of playing “Shadowrun” is a lot of fun, and Live Gold members who do most of their gaming online anyway will find this as feasible a holdover as any until “Halo 3” roars in. Just remember: That game, which will feature a full single-player adventure on top of a dazzling multiplayer component, costs the same as this one. It’s your $60, so make sure you understand what you’re getting for it before it leaves your pocket.


Mad Tracks
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Load Inc./D3 Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 MS Points (approx. $10)

Countless developers have attempted to replicate the sensation of playing with toy cars on a video game console. Overwhelmingly, they’ve failed. Most simply create a standard racing game with tiny cars maneuvering around oversized everyday objects — which, beyond visual novelty, might as well be any other racing game.

“Mad Tracks” takes an important extra step by giving us physics and controls that complement the graphics, which are colorful but about what you’d expect from a 3D Live Arcade game. The cars feel extremely light, as if made of plastic instead of steel. Like your standard RC car, they’re easy to control and capable of turning unrealistically on a dime. Also like RC cars, a collision or bad turn can send them flying and/or completely out of sorts. That’d be bad news in a realistic racing game, but it’s an absolutely perfect fit here.

“Tracks'” other strong suit? Variety. In addition to a few different race types, the game features a hodgepodge of bonus events. One event pits you in a two-on-two game of foosball in which you score by ramming the ball into the goal. Billiards and golf events work similarly. Another event has you driving off a ramp onto a dartboard, while another pits you on a dinner table in a battle to knock enemy cars over the edge before they get you. Every game type is littered with power-ups — both the usual suspects (missiles, engine boosts, oil slicks) and quite a few inspired choices (high beams that blind other drivers, the ability to slow time for everyone but you).

With all that “Tracks” has to offer, it’s a bit surprising that seeing everything it has doesn’t take very long. Beyond checkpoint races, most events feature only one track, and no event is particularly epic in length. “Tracks” has three pages of events to complete, but only the first page is available. The other two require additional downloads that will be released (no doubt at a cost) in the future.

That said, what “Tracks” does offer is fun, and it remains so after multiple replays. That’s especially true if you play with others. “Tracks” offers split-screen and Live support for every mode. Both work nicely, but the lack of a lobby or party system makes it a hassle to play online with a set group of friends.

Games 6/6: Crush, Odin Sphere, Mario Party 8

For: PSP
From: Zoë Mode/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

When we talk about puzzle games, we usually mean some variant of “Tetris” or “Bejewled” that’s not so much a puzzle as an action game that engages the brain more than your typical action game.

“Crush,” on the other hand, is a puzzle game in every sense of the word — a brilliantly imaginative title that doesn’t engage the brain so much as exhaust it with a combination of innovation, genius and arguable malevolence.

The best way to attempt to explain “Crush” is to reference Nintendo’s recent “Super Paper Mario.” In that game, you could “flip” any portion of any level from two dimensions to three, revealing hidden items and pathways that previously were invisible or out of reach.

“Crush” works on the same principle, but it takes that principle, ties it to a rocket, and fires it into the stratosphere.

The object of “Crush’s” 40 levels, as explained by a surprisingly cool story about a grumpy insomniac, is to collect a certain number of marbles and reach the exit. Actually doing so, however, requires you to not only transform the playing field from 2D to 3D and back, but do so from a number of different perspectives. You might, for instance, flatten the level from one side, move to a once-unreachable area, unflatten it, rotate the perspective, and flatten it again from the top in order to press on further.

The addition of perspective control transforms a potentially pedestrian mental exercise into something that belongs on a Mensa exam, and “Crush” further sharpens the difficulty curve by throwing in everything from random objects to moving platforms to giant cockroaches to blocks that act differently based on color and dimension. Simply reaching the exit is an accomplishment; getting there while collecting everything and nabbing an “A” grade is the stuff of which PhDs are made.

If that sounds intimidating, mission accomplished. “Crush” quickly gets its hands dirty, with perhaps only the tutorial and opening level not requiring your brain to sweat and get a little creative. Those easily frustrated or intimidated by hard games will quickly find themselves overmatched.

Should you be up to the task, though, there are few games that can match the feeling of accomplishment this one lavishes on. With respect to “Tetris” and friends, there is no truer puzzle game on any game system than this one.


Odin Sphere
For: Playstation 2
From: Vanilla Ware/Atlus
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

There is a small but dedicated segment of the gaming populace that has been waiting forever for a game like “Odin Sphere,” which combines the fun of a mindless sidescrolling brawler with the depth of a 40-hour role-playing game. No publisher soothes these kinds of aches quite like Atlus, and developer Vanilla Ware has done plenty to signify that the long wait not only is over, but completely worth it.

If you’ve played and loved the likes of “Final Fight” or “Streets of Rage,” you will, to a point, know what to expect with “Sphere.” A bunch of enemies come from the left or right, and it’s your job to mash those buttons and lay waste to them. “Sphere” juices up the combat by providing combos, spell capabilities, special moves and a ton of items, but the twitch action that has powered many a great brawler is the same element that makes this game so consistently fun.

What elevates “Sphere” to another level — besides role-playing elements and an adventure that features five playable characters and hours of compelling storytelling — is how challenging these fights can get. “Sphere” consists of a ton of branching mini-levels, and these bite-sized levels will toss anything from standard enemies numbering in the double digits to multiple screen-sized boss encounters in the span of a single space. Victory is never out of reach, but neither is death. Unless you’re some kind of savant, it will find you. Often.

The mass of activity leads to “Sphere’s” single serious problem: slowdown. With its handcrafted artwork and enormous character sprites, “Sphere” is one of the most graphically gorgeous games to grace the PS2 (or, for that matter, PS3). But all that beauty can send things screeching to a crawl when too much is happening at once. The slowdown is infrequent and never a deal-breaker, but it does make selected encounters a chore to endure. (Some lengthy load times also pose an issue for PS2 owners, but this problem goes away if you play the game on the PS3, which also beautifully upscales the graphics on high-definition hardware.)

It didn’t need to, but Vanilla Ware provides the cherry on the “Sphere” sundae by offering an optional English voicework dub in addition to the original Japanese language track. That, along with a stunning orchestral score, make “Sphere” as much a joy to hear as it is to see.


Mario Party 8
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Imagine you’re in the Super Bowl. Your team outruns, out-passes, out-tackles, and even scores more touchdowns than the opposing team … but loses anyway.

Now imagine this has happened for the last eight Super Bowls in a row. That’s what it’s like to play “Mario Party 8.”

The Wii needs more mini-games about as badly as the world needs an eighth “Mario Party” in as many years, but “MP8” still generated more interest than normal because of the possibilities Nintendo’s new system brings to the proceedings. The hope was that Hudson would not only introduce an entirely new suite of games geared toward the Wii’s unique capabilities, but perhaps overhaul a tired series in doing so.

Alas, neither scenario has come to pass.

On the games side, much too little is new. “MP8” boasts dozens of mini-games, but only a handful of them are new and designed specifically for Nintendo’s new controller. Most of the mini-games are retreads that feature either tacked-on motion controls or none whatsoever. All but a scant few of the motion-controlled mini-games are simple and uninspired, and Hudson was so lazy about freshening up the series that it pigeonholed a chunk of them in a separate mode rather than integrate them into the rest of the game.

Like its predecessors, “MP8” forces you to play through a board game format in order to experience most of these mini-games for the first time (after which point they become unlocked and always available). Why Hudson can’t try something (anything!) else is anybody’s guess, but if you want to see all that “MP8” offers, you’ll have to once again suffer through this mode, which comes packed with a host of problems that once again go unaddressed. You can, for instance, flatten your fellow players in every mini-game you see and still lose the board game, which might feature as few as four or five mini-game showdowns in one luck-drenched, 30-minute play session.

The Wii’s biggest problem is the sheer number of thoughtless ports developers have patched together in order to cash in on the system’s popularity. By publishing “MP8,” Nintendo itself is now guilty by association of the same disservice. The smart thing to do at this point is to give the inevitable “MP9” to a developer that actually cares about it. It’s clear Hudson no longer does, and until things change, neither should you.

Games 5/30: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (multiple versions)

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Teen (use of alcohol, violence)

There’s no worse time to be a game reviewer than the summertime, which annually finds gamers besieged by a crush of movie-based titles that owe their release dates more to their source material than whether or not they’re actually ready for release. Witness “Spider-Man 3” and “Shrek the Third,” two examples of decent games that could have used more baking time but were pushed out the door for maximum cash-in effect.

Also, witness this.

In terms of vanity, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” deserves major kudos. Outside of some issues with contrast in darkened areas, it looks awfully good, particularly when it comes to character design. It also sounds good, thanks to a great cast of sound-alike voice actors. And as long as you continually hold down the sprint button and avoid the slow-mo jog animation, “End” also animates nicely, capturing the film’s essence both in combat and in terms of showmanship.

Elsewhere, though, “End” clearly is the product of unreasonable deadlines left unmet. Corner-cutting yields everything from A.I.-controlled characters running through doors (and each other) to ledges that may or may not be interactive to environments littered with indestructible, immovable objects that clearly should be both. The rushed development cycle also gives rise to a number of uninspired design choices, including way too many collect and fetch missions seemingly employed to fill time.

Sadly, the one thing that could salvage it all – swordplay – turns out to be the sorest point.

Combat in “End” takes on many forms, with fists, pistols, daggers, explosives, plunder and your sword thrown into the mix. But while the game offers several tools of mayhem, it trots out the same stock enemy ad nauseam. This might be fine if the swordfighting had some “God of War”-like oomph. But outside of some canned finishing move animations, there’s no such sensation. Punching enemies feels more powerful than unleashing your inner Zorro, and that just isn’t right.

It’s no fun to pick apart a game whose potential is so clearly there. “End” is plenty competent enough to appease “POTC” fanatics, and between the storytelling and wealth of “Ico”-like climbing challenges, there is plenty to like. Here’s hoping Eurocom can work on a sequel that isn’t hog-tied to a film’s release date, because it’d be nice to see what could happen if the game’s potential is fully realized.


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
For: Nintendo Wii, PS2, PC and PSP
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Teen (use of alcohol, violence)

That “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” landed with a thud on the Xbox 360 and PS3 isn’t terribly surprising in its own right. But when you consider that the same developer has assembled a significantly better game for less powerful hardware, some head scratching is understandable.

You wouldn’t know it to look at the game cases, but “End” plays out quite differently on the PS2, PSP, Wii and PC. Those obnoxious fetch and collection missions? Gone. The pokey pace and flimsy sword combat? Also gone. In their place: a high-energy, bell-to-bell action game that’s 90 percent combat and 10 percent getting ready for combat. Talk about a pleasant surprise.

The most intriguing of these versions is on the Wii, where the Wiimote doubles as a sword in your hand. “End’s” single-minded gameplay is a perfect fit for the Wii’s control setup, and the virtual swordplay is fun (and a good workout) once you come to grips with the game’s occasional tendency to misread your motions. (Tip: Grip the Wiimote at the very bottom instead of like normal for best results.)

That said, “End” is a good fit for every system. It mostly does one thing, but it does it well. It also compliments its strengths with a lot of good content, including quick-timer events, dice/poker mini-games and an insanely large cast of unlockable, playable characters (both good and evil). The graphics are sharp enough, the animation often outdoes what the 360/PS3 versions put out, and the voice acting is spot on and often very funny. If there’s a sore point, it’s that Eurocom didn’t release a graphically-enhanced port of this on the 360 and PS3 instead of the game they did release.


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
For: Nintendo DS
From: Amaze Entertainment/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

Almost without exception, the Nintendo DS gets the shaft when it comes to games that appear on every system at once.


Given this truism and the rash of problems “At World’s End” has on more advanced systems, it’s rather shocking that the DS incarnation is as fun and proficient as it is. It’s nowhere near as flashy as the console versions, with blocky 3D graphics and text boxes telling the story instead of a cast of voice actors. But it doesn’t need to be.

What “End” is, though, is one of the better 3D games to hit the DS – a semi-fixed-camera action game that shares fundamental traits with games like “Devil May Cry” and “Ninja Gaiden.” The combat isn’t as sophisticated, nor is the enemy A.I. as sharp. But the action’s fast and fun, thanks to a no-nonsense mix of fights and platforming challenges that aren’t hampered by bad controls or other technical burdens.

“End” makes savvy use of the DS’ touch screen, both in terms of brief diversions (lock-picking, a little engineering) and a timing-based dueling mini-game that’s far more fun than the one you’ll find on the bigger-budget games. But the bulk of the action is traditional, and it serves as proof that touch capabilities can enhance a game without hijacking it.