Games 9/20/06: LocoRoco, NHL 2K7, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, The Godfather: The Game (360)

For: PSP
From: Sony Computer Entertainment

There is no easy way to fairly describe “LocoRoco.” But hey, here goes nothing.

In “LocoRoco,” you star as a LocoRoco, which is basically a gelatinous blob with a big smile on its face. To move around, you use the shoulder buttons, which tilt the field of play either clockwise or counterclockwise and allow the LocoRoco to roll forward, backward and through all manner of interesting obstacles and hazards (imagine your typical platforming game). If you want the LocoRoco to jump, simply press both shoulder buttons and let one go.

As you roll through each level, your LocoRoco collects special berries that make him grow. The more he eats, the bigger, slower and jigglier he gets. But fear not: Should he need to fit through a tiny space, a press of a button splits him into multiple tiny LocoRoco that can be rejoined, kicking and screaming, into the big jiggly LocoRoco once through the crack.

Bizarre much? Wait until you collect enough berries to make your LocoRoco split up and break into song, Brady kids style, in hopes of waking up the sun (yes, he’s sleeping) and receiving some unlockable bonus in return. It doesn’t make sense, nor does much anything else in the game, but you’d have to be a hard-hearted thug not to laugh at the sheer inanity of it all. “LocoRoco’s” strange sense of humor, combined with a sensationally cool visual style that resembles construction paper and Colorforms come to life, make it one of the most disarming and charming games ever made.

Does that charm wear off? If you’re looking for a game that keeps your heart racing, then yes, probably. At no point in “LocoRoco” are you in any real peril — the objective is to reach each level’s goal with all berries and collectables accounted for, but there’s no grave penalty should you arrive with less. That said, actually finding every last secret — which involves discovering a ton of secret passages and employing some fancy shoulder button acrobatics — is a fun, genuine challenge. And the weird combination of challenge without peril is a perfect fit for a game that wants nothing more than to put a smile on your face and keep it there.


For: Xbox 360 (coming November for PS3)
Also available for: Xbox and PS2
From: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

Like Peter Frampton and Frankenstein’s monster, “NHL 2K7” has come alive, coupling its always-excellent gameplay with the kind of presentational bells and whistles fans have lusted after for years. As solid as “2K6” was, “2K7” marks the true arrival of next-generation video game hockey.

With Cinemotion, Visual Concepts has applied storyline-like touches to the gameplay, with cutscenes from the ice, crowd, locker room, bench and more accompanying either a broadcast commentary or musical score (your choice). It’s not exactly dramatic stuff, but it adds a layer of intrigue to a game that’s already pretty rambunctious. The chatter trickles down to the ice — if you have a nice sound system, you can use your ears as well as your eyes to spot open teammates and pass the puck accordingly.

More than its newfound flair for dramatics, the real beauty of “2K7,” is how gosh-darn beautiful it looks when the whistle blows. Cinemotion may be 2K’s big selling point this year, but it’s severely one-upped by the on-ice action, which flies by at 60 frames per second and is almost indistinguishable from a real NHL broadcast. Ironically, it’s the choppier Cinemotion scenes — fun though they are — that bring the graphics back down to earth.

Under the hood, “2K7” refines rather than fixes what wasn’t broken. Serious players will love the new on-ice additions, which include the ability to shadow opposing players, perform drop passes and take control of the goaltender. The franchise mode places an overdue emphasis on rivalries and home ice advantage while also rewarding armchair coaches who keep their players both loose and rested. As always, the barrage of adjustable settings and pro controls allows you to play your way, be it an arcadey checkfest or a full-on simulation of a real NHL game. And if you need a break, the air hockey and shufflepuck minigames are now unlocked from the get-go in the skybox area.

“2K7” isn’t quite as dazzling on the PS2 and Xbox: This is a Cinemotion-free zone, and the graphics obviously aren’t on nearly the same level as on the 360. Then again, neither is the budget $20 price, so you get what you pay for.


Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team
For: Nintendo DS (Blue) and Game Boy Advance (Red)
From: Chun Soft/Nintendo

It is downright mystifying that Nintendo — a master of spinning off its characters if ever there was one — completely failed to produce a single worthwhile “Pokémon” spin-off during the franchise’s first 10 years of existence. (“Pokémon Pinball,” bless its soul, doesn’t count.)

Thankfully, the second decade appears to be more fruitful than the first. With “Pokémon Mystery Dungeon,” Nintendo finally realizes what fans always knew. The franchise, cute and cuddly as it may be, is as intellectually demanding as any in Nintendo’s library, and half-hearted cash-ins with no real lasting value beyond novelty have no place here.

“Dungeon” definitely has its place. Not only does it give fans something they’ve long wanted — a chance to play as a Pokémon for the first time ever — but it does so while satisfying the series’ appetite for depth and detail.

As hinted by its name, “Dungeon” employs the “Mysterious Dungeon” engine, which is renowned in Japan for its mix of turn-based and real-time gameplay and the randomly-generated dungeons it creates on the fly for freshness’ sake. Picture a cross between the “Knights of the Old Republic” games and “Diablo,” and you have something of an idea how this works.

The play style lends itself well to the Pokémon universe. “Dungeon’s” catacombs are loaded with Pokémon to meet, fight and rescue — close to 400, in fact. The battles are faster-paced than the traditional “Pokémon” throwdowns, but they’re as deep as you wish to make them. There’s even a touch of team strategy due to having a rather useful computer-controlled partner for a teammate. As with any game of this sort, “Dungeon” lends itself to lots of repetition, but it’s the same kind of obsessive-compulsive repetition that made “Pokémon” the institution it is today.

Despite being for different systems, the Red and Blue games are largely the same, with the Blue version taking advantage of the DS’ optional touch controls and extra screen real estate. The two games can communicate with each other — either wirelessly, while in the same DS or via password — and friends can trade missions and even rescue each other when a mission goes awry.


The Godfather: The Game
For: Xbox 360
From: EA

You could’ve been playing “The Godfather: The Game” back in March on the Xbox or PS2, but those who waited for the definitive version did the right thing. With respect to version 1.0, which was a much better game than it got credit for being, the Xbox 360 edition of “The Godfather” is quite easily the superior game.

For those unfamiliar, “The Godfather” offers players the chance to step into the shoes of a wannabe mobster — whom you design from scratch — and either play a supporting role in or simply witness many of the major events that shaped “The Godfather” film trilogy. You don’t, for instance, control or even interact much with Don Vito Corleone, but you do watch him die. The 360 version doesn’t rewrite the formula — at its core, it’s the same game — but it does feature quite a few missions and plot points exclusive to this version.

Story aside, what made “The Godfather” stand out was its ability to ape the trendy sandbox gameplay format without losing sight of its source material. Between story-driven missions, you’re free to take on side jobs, rough up shopkeepers, run racketeering scams, put the police in your back pocket and more — in as violent or non-violent a fashion as befits you.

This, happily, is where extra baking time pays off the most. The weapon count is up, as are the means for fighting, interrogating and executing enemies. There are more destructible objects with which to wreak havoc, smarter and livelier New Yorkers milling around you, and even entirely new scams (drug rackets) and gameplay elements (your own crony!). There’s more of pretty much everything here, and the improved graphical touches and animation don’t exactly hurt things, either.

Games 9/19: Skate, Medal of Honor: Airborne, DK: Jungle Climber, Dynasty Warriors: Gundam

PDF Clip: Games 2008-09-19

For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, crude humor, language, mild violence, tobacco reference)

After eight years and eight games, the “Tony Hawk” skateboarding games finally have something we’ve all wanted all along: worthy competition.

In fact, as competition goes, “Skate” is about as best-case as best-case scenarios get. It takes a stale genre into a wondrous new direction, and it arguably shames “Hawk” in doing so.

The concept is simple: The left analog stick controls your skater’s body, the right stick controls the board. Various motions with each produce various tricks, while the right and left triggers control your right and left hands, respectively, during grabs.

Additionally, “Skate” runs wild with real-world physics. Grinding a rail, for instance, isn’t a case of pressing a couple buttons. Here, you have to kick to build speed, perform a well-timed ollie, and time your landing similarly. Ollie too soon, and you’ll miss; procrastinate, and you’ll hit the rail with your gut.

A similar attention to physics permeates all of “Skate,” making crazy tricks and combos much more of a feat here than in “Hawk.”

And that, right there, is what makes “Skate” great. The control scheme, physics and a camera angle that’s lower to the ground all take getting used to, but it’s a satisfying learning curve to say the least. When you finally nail that trick you’ve tried hitting 20 times — and a nice marker system makes it easy to keep at it — it truly feels like an accomplishment.

Happily, “Skate’s” open-world city, in addition to looking fantastic, is loaded with such opportunities.

The good vibes trickle down to “Skate’s” cool presentation and feature set. A mostly non-linear career mode lets you explore and master the game to your liking with a customized skater, which comes courtesy of a great creation tool. A Party Play mode allows for offline, pass-the-controller multiplayer, and online play includes races, trick competitions and trick-offs at set locations. You can save and edit replays of your greatest exploits, and you can even upload them to EA’s Web site, where others can rate them, YouTube-style.

“Skate’s” more realistic leanings aren’t for everyone, and the odds of the arcade-leaning “Hawk” disappearing after nine games are no higher than they were after eight. That doesn’t mean Activision should lose a little sleep, though. For the first time since 1999, the holiday skateboarding game on everyone’s lips won’t be theirs, and for good reason.


Medal of Honor: Airborne
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (Playstation 3 version coming in November)
Also available for: PC
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)

It isn’t easy being a World War II first-person shooter these days, and it all but takes a gimmick to stand out anymore. Fortunately, “Medal of Honor: Airborne” has one, and it’s a gift that keeps giving.

The hook in “Airborne” comes at the start of a mission (or, whenever you die, your revival): You’re in an airplane, and the first thing you do is leap out of it. From here, you can land anywhere within reach on the map — rooftops, the woods, a truck bed, an enemy soldier’s head. As soon as you touch ground (ideally with your feet), you’re in battle.

The “start anywhere” approach forces “Airborne” to take a far less linear approach than its predecessors, and the game responds perfectly. Objectives remain in set locations, and the timeline for completing the various sub-missions obviously hasn’t changed. But the freedom to attack the enemy from multiple angles and latitudes breathes all kinds of new life into old concepts, and “Airborne” takes full advantage with some fantastic levels and encounters.

The mission designs, and the tense firefights they usher forth at a relentless clip, make “Airborne” a blast to play in spite of some flaws that bend but don’t break the game.

Namely, “Airborne” has a problem with aiming. For the most part, it works fine, but there are times when you’ll take a perfect shot, hit an enemy soldier flush, and get no reaction whatsoever. A very cool system allows you to upgrade your guns by using them in combat, but even a bargain-basement rifle should blow away a soldier at point-blank range every single time.

Other, smaller gripes surface, including a lack of destructible objects in the environments and the propensity of otherwise-intelligent enemy soldiers to chuck grenades at you even when you’re two feet away. Fortunately, the latter problem is resolved by the more-fun-than-it-should-be ability to football-kick nearby grenades back at enemies.

“Airborne’s” single-player campaign falls on the short side — eight hours, give or take — but the fun battle designs and numerous weapon upgrade paths give it replay value. The multiplayer mode is novel — allied soldiers spawn from above, axis soldiers from below in one mode — but there’s no telling what kind of following it’ll have once “Halo 3” thunders in. The aiming issues also stand out more, and they’re bound to frustrate some into not coming back.


DK: Jungle Climber
For: Nintendo DS
From: Paon/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

For the few who remember the under-publicized “DK: King of Swing” Game Boy Advance game that released a couple years ago, “DK: Jungle Climber” is the sequel. For the other 97 percent of you, read on for a more thorough explanation.

Like “Swing” before it, “Climber” isn’t so much about the what — another 2D platformer with Donkey Kong in the lead role — as the how.

Much of the movement in “Climber” involves (shock!) climbing upward, and you do so largely by swinging from one peg to another. The shoulder buttons to do most of “Climber’s” heavy lifting: The R button grabs a peg with Kong’s right hand and swings him in a clockwise motion, while the L button does the opposite. Pressing both causes Kong to grab two pegs and hold still. (Traditional controls also apply, with the D-pad moving Kong on the ground and the A button providing a means for attack.)

The unique control scheme takes a little while to endear itself, and it doesn’t help matters that “Climber’s” opening levels are designed with babies in mind. You’ll face maybe two puny enemies during the first three stages, and the level designs won’t exactly inspire players to get creative with their newfound swinging powers.

Fortunately, things ramp up quickly once introductions are made, and it slowly becomes clear how dynamic and flexible the swinging controls actually are. New levels bring higher enemy counts, but they also bring new pegs and other objects on which to swing. “Climber” scatters various special items throughout each level, and grabbing them all before hitting the exit demands both flair and the gift of good timing, which isn’t the cakewalk it first appears to be during “Climber’s” introductory stages.

Lest anyone worry, “Climber’s” single-player adventure includes numerous nods to past “Kong” games, including a storyline straight out of the “Donkey Kong Country” universe, barrels a-plenty, and a heavy supporting role for perennial sidekick Diddy Kong. A simple but amusing multiplayer component brings back other Kongs as well.

Like other platformers on the DS, “Climber” doesn’t wedge touch controls into a scheme that doesn’t need them. It does take advantage of the dual screens, which provide an obvious service given all the vertical movement that’s taking place. Given the amount of discovery going on with the shoulder buttons, there’s more than enough novelty to go around as is.


Dynasty Warriors: Gundam
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Koei/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language)

No game gets away with repackaging itself quite like “Dynasty Warriors,” which has managed to sell numerous variations of the same exact game to a hungry audience for going on eight years now. “Gundam” games have a similar history, with one below-average title after another selling well enough to keep the train of mediocrity rolling along.

That the two have combined forces in some sort of run-of-the-mill-gaming supernova is almost comical, as if Koei and Namco Bandai have teamed up to play a mean inside joke on game reviewers who can’t fathom slogging though another game under either brand, much less both at once.

At least “DW:G” chooses to model itself after the lesser of the two evils. Stuck in a time capsule though it may be, the “DW” method of mindlessly carving through hundreds and even thousands of enemies in a single level remains satisfying on some primitive level. “DW:G” replaces the usual soldiers with Gundam characters, and plowing through a sea of robot and mech carnage admittedly is good for a temporary thrill.

The problem — once again — is that once that thrill wears off, that’s the ballgame. The vast, vast majority of “DW:G” consists of picking off hordes of the same enemies ad nauseam with the same techniques. Your attack options are severely limited, and the complete lack of friendly fire means you can button-mash your way through an entire battlefield without fear of hurting your allies.

Not that protecting your comrades matters any, since they’re about as helpful in battle as a red tablecloth in a bullfight. “DW’s” A.I. was bad in 2000, and it’s downright embarrassing in 2007.

None of this, of course, will deter the usual crowd from gobbling it up. Fortunately, those folks at least will get some serious content for their money. “DW:G” boasts two separate story modes, both of which feature multiple unlockable characters with unique quests to complete. Characters level up with experience per usual, but so do their suits, which you eventually can mix and match to suit your tastes.

That adds up to many, many hours of gameplay for anyone who wants to discover the game’s every last corner. But that also means many, many hours of doing the same thing over and over and over and over. Unless you can find the fun in some seriously brain-drying repetition, take that warning to heart and try something else.

DVD 9/18: Flock of Dodos, Death Proof: Extended and Unrated, Snow Cake, Closing Escrow, Upright Citizens Brigade S1/S2, Brothers and Sisters S1, The Condemned

PDF Clip: DVD 2008-09-18

Flock of Dodos (NR, 2006, Docurama)
Is there such a thing as a humorous film about the evolution-intelligent design debate? Well, there is now. “Flock of Dodos” comes courtesy of evolutionary biologist-slash-filmmaker Randy Olson, and if his title doesn’t lay bare his stance on the issue, he happily volunteers it himself. But rather than make yet another case for evolution and preach to his choir, Olson instead talks to anyone who will talk back — doctors, authors, professors, school board members, regular folks, even his mom. What he discovers, more than anything, is that the debate is far more civil and far more reasoned than the talking-head media would have us believe. People, as it turns out, are nice — even when, say, Olson wears his “Evolutionist” hat at a pro-intelligent design family’s dinner table. “Dodos” doesn’t make light of the debate’s gravity, nor does it ignore the impassioned arguments constantly bubbling underneath. It does all the things a good debate film should do, but it adds a two-way perspective that, sadly, is more endangered than even the poor dodo. That alone makes it a must-see film for those who have both an interest in the debate and an open mind.
Extras: A 60-minute “Ten Questions” film, panel discussion, outtakes, additional animation sequences, behind-the-scenes feature, “Shared Visions” skit, filmmaker bio.

Death Proof: Extended and Unrated (NR, 2007, Dimension)
The idea behind the “Grindhouse” double feature was inspired, but it’s little surprise audiences didn’t wish to sit en masse through two films at once. So people took a pass and waited for the inevitable and much more palatable “Grindhouse” twin-bill DVD set … which isn’t happening, because Dimension decided instead to sell the films separately under their less-known individual names. Whose great idea was that? In any event, “Death Proof” is Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to the twosome, and his name need not even be on the bill for that piece of knowledge to shine right though. Don’t enjoy the way Tarantino’s characters like to get talkative in the middle of many of his films? You’ll probably hate “Proof,” which essentially is 113 minutes of meandering, absorbing conversation punctuated by two completely awesome action sequences. But Tarantino has been on a collision course with this film for years, and the “Grindhouse” umbrella allows him to unabatedly play with his influences without having to stop for explanation or tie it into any sort of audience-friendly convention. For that reason alone, the experiment is a creative, if not commercial, success — and hopefully not the end of the road.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features.

Snow Cake (NR, 2006, IFC FirstTake)
Against his better judgment and arguably by accident, Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) has offered a lift to a female hitchhiker (Emily Hampshire) who’s on her way to visit her mom (Sigourney Weaver) in small-town Wawa, Ontario. “Snow Cake” is a much different movie by the time that trip ends, but we’ve merely reached the tip of the iceberg by that point. If the preceding plot description seems vague, it’s not by accident. The less you know about the handful of early surprises that change “Cake’s” direction, the better chance those surprises have of disarming you and completely warping your expectations for the hour-plus that still remains. Fortunately, surprise isn’t “Cake’s” only commodity: A handful of great characters and a cast equipped to take them on see to that. If your familiarity with Rickman’s career starts and ends with Severus Snape, his turn here is bound to open your eyes. That goes double for Weaver, regardless of whatever acquaintance you’ve made with her. Carrie-Anne Moss also stars.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Closing Escrow (PG, 2007, Magnolia)
Three couples are in the hunt for a new house, and three rather unique real estate salespeople are ready to make their respective dreams come true. That’s the premise of a really boring reality show, but it’s also the premise of “Closing Escrow,” a mockumentary that not only isn’t boring, but is actually pretty funny. “Escrow” plays out like your typical Christopher Guest film: Mundane stuff happens, characters say funny things during interviews, repeat. But “Escrow” also voyages to frontiers Guest would dare not explore, touching on such family-unfriendly topics as racism, violence and the threat powers of dead rabbits. That allows it to be something Guest’s films won’t be while still successfully cribbing the sense of humor that makes them so good. Most of “Escrow’s” cast is comprised of talented unknowns, but “Reno 911!” fans most certainly will recognize two of their own — Cedric Yarbrough and Wendi McLendon-Covey — in big roles. If you like that show’s approach to comedy, “Escrow” should suit you just fine.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.

Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete First Season (NR, 1998, Comedy Central)
Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete Second Season (NR, 1998, Comedy Central)

A handful of you might be scratching your heads at this one. Didn’t the first season of “Upright Citizens Brigade” already appear on DVD? Why, yes it did. But that was four years ago, and even Amazon doesn’t stock it anymore. Fans who have the old set can skip right past this release, which is the same content inside a slightly redesigned package, and go right to season two. But for those unfamiliar, Comedy Central’s thirst for new business presents a second chance to make acquaintance with a sketch comedy show that more closely resembles a high-concept sitcom than a collection of sketches. Each episode finds the Upright Citizens Brigade (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh) attempting to disrupt the status quo in the face of a similarly deranged public (played by the same people) that isn’t exactly normal in the first place, and the plotlines often end up in places no conventional sitcom could realistically go. Sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny; far less often but occasionally, it’s borderline painful. But even at its worst, “UCB” never is dull.
“First Season” contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, the pilot (with commentary), original live performances, deleted scene.
“Second Season” contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary (including live commentary at the UCB Theater), audience Q&A, original live performances, deleted scenes.

Brothers and Sisters: The Complete First Season (NR, 2006, Buena Vista)
As promised by the title, there are brothers and sisters in “Brothers and Sisters.” But there also are parents, kids, an uncle, a mistress, a company, an embezzlement and some other folks who may or may not join the family someday, and they all collide in what shakes out as a pretty heavy first couple of episodes. Repackage these first two episodes as a movie, and it’d be too obnoxiously heavy-handed and angst-ridden to qualify as recommendable entertainment. Fortunately, “B&S” has a little more time to spread itself out, and once all the introductions are made, that’s what it does. Eventually, “B&S” emerges as a well-written, topical and occasionally funny family drama, and the huge cast that initially burdens the show gradually morphs into its best asset. Calista Flockhart, Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Ron Rifkin and Dave Annable, among many others, star.
Contents: 24 episodes (one unaired), plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, deleted scenes.

The Condemned (R, 2007, Lions Gate)
In hopes of becoming the next big Internet reality sensation, a sleazy producer (Robert Mammone) has assembled a game of last-man standing featuring a bunch of dangerous criminals (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones and eight more) on a deserted island. All but one will die, and the one left standing will be freed from prison. It’s a great idea, and if “The Condemned” had given it the over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek treatment, it might have been a great movie as well. Instead, the film chooses to wax philosophical about the morals of the product at hand, and too much of “The Condemned” consists of a bunch of idiotic producers and crew members suddenly realizing that killing nine people has moral implications. Seeing as we already knew that, there’s no reason for us to care. Sadly, the action on the island provides no respite: The criminals are so dull, you wonder what made the producers suddenly care about them so much. And with this being WWE Films production and an Austin star vehicle, is there any doubt who’s going to win the thing in the end?
Extras: Austin/director commentary, second director commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, appearance and other footage, storyboards.

Games 9/12: Stranglehold, Tiger Woods PGA 08, Stuntman: Ignition

PDF Clip: Games 2008-09-12

John Woo Presents Stranglehold
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Tiger Hill/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence)

Arguably no game has earned the “action game” classification quite like “Stranglehold,” which incidentally also rewrites the rules on how to translate a film into a game.

“Stranglehold” isn’t based on a movie, but in fact is a sequel to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.” The narrative isn’t Hemingway, but it works as an excuse to revisit Chow Yun-Fat’s Inspector Tequila. (Yun-Fat provides his voice.)

More importantly, though, “Stranglehold” gives us a crack at reenacting some of the greatest action scenes in movie history, and the degree to which it pulls that off is remarkable. Environments are ridiculously destructible, enemies storm in like clowns out of a limousine, and Tequila is gifted with an insane arsenal of moves that are deliriously fun to execute and arrange.

“Max Payne” fans will see a lot of that game in “Stranglehold.” Tequila can slow time in limited bursts, and time slows automatically whenever he has an enemy in his sights and is in the throes of any number of acrobatic moves ranging from diving to sprinting across the tailbone of a wrecked dinosaur museum exhibit.

Additionally, “Stranglehold” is generous with the firepower. Ammo is everywhere, and every gun uses a magical magazine that never needs a reload.

When all else fails, a foursome of special, limited-use moves — allowing Tequila to heal, zoom in on an enemy, enjoy limited indestructibility and automatically clear out a room — are available. The more style with which you dispatch enemies, the more times you can take advantage.

To compensate for your many talents, “Stranglehold” hurls the kitchen sink at you. With few exceptions, the action never stops during the game’s seven levels: Cronies constantly blitz you, boss characters are made of steel, and sometimes both problems land on your plate at once.

Some technical problems — namely, a camera that struggles with tight spaces and an action/jump button that occasionally doesn’t respond as intended — compound the problem. For the most part, though, the game feels exceptionally good, offering a sense of control that belies the madness happening around you.

“Stranglehold’s” single-player experience is beatable in a weekend, and the deathmatch multiplayer is chaotic fun but not built for endurance. But that’s forgivable, because if there’s a game that’s worth dusting off and replaying every few weeks or so, this easily is it. If you fancy action games at all, a return on your investment is assured.


Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08
Reviewed For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, PC/Mac
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

In every way but one, “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08” is the best “Woods” game yet.

The “but one” has nothing to do with features, because “08” is loaded. The multi-pronged career mode is deeper than ever, with the Tiger Challenge receiving a role-playing-game-style makeover that incorporates the game’s numerous golf (10), arcade (two) and mini-game (10) modes.

A full tour also is available for your created character, who comes courtesy of the most amazing character-creation tool in any game, period. The new headshot import tool works astonishingly well under the right conditions, but crafting something from scratch is awfully fun.

The “but one” has nothing to do with online support, though online play occasionally falls prone to some lag. It still delivers, and the new Gamernet feature — which lets post online clips of your greatest golfing exploits and challenge others to match them and “bust” your clip — could be the franchise’s best new feature in years.

Visually, “Woods” isn’t much prettier than last year, but it’s impressive where it counts. The golfers, including your created characters, look exceptional, and the courses are easy enough on the eyes to make some ugly spectators and jagged edges forgivable.

Nope, the “but one” is bigger than all those things — combined.

For whatever reason, “08” needlessly tinkers with its most essential asset: the swing. Put simply, it’s measurably more sensitive than before. The window for hitting a straight shot is perilously small, and the difference between a shot or putt that falls short and one that grossly overshoots the target is a soft touch that’s impossible to quantify. Well-prepared shots with feel-good swings occasionally go nowhere near their intended targets, and it’s often unclear why.

“08” reintroduces the three-click swing control scheme as an alternative to compensate, but the margin for error is so cruelly small that it merely adds to the illusion that the game is working against rather than challenging you. Fortunately, you can switch schemes instantaneously if you find that different setups deliver in different situations.

That’s ultimately what you’ll have to do if you don’t want to wait until next year. “08” offers a ton to love, but it also dares you to keep coming back after the new control alterations send you storming off. Mastery remains a possibility, but you’ll need the patience of a steady-handed saint to topple Tiger this year. You’ve been warned.


Stuntman: Ignition
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2
From: Paradigm Ent. /THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

Mercy is a beautiful thing, and it’s the one thing “Stuntman: Ignition” needed most. The original “Stuntman” had none, and it turned an intriguing game with a dynamite concept into something unplayable.

The concept returns untouched in “Ignition.” You’re a movie stunt driver, and it’s your job to complete various scenes by following on-the-fly cues from the director and hitting your assignments. Miss too many, and you have to start the scene over.

But “Ignition” undoes many of “Stuntman’s” most grievous offenses, and it’s an immeasurably better game for that reason alone. Vehicles that controlled like boats in the first game now maneuver as intended, so it’s easier to hit those assignments. The director is more forgiving, allowing you room to string together some tricks without having to be unreasonably precise when hitting a target. If that’s still not enough, an optional easy mode allows you more strikes and the chance to finish the scene, for practice’s sake, even when you fail.

“Stuntman” was nerve-fraying because of all the aforementioned issues, but it was the excessive load times whenever you failed that really did the game in. By contrast, you can jump right back in and try again in “Ignition” without any wait at all. If you played “Stuntman,” you know how great that news is.

Still, “Ignition” is less aggravating than “Stuntman” in the same way a twisted ankle hurts less than a sprain. It’s much more fun, but it still demands patience.

Nailing a scene to satisfaction remains challenging, and it’s made tougher by the game’s sometimes-random nature. That same arbitration that makes “Ignition” more forgiving can sometimes backfire, and there are times where you’ll complete a move and still receive a strike. The physics engine sometimes produces unpredictable results as well, and it’s bound to occasionally burn you in similar fashion.

But compared to the first game’s mile-long list of problems, that’s cake. “Ignition” is playable in every way “Stuntman” was not, and it doesn’t do so at the expense of the concept, visual presentation (looks terrific, though the framerate occasionally dips) or features (career mode and the awesome stunt track editor return, and eight-player online multiplayer joins the fold on the 360 and PS3). If you felt gypped the first time around, it’s time to get your feet wet again. This is the game you wanted to play all along.

DVD 9/11/07: Demetri Martin. Person., The Dog Problem, Grey's Anatomy: S3, Rick & Steve S1, Dirty Sanchez, Even Money, New Special Editions

PDF Clip: DVD 2008-09-11

Demetri Martin. Person. (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
You might know Demetri Martin as that nerdy-looking guy who does those not-so-edgy but very funny “Trendspotting” segments on “The Daily Show.” On stage in front of a live audience, Martin is even less edgy, riffing on such hot-button topics as ice, rock/paper/scissors, the agility of the spotlight guy, signing casts, the Microsoft Word paperclip and what to say when someone asks if you’re ticklish. Fortunately, he’s just as funny here as he is there — a new-generation Steven Wright with more hair and a little more energy. “Demetri Martin. Person” drags ever so slightly when Martin pulls out a guitar and threatens to go Adam Sandler on the crowd, but even here it’s hard not to laugh at the totally random observations that, in another context, could bring a party or date to a screeching halt. That goes as well for the charts segment, which is full of funny information for which you’ll never have the least bit of use.
Extras: “Comedy Central Presents” episode, Martin commentary, bonus footage and deleted scenes, tiny poster.

The Dog Problem (R, 2006, ThinkFilm)
Solo (Giovanni Ribisi) has failed as a novelist, wasted a lot of money and time on therapy, and landed himself in some heavy debt with the wrong crowd (specifically, Kevin Corrigan and Tito Ortiz). The worst part? After all that time and accrued debt, the only advice his therapist (Don Cheadle) can whip up is for him to get a dog. Don’t ask why; like many plot points in “The Dog Problem,” the doc’s advice doesn’t really come with any logical prerequisite. Nor does the fact that just about everyone in the movie really, really wants the dog Solo picks out. It just sort of happens, and frankly, it doesn’t much matter anyway. The dog is adorable as can be, and that’s good enough. And beyond sporting a cute dog, “Problem” manages to be rather cute itself, a silly film that’s genuinely amusing enough to sidestep its occasional inability to explain itself. Go in with measured expectations, and the result may pleasantly surprise you. Scott Caan, Mena Suvari and Lynn Collins also star.
Extra: Cast/director commentary.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season Three: Seriously Extended (NR, 2006, Buena Vista)
As if a shot doctor, dead love interest and some extramarital fallout aren’t bad enough, “Grey’s Anatomy’s” third season hits the ground running with a little something called the plague. Once that bit of business is done, it’s back to the normal for the show — and that’s not always a good thing. Self-absorbed doctors whining like kids in a middle school cafeteria was cute two years ago, but it’s getting old now. Ditto and then some for the tired “will they or won’t they” between Drs. Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). What saves “Anatomy,” poetically, are the guest stars and unsung cast members (James Pickens Jr., Kate Walsh, Christina Ho) who sneak up on their more heavily-publicized castmates before rightfully stealing the scene from under their feet. That goes triple for Chandra Wilson, who sometimes steals entire episodes as Dr. (and whiny doctor babysitter) Miranda Bailey.
Contents: 25 episodes (several with extended cuts), plus commentary and three behind-the-scenes features.

Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, Logo)
You best can believe some parent somewhere will accidentally buy “Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World” for his or her kid. Maybe the Playmobil toy-like characters on the cover will seduce them, or perhaps the rainbow or the playful font will do the trick. In any event, despite the cute nature of this animated show, “R&S” most certainly isn’t for kids and probably will be too much for a lot of adults to handle. The show follows the half-hour sitcom format, but the content isn’t exactly coming to a network near you this fall. But that speaks more to network television than “R&S,” which regularly reaches for the shock stick but is more silly (and, after acquaintances are made, harmlessly likeable) than anything else. Some will knock “R&S” for pandering to stereotypes and doing little to raise the level of discourse on the topic, but a disclaimer makes it clear the show is more concerned with having fun with toys than moving the awareness needle in either direction. It’s merely an irreverent show about gays in much the same way countless other sitcoms are about the other 90 percent of the population, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Contents: Six episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features, 12 shorts and cast interviews.

Dirty Sanchez: Unrated & Uncensored (NR, 2006, Dimension Extreme)
For those unfamiliar, “Dirty Sanchez” essentially is the British version of “Jackass.” In fact, if the DVD case is to be believed, “Sanchez” makes “Jackass” look like a PBS Children’s show. Sure enough, while the claim is an exaggeration, “Sanchez” does move the gross-o-meter up by a few degrees. But it does so at the complete expense of what really makes “Jackass” so fun to watch in the first place. Every stunt, and sometimes random moments in between, comes accompanied by exaggerated jumping around and attention-starved screaming, and the whole thing is akin to watching a stand-up comedian who belly-laughs at his own jokes in a desperate attempt to convince the audience he’s funny. The glibness that makes “Jackass” stunts and pranks so hilariously memorable is completely lost on these guys, and you’ll wish Dimension had included earplugs instead of a barf bag with the DVD. Still, if all you need to be happy is to be grossed out, you may not mind as much. Just keep that mute button handy.
Extras: Directors/cast commentary, unseen footage, barf bag insert.

Even Money (R, 2006, Fox)
Generally, when a movie comes equipped with a cast of known commodities, it’s a sign that the thing is at least watchable, if not necessarily good. “Money” definitely has that going for it, with Kim Basinger, Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer, Nick Cannon and Carla Gugino all on board. Now all that remains to be explained is how one film tricked so many established actors with such a lousy script. The running theme in “Money” is gambling, and the multiple disconnected stories touch on everything from losing track of time at the casino to shaving points to getting a “lesson” from a bookie who wants his money. The fact that many of the characters don’t even cross paths is bad enough, but “Money” could’ve neutered that problem by at least telling some good individual stories. Unfortunately, a windfall of clichés creates an even bigger problem than our first problem. “Money” amounts to little more than a tired collection of gambling-themed Aesop’s Fables, and unless you were born yesterday, you’ve seen it all countless times before. No extras.

Roundup of the Week: New Special Editions on DVD
— “The Graduate: 40th Anniversary Edition” (PG, 1967, MGM): Cast commentary, director commentary, four behind-the-scenes features. Selected, marked DVDs also include a four-song CD soundtrack, though this appears to be a limited-time bonus.
— “The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition” (R, 1985, MGM): Cast/crew commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, zombie subtitles.
— “Troy: Director’s Cut” (NR, 2004, Warner Bros.): Extended cut of film, director introduction, six behind-the-scenes features. An “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” version also is available with special packaging, photo stills, an art book and pages from the shooting script. Both versions available September 18.
— “Wall Street: 20th Anniversary Edition” (R, 1987, Fox): Director introduction, cast interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes. Available September 18.
— “Commando: Director’s Cut” (R, 1985, Fox): Extended cut of film, director commentary, deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, photo galleries. Available September 18.
— “Flashdance: Special Collector’s Edition” (R, 1983, Paramount): Six-song CD soundtrack, five behind-the-scenes features. Available September 18.
— “Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition” (R, 1977, Paramount): Director commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features, dancing lessons, Fever challenge, Discopedia. Available September 18.

Games 9/5: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Warhawk, Carnival Games

PDF Clip: Games 2008-09-05

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Retro Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

We knew the Wii’s unique control setup was destined to deliver a first-person shooter that took shooters to another plane of immersion. Now, 10 months and many failed attempts later, we have proof.

Conceptually, “Metroid Prime 3: Corruption” mostly does what those failed attempts did. The analog stick on the nunchuck attachment moves Samus’ feet, and the Wiimote allows her to look around, aim and turn. Holding the Z button allows her to lock into a viewpoint and strafe around it — helpful against speedier enemies.

The difference lies in how expertly Retro Studios tuned these controls. It’s hard to explain until you try it firsthand, but “Corruption’s” controls just gel, particularly on the advanced sensitivity setting. The action moves fluidly, hit detection is spot-on, and the way Samus’ arm cannon moves in time with your own arm movements bridges the immersion gap to an exceptional degree.

While the new controls easily are “Corruption’s” biggest selling point, they don’t turn the game into something it shouldn’t be. An increased emphasis on combat is undeniable, but the game doesn’t shirk on the grandiose puzzle challenges that made the first two games such classics. Platforming challenges are prevalent as ever, and one could argue that the two-dimensional sequences involving the morph ball play an even larger role in “Corruption” than in games prior.

Happily, “Corruption’s” controls are up to the task in those instances as well.

Fittingly, things come to a head during “Corruption’s” boss fights. List the 10 best gaming boss encounters of the last five years, and “Prime” games likely account for at least half of them. “Corruption” continues the tradition, fully utilizing the new shooting controls (and an awesome trick involving the nunchuck) in doing so.

On the same token, things that irked “Prime” gamers before are bound to irk them again. Backtracking through discovered areas, particularly if you overlooked energy and missile upgrades and need to find them in lieu of a pending boss battle, can be demoralizing. Ditto for yet another late-game fetch quest, which robs momentum from what otherwise is the most cinematic “Prime” storyline to date.

But “Corruption” is such a pleasure to play that these problems threaten but cannot possibly kill the deal. There’s simply no game out there that can do what “Corruption” does, and that’s the literal truth rather than some hyperbolical cliche. Fans of shooters should not miss it.


For: Playstation 3 ($60 on disc with BlueTooth headset, $40 as a download from the Playstation Online Store)
From: Incognito/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)

In “Warhawk,” as in life, sometimes it’s best to know your role. Maybe you’re destined to cruise the skies as an ace fighter pilot, but maybe you’re not. Perhaps the tank is more your speed, or maybe you’re better off just hoofing it on foot or manning the rocket turret.

Whatever your poison, the game gives you options, and it gives you some impressive and expansive battlegrounds in which to flex those options. Consequentially, the 32-player wars that erupt in “Warhawk” are fast, explosive and capable of hosting a ridiculous number of entirely human-made combat scenarios.

It’s imperative to reiterate, before continuing, that “Warhawk” is strictly a multiplayer game. No single-player component exists, and the only real way to experience the game in its true glory is to take it online or pony up for an inhumanly expensive LAN setup. Sony makes no misconceptions about this on the packaging and in the PSN store, but it still bears repeating.

The multiplayer-only approach makes “Warhawk” a non-starter for some, but it doesn’t really chip into the game’s value for those who intended to play it this way all along. At least Incognito made sure to do online right, adding lots of community features and eliminating lag entirely.

That said, a little something to allow players to get acquainted with the game on their own terms would have been nice. “Warhawk” features no tutorial segments or bot matches, and the only way to become acclimated with the game’s controls is to take on live competition. New players must immediately fight an uphill battle, and the hill will only steepen as veteran players widen the gap. If you want to excel, you’d best get in on the ground floor.

Fortunately, that’s a worthy endeavor, because “Warhawk” is a blast with the right group. The on-foot controls are rather jarring — they feel straight out of the “Quake II” days — but the weapon selection and arcadey feel make them more fun than not. Ground vehicles move more like you’d expect, and the turrets are a riot considering their limited abilities.

Fittingly, the Warhawk jets are the main event: They’re by far the hardest to master, controls-wise, but they’re also the most fun to command once you do. The first time you successfully evade a heat-seeking rocket, you’ll know you have arrived. From there, the fun grows exponentially.


Carnival Games
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Cat Daddy/Global Star
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The Wii needs another mini-game collection like a cloud needs moisture, but “Carnival Games” stands out by at least bringing a concept to a crowded party. A collection of mini-games isn’t exciting in its own right, but when those games emulate a trip to the carnival or the boardwalk, that’s a little more interesting.

Fortunately, Cat Daddy gets it right more often than not. Some issues with presentation arise and some games miss the mark, but “Games” nonetheless emerges as an oddly fun and surprisingly comprehensive compilation of carnival-themed games.

If you have fond carnival memories, something here is bound to surprise you by mere presence alone. “Games” includes many usual suspects, including a dunk tank, skeeball, the duck shooting gallery and the ring toss, but it also boasts such niche favorites as the frog leap, the horse races and nerves of steel. Success at these games awards you with prizes and tickets, which you can use to play arcade games like the love-o-meter and a claw game that’s as cheap as the real deal.

More than not, the games are fun to play, especially with friends.

“Games” doesn’t quite capture the same level of intuition as, say, “Wii Sports,” and there are instances in which you’ll feel out of sync with your motions and what results on screen. But a little adjustment typically is all that’s needed to overcome these issues when they arise. “Games” offers some stiff challenges — as any good carnival would do — but the game never feels difficult to the point of broken. Not every game will make you want to come back for seconds right away, but they do work as intended.

Aesthetically, “Games” is unspectacular but sufficient, ably capturing the look and sound of a carnival despite some awkward character designs. Navigating between games means bouncing between menus, which isn’t as cool as being able to walk through a virtual carnival and discover different games that way. A create-a-character feature lets you design your own persona, but it’s limited to the point of potential offense. Why only white faces?

Those gaffes aside, it’s always good when the biggest issues lie in presentation and not gameplay, and that’s definitely the case here. “Games” isn’t the standout title of the year, month or week, but it’s a fun party game that serves its purpose better than most probably assume it will.

DVD 9/4/07: God Grew Tired of Us, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia S1&2, 30 Rock S1, Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup S1, Rules of Engagement S1, Private Fears in Public Places, Robot Chicken S2, The Office S3, Prison Break S2, South Park S10, Spongebob Squarepants S5V1

PDF Clip: DVD 2008-09-04

God Grew Tired of Us (PG, 2006, Sony Pictures)
Unable to return to their Sudanese homeland for fear of persecution, a group of boys instead trekked for thousands of perilous miles in search of some kind of salvation. A handful of those boys hit the jackpot when a special program allowed them to start a new life in the United States. “God Grew Tired of Us” follows some of those boys — three in particular detail — as they adjust to a wildly different daily routine full of bus commutes, processed food, timecards and technology beyond anything they’ve ever dreamt of, much else witnessed firsthand. Making a living in the U.S. is tough for anyone, and it’s exponentially difficult when you’re all alone and trying to provide for yourself and a family thousands of miles away. “GGTOU” isn’t the first movie of its kind; “Lost Boys of Sudan” covered similar territory four years ago. But any opportunity to revisit this remarkable story is one worth experiencing, and Panther’s, John Bul’s and Daniel’s adventures are every bit as funny, heartfelt and inspiring as Peter’s and Santino’s were in the previous film. For anyone who has longed to put a face with the news, both films are must-sees.
Extras: Director/Lost Boys commentary, making-of feature.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Seasons 1&2 (NR, 2005, Fox)
Among the sitcom taboos explored on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in potentially uncomfortable detail: racism, abortion, homophobia, underage drinking, faking cancer, gun control, molestation, Nazism, and lying to a hot girl about her recently-deceased grandfather. Guess what? That’s all within the first seven episodes. “Philadelphia” doesn’t mess around. Much more importantly, though, “Philadelphia” doesn’t subsist on shock value alone, despite what appearances might suggest. It’s actually funny and well written, and by the time the novelty of the bizarre plot synopses wears off, the foursome that comprises the cast (Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson) has sunk its collective claws in. It’s a stretch to call “Philadelphia” the new “Seinfeld,” but there is a definite resemblance once you get past the surface of the premise. Word of warning, though: Despite the appearance of Danny DeVito all over the DVD packaging, he doesn’t surface until the second disc.
Contents: 17 episodes, plus cast/crew commentary, pilot outtakes, other outtakes, audition footage, making-of feature and a “Making A Scene” episode.

30 Rock: Season 1 (NR, 2006, Universal)
In 2006, for whatever reason, two shows about roughly the same thing —sketch comedy television — premiered on the same network. One contained the number 30 in its title; the other, the number 60. One was a drama, the other a comedy. And because everybody was confused, both struggled to find an audience. In the end, “30 Rock” — the funny one — survived, if barely. Good thing, too, because after a rocky growth period that created some so-so introductory episodes, “Rock” eventually emerged as the year’s most cunningly funny new comedy. That’s perhaps to be expected: “Rock” stars and comes courtesy of former “SNL” star Tina Fey, co-stars another former castmate (Tracy Morgan) and the show’s best guest host (Alec Baldwin), and gets a hand from a number of former players (including Rachel Dratch, who steal scenes under multiple guises). If these people can’t make a funny show about a funny show, who can?
Contents: 21 episodes, plus cast commentary, five bonus shorts, two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, wrap party footage, bloopers and more.

Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup: Season 1 (NR, 2005, Starz)
Are you ready for the craziest, most fearlessly extreme standup comedy you’ve ever heard in your life, with topics ranging from race to sex to scathing commentaries about race and sex? What’s that, you say? You’ve already seen that countless times on everything from “Def Comedy Jam” to “Whiteboyz in the Hood” to “Big Black Comedy Show” to “P. Diddy Presents The Bad Boys of Comedy” to countless midday Comedy Central specials? Yeah, you have. Despite the name and bold promises on the back of the DVD case, “1st Amendment Standup” doesn’t break any ground that wasn’t already ground into dust. If anything, it’s a bit pedestrian at this point, with most of the show’s comics sounding like weak imitations of the Richard Pryors, Eddie Murphys, George Carlins and other taboo-breaking comedians who paved their way. “Standup” does feature some funny performances, but nothing here is any better than what you can hear on cable TV, for far less money, on any given night.
Contents: 11 episodes, plus two “best of” episodes (which more or less feel like reruns and might be a DVD first).

Rules of Engagement: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, Sony Pictures)
How’s this for a crazy idea: Take one seasoned married couple (Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price), one newly-engaged couple (Bianca Kajlich and Oliver Hudson) and one single guy with no prospects (David Spade), add a laugh track, and call it a sitcom. Sure enough, most of “Rules of Engagement” feels a little too familiar: Married guy neglects wife, engaged couple does things that makes single guy gag, repeat. As a consequence, most of the episodes melt together, with Spade’s character typically collecting most of the show’s more unique storylines (and, subsequently, laughs). Still, despite its familiarity, “Engagement” never descends to unwatchable territory, nor is it near as banal as other CBS retreads like “Yes Dear” and “Still Standing.” If nothing else, a genuinely funny last episode offers hope that the show will come into its own in season two.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and DVD-ROM content.

Private Fears in Public Places (NR, 2006, Weinstein Company)
Over the course of what appears to be a week in snowy Paris, six people … do stuff and talk. The common theme is love, but “Private Fears in Public Places” — which never quite makes complete sense of its title — isn’t home to any monologues, tearjerkers or grand gestures. Overwhelmingly, “Places” is two hours of people talking and living mundane existences, neither an achingly powerful drama nor a side-splittingly wacky comedy. If the aforementioned description compels you to book it in the other direction, you’d best trust your gut, which almost certainly would be validated should you give this a chance. If you’re still here, though, know this: “Places” may be dangerously even-keeled and even more dangerously loose with its plot, but it’s also gifted with six good characters and enough strong writing to prop them up in spite if all the forces working against them. You may not remember it a year from now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it while it lasts. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

Roundup of the week: Notable returning shows on DVD
— “Robot Chicken: Season Two Uncensored” (NR, 2006, Adult Swim): You’ve very possibly seen “Robot Chicken” without even knowing it, because few shows get as many clips uploaded to YouTube as this one. That legendary clip in which Emperor Palpatine takes a collect call from Darth Vader? It’s in here. Also appearing in season two of the greatest stop-motion sketch show of our time: Godzilla, Twinkie the Kid, Pikachu, Harry Potter, the Burger King and so many more. Contents: 20 episodes (commentary on all), plus deleted scenes, deleted animatics, video diaries, bloopers, behind-the-scenes footage, image gallery and promotional material.
— “The Office: Season Three” (NR, 2006, Universal): Two offices merge into one, and the best comedic ensemble cast on television somehow gets better. If only all mergers were as fruitful as this one. Contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, bloopers, Toby shorts, Dwight Shrute music video, “Make Your Own Promo” contest videos, “Lazy Scranton” video, live appearance excerpts and more.
— “Prison Break: Season 2” (NR, 2006, Fox): Ever wonder how someone could make a multi-season television series about breaking out of prison? Simple: Turn it into “The Fugitive.” Season two of “Prison Break” finds Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) and company over the wall and on the run, but the attention to dramatic detail that made the first season so good remains intact despite the drastic change of scenery. William Fichtner joins the cast as the pursuit begins. Contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and a remix of the theme song.
— “South Park: The Complete Tenth Season” (NR, 2006, Comedy Central): Chef dies (cause of death: Scientology?), as does the gang’s social life after a run-in with “World of Warcraft.” Cartman wants a Wii, and worlds collide when Bart Simpson joins Cartman in a two-episode crusade to get “Family Guy” canceled. Contents: 14 episodes, plus mini-commentaries on each episode.
— “Spongebob Squarepants: Season 5, Season 1” (NR, 2007, Nickelodeon): It’s more of the same, really. But until “Spongebob Squarepants” gets old, is that such a bad thing? Season 5 includes the two-part “Friend or Foe?” episode, which previously was available separately and included five other episodes from this set. So if you paid $15 for that instead of waiting for this, you’ve learned a valuable lesson in patience (and corporate double-dipping). Contents: 21 episodes, plus bonus shorts and trivia.

Games 8/29: Brain Age 2, GRAW 2 (PSP)

PDF Clip: Games 2008-08-29

Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The first time I fired up “Brain Age 2,” I did so on maybe three hours of sleep. I paid dearly, bombing on my first set of challenges and finishing with a brain age nearly twice my actual age. The game asked me if I was feeling a bit tired, and while it was just a rhetorical question, I couldn’t help but nod in shame.

It didn’t help my plight that “BA2,” like any good tool of educational enlightenment, has visibly upped the ante in terms of challenge.

Like its predecessor, “BA2” aims to keep your mind young by making your brain sweat. The game, designed around the research of neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, presents a collection of challenges that engage everything from your prefrontal cortex to your angular gyrus. (Yes, you have one of each.)

Based on your efforts, “BA2” assigns an “age” to your brain, ranging from 20 (brilliant) to something much less impressive (see above). Like the first game, it tracks your day-to-day progress, via a Daily Play option, without demanding a heavy time investment in return.

But while the original “Age” provided a well-rounded mental workout by focusing on different facets of mind power, the sequel comes straight at you by combining those facets within a single challenge. An activity that might’ve tested only computation the first time around now tests memorization as well, while a spate of new challenges ask you to draw on combinations of visualization, on-the-spot analysis, concentration and even rhythm.

The new layer of intellectual oomph and the clever new challenges that accompany it are “BA2’s” chief, and perhaps only, selling point. The look and interface Nintendo established in the first “Age” returns in full, and the game doesn’t introduce any monstrous new features like online play or leaderboards. Multiplayer’s a tad meatier, there are new Sudoku puzzles to solve, and Nintendo tosses in a nice little “Dr. Mario” clone for the heck of it, but little has changed fundamentally.

The overwhelming sense of familiarity makes “BA2” feel more like an expansion pack than a brand-new game. Fortunately, Nintendo’s priced it like one at $20, so it’s hard to take much umbrage with that. Given how much value the first “Age” provided — and still provides in a complementary role — it’s also hard to doubt that an even more advanced challenge won’t provide a similarly fruitful return on that investment.


Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2
For: Sony PSP
From: High Voltage/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

When Sony recently unveiled its redesigned PSP, the one thing a lot of people really wanted — a second analog stick — wasn’t part of the equation.

Given that hardware isn’t known to fiddle with core functionality in the middle of its lifespan, the omission wasn’t particularly surprising. But unsurprising and disappointing aren’t mutually exclusive, and if you don’t know why but wish to understand, look no further than “Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2.”

On paper, the arrival of “GRAW2” on the PSP is exciting news, in particular because the game’s story and setting fit into the “GRAW” universe but are otherwise completely different than the story and setting from the Xbox 360/PC/PS3 game of the same name. For fans pining anxiously for the series’ third chapter on those systems, this presents an awfully tantalizing way to ease the wait.

The deal sweetens once it becomes apparent that “GRAW’s” essence translates to the PSP without much sacrifice. While no one will confuse this version of “GRAW2” with its next-generation peers, it looks nice by PSP standards, moves quickly and replicates the interface of its big-screen counterparts in many satisfactory ways.

That High Voltage packs so much technical goodness into such a small package is most impressive. But it merely makes it that much more lamentable when control limitations just about undo everything.

To master “GRAW” is to master a lion’s share of commands that keep your character alive, your squad(s) on the move and your arsenal of weaponry and gadgetry hearty. A task like that is enough to push an 360 or PS3 controller to its limit, and it’s impossibly overwhelming on a system that’s one analog stick and two shoulder buttons short. The PSP wasn’t built with first-person controls in mind, and managing such a complex arsenal of commands with a gimped control scheme just never feels right, particularly when things get hairy.

To compensate, “GRAW2” dumbs it down a bit, stripping away the squad aspect and offering an optional auto-aim feature that’s almost embarrassingly remedial but pretty much necessary for average players who wish to get very far. But even with this and the option to play with a friend in co-op mode, the constant negotiation with controls never fully disperses.

Neither, then, does the feeling that you’re settling for something in hopes that it eventually will transform into something else. Despite its intentions, it won’t.

DVD 8/28: Air Guitar Nation, Heroes S1, Year of the Dog, Ugly Betty S1, Friday Night Lights S1, Blades of Glory, Kickin' It Old School, A New Wave

PDF Clip: DVD 2008-08-28

Air Guitar Nation (NR, 2005, Docurama)
Were you perhaps unaware that the world of competitive air guitaring not only exists, but in fact thrives on a global scale? Don’t worry, you’re not alone — which is why Finland’s Air Guitar World Championship had never fielded a representative from the country that made the guitar famous in the first place. Things finally changed in 2003, and “Air Guitar Nation’s” cameras were rolling as American air virtuosos dueled for a chance to show the world they belonged. A rivalry emerges, some bad blood trickles out, a guy rocks out with a Hello Kitty backpack for a shirt, and “Nation” follows in the steps of “Spellbound” and “Wordplay” by documenting yet another hobby that mankind has transformed into a thrillingly legitimate sport. Many a skeptic will watch, and there’s no guarantee “Nation” will make believers out of its viewers. But it has a heck of a good time trying, and the energy it exudes is contagious in an entirely wonderful way.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes footage, bonus performances, updates on the air guitarists, deleted scenes.

Heroes: Season 1 (NR, 2006, NBC/Universal)
It’s rather staggering that it’s taken this long for a show like “Heroes” to hit the airwaves. Done right, the concept — ordinary people with banal existences developing powers ranging from mind-reading to invincibility to dimension-bending — is tailor-made for television. Happily, “Heroes” does more than simply get it right. Rather than employ the various powers as some means of fighting weekly crimes and reaching neat conclusions, the show instead takes the serial route, giving the heroes time to discover their powers, shoehorn it into their normal existences, and face a pending disaster that two of them have already witnessed in very different ways. The storytelling is top-notch, the different characters allow for vastly different moods within any given episode, and the show takes full advantage of its premise when it comes to taking the hard way out and leaving the viewer hanging around for just one more episode.
Contents: 23 episodes (12 with commentary), plus the unaired, extended pilot (with commentary), five behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes and a Mind Reader game.

Year of the Dog (PG-13, 2007, Paramount Vantage)
Exteriorly speaking, “Year of the Dog” exudes cuteness. The font on the DVD case is playful, as is the mostly cartoony artwork. The pictures on the back imply that “Dog” is a fun date movie, and the description uses the words “quirky” and “charming.” But if all you know about “Dog” is what you learned from appearances, prepare to be blindsided. It’s impossible to describe the plot without spoiling a major turn of events that happens almost immediately, and even touching on the film’s themes is enough to rob it of its intended impact. Or not. It’s not entirely clear whether “Dog” is earnestly making a point about animals or intentionally beating us over the head for dark comedic purposes. Whether the main character (Molly Shannon) is a true hero or a caricature of a woman who [spoiler] isn’t entirely clear either. Perhaps that’s by design. Perhaps not. When a film hits you from behind like this, it’s awfully hard to get a good look at its intentions. John C. Reilly, Regina King and Peter Sarsgaard also star.
Extras: Director/Shannon commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, bloopers.

Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season (NR, 2006, Buena Vista)
With “The Devil Wears Prada” in our rearview mirrors and both “Lipstick Jungle” and “Cashmere Mafia” slated to debut this fall, we’re on the eve of perilous saturation when it comes to comedic-slash-dramatic portrayals of high-fashion professionals backstabbing their way to the top. Thank goodness, then, for Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), who fits into this world like a fork in a toaster but somehow manages to survive anyway. “Ugly Betty” lives and breathes on the energy of its terrific lead character, her family (Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, Mark Indelicato) and her Queens neighborhood. That’s not always a good thing, because “Betty” isn’t always designed that way: When it tries to make us sympathize for Betty’s high-fashion peers (Eric Mabius, Vanessa Williams, Becki Newton, Alan Dale), it often can’t. But the not-so-sympathetic stuff still serves its storytelling purpose, thanks to a great overriding arc that slowly unravels as the season rolls on. And even when that grows tiresome, it’s merely a matter of time before Betty rolls in to steal another scene.
Contents: 23 episodes (four with commentary), plus three behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes and bloopers.

Friday Night Lights: The First Season (NR, 2006, NBC/Universal)
How badly does NBC want “Friday Night Lights” to become a hit? Here’s a clue: The network is offering a money-back guarantee for anyone who buys the first season DVD set and is unsatisfied. While that sounds like the kind of idea that will put an executive out of work, the studio does have a point about the show, which follows the maddening trials and tribulations of a high-profile Texas high school football team. “Lights” isn’t exactly the most unpredictable show on television, often treading on cliché and telegraphing its not-so-shocking twists sometimes episodes in advance. But while that’s a deal-killer for a lot of shows, this one avoids disaster by filling those well-worn roads with a relentless current of energy and some pretty watchable characters. The shaky-cam approach is a bit overused, but the fast, uncompromising pace — along with some great on-field action — make for a show that’s absorbing in spite of its obvious flaws.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus a making-of feature and deleted scenes.

Blades of Glory (PG-13, 2007, Dreamworks)
In much the same way “Talladega Nights” was Will Ferrell in a stock car, “Blades of Glory” is Will Ferrell in ice skates. Beyond the vastly different surroundings, the two movies have more in common than a couple of singles who met on The overlying plots are strangely similar, and you can guess, with deadly accuracy, how “Glory” is going to end by the 15th minute. Of course, if you’re familiar with the works of Will Ferrell, none of this should come as a surprise to you. Like “Nights” and so many films before it, “Glory” seems concerned only with taking a vessel — in this case, competitive figure skating — and filling it with so many inane characters (Will Arnet, Amy Poehler, Jon Heder, Craig T. Nelson, Jenna Fischer, William Fichtner) that the jokes almost write themselves. As such, it mostly coasts by on the talent of its cast, content with being consistently funny, if never legendarily hilarious. Hey, it works. And even though you absolutely know how it ends, the final showdown still manages to exude excitement in a palpable, entirely unexplainable way.
Extras: Deleted/alternate scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, music video, “Moviefone Unscripted” episode, promo shorts, photo galleries.

Kickin’ It Old Skool (PG-13, 2007, Fox)
After spending more than half his life in a coma by way of breakdancing accident, Justin Schumacher (Jamie Kennedy) has finally awoken — a 12-year-old from the ’80s living as a twentysomething in 2006. Funny, right? Actually, for a brief while, it is. Kennedy’s movie career is becoming increasingly one-dimensional, but he manages some funny bits while playing the fish out of water. Before long, though, “Kickin’ It Old Skool” goes where you were afraid it was headed all along — a boring barrage of the same old fat/ethic jokes, body function gags and record-scratch sound effects. Some faces from the time capsule (David Hasselhoff, Emmanuel Lewis) emerge for cameos, but these don’t amount to much. All the while, “Skool” marches down the path of predictability, capped by an ending you saw coming after the first scene. Some of the film’s breakdancing sequences are pretty good, but you can see better stuff — sans bad story and lame jokes — on YouTube for free.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

A New Wave (R, 2007 ThinkFilm)
Wannabe artist Desmond (Andrew Keegan) works, unwillingly, in a bank. His friend Gideon (John Krasinski), a wannabe Tarantino, wants to rob the bank. Desmond agrees, but Gideon insists that the robbery must go according to his plan, which resembles the script of a bad Tarantino copycat film. And that’s the premise of “A New Wave,” except that it’s not. While the overlying plot would seem to have enough comic potential in its own right, “Wave” chooses instead to zig, zag, serpentine and run around like a headless chicken as it bounces between a cornucopia of side plots that swallow the main storyline alive. Even that might be okay if the side plots were funny enough to entertain, but “Wave” isn’t even sure it wants to be a comedy half the time. The resulting, horribly confused mess neuters whatever interest one might have in the characters, and it’s hard to care once we finally get to the culmination of all those plans. Perhaps that’s a blessing, because “Wave” botches this sequence as well.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes, music video.