Games 10/24/07: Mercury Meltdown Wii, Crash of the Titans, Flash Focus: VTIMAD, Clive Barker's Jericho

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-24

Mercury Meltdown
For: Nintendo Wii
Previously available for: Sony PSP, Playstation 2
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It took a year, but “Mercury Meltdown” is finally in its rightful place. What was a great game on the control-challenged PSP and a slightly greater game on the slightly more capable PS2 is now one of the few year-old ports that not only belongs on the Wii, but feels like it was designed for it all along.

For those unfamiliar, “Meltdown” is a contemporary take on “Marble Madness,” but with a twist: Instead of maneuvering a marble to the exit without letting it fall off the playing board, you’re responsible for a glob of mercury that’s susceptible to splitting, spilling over the side and anything else that could endanger a glob of silver goo.

“Meltdown” already had the blob physics down on the PSP, and that goes double for the exceptionally clever levels, which feature numerous combinations of gadgets, traps and strange characters. The objective — reaching the goal — is simple, but the board designs, high score challenges and bonuses that come with finishing quickly and minimizing mercury loss give some real depth to that simple idea.

“Meltdown” also already had the controls down, but the benefits the Wiimote brings are obvious before you even turn it on. (For those who disagree, the Classic Controller is supported.) Instead of tilting the playing field with an analog stick, you instead hold the Wiimote sideways and tilt that, as if you’re holding the level in your hand. It feels great, and the game responds to even the smallest nudge, so there’s no blaming anyone but yourself when your blob falls into oblivion.

And if it does, so what? “Meltdown’s” proficiency at what it does gives it such an addictive quality that you’ll likely retry levels even after you succeed, just to see if you can top your score. The difficulty curve heads skyward at an ideal pace, and the 160 levels include numerous gems that are rewarding to complete and master, alone or with friends. (“Meltdown” doesn’t feature any proper multiplayer mode, but it’s easy enough to pass the Wiimote and create your own.) That goes as well for the handful of multi-level party games you’ll unlock as you progress through the main mode.

The final cherry on the sundae? It costs $20. Given how many shoddy ports cost more than twice that, it’s darn near heartwarming to see Ignition deliver both a great game and a great deal.


Crash of the Titans
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 2
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP
Alternate versions available for: Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance
From: Radical Entertainment/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor, mild languge)

When you’re desperate, things sometimes look better than they are. And when all three gaming consoles are mired in an inexplicable drought of mascot-based platforming games, even the arrival of one with a history as checkered as Crash Bandicoot’s is a welcome sight.

Happily, you don’t need beer goggles or the gift of self-delusion to enjoy “Crash of the Titans.” Groundbreaking though it isn’t, “Titans” nonetheless may be the best “Crash” game since original developers Naughty Dog abandoned it eight years ago.

In a lot of ways, “Titans” succeeds simply by taking the familiar and polishing it up. You’ll do a lot of platform-jumping, but an infusion of physics adds a level of fun beyond simply timing the jump and sticking the landing. There’s only one means of alternative transport — a sort-of hoverboard — but the game gets the mechanics down pat and creates some fun areas in which to use it. There’s incentive to collect a few different types of items within each level, but “Titans” never gets lazy and leans on that as an objective.

A little more surprising is how combat-heavy the adventure turns out to be. “Titans” balances acrobatics and fisticuffs pretty well, but the fisticuffs clearly run the table this time. That’s partly because Crash is, despite his sheepish personality, well equipped to deliver some damage.

Mostly, though, it’s due to Crash’s new ability to “hijack” monsters, assume control of their minds, and use those monsters to take down and hijack even bigger baddies. This food chain-style approach sounds monotonous on paper, but it’s pretty brilliant in practice, and it allows “Titans” to throw down some extensive but beatable enemy gauntlets. Though hampered by Radical’s strange decision to use a camera that players can’t manually adjust, the fights are satisfying and, at least initially, fresh.

Once the novelty of the combat wears off, Radical is mostly out of surprises. But derivative fun done right is fun nevertheless, and “Titans” serves up a solid six-plus-hour adventure that’s pleasing to look at, hilarious to listen to (stop and eavesdrop on your enemies; you won’t be sorry), fun to play the first time through, and worth at least one replay for completists. New “Mario” and “Ratchet” games will arrive in the coming weeks to take credit for ending the plaftormer drought, but it’s very worthwhile to give this one a look while you wait for those.


Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s going to be fun to see what crazy ideas Nintendo comes up with for its next round of training games. Given the irony of using a video game system with two tiny LCD screens to promote better eye health, nothing is off-limits.

That’s not to say “Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day” actually trains your eyes. Even the instruction manual half-admits such a feat is beyond the reach of a video game.

Either way, “Focus” makes its case. Like the “Brain Age” games, it’s doctor-approved, created under the advisement of renowned vision training expert Hisao Ishigaki. (Sadly, unlike “Age,” “Focus” uses a “King’s Quest” reject instead of Ishigaki’s disembodied head to serve as the game’s mascot.) It also seeks to educate players about the eye in the same way “Age” waxed educational about the brain.

“Focus” tests your visual acuity in tandem with your mental dexterity, honing in on such attributes as peripheral vision, hand-eye coordination and the abilities to gather lots of information at once and track moving objects and patterns. As in past training games, it scores your results by assigning an “age” to your eyes. Scoring in the 20s is optimum, and scoring close to your actual age is good. Any other result means you have work to do.

“Focus'” 17 training exercises — 10 basic, seven sports-themed — are a fun lot overall, with the sports challenges (hit a pitch perfectly, engineer a perfect table tennis volley) easily providing the game’s highlight.

What these exercises aren’t, however, is rewarding over a long haul. Nintendo’s brain training games offered some real intellectual hills to climb, but “Focus” doesn’t enjoy this same luxury. Timing your bat swing is fun, but there’s no sense you’re permanently improving at it in any meaningful way. The element of luck also plays a larger role in these games, which in turn can skew the progress “Focus” charts over time.

Given that “Focus” doesn’t offer anything beyond this core component, it’s a tougher sale than its brain-training cousins. Then again, given the wildly different opinions people have about these games, you may disagree completely. As long as you realize that “Focus,” while fun, is a step down in the franchise, you probably know whether you want it or not. If all else fails, the $20 price tag dulls whatever buyer’s remorse you might experience two weeks from now.


Clive Barker’s Jericho
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
From: Mercury Steam/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

The “Jericho” in “Clive Barker’s Jericho” refers to a squadron of soldiers trained both in conventional and unconventional arts of warfare. As the game begins, you’re filling one soldier’s shoes while artificial intelligence takes on those of your teammates.

An hour or so later, you’ll likely prefer the protection of the Chicago Cubs to that of Team Jericho, which clearly has no idea what the word “warfare” means. Regardless of whatever storytelling pedigree “Jericho” has behind it, it’s no match what could easily be the worst A.I. to appear in any squad-based shooter this year.

The potential is there. Each squadmate is gifted with two weapon specialties and a special ability of some kind (telekinesis, fire, time manipulation and more). An early plot twist gives you the ability to inhabit your teammates’ bodies, and from that point on you’re free to swap bodies and control any active soldier on your squad at any time.

Ironically, “Jericho’s” massive A.I. complex surfaces almost the instant this happens. Suddenly, squadmates not under your control forget how to (a) take cover, (b) fire and (c) heal fallen teammates — a common occurrence because of (a) and (b). You’ll spend far too much time healing fallen teammates yourself, which in turn puts you in immense peril.

Should you go down, you’ll assume control of another active soldier. But between the disorienting effect of switching bodies and the fact that whichever soldier you’re commandeering probably is horribly out of position, you’ll barely have time to react before getting pummeled again. Once all soldiers perish, it’s back to the checkpoint.

Because “Jericho” assumes you have a respectable army at your back, it plays cheap with the difficulty curve. The guns feel weak, the grenades are awful, and the game often rewards killing an enemy by spawning a new enemy either in the same exact place or a few feet behind you, resulting in yet another cheap death. A dull visual style (this is perhaps the most monochromatic game since “Asteroids”) makes it hard to discern enemies from teammates, and it’s only when those teammates have taken yet another fall that the picture clears up.

The worst part? You’re stuck with these mopes. A squad-based first-person shooter released in 2007 without any co-op play whatsoever is completely unheard of — until now. Among all indications that “Jericho” was rushed to market, this easily is the most damning.

DVD 10/23: Murder Party, Meet the Robinsons, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, Fido, Mr. Brooks, Home of the Brave, Normal Adolescent Behavior: Havoc 2, New Special Editions

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-10-23

Murder Party (NR, 2007, Magnet)
The Question: Can a group of art students effectively kill a person in the name of art? The answer: Probably not. Fortunately, a bumbling idiot in a hilariously awful Halloween costume has stumbled upon an “invitation” to their fake Halloween party, and the odds could not possibly be any more in their favor unless he was already dead. For those keeping score, here’s what “Murder Party” offers that so many other horror films do not: one victim who is impossible not to like, seven antagonists who are more fun to watch than most movies’ protagonists, a dog who’s smarter than all eight of those people combined, a host of funny moments that are intended to be funny, and a good story that simply goes crazy rather than lose steam. For good measure, “Party” also includes its share of gore and painful ways to die. Really, it does it all. And among the never-ending wave of horror DVDs that have relentlessly been crashing on shelves since mid-August, this is one of the few that emerges as a must-see.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, making-of feature, knight costume how-to (you’ll understand after you see the movie), bloopers, outtakes, pumpkin bread recipe (again, you’ll understand), installation video (ditto).

Meet the Robinsons (G, 2007, Disney)
It would be futile to explain the plot of “Meet the Robinsons” in a way that both makes acceptable sense and fits in this small space. Let’s just say it involves an ingenious young orphan, a time machine, a wacky family, a really cool house, a villain with an axe to grind, some musically-gifted frogs and quite a lot more. Like most computer-animated films, “Robinsons” has a lot going on in a short space of time, and there’s a specific moment — oddly enough, when we meet the Robinsons — where it looks like the whole thing is heading off the rails into random wackyland. Fortunately, things settle down almost as quickly as they lose control, and all those crazy pieces fall into place to form into a pretty sweet story that doesn’t forget to be funny. “Robinsons” isn’t exactly immune to predictability, but anyone who’s bothered by that is taking it too seriously. A handful of great characters — not to mention a whole lot of eye candy — come through whenever the story can’t.
Extras: Director (and special guest) commentary, deleted scenes (with introductions), making-of feature, DVD game, inventions feature, music videos.

Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq (NR, 2007, HBO)
While “Home of the Brave” unsuccessfully uses the big-budget approach to illustrate the difficulties soldiers face when returning home from Iraq, “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq” gets it right by going straight to the source. In “Memories,” 10 soldiers sit down and open up about their experiences. Some have lost limbs, others have suffered permanent brain damage, and one in particular illustrates the trauma that haunts an enormous number of veterans who look superficially unscathed. Each has a very personal story to tell, and while “Memories” illustrates some of the accounts with footage of insurgent attacks, it need not even bother. It’s only too bad the program isn’t longer than it is. The 59-minute runtime makes sense for a TV special, which “Memories” originally was, but there clearly was more said than we saw. It’s unfortunate HBO didn’t include some of that as bonus material, because “Memories” definitely leaves you wanting more. James Gandolfini, who executive produced, also serves as interviewer.
No extras.

Fido (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
Just when you thought every good zombie movie idea had been taken, along comes “Fido,” which imagines a world where zombies have been defeated in a war and reprogrammed, through fancy collar technology, into the equivalent of pets and servants. Is the technology foolproof? Do you even need to ask? The fantastic premise, along with a setting that’s straight out of “Leave it to Beaver,” give rise to a billion and one possibilities, and to “Fido’s” credit, it takes supreme advantage of the opportunity while infusing subtle but undeniable bits of modern-day social commentary into the mix. (Case in point: Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays both a 1950s-era mom and a 1990s-era mom in the span of a sentence.) Rarely will “Fido” go somewhere you don’t expect it to: It knows what its gimmick is, and it proceeds to milk that gimmick eight ways from Sunday until the credits roll. Beyond a few brief slow patches, the approach works quite nicely, and it’s proof that you can tell the same joke repeatedly as long as you tell it well. Billy Connolly shines as Fido, while K’Sun Ray stars as (who else?) young Timmy.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), composer commentary, DVD-ROM “Zombie Me” game, making-of feature, production galleries.

Mr. Brooks (R, 2007, MGM)
Don’t you wish your life was as jam-packed with activity as Earl Brooks’ (Kevin Costner) is? Not only is he a wildly successful businessman and a celebrated philanthropist, but he also finds time in his busy schedule to kill seemingly random people and get away with his crimes. But being good at killing isn’t the same as enjoying it, and that’s the quintessential conflict in “Mr. Brooks.” Had the film stayed a little truer to that conflict, we’d really have something here: Brooks is a very engaging character, and his path through the film is equal parts perverse, intellectual and silly (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, but entertaining either way). Problem is, “Brooks” wastes a big chunk of time on a would-be foil (Demi Moore as Det. Tracy Atwood) whose boring personal issues turn her scenes into instant momentum-killers. Fortunately, the power of fast-forwarding, which eluded theatergoers, is now in your hands. With a little creative editing, a so-so two-hour movie becomes a pretty enjoyable 90-minute trip. William Hurt and Dane Cook (don’t worry, he holds his own) also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Home of the Brave (R, 2006, MGM)
What happens to soldiers who return home from Iraq, visibly wounded or not, has become an increasingly hot topic of conversation in the last couple of years. “Home of the Brave,” then, deserves kudos for being the first big-budget attempt at dramatizing the issue. Unfortunately, beyond its intentions and the novelty of being first on the scene, that’s really all the kudos it deserves. “Brave” certainly means well, and it’s not without its moments, but the film paints the problem with such excessively broad strokes that it eventually loses its grip on authenticity. The ironic result undermines rather than increases awareness of the issue at hand. With that mission failed — and with an increasing wave of excellent documentaries succeeding where it can’t — “Brave” offers little other reason to keep watching. Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Presley, Jessica Biel and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes.

Normal Adolescent Behavior: Havoc 2 (NR, 2007, New Line)
Wendy (Amber Tamblyn) and her small but mixed circle of friends avoid the hassle of dating and sleeping around by exclusively spending time (and sleeping) with each other. Sounds like a fun plan, but it’s not an airtight one — especially when Wendy falls for an outsider (Ashton Holmes) who thinks her friends are insane. In case you’re wondering: Yes, that “Havoc 2” tag is as slapped-on as it looks in the title. Truth is, “Normal Adolescent Behavior” has little beyond that designation in common with the original “Havoc,” which itself is known more for Anne Hathaway’s nude scenes than for being a good movie. But New Line needs some kind of hook for this straight-to-video “sequel,” which doesn’t even have gratuitous nudity going for it. Meanwhile, Wendy’s obnoxious, her friends are obnoxious, and even her mom is obnoxious. And the outsider? He actually makes those obnoxious friends look good. Only Wendy’s little brother (Daryl Sabara) is worth a salt grain of interest. His reward? Not one, but two storylines that simply trail off into oblivion.
Straight-to-DVD brands are a hot item among studios right now, and
Extras: Making-of feature, character profiles.

Just the Extras: New Special Editions on DVD
— “Saw III: Director’s Cut” (NR, 2006, Lions Gate): Extended cut of film, three commentary tracks, three behind-the-scenes features, trivia game, music video, preview of “Saw IV” (don’t look surprised).
— “Hostel: Director’s Cut” (NR, 2005, Sony Pictures): Extended cut of film (with optional new ending), four commentary tracks, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, interview, TV special, photo galleries.
— “Hollow Man: Director’s Cut” (NR, 2000, Sony Pictures): Extended cut of film, “HBO Making-of” feature, 15 behind-the-scenes features, VFX comparisons.
— “2001: A Space Odyssey: 2-Disc Special Edition” (NR, 1968, Warner Bros.): Crew commentary, behind-the-scenes documentary, three other behind-the-scenes features, Stanley Kubrick feature and interview, concept art.
— “Eyes Wide Shut: Two-Disc Special Edition” (NR, 1999, Warner Bros.): Uncut and theatrical versions of film, scene-specific commentary, “Lost Kubrick” feature, live Kubrick footage, interviews, behind-the-scenes documentary.
— “The Shining: 2-Disc Special Edition” (R, 1980, Warner Bros.): Crew commentary, making-of documentary (with commentary), three behind-the-scenes features.
— “Hellraiser: 20th Anniversary Edition” (R, 1987, Anchor Bay): Cast/crew commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, promo spots, galleries, DVD-ROM screenplay.
— “Cujo: 25th Anniversary Edition” (R, 1983, Lions Gate): Director commentary, three-part making-of feature.

Games 10/17/07: Project Gotham Racing 4, Spider-man: Friend or Foe

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-17

Project Gotham Racing 4
For: Xbox 360
From: Bizarre Creations/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Every gym class has that one kid who finishes the mile run three minutes after everyone else. If you’d like to know what that kid feels like, a couple hours with “Project Gotham Racing 4” should do it.

Fundamentally, “PGR4” falls in line with its predecessors. The racing action blends arcade- and simulation-style elements, and the Kudos points system encourages you to take risks — powerslides, drifts, sharp corners — while also winning the race or completing whatever objective is at hand.

But few games go to such lengths to undermine their core concepts like this one, and the result is a disastrous first impression that will send many scrambling for the eject button before the good times begin.

Eventually, “PGR4’s” licensed cars — and, for the first time, bikes — become fun to drive. But before you can fully utilize those vehicles, you’ll have to endure a couple hours with cars that steer like boats and purr like shopping carts with 2 missing wheels. That might be okay if “PGR4’s” track design was more open, but the roads are almost comically narrow for the most part. Instead of racking up Kudos points, you’ll be bouncing off walls, zigzagging down the road and drifting into unintentional 180s while opposing racers embarrass you.

With patience — and enough Kudos to purchase some respectable wheels — the experience improves exponentially. But even when it hits its stride, “PGR4” never hums. Every time you assume the bad times are over, a lousy track design awaits with some cold water, and the love/hate relationship continues.

It doesn’t end on the track, either. Beyond the bikes, an improved multimedia editor and a dynamic weather system that makes a pretty game slightly prettier, “PGR4’s” other big news is the reorganization of the career mode.

Again, the changes undercut the concept. “PGR” fans who’ve grown accustomed to repeating events and perfecting their scores will be dismayed by the season-style makeover, which requires you to cycle through the entire calendar before taking another crack at an event. Realistic though that may be, it undermines the pursuit of perfection that made previous “PGR” games so cherished by its fanbase. A new arcade mode replicates this pursuit, but on a much smaller scale.

All told, it’s arguably the best-designed game you’ll ever possibly hate. It’s also, for that reason, impossible to universally recommend in spite of its merits. Rent it, endure the dark period, and see how you feel after that.


Spider-man: Friend or Foe
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS and PC
From: Next Level Games/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Say this about “Spider-man: Friend or Foe:” It’s the most relaxing Spider-Man game to come along in years.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. “Foe” shares no ties with the increasingly bleak “Spider-Man” movies, and the result is a happier, snappier Spidey who isn’t being voiced by a sleepwalking Tobey Maguire. An awesome premise — Spider-Man must posse up with his most renowned enemies and defeat a common nuisance — gives way to some great odd-couple moments and some pretty funny dialogue, and the game’s colorful, semi-cartoony visual style contributes to the happy-go-lucky tone. After the multifaceted downer that was the “Spider-Man 3” game, this is a most welcome change of pace.

Problem is, those good vibes seem to trickled down to whomever was in charge of making “Foe” challenging — assuming the job was even handed out in the first place.

“Foe” plays out in the same style as “Marvel Ultimate Alliance.” It’s primarily a brawler, and while Spidey uses his web-shooting abilities in all manner of combat scenarios, he travels almost exclusively on foot.

The high variety of attacks makes for some fun action, but there’s no getting around how ludicrously easy the game is. “Foe” sports a single difficulty setting, and you’ll almost never perish during the game’s six-hour adventure. Even if you do, so what? You respawn in the same exact spot, a modest loss of character upgrade points your only penalty. Boss fights are slightly more consequential, but they’re so easy, you may never even discover what those consequences are.

The laziness trickles down to the rest of the game. “Foe’s” various locales look completely different, but they’re all basically the same levels in different clothing. You’ll move forward, hit a switch, find “hidden” items the developers didn’t even bother to hide, and repeat. Same goes for the enemies: Bosses aside, you’ll face three distinct types ad nauseam. They look different from mission to mission, but they fight almost exactly the same.

This plus a lack of any online co-op (two-player offline only) makes it impossible to argue that “Foe” is anything beyond a quickie holiday cash-in. It’s fun in spite of its flaws, particularly for younger players who might find it more challenging. But it’s not pay-full-price fun, and the rental period should provide more than enough time to see and do everything there is to see and do.

DVD 10/16: The Hoax, Michael Moore Hates America, Planet Terror, A Mighty Heart, Girl 27, Transformers, The Invisible

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-10-16

The Hoax (R, 2006, Miramax)
Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) is, like most writers, a commercial failure. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t tell a good story, especially when it results in a major publishing house funneling him gobs of money after he deceives a few honchos into thinking he’s about to write Howard Hughes’ exclusive autobiography. That “The Hoax” is based on a true story almost makes it a must-see movie by default: The idea that someone could be so arrogant as to pull a two-pronged fast one on one of the world’s most powerful men and publishers, respectively, is fascinating in its own right. But “The Hoax” does one better by living up to its premise. Gere is fun to watch, and best buddy Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) is a scene-robbing riot. The story takes some bizarre turns, and it manages to effectively alternate between humor and suspense without ever losing sight of either. Consequentially, rooting for and against the same con at the same time is both sensible and all kinds of fun. Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Stanley Tucci also star.
Extras: Two filmmaker commentary tracks, deleted scenes (with commentary), extended scene, two behind-the-scenes features.

Michael Moore Hates America (R, 2004, Allumination Filmworks)
The worst thing about “Michael Moore Hates America?” Try the title, which positions the film as some angry piece of far-right filmmaking that eats objectivity as a snack between two slices of freedom toast. Even filmmaker Michael Wilson, who chose the title, seems uncomfortable with his choice. He should be. What “MMHA” lacks in first impressions, it redeems behind its cover with a surprisingly heartfelt and balanced questioning of Moore’s tactics and attitudes about a public he claims to serve. Wilson catches Moore in acts of self-contradiction, speaks with subjects who feel betrayed by the films in which they appear, and tries in vain to chase down Moore and provide him a chance to speak for himself (only to be publicly insulted for his efforts). All the while, he positions himself not as a conservative or a liberal, but as someone who simply doesn’t like being lied to by anyone on either side. It’s hard to argue with that perspective, especially when Wilson provides enough damming facts and footage to give it some credibility. But oh, that title. Because of it, the people who stand to benefit the most from this film will instead merely roll their eyes and never give it the time of day. Wilson surely didn’t mean to preach to the choir, but that, unfortunately, is all his film has a chance of doing. No extras.

Planet Terror: Extended and Unrated (NR, 2007, Dimension)
For those unfamiliar with “Planet Terror,” this is Robert Rodriguez’s contribution to the “Grindhouse” double feature that has since been split back into two. For those who need further clarification, this is the movie where Rose McGowan replaces her severed right leg with that unbelievably awesome (and seemingly ammo-independent) machine gun. If you’re looking for something more than that in the way of story, don’t hold your breath. “Terror” throws everything from zombies to soldiers to car chases and scary machines your way, but it doesn’t really concern itself with any kind of lucid plot. In fact, it’s little more than a mess of images and ideas cobbled together in the name of kicking rear and taking names. That’s part of the “Grindhouse” appeal, of course. And as messes go, “Terror” at least manages to be a fun one — once. Once the novelty wears off, there’s little reason to go back and see it again, which isn’t something that so easily can be said of Tarantino’s contribution to the twosome. Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Freddy Rodríguez and Naveen Andrews also star.
Extras: Director commentary, audience reaction track (brilliant!), 10-minute film school class, four behind-the-scenes features, trailer/poster gallery.

A Mighty Heart (R, 2007, Paramount)
“A Mighty Heart” recounts the story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s (Dan Futterman) 2002 kidnapping, and if you were paying attention to the news around then, you almost certainly already know what happens here. “Heart” appears to presume that you do: The saga of the kidnapping provides the backbone, but the film isn’t placing the burden of storytelling on its eventual turns. Rather, the weight falls on the shoulders of a number of people who often were reduced to footnote status in the news but played immeasurably large roles beyond the surface. Chief among those characters: Daniel’s wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie). “Heart” pays immense tribute to Daniel as both a reporter and a person, but it’s Jolie’s portrayal of Mariane — and the excellent supporting cast (Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Denis O’Hare and Will Patton, among others) surrounding her — that both ignites the film and keeps it lit the whole way through. The character-first approach makes “Heart” a worthy and very respectful homage to all involved, as well as a must-see for anyone interested in discovering the stories behind this story.
Extras: Making-of feature, PSA, information about the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Girl 27 (NR, 2007, Westlake/Red Envelope)
It would be impossible today, but in 1937, MGM tricked more than 100 underage chorus girls into attending a party for its sales staff. When one, Patricia Douglas, tried to escape, she was sexually assaulted and subsequently silenced by a legal stonewalling so effective, her ordeal remained covered up for 60 years. “Girl 27” is what happens when screenwriter and author (and now filmmaker) David Stenn accidentally stumbles upon the cover-up and follows the dominoes that fall from there. The investigation itself is a fascinating study of the combined power of corporate money and paid-for public servants. But “27” really enters some amazing territory when Stenn catches up with an elusive Douglas herself and attempts to get her talking. What’s happened to her life since that night in 1937 — and the trickle-down effect it’s had on her family — makes for a stunning illustration of the effects such a violation can have on a person. That goes as well for the power of words: Sometimes a single, simple phrase can alter someone’s entire trajectory, and “27” aptly demonstrates how.
Extras: Stenn commentary, 1935 short film “Hollywood Extra Girl,” photo gallery.

Transformers: Two-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2007, Dreamworks)
A live-action “Transformers” movie has been an inevitable no-brainer since the dawn of the CGI era in filmmaking. It’s downright staggering, then, that after so many years of possibilities and ruminations, this is what we get. For starters, the open 50 (yes, 50) minutes of “Transformers” have barely anything to do with Transformers. The film is crammed with paper-thin human characters whose plights couldn’t be less gripping, and the plotline grows into a bloated mess about artifacts and a possible war against another superpower. Sadly, that’s almost preferable to what happens when the bots take back the stage. Are you ready for Megatron to name-drop ebay or for Jazz to ask some of the humans “what’s crackin’?” You’d better be, because even the coolest robots of the 20th century aren’t immune from the awful dialogue that infects every Michael Bay film. The final scuffle in “Transformers” is pretty cool, and the film’s CGI does look pretty cool when it isn’t butchering the memory of certain character. But those small positives don’t do nearly enough to wash away the bad taste left behind by a film that’s boring, overlong and almost devoid of fan service for seemingly no good reason.
Extras: Director commentary, three making-of features.

The Invisible (PG-13, 2007, Hollywood Pictures)
“The Invisible” has a problem: Its best twist — that its main character, Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin) is dead, even if he doesn’t initially realize it — isn’t really a twist at all. The commercials and trailers gave it away, the DVD case gives it away, and pretty much every description of the film spills this bean. As such, we spend the first act of “The Invisible” waiting for the inevitable moment when (a) Nick dies and (b) Nick finally realizes he’s a ghost and sets out to solve his own killing. When it happens, we can only sit there and wonder how much better the film would be if the marketing department had some means of keeping this a secret. Unfortunately, its hands were tied. Powell isn’t a terribly interesting character, his killer (Margarita Levieva) fares little better, and the events surrounding his death aren’t particularly engaging. Even the better-hidden second twist isn’t terribly exciting — perhaps because, by that time, “The Invisible” has revealed that it isn’t terribly good. A ghost story without good characters or good thrills can experience no other fate.
Extras: Two filmmaker commentary tracks, deleted scenes, music videos.

Games 10/10: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Dead Head Fred

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-10

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB: Everyone (fantasy violence)

“The Legend of Zelda” and “Diablo” are proud to announce the birth of their first child, “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.”

At least, that’s what “Hourglass” feels like. Nintendo has gone hog-wild in delivering a “Zelda” game with all-stylus controls, right down to Link’s movement and swordplay. Some annoying but small missteps aside, the gamble pays off.

Those missteps, predictably, surface whenever “Hourglass” prevents you from doing things that are automatic in other “Zelda” games. Moving Link around with the stylus is pretty elementary, but there will be instances when you swipe your sword (or, more commonly, perform a forward roll) when all you mean to do is run. The opposite also happens, with both the roll and circular swipe losing major points in the reliability and timeliness departments.

Again, though, these issues are more exception than rule. They’re also a small price to pay for all the doors the all-stylus scheme blows open.

That “Hourglass” lets you literally write on in-game maps is cool enough, particularly because the game saves every mark you make. But Nintendo takes this concept beyond the basics and manages the impossible — making note-taking fun — through some ingenious puzzles and boss fights that incorporate the map in numerous brilliant ways.

“Hourglass” also teaches some old items new tricks. Most prominent is the boomerang, whose path you can dictate by drawing it with the stylus. Per tradition, the improved and new items play prominent roles in dungeons and boss fights.

Graphically, “Hourglass” marks a meeting in the middle between 2D and 3D “Zelda” games. The bird’s-eye perspective is evocative of 2D games, but the use of polygons makes for a much more fluid game than any previous 2D title. The game borrows the “Wind Waker” graphical style in full, and outside for some unflattering close-ups, it looks outstanding.

Unfortunately, “Hourglass” shares something else in common with “Waker:” a lack of any serious difficulty in combat. That you can simply tap on most enemies, “Diablo”-style, doesn’t help matters, particularly because “Hourglass” doesn’t unload enemies in waves like “Diablo” did.

But Nintendo is more concerned with solving riddles than cracking heads, and that focus uncovers some of the most inspired puzzles ever to appear in the series’ 20-year history. The stylus setup is about as un-“Zelda”-like as control schemes get, but it’s hard to deny its place after this impressive demonstration.


Dead Head Fred
For: PSP
From: Vicious Cycle/D3 Publisher
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)

“Dead Head Fred” is your typical mob revenge game. You’ve been left for dead, and it’s on you, upon returning to your senses, to take out the boss who tried you take you out first.

Thing is, the guy who tried to take you out actually succeeded. Your head fell off, you died, and it’s only because of a truly mad scientist and some impressive artificial-head technology that you’re still on your feet.

So yeah, typical mob revenge game.

It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to praise a game’s style over its substance, but few games are as stylistically gifted quite like “Fred,” which takes a wholly original concept (a main character who sports prosthetic, interchangeable heads) and mixes in terrific voice acting (John C. “Scrubs” McGinley voices Fred), a top-notch sense of humor and some truly inspired character designs.

Plus, it’s in the substance department where the game struggles the most. “Fred” is a third-person action game on the PSP, and it suffers from the same problems as many other such games. The controls are hampered by too many commands fighting for too few buttons, and the game compromises by sometimes combining buttons in strange, awkward ways. Hand-to-hand combat is simplistic and repetitive, and platforming segments sometimes go awry because the camera goes bad. (You can control the camera, but it’s one of those weird button compromises and isn’t always convenient to enable.)

What makes “Fred” worth playing, in spite of its rough edges, is how well it otherwise is designed. Fred will collect nine different upgradeable heads over the course of the game, and each comes with multiple special talents and applications, as well as unique animations and other little perks. While the game often eliminates the joy of discovery by making it painfully clear when and where to employ each head, the various applications are still clever (and, failing that, often pretty amusing).

Beyond that, it’s just fun to see where the game goes. “Fred’s” bizarre concept merely provides a gateway to a bizarre universe that’s stuffed with imagination, and it’s worth slogging through some repetitive fights or negotiating with a crabby camera to see where the next chapter leads. “Fred” doesn’t always feel like time well spent, but between the cool level designs, bonus mini-games, aforementioned humor and other surprises that lie in wait, that ultimately is what it becomes.

DVD 10/9: 28 Weeks Later, Surf's Up, Shark: S1, Black Sheep, Everybody Hates Chris S2, Reign Over Me, Evan Almighty, Wrong Turn 2

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-10-09

28 Weeks Later (R, 2007, Fox)
The rage virus that turned Londoners into crazed zombies in “28 Days Later” appears to have been eradicated, and the powers that be are now letting short bursts of survivors back into a designated safe zone. As one can guess by the mere existence of “28 Weeks Later,” something’s bound to go wrong with that plan. That part is no secret, but the events that lead to it — including a killer opening scene that’s better than most horror films’ climaxes — most definitely are. You need not have seen “Days” to enjoy “Weeks,” which quickly brings you up to speed and starts over with a brand new cast and story-within-a-story. But those who have seen the excellent first film probably will get that much more of a kick out of the sequel, which travels well against the grain as that rare horror movie sequel that doesn’t just retread on old material. “Weeks” deals in thrills more than cheap scares, and its focus on one family of could-be survivors (Robert Carlyle, Catherine McCormack, Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) gives it some good storytelling chops as well.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), five behind-the scenes features.

Surf’s Up (PG, 2007, Sony Pictures)
An adorable computer-animated film … about Hollywood’s animal du jour, penguins … who surf … that wasn’t made by Pixar? It sounds like just another animated also-ran, and the generic title doesn’t help matters. So how’s this for a surprise: “Surf’s Up” just might be the best computer-animated movie Pixar hasn’t made. It accomplishes that partly by doing what Pixar does best — namely, oozing immense kids appeal while cooking up smart joke after smart joke that only adults will truly understand. But “Surf’s Up” also scores points by trying something new with the genre and presenting its story in full mockumentary form, shaky cam and all. It works shockingly and hilariously well, and that’s a credit to the creativity of the animators as well as the writers and voice actors, who have the timing down perfectly. The film isn’t immune to formula — it’s still a kids movie about surfing penguins, after all — but the humor generally scores when the story has its back against the wall. And when all else fails, it sure is pretty to look at.
Extras: Two animated shorts (one new, one from 2002), filmmaker commentary, three games, four behind-the-scenes features, progression reels, music video, photo galleries, DVD-ROM content.

Shark: Season One (NR, 2006, Fox)
Hey look, it’s yet another hour-long legal drama on TV! What’s next, a new hour-long medical drama? In all seriousness, though, “Shark” has its place on the schedule, and it owes that place entirely to its main (and title) character, a former high-priced defense attorney who’s traumatized into switching sides and working for the prosecution. That character, in turn, owes an even larger debt to the talents of James Woods, whose presence elevates a textbook show with a textbook supporting cast into something much more entertaining than the sum of its parts. That’s to say nothing of Woods’ ability to authoritatively deliver lines that would sound silly coming out of most actors’ mouths. Whether that charm can survive the long haul remains to be seen, but the first season serves as a pretty good omen that it can. Jeri Ryan, Henry Simmons, Danielle Panabaker and Sophina Brown, among others, also star.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, a behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes and bloopers.

Black Sheep (NR, 2006, Dimension Extreme)
Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) is so afraid of sheep, he wants nothing to do with his share of the family farm. But when he returns to sell his piece of the land, he finds that his brother Angus has been playing mad scientist with the sheep, who in turn have mutated into crazed, people-eating monster sheep. From here, “Black Sheep” can exist either as (a) a self-serious disaster of a film or (b) a tongue-in-cheek train wreck that knows how to have a good time. Fortunately, it opts for the latter, right down to giving us sheep with human-like expressions of disgust and voice “acting” that’s reminiscent of a creature from the “Star Wars” cantina. Most impressively, though, “Sheep” doesn’t automatically make it so easy to root for the sheep, as one might assume it would. The option is always there, of course, but some of the cast members are so enjoyably out of their mind that you might take their side before all is said and done.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), special scene shot for DVD, making-of feature, bloopers.

Everybody Hates Chris: The Second Season (NR, 2006, CBS)
All of a sudden, a young Chris Rock (Tyler James Williams) is growing up before our eyes, seeking gainful employment and even running for class president despite his complete lack of popularity. Good for him, too: Considering some of the grown-ups he has to deal with (recurring guest stars Whoopi Goldberg and Ernest “Roger Thomas” Thomas, among others), it’s amazing he has any desire to grow up at all. Terrific as the first season of “Everybody Hates Chris” was, it was still a show that, at least subtly, was trying things out and seeing what worked and what didn’t. That’s what inventive comedies do, and it pays even greater dividends in season two, which is both funnier and more self-assured than the already-funny first season. If the new fall comedies aren’t doing it for you, uncovering this underrated gem is as good a Plan B as any. Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold also star, and Rock himself narrates.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus eight behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Reign Over Me (R, 2007, Sony Pictures)
“Reign Over Me” is about two people. One of them, Alan (Don Cheadle), is a dentist whose marriage is threatening to crumble. Then there’s Alan’s former roommate Charlie (Adam Sandler), who was so traumatized by losing his family on Sept. 11 that he doesn’t even remember Alan when a chance encounter brings them back together. As it’s designed, “Me” is more a film about Charlie than it is Alan, whose troubles are used to establish perspective more than anything else. That’s understandable; a lost family is certainly worse than a troubled one. But Charlie’s character is so far gone that he inspires exhaustion and aggravation more then sympathy. And while a scene at the end of the second act makes you feel bad for ever feeling aggravated, a scene shortly after makes you feel stupid for ever feeling bad. “Me” is gifted with good writing and acting, and it most definitely presents a fresh perspective on an event with which we’re all familiar. But good writing and good characters don’t always make for a good experience, and “Me” doesn’t offer enough upside to compensate for all the bad feelings it releases. Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows and Jada Pinkett Smith also star.
Extras: Making-of feature, Cheadle/Sandler jam session, photo gallery.

Evan Almighty (PG, 2007, Universal)
The rise of Steve Carell has brought joy to the lives of many comedy fans, but “Evan Almighty” proves that even his powers have their limits. It doesn’t initially appear that way: The first 30 minutes of “Almighty,” are, in fact, pretty funny. But once Carell’s character transforms from a rookie congressman to a modern-day Noah, the film loses its grip on the schmaltz jar and spills the stuff all over the place. Pretty soon, “Almighty” isn’t sure whether it wants to be a comedy or not, and outside of some funny bits involving animals being animals, it ceases to be one. “Alimighty’s” overlying message is easy to swallow regardless of religious conviction, but when the film’s final conflict hedges on the passage of a slimy land bill and little more, it all seems kind of absurd. Carell and a talented cast of co-stars (Morgan Freeman, John Michael Higgins, Wanda Sykes, Jonah Hill, John Goodman and several of Carell’s “Daily Show” buddies) do their best, but a script this convoluted never had a chance.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes, 10 behind-the-scenes features (some serious, some not so much), trivia game.

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (NR, 2007, Fox)
Ever wonder what the deformed hill people from those “The Hills Have Eyes” remakes are up to when they’re not making a film? As it happens, they’re just hanging out in the woods, waiting to kill and consume more obnoxious people. The will-be victims are especially grating in “Wrong Turn 2,” which finds them gathered in some remote location to film a reality show. That, apparently, is the new go-to plot device for unimaginative films. And “WT2” is nothing if not unimaginative, from the premise to the stock characters to the aforementioned complete rip-off of another, better film franchise’s predators. Predictably, “WT2” ups the ante in the gore department, which probably is why it exists in the first place. If you just can’t get enough of spilling entrails, maybe you’ll enjoy it. But given how many “gorror” films seem to flood the straight-to-video shelf these days, it’s hard to imagine a more pointless addition to any library than this one.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Games 10/3: Fishing Master, MySims

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-03

Fishing Master
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Gamers who recall the fun ushered forth years ago by the Sega Dreamcast’s Fishing Controller can’t help but look at the Nintendo Wii and imagine the possibilities.

Finally, with “Fishing Master,” those possibilities are trickling in. “Master” doesn’t quite match the depth and immersion of Sega’s fishing games, but it proves beyond all doubt that the Wii can do fishing every bit as well as that cool little controller once did.

Overall, “Master” is a mixed bag — sometimes within the same space. Take the interface, for one: The fish, fishers and their pets all look nice, but the various fishing spots are pretty bland. The icon-based menu system — where you can access events, the shop and information about fish, bait and locales — is inspired in its design, but maneuvering through it is clumsier than it should be.

But while “Master” is dotted with lots of small design grievances, it gets the important stuff right. Imagine the wiimote as your fishing pole and turn the nunchuck attachment sideways and imagine that as the reel, and you can pretty much picture what fishing in “Master” feels like, because the game has the motions down cold.

The key to success in “Master” — beyond using the right bait to catch the right fish — is your ability to toe the line between letting a fish escape and breaking your line. As you reel a fish in, a balance meter appears. Reel too hard, and your line snaps. Go soft, and the fish escapes. You’ll employ other tactics whenever a fish jerks sideways, but maintaining this balance is paramount.

At first, it doesn’t seem to work. And then, once you finally get it, “Master” seems entirely too easy. But while catching the smaller fish (and, occasionally, someone’s trash) isn’t too difficult, reeling in the big fish means winning a long, delicate battle that can end at any point of hesitation on your part. More than 100 fish swim in “Master’s” waters, and catching the big ones makes for a fun, rewarding challenge.

“Master” offers some nice variety in its events and locales, even if they’re all variants on the same gameplay. The core mechanics make it a great game to come back to every now and then. That’s especially true if you bring friends: “Master’s” four-player multiplayer is low on frills, but fighting for the same catch is good fun all the same.


For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Like many of its console counterparts, “MySims” is a “Sims” game more in name than anything else. But while most console “Sims” games resembled chore simulators more than the sociological sandboxes that made the PC games popular, “MySims” embarks in such a different direction as to be completely unrecognizable.

That may not be a bad thing. In fact, it might usher in a wholly new franchise whose best days still lie ahead.

The first, most jarring change in “MySims” is the look. Fans of “Animal Crossing” will recognize a lot — perhaps too much — of that game in this one, with everything from the characters to the trees sporting an exaggerated, cartoonish look. Nevertheless, it’s a clean, visually-pleasing style that makes lemonade out of the Wii’s limited graphical horsepower.

But the real surprise with “MySims” is that it’s not really a “Sims” game at all. You can customize your sim’s look, but there’s no need to worry about gainful employment, bathroom breaks or going hungry. You can make friends around town, but relationships never advance beyond the friend zone.

Rather, “MySims” pits you in the role as a builder — of houses, furniture and more — who must restore a run-down town back to respectability. Beyond the time you spend making friends and foraging “essences” — “MySims”-speak for the ingredients in the items you build — the bulk of “MySims” has you building away in your workroom.

Fortunately, this is where the game (mostly) shines.

“MySims” initially asks you to follow blueprints when building items for your neighbors, but it gives you plenty of freedom within those blueprints to get creative. Eventually, you’ll receive free reign to build whatever you can dream up — a creative liberty you can sample immediately when designing your dream house and workshop.

The building tool — essentially a virtual Lego set with a lot of cool pieces — is pretty slick, too. Placing pieces can prove tricky with the Wiimote, which isn’t as precise as a mouse or stylus. But the only consequence of a misplaced piece is taking a few seconds to readjust, so it’s not a particularly damaging problem.

In fact, “MySims” doesn’t really do consequence, and that’s its biggest problem. It’s a fun toy, but gamers looking for any kind of challenge — even by way of multiplayer integration — are out of luck. Should there be a sequel, rectifying this is job one.

DVD 10/2: 1408, The War, Sun Dogs, Day Night Day Night, The Sarah Silverman Program S1, Docurama Film Festival IV, Jericho S1, New Special Editions roundup

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-10-02

1408: Two Disc Collector’s Edition (PG-13/NR, 2007, Dimension)
Baggage-riddled occult writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is much too jaded to believe his own stories, much less the legend of the Dolphin Hotel’s Room 1408, which the hotel’s manger (Samuel L. Jackson) describes simply as an evil bleeping room. Naturally, this being a two-hour film based on the writings of Stephen King, there’s some merit to the manager’s warning. Outside of some moments that will awaken your inner claustrophobe, “1408” isn’t a particularly frightening movie. But it’s such a messed-up and imaginative trip, starring a fascinating and startlingly well-developed cast of characters, that the absence of cheap frights doesn’t even matter. Unpredictability is far more valuable, and this film is rich with it in ways large and small. A point near act three seems to indicate a descent into random wackiness, and it temporarily appears that “1408” is a film that doesn’t know how to wrap itself up. Stick with it, though, because it quickly finds its footing before delivering a knockout of a final scene.
Extras: Extended cut with alternate ending, director/writers commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes (with commentary)

The War: A Ken Burns Film (NR, 2007, PBS)
Upon completion of his legendary Civil War documentary, Ken Burns publicly proclaimed he was done telling stories about war. Fortunately, his filmmaking skills are more apparent than his promise-keeping talents. Burns takes on World War II in “The War,” and the finished “film” — to use his words — is so unmistakably Burns that he need not even put his name on the door. That, mind you, isn’t a bad thing. No one dissects a subject quite like Burns does, and the 15 hours he presents here are so dense with top-flight storytelling and unbelievable, one-of-a-kind images that the minutes just melt away. Despite the “film” designation, “The War” actually splits itself into seven chronological episodes of varying length. Thus, you need not feel any unreasonable obligation to watch it in one sitting or without taking time to watch some lighter fare in between. That, of course, isn’t to say you won’t want to. “The War” isn’t always an easy program to watch, but it’s an even harder problem to turn off once it’s on.
Extras: Burns commentary, making-of feature, deleted scenes, bonus interviews, bios, photo gallery, educational resources.

Sun Dogs (NR, 2006, Palm Pictures)
Lest there be no confusion — because it wouldn’t be the first time — “Sun Dogs” isn’t about the unlikely rise of the Jamaican bobsled team. Rather, it’s about the even more unlikely formation of a Jamaican dogsled team. Lack of snow on which to practice is one thing; training stray dogs of all shapes and sizes to pull a sled in tandem is entirely another. Among other things, “Dogs” captures the entire process, rolling camera as a confused pack of dogs endure their first practice and continuing to roll as the same dogs joyously fly down the same path like a well-oiled machine only a short time later. But “Dogs” also manages, with compelling results, to place its story in a larger context — namely, an island with tremendous international renown that nonetheless is crippled by crime and a damaged educational system. The dogs easily steal the show, but the story of a musher (dogsled-speak for rider) named Newton is every bit as intriguing.
Extras: Four mini-features, dog bios.

Day Night Day Night (NR, 2006, IFC FirstTake)
The less a movie says, the more room it leaves for people to interpret whatever message it supposedly has. That leaves a whole lot of room for interpreting “Day Night Day Night,” which follows a 19-year-old woman (Luisa Williams) as she prepares to carry out a suicide bombing mission in Times Square. “Night” is an extremely sparse movie, with little outside of mission prep and the mission itself comprising the film’s 91 minutes. Wait for the film to make a sweeping statement or for the main character to suddenly bust into monologue mode, and you’ll be waiting a while. That leaves the floor open to all kinds of discussion — whether “Night” is sympathetic to Williams’ character, whether it’s making a statement about the goodwill of Americans, or any number of other interpretations in between. Your best bet, in fact, may be to sit back and see “Night” for what it is: suspenseful entertainment. Will she or won’t she? Avoid reading the back of the DVD case, with spoils far too much, and see for yourself.
Extras: Writer/director commentary

The Sarah Silverman Program. Season One (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
Sarah Silverman is a one-woman cottage industry dedicated to slamming overexposed blonde Hollywood princesses, but that’s not all she is. Surprisingly — if you’ve never heard of it, anyway — “The Sarah Silverman Program” isn’t a sketch show or a standup show or anything of that sort, but a sitcom starring an alternate-universe Silverman, an alternate-universe version of her sister (Laura Silverman), a mustached cop (Jay Johnston) and two token gay neighbors (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee). That said, the fingerprints on the show are definitely hers, and the finished product resembles a mix between “Strangers With Candy’s” absurd melodrama and “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” failed experiments in social behavior. It’s not as ingenious as either of those shows, and the musical numbers are a bit much. But it’s definitely different and — particularly when Posehn and Agee are on screen — often very funny.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, musical performances, karaoke, animatics.

Docurama Film Festival IV (NR, 1989-2007, Docurama)
Docurama’s annual DVD film festival seems to bring out the best in its catalog, and the 10 selections (nine new) that comprise “Docurama Film Festival IV” might be the festival’s most compelling body of work yet. Subjects include secret atomic bomb-making apparatuses (the glib but scary “Building Bombs”), a 29-year-old nobody taking on the political machine (“Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”) and what five teachers experience in their first year on a very tough job (“The First Year”). If you’d prefer something lighter, there’s always “Wanderlust,” which dissects the phenomenon known as the road trip movie, and “I Like Killing Flies,” which takes us inside one of the most unique restaurants on the planet. (No, they don’t serve flies.) As always, you can buy the films separately or together at a discount, and you can log onto to “experience” the festival and discuss the films with others. (In a nice touch, Docurama actually updated the site this year after puzzlingly ignoring it last time.) Details on all 10 films, including extras, can be found at the site.

Jericho: The First Season (NR, 2006, CBS)
Without anybody’s help, Jericho, Kan., was a pretty small town. But even the smallest of towns can shrink ever more when a nuclear mushroom cloud lights the horizon a few hundred miles away and subsequently knocks out power and communication with the rest of the country. As ensemble dramas go, “Jericho” is a funny breed. It’s not hurting for characters and stories to tell, but it’s not likely to inspire favorites in the same way other ensemble shows often do. Even the main character (Skeet Ulrich) is a bit annoying, and that’s to say nothing of the morose teenager (Erik Knudsen) and the big-city IRS employee (Alicia Coppola) who constantly reminds us she’s from a big city. Fortunately, “Jericho” has enough storytelling angles so as not to lean on its characters for too much support. Uncovering the secrets of the town — and, naturally, finding out what caused the explosion and what happens next — makes for some fun television. Lennie James, Gerald McRaney and Kenneth Mitchell, among several others, also star.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of feature and a feature on the post-World War II nuclear arms race.

Just the Extras: New Special Editions Now Available
— “Misery: Collector’s Edition” (R, 1990, Fox): Director commentary, screenwriter commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features.
— “The Jungle Book: 40th Anniversary Platinum Edition” (G, 1967, Disney): Mixed commentary with animators from today and yesterday, making-of feature, seven bonus songs, alternate take of “Bare Necessities” song, and a look at a character who never made it into the finished film.
— “Babel: Collector’s Edition” (R, 2006, Paramount): Feature-length behind-the-scenes director video diary.
— “Elizabeth: Spotlight Series” (R, 1998, Universal): Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery, sneak peek at the sequel.
— “Species: Collector’s Edition” (R, 1995, MGM): Cast/director commentary, director/crew commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features, alternate ending, image gallery, sneak peak at the sequel.
— “Funny Face: 50th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1957, Paramount): Paramount retrospective, two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

Games 9/26: Halo 3, Eternal Sonata

PDF Clip: Games 2007-09-26

Halo 3
For: Xbox 360
From: Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, mild language, violence)

The best thing Bungie could do for “Halo 3” was apply the lessons it learned from the two chapters that preceded it. For the most part, that’s what it did.

Consequentially, “3’s” single-player campaign is the series’ best. Stale treks through indoor corridors are rare, backtracking is minimal, and with exception to one soon-to-be notorious level, you rarely fight alone. That’s a direct product of both the storyline and the fantastic new addition of four-player online co-op. But it’s also Bungie giving players what they want: large-scale skirmishes on enormous battlegrounds with more weapons, enemies, vehicles and ways to win than ever before.

Despite the upsurge in activity, “3’s” campaign also is the series’ shortest and most accessible. Checkpoints are more frequent than before, and the addition of special items that do everything from regenerate health to create insta-shields certainly help your cause. If you’re accustomed to playing “Halo” on Normal difficultly, you might want to try “3” on Heroic. Fortunately, co-op play and an optional but fun points challenge make the campaign worth at least two replays.

That, of course, is to say nothing of multiplayer.

That Bungie has comprehensively improved on “Halo 2” — a game still in massive rotation on Xbox Live three years after release — is almost good enough. Maps are bigger and more varied, and the firepower balance is improved despite an increase in weapon variety and the introduction of the aforementioned special items. You can customize matches to a ridiculous degree, and players can veto unpopular game types and maps if a majority agrees.

But it’s the community features that elevate “3” to a new plane of longevity. You can sink hours into the Theater mode, which automatically records your most recent play sessions (campaign or multiplayer) and allows you to edit, save, trade and dissect them from any angle or perspective. But you can eat just as much time in the new Forge mode, which lets you edit multiplayer maps and slip into and out of God mode while a live game is in progress. The game types you can invent — and subsequent havoc you can wreak — have no end.

Totaled up, “3” is a stunning package, and it puts lesser but equally-priced games to shame by piling on so much quality and value. If you have a Live account, no game will give you your money’s worth like this one will.


Eternal Sonata
For: Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, use of alcohol)

Some people like the idea of role-playing games more than the actual genre itself. Others simply cannot justify dedicating 70-100 hours of their lives just to see how one ends.

For both audiences, and any RPG enthusiasts hungry for a change of pace, “Eternal Sonata” may provide some salvation.

For starters, “Sonata” is a 30-ish-hour game — short by modern RPG standards, but longer than most story-driven games in other genres. The story path the game takes is pretty linear, and players rarely will find themselves drawn off the main road by side missions or dull fetch quests. The narrative chugs ahead, and outside of searching for hidden paths that lead to rare weapons and armor, you’ll do the same.

“Sonata” also takes measures to minimize the need for “grinding,” that fun-draining practice of leveling up your character’s stats in lieu of an important boss fight. Characters level up liberally, and opportunities for raking in gold for potions and other protections are everywhere if you know where to look. The game eschews random encounters in favor of placing enemies in plain sight, and you typically can avoid filler battles whenever you’d rather push forward.

Funny thing, though: The fights are so much fun, you might actually seek them out.

Like most RPGs, “Sonata’s” fights play out in turns. Within those turns, though, it transforms into an action game. You can move, attack and perform special moves in real time whenever its your turn, and you can block attacks with perfectly-timed button presses when it’s an enemy’s turn. It’s a terrific system that blends mindless action, reflexes and strategy, and here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of it.

(For an especially good time, play with friends. “Sonata” offers three-player co-op, but only offline, not over Live.)

“Sonata’s” music-centric storyline takes place inside the mind of a dying Frederic Chopin (yes, the composer), and the creative liberties the game takes with that premise keep things interesting even when the narrative occasionally plateaus.

The dreamy premise also makes way for what is, bar none, one of the prettiest and most musically gifted games of 2007. “Sonata’s” environments are soaked in color and detail, and its character designs redefine how cel-shaded graphics should look. The voiced dialogue that comes out of these characters’ mouths is fairly awkward, but the music is so good that your ears never suffer for long.

DVD 9/25: Knocked Up, Tekkonkinkreet, Severance, Bug, A Dog's Breakfast, Next, Broken, Zoo

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-09-25

Knocked Up: Extended & Unrated (NR, 2007, Universal)
She (Katherine Heigl) is successful, pretty and semi-semi-famous. He (Seth Rogen) is jobless, not very pretty, and living with four roommates (Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel and Martin Starr) who are different versions of him. But alcohol is a funny thing, and you know where this one is going just by the title on the box. Fortunately, “Knocked Up” isn’t pushing unpredictability as its main asset, and it barely matters that you largely can guess what happens in act three just as easily as you can predict act one. What matters is that the movie is funny — sometimes broadly, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes through a simple throwaway line that makes you laugh a full 30 seconds after someone says it. Best of all, the only bodily function joke come in the form of a grumbling stomach. “Knocked Up” does comedy the nice, hard way, and it manages to be that extremely rare guy film that the women will cherish just as much as the men. This is as feel-good as feel-good comedy gets.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, bloopers, 10 behind-the-scenes features, video diaries, live music, two “best lines” compilations.

Tekkonkinkreet (R, 2006, Sony Pictures)
Numerous camps are fighting for ownership of Treasure Town, a once-proud metropolis that is rotting away at an alarming rate. Interested parties include a cracking Yakuza and a posse of impossibly powerful aliens, but it’s the smallest party of all — a boy named Black and his little brother, White — that elevate “Tekkonkinkreet” from an exquisite anime to an absolutely enchanting one. The no-nonsense premise allows “Tekkonkinkreet” to run wild in areas of higher concern, and the result is a fascinating cast of characters, a city with real history and a dense, arguably epic story that practically tells itself. The attention to detail in “Tekkonkinkreet’s” art is stunning, but it’s merely keeping up with the rest of the film’s appetite for nuance. You need not love anime to love this. Were “Tekkonkinkreet” a live-action film with the same storyline, people would lose their minds en masse.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, making-of feature, interviews.

Severance (R, 2006, Magnolia)
A handful of employees from Palisade Defence [sic] are headed, whether they like it or not, to a cabin in the woods for a team-building retreat. That alone is enough to strike fear in the hearts of many, but “Severance” ups the ante by unleashing a crazed killer who is hiding in the woods and has nothing to do with any planned workplace activities. Aside from the workplace twist, “Severance” arranges itself in a fashion similar to so many cabin-in-the-woods horror films. But it’s that little twist that pushes the movie ahead of the pack, and “Severance” takes uses that nudge to balance gore, comedy and some genuine “oh no” moments in a way few horror films are equipped to do. (Wait, for instance, until you see how the paintball team-building exercise ends. Not pretty, and yet strangely relatable.) Also nice: A second twist near the beginning of the film’s climax that throws a wrench into the story, modernizes it on a wholly different level, and ensures it won’t run out of steam before the credits roll.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, eight behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, outtakes, alternate ending storyboard, Palisade corporate video.

Bug (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
It’s a little too easy to make assumptions about “Bug” on first glance. We’ve all seen enough horror films to practically bet farms on “Bug” being about some onslaught or another of bugs. Guess what? That, technically, is what it is. But calling “Bug” a film about bugs is like calling “The Wizard of Oz” a film about a road trip. There’s a point A and there’s a point B, but what happens between those points lies one of the wildest mishmashes of contemporary foil-hat paranoia and classic horror hat-tipping ever crammed into a single space. Details will not be spilled here, because sitting in cold disbelief as the film descends into madness is what seeing “Bug” is all about. Just know that it’s completely insane, totally fun, and powered by some of the most fantastic acting that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr. and Lynn Collins star.
Extras: Director interview and commentary, introduction.

A Dog’s Breakfast (PG-13, 2006, MGM)
Patrick (David Hewlett) is a bit unbalanced. And when he hears what he believes is his sister’s (Kate Hewlett) would-be husband (Paul McGillion) plotting her murder, he does what any unbalanced good brother would do and tries to off him first. Unfortunately, as with everything else in Patrick’s life, murder isn’t easy. Comedy isn’t much easier, but “A Dog’s Breakfast” hits more often that it misses. The comedy is awfully broad for the most part, and while “Breakfast” manages its share of great lines, the domino of resulting hijinks is more amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious. Still, amusing is miles better than bad, and that’s something “Breakfast” never is. The story is fun, the characters are likeable in spite of themselves, and a big twist down line is satisfying regardless of whether you see it coming or not. It’s riddled with logic holes, but the film is so beyond ridiculous at that point that it hardly matters.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Next (PG-13, 2007, Paramount)
Illusionist Cris ‘Frank Cadillac’ Johnson (Nicolas Cage) isn’t your typical magician, because your typical magician can’t see into the future like he can. The catch is, he can see only his future, and he can only see two minutes ahead of present time. At least that’s mostly the catch, but the caveats are hard to explain unless you see the movie yourself. That’s part of the problem with “Next.” The hook is pretty clever, but when you pad the film with a story about terrorists, a kidnapping and a nuclear weapon set to detonate in Los Angeles, something is bound to break at some point. Sure enough, “Next” gets careless with its rules, and the film gets sloppy before delivering an ending that, while interesting, will strike some as a cop-out. It doesn’t help matters that, even with the original initial setup, “Next” generally feels pretty stock, touting a predictable love interest (Jessica Biel), a threat that never feels like a real threat, and an gaggle of FBI agents who resemble actors playing FBI agents more than actual agents. Julianne Moore also stars.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.

Broken (NR, 2006, Dimension Extreme)
When Hope (Nadja Brand) awakes, she finds herself inside a reinforced pine box. Upon being let out by her captor (Eric Colvin) — and after discovering she’s already been badly injured — she’s given a choice: Do something terrible to stay alive and see her kid again, or give up die. In other words, this is, at least at first, a lost episode of “Saw.” But rather than continue down that road, “Broken” slows it down, and the film becomes a tug-of-war between Hope’s emerging Stockholm Syndrome and her desire to punish her captor and escape. Unfortunately, that simply leads to more punishment and precious little else. Like far too many contemporary horror films, “Broken” seems more concerned with getting off on torturing its cast than explaining why he’s a predator and she’s the prey. It also gives you nothing to truly root for — a small problem that unexpectedly blossoms into a soul-sucking deal-breaker during the film’s last scene.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, making-of feature, Brand interview, photo gallery.

Zoo (NR, 2007, ThinkFilm)
No sense dancing around it: “Zoo” is a documentary about bestiality. Specifically, it’s about Kenneth Pinyan, a Seattle man who died after attempting to have sex with a horse. No sense dancing around this either: It’s terrible. Presumably to avoid the shock film tag, “Zoo” tries to tell Pinyan’s story with delicate strokes. Footage of the encounter exists, but it’s not here, and the film largely consists of actors reenacting the various accounts that provide the film’s narrative track. Many who see “Zoo” will interpret the soft approach as a means of sympathizing for Pinyan rather than condemning him or abstaining from editorializing at all. But even if you can look past whatever your gut tells you, it’s hard to overcome the complete feeling of emptiness all that dancing leaves behind. The acting often is silly and overdone, the soundtrack is relentlessly heavy, and the film’s climax is so absurdly pretentious that it makes you forget what little insight into Pinyan’s behavior the preceding hour-plus might have offered. Whatever “Zoo” set out to accomplish, mission failed.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary.