Games 11/21: Super Mario Galaxy, Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4

PDF Clip: Games 2007-11-21

Super Mario Galaxy
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

One of the most telling things one can say about “Super Mario Galaxy” is that Nintendo has delivered a game that’s a bigger joy to play upside-down than most games are right-side up.

As you might have gleaned from various teaser videos and screenshots, “Galaxy” takes the gameplay of “Super Mario 64” and literally sends it into the stratosphere. As such, large portions of the game take place in space, with Mario running around tiny planetoids with self-contained gravitational fields.

In other words, portions of the game take place upside-down. And here’s the beautiful thing: It almost instantly feels natural.

In spite of some wild new level designs and the presence of the Wiimote-and-Nunchuck control setup, “Galaxy” immediately feels like a “Mario” game. Connoisseurs of 3D “Mario” games need not even crack the manual. Just about every one of Mario’s moves makes a seamless transition over to the Wii, and if you trust your instincts, you’ll immediately know how to execute all of them.

“Galaxy,” as it should, keeps the Wii-specific alterations to a minimum. Outside of a handy spin attack, most of the motion controls are relegated to special, one-off challenges that are best left unspoiled. A second player can use a second Wiimote to help (or hinder) you in a few minor ways, but this doesn’t change the game so much as add a fun social element to a traditionally solo endeavor.

Instead, and in most triumphant fashion, “Galaxy” makes waves in the level design department. A far cry from “Super Mario Sunshine’s” single-minded tropical setting, “Galaxy’s” destinations are bursting with variety and surprise, often changing its design on a dime multiple times within a single challenge. There may be no game that serves up surprise as consistently and relentlessly as this one does. It never stops — even after you beat the game, at which point a new development occurs that may make you want to play it all over again.

Happily, Nintendo hasn’t dumbed “Galaxy” down to give it more mass appeal. Less experienced players need only beat roughly half the game’s challenges to see the game’s ending, but true “Mario” warriors will savor the more dastardly levels Nintendo has in store for them. Collecting all 120 stars is a massive undertaking, and it ranks among the most fun endeavors in all of gaming this — or, frankly any other — year.


Mass Effect
For: Xbox 360
From: Bioware/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes, violence)

Of the many huge games to release this fall, none come bigger than “Mass Effect,” a multi-genre space epic so ambitious as to intimidate even seasoned gamers and push a seemingly powerful gaming console to the brink of its comfort zone.

On the surface, “Effect” is a competent squad-based shooter in the “Gears of War” vein. Controls and camera angles are similar, and the game’s use of cover leads to some tense shootouts that regularly leave you one stupid mistake away from death.

But beneath this surface beats the heart of a Bioware game, and true to the lineage of its creators, “Effect” comes positively loaded with role-playing goodness. Characters, weapons and abilities are upgradeable in a cornucopia of ways, and “Effect’s” vast galaxy absolutely teems with special weapons, armor and items to discover and modify.

Between the wealth of role-playing options and a massive galaxy of star systems and planets to discover (some play a part in the main storyline, but several are entirely optional), “Effect” delivers an adventure that could eat anywhere from 30 to 100 or more hours of your life.

And that’s only if you play it once. Per usual, Bioware has crafted a lovingly detailed means of letting the player drive the story, and you can embody the good soldier or a rogue agent based on the choices you make throughout the game’s many storytelling sequences. Given how rich the “Effect” universe is and how expertly the story is told, you may wish to experience both sides of it.

The upshot of all this ambition is that, often, Bioware leaves you to your own devices, free to explore a massive galaxy but not always sure of the best means of moving forward. Everything from character upgrades to driving the moon buggy on uncharted planets comes with a learning curve, and that’s on top of the horde of names, faces and places to juggle as the story swells. If you’re looking for some mindless gaming that goes down easy, this isn’t it. The reward for playing “Effect” is immense, but some dedication is requested if you wish to reap it.

The grandeur takes its toll on the 360 as well, chiefly in the form of some long load times and persistent framerate inconsistencies during heavy combat. Neither is a deal-killer, but the framerate drops are an aggravating (and seemingly avoidable) distraction from an otherwise exhilarating experience.


Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PC
From: Infinity Ward/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Another year, another “Call of Duty.”

On a few levels, that’s all you need to hear, for reasons both good and bad. After handing the reins to another developer for “Call of Duty 3,” Infinity Ward is back in the driver’s seat for the sequel, and its fingerprints are all over “Modern Warfare.”

That’s mostly good news, because no one makes a war game quite like these guys do. But the downfalls of “Call of Duty 2” — a poor cover system, meathead enemy A.I. and some blatant instances of enemies continually respawning after you kill one off — return unscathed in “Warfare,” and they’re less forgivable two years later. It’s hard to formulate an intelligent attack plan when killing an enemy soldier just prompts a new one to appear in his place.

This rather grievous offense would be unforgivable if the things “Warfare” does do differently weren’t so awe-inspiring.

No longer constricted by the events of World War II, Infinity Ward steps into the present day and delivers a knockout of a story that players will experience from multiple perspectives. Without spoiling anything, firefights take place in some ingeniously designed locales, and the storytelling is leagues beyond the between-mission filler we typically get in war games. Frustrating as “Warfare’s” gameplay can sometimes be, it’s impossible to not keep fighting all the way through the exhilarating final sequence.

(It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is awfully easy on the eyes. War never looked so good.)

Groundbreaking though the single-player experience may be, “Warfare’s” true value likely will reveal itself on the multiplayer side. It’s also where the franchise sees the most growth.

Infinity Ward has taken the usual multiplayer modes and infused them with a leveling system that rewards you with new weapons and gear as you accrue experience in the field. This is problematic for latecomers and causal players, who are overmatched to begin with and will find themselves increasingly overpowered as more dedicated players rack up experience and better weapons. “Warfare’s” flawed matchmaking system doesn’t prevent rookies and veterans from occasionally mixing it up, either.

The upside, of course, is that you have a reason to play beyond the simple joy of playing (which should kick in fully once Infinity Ward fully irons out some nagging server issues on both platforms). Victory alone is nice, but victory and a cool new set of armor definitely is better.

Games 11/14: Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am

PDF Clip: Games 2007-11-14

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am
For: Playstation 2
From: Creat Studios/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, language, mature humor drug reference, cartoon violence, suggestive themes)

The good news about ” Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am” is that, at $30, it’s affordably priced by video game standards. That allows fans of the hilariously funny “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” cartoon to purchase it on impulse and play through it to see some exclusive new content, including a brand-new episode.

The attractive price also is, for many of the same reasons, bad news. What “Pro-Am” doesn’t do to your wallet, it most certainly will do to your patience and will, regardless of how deep your “ATHF” fandom goes.

For whatever reason, Creat Studios decided “Aqua Teen” fans would want a golf game, so that’s primarily what “Pro-Am” is. The twist is that, between shots, you have to manually walk to wherever you hit the ball. On your way there, you’ll be swarmed by enemies and must defeat them before taking your next swing. You fight as both Frylock and Shake, and can switch between characters on the fly.

The combat element helps “Pro-Am” make sense of the golf approach, but it’s a black hole of fun due to a rash of technical problems straight out of the early days of 3D. The fighting controls are super-sloppy, collision detection is terrible, the characters are slow and choppily animated, and the action ranges from shallow to cheap.

This sadly, comes on top of a golf engine that’s equally inadequate. “Pro-Am” uses a traditional three-click swing system, but it’s often inaccurate, to the point that even chip shots sometimes travel nowhere near where you aim them. That’s assuming you can aim them anyway — a tricky proposition when the only means of viewing the course you’re on is through a broken landing cam.

Topping off the triumvirate of botched game styles is a kart racing game using golf carts. The same problems — poor control, sloppy technical execution — apply here as well.

The only possible reason to play through “Pro-Am” is, of course, the writing. It’s true to the show, and when you’re not seeing red because of the sludge of frustration you must wade through to get to the cut-scenes, it’s pretty funny. The major characters make appearances, the show’s voice and writing talent are on board, and the graphics are faithful (for better or worse) to the show’s look.

If that’s worth $30 and a few hours of blood-curdling frustration, then by all means, enjoy. But you’ve been warned.

DVD 11/13: Flight of the Conchords S1, Ocean's Thirteen, Blame it on Fidel!, Stalking Santa, Heavens Fall, Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth, Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-11-13

Flight of the Conchords: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, HBO)
Where the Conchords go, a sea of raised eyebrows and cocked heads are likely to follow. That’s because the tale of two New Zealand musicians (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie), their manager (Rhys Darby), their stalker (Kristen Schaal) and their adventures in New York City is almost unquestionably the strangest new comedy of the year. Imagine a half hour of awkward dialogue — in the vein of the British version of “The Office,” but without the mockumentary approach — interrupted by two or three instances of Jermaine and Bret spontaneously breaking out into song. That’s how “Conchords” plays out, and it’s perfectly reasonable to not even know whether you like the show or not after seeing an episode. With time and acclimation, though, the genius of it all starts to rise to the top. “Conchords” never stops being weird, but the wall of brilliantly funny exchanges — and the parody songs that miraculously manage to incite just as many laughs — is harder to deny with each passing episode. Go in with an open mind, and you may come out with a new favorite show.
Contents: 12 episodes, no extras.

Ocean’s Thirteen (PG-13, 2007, Warner Bros.)
After the bloated bore that was “Ocean’s Twelve,” the prospect of an even busier sequel to a sequel no one needed wasn’t exactly mouthwatering. That left “Ocean’s Thirteen” in a position to pleasantly surprise — which, happily, is exactly what it does. Eschewing the endless train of Hollywood in-jokes that made its predecessor so disposable, “Thirteen” gets back to the business of heisting casinos, investing its energy in the kind of clever scheming that made “Ocean’s Eleven” so much fun. Having to divide a two-plus-hour film among such a massive A-list cast (now including Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin) remains the franchise’s biggest problem, but the division of labor feels much more even this time around. That means less of Clooney, Pitt and Damon than one might expect, but more of the great supporting characters (Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan) who prove every bit as, if not more, valuable to keeping the entertainment flowing.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Blame it on Fidel! (NR, 2006, Koch Lorber)
The communist revolution in the early 1970s left sweeping, global repercussions in its wake. More acutely, though, it really screwed up a good thing for nine-year-old Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey), whose parents abandoned the comforts of modern living in order to fight on the front lines of what seemed like a good idea at the time. Given the subject matter, “Blame it on Fidel!” can’t help but be (a) a period piece and (b) a film about politics. But filtering the period and politics through the timeless worldview of a nine-year-old changes the landscape considerably, transforming just another film about the ’70s into a brilliant little comedy about a kid who can’t — but valiantly attempts to — understand why the world’s needs are sometimes more important than her having to bunk with her snoring little brother (Benjamin Feuillet). The ultimate message — that nobody knows everything about everything — is something anyone can get behind, and the kids’ misadventures in current events education are as sneakily intelligent as they are funny. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.

Stalking Santa (NR, 2007, Excel Entertainment)
Some might classify Lloyd Darrow (Chris Clark) as unemployed. Lloyd, on the other hand, would prefer to call himself a scientist. And this Christmas season, with the support of his wife (Lisa Clark), kids and trusty intern/sidekick/doormat Clarence (Daryn Tufts), he stands determined to provide smoking-gun proof that Santa Claus exists. The deluge of mostly sub-par holiday DVDs already is in third gear, but “Stalking Santa” very possibly could (or at least deserves to) weather the storm of mediocrity and emerge as one of the few must-see releases of the season. Shot in mockumentary fashion, “Santa” takes stylistic cues from every bad exposé you’ve ever seen about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and infuses them into a wonderfully funny story of one very pathetic man’s pursuit of the impossible. In fact, by the time the novelty of the approach wears off, Lloyd has emerged as such a tragicomic figure that “Santa” actually improves as it progresses. The steady stream of hilarious dialogue doesn’t hurt, either. William Shatner narrates, and it’s hard to imagine a voice more suited for the job.
Extras: Santa artifacts feature, deleted scenes.

Heavens Fall (PG-13, 2006, Allumination Filmworks)
Narratively speaking, “Heavens Fall” is a paint-by-numbers telling of a true story — in this case, a 1931 miscarriage of justice that sent nine black men to jail for crimes they never committed against two white women. Being faithful in this case is anything but a bad thing, of course, but it does make the film a hard sell. Hollywood has told variations of this story a number of times in a number of films, and not everybody has an appetite for one more. What ultimately saves “Fall” — or at least gives it tangible value as something other than a “me too” film — is the cast (Timothy Hutton, Anthony Mackie, Will Owens and several more) that brings the story to life. These are familiar roles with mostly predictable destinies, but the actors in their charge play them with enough vibrancy to give the material the emotion and import it deserves. That especially applies to Hutton, who demonstrates for the umpteenth time that not all actors are created anything close to equal.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth (NR, 2007, Anchor Bay)
Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) has a surprise for the handful of colleagues attending his farewell party: He’s more than 14,000 years old, even if he doesn’t look a day over 40, and he’s witnessed countless world events his friends can only read in textbooks. Suddenly, a lame party in a cabin turns into an interrogation as his friends scramble to figure out whether he’s legit or legitimately crazy. And that’s what “The Man From Earth” mostly is: a heated conversation inside a cabin, captured on video. While gifted with a great concept and some smart interplay, “Earth” can’t help but lose its grip on our suspension of disbelief. The exchanges following John’s reveal manage to engage for a while, but once John starts talking about the experiences he claims to have had, it basically turns into a campfire story. That’s still enough to rattle the mostly unlikable friends who live in his reality. We, however, remain stuck on the outside, fully aware that “Earth” is a work of fiction and that Oldman’s story is an inconsequential product of someone else’s imagination. Once immersion is lost, intrigue isn’t far behind.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, four behind-the-scenes features.

Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement (NR, 2007, Disinformation Co.)
Hope you’re sitting down, because filmmaker Alex “TerrorStorm” Jones has some bad news for you. Apparently, a secret group of elites known as the Bilderberg Group meets annually to flex its ultimate plan of merging all world governments into one, reducing the human population by 80 percent and enslaving whatever remains inside walled super-cities. Fortunately, hope need not be lost just yet, because while “Endgame” talks a big game, it never manages to provide any satisfactory link between public knowledge of the not-so-secret group and the wild claims about its intentions. Instead, Jones fills the bloated 140-minute piece with unsubstantiated and insultingly misleading claims about past and current events that often are contradicted by the material he himself flashes ever so quickly past the screen. (Thank goodness for pause buttons.) Coupled with scenes in which Jones plays a revolutionary but looks instead like a kook with an axe to grind, “Endgame” ends up providing more unintentional entertainment value than anything else. That’s probably the last thing Jones wanted, but by his own hand, it’s all he deserves.
Extras: More footage, music performance

Games 11/07: Zack & Wiki, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party

PDF Clip: Games 2007-11-07

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Every time you try to do anything in the first level of “Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure,” the game interrupts to slowly demonstrate how to do what you already know how to do. The source of these interruptions: a sidekick/monkey named Wiki, whose inclusion in the game’s title suggests he isn’t going anywhere.

Wiki’s constant interruptions inspire fear that, because “Z&W” is an old-fashioned adventure game on a very new-fashioned (and mass-market) gaming console, Capcom has decided to hold our hands tightly as compensation. Factor in the cutesy (albeit technically impressive) graphical style, and one can’t help but pigeonhole this as a game for kids.

Fortunately, level two changes everything. The coddling stops, and “Z&W” suddenly comes into its own as an ingeniously fun point-and-click adventure game that’s far more intelligent than first impressions imply.

While a storyline glues it together, “Z&W” essentially is a collection of levels, with each level presenting a treasure to acquire and a handful of cause-and-effect puzzles to solve in order to reach the treasure. Imagine a micro-sized version of the dungeons in a “Zelda” game, and you can loosely understand how these puzzles present themselves.

The big difference, of course, is the point-and-click interface — a concept almost completely foreign to console gamers.

Fear not. It works. The indirect control you have over Zack’s movement (point the cursor, press button, and there he goes) gives “Z&W” enough of a console game feel to flatten the adjustment curve, and the game makes numerous clever uses of the Wiimote when you’re interacting with the many items Zack can use. Players who like some head-cracking with their puzzle-solving won’t find much here, but the puzzles more than compensate by being both legitimately challenging and relentlessly original.

“Z&W’s” lone stumble, beyond the first level and the occasional puzzle that falls flat, is a scoring system that penalizes you for taking chances that don’t pan out. Overcoming a tricky level should never feel anything less than rewarding, but it’s hard to get excited when the game gives you a lousy score for being adventurous.

Furthermore, there’s no satisfaction in gunning for your high scores. Once you’ve solved a level, it takes no skill whatsoever to go back, do everything right, and “achieve” a perfect mark. Fortunately, the score system doesn’t impede your progress through the game’s otherwise sterling adventure, so you generally can ignore it.


Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PC, Macintosh
From: Neversoft/RedOctane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

It’s been a “Dear Diary” kind of year for “Guitar Hero,” which could only watch as its creator (Harmonix) not only abandoned it, but immediately began work on a new game (“Rock Band”) that some trumpeted as the first nail in “Hero’s” coffin.

Through it all, and despite being in the hands of a new developer, “Guitar Hero III” arrives pretty much as the same game we’ve always known “Hero” to be. New developer Neversoft adds some new features to the mix, but it almost completely leaves alone the gameplay that made “Hero” such a startlingly popular hit. The interface rearranges a graphical element or two, but if you dive into this game with any prior experience, you’ll need little more than a brief once-over before finding yourself completely back at home.

(That goes as well, conversely, for the game’s graphical style, which is familiar but more outdated than ever on the PS3 and 360.)

“GH3” gets its “Legends of Rock” tag from one of Neversoft’s new ideas: boss battles. Sparsely scattered among an otherwise familiar career mode is a handful of duels against rock legends, and the objective is to outplay them and cause their strings to break before they do the same to you. The battles add a tangible roadblock to a career mode that generally molds itself to accommodate all abilities, but they’re scarce and, on some occasions, avertable if the game senses you aren’t up to the challenge. For those same reasons, they provide a fun and unobtrusive change of pace.

Elsewhere, “GHIII” improves the experience in small but important ways. A new co-op career mode allows two players to work with instead of against each other. For the more combative types, a suite of online play options are available on the 360, PS3 and (untested) Wii versions. The new Les Paul guitar controller not only cuts the wires on those three systems, but also features more comfortable buttons, a more responsive strum bar and a detachable neck for easier transport.

Last but definitely not least, there’s the soundtrack. After “GH2’s” mixed bag and the debacle that was “Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s,” it’s nice to see Neversoft dig in and deliver a lineup that’s loud, fast and entirely reflective of the game’s larger-than-life style. (A full track list is available at Maybe the competition made them do it, maybe not. Either way, bravo.


Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics)

For that segment of the population that looks at the Wii and salivates about its calorie-cutting potential, “Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party” likely stands as the most significant piece of good news until “Wii Fit” arrives in 2008.

Of course, “Party” is marketed as a game first and a fitness tool second, with the emphasis this time on getting multiple sets of feet on the dance floor. Standard “DDR” conventions apply, but “Party” fans the multiplayer flames by tossing various combinations of two- and four-player competitive, cooperative and team play modes into the mix. Additionally, the game mixes things up by tossing in special objects you can use to penalize opponents’ scores, block their screen and more.

Taking full advantage of these modes, of course, means plugging in extra dance pads. The pad that ships in the “Party” bundle plugs into one of the Wii’s Gamecube controller ports. That’s good news, because that means you can use any Gamecube dance pads you might already own for multiplayer purposes. But that’s also bad news, because any hope of getting a wireless dance pad is lost. In fact, the cord is disappointingly short, making it hard to spread multiple pads out depending on your setup.

If logistics kill your dream of dancing alongside three of your friends, “Party’s” fitness-friendly attitude still gives it immense value for solo players. Konami has fleshed out the workout mode beyond the modest stat-tracking system of games past. This time, you can set a goal for how many calories you wish to burn and establish some workout parameters, and “Party” will let you know when you reach your goal. It’s by no means a complete workout solution, but it is a fun and wholly legitimate way to impart some variety into your routine without feeling like you’re dogging it.

That’s truer than ever thanks to a feature — motion controls — that only a Wii “DDR” game can bring to the table. “Party” predictably complements foot steps with steps that involve moving your right and left arms with the Wiimote and Nunchuck, and the result predictably works once you get a sense of the timing discrepancies between arm and foot movement.

“DDR’s” track list runs 50 songs deep, and its quality, per usual, comes down to personal taste. The official “DDR” site doesn’t yet feature a full track listing, but you should be able to find it online without much difficulty.

DVD 11/6: Ratatouille, Pixar Short Films Collection V1, Sicko, Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, Project Runway S3, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Danny Roane: First Time Director, TV Roundup

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-11-06

Ratatouille (G, 2007, Disney/Pixar)
There’s Pixar, and there’s everyone else, and for those who need a reminder as to why that is, this story of a culturally-refined rat who takes Paris by storm will more than do. “Ratatouille” marks the return of Brad “The Incredibles” Bird to the director’s chair, and Bird once again answers the call by advancing the notion of what a computer-animated film can accomplish. This time, instead of delivering a film starring (gasp!) people, Bird creates the first Pixar film that doesn’t coast on a gimmick. A family of rats doesn’t seem too far removed from the gaggle of toys, bugs, monsters, marine life, superheroes or cars that powered previous films, but the film’s human characters and the world in which they live garners just as much screen time as the rats. When those worlds collide, “Ratatouille” ascends to a different plane of storytelling than the usual Pixar fare — immensely good news for anyone who found last year’s “Cars” too formulaic for comfort. For those who don’t care about any of that, though, worry not: Per usual, “Ratatouille” is (a) extremely funny (b) satisfying the whole way through and (c) unbelievably good-looking. All the bases are covered.
Extras: Two short films (“Your Friend the Rat” and “Lifted”), behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes.
— More Pixar this week: “Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1” (NR, 2007, Disney/Pixar): You know those awesome little shorts that play before most Pixar films? They’re finally together in what is one of the more overdue animated compilations of the DVD era. It’s a shame there isn’t any cutting-room floor material, though. Includes 13 shorts, plus commentary, a 23-minute retrospective, and four shorts that appeared on “Sesame Street.”

Sicko (PG-13, 2007, The Weinstein Co.)
Michael Moore is, at this point, damaged goods. By extension, so are his films. As such, while a fearless, big-budget examination of America’s healthcare system is long overdue, “Sicko” is hopelessly ill-fit to provide any sweeping value beyond whatever entertainment value it imparts while running. Moore is immensely gifted in the art of presentation, and “Sicko” is an enormously compelling movie with some unforgettable stories about good people losing an unfair fight to big medicine. But Moore’s tendency to paint some arguments with laughably broad strokes gives his film a credibility issue. (Anyone with relatives living outside the United States, for instance, can tell you that socialized medicine isn’t the foolproof idea Moore paints it to be here.) Once that problem enters the picture, questions arise, as they always do, about what else Moore feels like brushing over. Not that any of this matters, of course; Moore is far too polarizing a figure at this point to make any meaningful difference in the first place. The choir will follow him off a cliff, and his ability to strike fear into the hearts of executives is second to none, but any chance of rousing the general public has long passed him by.
Extras: Eight bonus segments (some of which were produced after the film’s theatrical release), interview gallery, music video.

Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who (NR, 2007, Universal)
Every music fan should be so lucky to have a film about their favorite band that’s in the same echelon as what fans of The Who now have. “Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who” is just what its title says: two hours of stories about Roger, Pete, Keith, John and eventually Kenney. What makes it so engaging, on top of a barrage of compelling images and footage, is the personal touch that ties it all together. The likes of Noel Gallagher, Eddie Vedder and The Edge pop in to share their thoughts, but the vast majority of “Journey” comes straight from the mouths of both the band’s surviving members and the behind-the-scenes people who witnessed the ride up close. Punches aren’t pulled, either. “Journey” packs a lot of storytelling into two hours — so much, in fact, that some will take umbrage with how quickly the story of Keith Moon’s passing rolls by. Beyond that arguable misstep, however, “Journey” rolls along at a perfect pace — measured enough to tell the story right, but relentless enough to prevent a dull moment from slipping in.
Extras: A second disc with a second, six-part, two-hour documentary, concert footage from 1964 (earliest known footage of the band playing together), scrapbook, 11-page booklet.

Project Runway: The Complete Third Season (NR, 2006, Weinstein Co.)
How good is “Project Runway,” you ask? “Project Runway” is so good, you don’t even need to love, like or even understand fashion to get into it. It’s also so good, you can hate reality programming and still love this. “Runway” is 15 desperate artists at the top of their game, on the cusp of their dream life and not necessarily equipped to not blow it all with one stupid mistake. That’s good drama in any genre, and “Runway” is loaded with enough talent and failure — and sometimes both at once — to elevate itself well beyond the sphere of most reality shows. Furthermore, the various competitions that separate the professionals from the amateurs are often pretty ingenious. If you’re worried that a show about 15 fashion designers translates into unbearable pretension and stuffiness, no need: “Runway’s” contestants are an odd lot, but only a few of them are genuinely full of themselves to the point of derision, and they merely satisfy the villain quotient that any good show needs.
Contents: 15 extended episodes, plus updates on the finalists (which, sadly, are spoiled on the back of the case, so ignore that if you want to be surprised), Tim Gunn feature, Gunn’s season blog, outtakes and designer bios.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (PG-13, 2007, Universal)
He’s Chuck (Adam Sandler)! And he’s Larry (Kevin James)! They’re firefighters, and due to a complicated scenario involving pension plans and Larry’s kids and late wife, they’re pretending not only to be gay, but married to each other. Hilarious, right? Hey, it could have been. On the Hollywood wheel of topics to milk dry, gay marriage represents an uncharted land with boundless material. That’s an exciting circumstance for some comedy writers, but an entirely terrifying proposition for “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” which is too afraid to be anything but yet another broad collection of fat and fart jokes. “C&L” isn’t sure whether it would profit more from making fun of gays or sticking up for them, so it simply does both and calls it a day, not so much as bending a blade of grass in that uncharted frontier outside of a funny one-liner or two. If the objective was to offend as few people as possible, mission accomplished — unless, of course, you consider wasting some hard-earned money and two hours of your time offensive. Jessica Biel and Ving Rhames also star.
Extras: Director-only commentary, James/Sandler/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), five behind-the-scenes features.

Danny Roane: First Time Director (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
It’s ever so en vogue to make a mockumentary these days … and why not? As Christopher Guest, “The Office” and even “Surf’s Up” have shown us, the mockumentary is a comedic goldmine when done right. The flip side, of course, is that when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing, disaster ensues. Take, for instance, “Danny Roane: First Time Director.” It stars and was written and directed by Andy Dick, and it’s 84 minutes of unadulterated disaster. Dick goes through the mockumentary motions — the weird cutaways, the awkward dialogue, the foot-in-mouth one-liners that give everything an faux-improvised feel. But it’s simply not funny, nor is it even particularly coherent. “Roane” isn’t even offensive, which at least would give it some trainwreck points. The final tally: a series of first takes cobbled into one agonizing, seemingly endless story of a former sitcom star who took a disastrous stab at writing and directing a film. If you’re waiting for the space-time continuum to fold on itself, you’re not alone.
Extras: Outtakes, extended scenes (in case they didn’t feel too long already).

More TV Worth Watching on DVD
— “Veronica Mars: The Complete Third Season” (NR, 2006, Warner Bros.): That this show even reached a third season is something of a television miracle, so we should probably be thankful for what we got. At least the show didn’t lose a step in its final hurrah, which finds Veronica (Kristen Bell) transitioning from high school student-slash-private detective into college freshman-slash-private detective. Includes 20 episodes, plus deleted scenes, bloopers, webisodes, multi-part behind-the-scenes feature, season four pitch feature.
— “Sesame Street: Old School, Volume 2: 1974-1979” (NR, 1974, Genius Entertainment): This entirely overdue collection is what it claims to be — hours of classic “Sesame Street” segments that, until now, were impossible to revisit. In addition to that sweet deal, “Volume 2” piles on the first episode ever made (which never has been broadcast), uncut premiere episodes from each of the six covered years, a 12-page booklet and an animation cel from the “Pinball Number Count” segment.
— “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition” (NR, 1990, CBS/Paramount): Odds are, if you live anywhere but under a rock, you’ve heard a thing or two about how bizarre this series was in its brief time on television. Chances to see for yourself have popped up, but none have been as inviting as this set, which compiles the whole series into one box. Includes 29 episodes, plus deleted scenes, a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary, David Lynch feature, fan feature, interactive map, the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, music video, promo spots, galleries and more.
— “Scrubs: The Complete Sixth Season” (NR, 2006, Buena Vista): It’s more of the same. But until “Scrubs” runs out of genuinely funny and/or saccharine observations about the medical profession, that’s just fine. And hey, there’s singing and dancing this time! Includes 22 episodes, plus commentary, a feature on the musical episode, interviews, deleted scenes, alternate lines, outtakes and bloopers.

Games 10/31: Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, The Simpsons Game, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation

PDF Clip: Games 2007-10-31

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction
For: Playstation 3
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, crude humor, fantasy violence, language)

Everybody dances in “Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction.” Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a grunt, boss character, ally or even a gun turret. If you throw a Groovitron and it lands in someone’s vicinity, they dance. Period.

The Groovitron, one of umpteen weapons and gadgets at your disposal in “Destruction,” has high strategic value, because enemies in a dance trance can’t hurt you. But it also underscores just how much care went into this game’s design. “Destruction” wouldn’t play any worse if every single character didn’t have his or her own unique dance animation, but Insomniac went ahead and made it so anyway. That level of detail is all over “Destruction,” and it’s what makes a game not terribly far removed from its predecessors a must-play all the same.

Improvements abound in “Destruction.” It’s exponentially prettier on the PS3 — not quite Pixar country, but certainly within striking distance. The story is more ambitious as well, overlaying the usual mix of adventure and comedy with some rather straight-faced insight into Ratchet’s origins. (Some will love the new direction, some won’t, and the ending won’t please everyone.) There are new weapons and gadgets to play with, naturally, and you now can selectively modify your arsenal with the terrific new upgrade tool, which operates in the same vein as a “Final Fantasy” character upgrade system. Insomniac also included some modest (and fun) support for the Sixaxis motion controls, but you can use the analog sticks for these sections instead if you prefer.

At its core, though, “Destruction” is a bigger, grander case of more of the same. And that’s mostly fine, because Insomniac has the science of creating an awesome action game down cold. From the moment the first cut-scene ends, “Destruction” propels you forward, and while you’re free to traverse the galaxy at your leisure, the game sits continually ready to drop you into one loaded set piece after another. In outline form, it’s formula. But the creativity and polish that bubbles under the surface of that formula leaves you hard-pressed to find a dull moment.

If “Destruction” leaves a hole anywhere, it’s in the multiplayer department. Given how brilliantly the PS2 and PSP “R&C” games did multiplayer, it definitely hurts not to see any such component in “Destruction.” Perhaps Insomniac will surprise us with a downloadable add-on. More likely, we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.


The Simpsons Game
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, animated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes)

There exist plenty of gamers who will play “The Simpsons Game,” regardless of how awful it is, simply to see it in motion and check out the storyline.

Fortunately for them, whatever plans EA had for making an awful “Simpsons” game were scrapped in favor of making a good one instead.

The vast majority of “TSG” plays out like a third-person action game. You star as Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and (occasionally) Maggie, with two characters (the computer or a friend controls the second character) partnering up at any given time. Each Simpson boasts unique special abilities: Homer can roll around like a ball, for instance, while Marge can round up angry mobs for any purpose.

Beyond a few nagging issues — namely, some unrefined jumping controls and a camera that goes awry in tight spaces — the action comes together shockingly well. The diverse superpowers give “TSG” lots of gameplay variety, and it also allows for some clever level and puzzle designs. Your A.I.-controlled partner seems to know when to act and when to wait for you, and you’ll almost never fail an objective because the game failed you first.

Pleasant a surprise as the gameplay turns out to be, it’s still the writing that ultimately rules the day, led by a storyline that’s a structurally incoherent but hysterically funny amalgamation of past “Simpsons” episodes and commentary about the video game industry. Brilliant, biting one-liners swarm from every direction, and the twists the writers create — be it a shocking boss character or a sudden transformation into an entirely new gameplay genre — are inspired to a jaw-dropping degree. (Wait until you see who the final two bosses are. Pure gold.)

Gameplay and writing aside, no review of “TSG” would be complete without noting just how insanely cool it is to finally experience a “Simpsons” video game that actually looks like the TV show. The cel shading style EA incorporates occasionally produces some hideous results, particularly during a small handful of cut-scenes that weren’t produced by the show’s animators. For the most part, though, it looks stunning, especially in motion. Being able to walk around the “Simpsons” universe as we know and love it has been a want of fans ever since the first 3D “Simpsons” game appeared, and the novelty of finally being able to do so isn’t something that will wear off any time soon.


Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, tobacco reference, language, violence)

The bright light of scrutiny shines hotter than ever on the “Tony Hawk” line of skateboarding games, which after nine years and nine games is hearing more cries than ever to take a break, retool, and return refreshed.

“Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground” won’t change that. It’s still arcade skating, and you still can pull off ridiculous strings of tricks no real-life skater could dare accomplish. The controls, save for a few new maneuvers, go largely untouched. The overarching storyline — you’re a nobody trying to become a somebody — also will ring familiar to “Hawk” veterans.

Still, the notion that “Ground” is merely last year’s game with new cities (Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore) and some new objectives isn’t fair. In fact, some of this year’s additions are among the best the series has seen, even if they’re sometimes too rough around the edges to reach their full potential.

Most notably — and with stark exception to a create-a-character tool that doesn’t let female gamers design a woman skater — “Ground” really lets the creative juices fly. The skate park editor has been integrated into the career mode in the form of a lounge, and you can alter both the architecture and ambience as you progress through your career. If you’re online, you also can invite other gamers into your lounge and host online competitions.

The creativity extends out into the game world. “Ground’s” career mode takes a cool new turn by offering three separate goal tracks, which you can tackle separately or simultaneously. While two of them are entirely about skating prowess, a third — rigger — has you constructing impromptu skate zones in the cities before executing tricks on them. The building tool isn’t as intuitive as it should be, but it’s always available, regardless of whether you’re pursuing the rigger track or simply want to build for fun.

A new video editor rounds out the package. Having to manually begin recording — as opposed to the game doing it automatically — is a bummer, but the tool is impressively robust otherwise.

The new features complement the old ones, and “Ground” once again offers enough content to make it a worthwhile purchase for its most ardent fans. Neversoft’s baby is no longer the critical darling it once was, and it certainly isn’t groundbreaking anymore. But until it stops being fun to play and stops hitting that pick-up-and-play sweet spot, who cares?


Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation
For: Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

Staying the course has rarely looked as good as it does in “Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation,” which makes the jump to the new generation of hardware in about as no-nonsense a fashion as could be expected.

The big news with “Liberation” is, without a doubt, how good it looks. The “Ace Combat” series has long been the premiere source of aviation eye candy on gaming consoles, and “Liberation” launches that reputation into the stratosphere. The game’s aircraft look stunning on the outside and from within the cockpit, and the environments look incredible at eye level and practically photorealistic from 7,000 feet above. It’s a shame Namco Bandai insists on basing the storyline in a fictional world, because the only thing “Liberation” lacks is that one-of-a-kind wow factor that comes from zipping around a real-life locale.

The other big story, perhaps predictably, is the series debut of online multiplayer. “Liberation” marks the first appearance of “Ace” on the Xbox platform, and that means Namco Bandai is now playing to a crowd that not only expects an online component, but one with plenty of legs.

Happily, the game delivers — perhaps a little too well. “Liberation” supports 16 fighters in the air at a time, and that almost always leads to action more frantic than most “Ace” veterans are used to experiencing. Everyone’s firing missiles at will, you’re continually in someone’s sights, and the balance between simulation and arcade that the single-player missions strike pretty much comes undone on Xbox Live.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, of course. “Liberation” packs in a ton of different individual and team-based modes, and the mayhem that ensues is terrifically entertaining once you adjust to the tempo. If all else fails, you can always sample the game’s two co-op missions, which are such unexpected and well-executed treats that you might wish the entire single-player campaign supported co-op play in some fashion.

Alas, no such luck. Instead, “Liberation’s” single-player component is more of what gamers have come to love and hate about past “Ace” games: good action, inane story, control support for both simulation and arcade fans, missions that are epically and sloppily designed within the same space, and a sparse checkpoint system that aggravate struggling players to no end. If past “Aces” got your blood pumping, be it for good reasons or bad, “Liberation” should deliver a similar result.

DVD 10/30: The Devil Came on Horseback, Talk to Me, Spider-man 3, My So-Called Life, Day Watch, Squidbillies V1, Miami Ink S1, Captivity

PDF Clip: DVD 2007-10-30

The Devil Came on Horseback (NR, 2007, Docurama)
Faced with a desk-job future, U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle instead headed to Darfur, Sudan, where he witnessed, firsthand, the genocide that has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. The first half of “The Devil Came on Horseback” is a document of this trip, supported by Steidle narrating letters he wrote back home and some horrific images and video. Unsurprisingly, it’s powerful stuff. What is surprising is that when all is said and done, it’s “Horseback’s” second half that leaves the strongest impression. Steidle returns to the United States with albums full of incredible, unprecedented images, and the wall of denial and indifference he runs into upon revealing these images is pretty galling. That wall has since begun to crumble, and Steidle is as responsible as anyone for that. But “Horseback” is perhaps the best illustration yet of what it takes to overcome the stiff indifference many feel about a corner of the world with which they have no direct relationship. It’s a shame only the pre-preached choir are likely to make any effort to see it. If “Horseback” belongs anywhere, it’s on television where unsuspecting eyes might catch it.
Extras: Short film “Supporting Survivors,” information about how you can help.

Talk to Me (R, 2007, Focus Features)
It’s hard to quantify that special quality that separates the great biopics from the bland ones. But whatever it is, it’s all over “Talk to Me,” which recounts the adventures of an ex-con (Don Cheadle as Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene) who, fittingly, talked his way into an on-air job at Washington, D.C.’s WOL Radio. Maybe it’s the inspiring true account of a guy who made something out of nothing in a big way. Maybe it’s Cheadle, whose talent is blinding when he’s having as much fun as he is here. Perhaps its Cheadle’s castmates (Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor), who don’t miss a step in keeping up with him. Or maybe it’s the awesome clothes, big hair and exceptional music that glue the whole production together. Take your pick, or just throw your arms into the air and say it’s all of the above. There are no wrong answers here, nor are there any dull moments.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, cast/crew discussion of the real-life events that inspired the film.

Spider-man 3: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2007, Sony Pictures)
“Spider-Man 3” has a tough act to follow, what with “Spider-Man 2” being one of the best superhero movies ever made. Naturally, as many films ending in “3” do, it brings the kitchen sink, tying up every loose end it can while dropping not one (James Franco as New Goblin/Harry Osborn), not two (Thomas Haden Church as Sandman/Flint Marko) but three (Topher Grace as Venom/Eddie Brock) supervillains into the mix. There’s enough content here for “Spider-Man 4” and arguably “Spider-Man 5,” and one wouldn’t be wrong to begrudge the film for having to impose a time limit on some pretty spectacular encounters with each of the three villains, Sandman in particular. But while the line between doing too much and doing a little bit of everything is a thin one, “3” toes but never crosses from the latter to the former. And while it’s easy to wonder how good this story would be if it was spaced out over two movies, it’s just as easy to marvel at how proficiently “3” juggles so many storylines before sending them all toward a single climax that’s both cohesive and rewarding in some surprising ways. It doesn’t top “2,” but it’s a most worthy follow-up. Let’s just hope the fourth film, already announced, doesn’t try to outdo this one.
Extras: Cast commentary, crew commentary, 11 behind-the-scenes features, international promo spots, bloopers, photo galleries, music video.

My So-Called Life: The Complete Series (NR, 1994, Shout Factory)
Nostalgia has a way of playing tricks on your memory. Maybe you look back fondly on a show from 10 or 15 years ago and overlook how much television has changed in that period of time. Then you watch that show for the first time since all that time ago, and you’re shocked at how badly it’s aged. It happens all the time — but not, surprisingly, this time. There are indications that “My So-Called Life” is a product of a different era: No one’s Googling anyone, for instance, and a straying parent sneaks a phone call to his mistress using the house phone instead of his work cell. But beyond some cosmetic tweaks, “MSCL” could have premiered on the current fall schedule and not only fit in just fine, but excelled. Frankly, one could argue that, even 13 years later, it’s still too smart for the times. More than ever, it’s a shame this brilliant series never lived to see its 20th episode, much less its 100th. At least we finally have this DVD set — courtesy of the studio that does TV-on-DVD sets better than anyone — as a consolation prize. If you miss Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and fear her time has passed, fear no longer.
Contents: 19 episodes, plus cast/crew commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, cast/crew panel from 1995, photo gallery and a 36-page color booklet.

Day Watch: Unrated (NR, 2006, Fox)
The truce between light and dark that withered in 2004’s “Night Watch” is on the fast track to crumbling entirely in “Day Watch,” which begins with the son of a Day Watch officer flirting with a turn to the dark side. If that makes zero sense to you, you’re not ready to see this film — yet. “Day Watch” is two-plus hours of spectacular storytelling, mythology and unreal special effects, but seeing it without seeing “Night Watch” first is akin to watching “The Empire Strikes Back” with no prior knowledge of “Star Wars.” The ensuing showdown doesn’t dazzle any less, and the special effects are still a serious treat for the eyes. But without the historical ammunition that comes from seeing the first film, there’s no possible way for the story’s full impact to be realized. See that film, then see this one, and you’ll be two-thirds through arguably the best-kept secret in the annals of film trilogies. (“Twilight Watch,” the third chapter, is in production now.) In Russian with English subtitles, but a serviceable English dub is available if you’d prefer to keep your eyes on the eye candy.
Extras: Director commentary, making-of feature, promo spots.

Squidbillies: Volume One (NR, 2005, Adult Swim)
Imagine if Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel from “The Simpsons” got his own show. Imagine, also, if Cletus had a slack-jawed family, a slight mean streak, an eyesore for an ex and some really clever trucker hats. Finally, imagine that Cletus and his son are not human beings, but squids. Guess what? Someone was two steps ahead of you and not only imagined it, but made it happen. “Squidbillies” is a prototypical Adult Swim production: 11-minute episodes, sometimes-atrocious animation, a blend of humor that’s incredibly stupid and brilliant at the same time. And like many Adult Swim cartoons, “Squidbillies” picks a target — in this case, the deep south — and unloads round after round of scathing ammo into it. Fortunately, no letter-writing campaign is needed, because the humor is far too over the top to properly offend anyone. Never mind that life is too short to get worked up by a show starring a bunch of cartoon squids.
Contents: 20 episodes, plus six(!) pilot episodes, “Space Ghost” segment featuring Squidbilly Early Cuyler, deleted scenes, concept art, roundbar discussion, Unknown Hinson feature, and the world’s most confusing DVD menu interface.

Miami Ink: Season 1 (NR, 2005, TLC)
This is how overstuffed television is with reality shows: Among reality programs about the business of running a tattoo parlor, “Miami Ink” isn’t even the first of its kind. That honor goes to “Inked,” which beat it out of the gate by a scant few months. But while “Inked” seems to sniff out drama from its shop and clients — no surprise, seeing as it’s based in Vegas — “Miami Ink” is a bit more grounded. Drama ensues, but the show keeps its focus on the business side of things and chooses to spotlight why its customers get the tattoos they get instead of whether they’re nuts or not. Recommending one over the other is pointless, because tastes vary and the shows are almost identical in the way they adhere to the usual reality show storytelling conventions. But if you need a show about tattoo parlors and you need it now, this is the way to go by default. “Inked” is out on DVD, but only in “best-of” form. This on the other hand, is a more complete and cohesive set.
Contents: 21 episodes, no extras.

Captivity: Unrated (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
Man, and you thought Elisha Cuthbert was hard to watch when she was in peril as Jack Bauer’s daughter. Until you’ve seen her as Jennifer Tree in “Captivity,” you haven’t seen anything. That, of course, isn’t to say you should see “Captivity.” A “me too” film to the end, “Captivity” opens up by slapping together a full hour or so of random acts of torture and depraved perversion. The film offers some contrived insight into why Tree has been abducted, but it’s flimsy at best. Only thanks to a mid-movie “twist” do we finally get some real sense as to why anything in “Captivity” is happening. Unfortunately, even the world’s stupidest bat could see that twist coming. Worse, the revelation runs completely counter to the aforementioned contrived insight, and it replaces it with some vague dialogue that more or less confirms whatever fear you had about the writers having no idea how to justify this whole mess. Throw in a boring climax and a completely absurd second “twist” at the end, and you’ve got one of the more useless movies of 2007.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.