Games 1/30/08: Turok, Boogie Bunnies

Reviewed For: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 3
From: Propaganda Games/Touchstone
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)

Outside of perhaps “Tomb Raider,” no series went from must-play to must-avoid quite like “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter,” which needed only five years to unload whatever goodwill it had accumulated when it first debuted.

Now, much as “Tomb Raider” did last year, the series has rebooted and found refuge in the arms of a new developer. The result: A shockingly good rebound, and very arguably the best “Turok” game released for its time.

The basics remain the same. It’s still a first-person shooter, and the original hook — you’re fighting dinosaurs as well as enemy soldiers, often simultaneously as they also fight each other — remains the hook today. The diverse means of fighting said enemies — be it by gun, grenade, bow or knife — also remains intact.

What hasn’t returned, for the most part, are the technical limitations and godawful design decisions that undermined and in some cases ruined previous games.

“Turok” isn’t a picture of perfection, with sometimes-stupid A.I. getting in your way and an occasional tendency to populate levels with ambush scenarios that lead to cheap deaths. But it almost completely neutralizes those problems by dousing everything else, from controls to level design to the way the weapons feel in your hand, with several coats of polish. Taking on a battlefield full of dinosaurs and soldiers is a blast, thanks to some smart skirmish orchestration, but the little things — stealth attacks, fighting off a charging raptor with a perfectly-timed swipe of the knife — are every bit as satisfying.

Perhaps expectedly, “Turok” also raises the presentational bar for the series. The story is surprisingly engaging — a much-needed series first. Outside of some occasional weirdness with the character models, it looks awfully good as well. The outdoor levels are refreshingly and gorgeously rich with color.

“Turok’s” attention to detail transfers over to the online stage without incident. The mode list — deathmatch, capture the flag, objective-based team battles  — are pretty familiar, but the wealth of options the game gives you within that space plenty of room for customization. Should you wish to cooperate rather than compete, four-player co-op also is available.

But the real hook of online play is (surprise!) the presence of A.I.-controlled dinosaurs in the midst. Having a live (and very dangerous) enemy that neither side can control gives the matches an unpredictable wild card that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the single-player campaign. It also sets “Turok” apart from the bounty of other first-rate shooters already proliferating on both systems.


Boogie Bunnies
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Artech/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Sometimes, all it takes is one idea and some very good timing.

“Boogie Bunnies,” the first puzzle game to hit Xbox Live’s Arcade service since November, definitely is gifted with the latter. Gamers starved for some simple, familiar puzzle action will find absolutely that with “Bunnies,” which apes the match-same-colored-falling-blocks-to-clear-them genre about as well as one could without having to pay royalties.

The object of “Bunnies” is to stop a marching parade of bunnies from reaching the bottom of the screen and falling into a presumably perilous moat. You do this, naturally, by launching new bunnies upward and matching sets of three or more same-color bunnies. Certain color bunnies give you extra clearing power, and matching aqua-colored bunnies causes the parade to break into dance and dole out bonus points. Outside of the fact that the pieces dance, it’s pretty much every falling-block game you’ve played, revisited.

Here’s where that one idea comes in. In addition to letting you fire bunnies upward, “Bunnies” also lets you fire across the board from the left and right edges. The two extra planes of attack give the game a necessary shot of freedom and strategy — which is precisely what it needs once a few glaring oversights reveal themselves.

Most alarmingly, there’s no way to tell what color bunny you’ll receive after you launch the one currently in your possession. That means there’s no way to plan a move ahead, which robs you of some combo opportunities and makes the game feel more reactionary and reflex-based than anything demanding real brainpower.

This loss of foresight is compounded by “Bunnies'” seeming tendency to always provide you with the only color you don’t need when things get hairy. While it’s never the game’s fault if you let the bunny parade get too close to the moat, you’ll swear some cheating mechanism kicks in the moment this happens, particularly on the harder levels. Reaching those levels feels less gratifying when there’s that sneaking suspicion that the game has made a conscious decision to work against you.

All in all, though, “Bunnies” isn’t a bad use of $10. It has the requisite modes of play, supports online multiplayer and offline co-op, and is generally easy on the eyes if you have a high cuteness threshold. You won’t remember purchasing it a year from now, but hungry puzzle junkies should get their money’s worth in the meantime.

Games 1/23/08: Burnout Paradise, NFL Tour

Burnout Paradise
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Criterion/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence, language)

No stranger to destruction and excess, “Burnout” has turned its obsessions on itself, blowing itself up and reemerging as perhaps the most accessible and exciting racing experience in all of video gamedom.

Instead of presenting its challenges as a series of circuits and menu options, “Burnout Paradise” gives you a car and sends you into a wholly unlocked open city in which to fulfill whatever whims you have. Numerous racing and dangerous driving challenges are available at intersections throughout the city, and you’re free to knock them off in whatever order you wish. You’re also free to just drive around, discovering every hidden jump and gate through which to crash. (“Paradise” tracks these findings, and yes, there are rewards for racking them up.)

There are, to be sure, growing pains. Races and other events no longer take place on a confined track so much as share a common destination, and it’s easy to get lost and muff a race if you’re not watchful of your compass and map. There’s no restart option, either: If you fail, you have to drive back to the start point or just try another day.

The open-world approach also means the sacrifice of a few “Burnout” hallmarks. You no longer can explode your car post-crash and collect Aftertouch bonuses. And the beloved Crash mode has been replaced by the more open-world-friendly Showtime mode, which is fun but doesn’t achieve the same brilliant mix of strategy and explosiveness.

Ultimately, though, the trade-off is worthwhile — particularly if you take your wheels online.

Here, the format remains the same: You can establish custom events or simply drive around, destroy one another and set high marks for everything from longest jump to most time spent driving into oncoming traffic. You also can switch between offline and eight-player online play — not to mention invite friends and set up close-quarters and citywide challenges — without ever putting your car in park. There’s no lobby; the whole thing happens seamlessly and with a few button clicks. The only heavy lifting — plugging in a camera — is optional, though absolutely worth it if you and your friends want to swap reactions upon crashing.

Unsurprisingly and most importantly, “Paradise” runs dreamily. Despite the heavy tinkering, Criterion left the important stuff — incredible controls, insane speed, beautiful visuals and the best crashes in the business — perfectly alone. “Burnout” has been a showpiece series for years, and “Paradise” does nothing to change that.


NFL Tour
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA Sports Big
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics, mild violence)

Should you wish to squeeze any serious enjoyment out of “NFL Tour,” EA’s latest stab at arcade-style football, it’s crucial first to follow two very important guidelines.

First, disable commentary. “Tour” has a number of presentational and graphical shortcomings in spite of its nifty traveling-circus atmosphere. Nothing, however, chafes the senses nearly as much as ESPN’s Trey Wingo’s call of the action, which includes endless painful knocks on video game commentators and the occasional quip about how bored he is. If the game itself isn’t having any fun, how are we supposed to?

Second, pick a team with a top-flight defense (and specifically, a Brian Urlacher type at linebacker). “Tour’s” teams and players are rated on a five-point scale, and the gap between the two extremes is far more pronounced than in “Madden.” “Tour” also tips the game heavily in favor of offense, with backs able to break numerous tackles and receivers regularly capable of bringing down balls in double coverage. If you want any chance of stopping offenses on higher difficulty settings, you need some means of getting to the quarterback before he burns you.

With these issues neutralized, “Tour” reveals (though never achieves) its potential, and the final assessment is that it’s a game with ideas that get in each other’s way. Having to press a button at a certain time to break or finish a tackle is more fun that it would seem, but it also robs you of the big-hit satisfaction that the similarly-minded “Blitz” series mastered years ago. Mashing the A button to execute a sack is a good test of persistence, but it’s not as fun as barreling into the quarterback and feeling your controller shake.

The offense-first approach, while jiving with the game’s roadshow-style presentation, also gives way to an experience that itself gives way to déjà vu hours later. The playbook is tiny, and you can run the same backbreaking plays ad nauseam for easy first downs and scores. Beyond online play, there’s little incentive to keep playing once you’ve beaten the Tour mode, which itself is short (38 short games) and shallow (no team management, no growth for your created character).

EA has priced “Tour” to move at $40, but games like this are why game rental services exist. Rent it, get your jollies out, play a few games online, return it and wait until next year, when EA hopefully will release a deeper, more balanced product.

DVD 1/22/08: The Hunting Party, The Riches S1, Fatal Contact, Saw IV, Sydney White, The Game Plan, Sex and Breakfast

The Hunting Party (R, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
Some period pieces recite true events verbatim. Others mix in a few liberties — choice lines of dialogue, an extra character — to spice it up. Then there’s “The Hunting Party,” which not-quite documents three journalists’ (Terrence Howard, Richard Gere and Jesse Eisenberg) late-1990s trip to Bosnia to hunt down one of the world’s most notorious war criminals. Here, the lines are so blurred that it’s impossible to trust even what the film says is true to be true. A fantastic primer precedes the end credits, but by then, Hollywood’s fingerprints have made it impossible to spot the lines between truth, fiction and editorializing. Oh well. With respect to history and conflicts still in progress, it doesn’t really matter, because “Party” exists more to entertain than anything else. To this end, it mostly (though not always) succeeds, mixing insights about war journalism with a few intelligently-presented thrills and one devastating plot turn to justify it all. It doesn’t hurt, either, that our heroes are gifted with some very good character development. If any of this really happened once upon a time, then that, for better or worse, is merely bonus at this juncture.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), interviews with the real journalists, the Esquire article that inspired the film, making-of feature.

The Riches: Season 1 (NR, 2007, Fox)
The first thing you need to know about the Riches: They aren’t the Riches. They’re the Malloys. Without spoiling some events from the densely entertaining first episode, here’s the nutshell: The Malloys are a family of gypsies, they live off the grid, and due to a bizarre chain of events, they’re now living in a gated McMansion and making an attempt at a normal life. If the concept seems too absurd to sustain itself as a movie, much less a multi-season television series, guess what? Seeing is believing, and “The Riches” is as must-see a show as anything else that debuted last year. An absurd idea written well gives life to an absurd number of enticing plotlines, and “The Riches” simultaneous tackles everything from suburban life to gypsy life to the details behind the real Rich family. More than any of that, though, it’s just fun to watch Wayne (Eddie Izzard), Dahlia (Minnie Driver) and their three well-trained kids (Shannon Marie Woodward, Noel Fisher, Aidan Mitchell) try and pull off an impossible scam without getting caught. As character-driven entertainment goes, this is first-rate.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, two Fox Movie Channel specials, bloopers and seven Webisodes.

Fatal Contact (NR, 2006, Dragon Dynasty)
Kung fu Olympian Kong Ko (Jacky Wu Jing) is recruited into an underground kickboxing ring, where he dominates and earns more money in one night than he ever saw in his life. It’s all well and good until the stakes rise, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Fortunately, the plot outline (or, let’s face it, equally generic title) aren’t the point of “Fatal Contact,” which fills in that generic outline with a terrific lead character, a love interest (Theresa Fu) with some serious surprises of her own, a scene-stealing sidekick-slash-trainer (Ronald Cheng), and some seriously original storytelling choices that give most of the film a surprising injection of happy-go-lucky juice. Most importantly, though, the fight choreography is unreal. “Contact” features a smattering of rumbles in the street, but its meat and potatoes are the one-on-one fights that thrill without any dependency on setting or gimmickry. Wu Jing’s acting abilities aren’t exactly in De Niro country just yet, but that doesn’t mean his name doesn’t belong all over film marquees in the future. In Cantonese with English subtitles, but a (lousy) English dub is available for those who wish not to read.
Extras: Director/cinema expert commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.

Saw IV (R, 2007, Lions Gate)
Another year, another “Saw.” This time, the story moves both forward and backward at once, peering into the origins of the now-dead Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell) while SWAT Commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent) races to save a friend from the clutches of a posthumous trap. “Saw’s” storyline has grown increasingly ridiculous over time, with each film further betraying the scary simplicity that made the first one so different from anything that preceded it. Say this for “Saw IV,” though: At least it tries to tell a story, which is more than can be said for the ever-growing mountain of garbage wannabes it annually leaves in its wake. This, of course, presumes you even care about such a thing. The real draw of “Saw,” per usual, are the incredibly grisly traps and predicaments in which Jigsaw’s victims find themselves. While “Saw IV” feels slightly tamer than its predecessors — the first two segments are incredibly gory, but things go soft after that — it still accomplishes its objective.
Extras: Cast/director commentary, producer commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, video diary, music video, deleted scenes.

Sydney White (PG-13, 2007, Universal)
Amanda Bynes has charisma, a unique look and the ability to actually be both a teen actress and funny at the same time. Unfortunately, she also has a knack, at least for now, for finding her way into one forgettable movie after another. The latest dead end, “Sydney White,” notches yet another utterly disposable hole in the belt of useless “sorority girls are shallow” films, meandering down the same well-worn roads taken by so many other forgettable portrayals of campus life that only Hollywood seems to believe are accurate. As she’s done with other, similar movies, Bynes hauls entire slabs of “White” on her back, managing to entertain and endear in spite of a script that seems perfectly happy just coasting by most of the time. Unfortunately, her surrounding cast of paper-doll stereotypes — from the nerds to the exchange student to the blonde airheads to the really cuuuuuute guy who is soooooo amazing and has grown tired of all those blondes lining up at his bedroom door — continually undo her hard work every time her back is turned.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

The Game Plan (PG, 2007, Disney)
Here’s the premise: A egotistical star football player (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) finds out he has an eight-year-old daughter (Madison Pettis), and his first instinct is to want nothing to do with her. Now here’s the challenge, to use the term loosely: Can you fill in the rest of the movie? If you feel you can’t, one of two things is true: Either you (a) have never seen a movie before or (b) have a serious self-confidence problem. From family clichés to sports clichés, no chance goes taken in “The Game Plan,” which tries to compensate its incredible dedication to formula by riding — hard —  the talents of its leading man. Unfortunately, that backfires. Not even someone with Johnson’s charisma can save such a tired script, and the result of this misfire is some serious overacting and an unlikeable lead character who only redeems himself long after all eyes have glazed over. If there’s an upside to it all, it’s that the kid is pretty cute, if entirely unbelievable as a character. Hopefully a better movie awaits her someday. That goes as well for the bulldog, who does what he can with the material he receives.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, set-top game, deleted scenes, bloopers, mood lighting menu.

Sex and Breakfast (R, 2007, First Look)
Quite a title, huh? Don’t get excited. Not only does “Sex and Breakfast” feature no appealing footage of pancakes or waffles, but it’s quite possibly the most banal portrayal of two couples trying swinging to enhance their dormant love lives. “Breakfast” strives to play above the intellectual fold — a talky film about sex and relationships that seemingly takes pride in its restrained practice of telling rather than showing. Unfortunately, our four heroes (Macaulay Culkin, Eliza Dushku, Alexis Dziena, Kuno Becker) have little to say that’s worth hearing, much less paying to hear. They’re dull, they’re almost entirely unlikeable, and while they seem unable to solve the riddle, it’s really no secret why they cannot stand each other anymore. Eighty minutes with them is 80 minutes too many, so it’s merely a wonder what damage several years of this would do to someone’s vitality. Unfortunately, it’s not a wonder worth exploring for longer than the time it takes to read this review, go online and remove this misleading title from your rental queue. No extras.

Games 1/16/08: Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, Master of Illusion

Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom
For: Xbox 360
From: Blueside/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence, suggestive themes)

Through three games, the “Kingdom Under Fire” series had attempted to mix real-time strategy and slice-and-dice combat into a single, ambitious blend of brain and brawn. It never quite nailed the formula, but it inched closer with each chapter and consistently showed promise.

The key word there is “showed.”

With “Circle of Doom,” developer Blueside has completely stripped away the series’ strategy component, leaving behind a mindless and soulless action game that rarely grows more complex than pressing the X or A button over and over (and over and over). Some entry-level role-playing features and a completely unintuitive spell system break up the monotony, but 99 percent of “Doom” consists of walking down a narrow corridor, killing dozens of exactly the same brainless enemy, entering another corridor, and repeating ad nauseam.

That’s lamentable in principle alone, but “Doom” truly aggravates once you realize it can’t even lobotomize a game properly. Such repetitive action might be tolerable if it zipped by at a spirited pace, but your character moves like a baby with a full diaper and often attacks just as slowly, occasionally leaving you susceptible to inescapable strings of enemy attacks that inevitably kill you. Also perilous: the worst close-quarters camera on the Xbox 360. If you get cornered into a tight space, prepare to go dizzy while the camera completely spazzes out and more enemies blindside you.

Sadly, “Doom” never really redeems itself in any area. The story, if you can even call it that, is completely inane. The enemy A.I. is non-existent, and a rather ridiculous glitch allows all enemies to magically turn invincible whenever they’re in retreat mode. The level design ranges from bland to atrociously convoluted — a labyrinth of indistinguishable corridors that merely lead to more indistinguishable corridors. The boss fights are similarly mundane, often requiring you to do little more than jam the attack buttons literally hundreds of times until you win.

If none of this deters you, you’ll be happy to know that “Doom” features four-player online co-op and many hours of gameplay for completists who wish to unlock every last achievement and special item. Just know that all those hours of gameplay, whether with friends or not, consist of those same two seconds of gameplay, repeated endlessly, until the final credits roll. If that sounds like $60 of fun to you, then by all means, step right up.


Master of Illusion
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)

Unless you’re hopelessly jaded and regardless of your feelings about magic and magic-themed video games, “Master of Illusion” is capable of amazing you in ways you never suspected a Nintendo DS could.

Take, for instance, the Vanishing Card trick. Your DS scatters a handful of face-down cards on the screen and asks you to select five with the stylus. All at once, the cards are revealed, and the game asks you to pick one and focus on it before turning the cards back over. No buttons are pressed nor screens touched during this step; you merely look at a card and commit it to memory.

Whether you stare a hole into a card or merely sneak a glace, “Illusion” somehow manages to pick your card. It’s not initially clear how it does this every single time, but it sure is awesome. Show this and “Illusion’s” other tricks to unwitting friends, and it’s almost certain to drop a few jaws.

The discovery of how this and other illusions work is what comprises the meat of “Illusion,” which functions more as an interactive teaching tool and social showpiece than a full-fledged video game. (“Illusion” includes a suite of Solitaire-style mini-games ostensibly designed to hone technique, but they likely exist as much to justify the “video game” tag as they do anything else. That’s fine; they’re moderately fun at best and inconspicuous at worst.)

Like Nintendo’s other training games, it encourages daily play and offers incentives to continue learning through scoring and a steady stream of unlockable tricks. It doesn’t inspire long play sessions, but it does offer plenty of reasons to pick it back up after you’ve put it down.

“Illusion” divides its trick library into two categories. The first, Solo Magic, drops you into the audience’s shoes while the game plays the part of illusionist. You contribute via audience participation, but the real fun comes with figuring out how the game executes these seemingly impossible feats. Some are clearly attributable to formula, but others aren’t so transparent.

Still, the game’s real showpiece is the Magic Show mode, which allows you to perform tricks for friends using the DS (and, where applicable, the pack of playing cards Nintendo bundles with the game). The game details your role in the deception, and if you follow the directions properly, you’ll learn how to pull off some legitimately dazzling feats of prestidigitation.

DVD 1/15/08: The Ten, Wedding Daze, The Wire S4, Eagle vs. Shark, Puppy Bowl III, Mr. Woodcock, Good Luck Chuck

The Ten (R, 2007, City Lights)
Why should Moses get all the fun? In “The Ten,” it’s unhappily married Jeff Reigert’s (Paul Rudd) turn to wax cautionary with the Ten Commandments. He plays the part of emcee between 10 separate shorts, each tied (what else) to a specific commandment. Stylistically, the stories play out like micro-sized “Outer Limits” episodes: They’re fables about humanity, they don’t tend to end happily, and sometimes they have no idea how to end at all. The chief difference, of course, is that “The Ten” wants to be funny rather than anything close to genuinely educational. It doesn’t always succeed at that, especially when the issue of not knowing how to end a story comes up, but it hits far more than it misses. The loose format also allows for some wild storytelling leaps, which in turn provide comedic opportunities more traditional films couldn’t possibly execute the way this one does. A ton of players (Ken Marino, Winona Ryder, Liev Schreiber, Oliver Platt, Rob Corddry and more) join the party, and some of the best characters cross over from one story to another. Still, the best entertainment “The Ten” provides may be between skits, when Reigert’s messy personal life (featuring Famke Janssen and Jessica Alba) gets in the way of his failed attempts at lesson teaching. Rudd has a lot of competition, but he ultimately owns this show.
Extras: Cast/director/director’s parents/jazz commentary, interviews, deleted/alternate scenes, “Wainy Days” episode, making-of feature, ringtones, wallpaper.

Wedding Daze (NR, 2008, MGM)
More bad movies than ever are skipping the theater and heading straight to DVD, because as it turns out, bad movies are a surprisingly profitable empire. The present deluge of lousy straight-to-video releases is so impressive, it’s easy to assume they’re all similarly awful. And seriously, with an horrid name like “Wedding Daze,” why would this one stem the tide? Fortunately, the name is the worst thing about the movie, which tells the story of a grieving not-quite-widower (Jason Biggs) who asks a complete (and, as it turns out, very open-minded) stranger (Isla Fisher) to marry him. The laughs are a bit out there to begin with, and things only grow more unhinged as the movie rolls on. If you’re familiar with the comedic stylings of Michael Ian Black, who makes his directorial debut here, nothing about this should surprise you. And if you’re not familiar, this may be an acquired taste you have no interest in acquiring. That, more than any dearth of quality, is likely what kept MGM from giving this a chance in theaters. It’s a shame, too, because even if “Daze” doesn’t send you rolling out of your seat, it still stands a good chance of leaving you smiling.
Extras: Alternate opening, deleted scenes.

The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (NR, 2007, HBO)
There’s no such thing as a season of “The Wire” that doesn’t create tremendous fallout for the season that follows, but that doesn’t mean the show’s third chapter didn’t outdo itself anyway. Season four finds a new pecking order on the corners, a reshuffling of the deck at Baltimore PD, our once-main character (Dominic West) trading in his detective clothes for a squad car, and another key player (not to be spoiled here) moving from the wire room to the classroom. In the meantime, the show expands its cast and its reach, confronting not only the endless tug o’ war between the cops and the corners, but the education system and a mayoral election as well. That’s a lot of ground for a 13-episode season to cover, but if there’s a show better equipped to handle it, it hasn’t aired yet. At this point, “The Wire” may have the most loaded ensemble cast on television, and seeing it make time for every last one of these characters while perfectly weaving them into several multi-layered storylines is the stuff of storytelling genius. If you haven’t yet checked out “The Wire,” the only reason not to grab this set immediately is so you can start from the beginning with season one. By the time you catch up, you’ll understand.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary and an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary.

Eagle vs. Shark (R, 2007, Miramax)
Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) throws animal dress-up parties and makes custom candles. Lily (Loren Horsley) isn’t as brazenly strange, but she matches and very possibly outclasses Jarrod on the general social awkwardness scale. In “Eagle vs. Shark,” the two personalities collide as Jarrod embarks on a years-in-the-making revenge mission against a bully who wronged him in high school. The out-there plot and colorful setup gives “Shark” all kinds of comedic potential, but it mostly settles for the “Napoleon Dynamite” vibe, leaning on all that awkwardness and some random weirdness rather than true ingenuity to get laughs. Once Lily’s brother and most of Jarrod’s family have entered the fray, the eccentricity count flies off the charts, and the bits of Clement’s delivery that make him so funny in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” simply don’t translate with so much competition. Those who didn’t dig Napoleon are unlikely to enjoy Jarrod and Lilly, either, and the best the rest of us can hope for is to walk away amused but ultimately unmoved. Fortunately, the story succeeds more at being likeable than it does at being funny. And when the live-action quotient fails, the stop-motion skits used to illustrate Jerrod and Lily’s story provide a surprising lift.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), music video.

Puppy Bowl III (NR, 2007, Animal Planet)
If you’ve never bared witness to the phenomenon that is “Puppy Bowl,” you might rightly assume it’s some sort of competition, starring puppies, that runs on Animal Planet opposite the Super Bowl. As it turns out, you’d mostly be right. The only difference: “Puppy Bowl” isn’t a competition. At all. Rather, it’s nearly two hours of puppies running around a stadium-themed playpen, jumping on each other, hogging various water bowls, stealing each other’s toys, and trying to make sense of the various cameras that are pointed in their face. A halftime show stars a bunch of cats playing on a scratching post, and that really does describe the entire production. For obvious reasons, it’s impossible to recommend a two-hour video of frolicking puppies for any sort of studied viewing or movie night activity. But as a screensaver to put on while you do chores or mill about the house, it’s second to none. It’s merely too bad there’s no option to play it without the piped-in crowd noise or bad music. The dogs are fun to listen to; the rest of the audio, not so much. No extras.

Mr. Woodcock (PG-13, 2007, New Line)
Fat kid-turned-bestselling author John Farley (Seann William Scott) returns to his hometown to accept an award, only to discover that his mother (Susan Sarandon) is dating the gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton) who traumatized him during his fat kid days. Here’s the problem: The most interesting person in “Mr. Woodcock” isn’t any of these people. That honor goes Amy Poehler, who makes sporadic and brief appearances as Farley’s agent. That leaves entirely too much screen time for Thornton, who adds another notch to his bedpost of lifeless antagonists in equally lifeless comedies, and Scott, who looks miles out of place playing the straight man for a change. Two bland characters (three if you count Sarandon, who exists simply as a plot device), plus a string of bits that are neither witty nor shocking enough to mask their lack of imagination, equals one non-comedy you won’t even remember seeing two months from now.
Extras: Deleted scenes, making-of feature, P.E. trauma tales.

Good Luck Chuck: Unrated (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
Dentist Chuck (Dane Cook) has an interesting problem: Any girl he sleeps with meets the man of her dreams almost immediately after. (That man, of course, is never him.) As word of this gets out, the only thing busier than Chuck’s answering machine is Chuck himself. That in and of itself is a pretty clever idea for a comedy, but — look surprised — it goes completely to waste beneath yet another stampede of fat jokes, tired one-liners and endlessly long setups to painfully predictable episodes of physical non-comedy. In a remarkable piece of acting, Cook spends half the movie playing a character with less charisma than the real Dane Cook. But once a girl (Jessica Alba) worth keeping enters the picture — again, look surprised by that plot development — he becomes completely unwatchable. That doesn’t prevent “Chuck” from slopping toward its highly predictable conclusion, teaching us along the way that (a) all girls are gullible tramps and (b) stalking one is fine because remember, all girls are gullible tramps. Dan Fogler, also stars fulfilling the “wacky sidekick” cliché quotient with a delivery only a blind and deaf person could love.
Extras: Crew/Cook commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, deleted scenes, outtakes, sex matrix.

Games 1/9/08: Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)

Few developers love revisiting their recent past quite like Capcom, which has released portions of its “Resident Evil” catalog on just about any system that will have it.

Capcom returns to the well once again with “The Umbrella Chronicles,” but it’s a pretty inspired trip this time around. Rather than repackage outdated “RE” gameplay onto yet another system, “Chronicles” functions as a series retrospective, revisiting pretty much every major pre-“Resident Evil 4” storyline through the fresh eyes of an entirely different genre. Instead of creeping through corridors in the third person, you’re shooting your way through them in an environment more befitting of a first-person arcade light gun game.

In providing some new takes on some old storylines, Capcom also manages to freshen up the notion of what a good on-rails shooter is capable of achieving.

“Chronicles” mostly plays as one would expect it to, leaving you responsible for your gun’s aiming reticule while it handles your character’s movements. The surrounding storyline is full of series mythology, but the chief gameplay objective — shoot everything that moves and stay alive — is pretty straightforward.

Where things get interesting is when Capcom incorporates traditional “RE” hallmarks in new ways. You’ll still collect herbs to heal yourself, but you have to grab them quickly before they leave your line of sight. Familiar boss characters return, but with new patterns and weaknesses. Branching paths still sit waiting to be discovered, and the game perfectly replicates the sense of dread that comes with turning an uncharted corner.

Best of all, “Chronicles” doesn’t stick you with a single weapon throughout the whole game. Your handgun contains unlimited ammo and the knife is handy for close-quarters combat, but the upgradeable machine guns, shotguns and grenade launchers you occasionally find pack a much deadlier punch. As with any good “RE” game, ammo management plays a crucial part in staying healthy.

None of this is to suggest “Chronicles” is vastly more complex than it ever purports to be, and there’s nothing here that will make you love on-rails shooters if you don’t at least like them already. But Capcom gets a ton of mileage out of a really cool idea, and it produces a fun piece of fan service in doing so. Arcade shooter fans — particularly those who can take advantage of the two-player co-op mode — are encouraged to give this one a look.


Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Coming Soon for: Playstation 3
From: Artificial Studios/SouthPeak Interactive
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, tobacco reference, violence)

The era of the downloadable patch is fully upon console gamers, with developers regularly putting less-than-perfect games on the shelf and relying on the convenience of users’ Internet connections to fix problems that reveal themselves after a game has entered the wild. For the most part, these patches fix problems relating to online play or some other feature that can’t always be effectively stress-tested before release.

“Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia” is another story entirely, and it raises an interesting question: Do games deserve a second chance at acceptance if they completely blow their first?

Conceptually, “Suburbia” hasn’t changed. It’s still a cross between a overhead shooter and dungeon crawler, starring you as one of four kids who have to fend off a hometown invasion by a horde of deranged monsters. The things that initially made the game appealing — lots of melee weapons, plenty of guns to build and upgrade, a cartoony graphical style and some fun level and creature designs — are still there.

What no longer remains is a ludicrous control scheme that required you to press L3 to jump instead of A or B, which puzzlingly were used for weapon switching. That change alone makes “Suburbia” a better game, but it’s one of many. Other fixes include a new camera angle, significantly more sensible (and snappier) player movement controls, interface improvements, weapon tweaks, and a ton of fixes to the game’s multiplayer component.

The laundry list of fixes, combined with a price drop that has sent the game into $20 country in some stores, makes “Suburbia” appealing all over again for those tempted but disappointed by it in the first place.

Unfortunately, a better game still doesn’t translate into a particularly good one. “Suburbia” is fun in spurts because of all it purports to be and because of how different it is than most every other Xbox 360 game. But there likely is no way for a simple patch to alleviate some of the remaining issues, which range from serious framerate dips to all manner of cheap-death syndrome.

In fact, the unpatched game’s worst problem — an inconsistent and unforgiving checkpoint system — also is the patched game’s biggest spoiler. Nothing ruins fun quite like barely reaching a checkpoint with only a sliver of health remaining, dying shortly after, and having to respawn ad nauseam with that same useless sliver of health backing you up.

DVD 1/8/08: 3:10 to Yuma, Shoot 'Em Up, Eastern Promises, Sunshine, Smiley Face, Rob & Big: S1&2, Joshua

3:10 to Yuma (R, 2007, Lions Gate)
For those unaware, “3:10 to Yuma” is a remake of a 1957 film of the same name, and the premise — a down-on-his-luck rancher (Christian Bale) trying to bring a feared outlaw (Russell Crowe) to justice and collect a massive reward — remains the same. Fortunately, that’s not all the filmmakers left alone. The new “Yuma” certainly looks prettier, and it features shootouts and doses of Old West violence that simply weren’t feasible 50 years ago. The ending sequence is similarly epic, both ridiculously illogical in its execution and a ton of fun to watch for that very reason. All that said, the same character-first approach that powered the first “Yuma” ultimately is what makes this one worth seeing. It’s not simply thanks to Crowe and Bale, either. Their scenes together — and the tail-chasing game they play after their paths cross — provide the film’s brightest highlights. But “Yuma” wouldn’t be nearly the same movie without a supporting cast of extremely well-written characters (Ben Foster, Logan Lerman and Dallas Roberts, among others), each of whom adds a peripheral but integral element of recklessness to what otherwise would be a steadfastly intimate story.
Extras: Director commentary, making-of documentary, “Outlaws, Gangs and Posses” documentary, behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes.

Shoot ‘Em Up (R, 2007, New Line)
There’s a rather intricate plot brewing beneath “Shoot ‘Em Up,” but you need not understand it any more than Smith (Clive Owen) does when he sees a lady in danger, gets up from his seat, and starts shooting away simply because he can. That really is the whole point here, and if you don’t believe it, the first time the film completely ignores an entire story transition without bothering to explain what happened should leave you convinced. Some incredibly cheesy dialogue, as delivered by three actors  (Owen, Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci) who clearly know better, pretty much seals any suspicions. More than anything else, “SEU” wants to give its talented cast unlimited firepower, unlimited death wishes, some laws-of-physics-defying luck, and the chance to play one hell of a fun game of Cops ‘N’ Robbers. That creates a bit of emptiness in the middle once the point’s been hammered home, but it also leads to some of the most impossibly awesome stunts you’ll see in a movie this year. (Never mind that one of the stunt sequences features special effects straight out of a 1980s music video. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe not.)
Extras: Writer/director commentary, making-of feature, animatics, DVD-ROM content.

Eastern Promises (R, 2007, Universal)
“Eastern Promises” is a tale of two flirting storylines, both of which dance around crime family member Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who simultaneously must protect his rising notoriety while coming to terms with a woman (Naomi Watts) who has his heart in one hand and evidence that could damage the family in the other. The merging of these storylines is a fascinating thing to watch, thanks primarily to some excruciatingly detailed character development that benefits from similarly nuanced plot progression. Just be sure to give it your full attention for maximum effect. “Promises” isn’t terribly difficult to follow, but it tends to lull you into a sense of false comfort with dialogue-laden scenes that stand in sharp contrast to the graphic violence that punctuates them. Get too cozy, and you’ll miss a throwaway line or two that adds some essential context to the story. There’s a lot of mythology at play — both within the separate plotlines and in the real-world history that glues it all together — and the more you can stack on your plate, the more “Promises” will offer.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Sunshine (R, 2007, Fox)
A team of astronauts is en route to the sun, attempting to save it (and as such, humanity) from pending death by creating a star within a star. It’s a long, scary mission that already claimed one crew, and as we catch up with crew No. 2 more than a year into the endeavor, some serious unease has set in. No surprise there. What is surprising is just how chaotic “Sunshine” actually gets — so much so that we’re talking more about a psychological thriller by film’s end than the science-fiction piece it originally purports to be. Whether the film goes too far certainly is open for debate: Some will love how freaky things get, while others will view the third act as a huge mess that revolves around a cheap storytelling stunt and undoes much of what preceded it. If the point of a movie is to entertain you first and get you talking afterward, “Sunshine” almost certainly will fulfill at least half of its mission. Your mileage will vary on whether it comes through on the other half.
Extras: Director commentary, professor commentary, deleted scenes, production diaries, two short films (“Dad’s Dead,” “Mole Hills”).

Smiley Face (R, 2007, First Look)
Jane (Anna Faris) is stoned … and that’s pretty much the plot of “Smiley Face.” Oh, there’s a story about why she has to leave the house instead of lie on the couch all day, but it’s merely an excuse for Faris to mosey from one hijink to another until the movie fully runs out of gas. Such a low-concept idea turns out to be a surprisingly tall order, because there seemingly would be no possible way for the stoned girl act to be anything less than unbearable after an hour, much less “Face’s” 85 minutes. Fortunately, Faris is more qualified than most to take the act as far as it can go, and “Face” at least makes a case for her receiving better leading roles with which to demonstrate her talents. As for the movie itself, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack — nowhere near the funniest film you’ll see this year or even this month, but still considerably more tolerable than a lot of tripe Hollywood pukes out. And even when Jane’s zombie act gets old, the rather shocking barrage of familiar faces who pop up in minor or cameo roles is fun to experience. Should you decide to check this one out, don’t sneak a peek at the cast before watching. You’ll have more fun if you’re surprised.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Rob & Big: Complete Seasons 1 & 2 Uncensored (NR, 2006, MTV)
The “Rob” in “Rob & Big” refers to skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, and the “Big” refers to Rob’s bodyguard and best friend, Christopher “Big Black” Boykin. Together, they enjoy partaking in all sorts of wacky activities, which is enough of a reason for MTV to carve yet another half-hour out of whatever music programming it had left. “Rob & Big” is about as authentic as your typical VH1/MTV reality show, which is to say it more closely resembles an improvised sit-com starring two real-life best friends whose adventures are at least partially the creation of producers and writers. Oh well. It’s easy to digest, it’s lighthearted, and it makes a great case for racial and spatial harmony. Through all the contrivances, Big and Rob’s friendship still manages to ring true, and that, beyond anything else, is what makes the show fun to watch. And when even that isn’t enough, there’s always Meaty the bulldog, whose skateboarding lessons would melt even the stoniest of hearts.
Contents: 16 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, skate tutorials, behind-the-scenes feature, bonus dog and other footage, music video.

Joshua (R, 2007, Fox)
Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is, like a handful of movie children before him, a bit of a psycho. He probably means well, and he can’t help it, but he’s crazy, and he really creeps his family out. That would seem to make “Joshua” an easy film to understand, but there’s a problem: With a family like this, who really cares? Mom (Vera Farmiga) is so ridiculously unlikable, you don’t really care what happens to her. Her mother-in-law (Celia Weston), though less visible, is no more endearing. Then there’s Dad (Sam Rockwell), whom you sense would be happier dead than condemned to another day with any of these people, so it’s hard to worry about him, either. That leaves Joshua, whose dopey haircut, palette of blank expressions and ability to constantly startle his parents by just showing up out of nowhere makes him more a source of unintentional comedy than fear. The whole production is such a mess, there are moments where you might wonder if the filmmakers created a parody of the bad-seed movie and stealthily sold it as the real deal to some clueless studio heads. If that’s the case, then bravo. If not, there’s no telling what anyone was trying to accomplish here, especially when the story’s arc is as predictable as Joshua is nuts.
Extras: Director/writer commentary, interviews, audition footage, music video, deleted scenes, promotional materials.

Games 1/2/08: Dance Dance Revolution Universe 2, Atari Classics Evolved

Dance Dance Revolution Universe 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Bemani/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

If it wasn’t possible for one game to be both the absolute best of its kind and a disappointment, it is now. “Dance Dance Revolution Universe 2” proves it.

As “DDR” games go, “DDRU2” rules all. The backing of the Xbox 360 gives it a visual edge over its PS2 and Wii counterparts, and that’s to say nothing of the online capabilities (four players and leaderboards now, downloadable content possible later) brought forth by Xbox Live functionality.

More importantly, though, “DDRU2” features a ridiculous array of ways to play. Listing and describing them all in this short space would be impossible, but there’s a reason a game that involves little more than stepping on a dance pad in time with music ships with a 42-page instruction manual. Bemani also allows gamers to tinker settings large and small in order to cater the game to just about any level of dance style and ability. Games in every genre should strive to be this accommodating.

Thing is, everything you just read applies to the previous “DDRU” game as well, and if you played that game last year, you’re about to experience some serious déjà vu. “DDRU2” ships with a new soundtrack, of course, and it refines a few modes and adds some new ones, including a freestyle mode for people too hopeless to play the game as intended.

But for gamers who do play “DDRU2” as intended, the changes aren’t terribly exciting. The quest mode is better organized than last time, but it’s still clumsy and confusingly presented. It also remains the one mode in which Bemani forces harder difficulty settings on unfit players — a real problem given the cliff dive between basic and even moderate difficulty settings.

Meanwhile, secondary modes such as the Workout mode haven’t matured beyond their peripheral status. (Given how much improvement the Wii version’s Workout mode showed, it’s surprising to see none of that carry over here.) Also speaking of peripherals, the solid but unspectacular dance mat returns unchanged. Unless you want a second mat, you’re fine buying just the game disc.

The incremental growth is a product of a game that already was doing so much. While “DDRU2” is easy to recommend to anyone who loves the series, if only because it presents new songs to conquer, it’d still be nice to see “DDR” blow our minds again. (Translation: It’s time for custom soundtrack support. Bite the bullet, Konami.)


Atari Classics Evolved
For: Playstation Portable
From: Stainless Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence, simulated gambling)

Massive compilations of Atari games on a single disc aren’t the novelty they once were, and Atari has responded by going back to the well in as many fresh and inventive ways as possible.

In “Atari Classics Evolved,” developer Stainless Games plays it safe by offering 11 games — Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Battlezone, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Millipede, Missile Command, Pong, Super Breakout, Tempest and Warlords — in both their original and “evolved” form. Both forms play identically, with the evolved form offering a prettier coat of graphical paint and a few bonus perks such as achievements, online leaderboards and wireless multiplayer for Battlezone and Warlords.

While the graphical overhauls definitely look nice, the achievements should stand as “Evolved’s” greatest contribution to the retro compilation racket. Each evolved game features four distinctive goals to conquer, and knocking out all 44 of them unlocks a library of more than 50 Atari 2600 games. Reaching these goals likely will fall beyond the means of all but the most skilled and dedicated of players, but it’s nice to see a retro compilation offer something beyond nostalgia as a reason to pick it up. Having something to work for does wonders for longevity.

It’s merely a shame “Evolved” only is available for the PSP, which proves once again why it’s the most incapable system on the shelf to handle compilations of this sort. The analog nub isn’t precise enough to replicate the experience of playing with a trackball or arcade stick, and fiddling with the sensitivity settings doesn’t help much. The system’s heavy widescreen orientation also clashes with vertically-oriented games like Centipede and Tempst, which force you to turn the PSP sideways and hold it awkwardly while negotiating with the aforementioned shoddy control inputs.

Atari certainly isn’t shy about porting its catalog to as many systems as will have it, so there’s hope that “Evolved” eventually will make its way to a system with a better controller. (The Xbox 360’s Live Arcade has downloadable versions of some of the games, but that’s not quite the same thing.)

At no point is “Evolved” unplayable on the PSP, though. The games are emulated expertly, and if you can find a soft touch with the analog nub, the control issues may pose less of an issue. If nothing else, the inviting $20 price makes it easy to take a gamble if the concept has your attention.