Games 2/20: Professor Layton and the Curious Village, The Club

Professor Layton and the Curious Village
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level 5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

The Nintendo DS’ library is in no danger of slowing its growth in the near or seemingly distant future. And yet, it is almost tantalizingly arguable that the curiously-named “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” represents the culmination of whatever experimental mission Nintendo set on when it first unveiled the device four years ago.

Classification-wise, “Village” is overwhelmingly a puzzle game first and anything else second. In this case, though, the puzzles are of the pure brainteaser sort — true riddles that speak more to Nintendo’s “Brain Age” games than anything in the “Tetris” vein.

The diverse nature of “Village’s” 120 or so riddles is enough to give the stylus-only controls a flexible workout. The riddles ramp up in challenge fairly quickly, and each incorrect answer penalizes your reward for cracking the case. Fortunately, an optional hint system and the complete absence of time limits mean you can take as long as you need to find a solution. That eliminates any temptation to revert to guesswork, which in turn lets you reap the tangible satisfaction that comes with taking down a particularly daunting brainteaser.

Compounding this satisfaction is the way these challenges are packaged. That “Village” dresses its riddles inside of a back story is nothing revolutionary; games do that all the time. But the amount of care and quality that went into this particular story — we’re talking cut-scenes, complete with hand-drawn animation sequences and terrific voice acting — elevates it to another other level in that regard.

In fact, at least to the eye, “Village” is as much a point-and-click adventure game as a collection of riddles. The story moves ahead linearly, but you almost always can skip puzzles that have you stumped and return to them later. Like any good game in the point-and-click genre, “Village” hides plenty of surprises among its attractive environments, and uncovering every last puzzle is easily as much fun as seeing the surprisingly lengthy story to its end.

“Village’s” only possible knock would be the inability to replay it, but that’s an unavoidable problem. Once you solve a riddle, you simply aren’t likely to forget how you did it. Amazingly, Level 5 neutralizes this problem by providing new, weekly puzzles that are completely free to download if your DS is online-capable. “Village” has been available in Japan for a year and the downloads haven’t stopped yet, so there’s almost zero doubt American gamers will inherit the same incredible generosity.


The Club
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Bizarre Creations/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

“The Club” is a fun game stuck in an obnoxious game’s body. And if you can will yourself into ignoring the obnoxious part — which, incidentally, is also the game’s purported selling point — you might find a way to enjoy what’s left.

At its base, “The Club” is a typical third-person shooter with a typical premise: stay alive and reach the end of a level — in some cases, before time runs out.

The hook, in this case, is that in addition to being shot at, you’re being scored as well. “The Club” rewards you points for stylish and impressive kills, and rewards you exponentially more for stringing those kills together. Achieving a target score is as paramount as staying alive. Total mastery means constantly sprinting through the levels, taking down enemies as quickly as possible without any thought to taking cover, finding secret areas, or doing other things that come naturally in other shooters.

Unfortunately, this mastery comes with a price, and that price’s name is fun. “The Club” is made well, with better-than-average controls, fun level designs and enough weaponry to make an army blush. But when excelling at the game means mindlessly scrambling through that well-made level, ignoring most of that weaponry and doing more to appease a combo meter that fades entirely too quickly while your character all-too-slowly reloads his gun, it goes mostly to waste. “The Club” would have been far better off prioritizing shooting proficiency over simple recklessness instead of vice versa. (See “Stranglehold” for an example of how much better that reverse balance works.)

Fortunately, though it’s obnoxiously noisy, the combo system can be ignored if you’d rather play at a more intellectually engaging pace. Achieving target scores is practically automatic if you play well enough to survive, so you can brush the whole system aside unless you’re bent on topping the leaderboards. Given the complete lack of back story in the tournament mode, it’s not clear why you’d even want that top score, though the pursuit does add some replay value to an otherwise short experience.

Things are a little more familiar on the multiplayer front, where a host of traditional modes join a mode that prioritizes the combo system over all else. “The Club’s” sound technical design translates well to the online arena, though only time will tell if the niche concept prevents it from achieving the level of community needed to give the multiplayer any lasting value.

Games 2/13/08: Devil May Cry 4, Poker Smash

Devil May Cry 4
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, language, sexual themes, violence)

With “Devil May Cry 4,” there’s good news, bad news, and little else in between. Few games can perpetrate the kind of party fouls this one commits and get away with it like “DMC4” barely, barely does.

That’s because, as “DMC” fans already rightly assume, the game looks, moves and feels spectacular. Precious few third-person action games can tackle sword and fisticuffs combat with the same flair as “DMC,” and that’s to say nothing of the awesome gunplay and combo system it drops on top.

Things have only improved with the transition to better hardware. “DMC4” is gorgeous on every level, and the ever-expanding arsenal of moves you can execute as both Dante and newcomer Nero leads to some breathtakingly acrobatic battles.

Capcom would, of course, agree completely. In fact, it’s so enamored with its work, it insists on giving you numerous opportunities to experience it.

To call “DMC4” repetitive is some kind of understatement. If you wish to see the game’s ending, you must first (a) face every boss character at least twice and often three times, (b) trek through the same environments over multiple missions and (c) spend most of the second half backtracking through every level you saw during the first. You’re not exactly playing the game twice, because the context changes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t often feel like you are.

Compounding the problem: some serious enemy non-variety. Bosses aside, you can count the number of different enemy types you’ll face on two hands and have fingers to spare. Numerous methods of attack exist, but once you calculate the best means of conquering each type, things quickly become rote.

None of this is to suggest “DMC4” would be perfect had it been leaner and more diverse. In fact, the game’s biggest problem might be its level design, which ranges from acceptably uninspired to obscenely convoluted. A few missions in particular give you zero guidance, leaving you to guess which exit to take and hope for some indication that you’re moving forward.

Still, every time things approach the breaking point, something proprietarily wonderful happens to keep the finger off the eject button. And as long as “DMC” keeps doing things other games don’t, it’s a little easier than it should be to overlook the numerous violations it commits that no other game could. Buyer (or better yet, renter) beware, though: You’ve been warned.


Poker Smash
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Void Star/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language)

The best thing anyone who expresses interest in “Poker Smash” can do is give the game the time it needs to reveal its full potential. It’s not immediately clear at the onset, even if the hook is.

“Smash” essentially apes the same match-three-colored blocks formula that Nintendo has successfully employed for years in such games as “Planet Puzzle League” and “Tetris Attack.” The difference here is that in addition to being able to match three or more blocks of a similar color, you also can match five or more by suit (club, diamond, heart, spade) and any other combination that would constitute a legitimate poker hand.

At first, the gimmick appears to lack legs. The way “Smash” both limits the blocks to high (10 through Ace) cards and then separates the card values by coloring them makes it easy to fall into the trap of playing the game the old-fashioned way. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that, but the low point totals you’ll amass by doing so won’t exactly thrill you.

With time, though, strategies for assembling higher-scoring hands slowly come to light, and methods for amassing combos and strings follow soon after. In a surprisingly inspired move, “Smash” briefly lets you slow down the action by holding down the right trigger, which in turn allows you time to set up whatever domino effect the board allows at any given moment. The game also regularly challenges you to complete a specific hand, rewarding you an extremely handsome scoring bonus if you complete its request before time expires.

That last part provides some of “Smash’s” most satisfying moments, but it also exacerbates the lone sticking point: the scoring system. In a word, it’s unbalanced, rewarding too few points for chains and big hands when compared to the windfall it provides for completing a challenge. That would make sense if the challenges weren’t at least partly reliant on luck, but they often depend on you having the right pieces at the right time in addition to some measure of skill.

Beyond that, though, “Smash” is pretty well perfect. It looks great, plays great, and features a ton of value (local/online multiplayer, multifaceted leaderboards, a 55-level puzzle mode and the usual marathon/score attack modes) for its $10 price tag. Xbox Live Arcade games continue to raise the bang-for-buck bar for downloadable games, and “Smash” is as good an example of that as they come.

DVD 2/12/08: Gone Baby Gone, Tell Me You Love Me S1, The Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav: Extended and Uncensored, The Independent, We Own the Night, Blue State

Gone Baby Gone (R, 2007, Miramax)
A little girl has gone missing, and everyone — the press, the force and a couple of private detectives used to handling entirely different kinds of missing persons cases — are scrambling to track her down. This is the plot of “Gone Baby Gone,” and despite the dizzying array of incredible (but always believable) narrative turns that lie in wait, that never completely changes. The film shoots straight, eschewing any temptation to engage in cheap tricks, gimmicks or other tactics that stall the narrative and/or needlessly mislead the viewer. Instead, we get two phenomenal hours of layers being peeled away while one character (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris) after another (Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Titus Welliver) after another (John Ashton, Michael K. Williams, Edi Gathegi) face off in a scene-stealing battle royale. That “Gone” takes such a straight shot with such well-worn material would suggest that it’s like any number of other movies about abduction. To its great credit and right down to the final scene, it isn’t, and that’s the difference an exceptional roll call of characters can make.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, extended ending, deleted scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features.

Tell Me You Love Me: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, HBO)
You know all those themed movies that feature a handful of mostly separate stories about couples in different stages of love or non-love? “Tell Me You Love Me” is what happens when one of those films decides instead to become a full-blown television show. “TMYLM” chiefly follows three couples — one on the cusp of marriage, one on the cusp of children, and one in the thick of it all — and ties them together under the eyes of a sex therapist (Jane Alexander) whose marriage is a story in its own right. The expanded format is both a plus and a minus: It allows the characters to tell a more honest and nuanced story than most movies allow, but it also beats viewers over the head with themes that repeat themselves over several episodes. There are only so many ways to illustrate the sense of dissatisfaction most of these characters feel, and it’s enough to alienate fickle viewers to the point where there’s no one worth cheering for in the cast. Still, given the quality of material that “TMYLM” isn’t afraid to explore in painfully honest (and, when the mood allows, sexually graphic) detail, that’s a surprisingly acceptable loss. Despite the familiarity of the material, there’s no show on television quite like this one.
Contents: 10 episodes (commentary on four).

The Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav: Extended and Uncensored (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
One of the hallmarks of Comedy Central’s annual roast is the inevitable collision between the stage and a human train wreck either fresh out of rehab, in need of rehab, or both. “The Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav” doesn’t completely disappoint in this regard, and one look at the lineup of roasters pretty much gives away who will be responsible for knocking the diner car off the track. With that said, however, Comedy Central’s latest hatefest finds its resident comedians (Patton Oswalt, Lisa Lampanelli, Greg Giraldo, Jeffery Ross, Jimmy Kimmel) at the top of their game, while a barrage of special guests (Snoop Dogg, Ice T, Carrot Top, Luenell and roastmaster Kat Williams) keep up to an almost miraculously funny degree. No one is spared, including the easily offended, so if you can’t handle a joke about any number of taboo topics, run the other way and don’t look back. For those with thicker skins, this is about a funny as basic cable allows itself to be (and, thanks to this extended and bleep-free DVD release, a little funnier than even that).
Extras: Red carpet interviews, backstage footage, Flavor Flav tour and Flav-cam footage.

The Independent (R, 2000, Allumination)
“The Independent” is a mockumentary about director Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), a socially-conscious, modern-day Ed Wood who, after 427 films, has fallen on hard times. But if you’re suffering from mockumentary burnout, worry not. For starters, “The Independent” leans far more heavily on an actual narrative than one typically gets from this genre. The faux-interview footage — and intentionally awkward (and, too often, unfunny) dialogue that almost always comes with it — is kept to a refreshing minimum. But the best part of “The Independent” is neither the narrative nor the mockumentary portion, but instead the wonderfully frequent collection of clips and trailers from Fineman’s catalog. Often accompanied by ingeniously stupid titles, the clips call to mind the “Grindhouse” trailers, only with a greater emphasis on unchained stupidity over self-conscious faux-cool. Not all of the clips hit the mark, but the ones that do often are very funny. Why it took “The Independent” seven-plus years to crawl back through the cracks is anyone’s guess, but Fineman’s tale is better told late than never. Janeane Garofalo also stars, and a number of familiar faces (sorry, no spoilers) make cameo appearances.
Extras: Stiller/filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, bonus clips, behind-the-scenes footage, a smattering of gratuitous nudity (seriously, that’s what it’s called).

We Own the Night (R, 2007, Sony Pictures)
Nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and policeman Joe Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) may be brothers, but their professions find them on the opposite ends of the same law in late-1980s New York City. That’s all well and good, but an event that won’t be spoiled here finds them tied together and faced with examining their allegiances to each other. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. “We Own the Night” is blessed with wholesome ingredients, featuring good performances from the leading and supporting players, a strong overall sense of setting and engrossing cinematography that elevates some pedestrian action sequences into something more memorable than they otherwise would be. But “Night” uses all that dressing to protect rather than complement its script, which seems uninterested in taking ownership of all those familiar ingredients and themes in any special way. When the frills can’t save it, “Night’s” screenplay reveals itself to be almost comically predictable, with far too many brooding scenes that slowly ride the cast’s talents all the way to their telegraphed conclusion. Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes also star.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Blue State (R, 2007, MGM)
Remember when Alec Baldwin famously proclaimed he would move to Canada if George W. Bush won the 2004 election? In the land of fictional characters, blogger John Logue (Breckin Meyer) did pretty much the same thing, but he’s snapping up a travel partner (Anna Paquin) and actually making good on his proclamation. Now, the real question: Will anyone miss him? “Blue State” is a reasonably intelligent film, and it’s not quite as ideologically unbalanced as one might expect from a film employing a disgruntled liberal blogger as its protagonist. Logue’s welcome is so overstayed by film’s end, in fact, that conspiracy theorists might believe this is some kind of reverse-psychology propaganda on behalf of a closet consortium of conservative filmmakers. He means well, and “State” makes for passably enjoyable entertainment during its 92 minutes, but neither is built to leave any kind of meaningful impact when all is said and done. Given that it was two election cycles and a whole ton of current events ago, 2004 seems farther away than it actually is, and whatever feelings “State” was trying to stir up have mostly passed into the ether at this point.
Extra: Director commentary.

Martian Child (PG, 2007, New Line)
Having grown up a bit weird himself, widowed fantasy writer David (John Cusack) knows something about being the oddball. So when he adopts Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a child who is very seriously and openly convinced he’s a Martian, it’s not quite as (wait for it) alien a proposition as it might be for your typical single father-to-be. The cute little twist gives “Martian Child” ample opportunity to break away from the pack of single dad-adopts-kid movies. But despite showing tons of promise early on, “Child” never seems comfortable enough to go all the way with the idea, and it isn’t long before we’re knee-deep in a mix of passive-aggressive lesson preaching, music montages and the same old angles other such films long since have mined dry. That doesn’t mean “Child” isn’t a likeable film. It is, even if Cuscack’s miscast sense of irony makes David harder to root for than he otherwise might have been. It’s just a shame that a film that waxes on the merits of being different ends up blinking at the chance to practice what it preaches. Amanda Peet and Joan Cusack also star.
Extras: Writer/producer commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 2/6/08: No More Heroes, Rez HD

No More Heroes
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Grasshopper Manufacture Studio/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

Just when it appeared no one but Nintendo would make a fresh, adult-oriented game that takes advantage of the Wii’s special abilities, along comes the ironically-named “No More Heroes” to somewhat save the day.

“Somewhat” is, in this case, the operative word. “Heroes” is the spiritual successor (though in no way sequel) to “Killer 7,” and if you remember how bizarre that game was on the Gamecube, you have a vague understanding of what lies ahead here: a ton of weird ideas thrown at you, with some sticking and some falling completely flat.

Overwhelmingly, that flatness comes in the form of one of the worst examples of open-world game design in recent memory.

“Heroes” stars you as a beam katana-wielding average Joe who decides to take out the world’s top assassins to impress a girl. Between assassinations, though, you’re free to go about your normal life — doing odd jobs and taking your motorcycle out for a ride around town.

Problem is, Santa Destroy is so unbelievably barren that it’s hard to imagine why the developers gave you this freedom at all. The bike is fun to ride for a while, but beyond advancing to the next assassination, there’s little reason to do so. The ambition is admirable, but “Heroes” would have been better off scrapping this interruption, throwing pretense to the wind and just letting us jump from one fight right into the next.

This, after all, is where “Heroes” absolutely cooks, lobbing wave after wave of swordfights and street brawls that are at once incredibly gory and bombastically cartoony. The Wiimote is used perfectly — regular buttons for regular attacks, hard swipes and other gestures for finishing moves and special attacks — and there’s a satisfying sensation that comes with wiping out an army of faceless thugs before meticulously picking apart the top dog. “Heroes” is challenging but not unfairly so, breakneck without ever being overwhelming.

It’s also so narratively over the top as to smack of intentional self-parody. Grasshopper throws up a mess of original storytelling, graphical and interface design ideas, and your mileage will certainly vary as to what hits and misses.

Frankly, it’s just nice to see someone taking those kind of chances at all on the Wii. Even when it utterly fails, “Heroes” almost always leaves you with something to talk about, and that’s an ingredient precious few games in this library can claim to have.


Rez HD
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Q Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Perhaps the best side effect of downloadable games coming to consoles is the second chance it affords niche games that never really had a first chance when $50 was the asking price.

The most textbook example yet may lie with “Rez HD,” which resurrects a seven-year-old game in grand fashion while giving it a price tag — $10 — that’s far more inviting for those who couldn’t justify purchasing the Dreamcast or Playstation 2 versions.

For those unfamiliar, “Rez” is a 3D on-rails arcade shooter. Your character — which resembles a wireframe version of the Michelin Man’s long-lost cousin — moves forward on its own, but you are free to control its up-down-left-right movements (with the left stick) and aim (with the right).

From here, the gameplay is mostly elementary: Strange space creatures fly at you, and you have to take them out before they do it to you first. You accomplish this by holding down the shoot button, moving the aiming reticule over any opposition, and releasing when you’re ready to take a shot. You can take out up to eight enemies with one shot, and you’re awarded bonuses for linking enemies rather than picking them off individually.

What makes “Rez” special is how ingrained a role the game’s unique aesthetics play in the gameplay. A background track plays throughout the action, but your shot choices provide the song’s beats, creating a strange sense of oneness between the player and the soundtrack. Even the controller vibrates in your hand at very deliberate intervals, and you can employ up to three additional controllers to provide complementary vibration. (What you do with this feature is, of course, up to you, because it has no bearing on what’s happening on the screen.)

“Rez’s” musical tapestry perfectly jives with the game’s mix of wireframe, cel-shaded and vector visuals, which have benefitted wonderfully from their high-definition makeover. True widescreen support increases your field of vision, and the game includes some optional new visual filters for those who’d like to mix things up further.

The audiovisual eruption and accessibly simple gameplay mechanics make “Rez” an experience pretty much anybody can enjoy, and the game’s variety of modes certainly makes a case for inclusiveness. Skilled players are covered by the challenging normal and score attack modes, while the rest of us can enjoy the Trance mode, which lets you experience the game’s ear and eye candy in full without fear of dying.

DVD 2/5/08: 2 Days in Paris, Rocket Science, 9 Star Hotel, BlacKout, Descent, Feast of Love, Raising Flagg

2 Days in Paris (R, 2007, Fox)
Neither in this nor in any parallel universe is Adam Goldberg the second coming of Woody Allen. But if you want to see him make a seriously worthy stab at the designation, check him out as Jack, the sad-sack boyfriend who spends two tumultuous days in Paris with his girlfriend (Julie Delpy), her family and a few very friendly faces from her past. Long a funny actor stuck carrying unfunny roles, Goldberg finally gets some material worthy of his delivery in “2 Days in Paris,” which is what happens when “Meet the Parents” swaps spit with the likes of “Manhattan” and delivers a surprisingly highbrow offspring. It’s hard to imagine being able to stand either Delpy’s or Goldberg’s characters for more than a couple days, and it’s truly a wonder they’ve been able to stand each other for two years. But “Paris” is so tightly written — a slyly funny exchange here, a brutally affecting observation about love there, a surprising injection of lowbrow humor slipped in between — that the 100 or so minutes we do spend in their presence fly right by. Just be prepared for some light reading, because more than half the movie is in French. (Subtitles are, of course, provided, but don’t feel bad — Jack has no idea what anybody is saying, either.)
Extras: Extended scenes, director interview.

Rocket Science (R, 2007, Picturehouse/HBO)
Politically correct speech about all people being equal aside, stuttering high school student Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) really isn’t the best choice to join the school’s renowned debate squad. Also unlikely: Hypercompetitive debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) expressly recruiting him for such a position. But she has her reason, she’s on the warpath, and because Hal is in no position to argue, we’ve got ourselves a movie about a stuttering kid who joins the debate team in the hopes of adding some hair to his chest. What makes “Rocket Science” work, beyond such dependable standbys as good character development and great writing, is the way it slaps two potentially painful situations — high school and public speaking — onto the shoulders of a likeable hero who already is playing deep from behind. “Science” dares you not to root for Hal, and by the time you realize what a ridiculously impossible dare that is, the film’s sense of humor and knack for decorating familiar plot turns with unpredictably personal surprises has set its hooks in for the duration. If you’ve ever had something to say but mysteriously lost all ability to say it — and who among us hasn’t at some point? — you’ll find a lot to love, both in Hal and the movie in which he stars.
Extras: Making-of feature, music video.

9 Star Hotel (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
It might be a documentary, but “9 Star Hotel” has a decidedly home movie feel about it. The entire production comes to us through the lens of a cheap camcorder, and most of the film’s narrative isn’t narrative at all, but idle moments lost in deep conversation. Had “Hotel” been about, say, a group of car dealers in Milwaukee, it might be best left on someone’s camcorder. But when the story is about a group of poor, uneducated Palestinians who dart across busy highways and duck both the police and military in order to sneak into Israel and take jobs most of us wouldn’t step out our own front door to do, it’s quite a different story. “Hotel” won’t grab everyone the same way: The narrative is significantly more character-intensive than plot-driven, and the stories of Ahmad and Muhammad are far too acute in focus to illustrate the full weight of their context for those who don’t already possess more than a passing understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That said, the film’s central theme — sacrificing everything and risking whatever remains in order to find a better life — is so universal and presented so beautifully that such knowledge is merely beneficial rather than requisite in any way. In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.
Extra: Director interview.

BlacKout (NR, 2007, BET/Paramount)
The 2003 blackout that briefly left New York, several surrounding states and parts of Canada without power mostly came and went without incident. There were exceptions, of course, and one of them — Brooklyn’s East Flatbrush neighborhood — gets the dramatic treatment in “BlacKout,” which chronicles several characters’ doings before, during and after the outage. One question: Why? “BlacKout” is a strong film in multiple regards, boasting a great cast (Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Saldana, Sean Blakemore, Melvin Van Peebles, Saul Rubinek, Susan Kelechi Watson), vividly-written characters and enough strong storytelling and dialogue to tie it all together. It’s just hard to figure out what, beyond genuinely compelling entertainment, the filmmakers were trying to accomplish by adapting these events to film. By the time the lights turn back on, there simply aren’t enough revelations or resolutions to make that clear. Maybe if “BlacKout” had been given more time to flesh itself out — perhaps as a miniseries instead of a semi-rushed, 95-minute film — it’s one serious weakness would resolve itself.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, real-life accounts of the blackout, deleted scenes, cast feature.

Descent (R/NC-17, 2007, City Lights)
Perhaps the best thing about “Descent’s” DVD is that it includes a director’s commentary track. Without the insight it provides into the director’s mind, it’s hard to wonder what anyone was going for with this story of a college student (Rosario Dawson) whose life flies south after a fellow student sexually assaults her. All early indications point to “Descent” being an honest, thoughtful portrayal of victimhood and the kind of damage an impulsive, selfish act can inflict on another person’s life’s path. Unfortunately, as Maya’s life goes south, so too does “Descent,” which (spoiler alert!) indeed descends into a mess of random sexual images and (eventually) revenge tactics. In fact, the movie ultimately feels like it revolves around revenge more than anything that preceded it, and the superior first act seems to function more than anything as a cheap means of justifying the much weaker second half. That’s the filmmaker’s right, of course. But by the time one realizes this is the plan, there’s an investment in the opposite scenario. As such, this not-so-tiny revelation feels cheap, and there’s no way for “Descent” as a whole to avoid leaving the same impression once it’s done.
Extras: Director/Dawson commentary, interviews, deleted scenes.

Feast of Love (R, 2007, MGM)
“Feast of Love” is yet another generally competent movie about a handful of couples whose stories are mostly autonomous but still share some common thread (in this case, geographical and neighborly proximity). It’s yet another many things, in fact. The stories are compelling in spite of the vast familiarity, and the characters (Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Alexa Davalos and Radha Mitchell, among several others) are more likeable than not for the same reason. There are some noticeable and distracting problems with the way the film paces itself, but things hum along just well enough to qualify “Love” as one of those movies you’ll forget seeing soon but still reasonably enjoy while it’s running. All of this would be perfectly fine for the movie’s target market as long as the ending isn’t some unnecessarily unfair cop-out that leaves the whole thing in shambles. But oops! It is. And if “Love’s” first 87 minutes give you any kind of fulfillment at all, the final 15 do all they can to take it back. An OK film that leaves you feeling OK is fine, but “Love” disappoints despite being saddled with zero expectations, and that’s unacceptable.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Raising Flagg (PG-13, 2006, Cinema Libre)
You don’t know it at first, but Flagg Purdy’s (Alan Arkin) name is a harbinger of things to come in “Raising Flagg,” which stars Arkin as a small-town curmudgeon whose latest spat leaves him voluntarily bedridden and claiming his days on Earth are numbered. (They’re not.) Why Flagg is named Flagg is never explained, but given how many poorly-sketched characters pass through the film half-bearing his name, it’s as plausible a scenario as any that the three-person screenwriting team simply fell in love with the pun and stopped at nothing to use it. “Flagg” purports to be a comedy about family, priorities and self-examination, but it consistently plays like little more than a dumping of ideas from a notebook as one “zany” relative after another limps through and leaves his or her footprints on a story that itself seems stuck in neutral. Quirks fall like rain and jokes about small-town life are rampant, but “Flagg” lacks the style to mash these gags into anything more sophisticated than the tepid ball of uninspired, misfired cutesiness it ultimately turns out to be. Lauren Holly, Barbara Dana and Austin Pendleton also star.
Extra: Director commentary.