Games 3/19/08: God of War: Chains of Olympus, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty

God of War: Chains of Olympus
For: Sony PSP
From: Ready at Dawn Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

There was never any real doubt that “God of War: Chains of Olympus” would be good. This is, after all, the portable debut of Sony’s premier action franchise. And if developer Ready at Dawn Studios’ work on “Daxter” is any indication, few studios are as capable of shrinking down Sony’s prized properties as the one tasked with bringing the mighty Kratos to the small screen.

But even with those expectations in play from the outset, it remains rather shocking how impressive “Olympus” is in its finished form. Ready at Dawn didn’t simply make a good interpretation of “God of War.” It made the genuine article.

Reports that “Olympus” is indistinguishable from its PS2 counterparts is a bit exaggerated. The graphics feature some jagged edges not found in those games, and while the framerate is fantastically stable, it only rarely approaches the level of perfection those games could handle without breaking a sweat.

But that pretty much is it for the divergences. Aside from those ultimately insubstantial issues, “Olympus” is “God of War,” verbatim, on a handheld. All things wonderful about the PS2 games — the incredible combo system, bounty of combat maneuvers, epic boss encounters and a so-well-tuned-that-you-take-it-for-granted balance between puzzle-solving and button mashing combat — make their way to the PSP without compromise.

In fact, if there’s a legitimate gripe with “Olympus,” it’s that it’s a little too faithful. Ready at Dawn throws in a cool new weapon in the late stages of the game, and the story — a prequel of sorts to the original game — provides some fun insight into Kratos’ come to being. But beyond that and some of the boss fights, much of what you see in “Olympus” will look some degree of familiar if you’ve played the other games. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but some will take umbrage with the game’s refusal to take risks in the hands of a new developer.

Also, “Olympus” is short. You can topple it in no more than five hours, and beyond a few harder difficulty settings and a smattering of arena challenges, there isn’t much in the way of other content to explore.

On the flip side, “Olympus” also is one of those games that easily commands replaying on the simple basis that it’s just that much fun. That’s been a hallmark of the series since the beginning, and given how brilliantly “Olympus” keeps up, it’s hardly an exception.


Turning Point: Fall of Liberty
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC
From: Spark Unlimited/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, violence)

“Turning Point: Fall of Liberty” kicks off its rewriting of history with a real head-scratcher: What if Winston Churchill had been killed in 1931 by that taxi that struck him in New York City? Would the Allies ultimately have lost World War II, and would the White House be draped in Nazi red?

Unfortunately, this little “what if?” isn’t just “Liberty’s” first moment, but its finest as well. The game hands the controls to you, and a stiff downhill tumble follows shortly after.

The problem is that, while “Liberty’s” story takes place in 1953, its gameplay comes from around 1998 or so. Enemy intelligence is barely there, with Nazis recklessly bum-rushing you or standing perfectly in place, ready to eat your bullets either way. Sometimes they even spawn out of thin air, only to disappear just as quickly when killed. They’ll readily throw grenades at you, even if you’re only a few feet away. That’s fine, though, because explosives only sometimes kill enemies.

Technically, the game fares little better. Clipping problems are humorously rampant, framerate drops not-so-humorously frequent. Animation is choppy, sometimes to the point where soldiers randomly warp a few feet. None of it is justified, either: “Liberty” looks no better, and often looks worse, than your average first-generation Xbox 360 game.

Even when “Liberty” does something different, bad code undoes it. The ability to melee enemies and use them as human shields is very cool, and the game occasionally allows you to dispatch enemies creatively using environmental kills. Unfortunately, “Liberty” has serious trouble with context recognition. Unless you’re positioned perfectly in front of a soldier, the melee option doesn’t appear. And without a general-use melee button to save you in a pinch, that often means you’ll die simply because the game failed you. That’s especially annoying when you’re in one of the portions of “Liberty” where the developers seemingly forgot to include checkpoints.

In the end, none of it is worth it, because “Liberty” barely expands on the intrigue brought forth by that original question. A few cool set pieces aside, the game could take place in almost any universe, and the mid-mission cutscenes do little to form a relationship between players and the average Joe-turned-one-man army they control.

With a decent storyline stripped away, “Liberty” becomes just another first-person shooter for three systems already bursting with them. Stripped of everything else it should have but doesn’t, it’s also impossible to recommend even as a curious rental.

DVD 3/18/08: 13: Atonement, I am Legend, Game of Death, Enchanted, The Sasquatch Gang, Love in the Time of Cholera

Atonement (R, 2007, Universal)
Message for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy): Don’t let your jealous younger friend (Saoirse Ronan) catch you in a passionate embrace with her older sister (Keira Knightley). Unfortunately, in “Atonement,” it’s too late for Robbie, and the fallout from that encounter leads to a lie that changes all three lives in irrevocable ways. Yes, one of the Academy’s favorite films of 2007 features an plot outline straight out of your favorite daytime soap opera. But “Atonement” isn’t so much about the lie as the people affected by it, and the journey it takes us on is surprisingly epic in spite of a clear prioritizing of character over plot. “Atonement” is gifted with the usual ingredients of an award-worthy film — a talented cast, well-sketched characters and a true sense of place that keeps one engaged when story advancement takes a breather. Your enjoyment of the film, however, very possibly may vary based on your experience with the novel. Those who read “Atonement” will appreciate how faithful the film is to the source material, but they’re robbed of the impact the final few scenes will leave on viewers who don’t see them coming. Without spoiling anything, it’s as affecting an end-movie twist as any that’s come along in a while.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

I am Legend: Two-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2007, Warner Bros.)
Three years after a plague wipes out almost all of human creation, New York City’s population of alive and lucid human beings appears to be down to one. Fortunately, that one is scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is formulating an antidote that will reverse the effects of the plague in the infected, vampire-like humans who troll the streets after dark. “I Am Legend” marks the third film incarnation of the 1954 book of the same name, and even a passing glance makes it clear that technology finally is able to fully illustrate the scope of Neville’s increasingly maddening isolation. Problem is, there isn’t much to go on once the surface has been breached and the novelty fades away. “Legend” does a nice job of setting the table, but that merely leads to a rather linear march toward a typically Hollywood conclusion. It didn’t have to be the way … and one look at the DVD’s much better alternate ending hits that point on the head. Given how much fanfare the alternate cut receives in the DVD’s marketing, and given how much better it is, it’s something of a wonder why the powers that be didn’t just go with and build on it in the first place.
Extras: Alternate cut with a new ending, animated extended universe comics, DVD-ROM content.

13: Game of Death: Unrated (NR, 2005, Dimension Extreme)
Already bathing in debt, Pusit (Krissada Terrence) now can count unemployment among his problems. But someone’s watching him, and almost as soon as the ink is dry on his termination, Pusit’s phone rings with a chance to win millions. All he has to do is carry out 13 increasingly depraved acts, and how hard can that be if the first act simply involves killing a fly? Stupid question. As anyone with any experience watching horror movies or game shows would expect, “13: Game of Death” grows exponentially more bizarre as Pusit moves from dare to dare. By the end, the entire production is ridiculously overblown, and if “13” was attempting to open a dialogue about morality and the evil things money can do, it’s laughably overmatched. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the intention, even if that would have made for a more interesting movie. “13” strives simply to entertain, and Pusit’s plight most certainly accomplishes that feat if you don’t expect too much beyond unbridled, gory ridiculousness. In Thai with English subtitles, though an English dub is available as an option.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Enchanted (PG, 2007, Disney)
Disney’s latest princess-centric cartoon isn’t quite like its predecessors — especially when our cartoon princess (Amy Adams) is banished from her animated home and thrust into a live-action New York City, where she fits in about as well as a Red Sox fan in October. What happens next is (mostly) brilliant and very much overdue, with “Enchanted” both paying homage to the classic Disney films of the past while also having a laugh at their expense. It’s also beautiful to look at, particularly when Disney clichés (in other words, talking animals) get the live-action treatment. Ultimately, “Enchanted” loses its nerve, scrapping some surprisingly cynical beginnings in favor of a fairly standard third act that winks less and seems more concerned with staying true to the lineage. That’s too bad, because there was no limit to what fun the film could have had. But if the intention was to let both the cynics and optimists eat cake within the space of a single movie, mission accomplished. Even when you know what happens next, it’s hard not to enjoy what’s happening in front of you. Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon also star, but Timothy Spall steals enough scenes to earn his own spin-off.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, three behind-the-scenes features, five-minute pop-up animated short.

The Sasquatch Gang (PG-13, 2006, Universal)
Out-of-the-closet nerd Gavin Gore (Jeremy Sumpter) thinks he’s on Bigfoot’s trail, and he has the footprints (and, let’s say, samples) to prove it. More likely, it’s simply the latest act of torment courtesy of out-of-the-closet nerd tormentor Zerk Wilder (Justin Long). It really doesn’t matter. Though Sasquatch’s possible outing provides a reason for “The Sasquatch Gang” to exist, it really isn’t the driving force behind the movie, which is more a coming-of-age film about nerds and the idiots who hate them than any kind of adventure flick. To that end, “Gang” works, though as a comedy, it’s a very acquired taste that likely will sour in the mouths of anyone who tried to but could not get “Napoleon Dynamite” and its ilk. “Gang’s” sense of humor plays a bit broader than “Dynamite’s,” but not by much. That said, its characters are far more relatable — in particular Addie Land as Gavin’s somewhat-average potential love interest and Hubbel Palmer as his overshadowed and sometimes-flailing best friend Hobie. It’s almost a shame “Gang’s” story isn’t Hobie’s instead of Gavin’s, because a more interesting movie lies with him.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.

Love in the Time of Cholera (R, 2007, New Line)
So maybe you saw “No Country for Old Men,” and maybe you’re just a little bit infatuated with Javier Bardem, who gave life to that film’s inhumanly evil chief character. And here, right on time, comes “Life in the Time of Cholera,” which also stars Bardem. And even though it’s a 19th century period piece, you figure that any chance to see more Javier Bardem can’t be all that bad. The good news? “Cholera” isn’t all that bad. The bad news? It isn’t all that good, either. A classic theme is in play, with one man (Bardem) holding for decades a candle for a woman (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) whose love for him was undone by a meddling father (John Leguizamo), long distance and an eventual marriage to a man (Benjamin Bratt) her father deemed a better fit. But in spite of having 138 minutes of search time, “Cholera” never seems to find its heart. The plot hums ahead, and the script is dense with enough comedic and tragic moments to make it at least passably interesting while it’s on. But “Cholera” should be able to tug at heartstrings rather than merely pass the time, and its inability to do anything close to that makes it a failure.
Extras: Director commentary, making-of feature, deleted scenes (with commentary).

Games 3/12/08: Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Patapon

Super Smash Bros. Brawl
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor)

The bad news? “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” is more of the same.

The good news? It’s a lot more of the same.

For those still playing “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” “Brawl” represents a small step for gameplay and a giant leap for most everything else. It’s still chiefly a fighting game starring Nintendo characters, and the pick-up-and-play sensibilities that buoyed the first two games make the move to “Brawl” with almost no change to the formula. (Case in point: Despite several control schemes involving all manner of Wii controller configurations, the configuration that utilizes the Gamecube outclasses them all.)

Where “Brawl” really shines, more than perhaps any Nintendo game ever, is with content. Six years have passed since “Melee” arrived, and Nintendo pads “Brawl’s” already-loaded roster of characters and stages with a ton of familiar faces and places from the franchises it’s created in that time. The amount of fan service crammed inside sets a mind-boggling new standard that likely won’t be matched until the next “Smash” game arrives, and while “Brawl” isn’t miles prettier than “Melee” was, it’s definitely an upgrade in every facet.

The feature offerings also blow “Melee” away.

Online play makes its debut in the “Smash” universe, and while the clumsy friend code system, occasional dropped connection and lack of voice chat and leaderboards make this a bittersweet debut, it generally works as advertised. The adventure mode — featuring “Smash” characters starring in a mix of sidescrolling and fighting levels — is considerably longer and more story-driven than in “Melee,” and a handful of mini-games and objective-driven stages round out a surprisingly mountainous single-player component.

“Brawl” also engages your creative side for the first time, allowing players to share replays and screenshots and even create their own levels for use in offline (though sadly, not online) matches.

As with “Melee,” “Brawl” also offers a humungous suite of stuff to unlock — trophies, virtual stickers, characters, stages and even a few laughably time-limited demos of classic Nintendo games.

All that said, the best way to enjoy “Melee” — throwing down with friends on the same couch and screen — remains the definitive way to enjoy “Brawl.” Nothing’s changed there.

As such, if you didn’t get into “Smash” before, “Brawl” won’t change your mind. But Nintendo clearly aimed “Brawl” squarely at the same crowd that embraced “Melee,” and the trove of content packed inside should keep fanatics engaged for at least another six years. If you’re a “Smash” fan and you had any doubts, consider them put to rest.


For: Playstation Portable
From: Interlink/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Genre-blending is all the rage nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you can mix just any two flavors and expect peanut butter and jelly.

A huge hat off, then, to Interlink, which mixes two wildly different genres (rhythmic gaming and real-time strategy), dresses them in a side-scrolling graphical style that’s almost completely foreign to both, and somehow makes the whole thing not only work, but sing.

In “Patapon,” you command a strange-looking group of creatures (called Patapon) as they march from left to right, encounter hordes of creatures, and complete objectives as dictated by a surprisingly charming storyline. But rather than move your units with a cursor or even just the d-pad, you control their actions with a drum, pressing different combinations of face buttons in time with a beat that plays in the background. One set of button presses advances your troops, for instance, while others prompt them to attack, defend, or perform context-sensitive actions.

At first, it seems wildly simplistic and repetitive, with the first mission asking you to execute the advance command ad nauseam in order to outrun an unstoppable monster. The second mission isn’t much more complicated, prompting fears that “Patapon” never evolves beyond a rote exercise of memorizing button combinations and rhythmically executing them.

With time, though, the game surprises with its depth. The mission structure quickly opens up, forcing you to focus as much on formulating a smart attack strategy as keeping up with the beat. Different Patapon have different abilities and liabilities, and you can manage troops by acquiring new equipment and elements that go toward the creation of new troops. As with any good strategy game, success in “Patapon” comes down to how efficiently you distribute your resources.

None of this is to suggest “Patapon” is for everyone, because it isn’t. The continual focus on rhythmic button presses while also managing an army makes this a demanding game in spite of its implied simplicity, and the reliance on music and lack of in-game pause means this isn’t the easiest game to pull out for a quickie on the bus. Never mind that this combination of two rather niche genres simply isn’t for everyone in the first place.

But those intrigued by what they’ve read are in for an extremely unique treat. “Patapon” deserves major kudos not only for trying something new, but for nailing it on the first go. That the whole thing only costs $20 sure doesn’t hurt, either.

DVD 3/11/08: No Country for Old Men, Dan in Real Life, Sam & Max: Freelance Police CS, Tin Man, South Park: Imaginationland, Hitman: Unrated

No Country for Old Men (R, 2007, Paramount Vantage/Miramax)
Among a litter of crashed cars and dead bodies, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) has stumbled upon a fortune. Problem is, it doesn’t belong to him. Bigger problem is, the group laying claim to the money has sent one seriously sick hit man (Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh) to retrieve it. At its core, that’s all “No Country for Old Men” is: a chase film, with Llewelyn as the rabbit, Anton as the eagle, and a few other players (Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root) standing in the way. But “Country” truly defines itself by what happens between as much as during Llewelyn’s brushes with Anton. It isn’t merely that the script benefits from good writing, either. Rather, it’s the risks it takes, often flirting with dialogue that’s a bad delivery or word or two away from ridiculousness but only rarely tampers with illusion. It sounds like a book translated to screen, which of course is what it is, but there’s just enough grace in play to make it sing. And if you disagree or don’t care about dialogue? No worries. Blood, bullets and broken glass fly everywhere, Anton casts a scarier shadow than most slasher film villains, and the film reeks of tension regardless of whether its characters are in flight or seated opposite one another. Kelly Macdonald also stars.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

Dan in Real Life (PG-13, 2007, Focus/Touchstone)
The old “Do as I say, not as I do” adage applies quite neatly to widowed dad Dan Burns (Steve Carell), who makes a living as a celebrated advice columnist but can’t seem to keep his own personal house in anything resembling order. An annual familial retreat would seem to provide a temporary respite for Burns’ issues, but in “Dan in Real Life,” it turns out merely to be the tip of a ridiculous iceberg of awkward moments, romantic misadventures and bad parenting. Despite the potential for zaniness suggested by Carell’s mere presence, “Life” is more of a thoughtful comedy than something in the screwball vein. That does not mean, however, that Carell’s gifts go to waste. He’s a terrifically versatile actor, and he mines “Life’s” script for more comedic gold than would be possible by many equally accomplished performers. “Life” sometimes falls on the cute side, and it occasionally is a little too neat for its own good. But there’s little doubt that “Life” purposely exists, at least in part, as a funny, likeable piece of feel-good fantasy about characters to whom we still can relate. Juliette Binoche, John Mahoney, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Dianne Wiest and Dane Cook also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features, outtakes.

Sam & Max: Freelance Police: The Complete Animated Series (NR, 1997, Shout Factory)
Shout Factory has done a bang-up job of cracking the vault and releasing several DVD sets of beloved cartoons based on popular video game characters. Unfortunately, most of these sets merely serve as harsh reminder that these shows weren’t nearly as good as nostalgia fooled us into thinking they were. It’s nice, then, to see an exception to that rule, which is what we get with this too-short collection of “Sam & Max: Freelance Police” cartoons. “Police” comes inspired by the “Sam & Max” comic and computer games, and given how big a role well-written humor played in those, it’s no surprise to see it migrate over here. “Police” feels like a Saturday morning cartoon on serious overdrive, often cramming what feels like 42 minutes’ worth of cartoon into a 21-minute episode. It’s manic, over-caffeinated and very loud, but it also packs in more wit per ounce than many cartoons written for adults. That, sadly, is probably why it fizzled so quickly with younger audiences, though maybe this set and the recent revival of the “Sam & Max” games franchise will spark a revival. Here’s hoping.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus Comic-Con conversation, “Sam & Max” animated shorts, “Sam & Max” feature, Telltale Games feature, game demo, art galleries, series bible, sticker.

Tin Man: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (NR, 2007, Genius Entertainment)
Apparently, “Wizard of Oz” re-imaginations are back in style, and the Sci Fi Channel’s contribution to the craze results in a three-part miniseries that transforms the Land of Oz (or rather, “O.Z.”) into — what else? — a dark and futuristic science fiction playground. Dorothy (Zooey Deschanel as DG), the Scarecrow (Alan Cumming as Glitch), the Lion (Raoul Trujillo as Raw), the Tin Man (Neal McDonough as Cain), the Wicked Witch (Kathleen Robertson as Azkadellia), the Wizard (Richard Dreyfuss as Mystic Man) and even Toto (no spoilers here) also receive setting-appropriate makeovers. The novelty of seeing so many elements of “Oz” so drastically but recognizably transformed is what provides the bulk of enjoyment in watching “Tin Man,” which often is as narratively uninteresting as it is visually interesting. Style too often interferes with substance, and “Man” regularly leans on special effects to fill time and prop up the story, which takes far less chances than the art direction. Really, though, who is surprised? The implied purpose of “Man” is to have fun with the material that inspired it, and it at least does that. As long as you don’t expect the same level of magic that emanated from the genuine article, there’s no reason this won’t provide enjoyment on some level, however shallow.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, interviews, bloopers.

South Park: Imaginationland: Uncensored Director’s Cut (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
In this three-episode arc-turned-movie, the kids of South Park have to contend with what happens with a simple leprechaun search lands them in Imaginationland, which is a metropolis of characters created by human imagination. What happens next is really rather insane even by “South Park” standards, and the somewhat legendary status these episodes have taken on since they aired last October makes this conversion to moviehood no surprise. Assuming you haven’t overdosed on the repeated airings on Comedy Central, here it is in one cut, with a few additional scenes thrown in that never aired on television. That brings the total to 65 minutes, though fans of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s DVD commentary tracks will get twice the value from the track that’s exclusive to this DVD. (The two freebie episodes are nice, but ardent “South Park” fans likely already own them from previously-released season sets.)
Extras: Parker/Stone Commentary, two bonus episodes, storyboards.

Hitman: Unrated (NR, 2007, Fox)
Often, video game franchises that become movie franchises have little to no business doing so. Every now and then, though, a gaming property seems almost designed to live that dual life and live it well. “Hitman,” a generally well-written video game gifted with an extremely intriguing lead character in Agent 47 (played here by Timothy Olyphant), would appear to be one of the latter. And in several ways, it doesn’t embarrass gamers the way so many other films in the genre so regularly do. Unfortunately, while that’s saying something, it isn’t saying much. “Hitman” seems so determined to play out like a regular movie that it accidentally transforms into one, featuring well-worn plot twists, silly dialogue and a love interest angle that most certainly wasn’t inspired by the games, which explicitly avoided such things. That last part also serves to couch the character development of Agent 47, which in turn robs “Hitman” of its most intriguing source of potential. There’s a lot of bloodshed and the action is decently entertaining on its own merit, but it doesn’t hide the fact that “Hitman” had the opportunity to break ground in its genre rather than merely tread water above the wreckage of sunken plunder that preceded it. Dougray Scott, Ulrich Thomsen and Olga Kurylenko also star.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, bloopers.

Games 3/5/08: Army of Two, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (PS3)

Army of Two
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

Never mind that “Army of Two” looks like another realistic war shooter, or that it takes place in war-torn environments ripped straight from the headlines (and Miami). If you want to enjoy this one, you absolutely must remember one thing: It’s just a game.

That’s because, on so many levels, “Two” is simply busting with contrivances that, for sticklers for realism, will be immensely difficult to brush off.

The chief selling point behind “Two,” as indicated by the title, is that you’re fighting alongside a fellow mercenary at all times. You directly control one soldier, and either a friend or the computer handles the other. If you play solo, you can issue commands that dictate your partner’s movements and level of aggression, which allows one soldier to draw fire while the other flanks the enemy and finishes them off.

The system works, and “Two” makes absolutely sure you see that for yourself. Some soldiers, for whatever reason, can only be shot from behind, which means you’ll have to flank them. Cover is conveniently located, because you either have to use it or die. Enemy soldiers sometimes completely ignore you simply because your partner is firing, and there are sequences in which you can clear out a room, either by standing back-to-back and firing away or by achieving overkill, which grants you temporary invincibility.

This is the tip of “Two’s” iceberg of gimmickry. But if EA proves anything here, it’s that contrivance isn’t a bad thing at all if there’s a good reason for it. “Two” absolutely believes in what it is, and why not? It’s fast, explosive and tons of fun. The levels are masterfully designed, enemy soldiers attack ruthlessly (if not always intelligently), and EA locks down everything from firepower variety to squad management to “Gears of War”-style shooting controls with extreme satisfaction. Realistic or not, “Two” is a ton of fun to play.

Though “Two’s” A.I. is strong enough to make flying solo fun in its own right, the game naturally shines when a friend assumes your partner’s shoes instead. As should be expected, EA includes support for both local and online co-op play. “Two” also supports competitive multiplayer via, fittingly, two-on-two matches that utilize many of the same elements found in the campaign. It’s not quite as satisfying as teaming up in the campaign, but “Two” is such a co-op game at heart that this isn’t so much a gripe as a predictable observation.


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
For: Playstation 3
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, violence)

In case you miss 2007, Capcom has done its best to bring it back, porting “Lost Planet: Extreme Condition” to the Playstation 3 a full 13 months after it debuted on the Xbox 360.

Happily, for those who couldn’t enjoy it the first time around, “Planet” still feels fairly fresh, able to both captivate and aggravate on the same level it always has.

Despite the surprisingly heavy (and almost completely forgettable) infusion of storytelling, “Planet” really is about one thing: Shooting stuff. Sometimes you shoot stuff on foot. Other times, it’s from the womb of a giant mech. Sometimes, that stuff is people — specifically, the agents and snow pirates who comprise much of the sparse human population on E.D.N. III, a snow-covered wasteland straight out of “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Mostly, though, “stuff” refers to bugs — big ones, huge ones, enormous ones, “oh my god!” ones and the nests from which they spawn. “Planet” isn’t quite as visually groundbreaking one year on, but some of its battles — featuring screen-sized insects that challenge you to keep your balance, never mind survive — remain a treat to experience. The innovative creature designs, incredible special effects and sheer activity scream “blockbuster,” and a unique health system allows you to take full advantage and live pretty dangerously.

Even when “Planet” does its best to frustrate — and camera issues, tons of cheap enemy attacks and an inconsistent checkpoint system ensure it often will — it rarely ever bores.

“Planet’s” mix of heavy weaponry, fast action and mechs makes it an ideal candidate for fast, accessible multiplayer gaming, and that’s precisely what we get here. Capcom doesn’t try anything crazy, and the modes of play are pretty standard fare. But the sheer mindlessness of the action makes tearing up E.D.N. III quite a lot of fun, and “Planet” doesn’t commit any serious technical gaffes that would spoil the mood.

Multiplayer also is where PS3 owners reap, however slightly, the rewards of patience. The bonus multiplayer maps Xbox 360 owners had to pay extra for are available out of the box here, and the cast of playable multiplayer characters includes some very cool selections (Megaman!) for fans of Capcom’s other games. Some brand-new maps or perhaps some new single-player content would have gone a much longer way toward making “Planet” feel new again, but the semi-budget ($40) price tag probably is a better trade-off.

DVD 3/4/08: Into the Wild, Human Giant S1, Things We Lost in the Fire, The Kill Point, Awake, Automation Transfusion

Into the Wild: 2-disc Collector’s Edition (R, 2007, Paramount Vantage)
You know that urge to leave the everyday world behind, head for the tranquility of the wilderness and never see another tall building again? Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) exercised that urge, and “Into the Wild” is a visualization of the Jon Krakauer novel that told McCandless’ true story. “Wild” picks up two years into the exodus, filling in the details of McCandless’ come to being through flashbacks that wisely break up the 148-minute (and otherwise mostly linear) narrative. Even more wisely, though — and with a skill that’s not to be taken lightly — these scenes dress up the narrative without holding hands and dragging viewers by the wrists. “Wild” is an adventure film beyond anything else, and whatever details one gleans about McCandless and his family are refreshingly open to one’s own personal interpretation. Is he a spoiled kid who never knew how good he had it, or does he understand something that those who merely dream of escape do not? Perhaps your own place in life will determine that. “Wild,” most satisfyingly, allows that to happen, and not at its own expense. Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughn also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Human Giant: Season One (NR, 2007, MTV)
The concept of what is and is not funny is about as subjective a topic as there is in the realm of entertainment, so simply declaring that this half-hour, three-person (Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) sketch comedy show is extremely funny isn’t exactly satisfactory for everyone. So let’s put it this way: If you enjoy the comedic stylings of, say, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” or “Mr. Show,” there’s a better-than-excellent chance you’ll love this as much or more. “Giant” blitzes through its material, capturing the energy of a truncated evening at your favorite improv theater and distilling it through the wonders of television editing. It’s frantic and often very loud, but all that energy simply provides dressing for some seriously smart comedy. It’s merely a shame the episodes — clocking in at less than 20 minutes each — fly by so quickly, especially with only eight of them to go around. Fortunately, there’s a ton of bonus content that makes the set a worthy (and very rewatchable) treat.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus commentary, highlights from the “Human Giant” 24-hour marathon, deleted scenes, improv, galleries, early footage and a sneak peak at season two.

Things We Lost in the Fire (R, 2007, Dreamworks)
By her own admission, Audrey (Halle Berry) hated her husband Brian’s (David Duchovny) very troubled best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). But when Brian is killed and Jerry attends the funeral, the grieving widow invites him to put his life back together in her home while she attempts to do the same. As one might surmise from this plot description, “Things We Lost in the Fire” isn’t a particularly happy movie. But a film need not be cheerful to be hopeful, and “Fire” manages to dish out the old “Time heals all wounds” mantra in a fashion that at once is scorchingly painful and unassumingly, sneakily inspiring. Give credit to both the script, which avoids preaching despite many opportunities to give in, and some stellar performances from both the adults and the kids (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry). “Fire” arguably isn’t the kind of movie worth seeking out if you’re feeling the burn of your own loss, as it merely serves notice that recovery takes time that moves slower than anyone wishes it would. That however, is what also makes it so compelling to watch.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Kill Point (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
A pack of disgruntled former soldiers (led by John Leguizamo as Mr. Wolf) has decided that if the government won’t pay them what they feel they deserve, a bank heist may do the trick instead. Given that this Spike TV miniseries spans eight episodes and 342 minutes, one could venture to guess such an idea doesn’t go quite as planned. (Enter Donnie Wahlberg as hostage negotiator Horst Cali.) That running time, by the way, is primarily what makes “The Kill Point” worth watching. Bank heist movies have seemingly done everything they can with the genre, but stretch the story out over close to six hours, and there suddenly is room for detail that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Happily, “Point” doesn’t simply drag things out for the sake of doing so, but instead takes full advantage of the format. Primary and supporting characters (hostages included) are sketched well, and the story manages to twist itself around in satisfying and (mostly) plausible ways. As such, when chaos ensues, it’s merely enriches “Point” rather than carries it on its back. Given how good the action is, that’s about the highest compliment “Point” could collect.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus character interview promos.

Awake (R, 2007, Weinstein Company)
Think you’re having a bad day? Check out what’s on multi-millionaire Clay Beresford’s (Hayden Christensen) calendar: Have heart transplant surgery, stay conscious but completely paralyzed when the anesthesia doesn’t work properly, feel every inch of the surgery, and eavesdrop on a conversation that makes you wonder how, not when or even if, you’re ever going to wake up. See? Could be worse. And as thrillers go, “Awake” also could be worse. Clay’s out-of-body dissection of the mystery at hand is entirely impossible to buy even by the most forgiving of movie watchers, and the way the film chooses to illustrate this peeling of the onion — both from Clay’s point of view and in general — doesn’t do wonders for authenticity. But silly as the whole thing is, it’s engaging, thanks in no small part to the way “Awake” so beautifully preys on the fears of anyone who ever had even a passing worry about such a surgical nightmare happening to them. It coasts from there, but frankly, it can. By the time that horrifying sequence ends, there’s an investment in seeing how the rest of the story goes, and it’s a little too easy to forgive “Awake’s” serious logic gaps as result.
Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin and Christopher McDonald also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), storyboards, behind-the-scenes feature.

Automation Transfusion (NR, 2008, Dimension Extreme)
See if this sounds familiar: A military experiment leads to an outbreak that turns scores of people into walking — and in this case, running — undead. Now, a pack of teenagers must fight their way to safety and yadda yadda yadda. Of all the words one can use to describe “Automation Transfusion,” “original” isn’t one of them. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to like here. “Transfusion” clearly was shot on a low budget, and considering it’s part of a proposed trilogy, it spends surprisingly little time developing its storyline before bowing out, essentially ending-free, after 75 minutes. The name of the game, then, is gore. And here, in spite of that tiny budget, is where “Transfusion” delivers handsomely and in buckets. How this mindlessness is supposed to stretch over two additional films is anyone’s guess, but those who want a seriously blast of blood will certainly find it here. Just don’t expect much else beyond that. Some good characters aside, “Transfusion” doesn’t do much beyond bleed profusely.
Extras: Bonus short film, filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), two music videos, making-of feature.

Games 2/27/08: Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors, FIFA Street 3

Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

‘Tis the season for “Dragon Quest” spin-offs. “Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors” is the third such side project to surface in slightly more than a year, and it’s arguably the most stark trip off the beaten path the series has taken thus far.

“Swords” borrows some conventions from more traditional “Dragon Quest” role-playing games. There are, for instance, seemingly random encounters with enemies (they’re not really that random), and defeating said enemies ultimately will level up your character’s attributes. Pieces of the series’ lore also make frequent enough appearances to keep fanatics happy.

But the similarities give way once we’re past the surface. Instead of traditional RPG play, “Swords” turns your Wiimote into a sword and turns “Dragon Quest” into a first-person action game. Rather than issue commands to attack enemies, you swing the Wiimote and slash away instead. A separate gesture allows you to block attacks with a shield, and you’ll learn special strikes as you make your way through the game’s eight levels.

Combining a series as rich as “Dragon Quest” with something a ton of gamers want — Wiimote-controlled swordplay — would seem a no-brainer, but only if Square-Enix properly locks the mechanics down.

That, sadly, is where “Swords” stumbles hard. The sword motions feel too rigid, and the lack of 1:1 control means the slashes that take place on the screen don’t match the motions you make with the Wiimote. A fickle lock-on mechanic makes switching between sword and shield more cumbersome than it should be. And for all your trouble, the only visual feedback you see on the screen is a bright slash. Given that swordplay is the clear selling point here, it’s a little off-putting to not actually see your weapon in front of you when you’re swinging away in a seemingly first-person game.

With time, it’s entirely possible for fans to get used to and even accept “Swords'” shortcomings, and while the harsh linearity takes something away from the story, there’s enough mythology here to please those who care most.

That said, Wii owners waiting for their first great swordfighting game — something that seemed like such a gimme when the system was first unveiled two years ago — will have to keep waiting. There are certain expectations in play, and “Swords” doesn’t meet them.


FIFA Street 3
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA Sports BIG
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The 2005 premiere of “FIFA Street” landed with such a thud that the 2006 sequel … wait, there was a sequel? Who knew?

Simply by making the jump to the 360 and PS3, “FIFA Street 3” makes a bigger splash than its almost invisible predecessor. The game looks noticeably better, thanks in part to the stronger hardware but in equal part to semi-cartoony player model makeover and a stylish visual presentation that borrows tricks from the “NBA Street” bag.

Other tweaks, including improved online functionality (tournament, best-of head-to-head and playground-style modes are supported) and a terrific soundtrack, also make their presence felt rather quickly.

Unfortunately, “Street” fails to improve where improvement was needed most. EA Sports continues to try and shoehorn the “Street” formula onto soccer, but after three games and despite an improved control layout this time around, it’s simply not a happy gameplay marriage.

“Street” still leans far too heavily on players performing tricks to fill the Gamebreaker meter, which in turn allows you to be temporarily unstoppable and score multiple goals with ease. That’s nothing new, and it’s something “NBA Street” does rather well.

Unfortunately, it neither feels intuitive nor is it much fun to stand around playing footsie with the ball when, in most cases, playing traditional soccer is a more effective and natural strategy. What works seamlessly in “NBA Street” rings contrived here, and the Gamebreaker maneuver feels far more disruptive due to the low-scoring nature of soccer when compared to basketball.

But playing “Street” with a traditional approach isn’t all that fantastic, either. Passing the ball often results in your player kicking to no one in particular, and playing defense just feels like a lost cause at times. The ball has a strange magnetic attraction to whatever foot is dribbling it, and you’ll commonly make a perfect slide tackle that accomplishes nothing while the ball magically returns to the opposing player’s foot. For those keeping score, these are the same issues that hampered previous games.

Weirdly, “Street” actually moves backward when it comes to single-player content. There’s no option to create a player, something the first game allowed. The career mode also runs thin, offering little reason to take it deep and very little inspiration in terms of rules and match variety. Between these shortcomings and the many problems with “Street’s” gameplay, it’s just about impossible to recommend this to anyone who plans on playing alone.

DVD 2/26/08: The Darjeeling Limited, Death at a Funeral, Margot at the Wedding, Great World of Sound, Beowulf

The Darjeeling Limited (R, 2007, Fox)
Three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) have decided to rediscover themselves and become un-estranged through, of all things, a train ride across India. It works … until it doesn’t. What happens next is highly unconventional, but then, what film born from the pen of Wes Anderson isn’t? Like Anderson’s previous work (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Rushmore”), “The Darjeeling Limited” plays liberally with one’s threshold of narrative credibility in order to tell a great story about the characters caught in the storm. It isn’t a statement film, nor is it a metaphor for something grander than itself, even as the writing style suggests it must be one or both of those things. Those who don’t jive with Anderson’s brand of humor may even wonder what the point of the whole thing is. But therein, arguably, lies “Limited’s” appeal: It’s a movie that starts and ends with its characters, and as such, it’s far more accessible than it originally purports to be. Those who cherish good characters over good plotlines almost certainly will find something — and probably someone — to love. Amara Karan, Waris Ahluwalia and Anjelica Huston also star.
Extras: “Hotel Chevalier” short film, behind-the-scenes feature.

Death at a Funeral (R, 2007, MGM)
The patriarch of a seemingly functional British family has passed on, and as “Death at a Funeral” opens and somewhat implies, the not-quite festivities are about to begin. As one might surmise before the opening scene even starts, things aren’t quite as functional as they first seem, and sure enough, everything begins to unravel before most of the attendees are in their seats. If that sounds like a generic premise, that’s because it is. But “Funeral,” to its credit, milks it skillfully, able to change gears uncommonly well and bounce between light comedy, drama, dark comedy and even gross-out comedy without ever exposing any seams. The turn of events that takes place in “Funeral” is, of course, highly unbelievable, but it’s consistently entertaining and funny enough to make that a non-issue. And while 99 percent of the film takes place within the confines of the funeral, it feels like we’ve known these people for much longer than that by the time it’s over. Saying a movie feels longer than it is rarely is a compliment, but this is one of those exceptions to the rule. Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Tudyk, Jane Asher and Peter Dinklage, among others, star.
Extras: Director commentary, writer/cast commentary, bloopers.

Margot at the Wedding (R, 2007, Paramount)
Sisters Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) haven’t been on speaking terms for a while, but Margot is ready to bury the hatchet in order to be a part of her sister’s upcoming wedding. All that’s left to do is talk it out — and in “Margot at the Wedding,” talk it out they most certainly do. Though classified as one, “Wedding” isn’t really a comedy. But it isn’t really a drama, either. Instead, it constantly performs a tightrope act between two moods, more concerned with filling out its characters and letting them air out their grievances than pandering to or even entertaining its audience. In a weird way — but only if you truly enjoy indie filmmaking at its most indie — it succeeds at doing the latter by focusing so heavily on the former. “Wedding” is a strange little film whose mood is hard to properly encapsulate without having seen it, but it certainly has the chops to keep a captive audience during its 90 minutes. If nothing else, it allows Jack Black (as Pauline’s husband-to-be) to play completely, and impressively, against type.
Extra: Interviews.

Great World of Sound (R, 2007, Magnolia)
Martin (Pat Healy) has dreams of hitting it big in the music industry. And while he’d prefer to do that as a songwriter with his girlfriend Pam (Rebecca Mader), taking a job as a traveling talent scout for an independent record label seems like a good step in the door. Unfortunately … well, you’ll see. Maybe. “Great World of Sound” sets out to be a certain kind of film, and it does an exceptional job of completing its objective. In fact, “Sound” is so good at being what it wants to be, it’s almost difficult to universally recommend. Martin’s adventures on the road with sidekick Clarence (Kene Holliday) provide plenty of comedic fodder throughout the film, but they also provoke some honest, raw and increasingly depressing observations about the futility of chasing dreams down dead-end roads. If you can handle it — and if you’re not searching for the kind of feel-good romp “Sound’s” cover art implies it might be — then by all means, give it a look. Feeling blue? Put it on your list and wait for a sunnier day.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes.

Beowulf: Director’s Cut (NR, 2007, Paramount)
The legend of Beowulf — the warrior tasked with killing a terrorizing monster named Grendel — finally gets the overblown-budget treatment we all knew was coming. In this case, while a real live cast shows up to act out the parts, the finished product is dipped in a coat of CGI, which creates a strange hybrid of live action and animation. That means “Beowulf” is full of the same dead-eye stares that made “The Polar Express” so unintentionally unsettling. But it also allows the movie to deliver the kind of action that typically is reserved for video game cut-scenes. Unfortunately, that mostly is all “Beowulf’ is. A full hour passes before the title character (Ray Winstone) is portrayed as anything beyond a generic action hero with a big mouth, and the remaining hour doesn’t do a whole lot with these modest gains. Instead, we get more epically epic action that’s so persistent as to numb the senses and induce viewer fatigue long before the end credits. Video game cut-scenes typically last a few minutes before giving way to some level of user engagement. Without those breaks, “Beowulf” just seems to go on forever, full of cool flash but never able to find a heart. Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn and Anthony Hopkins also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.