Games 4/16/08: Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds, Okami Wii

Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds
For: Playstation 3
From: Clap Hanz/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)

We’re well into year two of the Playstation 3 party, and the familiar faces of Playstations past are finally trickling through the door, comfort food in hand.

Arguably no game embodies that sense of warm familiarity better than “Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds,” which takes what already was the girl next door of golf games and brings it to the PS3 with minimal fuss and tinkering.

Granted, “Bounds” sure looks new. The courses are fantastically beautiful, and the super-deformed golfers that have long been the series’ visual hallmark are polished to the point that they almost resemble living dolls. The graphical bump makes the courses look more lifelike and the characters look more synthetic, which creates a slightly creepy dichotomy until your eyes adjust and you lose yourself in the game. Per usual, “Bounds” is cheerfully colorful, and the vibrant design makes it a showcase game in spite of the unintentional weirdness the Chucky doll effect brings forth.

In terms of gameplay, the only headline-worthy change to “Bounds” — a new analog stick swing technique that’s reminiscent of EA Sports’ “Tiger Woods” games — also happens to be entirely optional. You can play “Bounds” just as you played past “Hot Shots” games, but the swing stick method works nicely for those who take the time to learn it and have grown tired of the three-click method. (Happily, perhaps miraculously, Clap Hanz abstained from any temptation to force Sixaxis motion controls onto the process.)

As with 2004’s “Hot Shots Golf Fore!” — and pretty much any self-respecting sports game in 2008 — “Bounds” puts a lot of focus on its online component, and with mostly satisfying results. Anyone waiting excitedly for Sony to kick off the Playstation Home experiment can whet their appetite in “Bounds'” online lobbies, which allow your custom-designed golfer to interact with others in a miniature virtual world while enlisting in a tournament with up to 49 other golfers. (Don’t worry; you can golf at your own pace while others in the tournament do the same. “Bounds” doesn’t make you wait.)

Unfortunately, Sony’s lax approach to console-wide online regulation results in “Bounds” not supporting the one feature — voice chat — that would have made it the perfect Sunday afternoon online game. As fun as it is to take on all your friends at once in a single tournament, the inability to actually speak to one another within the game means you might as well be playing strangers. Here’s hoping a patch adds chat capabilities before long.


For: Nintendo Wii
From: Clover/Ready at Dawn/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, crude humor, fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol and tobacco)

The world isn’t full of second chances, but Capcom’s giving you one this one time. If you ignored “Okami” when it premiered in 2006 on the Playstation 2, you now have an opportunity to right your wrong and play the freshest game to come out that year.

To say “Okami” models certain conventions after Nintendo’s 3D “Legend of Zelda” games is something of a kind understatement. But unless you’ve ever witnessed a watercolor painting come to life, enter the third dimension and move at the mercy of your two hands, you truly have never seen anything like this before. Clover’s art direction is so stunningly original and expertly executed, all charges of me-too-ism would be forgiven had “Okami” merely aspired to be a “Zelda” copycat in gorgeous clothing.

Happily, that’s not the case. Whereas Link employs gadgets to save the day, our hero in “Okami” — a wolf with a better backstory than perhaps any wolf ever — wields a paintbrush. A button press transforms the world before you into a canvas, and from here you’re free to alter it as needed to move forward. Paint a sun to light up the sky, swipe a straight line to cut down trees, color a path to reach point B. Sketch out a bomb when all else fails. The brush factors during combat as well, with some memorably original boss fights ensuing as result.

If this sounds gimmicky to you, guess what? During the first hour, as Clover lobs remedial challenges at you, it is. But once practice ends and your abilities increase, novelty gives way to integration. And if there’s anything more impressive about “Okami” than its art direction, it’s how Clover takes a should-be gimmick and brilliantly employs it as the heartbeat of an adventure that’s every bit as satisfying as Nintendo’s best.

Given the vast technological leaps that have occured since it first appeared, “Okami” has aged remarkably well. The art style was designed to be at least somewhat age-proof, and sure enough, “Okami” emerges as perhaps the Wii’s prettiest game despite only modest technical upgrades over the PS2 version.

Things are a little dicier when it comes to the controls. The PS2’s analog stick provided slow but steady brush control. The Wiimote, while snappier, isn’t as precise, and the game is accidentally harder as result. Fortunately, while strokes occasionally won’t register like they should, the problem is nearly prevalent enough to ruin the experience, and a little practice will mitigate most issues in this regard.

DVD 4/15/08: Juno, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Lars and the Real Girl, Inside: Unrated, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Juno (PG-13, 2007, Fox)
Sixteen-year-old Juno (Ellen Page) isn’t even sure she really wanted to sleep with Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), so you’d best believe she had no designs of getting pregnant with his child. But that’s what happened, and here we are. Happily, Juno the person is determined to make the most of her predicament. So, too, is “Juno” the film, which serves notices that it’s possible to make a film about teen pregnancy that doesn’t preach, shoulder an agenda or try so hard not to preach that no one knows why it exists in the first place. “Juno” has its messages, but they’re far too personal to create any credible debate about hidden agendas. In fact, most of the energy is expended on the characters, and the film as a whole is more a product of pregnancy — which sometimes feels like an excuse to bring together such a great mix of characters — than something that revolves around it. More important than any of that, though: It’s funny, and neither cautiously nor brashly so. Rather, “Juno” is funny in that sharp but sweet way that makes you miss the characters when they’re gone. That’s something few movies in general, much less a film about a subject as touchy as this, can brag about doing. Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons and Olivia Thirlby also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), bloopers, screen tests, four behind-the-scenes features, cast and crew jam (just what it sounds like).

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (R, 2007, Image/ThinkFilm)
Frustrated executive Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to rob an easy-target jewelry store, and he wants Hank’s (Ethan Hawke) help. That’s a nice, simple way to describe the narrative gist of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Knowing the details that hide in between would, at least partially, rob you of the enjoyment that comes from uncovering just how significant this simple turn of events really is. So you’ll read nothing more of “Dead’s” plot in this space, and are free to pursue spoilers (some of which are conveniently and annoyingly printed on the back of the DVD case) at your own peril. Fortunately, all is not lost should you enter the film pre-spoiled. Nice as the surprises are, “Dead’s” real strength is its characters. And while it’s entertaining to see where initial plot twists take you, it’s even more interesting to see where they take Andy, Hank and the rest of the film’s principal players (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon, among others). When so many ingredients come together so well, it takes a lot more than a few early spoilers to come way not feeling at least a little bit entertained by what happens next.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, making-of feature.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (NR, 2007, IFC Films)
Ladies, act fast. Not only is James Aaron (Jeff Garlin, who also wrote and directed) an overweight, out-of-work actor who lives with his mom (Mina Kolb), but amazingly, he’s still single as well. Not that he isn’t looking, of course: Were he not, we wouldn’t have a movie here. “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” lacks direction to an arguable extent, almost as if Garlin filled a notebook with scribbles and observations and repurposed it as a film about one pretty average man’s quest to find love and a good gig. Fortunately, he organized those thoughts rather well, and even when “Cheese” feels like it’s randomly meandering or changing direction for the sake of doing so, it manages to pull together a fairly coherent narrative that’s mindlessly but pleasantly enjoyable. Even more interestingly, “Cheese” employs a cast of laugh-out-loud funny actors (Sarah Silverman, Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris, Richard Kind), wedges them into a production that’s more cutely amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and makes the whole thing work anyway. Being cheerfully amusing probably is easier than being raucously funny, but the way “Cheese” constantly bends but never breaks is admirable all the same.
Extras: Garlin commentary, deleted scene (with commentary).

Lars and the Real Girl (PG-13, 2007, MGM)
It took longer than anyone expected, but Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is in love. The bad news? He’s in love with a sex doll he purchased on the Internet. And so begins the madcap dysfunctional comedy that is “Lars and the Real Girl,” except that … wait, where’s the madcap hilarity? A few funny moments courtesy of Lars’ brother (Paul Schneider) aside, there really isn’t any. Rather, “Girl” purports to be a mostly serious and entirely heartfelt story of a dysfunctional human being, his synthetic girlfriend, and the impossibly unlikely outpouring of support from family and neighbors who struggle to accept what they’re seeing in front of them. That, incidentally, is what you must do as well. That “Girl” even manages to arguably succeed at telling such a bizarre story with such a straight face is a testament to its characters, its storytelling and an almost unparalleled gift of narrative restraint. But for everyone who buys into the fairy tale and adds “Girl” to his or her list of all-time favorite films, there will be someone who simply finds the whole thing — and in particular, the last act — too ridiculous to bear. Where will you stand? Only one way to find out, but this much is clear: You won’t soon forget seeing this one. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Kelli Garner also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scene.

Inside: Unrated (NR, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
Tips on how to have a horrible winter: (1) Lose your husband and father-to-be of your child in a car crash. (2) Spend Christmas Eve heavily pregnant and alone. (3) Find out you’re no longer alone because a woman, for reasons not yet known, is at your door and trying to kill you. Welcome to the plot of “Inside,” which does for horror film fans what blowfish does for seafood aficionados. That’s because, comparatively tasteful opening aside, the blood does not stop flowing once it starts. “Inside” is a film shot on a budget, and most of the inexplicable action — which no person seemingly could survive for as long as our two stars (Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle) do — takes place in the space of a few rooms. Our pursuer’s motivation is explained in time, but narrative clarity is no more a priority than logic or set piece design. Rather, “Inside” spends its money on corn syrup, red dye, and some of the sickest imagery one can expect the genre to produce. Even if you have a healthy appetite for blood and gore, “Inside” may prove too bountiful. If the end sequence doesn’t at least make you wince, call the lost and found, because you’ve lost your soul. In French with English subtitles, but an optional English dub is available.
Extra: Making-of feature.

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (PG-13, 2007, Fox)
Remember that time you had to go attend, out of some obligation or another, a hideously bad junior high school production of some Shakespeare play? Consider “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” on the same level, only with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy instead of “Macbeth” as its inspiration. The overlying plot of “King” is inspired by the “Dungeon Siege” video games, which weren’t exactly clamoring for a film treatment in the first place. Not exactly surprisingly, what emerges is a generic mishmash of medieval and fantasy elements as seen in countless films before it. Had “King” left it at that, it might serve as passable entertainment for those who can’t get enough of such themes. But there’s also the matter of terrible dialogue, unintentionally humorous action sequences and effects that are special for all the wrong reasons. Were it not so long and weighed down by stretches of dull nothingness, “King” might be worth a rental for a “so bad it’s good” group viewing. But even on that level, it outstays its welcome by a good while. Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Matthew Lillard, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Leelee Sobieski and Burt Reynolds star, and it’s a serious wonder why so many well-to-do actors needed a paycheck this badly.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 4/9/08: Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

Condemned 2: Bloodshot
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Monolith/WB Games/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, use of drugs and alcohol)

There are horror games, and there are first-person games, but there hasn’t been another game remotely like “Condemned,” which mixed the two in shockingly competent fashion when it arrived in late 2005. That it arguably was one of the most frightening games ever made didn’t hurt, either.

Think a few folks are hungry for a sequel? You bet they are. Happily, “Condemned 2: Bloodshot” not only (mostly) matches its predecessor in tone, but blows it away in most major respects when it comes to actual gameplay.

While portions certainly fall into the first-person shooter bin, much of the action in the “Condemned” games finds you fighting with fists or blunt objects rather than guns. The original game handled this surprisingly well — a feat, given how many games before it utterly failed — by keeping things simple and focused on the sensation of actually being in a first-person fight for your life.

“Bloodshot” recaptures this sensation but also dramatically expands the arsenal, adding the ability to fight more defensively and respond with combos, special maneuvers and the occasional environment-aided finisher. The suddenly-loaded control scheme flirts with contrivance, and it arguably succumbs to it in the game’s final level. But the steps forward vastly outnumber the steps backward, and Monolith gets major points for not breaking the whole system in the process of tweaking it so heavily.

Beyond survival, “Condemned’s” gameplay consisted of a handful of humorously pedestrian detective missions that required almost zero intelligence to complete. “Bloodshot” brings back the detective portions, but it smartens them up exponentially and actually applies actual consequence to them this time. The better your detective work, the higher the reward, which results in special upgrades and additions to your arsenal.

With both chief gameplay ingredients seeing such significant improvements, “Bloodshot” almost can’t help but be an inarguably better experience than its predecessor. All that remains is the arguable point of how the sequel’s story and environments stack up to what the original delivered.

This, unfortunately, is where “Bloodshot” is at its shakiest. As suspenseful storytelling goes, it’s first-rate, gifted with exceptionally good character building, healthy sprinklings of madness and a second-act twist many fans of the original will absolutely love. But the story dictates the design more than it did the first time, and that leads to a game that’s more darkly mysterious than scary. You’ll still jump, but anyone looking for a legendary scare (department store, anyone?) isn’t likely to find it.


Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
For: Sony PSP
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Square Enix has tried — lord, has it tried — to capitalize on the undying affection so many gamers have for “Final Fantasy VII.”

Finally, after a full decade and some projects we’d all like to forget ever happened, it’s struck oil with “Crisis Core.”

Ironically, part of what makes “Core” work is how non-reliant it is on the game that inspired its creation. The game builds its story around a character, Zack, whose role in “FFVII” was relegated to flashback duty only. That creates a win-win situation for all: Fans of the original game can sink their teeth into “Core’s” expansion of the “FFVII” universe, while the mostly self-contained storyline allows newcomers to dive in without fear of alienation.

On the other hand, what also makes “Core” shine is the way it applies bits and pieces of “FFVII” to what is, at least on the surface, an entirely different brand of gameplay.

Whereas “FFVII” was a turn-based role-playing game in the traditional “Final Fantasy” vein, “Core” places a much greater emphasis on semi-real-time action. Battles are self-contained per usual, but within that space, you’re free to run around, attack at will, and cycle through items and spells while simultaneously trying to avoid enemy attacks.

Such action-oriented leanings will come as terrible news for those “FFVII” fans who simply want a verbatim return to that game’s turn-based combat. But things aren’t as simple as they first seem, and many of the underpinnings that powered “FFVII’s” combat remain intact despite the new approach. “Core” automates and randomizes certain processes that previously were left to player discretion, but the ingredients that power engagement — from hit points to limit breaks — are still there. Gamers fearful that Square Enix has lumped together a dumbed-down button masher in “FFVII” clothing need not worry. For those with the desire to dissect the game’s intricacies, the depth is there.

“FFVII” devotees may not have a choice anyway. While “Core’s” gameplay almost certainly will polarize fans, Square Enix’s knack for transcendent and visually dazzling storytelling is off the table. “Core” was simultaneously tasked with playing the nostalgia card and feeling epically fresh, and it rises to the challenge with scary ease. On this merit alone, it’s a must-play for any “FFVII” fan, and those who don’t care for the new gameplay approach had best find a way to deal with it.

DVD 4/8/08: There Will Be Blood, Resurrecting the Champ, Lions for Lambs, John From Cincinnati, P2, Alvin and the Chipmunks

There Will Be Blood: Collector’s Edition (R, 2007, Paramount/Miramax)
Could the most timely and relevant illustration of the maddening effect oil has on otherwise normal men be a tale about an oilman (Daniel Day-Lewis) mining for black gold in early-20th century California? Given the explosion of contemporary material on the subject, that’s a pretty special feat. But guess what? “There Will Be Blood” — based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair book “Oil!” — is a pretty special movie. And in a bit of an ironic twist, it’s probably the source material’s complete disconnect from modern times that makes it so. The parallels between “Blood” and the front page of today’s paper are deniable only to the blind eye, but the film stands in no position to preach about a time that its source material precedes by some 80 years. So it doesn’t, instead devoting its 158 minutes to a self-contained and brutally entertaining story about men, the dollar signs in their eyes, and the greed that transforms them into well-dressed but wild animals. Those parallels quietly settle in the background, and you can acknowledge or ignore them to whatever degree you wish without any diminishing returns in entertainment value. More than a tirade or a metaphor, “Blood” is just a film about a fight. And at that, it’s deviously entertaining, ugly in all the right ways, and almost embarrassingly more fresh than most works eight decades its junior.
Extras: “The Story of Petroleum,” a 25-minute, 1923 silent film chronicling the oil business during the 1920s. Also: Behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes.

Resurrecting the Champ (PG-13, 2007, Fox)
Middling sportswriter and husband Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) has made a potentially career-turning discovery: The homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) he just rescued from a pack of teenagers happens to be a former boxing legend who was believed to be long dead. How’s that for a scoop? Here’s another scoop: Don’t read too much about “Resurrecting the Champ” if you want to see (and, more importantly, enjoy) it. As films go, it’s reasonably good in all the important ways — pretty good characters, pretty good cast, and a pretty good story that goes places in spite of the seeming limitations placed on it. What “Champ” also has is a few surprises, and the less you know about these surprises going in, the more fun it is to see where the plot takes you when those developments enter the picture. Advance knowledge of them, on the other hand, places all the pressure on the film’s third act, and if you’re counting on it delivering something special here, you’re asking for too much. Kathryn Morris, Alan Alda and Rachel Nichols also star.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

Lions for Lambs (R, 2007, MGM)
Gather round, everyone, because “Lions for Lambs” has something to say — about war, about the price of freedom, about American entitlement and its effect on global events. And talk it does, to the tune of 92 minutes dominated by back-and-forth dialogue between a reporter (Meryl Streep) and Senator (Tom Cruise), professor (Robert Redford, who also directs) and student (Andrew Garfield), and two soldiers (Michael Peña and Derek Luke) who gave up comfortable college existences to fight in Afghanistan. Problem is, all of these mouths seem to be vessels for the same pen. “Lambs,” at least in film terms, desperately wants to be a defining voice of this generation. But even when skillfully delivered, its observations about the times in which we live rarely amount to more than the same generic platitudes we’ve been hearing on cable television for more than seven years already. Worse, they sound like the thoughts of one as acted out by a cast of several. That might be fine, perhaps even desirable, had “Lambs” strived to be something more experimental than it is. But it’s not, and all that remains is a film with unintentionally comical delusions of grandeur.
Extras: Redford commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, United Artists retrospective.

John From Cincinnati (NR, 2007, HBO)
Contrary to any implications brought forth by the title, John (Austin Nichols) isn’t really from Cincinnati. In fact, none of the Yosts — a three-generation surfing family fighting various demons and each other — know where John came from, why he says the strange things he says, and why seemingly mystical things have started happening since he arrived. Unfortunately, we can’t really help them figure it out. “John From Cincinnati” brings with it some intriguing storylines, but it channels them through an inaccessible assemblage of characters ranging from caustic to obnoxiously opaque. A certain “what will happen next” curiosity emerges in spite of this, and perhaps a chance to chip away at all those shells would have revealed some good characters and a truly great show over time. We’ll never know: “Cincinnati” was canceled after a single season that ended without any kind of real closure. Even if you enjoy the 10 episodes that lie ahead, you’re still going to end up feeling burned by all the episodes that will never come next. Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Van Holt, Ed O’Neill and Keala Kennelly, among others, also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary and a behind-the-scenes feature.

P2 (R, 2007, Summit Entertainment)
It’s Christmas Eve, and workaholic Angela Bridges (Rachel Nichols) is late leaving the office for her sister’s house. Now, thanks to her poor time management skills, she’s stuck in a large building with nothing but locked doors and a dead car in the parking garage (level P2, hence the name of the film). To no fault of her time management skills, the only person remotely capable of helping her out has decided instead to keep her for himself. In other words, “P2” is your standard guy-stalks-girl film, only taking place in a parking garage, which turns out to be a pretty fresh setting for such a tired idea. Unfortunately, “P2” seems to be fully aware of how tired its concept is, and once it runs out of excuses to toss in some gore and gratuitous cleavage shots, it completely loses its mind. Apologies to anyone who enjoys the first two acts, because the finale abandons the entire premise in favor of … well who knows, really? Clearly, someone didn’t know how to tie this one together in any workable fashion, and the cobbled mess of a climax turns an average horror film with long-shot potential into a laughable mess with amnesia. Wes Bentley and Philip Akin also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Alvin and the Chipmunks (PG, 2007, Fox)
Just in case the evisceration of Underdog and the Transformers wasn’t rough enough for you, perhaps this third piece of the live-action-childhood-memory-destroying triumvirate will finally push you past your pain threshold. “Alvin and the Chipmunks” starts off simply enough as it details how three talking chipmunks and a guy named Dave (Jason Lee) crossed paths for the first time. Fine. It’s not very inventive and some of the jokes are obnoxiously tied to acute pop culture gags, but it could be worse and the CGI chipmunks look good enough. But then, “Chipmunks” realizes it has to do something with the 45 or so minutes that still need filling. And it’s here that things take a turn for the disastrous, with our tolerable beginnings giving way to an obnoxiously pedestrian story about a down-on-his-luck songwriter and a cartoonishly evil music mogul (David Cross, of all people … why, David, why?) who exploits him in exchange for access to his chipmunk friends. It’s impossible to fathom how the resulting mess could possibly be entertaining to kids, and it’s even more ridiculous to presume any functional adult could enjoy this. If there’s anything genuinely amusing about “Chipmunks,” it’s the explosive irony of a film crafted from the hands of cash-grabbing film executives preaching about the evils of corporate greed.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, “Chipmunks” retrospective.

Games 3/26/08: Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, Singstar '90s, Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

“Rainbow Six: Vegas 2” isn’t terribly new, but it is improved. For the legions of gamers who still have the 2006 original spinning in their consoles, that may be news enough.

For those who want a bit more detailed of an explanation, the changes in “R6V2” are modest but almost universally welcome.

Most noticeably, features previously relegated only to multiplayer now appear throughout the game. The campaign’s storyline now centers around a character you design yourself, and you can accumulate experience points — which still lead to better weapons and gear — in the campaign as well as during multiplayer sessions. A new system that rewards skilled kills — headshots, close combat attacks and the like — yields further rewards, and it, too, works across all modes of play.

For those who don’t wish to play alone, “R6V2” takes more steps forward than backward. The campaign now supports only two-player instead of four-player co-op, but the ability for a second player to drop in and out at any point without disrupting the first player’s progress is a nice and necessary concession. Four-player squads still can band together under the arena-style Terrorist Hunt mode, which has expanded admirably both in terms of maps and gameplay customization options.

On the competitive multiplayer front, “R6V2” adds three new objective-centric modes to complement the usual suspects. More importantly, the game allows players to invite friends to join them in ranked as well as unranked matches. That doesn’t fully compensate for the lack of a true party system, a la “Call of Duty 4,” but it’s a step in the right direction.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much more of the same. Your character’s newfound ability to sprint gives the action a modest shot in the arm, but Ubisoft otherwise doesn’t meddle with the fundamental gameplay that made the first “Vegas” the best first-person tactical shooter on either console. The graphics definitely haven’t improved much, your A.I.-controlled squadmates still aren’t as smart as you wish they were, and occasional framerate drops are the price we pay for the game being in simultaneous development for both platforms.

But none of these issues, while each disappointing in their own right, is enough to detract from how refined the game is in the areas that matter. “R6V2” takes a great game, makes it better, and provides closure to a storyline that needed one. That’s not everything everyone wanted, but for the core audience, that’s more than plenty.


Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters
For: Playstation 2
From: High Impact Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)

Singstar ’90s
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, sexual themes, use of alcohol and tobacco)

Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz
For: Playstation 2
From: Relentless Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, mild language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

While the PS3 brings home the buzz in the Playstation family, Sony’s unsinkable PS2 continues to sell alongside the best of them. Consequently, Sony manages to keep the software coming, even if most of it consists of content packs and port jobs of varying quality.

Among the latest batch of new first-party software, “Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters” easily stands out as the most intriguing. Sadly, it’s also the most disappointing.

“Matters” is the latest example of a Playstation Portable game making the jump to the PS2, and anyone who doesn’t know this going in will be jarred by how inferior the game looks when stacked against the “Ratchet” games that were specifically developed for the PS2. That would be bearable if looks were the only problem, but framerate issues and camera controls that arbitrarily do not work make for a product that feels inexplicably rushed to retail.

Even those who do know the origins of “Matters” are likely to be disappointed. The PSP version’s best feature — a suite of extremely clever online multiplayer modes for up to four players — is now strictly an offline, splitscreen table for two. The essence of the modes remains intact, but it’s a huge step backward from the portable game, which easily remains the definitive version a full year later.

Things are a less unpleasantly surprising elsewhere, with both “Singstar ’90s” and “Buzz! The Hollywood Quiz” essentially serving as expansion packs for those who invested in the “Singstar” microphones or “Buzz” game show buzzer peripherals, respectively.

“Singstar ’90s” (available by itself or bundled with two microphones) does nothing the previous four “Singstar” games didn’t do, so if you’ve played any of those, nothing down to the last pixel should surprise you here. As with previous “Singstar” packs, your interest in “Singstar ’90s” comes down to whether the track listing intrigues you or not. Per usual, there are 30 songs and videos with which to sing along, and a complete track listing is available at Sony’s “Singstar” web site,

“Quiz” (sold alone or with four Buzz controllers) is similarly low on surprises, delivering the same quiz show experience of other “Buzz” games but with a focus this time on movies. The game looks a little better than previous “Buzz” games, and the Oscar-inspired theme gives it a little more visual personality then previous iterations. Most importantly, “Quiz” features 5,000 new questions to answer, so if you enjoy the “Buzz” games but have tired of all they offer, this is a pretty safe way to replenish your stock.

DVD 3/25/08: The Kite Runner, Frisky Dingo S1, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Upright Citizens Brigade: Asssscat!, The Mist, Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death… and Insects

The Kite Runner (PG-13, 2007, Dreamworks)
Khaled Hosseini’s monstrously popular book about the divergent paths two childhood Afghan friends (Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) take as they grow apart from shared beginnings is now a movie. It’s also a case of life imitating art, at least metaphorically. In film form, “The Kite Runner” hopelessly feels a bit rushed, with the narrative struggling to tell a rather epic story and capture the gravity of its settings to full satisfaction while keeping the runtime near the two-hour mark. That’s an obligation with which the source material never has to contend, and one not even read the book to realize it will continue to thrive on a level far beyond anything the movie can comprehend. Happily, “Runner’s” inability to do the impossible may be its only truly damaging flaw. The film has precious little room to breathe, but it still gets the story told. And even when “Runner” so transparently struggles with the limitations that bound it, it has very few issues with getting the heart of the matter across. Heartstrings, prepare to be tugged. Khalid Abdalla and Homayoun Ershadi also star. In Dari and some English with English subtitles.
Extras: Director/writer/author commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, public service announcement.

Frisky Dingo: Season One (NR, 2006, Adult Swim)
Sure, Killface wants to destroy all of mankind. But before he can annihilate the public, he first needs to captivate it with a catchy marketing campaign. What, after all, is the point of wiping out an entire population if they don’t know you’re the one doing the wiping? Either way, trust fund superhero Awesome X doesn’t wish to find out. “Frisky Dingo” comes courtesy of the same asylum that unleashed “Sealab 2021,” and that should surprise no one who has seen both shows. In terms of approach, it’s typical Adult Swim — seemingly purposefully weak in the animation department, but gifted with enough wonderfully, stupidly funny writing to countervail any issues one might have with the art direction. The best part? The writing’s good for more than just laughs. Whether or not the writers prioritized or even intended it, “Dingo’s” serial approach is surprisingly engaging, and finding out what happens next is as much a reason to watch as the show’s brilliant sense of humor. Cobbled together on one DVD, the season plays out like a funny and surprisingly engaging feature film.
Contents: 13 episodes. No extras.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (R, 2007, Lions Gate)
If there was an Oscar for the quickest offing of a main character, it would go to “Wristcutters,” which finds our hero (Patrick Fugit  as Zia) dead of a self-inflicted injury mere minutes after it begins. Fortunately, Zia has an afterlife. Unfortunately, it’s in purgatory, where smiling is physically impossible, everyone wants to know how you killed yourself, and the job market stinks. The premise all but hands “Wristcutters” the keys to the black comedy kingdom, and every indication is there that this is where we’re headed. But that “A Love Story” tag isn’t quite as ironic as it first seems, and “Wristcutters” isn’t quite as dark as it initially purports to be. That’s not necessary a bad thing, either. Hopeless beginnings and seeming taste for irony aside, “Wristcutters” develops into a film of surprisingly high concept. It even aims for, and arguably achieves, a level of cuteness that seemed impossible during the first act. That’s quite a feat in itself, but all the more impressive when you consider that “Wristcutters” never betrays its original vision or jerks the viewer around. Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits) and Leslie Bibb also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes, storyboards, photo gallery.

Upright Citizens Brigade: Asssscat! (NR, 2007, Shout Factory)
The Upright Citizens Brigade revolution won’t be televised, it seems. And that’s a shame, because that, beyond the stage, is where “Asssscat!” belongs. Here’s how it works: A famous face (say, Kate Walsh or Thomas “Reno 911!” Lennon) delivers a guest monologue about a topic suggested by the audience, and the Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) and friends perform a rapid-fire series of improvised sketches that play off the monologue. The high-energy end result is, if this DVD is to be believed, very funny. Perhaps more importantly, the guest monologue that connects the troupe to the audience piles a surprising layer of ingenuity on top of the format limitations improv comedy typically imposes on its performers. What a pity, then, that we only get one complete performance and pieces of a few others. “Asssscat” could, and should, be a series. That no one in TV Land seems to agree is far more ridiculous than anything the Brigade could possibly conjure on stage.
Extras: Bonus round footage, UCB commentary, UCB interview, two very funny outtakes, theme song.

Stephen King’s The Mist: Two-Disc Collector’s Edition (R, 2007, Dimension)
So there’s this crazy mist that’s creeping through this small town, right? And so the townsfolk have huddled together inside a grocery store as the mist advances on them and slowly reveals what it is and from whence it came. Nothing about that premise is remotely fresh anymore, but in typical Stephen King style, “The Mist” manages to take a tired concept and stuff it with entertainment value and copious amounts of eye and ear candy that’s easy to digest. Unfortunately, and also in typical King fashion, “The Mist” does this at the complete expense of any subtlety whatsoever, nullifying a perfectly fine ensemble cast (Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones) in favor of obsessing over a cartoon character religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) whom we’re clearly supposed to hate. That in itself isn’t really offensive, but the way the film spoonfeeds this emotion is insulting to even the most base level of intelligence. Taken purely as entertainment, “The Mist” still validates itself, and the ending will certainly leave some jaws dropped. It’s just too bad some will interpret this as a message movie first and entertainment second, because it fails pretty miserably in this respect.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), Webisodes, alternate monochrome cut (with director introduction), five behind-the-scenes features.

Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death… and Insects (NR, 2007, A&E)
Anyone who has enjoyed even a momentary flirtation with the mind of singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock need not wrack the brain to estimate the value of a documentary that takes us a little further inside. That, precisely, is what “Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death… and Insects” does. While Hitchcock records yet another album with yet another assemblage of musicians both well-known and unknown, he shares insights into not only the formation of his latest project, but also the process that goes into the creation of what has turned out to be one extremely impressive body of musical work. “Insects” primarily serves as fan service for Hitchcock devotees, but there’s some real value in Hitchcock’s insights for all who fashion themselves musical, misunderstood or both. So why, then, do we only get an hour to enjoy this insight? Wisdom clearly is left unturned, so what’s the big hurry? “Insects” originally was developed for cable, where time is as much a premium as the reruns most of these channels run ad infinitum. In DVD form, the short runtime makes even less sense. The bonus content is nice and all, but it can’t hold a candle to what another 30 to 60 minutes of the main program would have provided.
Extras: Five bonus Hitchcock performances, music video.