Games 5/21/08: Boom Blox, Assault Heroes 2

Boom Blox
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

To the untrained eye, “Boom Blox” may look like yet another addition to the mountain of awful Wii games that litter store shelves in hopes of trapping unsuspecting buyers with an appealing box and catchy title.

In reality, “Blox” may be one of the biggest surprises of 2008. Like so many of those bad Wii games, it feeds on simple ideas. Unlike all of them, it does so with masterful skill.

For starters, “Blox” is so rich with gameplay modes and variations that satisfactorily explaining what it even is would require more words than this review space provides. Sometimes the goal is to throw a ball at a tower of blocks and knock down certain pieces while leaving others intact. Other times, you’ll use special blocks or projectiles to set off chains that knock everything down in as few throws as possible. Other levels have you pulling pieces out, Jenga-style, in hopes of accomplishing various objectives. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, some levels have you holding the Wiimote like a zapper and blasting blocks for points. And so on.

These mechanics may read thin on paper, but “Blox” is so refreshingly proficient as a package (erratic zapper levels aside) that it’s a different ballgame in practice. The motion controls are almost shockingly on point, making it easy to throw and pull without fear of game glitches undermining whatever strategy you’ve devised. A massive array of levels — more than 300 spread out over multiple modes — provides a ton of puzzles to solve, and an awesome infusion of real-world physics injects “Blox” with simultaneous doses of intelligence and unpredictability. Achieving the gold medal score in every level is a fun and legitimately challenging enterprise.

And yet, none of the above provides the best reason to play “Blox.” That honor instead goes to the game’s robust four-player offerings, which dish out yet more levels in both the co-op and competitive vein. Given the appealing premise (destroy stuff!) and that the polished controls allow even novices to master them simply on instinct, “Blox” may be the Wii’s most inviting and addictive party game since “Wii Sports.”

Should you actually burn through everything “Blox” has to offer, fret not: This sundae has a serious cherry in the form of a full-featured but incredibly intuitive level designer. Inspired designers can alter existing levels and create new ones from scratch, while the less driven can download levels that friends create and send their way.


Assault Heroes 2
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Downloadable for: 800 MS Points
From: Wanako Studios/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

Gaming is nothing if not a sequel-friendly business, and with “Assault Heroes 2,” the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade has the first of what surely will be many sequels to games that either began life or flourished on the service.

Few franchises deserve the milestone more. The original “Assault Heroes,” released last year, was a terrific top-down shooter that employed dual-stick controls (left joystick to move, right stick to aim and shoot) a la “Geometry Wars” but did so in an environment reminiscent of such classics as “Ikari Warriors” and “Commando.” The premise — shoot everything — was simple, but the game’s grasp of modern graphics, controls and features made for a wonderful mix of classic sensibilities that still satisfied contemporary gaming expectations.

Fundamentally, “AH2” doesn’t change that, and pretty much everything that made the original great — including online and offline two-player co-op — makes the sequel just as good. Your 4×4 has some new weapon possibilities, and you now can commandeer tanks, choppers and mechs during various portions of the game. All are trickier to maneuver than the 4×4, but the cool weapon systems in each make the learning curve worth traversing.

Additionally, while “AH2’s” story is weaker than a snowflake at a furnace convention, it provides an excuse to briefly venture into space. The fundamental gameplay remains the same out here, but a new suite of vehicles and weaponry — along with a couple surprising shifts in perspective and a few levels that skillfully pay homage to the likes of “Galaga” — change the pace just enough to keep things fresh between terrain-based missions.

The most pronounced change, however, has nothing to do with what you’re flying or driving. Whereas the original “Heroes” featured on-foot action only during bonus underground areas or when enemies destroyed your vehicle, “AH2” lays down mandatory stretches of levels in which the only way to get by is to leave the safety of your ride and fight on foot.

Happily, the biggest change also happens to be the best. “AH2’s” on-foot missions add a refreshing dose of danger to a game that, overall, is somewhat easier than its predecessor. To compensate, the game also greatly expands your foot soldier’s weaponry and provides the very helpful ability to dodge-roll enemy attacks. That’s a smart trade-off, and it adds up to an assemblage of on-foot battles that not only blowi away their counterparts in the original, but arguably outclass any portion, period, of either game.

DVD 5/20/08: Finishing the Game, George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, Strange Wilderness, The Flock, 24 S1:SE, Penn & Teller: Bull****! S5, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead: 40th AE

Finishing the Game (R, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
Bruce Lee really did die only a fraction into the filming of “Game of Death,” and the story of how Columbia Pictures cobbled everything from a new director to multiple Lee stand-ins to footage from past Lee films to finish “Death” is a true one. That little piece of knowledge makes the altogether untrue story of “Finishing the Game” — a mockumentary that documents the first, entirely failed attempt to finish “Death” — that much more entertaining than it already is. Like just about any mockumentary, “Game” trots out no small list of strange characters, focusing the bulk of its energy on an assemblage of hopeful Lee stand-ins brought in to audition for the not-quite lead role. But as only a truly good film in this genre can do, “Game” also gives its characters dimension beyond humor, daring occasionally to be dramatic, philosophical and even poignant with its cast once we get to know them. That it even pulls it off is nothing short of some skillful miracle, because any poignancy the film has is forced to contend with a brilliantly unhinged sense of humor and style that wears the 1970s on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to occasionally venture off on a completely bizarre tangents that further illustrate its characters’ roots. Had the events that inspired its creation never actually happened, “Game” still would be an immensely entertaining trip. But no one is likely to enjoy this tongue-in-cheek rewriting of history more than those who know the real story and can appreciate just how cleverly “Game” takes a high-concept idea and absolutely runs with it.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (R, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
George A. Romero does a bit of hustling with “Diary of the Dead,” which somewhat does for zombies what “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project” did for monsters and witches, respectively. For a while, it seems like that’s all it is — a gimmicky zombie film with a dull cast of characters and a dull and not-so-subtle commentary on the culture of voyeurism in the Youtube age. Fortunately, after a stale opening act, “Diary” perks up a bit, mixing in some comedy, a few memorable side characters and an extra dimension or two for some of our heroes (Michelle Morgan in particular, and Joshua Close to a lesser degree). But even with a strong recovery to keep things interesting, little that happens during “Diary’s” 96 minutes elevates it to the same levels of greatness other “Dead” films achieved. What plays out often feels like a zombie flick that wants instead to be a message movie — perhaps an admission, in case it wasn’t plain to see, that the genre has limitations even in the hands of its master. “Diary” is full of good parts and is a reliably fun time when all is said and done, but it can’t help but succumb to high doses of deja vu while gluing all those pieces together.
Extras: Crew commentary, feature-length making-of documentary, three behind-the-scenes features, five Myspace contest-winning zombie shorts, character confessionals.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (PG, 2007, Disney)
If you saw the original “National Treasure” and somehow walked away wishing it could be just a little more convoluted and unbelievable, worry not: Your cries have been answered. This time, Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is out to clear his family’s name after a new discovery unfavorably links it to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And why not? Clearing the family name is something any good and capable person would do, and Gates once again demonstrates how ridiculously qualified he is to do pretty much anything he feels like. That allows him, mostly alone and with minimal planning, to pull off feats entire armies and societies couldn’t accomplish for ages. Right. “Secrets” isn’t bereft of likeability: Gates himself is your typically enjoyable Cage character, his cohorts (Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren) aren’t terribly hard to like, and any excuse to put Ed Harris in the shoes of a cretin is a good one. But even when “Secrets” has fun with past and current events, it too often succumbs to overlong, overproduced action scenes with predictably neat resolutions. At 125 minutes, it’s also runs far too long, drowning in bloat and adrenaline fatigue a good half-hour before the credits roll.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with director intro), bloopers, eight behind-the-scenes features.

Strange Wilderness (R, 2008, Paramount)
There are some very funny people in the world, and you can see a nice handful of them (Steve Zahn, Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Kevin Heffernan, even Ernest Borgnine) in “Strange Wilderness,” which follows a floundering host (Zahn) of a floundering wildlife show as he tracks down Bigfoot in a desperate grab to stay on the air. Unfortunately, even funny people can’t be funny simply by being, which “Wilderness” seems to assume is the case. A by-the-numbers story ensues about idiots who fall on hard times, embark on a crazy plan, encounter all manner of wacky happenings, hit rock bottom and eventually redeem themselves against all odds. “Wilderness” purports to compensate for such predictability by sprinkling laughs all over the place, but its dedication to original humor is about as pronounced as its commitment to original storytelling. In other words, our funny cast runs around like headless chickens, screams whenever a quiet moment looms, and mixes up its running and screaming in enough combinations to fill 84 very long and uninspired minutes. Outside of one or two fleeting moments, it’s never clever enough to be genuinely funny nor shocking enough to at least drop a few jaws. It’s just a lot of people getting paid to run around and scream, which probably is exponentially more fun for them than it is for us.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, “Reel Comedy” episode.

The Flock (R, 2006, Weinstein Co.)
Erroll Babbage’s (Richard Gere) beat is crawling with registered sex offenders, and it’s his job to keep checks on them in hopes of preventing repeat offenses. Sadly, no matter how good Babbage is at containing sex offenders, he stands no chance of reeling in the barrage of clichés that sandbag “The Flock” from all directions. There’s the case that breaks right under his nose when a girl gets abducted. There’s an unknown predator who taunts Babbage with clues and phone calls that apparently cannot be traced using 21st century technology. There are a few hackneyed twists the film telegraphs from miles away. There’s the rookie (Claire Danes) who doesn’t understand Babbage’s crusty ways until, both slowly and suddenly, she does. And finally, there’s Babbage himself — the grisly cop who has seen it all and whose methods have all but forced him into early retirement. “The Flock” is indeed a flock — of tired ideas, cartoony heroes and villains, and the kind of cheap exploitation that films without any purpose use to incite some emotion. One wonders if Gere and Daines took a quick paycheck under the assumption a film this bland and soulless would never see the light of day. They dodged embarrassment in the theaters, but the straight-to-DVD racket is a cruel mistress.
Extras: No extras.

Worth Mentioning
— “24: Season One: Special Edition” (NR, 2001, Fox): If the writer’s strike left you hungering for some new “24” material, this special edition re-release of the first season might be your best bet until 2009. New extras include a seventh disc with a new behind-the-scenes documentary, a collection of shorts from the Web spin-off “The Rookie,” and a tin case with working LED timer built inside. Not mentioned anywhere on the packaging but also included: A Pandora’s box of special edition TV-on-DVD re-releases, now cracked wide open for business.
— “Penn & Teller: Bull****! The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2007, Showtime): One of cable’s most unheralded shows returns for another season of explicative-laden but immensely entertaining mythbusting. Topics include obesity, Wal-Mart, detox, immigration, Mt. Rushmore and, both fittingly and ironically, anger management. 10 episodes, no extras.
— “George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1968, Dimension): If you need a companion piece for “Diary of the Dead,” there’s nothing quite like the original. Extras include two commentary tracks, a new behind-the-scenes documentary, Romero Q&A, the last interview with star Duane Jones, an image gallery and the original trailer.

Games 5/14/08: Iron Man, Crosswords DS

Iron Man
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Alternate versions available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS and Windows
From: Secret Level/Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild violence, language)

Some games have difficulty curves that resemble plateaus. Others ramp up the challenge in a slope befitting a hill or mountain.

“Iron Man,” on the other hand, prefers the Saguenay Fjord method.

Oh, it starts off pleasantly enough. “Iron Man’s” opening missions are rather bland in both the objectives and eye candy department, but they give you a chance to acclimate yourself with your arsenal. The control scheme leans a bit on the complicated side, but it allows Secret Level to map Iron Man’s many abilities to the controller. A number of attacks and maneuvers sit at your disposal right from the start, and a nice upgrade system lets you cater your suit’s special abilities — maneuverability, armor, firepower, speed — to match your own strengths.

Ostensibly, “Iron Man” seems equipped to deliver the goods once the handholding ends and the real action begins. And like an asylum inmate who suddenly stops taking his meds, that’s precisely what it does.

Somewhere between missions four and five, Secret Level decided to increase enemy resistance to an exponential degree that far outstrips your suit’s increased abilities. The result is a barrage of choppers, missile turrets and other enemies simultaneously pounding on you with an almost comical excess of bullets and rockets that seem magnetically attracted to your suit no matter how expertly you try to dodge them. The game allows you to catch and throw back missiles, which is a fun trick until you realize that every time you catch one missile, it leaves you vulnerable to nine more flying at you from seven other directions.

This insanity continues unabated for the nine missions that comprise “Iron Man’s” back end, and the incentive for powering through this madness is almost nil. The missions never really evolve beyond “destroy X of this, destroy Y of that,” and the mid-mission cut-scenes do a rather inadequate job of illustrating exactly what the point of it all is. Unless you elect to sleepwalk through the game on Easy (which maintains the ridiculous firepower but drastically tones down the damage incurred by enemy fire) or simply must unlock Iron Man’s other suits, it’s hard to imagine any reason to press on.

That’s a shame, too, because Secret Level got the hard part — controlling Iron Man — down cold. It’s a lot of fun to fly around as Tony Stark; now all we need is a balanced and engaging game in which to do it.


Crosswords DS
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Really, it took this long? Given the presumably cheap production costs, Nintendo’s endless thirst for affordable gateway games and the natural parallels between a stylus-based gaming system and a book of crossword puzzles, it’s somewhat baffling that Nintendo hasn’t released three or four volumes of “Crosswords DS” by now.

Digressions aside, “CWDS” delivers on its promise, cramming more than 1,000 crossword puzzles of varying difficultly onto a tiny cart and throwing in a batch of word searches and anagram challenges for variety’s sake.

Given how literal the whole package is, it’s hard to find fault with “CWDS” as long as everything works as intended.

Happily, everything does. All three challenges benefit from clean, highly functional interfaces that work exactly as one would expect them to, and the crosswords portion features some shockingly good handwriting-recognition technology. Some confusion regarding L’s and I’s aside, the game is surprisingly adept at deciphering hastily-written scribbles that may only passably resemble letters. Unless your handwriting is completely illegible, you should run into very little resistance in this department.

In terms of features, “CWDS” plays it pretty straight. The daily training feature found in most of Nintendo’s Touch Generation games isn’t here, but it wouldn’t really make sense in this context, either. “CWDS” instead sorts puzzles by difficulty, keeping track of finished puzzles and clear times for both the crosswords and word searches. (The game tracks how many anagrams challenges you’ve completed, but because these challenges are generated semi-randomly, you can’t revisit and replay specific arrangements like you can in the other two sections.)

That’s pretty much all there is to it, and that’s fine. “CWDS” does what it purports to do, does it well, and packs a lot of content inside an affordable ($20) and elegant package. To find serious fault with this game is to find fault with what it represents, and if you’re doing that, this game wasn’t really made for you in the first place. If the promise behind “CWDS” interests you at all, you’ll be hard-pressed to come away disappointed by how it delivers on that promise.

DVD 5/13/08: The Great Debaters, Numb, Botched, National Lampoon's Cattle Call, Frontier(s), Graduation, Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection, A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films, Marvel Heroes, Die Hard: Ultimate Collection

The Great Debaters: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (PG-13, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
Denzel Washington may lord over the rest of the cast on the DVD cover art and his name may be at the top of the marquee, but that alone doesn’t make him the star of “The Great Debaters,” which chronicles the story of a black college debate team’s unlikely quest in 1935 to take on the reigning collegiate national champions at Harvard University. That honor, instead, goes to our debaters (Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker), whose personal tribulations and command of the stage provide more than adequate levels of life and dimension to what easily could have been a by-the-numbers injection of contrite nostalgia. “Debaters” unnecessarily takes liberty with certain facets of the true story — the University of Southern California, not Harvard, was the big fish in the college debate world that year, for instance — and one must assume that the speeches heard within are more the product of gifted scriptwriters rather than the real words of the Wiley College debate squad. That said, the film makes its point, and it does so without any cloying tugs at heartstrings or other cheap emotional devices. These aren’t merely great speeches, but great characters delivering them, and that alone makes “Debaters” genuinely inspiring and very easy to recommend. Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise and John Heard also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features, historical retrospective, two music videos, companion booklet.

Numb (R, 2007, Image Entertainment)
He’s tried pills and he’s tried therapy, but Hudson (Matthew Perry) can’t seem to come to grips with his condition. Doctors call it Depersonlization Disorder; he calls it insanity. “Numb,” on the other hand, mostly calls it like it is, exploring a rather dark corner of contemporary life without taking the easy way out and leaning excessively in any one direction. Sometimes it’s funny — occasionally in cute ways, but far more often darkly and dryly so. And sometimes, as in life, it’s not so funny. Perry’s ability to shift from dry humor to goofball humor while making a few philosophical pit stops is not a gift to be taken for granted, and “Numb,” which itself seems delicately aware of its own condition at any given minute, demonstrates why by blurring the seams between the sad and funny state of Hudson’s affairs. It’s merely a shame this one never enjoy a run in the theaters. The under-the-radar publicity and straight-to-video stigma will damage perceptions, but the box office isn’t exactly loaded with comedies that try to, and actually succeed at, engaging one’s intelligence the way this one does. Lynn Collins, Kevin Pollak and Mary Steenburgen also star.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Botched (NR, 2007, Warner Bros.)
Continuing this week’s theme of one-word-titled movies that probably deserved a theatrical run is “Botched,” which follows a professional thief (Stephen Dorff) sent to Moscow to make amends for a diamond heist gone fatally wrong. The visual details of this blown job make for a memorable opening, but what happens on the Moscow job truly takes the cake. Here, “Botched” transforms from heist flick to horror film. Then, over the next hour or so, it gradually and deliberately loses its mind, liberally mixing themes from both genres with a cast of truly ridiculous characters (and one rat) and the kind of random insanity that horror has sorely lacked during its seemingly never-ending honeymoon with torture and superfluous gore. “Botched” dumps its share of blood on the floor, but it leaves little doubt that it has nothing less than a complete lack of any need to be feared or taken seriously. The writing is all over the map, and the lines between horror, heist, comedy and action are messier than the most mutilated corpse the film has to offer. One might even watch “Botched” to completion and have no idea if what they just saw was even good or not. But if any movie demonstrates that “good movie” and “good time” don’t always need to work in tandem, it’s this one. For those with a dark sense of humor and a wide-open mind, this is a must for group viewing. Jaime Murray, Jamie Foreman, Russell Smith, Bronagh Gallagher and Edward Baker-Duly also star. No extras.

National Lampoon’s Cattle Call (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
The National Lampoon brand in recent years has consistently been synonymous with films so bad as to be embarrassing to watch. So it’s with great surprise that, at least very early on, “Cattle Call” — in which three lonely guys (Thomas Ian Nicholas, Diedrich Bader and Andrew Katos) start a fake casting agency in order to meet women — shows promise of being something you might not mind being caught watching. Then, the film begins its descent into awfulness … only, shockingly, to recover its bearings and evolve into something that appears to be made by people who actually know what a decent movie is. This isn’t to say “Cattle Call” is a classic or even great film. Formula sinks whatever ships the typical National Lampoon awfulness can’t hit, and “Call” too often telegraphs its plot and relies on cliché to keep things light and likeable. Still, the mere fact that our three male leads remain at least somewhat likeable all the way through is a monstrous step forward for the brand. “Call” is stupid, but it’s stupid on an endearing rather than embarrassing level, going so far as to be genuinely funny during what easily could have been a terribly rote courtroom scene. It’s as if the producers set out to make a likeably dumb “National Lampoon” movie and actually, for the first time in far too long, succeeded in their mission. No extras.

Frontier(s) (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
As a race war rages in Paris, three thieves and an ex-girlfriend seek safety at a hostel near the French border. But you know what happens when people seek safety at small inns in the middle of nowhere, don’t you? That’s right — irony happens. So “Frontier(s)” is a horror film that takes place in a hostel run by depraved people. Oh my, does this sound familiar at all? Indeed it does, and it isn’t long at all before “Frontier(s)” almost completely ditches its interesting beginnings in favor of holding its cup under the torture film cliché faucet and splashing whatever it catches all over the place. “Frontier(s)” definitely outdoes many of the films that inspired it: It’s more fearless with its imagery, and while the characters we presumably are supposed to root for aren’t exactly likeable, they aren’t the obnoxiously unwatchable archetypes most stock horror films trot out. But declaring “Frontier(s)” a better film than, say, “Hostel” is like telling your mother her cooking is better than what you get at the prison cafeteria. It raises the gore bar, but lacks any kind of redeeming or even interesting quality beyond that. Have a ball if all you care about is watching people get ripped to pieces for the millionth time, but don’t expect this to be anything a dozen films released immediately before it weren’t already. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

Graduation (NR, 2008, Magnolia)
Four soon-to-be-high school graduates (Shannon Lucio, Riley Smith, Chris Marquette and Chris Lowell) have decided, on the eve of graduation, to rob a bank. Why, you ask? Well, one of the kids’ moms is sick and needs the money for treatment, and another is mad at her cheating dad, who also happens to be the bank’s manager. Apparently, common sense and thinking with your head instead of your self-entitled heart weren’t requisites for graduation. A story about four amateurs knocking over a bank on graduation day could go a number of ways, and “Graduation” tries to tackle several of them at once. It’s a drama. No wait, it’s a comedy. No wait, it’s a dramedy, or perhaps it’s just a smug heist film. Frankly, in the end, it’s as confused about its place in life as our cast is about theirs. Worse, whatever designs of greatness “Graduation” had come undone by a persistent undercurrent of blandness that infects all four principal characters, whose personalities range from slightly to completely forgettable. The only character with any potential (Aimee Garcia as a teller at the bank) is, unfortunately, mere prop material for our boring foursome. Throw in one absurd climax and implausibly neat ending, and the reasons to seek this one out add up to zero.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, storyboards, image gallery, bloopers, alternate opening.

Worth a Mention
— “Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection” (PG/PG-13, various years, Paramount): You can buy the new special editions of the first three “Indiana Jones” films separately or together in this box set, which almost certainly will be obsolete shortly after the fourth film is available on DVD. Extras include introductions by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, storyboards and numerous behind-the-scenes features.
— “A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films” (NR, 2007, Magnolia): The title says it all. The newest edition of Magnolia’s awesome annual roundup of Oscar-nominated short films includes five live-action shorts and three animated shorts, including the winners in each category.
— “Marvel Heroes” (PG-13, various years, Fox): Fox’s who’s who of recent in-house superhero films includes all three “X-Men” films, both “Fantastic Four” films, volume one of the animated “Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes” cartoon, “Elektra,” the “Daredevil” director’s cut, and a brand-new “Marvel Collectables” DVD. Also includes a digital “Silver Surfer” comic, two X-Men comic books and a custom-designed lobby card.
— “Die Hard: Ultimate Collection” (PG-13/R, various years, Fox): You see that warning above about the “Indiana Jones” box set being obsolete next year? Everyone who bought the “Die Hard Collection” box set last June knows exactly how it feels right now. This new box set includes the previously-released special editions of all four films.

Games 5/7/08: Grand Theft Auto IV, Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys

Grand Theft Auto IV
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)

Contrary to legend, “Grand Theft Auto IV” isn’t the greatest invention since the wheel. It is, in fact, simply another “Grand Theft Auto” game.

That development probably stands to disappoint those bitten by impossibly high levels of pre-release hype. For the rest of us, though, the news couldn’t be better.

For starters, “GTA4” neutralizes most of the previous games’ most glaring problem spots. The once-terrible hand-to-hand combat is now tolerably useful, and the addition of manual shooting controls (along with a semi-decent cover system that becomes useful with practice) allows the game to throw more sophisticated combat missions at you. GPS technology and the vast availability of cabs make it extremely easy to get around Liberty City, and tying the entire interface into your cell phone is both elegant and startlingly convenient. This is, by a mile, the most accessible “GTA” game to date.

The technical improvements represent another vast leap forward. The aging “GTA3” engine gives way to an open world, brazenly modeled after New York City, that’s exponentially more alive than before. “GTA4” is no visual prize pig up close, but it’s a gorgeous game in motion, and the game-wide infusion of physics — which affects everything from people’s movements to how cars handle to the level of havoc you can wreak should you so please — adds a huge layer of realism to a city that already breathes with or without your involvement.

No “GTA4” review can pass without mention of the series’ first foray into online multiplayer. That it works at all is something of a minor surprise. That it’s as fun and feature-rich as it is, however, is a complete shock. Rockstar covered most every base, tossing deathmatch, team, objective-based and even co-op modes into the mix. All modes, including a free mode with no objectives, support up to 16 players and access to as large or small a portion of Liberty City as you wish to have open. Most impressively, the game doesn’t gimp the city in any way during these modes. Liberty City remains every bit as alive here as in any other portion of the game.

All that said, the best thing about “GTA4” is the same exact thing that made its predecessors so extraordinary. Rockstar has consistently gone the extra mile when it comes to character and story design, and the saga of Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from the Eastern Bloc, represents its most stunning achievement yet.

Niko himself is an incredibly rich antihero, and more than any game before it, “GTA4” gives you moral freedom to toe the line or tear it asunder. The cast with whom he weaves this 30-plus-hour epic receives the same level of storytelling care. More than mere Hollywood quality, “GTA4’s” story may be the most engaging piece of entertainment — movies and television included — to grace your small screen all year. In terms of videogame storytelling, it’s on another plane entirely.


Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys
For: Nintendo DS
From: InLight Entertainment/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, crude humor, mild cartoon violence)

“Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys” seems determined, unlike the vast majority of third-party Nintendo DS games, to march to its own beat. The wordy title alludes to that, and the storyline, which boasts both a funny, original premise and a sweet animated graphic novel style, drops further hints.

But “Thingys” really wears its style on its sleeve during the tutorial phase, which is presented in tandem with the game’s first level and features dialogue boxes you literally have to climb on to advance. “Thingys” puts you in control of three swappable teenage zombies, and learning how to use their special abilities by climbing aboard the text boxes that teach you these techniques is, in addition to efficient, a pretty funny harbinger of what (hopefully) is to come.

Unfortunately, all that ambition levels off a bit once the tutorial ends and all the requisite introductions are made.

“Thingys” does some cool things with its three-character premise, and some of the levels, which require you to regularly swap between zombies in order to best utilize each character’s special traits and move forward, are designed well. But the game grows only so challenging, and it isn’t long before you start to sense the developers had some good ideas but held back so as not to overwhelm younger players who might be drawn in by the game’s cartoony visual style.

Some repetition also kicks in as the game goes on: Levels often offer a single means of advancement, and once it becomes second nature that you need X ability to get past obstacle Y, things feel a little too mindless.

All that remains, then, is the combat, but the flimsy fighting controls are where “Thingys” stumbles hardest. They simply lack the precision and proper collision detection they needed to feel even a little satisfying. A few brain-based mini-game challenges break up the action, but only one (which is best left unspoiled due to its ties to the storyline) really stands out as anything beyond a fleeting diversion.

Ultimately, “Thingys” works best as a gateway game for kids who want to play something that wasn’t completely lobotomized for their consumption. It’s not incredibly brilliant, but it isn’t your typical piece of Nickelodeon-licensed garbage by a long shot, either. The rest of us, meanwhile, can wait and hope for a sequel that takes these clever ideas and gives them the intellectual oomph they’re clearly capable of achieving.

DVD 5/6/08: I'm Not There, Dans Paris, Bella, I Really Hate My Job, Moola, Delirious

I’m Not There: Two-Disc Collector’s Edition (R, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
The line separating celebration from alienation often is pretty fine in projects built around fan service, and it’s positively threadbare in “I’m Not There,” which ostensibly is a biopic about Bob Dylan. If you don’t know a thing or two about who that is, know this: “There” won’t wait for you to catch up. A grand total of six actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw) play Dylan … except they don’t. Rather, they portray, under different names, slices of Dylan’s kaleidoscopic life, evoking every significant era up to and including present day. Or something like that. “There” is thick with allegory, with stories mixing together portions of Dylan’s life and various characters and scenes from his music. The more you know about the man, the more fun you’ll have sifting through the trove of nudges and winks that were made specially for you. Everyone else, good luck. Shot both in color and in black and white, with stories not necessarily intertwining on any level but one steeped in fan service, “There” almost certainly will confuse and put off casual viewers who know more about the film’s award haul than the man who inspired it. Anyone with a serious phobia of art films will find every last fear realized with this one.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, outtakes, audition footage, director interview, soundtrack feature, photo gallery, premiere footage, Dylan reference library, song-only selections, lyrics language track.

Dans Paris (NR, 2006, IFC Films)
Paul (Romain Duris), freshly separated from his spouse (Joana Preiss), is seriously depressed. So he moves back into his dad’s (Guy Marchand) run-down apartment, where his underachieving brother Jonathan (Louis Garrel) already stays. After a half-hour or so of introductory paragraphs, this is where we are, and the rest of “Dans Paris” follows the boys during a day in their lives as Christmas looms around the corner. Given everybody’s respective circumstances and pasts, as well as the setting and somewhat talky nature in general of the film, opportunities abound for “Paris” to bring its audience down using any number of techniques. Happily, it never takes the bait, instead painting a surprising picture of almost uncompromising hope even when its characters can’t quite muster the energy to do the same. The balance and chemistry between Paul and Jonathan, troubled though they each may be, carries “Paris” when all else would appear to fail. And while no one will ever confuse this one for a comedy, the borderline comedic vibe that wafts through the whole thing is pretty unmistakable. In an era of self-described comedies that often leave viewers hopelessly depressed, that’s a pretty nice change of pace.
Extras: Deleted scene, short film “Rendex-Vous with Louis.”

Bella (PG-13, 2006, Lions Gate)
We all have days where we’re more annoyed by the sorrows of others than sympathetic toward them. So if you want to see “Bella” and are feeling a bit salty, best to sleep on it. “Bella” focuses on two keystone events in the life of world-renowned soccer star Jose (Eduardo Verástegui). Both start small, but both change his life forever. That’s prime movie material, and “Bella” shows infinite promise after an insightful but fairly even-keeled glimpse into the present-day lives of Jose and Nina (Tammy Blanchard), who is enduring a right turn of her own as the film begins. Before long, though, “Bella” rips off the faucet and unleashes the waterworks. The same even-keeled characters suddenly let fly weepy monologues of deeds done wrong and lives gone awry, and suddenly “Bella” is doing a lot more telling than showing. Whether the cast has sufficiently engaged your imagination before this happens likely will provide the key to whether “Bella” holds it the rest of the way. That it even has a chance is a testament to how good the rest of its parts are: Most films that sink this deeply into tear-jerking would stand no chance. Credit goes to a story that, while occasionally cloying, redeems itself just enough to deliver a satisfying payoff at the end.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.

I Really Hate My Job (NR, 2007, Magnolia)
The title says it all: Abbie (Neve Campbell), a waitress at a small restaurant, really does hate her job. Worse, she’s turning 30 today, stuck at work, and surrounded by four other women (Shirley Henderson, Alexandra Maria Lara, Anna Maxwell Martin and Oana Pellea) who have all picked this day to have respective nervous breakdowns. Cramming five meltdowns inside the span of 90 minutes is a dangerous undertaking for any film, and “Job” itself often feels like it’s teetering on the brink of total disaster. Most particularly, “Job” cracks up in the kitchen, where Henderson, who often beautifully toes the line between infectious and obnoxious, completely obliterates it here. But the good news about a film about five equally cracked-up people is that it’s never too long before one leaves the picture and another enters, and “Job” is pretty good at passing the baton just as it appears ready to burst. When all else fails, the story turns back to Abbie, who goes wire to wire as “Job’s” most enjoyable — and honest — character. When she finally loses her mind, it’s a train wreck, but for all the right and intended reasons.
Extra: Photo gallery.

Moola (PG-13, 2007, Allumination Filmworks)
The description on the back of “Moola’s” DVD case is one of those excessively cute, pun-laden pitches that makes you fear for the product inside. Sure enough, “Moola” — about a glowstick company that finds itself in danger of collapse until an unlikely savior steps in with the deal of a lifetime — falls prone to an early infection of that cuteness that sometimes damages independent, character-driven comedies beyond repair. Fortunately, the plot is just weird enough to incite curiosity about where this production is headed. That buys “Moola” some time, and it’s during that time that its entirely ordinary but strangely compelling lead protagonist, Steve (William “Ethan from ‘Lost'” Mapother), sinks his hooks in. By the time “Moola” wraps, Steve’s journey feels surprisingly (if trivially) epic, and the inane plot that kept the ball rolling plays second fiddle to a unassumingly thoughtful and inexplicably satisfying character study. “Moola” does suffer from side story overload, thanks in part to a cast of mostly bland supporting characters and an obnoxious sidekick (Daniel Baldwin) who himself might have been compelling were it not for Baldwin’s horrendous hamming. Had Steve been allowed to work alone and take charge of more scenes, we might be talking about a film that’s surprisingly great instead of merely surprisingly good.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Delirious (NR, 2006, PeaceArch/Genius)
Recall films about the paparazzi, and it’s very likely the first to come to mind is the extremely regrettable “Paparazzi.” If you bore witness to one of the worst movies of the 21st century and would like to forever change that little piece of word association, maybe “Delirious” — which positions the scum of Hollywood as a mere soulless anti-hero (Steve Buscemi as Les) rather than the cartoony villain “Paparazzi” puked out — might be able to help. It sure seems that way at first, anyway: Les is simultaneously a miserable and strangely likeable character, and his dismal existence and hollow ambitions speak volumes about the industry in which he operates. Unfortunately, “Delirious” also is about Toby (Michael Pitt), a homeless wannabe actor who, after finding an unlikely mentor in Les, finds himself in a series of similarly unbelievable events shortly thereafter. The film shifts its attention onto Toby, the plot meanders and bites off more than it can chew, and a series of contrivances reduces poor Les to … a cartoony villain. Oops. “Delirious” isn’t fractionally as awful during its worst minute as “Paparazzi” is during its best, but it still leaves us right back where we started. Given the promising start, it’s arguably more disappointing this time around.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

Games 4/30/08: Mario Kart Wii, NBA Ballers: Chosen One

Mario Kart Wii
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

It’s beginning to look a lot like a Gamecube on the Wii, where the control possibilities have expanded but the lineup of big-name Nintendo titles remains largely the same. The latest throwback to resurface is “Mario Kart Wii,” which, outside of one major addition and one arguably gimmicky one, feels a lot like (and, debatably, a step backward from) Nintendo’s last big-screen “Mario Kart” game.

Certainly, the plastic wheel that comes packed inside bears mentioning. “MKW” allows traditionalists to play like they always have, supporting every device dating back to and including the Gamecube controller. Those with a taste for something different, though, can snap the Wiimote into the wheel shell and play “MKW” simply by steering the wheel to drive and pressing the buttons to gas, brake, drift and use special items.

Serious gamers almost certainly will revert to traditional methods, particularly because “MKW” features no means of adjusting turn sensitivity or enabling vibration-based resistance, which would have done wonders for immersion. Still, the wheel is fun for what it is, and as a gateway gimmick for less savvy players, it has legitimate merit.

The hardcore instead will appreciate “MKW’s” other headliner: online play.

Nintendo is learning on its feet how to create a captivating online experience, and this easily is its smartest venture yet. The lobby is elegant and simple, using players’ geographical locations and Mii characters to compose the interface. Friend codes return, but they don’t pose much hassle when it comes to setting up friend-only races. Stat tracking, leaderboards and ghost download capabilities also are included.

Most importantly, the game runs smoothly online, even during intercontinental races.

Want more? Sorry. “MKW” features some imaginative new tracks and lets you ride as your Mii character, but the single-player experience runs no deeper that it did on the Gamecube.

Worse, the innovations the previous game brought forth — including character-specific special items and two-character karts that injected a shot of strategy into the insanity — aren’t even an option here. The addition of motorbikes on top of karts is okay, but it doesn’t really bring anything substantial to the gameplay. The roster and item selection also have seen little to no expansion, which is hard to swallow after six games of the same old standards. Anyone hoping for the demise of cheap blue shell — which specifically, cheaply and unfairly takes out whichever defenseless rider is in the lead — will have to keep on hoping.


NBA Ballers: Chosen One
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Hey Lassie, get help! A decent street basketball game just came out, but it’s trapped inside a well of bad design decisions and can’t find its way out.

Too bad, too, because “NBA Ballers: Chosen One” shines in bits and pieces. It’s not an incredible beauty, but the vibrant color palette and affinity for close camera angles and large characters definitely sets it apart from EA Sports’ streetball game. “Ballers” moves fluidly, features diverse courts, allows for some decent character customization, and wraps a rather rote single-player component inside a very stylish presentational package.

Unfortunately, all that’s good submits to all that goes wrong. Your created character is such a horrifically bad shooter that you’re better off just dunking ad nauseam until his attributes improve. Even layups are a trial, and forget about jumpers. You’re more likely to score two points by tricking the opposing player into committing a goaltending violation. That begs another question: What is goaltending, along with fouls and free throws, doing in a streetball game?

The on-court sloppiness continues with a passing and trick system that’s so hit-and-miss, you’re tempted — again — to just run the court and dunk rather than risk what feels like a completely arbitrary turnover. Building up your trick meter leads to special moves that stop the action in favor of an unskippable cutscene, which is fun to watch once but intolerable after a while.

But “Ballers” hits rock bottom when it tries to get creative with convention. One-on-one-on-one is a neat idea on paper, but it’s a mess in practice. And games in which checking or clearing the ball isn’t required result in three-player trainwrecks in which you’ll need to be more lucky than good. Grabbing possession of the ball under the basket feels as arbitrary here as passing does elsewhere.

For all your trouble in enduring modes such as this, you’re rewarded with additional gear and special moves for your created player. That’s fine, but the player editor is far too pokey to encourage frequent return visits.

This mountain of head-scratchers, capped by the ability to play only one-on-one games online, ensures that whatever potential “Ballers” had remains forever trapped. That’s frustrating with any game, but it’s all the more so here, because with a little more gas in the tank and some better ideas on the drawing board, “Ballers” easily could be a respectable follow-up to Midway’s arcade NBA games of yesteryear. Maybe next time.

DVD 4/29/08: The Orphanage, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Starting Out in the Evening, Nanking, Friday Night Lights S2, 27 Dresses

The Orphanage (R, 2007, New Line)
Laura (Belén Rueda) developed such an affinity for the orphanage in which she grew up, she’s moved her own family there in hopes of reopening the place for a new legion of children with special needs. Unfortunately, the spirits of children long gone haven’t quite left the premises, and shortly after Laura’s son (Roger Príncep) makes what she first assumes is a harmless imaginary friend, we’ve got ourselves one creepy little haunted house story. “The Orphanage” doesn’t stray wildly from ghost story conventions, which might be a problem if it had ambitions of being nothing more than a mere scarefest. But with so much energy spent on Laura confronting past demons and bracing herself with the gravity of what she might lose next, “The Orphanage” focuses on a completely different, and arguably far more real, brand of scary than its images would suggest is at play. None of that is to suggest the film doesn’t deliver the conventional goods if that’s all you want. “The Orphanage” is a stunningly pretty picture of ugly, and it complements its incredible attention to artistic detail with a smart and genuinely spooky mystery that can captivate regardless of how much Laura’s own story pulls you in. Just be sure to pay close attention: “The Orphanage” is thick with detail, and those who let their minds drift for even a few moments risk not appreciating the full brilliance of the film’s climax and conclusion. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, rehearsal footage, photo gallery.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (PG-13, 2007, Miramax)
We see only what our main character sees during “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s” first 14 minutes, every second of which takes place in the first person. But watching “Butterfly” isn’t about discovering who is hiding behind the camera. That question is answered during minute 15, and that’s only if you’re unfamiliar with the book of the same name, which itself is based on a fairly well-documented true story and was written by the man — Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) — who happens to be our not-so-mysterious main character. Besides, it’s what happens next that provides “Butterfly’s” real gift of surprise, and the less you know going in, the better chance the film’s extremely unique approach to storytelling has to grab you in some unexpected way. Putting it vaguely and without spoiling anything, “Butterfly” is a story about the gift an imagination can give — and the limitations it has to endure — when nothing else can or will do. What happens to Bauby is indeed very sad, but what Bauby does with these sad circumstances makes “Butterfly” a source of inspiration rather than one of despair. If he can tell such a remarkable story under the limitations placed upon him, precious few of us have any excuse not to do the same. Originally in French with English and Spanish subtitles, but the optional English and Spanish dubs are surprisingly well done if you’d prefer not to do any reading.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, two behind-the-scenes features.

Starting Out in the Evening (PG-13, 2007, Lions Gate)
A decade after starting his latest novel, aging and ill writer Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) has yet to finish it, and it seems a matter of time before full-blown irrelevancy becomes the latest source of his troubles. What a perfectly wonderful time for a grad student (Lauren Ambrose) to walk against the tide and attempt not only to study him, but reintroduce his work to a new legion of readers. Question is, does Leonard want the attention? It means confronting past and present demons, which pretty much is what “Starting Out in the Evening” is all about. Leonard isn’t alone, either: His daughter (Ariel Schiller), who enters as a supposed secondary character, soon develops an entire arc of her own, which in turn almost splits the film in half. Once our student also gets into the act, “Evening” suddenly is gifted with a means of picking apart three (and, arguably, four) people in very different stages of life. Worry not: It handles this balance with surprising ease. And what “Evening” lacks in blazingly exciting plot advancement, it redeems admirably with very smart and meticulously nuanced character sketching. If you have the patience and don’t mind an ending that isn’t particularly neat, “Evening” has the goods to surprise, however quietly.
Extra: Director commentary.

Nanking (R, 2007, ThinkFilm/Image Entertainment)
“Nanking” tells the story behind the horrific events of oft-called 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese forces invaded Nanking, China, and committed scores of atrocities against hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese. The intent is an admirable one: Like other accounts of human rights violations during World War II, the story of Nanking is running increasingly low on firsthand accounts and in danger of being undermined by scores of people who denounce these accounts. Survivors from both sides of the conflict appear in the film, and their stories — and the images and sparse video footage that complement them — are exceptionally powerful and heartbreaking on a graphic level words alone rarely achieve. On the other hand, “Nanking” also features letters and journal entries as read by a gaggle of out-of-costume actors (Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff, John Getz and others). Shuffled in between the firsthand accounts, and certainly without intention, these dramatic readings feel disconnected and slightly patronizing, and it’s hard to imagine what a bunch of actors staring at the camera accomplish that simple voiceover narration couldn’t have done better. Fortunately, the disjointed pace that emerges as result provides no match for the incredible true story that “Nanking” wants to, and ultimately does, tell. No extras.

Friday Night Lights: The Second Season (NR, 2007, Universal)
So the writer’s strike is over, and you don’t have any souvenirs by which to remember it. That all changes if you pick up this DVD set, which is a complete second season in the technical sense only. Had the entertainment world operated as planned, the big news about year two of “Friday Night Lights” is how little, at least in comparison to the first season, it focuses on football. Most episodes roll by without a single minute of game footage. Even more surprisingly, the season’s most prominent face is a once-secondary character (Jesse Plemons as Landry Clarke) who wasn’t even on the team the season prior, and his chief plotline has as much to do with high school football as your typical episode of “Law & Order.” Just about every face from season one returns in some capacity, and “Lights” remains reasonably entertaining despite a penchant for predictability and a staunch aversion to subtlety. It’s a shame, then, that the season ends so abruptly after the 15th episode, which clearly was neither written nor shot with any designs of it being the season finale. Fortunately, and barring any other surprising industry developments, “Lights” will return for a third (and likely final) season to tie together all these loose ends.
Contents: 15 episodes, plus commentary, cast interviews and deleted scenes.

27 Dresses (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Considering seeing “27 Dresses?” Fine, but know this: You probably already have seen it. You know the drill: The always-a-bridesmade-never-a-bride heroine-slash-wedding planner (Katherine Heigl) keeps losing out on life until she meets this guy (James Marsden) who makes cracks about her profession and has a witty answer for every flustered and frustrated lob she throws at him. And she can’t stand him for the first half of the movie, but don’t worry! He keeps it up, and she inevitably, after some cute mishaps and a musical montage or two, softens her dislike just in time for him to do something really terrible, deliver a spectacularly apologetic gesture, and make her fall in love with him. This is script-by-numbers at its most rote. Stuff inevitably happens in between — “Dress” runs nearly two hours despite going nowhere new — but it’s mostly the same lukewarm jokes, mishaps and unfunny faces that are interchangeable with any number of patently mediocre films about love, loss and happy endings that never happen anywhere but in bad movies. Still want to see it?
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.