Games 6/18/08: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, The Bourne Conspiracy

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
For: Playstation 3
From: Kojima Productions/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, crude humor, strong language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Metal Gear” has never been a game for everyone — not in 1988 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and certainly not since the series first went 3D on the original Playstation.

“Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” doesn’t change that, living up to its promise as an amazing video game but existing primarily as a means of providing closure to what fans will breathlessly attest (and with very good reason) is the richest narrative in all of interactive entertainment. A massive chunk of the 20-hour single-player component consists of cut-scenes, with the third act positioning you more as a spectator than a participant. If you aren’t well versed in the “Solid” mythos, appreciating the game’s unbelievable ability to resolve so many loose ends is akin to watching a brilliant final season of “Lost” without having seen any of the episodes that preceded it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try. Even on self-standing terms, “Patriots” offers a lot to love, and while Kojima Productions is as ambitious as ever with storytelling excess, the gameplay is leagues more accessible than that of its predecessors.

How? Let us count the ways. The game’s camera finally feels right, falling in line with what one traditionally expects from a third- (or if you prefer, first-) person shooter. That, in turn, takes some of the load off the controls, which remain on the complex side but come naturally with practice.

That acclimation period is more pleasant than ever thanks to an increased level of freedom in the game’s design, which in turn allows the player to be as stealthy or noisy as their respective abilities and desires will allow them to be. (That said, if you hated playing quietly before, try out the new active camouflage system, which makes stealth way more fun and accessible than it previously had any right to be, and see how you feel about it then.)

Anyone can enjoy playing “Patriots” on some level, and the included starter pack for “Metal Gear Online” proves the gameplay is built to endure with or without a storyline.

Still, make no mistake: This is a product of the same vision that powered its predecessors, and more than anything else, it’s a gift for gamers who appreciated that vision even when it wasn’t nearly as easy to do so. For those who get it, “Patriots” represents, first and foremost, a masterful conclusion to a story that likely will remain without peer until Kojima strikes again. If you’re not one of those people, some of this will inevitably be lost on you. That’s no fault of the game, but it is worth noting all the same.


The Bourne Conspiracy
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: High Moon Studios/Sierra
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

“The Bourne Conspiracy” may be the most annoying game you ever enjoy enough to play through twice.

Based on the events of the first “Bourne” film — albeit without Matt Damon’s likeness — “Conspiracy” consists of two-and-a-half parts: hand-to-hand combat, third-person gunplay, and a single driving level through the streets of Paris. The game also sprinkles in a few quick-timer events to spice up selected cut-scenes.

Separately, each element ranges from enjoyably imperfect to completely aggravating. The shooting portions employ a nice cover system and a wide range of control, but the wonky aiming sensitivity — not to mention the numerous bullets needed to take down an enemy if you’re not proficient in the art of the headshot — leave something to be desired.

The fighting portions, which emulate the film’s throwdowns with surprising authenticity, don’t get off quite so easily. They’re extremely fast, and the enemy A.I. often seems unreasonably strong even on the easy difficulty setting, with near-death combatants suddenly gaining a second wind that produces “Matrix”-like blocking reflexes. One-button takedowns provide some relief — and look extremely cool to boot — when you accumulate them, but using these as a means of bailing out of a losing fight feels like a cheap solution to a cheap problem.

Frustrating though the fight portions sometimes can be, “Conspiracy” truly aggravates when it switches from shooter to fighter on the fly — as it does whenever an enemy enters arm’s reach — before all the shooters have been dispatched. When this accidentally happens, you’re likely dead to rights, because there’s no way to take the shooters out when an enemy is nose-to-nose (and, more accurately, his fist-to-your face) with you. (Fortunately, “Conspiracy” benefits from a forgiving checkpoint system, so this isn’t the deal-breaker it might otherwise have been.)

Yet despite all the mediocrity and aggravation, there’s something completely engrossing about “Conspiracy” when it mixes everything together. When that transition between shooting and fighting actually works, the sense of variety nullifies the individual portions’ failings to a surprising extent. Even the generic driving stage, featuring automobile physics not of this world, is more fun than it should be due to its diversionary nature.

“Conspiracy’s” length — you can beat it in four hours or so — is a rightful concern given the $60 price tag, but its dense appetite for action makes it a candidate to be one of those games you take out and replay every few months. The Xbox 360 version, in particular, encourages Achievements junkies to beat it multiple ways, be it guns blazing or through workmanlike precision.

DVD 6/17/08: Be Kind Rewind, Californication S1, Chaos Theory, Making Of, Super High Me, Burn Notice S1, Transformers Animated: Transform and Roll Out, The Jungle Book 2 SE, The Sword in the Stone: 45th AE

Be Kind Rewind (PG-13, 2008, New Line)
It’s bad enough for Mike (Mos Def) that the ramshackle video store he works at is endangered not only by the ubiquity of DVDs, but also politicians who want to confiscate the property for other purposes. Now, thanks to his recently-magnetized friend Jerry (Jack Black), all the tapes are blank, and the few customers still hanging around aren’t happy about renting blank movies. The only solution? Grab Jerry, grab a camcorder, find a leading lady (Melonie Diaz) and remake the movies as quickly as possible. Actually, that’s hardly the only (or any) solution. But anything more reasonable would violate the laws of sensibility established within. Be warned before you check out “Be Kind Rewind:” It’s an uncompromisingly strange little film, and its appetite for whimsy is so pronounced that viewers who can’t jump fully on board will find their sense of disbelief more than challenged. The premise is clever, the execution often brilliant, but “Rewind’s” extreme exuberance reaches so high that it’s aiming for stars some won’t care to visit. That all said, “Rewind” never loses control even when balancing the aforementioned silliness with the requisite banality (those politicians, to name an example) needed to ground it in some form of reality and give it boundaries. In fact, the film’s final scenes bring the two sides together with almost impossible skill, crafting a payoff far less ambitious films couldn’t dream of delivering. Danny Glover also stars.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Californication: The First Season (NR, 2007, Showtime)
“Californication” should be about writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny), but it isn’t. That’s because Hank, despite having one best-selling novel-turned terrible film adaptation to his credit, hasn’t been able to write much of anything in the last five years, choosing instead to bed every woman he can while scheming to reclaim his muse (Natascha McElhone), who also happens to be the mother of his child (Madeleine Martin). Sound a bit messy to you? You have no idea. “Californication” threads a perilously thin line between fantastic and terrible television, serving up dialogue and scenes that teeter so dangerously on credibility’s edge before something extraordinary comes, as it always does, to save the moment. That’s a dangerous approach to take with a television show — see “Nip/Tuck’s” wonderful first season and unwatchable fifth season for an example of how much can go wrong — but at least for now, “Californication” seems too self-aware to let us down. Until further notice, this is one of the most engrossing and cruelly enjoyable half-hours on premium cable today.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus biographies, a photo gallery and the ability to stream two episodes each of various Showtime shows (Internet connection required).

Chaos Theory (R, 2007, Warner Bros.)
Frank Allen (Ryan Reynolds) very nearly has his “Falling Down” moment in “Chaos Theory,” which tells the story of one rather prude married man’s odyssey into semi-insanity after a near-mistake on his part brings to light a much more grievous slip of his wife’s (Emily Mortimer) doing. If that sounds too heavy and dramatic for your tastes, fear not: “Theory” is, in fact, a comedy. Well actually, you can be a little afraid, because it’s a drama as well. Actually, you know what? It’s kind of everything, juxtaposing moments of dark comedy alongside long looks and crying jags set against sad songs and sunsets. By film’s end, “Theory” is a lot of things, not the least of which is any number of synonyms for the word “mess.” But if the film reiterates anything, it’s that being a mess and being worth watching need not be mutually exclusive. That’s a credit to Reynolds and his character, who establishes himself as someone worth rooting for before the film’s wheels come off and its focus meanders. By the time the seams really start to show, Frank’s journey has shored up enough curiosity to tolerate (if in no way ignore) all that goes awry. Stuart Townsend also stars, and Sarah Chalke steals every scene she enters during what little screen time she gets.
Extra: Alternate opening.

Making Of (NR, 2006, Koch Lorber)
Bahta (Lotfi Abdelli) isn’t exactly the most direction-laden twentysomething in Tunisia, but there’s no doubt the kid can breakdance. Unfortunately, a mix of nosey authorities and local mores makes it impossible for him to practice his passion with any sort of unbridled satisfaction, so he becomes a violent tool for Islamic extremism instead. Obviously there’s more to “Making Of’s” jump from points A to B than this description covers, and it’s within that space where the film leaves its most pronounced mark. Movies and television shows about the creation of terrorists and suicide bombers have become a genre unto themselves in the last few years, and “Of” stands out by focusing sharply on its lead character rather than the now-predictable events and imagery that signify his turn, which the DVD case and tagline spoil anyway. “Of” feels a good deal longer than its 115-minute runtime would suggest, but that’s a declaration of successfully illustrating the magnitude of the shift rather than any indictment of lengthiness or dullness. That the film achieves a somewhat epic air while also coming so perfectly full circle at the end is no small achievement. In Arabic with English subtitles.
Extras: Director interview, film introduction.

Super High Me (R, 2007, Warner Bros.)
You sort of know where this one’s going already, don’t you? Guy (in this case, comedian Doug Benson) who very openly loves pot sees “Super Size Me,” decides to engage in a reasonably similar experiment involving a different vice (30 days with no pot whatsoever, followed by 30 days of practically nothing but), and brings in a camera crew and some medical professionals to document the findings. The results aren’t nearly as scientifically satisfying as Morgan Spurlock’s great McDonald’s experiment of 2004. But Benson is so easy to like — not to mention a genuinely gifted comic, under the influence or not — that “Super High Me” works just fine as entertainment even when the discovery portions leave a bit to be desired. Not terribly surprisingly, “Me” goes beyond simple comic fodder, with Benson donning an activist hat and exploring the movement to legalize marijuana for medicinal (and non-medicinal) purposes. Benson makes no effort to hide his biases, and one can’t possibly trust “Me” to give equal voice to both sides of the debate. But the film makes no bones about being anything other than what it is, and Benson does make a good and entirely accessible argument for legalization. Don’t care? Don’t worry: “Me” benefits from excellent balance and pacing, and a good laugh is never too far away at any point in the film. A ton of other comics, including Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis    and Bob Odenkirk, make cameo appearances. No extras.

Worth Mentioning
— “Burn Notice: Season One” (NR, 2007, Fox): Jeffrey Donovan deserves to head up a hit show, and if the funny and smart “Touching Evil” wasn’t meant to be, perhaps this similarly funny and similarly smart show about a blacklisted intelligence operative out for payback will succeed where “Evil” failed. Having Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar in the cast can’t possibly hurt its chances. Includes 11 episodes, plus scene-specific commentary on every episode, bloopers, character/action montages and audition footage.
— “Transformers Animated: Transform and Roll Out” (NR, 2008, Paramount): Just in case the awful 2007 film left you scarred and afraid, here’s some proof that a modern-day “Transformers” product need not be an abomination or embarrassment. Includes the three-part episode that kicked off the animated series, plus two bonus shorts. Note: This does not include the rest of the episodes from the show’s first season.
— “The Jungle Book 2: Special Edition” (G, 2003, Disney): Extras include two games, three music videos and deleted scenes.
— “The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition” (G, 1963, Disney): Extras include a DVD game, bonus movie shorts, a jukebox and a behind-the-scenes retrospective.

Games 6/11/08: Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, The Incredible Hulk

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS, PC
From: Traveller’s Tales/LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Whether by accident or by design, Traveller’s Tales struck a serious chord with its Lego-branded “Star Wars” games, and why not? They’re inventively funny, joyously celebratory, loaded with content, challenging in an entirely gentle way and fun in a way that simultaneously evokes gaming’s classic and contemporary sides.

Everything those “Star Wars” games were, “Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures” is as well — and in most respects, that’s good news.

Much as it did with the two “Star Wars” trilogies, Traveller’s Tales brilliantly reimagines the first three “Indiana Jones” films with Lego characters and pieces, reenacting each film’s most memorable scenes with generous levels of comedic pantomime and slapstick. The level of ingenuity that goes into this aspect of these games almost single-handedly justifies Traveller’s Tales appetite for milking its formula. Fan service as original and polished as this doesn’t come around very often.

“Adventures'” appetite for content also should ring familiar. Everything you could do in the “Star Wars” games — play as every character you encounter, create new characters from other characters’ parts, replay every level in free mode, amass an obscene amount of unlockable treasures, items and cheats — you can do here as well. Most importantly, the best way to play “Star Wars” — with a friend in two-player offline co-op — generally remains the best way to play “Adventures.”

(Online co-op, unfortunately, remains elusive, while the PSP version puzzlingly eschews co-op play altogether.)

The lack of online play is one of a handful of warts from past games that Traveller’s Tales ideally should have but did not address in “Adventures.”

The most prominent of these warts are gameplay-related. Controls remain somewhat on the loose side, which means you’ll still occasionally fall off ledges you shouldn’t fall off and sometimes miss what would appear to be easy jumps. Camera control is severely lacking, and the sometimes-sloppy collision detection leads to the occasional cheap hit. If you’re hoping your co-op partner will help out when not controlled by a friend, don’t: Friendly A.I. remains stupid as ever.

But even seemingly huge issues like these amount to little when the price of dying is so minute. “Adventures” wants every last customer to see its wonderful cut-scenes, and while certain puzzles and sequences are indeed challenging, the game is structured in such a way that beating it practically is inevitable. Very few games could operate —  much less thrive — under such rules, but it’s a philosophy “Adventures,” like its galactic counterparts, seems almost built to embrace.


The Incredible Hulk
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PC, Nintendo DS
From: Edge of Reality/Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild blood, violence)

Someone sure enjoyed “Hulk: Ultimate Destruction” when it released three years ago. That someone’s name? Edge of Reality, which delivers a product that, depending on your level of cynicism, either pays major homage to “Destruction” or rips it off wholesale.

In fairness, at this point, “The Incredible Hulk’s” design seems inevitable with or without
“Destruction’s” influence. Open-world superhero games are as increasingly commonplace as the technology that makes them possible, and the only satisfactory way to demonstrate the full might of Hulk’s might is to set him loose in New York City, to which “Hulk” hands you the keys. No one could fault Edge of Reality for taking “Destruction’s” playbook as long as it improved on it in some fashion.

In one big way — full, unbridled destructibility without exception — it does. No structure in “Hulk” is so sacred that it cannot be smashed completely to rubble, and the game even rewards players who can destroy and recover tokens from the 50 most prominent real-life landmarks within range. (The Statue of Liberty, for those wondering, falls outside that range.)

The effect of multiple buildings simultaneously crashing to dust around you is impressive, particularly when it incidentally happens as a byproduct of whatever other damage you’re dealing. It also gives “Hulk” the hook it needs to stand out from other superhero games.

Elsewhere, the progress ranges from unimpressive to non-existent. “Hulk’s” missions suffer from acceptable but undeniable levels of repetition, and you’re almost constantly doing some variation of the same four or so tasks. Boss fights, particularly toward the game’s climax, are disappointingly mindless. Hulk’s attack arsenal, while sufficient, is less impressive than it was in “Destruction.” Ties to the “Hulk” film do little to prop up the game’s dull storyline, and the graphics are a strange mix of good (Hulk), mostly good (New York, which looks nice but suffers from a ton of minor visual glitches) and puzzlingly bad (the mid-mission cut-scenes, which inexplicably look leagues worse than the actual game).

Ultimately, though, “Hulk” produces the good time Sega’s “Iron Man” game teased but couldn’t deliver, dishing plenty of mayhem for those in search of a quick fix and a healthy bounty of bonus gameplay for completists with an appetite for side challenges and unlockables. It’s not quite the evolution “Destruction” fanatics probably hoped for, but for a game that clearly had to be rushed out the door to meet a synergetic deadline, it evokes enough of that game’s spirit to get by.

DVD 6/10/08: The Signal, The Grand, The Bucket List, Jumper, Intervention: Season One: Then and Now, Sidekick, John Adams, Comedy Central: Home Grown, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes: The Complete First Season

The Signal (R, 2007, Magnet/Magnolia)
We’ve all heard about how television can rot the brain, but who knew the technology had come this far? No one, really, until a scrambled signal on New Year’s Eve possesses some people to suddenly turn on other people, which in turn makes those people turn on everyone else because nobody knows who is out to get whom. Is group A crazy, or is group B crazy, or is group A crazy for thinking group B is crazy and killing them even though group B is fine but simply afraid of group A? Who knows? It’s a mess, and “The Signal” probably would not have it any other way, skillfully and sometimes beautifully jumping from comedy to bloodbath to dark horror to something out of a dinner theater play without slowing down to check its pulse. All this insanity eventually forces the film to paint itself into a bit of a corner, which in turn leaves it scrambling for an ending that isn’t entirely neat or logical even by the loose definition established here. At that point, depending on your perspective, you’ll either stand validated in your hatred of everything that came before it or ready to just go along for whatever last leg this ride takes you down. If you like the characters and scenarios presented thus far — and “The Signal” packs in a lot to love for an audience whose mind operates on the same wavelength — the plausibility of the ending is practically inconsequential.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, short film “The Hap Hapgood Story,” two behind-the-scenes features, three bonus transmissions (with introduction).

The Grand (R, 2007, Anchor Bay)
The ultimate achievement of a good mockumentary is its ability to make you laugh out loud. But if you don’t have the spirit of Christopher Guest in you, getting the viewer to at least buy into the drama and forget it’s a fake documentary is a pretty good consolatory feat. That, in the end, is what “The Grand” — a mockumentary about a fictional poker tournament not unlike the World Series of Poker — has going for it the most. The film leans on some weak poker humor while it rolls out its cast of characters (among others, Woody Harrelson, Chris Parnell, David Cross, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind and Dennis Farina), and some wooden cameos turned in by real Poker Pros don’t help matters much. Fortunately, the humor is just decent enough to tie us over until “The Grand’s” second phase, which focuses less on the game and more on the people playing and calling it. It’s at this point that the film not only becomes considerably funnier, but strangely compelling as well. If the poker jokes don’t grab you, finding out who wins the tournament — and rooting for the character you like the most — just may.
Extras: Director/writer commentary, deleted scenes, alternate endings, player profiles, YouTube contest winner.

The Bucket List (PG-13, 2008, Warner Bros.)
Putting down “The Bucket List” is an act of seeming evil not unlike making fun of your grandmother’s inability to play “Call of Duty 4.” The failure to execute is plain for all to see, but that doesn’t mean it feels good to point it out. “List” is, after all, a syrupy sweet movie about two dying men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) from very different walks of life who meet in a hospital room and decide, rather impulsively, to make the most of the time they have left. That’s a nice, inspiring message we all could heed, and it’s hard to deny the might of the actors in charge of delivering it. But for all “List” does — and perhaps because of all it attempts to do — there’s something missing. The film bravely illustrates the horrors of terminal illness, but only for so long until it loses its nerve and cut to some filler drama or a cute diversion that comes dangerously close to trivializing whatever ugliness we just witnessed. Slowly but convincingly, the trite moments overwhelm the ugly stuff, and “List” becomes just another movie about people who are doing something most of us couldn’t possibly afford, monetarily or otherwise, to do. Well-intentioned though “List” may be, it simply feels too contrived, too preachy and too disconnected from reality to leave the mark it so clearly wants to leave.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

Jumper (R, 2008, Fox)
In the world of “Jumper,” there are Jumpers, like David (Hayden Christensen), and there are Paladins, like Roland (Samuel L. Jackson). Most populously, just as in our world, there are ordinary schmucks like Millie (Rachel Bilson), who somehow go about their lives without ever having heard of Jumpers or questioning why their ability to warp from one point on the globe to another sometimes ends up with one instantly crashing into a populated area they weren’t anywhere near mere seconds ago. How that’s possible is just one of several questions you might ask yourself after seeing “Jumper,” which wraps a simple and not-so-terrible gimmick and a classic good-versus-evil fight over the entirety of a movie that could have used a whole lot more. “Jumper” does explain why the Paladins are after the Jumpers — quite simply, the former sees the latter as too powerful for anyone’s good — but there’s a ton of potential mythology that goes shelved in favor of a silly love story that might as well provide the foundation of a Kate Hudson comedy. It’s dull, it reeks of corner cutting, and it robs a lot of valuable time from what could have made “Jumper” special. Instead, we jump, appropriately, from introduction to climax, and the final showdown has all the anti-climactic excitement of the NFL Pro Bowl.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes, animated Graphic Novel “David’s story,” five behind-the-scenes features.

Intervention: Season One: Then and Now (NR, 2005, A&E)
A&E may bill this as the complete first season of “Intervention,” but one could certainly make a strong argument to the contrary after taking a peek inside. The intention — subjects suffering from various addictions face their family and friends for an intervention and (hopefully) eventual treatment — certainly has merit. Should “Intervention” somehow inspire a viewer with a problem to look inside and fix that problem, then bravo. But it’s hard to imagine how, exactly, that’s supposed to happen given the show’s format, which spends 80 percent of its time on car crash footage of its subjects dealing with their addictions, another 15 on the actual intervention, the remaining 5 percent on a brief post-treatment update, and zero on the actual treatment process itself. That may be the result of privacy concerns or some other such issue that’s bigger than the show. Regardless, it results in the most crucial piece of the recovery puzzle going completely undocumented. What remains serves more as mindless entertainment than anything else, and it’s entirely feasible that the only positive message you reap from watching “Intervention” is that your problems aren’t near as bad as the troubles others have.
Contents: Four episodes, plus new updates on selected subjects.

Sidekick (NR, 2005, Warner Bros.)
Hey, here’s an idea: A geeky cube rat and comic book geek (Perry Mucci) discovers that one of his co-workers (David Ingram) may possess a smidgen of something resembling a superpower. The co-worker thinks it best to suppress it, but our giddy friend has other ideas, and yes, this does sound a little bit like “Heroes,” doesn’t it? In all fairness, though, “Sidekick” originally came to be in 2005. But it’s now 2008, “Heroes” exists, and if “Sidekick” has a superpower, it’s the ability to continually get in its own way. The film tries but rarely can maintain a balance, and if it isn’t being excessively heavy-handed, it’s mining too hard for laughs or taking some bizarre detour into darkness. Bad dialogue permeates the landscape, bad acting provides additional blows, a stable of one-dimensional characters makes these problems impossible to overlook, and our protagonist is so hammy and ridiculously nerdy that only Mucci’s mother could possibly root for him. “Sidekick’s” ending, if you can call it that, sets the table for a sequel that almost certainly will never come. That’s fine: Between a superior product on television and the film’s many failings, there likely won’t be much of an appetite for one in the first place. Daniel Baldwin also stars. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “John Adams” (NR, 2008, HBO): The revered HBO miniseries, based on the acclaimed David McCullough book of the same name, wastes no time coming to DVD, and HBO gives it the dressing it deserves. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney star. Contents: Seven episodes, plus McCullough retrospective, interactive historical guide and a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Comedy Central: Home Grown” (NR, Various Years, Comedy Central): In case you don’t have cable and wonder what this Comedy Central thing is all about, this DVD should provide some nice insight. Includes episodes of “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “TV Funhouse,” “Strangers With Candy,” “Reno 911!” and “Root of All Evil,” as well as skits and samples from “Chappelle’s Show,” “Crank Yankers” and others.
— “Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2006, Fox): It doesn’t appear that this animated cartoon ever will see a second season, but nice of whomever is in charge of naming the set to keep the door open anyway. Contents: 26 episodes (nine unaired), plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features and a stills gallery.

Games 6/4/08: Ninja Gaiden II

Ninja Gaiden II
For: Xbox 360
From: Team Ninja/Tecmo/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, suggestive themes)

Want to see the best of what pure action gaming has to offer in 2008? Play “Ninja Gaiden II,” and you will.

As a special bonus, if you act now, Team Ninja also will throw in the worst of what pure action gaming has to offer.

Let’s address the bad news straight away: The camera in “NG2” is, occasionally, among the worst ever to grace a high-profile game in the 3D age. Though obedient far more often than not, it sometimes develops a mind of its own, and often at the worst time imaginable. There exist at least four boss encounters in which the camera will try, almost certainly with some success, to betray you. And it will drive you crazy.

Given that “NG2” isn’t exactly a cakewalk to begin with, this is a potential deal-breaker for marginal gamers with low patience and no appetite for cheap death syndrome.

Fortunately, for so-so players who want in anyway, Team Ninja has offered some concessions not found in the punishingly difficult first game. Most prominent, along with a more forgiving default difficulty setting, is the new health bar, which recharges between encounters. Stay alive long enough to defeat a swarm of knife-wielding dogs, for instance, and your health will refresh before the demon gang arrives.

Elsewhere, “NG2” mostly just expands on the principles that powered its predecessor. The game is prettier and (considerably) bloodier. Ryu’s arsenal of weapons, attacks and spells has expanded. Best of all, the completely inane storyline, while a total narrative failure, at least provides excuses to visit a surprisingly diverse array of locations that include an airship, a clock tower and Times Square.

That, in turn, allows “NG2” to do what the series does best, which is give you the keys to one of the most capably dangerous characters ever maneuvered with a controller.

Team Ninja packs a ton of combat depth into very few buttons, and the game’s emphasis on defense as well as offense gives it a level of urgency that its genre contemporaries lack. Any single adversary can deal crippling damage if you get sloppy. When the camera is cooperating and the enemies are rushing at you by the half-dozen, “NG2” can drop a jaw like few other games can.

Just be prepared to take the good with the bad. For every design decision that makes your eyes dance, there’s one around the corner that’ll send steam out your ears. That’s nothing new if you played “Gaiden,” but that doesn’t make it any less unwelcome the second time around.

DVD 6/3/08: Semi-Pro, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, The Eye, Boarding Gate, The Onion Movie, The New York Mets: Essential Games of Shea Stadium, The Boston Red Sox: Essential Games of Fenway Park, Flavor of Love 3, Meet the Spartans

Semi-Pro: Let’s Get Sweaty Edition (R/NR, 2008, New Line)
The merger between the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association is nigh, and only four ABA teams are allowed to come along for the ride. Unfortunately for owner, operator, hit singer and star player Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell), his Flint Tropics don’t appear to be on the guest list. So it’s crackpot scheme and win-against-impossible-odds time … again. Regardless of what’s driving it, this much is clear: Ferrell has some kind of obsession with sending up clichéd sports films. This, for those keeping score at home, is attempt No. 4 to either reconcile some childhood trauma or settle whatever unspoken score Ferrell has with Walt Disney Pictures. No matter. “Semi-Pro,” like so many Ferrell comedies before it, feasts on formula in a celebratory rather than lazy manner, embracing cliché with enough enthusiasm to effectively neutralize whatever predictability that might entail. The real meat, once again, is in the characters, be they the stars (Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin) or scene-stealing bit players (Jackie Earle Haley, Andy Richter, Will Arnett, Rob Corddry … the list goes on and on). They’re weird, funny and memorable. And for every scene whose end is telegraphed the moment it begins, there’s a throwaway gag or line that absolutely makes it worth watching anyway.
Extras: Extended unrated cut, deleted scenes, improv, five behind-the-scenes features, music video, digital copy for portable media players (Windows Media only).

Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights: Hollywood to the Heartland (R, 2006, New Line)
As made rather clear by the DVD’s title, the Wild West Comedy Show featured a quartet of comedians (Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, Sebastian Maniscalco) traveling the country while Vince Vaughn emceed and a handful of his best friends (Justin Long, Peter Billingsley, Jon Favreau, Dwight Yoakam) came along for the ride. Another potentially obvious statement: “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” provides an account of what happened on stage and on the tour bus between shows. Ready for a surprise? How’s this: You can enjoy “Show” as a film without enjoying the work of the comedians who are responsible for the whole project existing in the first place. At best, they’re marginally funny. More often — and in full view, thanks to the film’s candor — our comedians either cover tired ground or bomb hard. Vaughn’s purpose with the tour was to give four struggling comedians the break of a lifetime, and the downside to that is that failure by fire is an occasional inevitability. That, however, is a large part of what makes “Show” fun to watch. More than an ad for a comedian coming to a nightclub near you, it’s an honest and sometimes ugly account of what it takes to make a lifelong dream come true.
Extras: Vaughn/Billingsley commentary, director/comedians commentary, bonus footage, three behind-the-scenes features.

The Eye (PG-13, 2008, Lions Gate)
Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba) has been blind since childhood, but that was before the wonders of eye transplant surgery made it possible for her to see again. Good news: The surgery is a success. Bad news: Them eyes is haunted. As a result, Sydney starts having visions of death that, while understandably unsettling to her, cannot possibly be scary to anyone watching “The Eye” unfold. Between the surgery itself and the side effects that emerge in its wake, little here is grounded in any sort of reality. Because of that little problem, it’s hard to be moved, much less frightened, by the random flashes of stock creepiness that invade Sydney’s post-sight life. “The Eye’s” troubles become apparent almost the instant Sydney’s appear, and all that remains from there is a long march to the finish as Alba and her stock storymates (Parker Posey and Alessandro Nivola, among others, as characters who don’t believe her until they suddenly do) go through some tired ghost story motions. If you’re hoping for a payoff for your patience, sorry: As weak as the meat of “The Eye” is, the final act — which plays out like a pilot episode of a CBS drama no one quite thought through — might make you pine for it.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, digital copy for portable media players.

Boarding Gate (R, 2007, Magnet)
You may not realize it at first glance, but “Boarding Gate’s” DVD case is trying to save you some money. On the back of the case, the plot — prostitute (Asia Argento) survives violent encounter with ex-lover (Michael Madsen) and flees to Hong Kong and finds herself in a whole new web of trouble — is laid bare. Expecting more than that to happen? Sorry. “Gate” is what happens when a movie attempts to stretch an empty, pedestrian premise over 90 minutes of video, filling time with dramatic pauses, action scenes that move like molasses and some seriously terrible dialogue that’s part Penthouse letter and part bad noir. Madsen turns in a typically horrid performance, but he infects Argento, who in turn infects the rest of the cast with the same banality. The long crawl to the credits eventually results in a light at the end of the tunnel, but 90 minutes of cheap thrills rarely drag on as endlessly as they do here. If all you want is an excuse to see Argento in her underwear — which, to posit a theory, may also be the reason this film was made — you’re in luck: The front of the case shows all. Pick it up, ogle it, put it down, and save your money for a DVD that actually merits using the disc.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, Argento interview.

The Onion Movie (NR, 2008, Fox)
The phrase “Don’t quit your day job” comes flush to mind while watching “The Onion Movie,” which attempts to do for film what the newspaper of the same name does weekly for print and online journalism. Actually, check that: It’s not entirely clear what, exactly, anyone intended this movie to accomplish. “TOM” opens with newsman Norm Archer (Len Cariou) delivering a handful of fake news stories, which attempt but utterly fail to evoke the spirit of the brand’s print counterpart. But then the stories take on a life of their own, transforming into skits and eventually crossing paths until the whole thing erupts in a bizarre climax. If you’re going to base a movie on The Onion, that’s not exactly the worst way to lay it out. But again, why did we need a movie based on The Onion? And even if you can answer that question, figure this one out: How does a film inspired by a consistently brilliant newspaper turn out as pathetically impotent as this one does? Whether it’s cracking on racial stereotypes, hypocritical pop divas, corporate synergy run wild or how quickly computers grow obsolete, “TOM” rides far behind the cutting edge, its observations about society as tired and aged as the anchor through which they’re delivered. It’s painfully unfunny, it’s embarrassing to the Onion brand, and it looks especially pitiful in light of how easily “The Daily Show,” to name just one example, makes the format look on a nightly basis. Unless you never want to look at The Onion the same way again, steer clear.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Worth mentioning
— “The New York Mets: Essential Games of Shea Stadium” (NR, Various Years, MLB/A&E) and “The Boston Red Sox: Essential Games of Fenway Park” (NR, Various Years, MLB/A&E): MLB’s fantastic DVD catalog takes a new turn with these sets, each of which features six full-length games that defined each team’s respective parks. Extras in include interviews and a barrage of highlights from games not featured in the sets.
— “Flavor of Love 3” (NR, 2008, VH1/Anchor Bay): One day, Flavor Flav will find the woman of his dreams. In the meantime, though, he’ll make a ton of money trying. Includes 14 episodes, plus behind-the-scenes features and the casting special.
— “Meet the Spartans: Unrated” (NR, 2008, Fox): Say this for Fox: It’s efficient, pushing what likely are the two worst movies of its 2008 catalog out the door at the same time. If you’re looking for something that makes “The Onion Movie” look good, here it is. Extras: Cast/crew commentary (apology?), trivia game, bloopers, three behind-the-scenes features.

Games 5/28/08: We Ski, Myst

We Ski
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Namco
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference)

With the advent of the so-popular-it’s-sold-out-everywhere Wii Balance Board, it’s natural to assume developers are scrambling to spit out as much budget-priced shovelware as will fit on a store shelf. You already can use the Wii proper and the Zapper accessory to play all manner of awful games, and it’s a mere matter of time until you can use the Balance Board for the same purpose.

How nice, though, that the first game beyond “Wii Fit” to support the device actually rises to the occasion. Treating the board like a pair of skis and the Wiimote and Nunchuck like poles is as natural an application as one can dream up for this device, and “We Ski” doesn’t disappoint in its execution.

Of course — as Namco would stress were it writing this review — you don’t need the board to effectively play “We Ski,” which controls just fine using the Wiimote and Nunchuck as both the poles (to speed up) and skis (to steer) at the same time. “Ski” is designed with entry-level as well as seasoned gamers in mind, so such phenomena as your skier taking a header down the mountain or mercilessly taking out another skier has no place on these slopes.

Ironically, such user-friendliness will be the biggest issue more demanding gamers have with “Ski,” which is enjoyable to play but too generous to properly replicate the danger and excitement of real downhill skiing.

But while we wait for perhaps EA Sports to offer a more hazardous solution, “Ski” offers a surprising wealth of content in which to delve.

Unconditionally and from the start, the game lays an entire resort at your feet, and you (and, locally but not online, up to three friends) are free to skip around the mountain or simply freestyle it, stopping at your leisure to chat with other patrons and complete various races and challenges they toss your way. (Should you please, you even can ride the lift back up the mountain and watch as your friends head down the trails.)

Completing tasks affords you access to new gear and skis, which you can use to dress up either your Mii or a character you create from scratch. Given the big deal Nintendo made about Miis prior to the Wii’s release, it’s nice to see a non-Nintendo game include them in the thick of the action. In fact, between this and the successful Balance Board implementation, it’s enough to give gamers hope that lazy Wii developers may have to work a little harder for that shelf space.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Empire Interactive/Cyan
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Back in 3D gaming’s formative days, there was no bigger deal than “Myst,” a Macintosh/PC title that boasted static but state-of-the-art 3D graphics the likes of which gamers had not previously seen. Those good looks made “Myst” a bestseller despite a rather pronounced case of user-unfriendliness.

Gaming has grown considerably since 1993, and the return of “Myst,” now on the Nintendo DS, unintentionally (and unflatteringly) underscores just how much has changed. What was once merely unfriendly is now unplayable, and good graphics can’t save it this time.

For those unfamiliar, “Myst” is a first-person adventure game that takes place in a 3D world. To move around the environment, you click on edges of the screen, which bring you to a new screen. Movement is more akin to an interactive slideshow than the real-time movement that’s been standard in 3D games for more than a decade. The only real animation comes in the form of objects on the screen on which you can click to push the adventure forward and unlock pieces of the heretofore-mysterious storyline.

In other words, you tap on stuff, move to a new screen, and tap on more stuff, linearly pushing through a story that no longer can hold a candle to the narrative standards of modern-day gaming.

The experience only worsens in its migration to the Nintendo DS, which proves a surprisingly poor fit. While using the touch screen to move around seems like a no-brainer for a game that previously fed on mouse clicks, the loss of a cursor — which on the PC offered players some idea of which directions of movement were available on any given screen — makes it easy to run in circles without any idea of what path is the right one.

The low-resolution graphics don’t help matters, either: In addition to stripping “Myst” of its only real selling point in years past, they make it harder to spot what items on each screen are meant to be touched and for what reason. The menu interface in general is an eyesore, and a zoom feature that uses the top screen is uselessly and lazily implemented in all but a handful of instances.

It all adds up to a wasted opportunity, because a “Myst” remake that honors the design advancements of the past 15 years almost certainly would be worth playing. Much as the original “Myst” coasted on graphics alone, this edition tries getting by on nostalgia. If you were fooled once, don’t let it happen twice.

DVD 5/27/08: Cassandra's Dream, Rambo, Jackass Presents: Mat Hoffman's Tribute to Evel Knievel, Mike Birbiglia: What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales From My Secret Public Journal, The Air I Breathe, Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set, Come Drink With Me, Heroes of the East, A Panda is Born and Baby Panda's First Year

Cassandra’s Dream (PG-13, 2007, Weinstein Company)
Brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) don’t much look alike. Spend a little time with “Cassandra’s Dream,” though, and it’s easy to spot the resemblance. Both talk a game that’s far bigger than either of them, both take financial and personal risks that they’re fully aware are potentially very stupid, and both have the kind of dreams that make taking those stupid risks feel like something of a necessity akin to most people’s ideas of eating and sleeping. And while neither Ian nor Terry looks much like Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), either, it’s hardly a stretch to see from where these notions came. Now, with Ian and Terry needing a bit of a favor from Uncle Howard and Uncle Howard needing much more than a bit of a favor in return, all this out-of-the-box living is coming to a head. Though further plot specifics will be kept out of this review for the purpose of actually enjoying “Dream,” it’s safe to say that anyone who has seen their fair share of mysteries and dramas will recognize pretty much every theme contained within. It’s a classic film with classic ideas, and even the twists are reliable enough that some won’t even label them as such. Were “Dream” reliant on these things, that might be a problem, but it’s not. Good characters are this film’s chief priority, with good dialogue coming in a close second, and “Dream” ably delivers both in abundance. The plot, though no slouch by any standard, merely provides the glue.
No extras.

Rambo: 2-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
Really, does it matter? Does it matter what John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is doing in Thailand, why he’s a man of few words and many thousand-mile stares, or what has prompted him to come to the aid of a group of relief workers in the middle of war-torn Burma? No. What matters is that it’s been 20 years since “Rambo III,” and in that time, American movies and moviegoers have vastly raised the ceiling for how much blood a film can toss your way in 91 minutes’ time. Stallone isn’t getting any younger, people love nostalgia, and far be it from any of us to deny our hero a comeback after “Rocky Balboa” proved not to be a disaster. So here is “Rambo,” a maelstrom of bloody arrows, torn limbs and headshots that so lazily tries to cover up its intentions with a message that you briefly wonder if it’s a parody. Sorry, no dice: It really is as mindless as it appears on the surface. And you know what? That’s fine. Though it’s a shame to see what has come of a franchise that began so brilliantly with “First Blood,” that ship sailed two decades ago. “Rambo” wants purely to be a dumb action film that doesn’t use computer animation and epic set pieces as a crutch, and it succeeds gamely at being exactly that. If you can check your brain at the door and are thirsty for some nostalgic Kool-Aid, there’s nothing “Rambo” can do that should truly let you down.
Extras: Digital copy for portable media players, Stallone commentary, deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features.

Jackass Presents: Mat Hoffman’s Tribute to Evel Knievel (NR, 2008, MTV)
Evel Knievel’s life, influence and appetite left a mark on a wide swath of people, and it’s hardly a surprise that BMX star Mat Hoffman, whom Knievel counted as a friend, sits among them. Hoffman and a handful of faces from the extreme sports and “Jackass” world pay tribute as they best know how: heading out to a barren field, setting up some ridiculous ramps, and attempting to break whatever motocross and stunt-riding records they can overturn while the cameras are rolling. It’s a most fitting tribute, in no small part due to how much “Mat Hoffman’s Tribute to Evel Knievel” resembles the Knievel specials that occasionally ran on network television whenever Evel would attempt to reach a new plane of stunt-related ridiculousness. The difference, of course, is that this time, you know rather than merely fear that someone at some point will require a trip to the hospital. “Tribute” cobbles together a nice mix of superhuman pursuits and subhuman stupidity, delivering pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a production starring this lot. The only real disappointment: At 47 minutes, the main program is short. The DVD offers a nice array of extras, but it would have been nicer to see some form of extended main program for this release. Johnny Knoxville hosts (and, naturally, gets involved in some all-too-painful way).
Extras: Thoughts of Knievel, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, tattoo montage, Hoffman retrospective, photo gallery, music videos.

Mike Birbiglia: What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales From My Secret Public Journal (NR, 2008, Shout Factory)
As far as his own best interests go, Mike Birbiglia is right: What he should have said was nothing. But he didn’t, and the result is one of the handful of classic stories that comprise the meat of this really smart standup special. Where other comics trade in consternation and angst, Birbiglia dabbles in wide-eyed social awkwardness — a mostly well-meaning disposition that occasionally twists his tongue and gets him into trouble he never intended to find. Birbiglia’s ways have convinced him to go to therapy, but is it too selfish to hope that the sessions don’t change him? Over 60 minutes, Birbiglia covers such topics as his parents, the dreaded porn virus, and how the Iraq war isn’t terribly different from an overmatched dad trying to build a deck. (Don’t worry; “Nothing” briefly wades in politics, but it doesn’t stick around too long.) But the highlight of “Nothing” easily is a pair of stories from which this special primarily gets its name, including a doozy of a tale involving an awards banquet, a sportswriter and pitching great Dennis Eckersley.
Extras: 26-minute encore from the same night, half-hour behind-the-scenes feature.

The Air I Breathe (R, 2007, Image/ThinkFilm)
“The Air I Breathe” is four films in one — stories about a man tired of playing it safe (Forest Whitaker), a henchman with a gift (Brendan Fraser), a doctor who loves someone he can’t have (Kevin Bacon), and a pop princess (Sarah Michelle Gellar) whose travails affect and are affected by what happens to the other three characters. Though they overlap, each character’s moment of focus has a clear beginning and end, which allows “Breathe” to come off as more interesting and entertaining than it actually probably is. That certainly isn’t news to the film’s ear: It has important things to say and, from the arguably pretentious opening line, transcendent messages it wants you to remember long after the credits roll. But while the cast is worth watching, the characters lack any such ability to endure. Their lives are too empty. And for all that perceives to happen in “Breathe,” little actually changes — a point accidentally nailed home by a clever ending that brings it full circle. If there’s a hopeful message here, it’s too suffocated by tales of despair, pettiness and the ironies of modern-day isolation to resonate on any credible level. The bad, sadly, rings far more authentic than the good.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes.

Worth a Mention
— “Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set” (R, various years, Lions Gate): In case you demand more macho in a box than “Rambo” alone provides, this six-disc tin box set should do the trick. Includes previously-released Ultimate Editions of the first three films and the aforementioned special edition of “Rambo.”
— “Come Drink With Me” (NR, 1966, Dragon Dynasty) and “Heroes of the East” (NR, 1979, Dragon Dynasty): Two Asian cinema classics receive the Dragon Dynasty treatment. Extras on each include commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes features and trailer galleries.
— “A Panda is Born and Baby Panda’s First Year” (NR, various years, Animal Planet): A pair of Animal Planet specials from 2005 and 2007, respectively, comprise this 84-minute look at the birth and formative moments of a panda bear named Tai Shan. No extras beyond the two programs.