Games 7/23/08: Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution, NCAA Football 09, Elefunk

Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: Firaxis/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol and tobacco reference, mild suggestive themes, violence)

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that “Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution” fits as comfortably as it does on machines that aren’t gifted with a mouse and keyboard. Nintendo’s “Advance Wars” series demonstrated years ago how viable turn-based strategy simulations can be on even the simplest hardware, and with real-time strategy games becoming increasingly possible on consoles, there’s no reason a turn-based game like “Civilization” shouldn’t thrive.

That said, this still is “Civilization,” and there’s nothing casual about managing multiple armies while simultaneously developing technology, establishing a government body and shoring up the economy in case any number of opposing nations should decide to attack, propose a truce or cut a deal.

“Revolution” works, and elegantly so, because it was designed explicitly with its platform in mind rather than ported down from the PC line.

Elaborately speaking, “Revolution” works because Firaxis knows when to delve into detail and when to leave things up to abstraction. Unit management and military combat, for instance, should immediately ring familiar to anyone who has ever played “Advance Wars,” and your odds in any given skirmish often come down to a single attribute number.

On the other hand, “Revolution” is always one button press away from a thorough in-game encyclopedia of “Civilization” knowledge and expertise. And while managing resources, building orders, your economy and your governmental body is never as complex as it gets in the newer PC games, there’s a ton of allowance for you to influence the course of history as you see fit — via development, through diplomacy or by force.

The abstraction trickles down through the game’s interface and into its philosophy as a whole. Though by no means a farce, “Revolution” certainly has a sense of humor, and the ways you can rearrange and mash history with your virtual Abe Lincoln or Napoleon is equal parts amusing and fascinating. Given the rather brief length of a typical campaign — anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours — there’s plenty of opportunity to try multiple scenarios with each of the game’s 16 civilizations. (An awesome trophy room, which cleverly compiles your achievements, encourages you to keep going back for more.) The only downside to this approach: No means of continuing play indefinitely once a victory condition is met, which stunts the possibilities somewhat.

“Revolution” is, of course, even more fun with friends. Though the lack of any attempt at local multiplayer is pretty disappointing, the online component (up to four players, either individually or in teams of two) works exactly as one would hope.


NCAA Football 09
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

If 2007 was the year EA Sports’ new-generation football games got their visual act relatively together, then 2008 is the year the feature set pulls even.

Specifically, “NCAA Football 09” delivers the genre’s crown jewel: an online dynasty mode. Up to 12 friends can manage every facet of 12 college programs concurrently over 60 seasons within the same alternate universe. That still leaves more than 100 schools under computer control, but managing that many human-controlled programs is a logistical mess few would wish to undertake. Though some inevitably will disagree, less definitely is more in this respect.

Elsewhere, “09” mostly refines what otherwise was an already stuffed feature lineup. The mascot game finally returns, and features introduced last year — including the awesome Campus Legend role-playing mode and the respectable highlight sharing tools — return modestly improved. The roster management tool now allows for online sharing, which means it’s a matter of time before you can download a roster of complete player names, something EA isn’t allowed to include by default per the NCAA’s licensing agreement.

“NCAA” typically shines brightest when it devises new ways to differentiate itself from the pro game. This year, the focus is on the home crowd, whose influence can reenergize the home team and rattle visiting players. It’s a small tweak, but anyone who has ever sat in the stands of a packed house on Saturday will appreciate its contribution to a game already saturated with atmosphere.

Seasoned players will spot gameplay alterations others do not, but everybody who played last year’s game should notice in no time that issues with excessive turnovers have been resolved. A new suite of tackling and rushing animations makes the battle between ballcarrier and defender that much more nuanced for those with quick fingers. Other nice touches include the ability to call bluff plays and do more than just stop the clock when calling a timeout. (About time.)

That said, “09” isn’t free of glitches and hang-ups relating to rosters and the game’s ability to simulate games realistically, though the degree to which these problems bother you will certainly vary. (Casual players may not even notice.) EA is readying a patch for distribution any day now, so time will tell how significant a role these issues play over the game’s lifespan. Unfortunately, “09’s” biggest hang-up — the occasional complete inability for defensive backs to catch up to receivers when pursuing at certain angles — likely will persist the way turnover problems did last year.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: 8bit Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $5

Sony’s Playstation Network isn’t as prolific as Xbox Live Arcade when it comes to churning out games, but as long as it continues to produce sleeper gems like “Elefunk” at a price like $5, it doesn’t need to be. “Elefunk” nicely apes the bridge-building subset of the puzzle game genre. As with other, like-minded names, the goal is to use the available pieces to construct a capable bridge, which in this case allows our elephant (and monkey) heroes to cross chasms. The story explaining this, though thin, is cleverly presented, and “Elefunk” does the genre proud in terms of graphics, control, physics and user-friendliness. Most importantly, the game requires brains. Though “Elefunk” runs only 20 levels deep, they’re diverse and legitimately challenging enough to keep most players engaged much longer than the numbers might assume. Trial and error and good games rarely go well together, but “Elefunk’s” hands-off encouragement of experimentation and persistence produces rewarding results. Leaderboards and a time attack variation are available for players who master the core game, and a two-player local/online multiplayer mode — basically Jenga with “Elefunk” pieces — provides a nice, casual departure from the rest of the package.

DVD 7/22/08: 21, Boston Strangler: The Untold Story, Manswers Best of S1, LA Ink V1, The Last Winter, TV Funhouse, André Téchiné: 4-Film Collector's Edition, Transformers: Cybertron: The Ultimate Collection

21 (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures)
As movies go, “21” is a respectably entertaining semi-thriller about a pack of brilliant college students (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Liza Lapira, Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts, Aaron Yoo) and the professor (Kevin Spacey) who assembles them, teaches them to count cards, and turns them into a human profit machine at Las Vegas’ blackjack tables. Problem is, this respectably entertaining film is based on an extremely entertaining book (Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions”), which itself is a work of non-fiction. Why the crew charged with bringing “House” to the big screen felt an obligation to completely rearrange and dramatize the story is anybody’s guess, but it did. As such, fascinating chapters about the science of legal cheating and the business of profiting at Vegas’ expense never materialize on screen, scrapped in favor of contrived character conflicts ripped wholesale from the playbook of dramatic clichés. Again, the ultimate product is decent. But decent thrillers are everywhere, stories the likes of “House” are not, and “21” trips over its own feet on what should have been a very easy journey to becoming something far more special than it became.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, card counting primer, two behind-the-scenes features.

Boston Strangler: The Untold Story (R, 2008, Weinstein Company)
Did Albert De Salvo (played here by David Faustino) really commit the murders of 13 women by himself? His confession says yes, but the evidence and circumstances of the case left serious doubt that it was his or even any one man’s doing. According to “Boston Strangler: The Untold Story,” De Salvo was merely a willing prop, along with cellmate Frank Asarian (Kostas Sommer), in a scheme to take credit for the murders in a way that would net their families the reward money and allow them to spend their days in state-run rehabilitation centers. Purely in entertainment terms, “Story” competently coasts by, giving the bulk of its runtime to its best-developed assets (Faustino and Sommer) and, outside of some clumsy decisions involving chronology and pace, moving the story along without excessive detour into soul-searching or other wasteful devices. But real life and history work against the film by not only spoiling the ending, but holding it to a certain standard of credibility and honor not necessarily met given the shaky claims. The influx of hammy Boston accents injects some fun into the film, but “Strangler” often challenges you to take it seriously for the same reason. Well-intentioned or not, the film often plays like pulp fiction instead of the history-altering game-changer the filmmakers (or at least the back of the box) seem to think it is.
Extra: Filmmakers/Faustino commentary.

Manswers: The Best of Season One (NR, 2007, Spike)
Chocolate and peanut butter, this most assuredly is not. The object of “Manswers” is to answer the burning questions meatheads everywhere are afraid to ask. What’s the best organ to eat if you become a cannibal? How do you survive freefalling elevator ride? How can you build a hot tub for a few bucks? What’s more valuable than gold and lurking in oceans everywhere? What’s the most dangerous wild animal in the country, and can the fabled touch of death really kill you? With exceptions, the questions chosen for this best-of set are scientifically fascinating at best and good for some lowbrow trivia at worst, and “Manswers” trots out some presumably legitimate academics and experts to back up its findings. But that reasoned research is presented to viewers in the only manner Spike TV understands: with lots of noise, a narrator with no indoor voice and ditzy girls in skimpy outfits just for the sake of it. The clash between the forces of intellect and unbridled stupidity is so fierce and acute, it’s a wonder a tiny tornado doesn’t emerge from the DVD tray and wreak havoc on all who witness it. But the bizarre juxtaposition also is what makes “Manswers” a surprisingly enjoyable guilty pleasure in spite of itself. Just don’t feel obligated to pay for it: Even if the segments were worth a repeat viewing, most of them are freely available to watch in full on Spike’s Web site. Oops. No extras.

LA Ink: Volume 1 (NR, 2007, TLC)
For those who looked at “Inked” and “Miami Ink” and screamed, “I need more!” at the top of their lungs, here you go — yet another tattoo parlor reality show. Admittedly, the back-story behind “LA Ink” is somewhat interesting: The face of the show, Katherine von Drachenberg, originally appeared on “Miami Ink” before a falling out left her jobless and on the road back to her hometown. But outside of a few introductory paragraphs this doesn’t factor much into the show’s storytelling, and beyond that point, it’s more of the same stuff that fueled the other two shows. Like its peers, “LA Ink” tries to squeeze drama where there really shouldn’t be any (This just in: Constructing a tattoo parlor doesn’t happen overnight!), and some of the interactions between the four artists feel puzzlingly rehearsed given what should be a pretty intimate setting. As with the other two shows, the most (only?) interesting ingredient of “LA Ink” is the non-celebrity customers who come into the shop to get work done. They are the ones to whom we can relate, and their stories often are genuinely engaging enough to unintentionally make the faux-drama of the shop look silly by comparison. Still, even this trail has been blazed to death at this point. Until a show decides to reconfigure the formula, only those with an unusually insatiable appetite for this formula need apply at this point.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus a cast interview and some temporary tattoos.

The Last Winter (NR, 2007, IFC Films)
A team of oil scouts (Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan, among others) has descended on Northern Alaska in hopes of drilling and saving Americans a few pennies at the pump, but did anyone ask the spirits lurking beneath the surface what they think of all this? Seems not, which is why our crew suddenly finds itself with a much tougher job than drilling in sub-zero temperatures already entails. Scary, right? Sure — if 101 minutes of dulled thrills and lukewarm character drama is what keeps you up at night. “The Last Winter” is proficiently in tune with its setting, and it certainly doesn’t struggle to convey the sense of desolation that comes from working in an area so demonstrably unfit for human habitation. But one can channel that sense of atmosphere, almost verbatim, into any genre up to and including comedy, and if “Winter” was counting on atmosphere alone to keep people on seat’s edge, it badly miscalculated. The film’s few thrills aren’t terribly thrilling, the vibe more neutered than nuanced, the characters too stock to make the consequences of their actions too terribly engrossing, and the wait for something truly frightening to emerge extends all the way past the closing credits. Worse, “Winter” wears an entirely unsubtle message — rhymes with “woble glorming” — on its sleeve, and regardless of one’s stance on that issue, it’s a distraction that undermines all that attempted immersion. Considering the final reveal is something even Al Gore might find a bit ridiculous, it’s a sermon not worth enduring.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, feature-length making-of documentary.

Worth a mention
— “Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse: Uncensored” (NR, 2000, Comedy Central): Robert Smigel’s too-short-lived series, featuring Triumph-like puppets (including Triumph) and cartoons too hot for “Saturday Night Live,” finally comes to DVD. It’s only a shame that, at eight episodes, the offering is so meager. Extras include audio and video commentaries, outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage.
— “André Téchiné: 4-Film Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1981-94, Lions Gate): In case you’re hungry for more sophisticated and possibly educational fare, this sleek four-film collection, packaged in the same fashion as the previously-released Jean-Luc Godard set, provides a wonderful introduction to a director you may not know. All four films (“Hotel America,” “I Don’t Kiss,” “My Favorite Season” and “Wild Reeds”) are in French with English subtitles. No extras.
— “Transformers: Cybertron: The Ultimate Collection” (NR, 2005, Hasbro/Paramount): “Transformers: Cybertron” inspired a polarizing reaction from Transformers fans when it originally aired on television three years ago, and there’s no reason to figure the arrival of this seven-disc set won’t do the same. For those who care, all 52 episodes are here. No extras.

Games 7/16/08: Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Unreal Tournament III (X360), Schizoid

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii
From: Neversoft/RedOctane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

The irony of a “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” review? If you’re interested enough in the game to read it, it probably is of little value to you. That’s because “Aerosmith” isn’t so much a new game as an old cake with different icing, its value as a purchase entirely dependent on whether those new frills hold any of your interest.

Obviously, the chief selling point of “Aerosmith” (sold separately or bundled with a band-branded guitar peripheral) is Aerosmith. The band appears as characters in the game, and the career mode — though structured the same as before — now takes you through venues and time periods crucial to their career. Perhaps most importantly, “Aerosmith” includes 25 master tracks of selected songs from the Aerosmith catalog, along with 16 tracks from Joe Perry and artists (New York Dolls, The Cult, Joan Jett and Stone Temple Pilot, among others) chosen by the band for one reason or another.

That ratio, along with the relatively small size of the set list (“Guitar Hero III,” by contrast, included 73 songs for the same price), is what likely will rattle gamers the most.

The inclusion of other artists makes sense, because Activision would prefer to sell “Aerosmith” to more than just Aerosmith fans, but it also runs counter to the game’s chief selling point. Casual Aerosmith fans may feel the track list suits them just fine, but a full-priced game that owes its entire reason for being to an Aerosmith-themed facelift shouldn’t be for casual fans. Inevitably, the hardcore will wonder why an Aerosmith-branded game made room for a bunch of peripheral songs instead of, say, “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Eat the Rich” or any number of the band’s hit ballads.

“Aerosmith’s” inability to stay true to its mission trickles down to the career mode. Playing as the band and working up to the stadium and Super Bowl Halftime Show (sans ‘N Sync, thankfully) will be a treat for fans, but some of the authenticity is lost when songs from different eras are mixed in with each other with no respect to chronology.

Beyond that, the game plays as one would expect, though the stiff difficulty found in “GH3” has leveled noticeably. Downloadable tracks from the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of “GH3” won’t work on “Aerosmith,” so if you’ve purchased a bunch of those and want to keep using them, that’s no small consideration if you’re on the fence about this one.


Unreal Tournament III
For: Xbox 360
From: Epic/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Here’s a funny question: Is the Xbox 360 version of “Unreal Tournament III” a better single-player game than a multiplayer one?

The answer, believe it or not, is maybe.

No discussion of “UT3’s” tardy debut on the 360 is complete without mentioning what it, by no fault of its own, lacks. Xbox Live’s closed architecture forbids the sharing of user-created characters and levels, which was one of the chief selling points behind the PC the Playstation 3 versions. The 360 also doesn’t allow the use of a mouse and keyboard for gameplay, which (again) both other versions allow.

There’s also no telling whether gamers are interested in flocking to “UT3” seven months after it debuted on other hardware, which in turn makes it questionable whether the game can accrue a community of dedicated players. “UT3’s” best modes online center around objective-driven and teamwork-oriented gameplay, and the smaller the pool of players, the harder it will be to find a group that plays selflessly and as a team.

As such, and regardless of Epic’s intentions, you might find a better game offline against a bunch of bots than you will online against humans. (In all fairness, “UT3” plays perfectly over Live, with no noticeable bouts of lag or framerate dropping.)

Don’t misinterpret as a knock against the game. To the contrary, it’s a statement about how polished the thing really is in spite of its challenging circumstances.

“UT3? doesn’t reinvent so much as tweak the “Unreal Tournament” formula, which consists almost exclusively of high-speed, arena-style, first-person shooter matches with a heavy emphasis on reflexes over tactics. The guns are nice and unique (if prone to imbalance), the vehicles and hoverboards a joy to control, the maps satisfactorily diverse in terms of size and geometry.

Most importantly, the mechanics are suited perfectly to the platform. Epic slowed the action down just a touch to accommodate the reflex disadvantage that comes with using a control pad instead of a mouse and keyboard, and it strikes a perfect balance that keeps “UT3” faster than other shooters while also keeping it manageable with a little adjustment.

This level of polish trickles all the way down to the game’s artificial intelligence, which is shockingly good and perfectly tuned to the game’s respectively difficulty settings. “UT3’s” campaign mode is no great shakes in terms of storytelling, but it’s pretty meaty in terms of content, and the enemies you face are surprisingly human in how they advance and react. Though A.I. matches can’t match the excitement level of a free-for-all against friends, it does make a surprisingly good substitute if no such option is available.


Downloadable Game of the Week

For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Torpex Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“Schizoid” is, by it’s own definition, “the most co-op game ever.” While the superlative is arguable, the game has a point: You don’t want to play this one alone. In “Schizoid,” you control either a blue or orange ship, and the goal is to fly around the screen and crash into enemies of the same color while avoiding enemies of the opposite color. As you might have guessed, your opposite-colored ally has to do the opposite, and clearing the screen is how you advance through the game’s 120 levels. “Schizoid” does some cool tricks with polarity to inject strategy into what otherwise might have been just another mindless arcade romp, and the game is quite fun if you team up with a friend over Xbox Live (or, even better, on the same couch). Just don’t expect the same level of fun if you’re playing alone: “Schizoid’s” co-op A.I. is respectable but prone to failure, and the Uberschizoid mode, which lets you control both ships at once, is far too maddeningly difficult for all but the most inhumanly gifted players.

DVD 7/15/08: The Year my Parents Went on Vacation, The Bank Job, Never Forever, Saving Grace S1, Meet Bill, Steel Trap

The Year my Parents Went on Vacation (PG, 2006, City Lights)
It’s 1970, Brazil’s freedoms are crumbling to military might, and Bia (Simone Spoladore) and Daniel (Eduardo Moreira) have decided to leave their 12-year-old son Mauro (Michel Joelsas) with his grandpa while they “go on vacation” and flee the country. Unfortunately, in their rush to run for the border, neither parent bothered to check that grandpa was home — or, for that matter, alive. Now, with political turmoil erupting around him but with him too consumed with Brazil’s World Cup chances and his newfound (and unwanted) independence to understand or care, Mauro has to find a way to contend with loneliness, the strange neighbor (Germano Haiut) who takes him under his wing and a diverse community of people who are fascinated by his unexpected arrival. “The Year my Parents Went on Vacation” has all the makings of a cute coming-of-age film — which, happily, it is not. Rather, it strikes an amazingly disciplined balance between Mauro’s rather innocently mischievous perspective and the nothing-innocent-about-it state of affairs that surrounds him. There are moments of quirkiness, sadness, humor, seriousness and warmth. But no one thing dominates the others, and “Vacation’s” smart, nuanced and disarmingly affecting story never lets the film’s seams show. In Portuguese with English subtitles.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Bank Job: 2-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
Every band of small-time crooks should be so lucky as Terry Leather (Jason Statham) and his crew, who learn from a little birdie that a bank’s security system will be temporarily disabled at a given time. Unfortunately, the crooks don’t know the real reason why this is happening or who — in this case, government agents looking to snuff out some potentially devastating blackmail — is behind it all. Fortunately, dear viewer, you do — and that’s what makes “The Bank Job” so much fun. The small-time heist is both exciting and surprisingly funny, the big-time heist is enjoyably devious (and, in one case, excruciatingly vicious to the eye), and watching the whole thing slowly collide over 110 minutes is fun in spite of all the inevitability, because you just know it’s going to get uglier before it gets pretty. Statham gets a chance to show his range and takes full advantage of the opportunity, and “Job’s” supporting cast (Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Peter De Jersey, Daniel Mays and David Suchet, among others) is loaded with good characters whose stories sneak up on you while the main plot barrels forward. “Job” doesn’t break ground or take any brave chances with its genre, but it combines humor, lust, action, danger and a little terror in all the right ways. As breezy summertime entertainment goes, this will do just fine.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted/extended scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Never Forever (R, 2007, Hart Sharp)
Try though they have, Sophie (Vera Farmiga) and Andrew (David Lee McInnis) cannot seem to conceive a child. But a chance encounter at a fertility clinic with a down-on-his-luck immigrant (Jung-woo Ha) — who, like her husband, is Korean — leads to an arrangement: She pays him a flat fee per “encounter,” and a considerably higher amount once he impregnates her. What could go wrong there? You know, besides everything? “Never Forever” is, simply as a matter of course, at least partially predictable: You know something is going to go awry here, because there would be no need for a movie if Sophie’s plan resulted in nothing but 90 minutes of smooth sailing. Fortunately, as it needs to, “Forever” isn’t entirely reliant on the basics of its narrative. Far and away, the film places a premium on the development of its three lead characters, and it does that more by showing than telling. That leads to some arguably hammy moments that lend an air of soapiness to the production. But “Forever” never lets that excess get out of hand, and its ability to restrain but never entangle that intensity gives those inevitable turns a much greater sense of impact than a safer movie might have left.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

Saving Grace: Season One (NR, 2007, Fox)
You may, upon watching the first couple episodes of “Saving Grace,” wish to watch them again before moving forward (or, perhaps, giving up). That’s because “Grace” — which primarily is about a hard-living detective (Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko) who drunkenly stumbles into the arms of a guardian angel (Leon Rippy) in whom she doesn’t even believe — is about a lot more than that simple description implies. There’s the married fellow cop (Kenny Johnson) with whom she has a damaged affair. There’s the religious but bitter forensics specialist (Laura San Giacomo) who can’t decide if she’s more fascinated by or jealous of Grace’s discovery. Oh, and have you met the guy on death row (Bokeem Woodbine) whom Grace sees in dreams and random visions while he does the same with her? All that and more awaits during any given hour, and only after a few episodes does “Grace” — which also has to cram some police work into the plotline — start to settle down and find itself. For your patience, the reward is high: “Grace” delivers not only one of the strangest assemblages of characters on television today, but a slew of well-written scripts that unleash a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly balanced exchange of ideas about spirituality, faith (or lack thereof) and what makes a soul tick when all else fails. Bailey Chase, Gregory Cruz, Dylan Minnette and Mark L. Taylor also star.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, music video and a rapid recap.

Meet Bill (R, 2007, First Look)
Hey, look, it’s Bill (Aaron Eckhart)! He’s just this guy who works in his father-in-law’s bank, is married to a wife (Elizabeth Banks) who seems more interested in someone else (Timothy Olyphant), and has sprouted a beer gut that, like so many other things, has caught him fully off guard. Why a local high schooler (Logan Lerman) wants him as a mentor is anybody’s guess, especially when the student seems more put together than the teacher. Like its title character, “Meet Bill” wants to be something it can’t quite be — in this case, a slightly kinder, slightly gentler but equally resonant interpretation of the middle-age wake-up call so perfectly captured in “American Beauty.” But while it has the pieces it needs and shows a ton of promise in the early going, “Bill” doesn’t quite know what to do once the ball really starts to roll. It flirts with dark comedy, but loses either its subtlety or its nerve and settles for something trite and cute instead. Then it tries again, only to fail again, and the cycle creates a mess of a movie that bounces so erratically between ideas that it barely goes anywhere by story’s end. Ultimately, and unfortunately, Bill’s movie seems just as confused about its self-identity as Bill is about his. That might make for good entertainment were our world as trite as his appears to be, but that isn’t remotely the case. Jessica Alba, Reed Diamond and Todd Louiso also star. No extras.

Steel Trap (R, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
It’s not clear, nor ever satisfactorily explained, why a group of successful but miserable media types decided to spend New Year’s Eve in each other’s hateful company. But they did, the party is a drag as expected, and when a handful of the guests receive a cryptic invitation to an even more exclusive party on another floor in the same building, each accepts without hesistation. And so kicks off one crazy person’s impossibly efficient plan to kill off seven entirely obnoxious people in all manner of cleverly torturous ways. Does “Steel Trap” sound a little familiar? Like, say, roughly 100 other generic horror films that have clogged the straight-to-DVD marketplace in the last few years? Guess what: That’s all it is. “Trap’s” entire reason for being is to draw blood. It certainly isn’t to endear us to the horrible cast, which spends the entire 93 minutes provoking each other with wince-worthy dialogue straight out of a high school short story assignment. Nor is it to dazzle us with a good endgame: The twist at the end is, in addition to insultingly illogical, boring. “Trap” relentlessly dares you to dislike it, and you should honor its wish and do so. Just save your money and do it from afar.
Extras: Director/Writer commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Games 7/9/08: Hail to the Chimp, Hellboy: The Science of Evil, Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3

Hail to the Chimp
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Wideload Games/Gamecock
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, crude humor, mild cartoon violence)

Like the politicians of whom it makes so much fun, “Hail to the Chimp” promises something — in this case, a video game that’s both genuinely funny and genuinely fun to play — that many before it have teased but rarely delivered.

On the comedy front, “Chimp” — which documents the free-for-all electoral process that ensues in the animal kingdom after the lion is forced to resign in light of scandal — makes good on its promise. The various characters vying for your vote represent a terrific skewering of modern-day political chest-huffing, and everything from the game’s main menu (which mocks the 24-hour cable news cycle) to the various random cut-scenes (which hilariously spoof the negative campaign commercial phenomenon) is dense with wit.

But “Chimp” is a video game first and a piece of satire second, and this is where the game runs into some trouble.

Though gifted with a storyline that’s capable of powering far more interesting genres, “Chimp” is a party game in the vein of “Mario Party” and “Fuzion Frenzy.” Like those games, “Chimp” designs its mini-games for any combination of four computer- and/or human-controlled contestants, who all clamor to complete the same objective while simultaneously sabotaging one another’s progress. (In a brilliant twist, any two players can briefly form an alliance and perform special techniques that leave the other two players temporarily reeling.)

Problem is, while the backstory behind the mini-games often cleverly ties into the game’s high concept, the actual challenge almost always involves some variation of brawling and collecting clams (the vote currency in the animal kingdom). Variations abound and a few challenges involving buttons and campaign signs break up the monotony, but there’s an unmistakable current of sameness that runs through all of “Chimp’s” mini-games.

Compounding the problem is “Chimp’s” sometimes-unrefined gameplay, which occasionally results in everything from characters getting stuck in certain parts of certain levels to the generally uninspired intelligence of computer-controlled players. That latter point alone makes “Chimp” a tough sell to anyone with no desire to explore the game’s multiplayer component.

Fortunately, “Chimp’s” glitches are sporadic, and they don’t severely impede play if you’re taking on friends. (Four-player support is available online and locally.) Moreover, the absolutely frantic nature of the mini-games lives up to “Chimp’s” billing as a party game. Given the inviting price ($40) and the fact that traditional party games on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have ranged from terrible to non-existent, “Chimp’s” positive fun-to-flaw differential makes it easy to recommend to anyone hungry for a game of its distinction.


Hellboy: The Science of Evil
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PSP
From: Krome Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, mild language, violence)

Sometimes, even games not licensed after a movie can suffer from the dreaded summertime bug known as movie tie-in disease.

Witness, for instance, “Hellboy: The Science of Evil.” Though not based on the forthcoming “Hellboy” movie and buoyed by a storyline written expressly for the game, “Evil” bears all the scars and warts of a game that was rushed to market for reasons other than because it was polished and ready.

At its core, “Evil” plays like a “God of War” knockoff, mixing in third-person hand-to-hand combat with the rare environmental puzzle and boss fight. Everything from the semi-fixed-camera perspective to the button-masher-friendly controls should look immediately familiar to any fans of “War.” Given the physical similarities between Hellboy and Kratos, it’s hard to fault Krome Studios for aping the formula as much as it does.

It’s just a shame Krome isn’t as adept as Sony at making it work. As mentioned already, “Evil” is rife with signs of rushed development, including sloppy combat and hit detection, unimaginative boss battles and a lack of variety when it comes to both Hellboy’s arsenal and the enemies on which he unleashes it. Though the various levels look different from one another, the objective — mindlessly kill wave after wave of enemies using the same technique on almost every one — remains almost mind-numbingly consistent throughout.

Such one-track gameplay would be fine were it not for “Evil’s” most glaring flaw: pokiness. Hellboy is awfully slow on his feet, and his attacks fare no faster. The similar lack of urgency on his enemies’ part makes for a fair fight, but all this slowness denies “Evil” of the fluidity and intensity that makes the “War” formula so much fun. Without the speed needed to keep players on their toes, the limitations of the genre become distressingly apparent, and all that repetition becomes impossible to ignore.

It’s a shame, too, because “Evil” does have its strong points. The story is pretty entertaining, and while there isn’t as much of it as one might hope, the voice acting does come courtesy of the same people who embody the characters on film. “Evil” supports both offline and online two-player co-op, and “Hellboy” fanatics should elect to play this way if they absolutely must play the game at all. Just be sure to select Hellboy before your friend does: Pokey though he may be, he’s still considerably more fun to play as than either Liz or Abe.


Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3
For: Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network
From: Backbone Entertainment/Capcom
Cost: $10

Capcom’s inspired reinvention of its classic franchises as downloadable games continues with “Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3,” which resurrects the classic “Commando” gameplay while fitting it with a control scheme — the twin-stick shooting style made popular by “Robotron” and “Geometry Wars” — that wasn’t possible during the series’ heyday on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Other modern touches include an bold, semi-cartoony graphical overhaul and the ability to play with up to two friends either locally or online. Elsewhere, though, little has changed. The objective — move forward, shoot this, grenade that — remains the same, and seasoned gamers will probably love the game’s difficulty level and complete omission of any kind of save or continue system. If that last part bothers you, take heed: “Battlefield,” like its predecessors, is by no means an easy game even on the easy setting, nor is it supposed to be. Fortunately, the aforementioned co-op play, in addition to being the most fun way to experience the game, also takes the edge off for less-skilled players. As a bonus for Xbox 360 owners, “Battlefield” includes a ticket to download the “Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix” multiplayer beta, which expires Aug. 20.

DVD 7/8/08: 305, Stop-Loss, Chop Shop, Superhero Movie, The Tracey Fragments, 'Til Death Do Us Part S1, The Mummy SEs, Jet Li's Fearless DC, The X-Files: Revelations

305 (PG-13, 2008, Allumination Filmworks)
Yes, the “300” joke well dried up quite some time ago, and the pure awfulness that was “Meet the Spartans” pretty much laid that well to irreparable ruin. But before you completely dismiss “305,” a feature film borne out of a popular Youtube short of the same name, know this: It’s funny, and not for reasons you might assume. “305” tells the untold story of the five Spartans (Tim Larson, Brandon Tyra, David Schultz, Sunny Peabody, Ed Portillo) who were relegated to grunt work while the rest of the army hit the front lines, and it doesn’t so much spoof on “300” as it does the likes of “The Office.” In other words, all those dried-up jokes can stay dried up, because this film doesn’t need them. Perhaps most importantly, “305” knows how to keep itself interesting for the full 85 minutes. It has fun with archetypes just long enough to create some surprisingly loveable characters, who in turn hand the reigns over to a surprisingly good story in a similarly timely fashion. That’s no small feat for any comedy, and it’s positively miraculous for one that not only exists primarily as a parody of a film that’s been parodied to death, but also began life as a five-minute skit.
Extras: The original “305” short, two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, outtakes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Stop-Loss (R, 2008, Paramount)
To be stop-lossed by the military means to have your service extended with or without your blessing. Your choice, should that happen, is either to accept the extension or face criminal prosecution. Either way, that’s hardly an ideal homecoming present for soldiers Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve (Channing Tatum), all of whom just returned from what was supposed to be their final tour of duty in Iraq. Only one of our three heroes in “Stop-Loss” faces the titular problem, but that doesn’t mean the other two aren’t embroiled in private hells of their own. From post-traumatic stress to questions only someone with hindsight vision could ask, “Stop-Loss” takes on a lot, and with only so much time to cover so much ground, subtlety falls by the wayside almost immediately. That’s a little frustrating, because the film’s themes don’t exactly need this level of in-your-face handholding. But it’s also forgivable, because the themes “Stop-Loss” beats into you apply directly to its characters and not some grand filmmaker statement about the Iraq war. That, ironically, makes “Stop-Loss” more a statement film — and more worthy of some attention — than the vast majority of passively-aggressively preachy works that have cropped up since the war began. Abbie Cornish also stars.
Extras: Director/writer commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features.

Chop Shop (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
A shallow glance at “Chop Shop” might lead one to believe that the story of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a street orphan who survives by hauling stolen parts to a local junkyard, is something straight out of the third world. Surprise: “Shop” not only is an American film, but it takes place in America — mere miles, in fact, from Shea Stadium in Queens. Really, why not? Alejandro’s methods may be suspect (OK, illegal), but he’s a self-starter who rose up from nothing to (presumably) make it on his own. That is, however unclean in this case, the American dream, and while “Shop’s” appetite for atmosphere over traditional story arcs makes it susceptible to alienating just as many viewers as it engages, it’s a masterfully intimate illustration of just how complicated simply getting by really can be. Ultimately, whether it inspires or demoralizes comes down to you: “Shop’s” narrative approach keeps the door open to either prospect (and possibly, should you watch twice under different moods, both). But if long scenes of no dialogue and films that prioritize character over plot aren’t your thing, this likely won’t be, either.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, rehearsal footage.

Superhero Movie: Extended Edition (NR, 2008, Dimension)
So you saw “Date Movie.” And you saw “Epic Movie.” And since then, you’ve vowed never again to be tricked into seeing any film with a two-word title that ends in “Movie.” Should you have zero desire to even entertain the notion of checking out “Superhero Movie,” which takes the plot of the first two “Spider-Man” films and violates it by any means necessary, no one would blame you. But here’s the crazy, confusing thing: It actually isn’t half-bad. In fact, outside of a few wholly unnecessary bodily function gags, “Movie” is surprisingly funny and (brace yourself!) pretty consistently clever. Big thanks obviously go to writer Craig Mazin — who, it should be noted and double-underlined, had nothing to do with those other films. The presence of genre golden boy Leslie Nielsen certainly doesn’t hurt, either. But if we’re passing out credit, perhaps the largest cut goes to Drake Bell, who stars as “Movie’s” answer to Peter Parker. He has the slacked-jawed unlikely hero bit down hilariously cold, he can make a face with the best of them, and his character dares you to dislike him even during “Movie’s” more insipid spots. When a parody film inspires viewers to genuinely root for its lead character, it must be doing something right. Christopher McDonald, Kevin Hart and Sara Paxton also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Tracey Fragments (R, 2007, Image Entertainment)
Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page) is, as she puts it, just a normal girl who hates herself. That does not mean, however, that the film through which she pleads her normalcy is anywhere near as conventional as she claims to be. Quite the contrary, as it happens. “The Tracey Fragments” is presented almost perennially in split-screen, often portraying multiple perspectives of the same scene within a single frame but sometimes throwing up seemingly random images for seemingly random reasons. Compounding the visual insanity is the story itself, which alternates with blurred lines between Tracey’s imagination, memories and present existence, which finds her frantically searching for the little brother (Zie Souwand) her parents have charged her with losing. Broken down to words on paper, none of this is terribly complicated. As it’s presented, however, “Fragments” leaves itself hopelessly prone to cries of opacity and pretentiousness, and the polarizing approach — some will love how unique “Fragments'” presentation is, others will loathe it and accuse it of being different for the sake of being different — makes the film impossible to definitively recommend or deny. If the description provoked a strong reaction in one direction or another, the full production likely will just magnify that same reaction.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, winning and other entries from the “Tracey: Re-Fragmented” remix contest, image gallery.

‘Til Death Do Us Part: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, BCI Eclipse)
Picture “The Outer Limits” or “Tales From the Crypt,” but replace those tales of horror and science fiction gone wrong with something truly scary: an unhappy marriage. That’s the gist of “‘Til Death Do Us Part,” which takes real court cases of marriages that ended in murder and gives them the cheesy dramatization treatment. That “cheesy” adjective is not to be taken lightly, by the way: “Death” is bubbling over the edge with hokey writing, terrible acting and cinematography that would embarrass a first-year film student. Fortunately, it at least appears to be by design. Being so consistently low-rent allows “Death” to achieve a strange sense of balance, and this seeming commitment to non-quality hits the guilty pleasure sweet spot flush on the cheek. “Death” is so bad that it’s good, and while the recurring theme lends a sense of repetition to marathon viewings, there’s some real sport in seeing the show outdo itself on the triteness scale. John Waters plays the part of emcee and narrator, and whether he’s happy to collect such an easy paycheck or genuinely having a great time, his spirit is infectious and invaluable.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus new introductions by Waters and a Waters interview.

Worth a Mention
— “The Mummy: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition” (PG-13, 1999, Universal) and “The Mummy Returns: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition” (PG-13, 2001, Universal): Universal has caught a case of “Mummy” fever in advance of the fourth modern-day “Mummy” film’s August release, and you know what that means: We’re going back to the well, and those collector’s editions, ultimate editions and gift boxes aren’t quite so collectible and ultimate anymore. Extras on each DVD, sold separately, include a ticket to the new film, commentary (three tracks on “The Mummy,” one on “The Mummy Returns”), deleted scenes and new behind-the-scenes features.
— “The Mummy: Special Edition” (NR, 1932, Universal): Good news: The “Mummy” film actually worth watching hasn’t been forgotten. In addition to receiving the classy Universal Legacy Series packaging treatment, this two-disc set features a remastered cut, a making-of documentary, two commentary tracks, a second documentary about Universal horror films as narrated by Kenneth Branagh, a tribute to makeup artist Jack Pierce, a retrospective, and a ticket to see the new “Mummy” film.
— “Jet Li’s Fearless: Director’s Cut” (NR/PG-13, 2006, Universal): For whatever reason, “Fearless” includes a ticket to the new “Mummy” film as well. A more sensible reason to take interest in this release is the inclusion of three separate (theatrical, unrated international and director-approved) cuts of the film, as well as an interview with Jet Li and one deleted scene.
— “The X-Files: Revelations” (NR, 1993-99, Fox): In case you’re extremely late to the “X-Files” party but wish to enjoy the upcoming film, this collection of eight episodes presumably is the most efficient way to bring yourself up to speed. Extras include introductions to each episode by series creator Chris Carter and Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz, a cast/crew panel discussion from WonderCon and a trailer for the upcoming film. No “Mummy” ticket, sadly.

Games 7/2/08: Wall-E, Don't King Presents: Prizefighter, Sea Life Safari

Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Windows and Mac OS X
From: Heavy Iron Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

We’ve come to expect a certain measure of well-intentioned prosaicness from Pixar-branded video games, which typically blend together some concoction of fan service and gameplay that is, depending on your level if cynicism, either tried and true or tired and trite.

“Wall-E” doesn’t exactly rock this boat, delivering a mostly unimaginative but generally fun experience that’s subject both to moments of technical bewilderment and moments of surprising ingenuity.

“Wall-E” pits you in two-and-a-half roles, allowing you to play as Wall-E (the junker bot) in some levels, Eve (the slick white robot) in others, and a third arrangement that won’t be detailed here for spoiler purposes. Gameplay consists primarily of platforming and puzzle-solving during the Wall-E levels and third-person shooting and flight missions in the Eve levels.

Creatively, Heavy Iron Studios doesn’t exactly reach for the stars. Most of “Wall-E’s” objectives consist of stuff you’ve seen countless times — missions that have you collecting X amount of some object or flying through X amount of rings or checkpoints to reach the next level. The execution is mostly there and the gameplay suffices, though it’s largely pedestrian stuff that sometimes falls prone to disappointing visuals and technical hiccups (namely, rare instances of bad collision detection and a sometimes-erratic camera).

Occasionally, though, “Wall-E” tosses out a gem. Finding the optional secret items on each level, for instance, often means solving a puzzle that’s a little more inspired and challenging than the base material. And while the game never completely turns a page during the course of the story, it does sprinkle in a few platforming challenges that are honestly good enough to feel right at home in a game starring Mario or Ratchet and Clank. Some Wall-E-centric challenges involve his ability to compact different kinds of trash, and completing both the requisite and optional portions of these challenges is a genuinely satisfying endeavor.

That said, while “Wall-E” the film is a treat for any age, “Wall-E” the game remains pretty squarely aimed at younger players hungry for fan service first and gameplay innovation second. The split-screen multiplayer offerings, as well as all those optional story challenges, give the game some legs for its intended audience, but skilled players likely can see and master the entirety of the game within a day or three.


Don’t King Presents: Prizefighter
For: Xbox 360
From: Venom Games/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, violence)

The arrival of “Don King Presents: Prizefighter” is a welcome one, though not for the reason 2K Sports wishes it was.

Compared to the rather pedestrian presentation found in EA Sports’ most recent “Fight Night” game, “Prizefighter” is in a class all its own. The career mode centers your character inside a live-action documentary — starring King himself, among others — and the twists that occur on film translate into some pretty clever stipulations that you must overcome in the game.

Conversations with your manager also open up opportunities to revisit — and participate in — revered matches featuring the likes of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jim Braddock and Larry Holmes. (The graphical filters, ranging from sepia tones for classic matches to 1970s-style oversaturation during more recent bouts, are a fantastic touch.)

“Prizefighter” further sweetens the career pot by giving you some fun ways to build up your created boxer’s attributes. You can skip the training mini-games if you want, but they’re surprisingly enjoyable, and each comes with its own leaderboard for bragging rights over Xbox Live.

Speaking of which, “Prizefighter” delivers what you’d expect on the multiplayer front. You can establish tournaments, tweak match stipulations to your liking, and pursue a number of Achievements if you want to pad your Xbox Gamerscore.

All of this makes for a pretty attractive package that’s one ingredient away from putting EA Sports on notice. Unfortunately, that one thing “Prizefighter” lacks — the incredible “Fight Night” engine, or something approaching its quality — just so happens to be the one thing that matters more than all those aforementioned features put together.

To put it kindly, “Prizefighter’s” fighting engine is wildly unrefined. Whereas the “Fight Night” engine handsomely rewarded smart, defensive boxing, “Prizefighter” is riddled with technical issues that make this nearly impossible on even the easiest setting. Collision detection, in particular, is unacceptably deceptive, with punches that should miss often connecting and knockout punches often hitting the other boxer’s shoulder or armpit rather than his face. It’s hard to dodge a punch when it almost doesn’t matter where it lands, and you’re better off just mashing the punch buttons and outgunning your opponents, who often come out swinging just as recklessly thanks to some thoughtless artificial intelligence.

Unfortunately, that alone makes “Prizefighter” hard to recommend. Welcome though its innovations unquestionably are, it shares the shelf with a two-year-old game that nonetheless looks better, plays better and costs half as much at this point. For now, the belt remains in EA’s possession.


Downloadable Game of the Week

Sea Life Safari
For: Xbox Live Arcade
From: Wanako Studios/Sierra
Cost: 800 MS Points

Xbox Live’s Arcade channel rarely ? OK, never ? is home to meditative experiences, but “Sea Life Safari,” which stars you as an underwater photographer charged with snapping high-quality photographs of 50 different creatures, certainly changes that. Collecting three-star photos of every creature is a challenge, but it’s a soothing rather than frantic endeavor. The environments look nice for an XBLA game, and the expressive, semi-cartoony nature of the creatures you’re photographing makes them fun to interact with even after you’ve checked them off the to-do list. (Your best photos are saved for later viewing, and you can choose to keep quite a few more in your in-game album.) “Safari’s” lack of multiplayer and lack of anything to aspire to after you get the shots gives it a longevity problem, but it stands out so starkly from the rest of the XBLA lineup that completists drawn to the concept will get their $10 worth over time. If nothing else, it’s a great game to return to whenever you need a break from Xbox Live’s typically manic nature.

DVD 7/1/08: City of Men, Get Smart's Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control, My Blueberry Nights, Drillbit Taylor, Triloquist, Vantage Point, Yankee Stadium: Baseball's Cathedral, Mad Men S1, 30 Days S2

City of Men (R, 2007, Miramax)
Though the distributor, producer, Brazilian locale and two of the title’s three words remain the same, “City of Men” is not a direct sequel to “City of God,” but rather a theatrical follow-up to the television series of the same name (which, to confuse you further, also inspired the filming of “God”). Fortunately, you need not have seen any of that to appreciate “Men,” which sufficiently stands on its own as a tale of two best friends (Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha) who are turning 18 together but quickly grow polarized by an emerging gang war and some ugly family history that simultaneously comes to light. A few brief flashbacks from the show fill in the gaps where necessary, but “Men” overwhelmingly and intensely marches forward and alone on the strength of its present day, weaving together a multi-thematic story that expertly gives insight into the light and dark sides of the characters and the world in which they live. If that sounds like pretentious art film purgatory to you, don’t worry: Gifted with character though “Men” may be, it’s every bit as rich in the thrills department. In Portuguese with English subtitles. (Side note: The series, available on DVD from Palm Pictures, makes a most worthy companion should you enjoy the film.)
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control (NR, 2008, Warner Premiere)
Just as you should stash away the fine china before throwing a big soiree at home, it’s probably wise to hide whatever billion-dollar gadgetry you have lying around if you’re throwing an office party at a government facility that specializes in developing cutting-edge technology to aid undercover agents. Unfortunately, someone got sloppy at Control, and a devious partygoer has successfully executed the rather simple task of stealing the agency’s lone invisibility cloak. Agents 86 and 99 are in the field, so it’s up to lab rats and “Get Smart” bit characters Bruce (Masi “Hiro” Oka) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence) to get it back. As capers go, “Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control” is pretty by the numbers — an elaborate excuse to give additional screen time to (and cash in on) characters moviegoers might have wanted more from after seeing “Smart.” In that sense, it succeeds, even if the result of that accomplishment is more mildly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. “Control” does have a few really good laughs and some neat inventions, but it comes recommended only to fans of the parent film — and, due to its short, 70-minute length, as a rental rather than a buy.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

My Blueberry Nights (PG-13, 2007, Weinstein Company)
We all have that shameful list of movies we enjoy in spite of their best efforts to inspire feelings to the contrary. If you see “My Blueberry Nights,” which follows a jilted lover’s (Norah Jones) yearlong journey from the closing hours of a diner to the other end of the country, there’s a fair chance it’ll find a place on that list. Between the premise, settings and characters (Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman and David Strathairn leave the strongest impressions), “Nights” throws a mountain of cheese at you, and there’s no shortage of dialogue lines that feel too rehearsed to properly resonate with their complete intended impact. That’s not a knock on the cast, nor is it necessarily even a criticism of execution. The script rules all in “Nights,” and it’s hardly out of the question to assume the film’s hokey quotient isn’t at least partially by design. Diners, casinos, dive bars and noir aren’t exactly strange bedfellows, after all. It doesn’t much matter anyway: As alluded to before, there’s something about “Nights” that makes it engaging in spite of these obvious distractions. Specifically, Jones hits the ground running with her character, and “Night” finds intelligent ways to keep viewers’ eyes on her even when competing forces seem to want to divide your attention.
Extras: Director interview, behind-the-scenes feature, stills gallery.

Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition (NR, 2008, Paramount)
There are comedies you never forget because they’re funny, and there are comedies so unforgettably awful that your mind’s eye cannot, in spite of its best efforts, erase them. Then there are movies like “Drillbit Taylor” which you’ll probably spot in a bargain bin five years from now and wonder if you actually saw it or just imagined seeing it. The premise ? homeless con artist (Owen Wilson) scams a trio of desperate nerds (Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, David Dorfman) into hiring him as a bodyguard while he robs them blind ? has no shortage of comic potential. Especially early on, some of that potential even comes to fruition. Inevitably, though, formula raids the place, with tired jokes, tired violence and absolutely dog-tired plot turns borrowing liberally from the vat of forgettable comedy clichés. Perhaps if “Taylor” started weak and finished strong, the high note on which it might have ended would have made it easier to recommend and remember. But it moves in the opposite direction instead, and if you see this one looking up at you, you’d be wise to do the same.
Extras: Extended cut, cast/crew commentary (no Wilson), writers interview, deleted/extended scenes, bloopers, lines montage, five behind-the-scenes features.

Triloquist (R, 2008, Dimension Extreme)
While Chucky the doll seemed perfectly content terrorizing his own masters, Dummy (that’s his name) has a more complicated and nurturing relationship with mentally challenged and mute owner Norbert (Rocky Marquette). And why not? Norbert’s brother Angelina (Paydin LoPachin) seems diabolically insane enough for all three of them. So “Triloquist” offers a clever twist on the suddenly crowded doll horror genre. Problem is, it doesn’t really know what else to do once that offering is handed over. The plot meanders from random act to random act, twisting so much without direction that the term “plot” turns out to be somewhat generous. Between bloodshed, “Triloquist” repeatedly leans on the same three-headed joke ? Dummy’s a pervert, Norbert makes stupid faces, Angelins’s a homicidal sexpot ? and wrings the well completely dry. The short (78 minutes) runtime would suggest that “Triloquist” is easy to enjoy regardless of quality, but a few trips around the same block of jokes will change that perception before the show is even halfway finished. Should you make it that far, you might as well stick around for the absurdly amusing final scene, which merely serves to remind us how much unrealized potential this idea had. No extras.

Vantage Point: Two-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Hey, you like explosions? Well, how about the same explosion over and over? That’s what you get in “Vantage Point,” which replays — and replays, and replays — the events of a presidential assassination attempt and terrorist attack from the perspectives of eight different people at the scene. As you might expect, each character’s perspective brings with it a few morsels of information previously withheld, and as you might also expect, things are not as clear-cut as they originally appeared to be. Exciting, right? Sure … except that, with a 90-minute runtime, “Point” has to do an awful lot of cramming. That means no time to develop the characters as anything beyond flat archetypes, which in turn makes most of the twists little more than contrived plot turns for contrivances’ sake. When someone isn’t who we figured they were but we never cared in the first place, why start now? Throw in numerous replays of the attack — albeit from different angles, which at least is something — and “Point” becomes an exercise in intellectual anesthesia that’s worth barely more than the sum of its mostly forgettable parts. Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver, among others, star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, cast/crew interviews.

Worth a Mention
— “Yankee Stadium: Baseball’s Cathedral” (NR, 2008, MLB/Shout Factory): Red Sox and Mets fans probably would rather own a DVD of Yankee Stadium’s pending demolition, but fans of baseball history should check out this two-disc set, which contains a two-hour retrospective that covers everything from Opening Day 1923 to Opening Day 2008. A bounty of extras includes Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech, bonus highlights and a stadium tour.
— “Mad Men: Season One” (NR, 2007, AMC/Lions Gate): What, you didn’t know AMC did original scripted series? Well, it does. And if this show about Madison Ave.’s Golden Age is any indication, it does them rather well. A second season begins in July, so this is your chance to catch up. Includes 13 episodes (commentary on all), plus four behind the scenes features, a music sampler, a season two preview and extremely dysfunctional (albeit pretty) packaging.
— “30 Days: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, Arts Alliance America): Bad news: Morgan Spurlock is in jail. Good news: He gets out in 30 days. Other experiments in season two touch on such topics as religion, outsourcing and immigration. Contents: Six episodes.

Games 6/25/08: Battlefield: Bad Company, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Battlefield: Bad Company
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: DICE/EA Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, strong language, violence)

With respect to “Call of Duty 4,” no game does multiplayer war quite like DICE’s PC “Battlefield” games. Console gamers sampled a muted taste of that in “Battlefield 2142,” but only now has DICE engineered a “Battlefield” game expressly for them.

As reward for your patience, “Company” doubles your pleasure, packing in a single-player campaign that, in a series first, is more than simply a bunch of glued-together maps with A.I. enemies. DICE has a story to tell in “Company,” and it’s a startlingly fresh (and — gasp! — amusing) departure from the genre norms. As supplementary material goes, it’s surprisingly meaty, easily outdistancing “COD4” in terms of campaign length.

The flipside, of course, is that “Company’s” single-player issues fall under greater scrutiny than in the past.

So, here’s the laundry list. Your squadmates, while never a burden, are generally useless. Enemy soldiers often either leave themselves wide open to attack or possess an inhuman, “COD4”-like ability to nail you no matter where you move. (The lack of any kind of cover mechanic — a problem in multiplayer as well — really rears its head here.) An unconventional spawning system makes the game’s difficulty entirely palatable, but there will be times when you’ll wish DICE better integrated this with the game’s checkpoint system.

But even with those issues well apparent, “Company” is a riotous good time. DICE has first-person shooter basics down cold, and everything about the gunplay — from aiming sensitivity right on down to the sound each gun makes — benefits from a first-rate coat of polish. That goes as well for the vehicles (jeeps, tanks, boats and helicopters, among other treats), each of which are fun to commandeer for different reasons.

And then there’s “Company’s” destructibility engine, which allows you to destroy walls, rooftops and forestry on a level no game before it has allowed. “Company” overtly encourages players to completely shred their environment, and why not? It’s wildly fun, and the game’s engine doesn’t break a sweat no matter what you throw at it. Amazing.

If all this newness scares you, worry not: Multiplayer remains the star of the show in “Company,” which features exactly one mode (an objective-driven, 24-player variation on attack and defend) but packs it with enough depth and purpose to render moot any concerns about longevity. The clash of themes (greed and disenchantment versus teamwork) gives the game an unprecedented sense of identity, but the gameplay is explicitly “Battlefield,” and that’s all a lot of long-suffering console gamers need to hear.


Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Splash Damage/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

When “Unreal Tournament 3” migrated last year from the PC to the Playstation 3, it purposely slowed the action down a touch. Blisteringly fast movement is fine on a computer, but console players using a gamepad cannot possibly refocus their gun’s aim with near-instantaneous speed the way players can with a mouse. That minor speed provided some relief to experienced “UT” players forced to contend with a controller, and it made “UT3” an accessible experience for those of us getting our feet wet for the first time.

“Enemy Territory: Quake Wars” had more than eight months to make the same adjustment “UT3” made in one. Unfortunately, it does no such thing, and that oversight provides the base for a small mountain of problems that make the game impossible to recommend, especially now.

In fairness, “ET:QW” does have some things going for it. The objective-driven multiplayer modes, which call for teams to employ a full range of character classes in order to complete every task, encourage teamwork on a level even Valve’s “Team Fortress” games can’t quite achieve. Should you assemble a group of selfless team players, you might find some surprisingly intelligent battles in your online future.

Failing that, “ET:QW’s” single-player campaign — which is little more than a bunch of multiplayer maps peppered with A.I. enemies and taped together with some “Quake” mythology — at least provides adequate training. Enemy A.I. plays strong even on the game’s easiest setting, and it occasionally mimics human behavior to a startling degree.

Unfortunately, a good part of that challenge can be chalked up to the aforementioned speed issues. With only a controller at your disposal, “ET:QW” feels ludicrously fast, and while everyone is at the same disadvantage online, that doesn’t make the excessively reactionary gunplay any more fun.

Again, though, that’s merely the base. Whereas “ET:QW” supported 32 players on the PC, the console versions can handle only 16, which is hard to swallow given the complete lack of graphical advancement. Online play thus far has been lag-prone, which merely accentuates those aiming problems, and the online interface in general feels like a product of a bygone era.

“ET:QW’s” arrival comes right on the toes of the debut of “Battlefield: Bad Company,” which plays in the same genre but supports more players (24), looks considerably better, includes a full-fledged story mode, was designed specifically for consoles and is available for the same price. If shoddy development doesn’t seal this one’s fate, bad timing almost certainly will.

DVD 6/24/08: In Bruges, Definitely Maybe, The Hammer, Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Charlie Bartlett

In Bruges (R, 2008, Universal)
By the time we catch up with hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), their work in Bruges — a picturesque city in Belgium, in case you didn’t know — is done. But until their boss (Ralph Fiennes) gives them the green light to skip town, they have to stick around, put on a happy face and blend in with the scores of tourists who haven’t just killed somebody. That’s a funny premise, and “In Bruges” doesn’t disappoint in the comedy department. But the funniest thing of all about “Bruges” is how, in stark contract to most heist and caper films, it so transparently wears its heart on its sleeve. Yes, there’s a twist, and yes, it’s a monster, and yes, it forces the film to change moods on a dime. But “Bruges” handles the whiplash without betraying its snarky beginnings, choosing instead to let its characters carry out their mood swings without pretense or a filter. Given what that twist is, anything else would have been a letdown. The strong devotion to character design carries “Bruges” with ease through its first hour, and a fantastic second twist carries it the most of the rest of the way, where a final act brilliantly bottles both extremes and carries the whole thing home. Clémence Poésy also stars.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, Bruges boat tour, bloopers, swear reel, two behind-the-scenes features.

Definitely, Maybe (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is getting a divorce. And if you think he doesn’t understand that whole ordeal, imagine how his 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) feels. Yes, that’s a pretty tired plot outline, and “Definitely, Maybe’s” bland title and stock box art won’t do the naked eye any favors in differentiating it from the flood of clichéd romantic comedy also-rans that infect store shelves weekly. That’s too bad, too, because “Maybe” — which frames its plot around a story Will tells his daughter about how he met the woman he’s about to divorce — deserves better than that. It’s funny, well-written and is home to enough surprises to ward off any accusations of being overly formulaic. Most importantly, though, it isn’t neat. The relationship between temptation, ambition and love is hardly a marriage of clean lines, and while “Maybe” never makes you forget it’s only a movie, it nonetheless does a fine job of illustrating just how trying the whole ordeal can be. That it does so without losing its sense of optimism and humor is merely a nice bonus. Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks also star.
Extras: Director/Reynolds commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Hammer (R, 2007, Weinstein Company)
Employing washed-up never-was of a boxer Jerry “The Hammer” Ferro (Adam Carolla) as a sparring partner for Olympic hopeful Robert Brown (Harold House Moore) is a cheaper proposition than actually paying someone with talent to do the job. Or rather, it would have been had Ferro not shown Brown up and landed himself a date alongside him at the U.S. Olympic trials. A 40-year-old who hasn’t boxed in years finally realizing the dream he couldn’t achieve 21 years prior … happens every day, right? Sure, if you live in Hollywood. As the outline implies, “The Hammer’s” script has more cliché than a pizza buffet has crust, and it absolutely will test your ability to turn off that part of your brain that doesn’t tolerate suspending disbelief to the degree this one demands. But while the film leans hard on narrative formula, it leans even harder on Carolla, who leaves “The Hammer” no more an actor than he was when he entered. Believe it or not, that’s what makes the whole thing work. Ferro plays out as a cross between the straight man and some kind of stealthy one-liner factory, and that suits both Carolla’s talents and the film’s needs rather well. Predictable and occasionally wince-worthy though “The Hammer” may be, it’s also genuinely, intelligently and consistently funny, which is something precious few starchy sports films can remotely attest to being. Heather Juergensen also stars, and Oswaldo Castillo steals scenes as Ferro’s extremely loyal sidekick.
Extras: Carolla commentary, deleted scenes, a conversation with Adam and Ozzie, behind-the-scenes footage, stills gallery.

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs (NR, 2008, Fox)
While the first “Futurama” movie was mostly Bender’s show, “The Beast With a Billion Backs” is more of an ensemble piece ? and why not? There’s a massive rift developing in the universe, and that’s pretty much everyone’s business. A lot of characters get into the act, and like “Bender’s Big Score” before it, “Backs” plays like a cross between an extended episode of the show (a good thing, because the spirit of “Futurama” remains intact) and a barrage of gags meant to fill the extended runtime (an OK thing, though mostly because the character-centric gags somewhat compensate for the story’s general lack of focus). If nothing else, “Backs'” excessive meandering provides excuse for the inclusion of all manner of supporting and bit players from the show. And once all that narrative flotsam comes together to form some sort of cohesive story — which, admittedly, takes more than half the movie to happen — the result has serious storytelling potential. It’s a shame, then, that all that aimless frittering leaves so little time for “Backs” to really dig in once we end up at this point. If the sole goal is to elicit laughs, then mission somewhat accomplished, but a little more attention to narrative might have done wonders.
Extras: Cast/Matt Groening commentary, a 30-minute “lost episode” originally produced for the “Futurama” video game (with commentary), deleted scenes, animatics, three behind- the-scenes features.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: 2-Disc Field Guide Edition (PG, 2008, Paramount)
Sure, the old house the Grace family just inhabited needs some serious work. And sure, it’s located in the middle of nowhere, which has young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) acting out at his mom (Mary-Louise Parker) before his foot even crosses the threshold. But how many houses come with secret worlds chock full of fantastical creatures? Not many, and that’s enough to sweeten the deal for Jared once he, his twin brother (Highmore again) and sister (Sarah Bolger) make the discovery. If “The Spiderwick Chronicles'” ingredients sound like those of any number of CG-laden children’s adventure films, it’s because they are. But while “Chronicles” initially displays flashes of excess reliance on those special effects, it eventually lets up and finds a happy balance between its human and non-human characters. (It has a heart, in other words.) Prioritizing substance over style allows “Chronicles” to build a mythology — and eventually, a payoff — that doesn’t lean on some overlong massacre of computer graphics and long, slow marches toward predictable inevitabilities. That alone makes the film, in spite of no shortage of problem spots (some predictability, a few dry patches, a lead character who’s not exactly the easiest kid in the world to like), fairly easy to recommend to its target audience. For the same reasons, adults won’t hate it, either.
Extras: In-film field guide, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Charlie Bartlett (R, 2007, MGM)
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) has delusions of grandeur. Or perhaps he simply has delusions, because who else dresses for school the way others dress for church? Fortunately, Charlie has one other thing: a cute admirer (Kat Dennings), who also happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And then, upon getting his hands on something we won’t spoil here, he finds himself a nice little niche as well. That little discovery makes “Charlie Bartlett” more unique than your standard coming-of-age film. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news? “Bartlett” doesn’t seem to know what it wishes to be instead, aimlessly bouncing between excessive cuteness and wannabe melodrama while touching on big themes (teen suicide, to name one) before backing off and sweeping them under a rug of neat resolutions. There’s a cohesive narrative running through the film, and it’s clever enough to keep you tuned in, but following that story to its conclusion means wading through a mess of unsorted emotions and some seriously polarizing characters. Some will love how odd “Bartlett’s” cast is. More, most likely, will view them as obnoxious poster children for the entitlement generation. If you fall into the latter camp, witnessing the fruits of Charlie’s wild labor might feel more like an obligation to finish what you started than genuine entertainment.
Extras: Three commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.