Games 8/20/08: New International Track & Field, Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed

New International Track & Field
For: Nintendo DS
From: Sumo Digital/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, comic mischief, language, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes)

Eurocom’s multifaceted fumbling of the official Beijing Olympics video game is a sore disappointment for anyone waiting patiently for a contemporary evolution of Konami’s classic “Track & Field” arcade game.

Fortunately, Konami itself and Sumo Digital have rather stealthily produced a scratch for the itch by doing for the small screen what “Beijing 2008” utterly failed to do for the big one. For all “New International Track & Field” lacks, including next-generation graphics and any ties to the Beijing games, it masterfully embodies the addictive qualities that made the original game such a cult favorite.

For starters, how about this: “Field” includes 24 events and, despite diving headfirst into the potentially disastrous medium of touch screen controls, nails all 24. Sumo smartly gives players the option to use either the touch screen or simply press buttons, and it even more intelligently allows players to employ a mix of the two that often works brilliantly. Despite a wide range of event types — per series tradition, “Field” includes events from all corners of the summer games, not just track and field — most events’ control schemes will make sense after one glance at the tutorial. Only the pole vault, perhaps, requires a few secondary looks before it clicks.

“Field” also hits the difficulty nail on the head: Attaining respectable scores isn’t hard with even a minimal amount of practice, but breaking world records and taking on the online leaderboards will take practice, experimentation, and a level of mastery only a true “Track & Field” addict can conjure. Fortunately (maybe), “Field” makes it easy for obsessive players to keep retrying selected events until that sweet spot is found. No attempt is in vein: The game tracks personal and world records, and rewards you with play credits, no matter what mode you’re in.

The point about credits is worth noting, because “Field” is an unlockable junkie’s paradise. You can unlock new costumes for the game’s amusing cast of big-headed, cartoony athletes, and the truly dedicated eventually will be able to compete as classic Konami characters (Frogger, Solid Snake, Simon Belmont and others) in special events designed around those characters.

With so much to do and numerous (solo, four-player single-card multiplayer, full online support) ways to do it, “Field” fulfills and exceeds any reasonable gamer’s checklist for what a modern Olympics game should have. That it plays so well certainly doesn’t hurt, either. If you can live without the Beijing branding — and “Field’s” personality makes quite a case for not needing it — there is no reason not to snap this one up.


For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Number None/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, cartoon violence)

The summer of 2008 will be remembered by some gamers as the first season in which downloadable games were both better and more buzzworthy than the big-budget stuff being sold at the same time in stores.

Perhaps no game symbolizes this shift more than “Braid,” which has garnered plenty of chatter for reasons both good and bad.

For some, the bad begins and ends with the $15 price tag, which makes “Braid” 50 percent more expensive than several recently-released downloadable games of equal or greater value. “Braid” lacks any immediate replayability beyond repeating the single-player adventure for fun or time attack bragging rights, so you’d best love what it does offer if you want a return on your investment.

Happily, the game makes a heck of a case for doing just that.

At first glance, “Braid” resembles a side-scrolling action game in the “Super Mario Bros.” vein. As Tim, your basic course of action consists of running from left to right and jumping on the bad guys, much as Mario did once upon a time. Refreshingly, “Braid” overtly acknowledges the connection through a handful of clever winks that also lend levity to a somber (and arguably excessively pretentious) storyline.

Ultimately, though, the nods to “Mario,” as well as the storyline and even “Braid’s” awesome living watercolor graphics, play second fiddle to the game’s real meat, which is time manipulation.

In each of “Braid’s” five primary levels exist 12 puzzle pieces, as well as a trick related to time control. In one level, for instance, you can rewind time simply by holding the X button. In another, walking to the right moves time forward while walking to the left rewinds it. To collect all 60 pieces — which, it bears noting, is the only way to see the conniving final wrinkle in “Braid’s” story — means to master each of these time tricks and either employ or overcome them and solve the riddles populating each of the levels.

If that sounds daunting, guess what? It is — but only to a degree. Some of “Braid’s” challenges seem impossible at first glance, but patience and experimentation reveal some ingenious cause-and-effect design at work. “Braid” absolutely possesses the ability to frustrate the easily frustrated, but the expert degree to which it combines classic action and an entirely original brand of intellectual adventure puts it in a class all its own. If four to six hours of that kind of bliss are worth 15 of your dollars, questions of “Braid’s” value aren’t necessary after all.


Downloadable game of the week

Bionic Commando Rearmed
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network, Xbox 360 Live Arcade, PC
From: GRIN/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, language, violence)
Price: $10 on PS3/Xbox 360, $15 on PC

Don’t let those newfangled good looks fool you: Despite a major graphical overhaul that makes it one of the prettiest 2D games ever to pass eyes, “Bionic Commando Rearmed” is extremely and sometimes maddeningly faithful to the 1988 NES game upon which it’s based. Little beneath the exterior has changed: It’s still a sidescrolling action/shooting game, and you still employ a grappling arm instead of a jump button to get around. The levels return mostly unchanged, and the awful storyline is now an amusing point of pride rather than the product of a bad Japanese-to-English translation. Most notably, and despite numerous advances in the realm of controller engineering, “Rearmed” brings back the once-necessary, now-archaic control scheme that made “Commando” unique in the first place. That’ll be music to purists’ ears, but those unfamiliar with the original game’s eccentricities will find “Rearmed’s” stiff and sometimes cheap design choices to be an acquired taste they may not wish to acquire. (A demo is available for both consoles if you’re unsure.) For those on board, “Rearmed’s” price of entry is a steal: On top of remaking the original game, GRIN throws in local four-multiplayer and, for the truly devoted, a horde of brutal challenge rooms that will test the very best (and, through leaderboard support, let the world know just who those people are).

DVD 8/19/08: The Life Before Her Eyes, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles S1, Quid Pro Quo, Street Kings, Deal

The Life Before Her Eyes (R, 2008, Magnolia)
“The Life Before Her Eyes” is the story of Diana — both as a seemingly invincible high school student (Evan Rachel Wood) who can’t wait for the rest of her life to begin, and as a considerably more vulnerable adult (Uma Thurman) who, 15 years later, remains haunted by an event that permanently altered the course of that life. What that event is won’t be spoiled here, even if the film’s marketing materials give it away too freely. The impact is that much more pronounced if you know nothing going in, but either way, “Eyes” offers a powerful new perspective on a storytelling device that has become increasingly formulaic over recent time. “Eyes” illustrates Diana’s story on three separate chronological tracks, jumping rather sensibly between her life before the event, her life beyond it, and, most infrequently, the few long moments in which the event is actually happening. The device works beautifully, even if “Eyes” feels excessively and almost cruelly downbeat during some of Thurman’s scenes. That moodiness is validated once the complete truth of story reveals itself, and it never overstays its welcome before the film jerks you back into the present and continues the dark, scary march toward that single scene’s conclusion. When that moment finally reaches its end, the payoff is immense. “Eyes'” final wrinkle is brilliant even if you see it coming, and it ranks among the best of the year if you don’t — especially when you realize the answer was in front of you the entire time.
Extras: Director/production designer commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, audition footage, two behind-the-scenes features (that’ll make sense after you see the movie … maybe).

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, Warner Bros.)
Apprehensive? That’s understandable. Because really, who needs an entire television series based on a franchise that already overstayed its welcome by the end of its third film? Fortunately, “Terminator’s” fascination with time travel gives it the freedom it needs to freshen itself back up, and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” takes full advantage of the gift and does exactly that. Artistically, “Chronicles” goes the “Battlestar Galactica” route — a little self-serious and borderline pretentious at times, but gifted with a contemporary vision, surprisingly good character reinvention and development, and a story that both goes places and connects all those dots we’d mostly only heard about in the films. Whether “Chronicles” has legs for a long run remain somewhat questionable, and the show isn’t immune to problem spots, including some “robot in the real world” humor that even Vicki the Robot from “Small Wonder” would find lame. But given how messy “Chronicles” could have been — see “Terminator 3” and imagine a whole lot more of that — these are minor nitpicks more than real problems. Lena Headey (Sarah Connor), Thomas Dekker (John Connor) and Summer Glau (you’ll see) star.
Contents: Nine episodes, plus commentary, a three-part making-of feature, audition tapes

Quid Pro Quo (R, 2008, Magnolia)
A childhood accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, but radio personality Isaac Knot (Nick Stahl) has taken his injury, and all that it entails, in stride. But even a pragmatic guy like Isaac doesn’t know what to think when a semi-chance encounter lands him in the company of a heretofore-secret group of able-bodied people who not only sympathize with his condition, but wish they could trade places and assume his condition. It practically goes without saying, based on that outline, that “Quid Pro Quo” is an uncommon piece of work. Turns out, the distinctiveness is contagious, reaching past the plot and infecting the entire film with a strange mood that’s partially erotic and just as equally unsettling. Much as Isaac has stumbled upon an entire world he didn’t even knew existed, so have we, and if “Quo” excels at any one thing, it’s pulling the viewer close while constantly providing subtle reminders that the mood could turn on a dime at almost any time. Whether one likes “Quo” may come down to how much one likes its characters, but the strong reaction it commands — whether it be one of intense interest or intense disdain — makes it a hard film to forget no matter which side you take.
Extras: Deleted scenes, audition footage, an excerpt from the documentary “Whole,” storyboards, tulip montage (really, this is not a joke).

Street Kings (R, 2008, Fox)
Dumb movies aren’t always bad movies as long as something worth seeing is going on. Case in point: “Street Kings,” which is an extraordinarily dumb film about potentially slimy cops (Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Jay Mohr) who, while sorting out a mess that could bring the department down, say extraordinarily dumb things. Presumably, “Kings'” dialogue is meant to provide a layer of wit to a story that presumably doubles as some sort of sharp social commentary. It doesn’t, and not just because the story is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. But that’s OK. “Kings” is silly, but it’s a high-octane kind of silly that, predictable conclusion aside, entertains at a consistent clip right up to and past the ending. Your intelligence might be insulted and your eyes may roll, but if you’re hungry for some mindless entertainment that absolutely aims to please, you probably won’t be bored. Terry Crews, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Naomie Harris, Common and The Game also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), alternate takes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Deal (PG-13, 2008, MGM)
The Texas Hold ’em Hollywood cash cow gravy train is officially running on vapors with the release of “Deal,” a film about a washed-up, not-quite poker legend (Burt Reynolds) who flirts with his demons after taking a rising star (Bret Harrison) under his wing. If that sounds at all familiar, it’s because the plot of “Deal” is one of approximately three possible plot outlines for the glut of poker films that have spawned over the last four years. Sure enough, “Deal” also flashes some shameless product placement while trotting out the usual crop of poker stars for their awkward cameos. And yet, so much formula aside, “Deal” actually isn’t such a bad little film. Reynolds is fun to watch in spite of the creative restrictions cast upon his character, and the film avoids the impossibly fantastical poker scenarios that so many of its peers cluelessly dole out. Certain segments, in fact, are downright technical, and casual but hungry fans of the game might stand to learn a thing or two. But while “Deal” tells the same old story with more reverence than most, it’s still telling the same old story. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and invigorate a fast-fading genre, you’ll still be waiting when this one ends. Shannon Elizabeth, Maria Mason and Jennifer Tilly also star.
Extras: Poker tips feature.

Games 8/13/08: SoulCalibur IV, PixelJunk Eden

SoulCalibur IV
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, partial nudity, sexual themes, violence)

The recent rerelease of the original “SoulCalibur” as a downloadable game not only provided fighting game fans with some well-aged nostalgia, but also reminded them just how much the series has changed in 10 years’ time.

For those who give those changes two big thumbs down, “SoulCalibur IV” provides no comfort. Gaudily designed characters look more garish than ever (and, in the case of female fighters, disproportionate to a sometimes embarrassing degree). The ability to destroy your opponent’s outfit is one of the gimmicky hallmarks of the game’s polished and pretty fighting engine — believe it or not, there’s a strategic element to it — and Namco Bandai’s artists hammer that nail home by going nuts in the area of costume design.

“SC4” also advances the series’ continued reliance on gimmicky guest characters, with no less than Yoda (Xbox 360), Darth Vader (PS3) and Vader’s Sith apprentice (both) making star turns. That’s fabulous news to “Star Wars” fans, but it also accentuates the franchise’s problem with balancing character strengths and weaknesses. If you thought Link was overpowering in “SoulCalibur II,” wait until you see the havoc this threesome can wreak.

Again, though, these are problems only if you want “SC4” to be the straight-laced fighter its great-grandfather was. Namco Bandai feels differently, and to its credit, the series has found its niche as a weapons-based fighting game both casual and serious players can feasibly enjoy. “SC4’s” fighting science can’t approach “Virtua Fighter’s” level, but those who wish to master its intricacies will be rewarded, just as those who’d rather mash buttons will be entertained in their own way.

For those won over by the gameplay, little about “SC4’s” feature set should disappoint. The game’s character creation tool, though confusing at first, is surprisingly robust, and the degree to which you can enhance fighters with unlockable items and abilities provides more than enough compensation for the fighting engine’s shortcomings. Just in case the employment of weapons didn’t give the “SoulCalibur” brand enough distinction, this puts it over the top.

To no surprise, “SC4” also introduces online play to the series, and it does so without incident or issue. A tournament option of some kind would have been nice, but nothing beyond two-player support is included. As per series tradition, the game’s focus remains on single-player content, and the wealth of unlockables — along with the inclusion of three separate single-player modes — does that custom proud.


PixelJunk Eden
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

Serenity and hair-chewing madness collide in unprecedented ways in “PixelJunk Eden,” a game so completely in its own world that downloading the demo is probably the only way to even remotely understand it. The object of “Eden” is to restore Eden, which you do by collecting Spectra, which you get by swinging and leaping between plants that you grow by utilizing pollen, which you collect by defeating enemies. Huh? Absurd though it sounds on paper, “Eden” captivates — in part due to its minimalist, vector art-laden visual style, but also because it’s so uncompromisingly different in its approach to gameplay. “Eden’s” objectives make sense once you start playing, but the unconventional control scheme, floaty physics and rather unforgiving approach to level design and progress indication will take longer to appreciate — if you even can appreciate them at all. The easily frustrated will not: “Eden’s” relaxing exterior belies how maddeningly (and sometimes unfairly) difficult it can be even early on, and those without saintly levels of patience should just avoid this one altogether. Q-Games’ latest is addictive, original and refreshingly stubborn, but only if you take the time to understand its philosophy and forget, at least temporarily, everything you know about game design’s status quo.

DVD 8/12/08: Smart People, Wide Awake, Jane Goodall's When Animals Talk, Bra Boys, Watching the Detectives, Kenny vs. Spenny V1, The Wire S5, South Park S11

Smart People (R, 2008, Miramax)
“Smart People” is, put succinctly, a coming-of-age film about a handful of people who, one exception (Ellen Page as Vanessa Wetherhold) aside, probably should have come of age quite a while ago. The plot isn’t so much a plot as it is a chunk of days in lives (Dennis Quaid as college professor Lawrence Wetherhold, Thomas Haden Church as his brother, Sarah Jessica Parker as one of his many, mostly unsatisfied former students) already in progress. Translation: It isn’t a story for everyone, and perhaps not worthy to some as being called a story at all. Similar words could be said about “People’s” sense of humor, which takes the word “dry” to new frontiers. That, of course, is only when the film actually has a sense of humor, which isn’t always and becomes increasingly occasional as the characters push ahead. So here’s the bad news: If you came here looking for another “Sideways” from the people who brought you “Sideways,” you might be disappointed by what you get instead. The good news is that when “People” wants to be funny, it often genuinely is, and when it tries to be sincere, it succeeds similarly and never at cost to a script that is, unlike the characters acting it out, very smart indeed. Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti and Camille Mana also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, bloopers.

Wide Awake (NR, 2007, Genius Entertainment)
In the last six months, two films have attempted to commercialize anesthesia awareness, a horrifying (and real) scenario in which a patient remains awake and cognizant of pain but unable to move or speak during surgery. The Hollywood version, “Awake,” was a decently entertaining but mostly blundering mess, and a shallow glance at the cover of the similarly-named “Wide Awake” might lead one to assume this is the Asian equivalent or inspiration. Thankfully, that assumption dies a quick death during “Wide Awake’s” very first scene, which is followed by an equally vicious second scene and a good handful more thereafter. Even with that said, “Wide Awake” is measurably less exploitative than “Awake,” eschewing that film’s dopey twists in favor of a smart, lean and genuinely tense mystery that spans 25 year but never feels excessively unwieldy. “Wide Awake’s” storytelling prowess is such, in fact, that it almost makes you forget about the horror of its opening scene. Rest assured (or not), though: Such relief not only is temporary, but prone to disappearing without warning. Unless you just received a clean bill of health from your doctor and won’t need to be near any hospitals anytime soon, proceed with caution. In Korean with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, interviews.

Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk (NR, 2008, Animal Planet)
The notion that animals know more than we give them credit for isn’t exactly cult science anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to stand amazed at just how much they really do understand. And amaze animals do in “Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk,” which argues the merits of listening to animals and backs it up with some extremely convincing examples. “Talk” has an occasional tendency to preach its overlying message more than it needs to, and the way it seems to repeat itself between segments is a bit odd, but these are nitpicks. Once it settles into a story — be it about dogs who can sense cancer, parrots with psychic abilities or rats uncovering landmines without putting themselves in any kind of danger — it can’t help but drop jaws simply by illustrating the stories it’s telling. And for every story that amazes or amuses, there’s one that inspires, be it about pets who help kids learn to read or the rescue dogs who changed the face of the post-Sept. 11 recovery effort. “Talk’s” job couldn’t be easier, because these stories practically tell themselves, but that doesn’t make it any less exceptional of a viewing experience. No extras.

Bra Boys (R, 2007, Berkela Films)
Ever have one of those friends who, upon recounting some tale of mischief or wrongdoing, seems to omit just a few details that might taint their side of the story? Imagine if that friend instead told the story as a documentary, and you have some idea of what to expect from “Bra Boys,” which recounts the rise and spread of the Australian surf gang (yes, a gang of surfers) of the same name. As entertainment goes, “Boys” is pretty filling: The surf gang war culture is, especially if you had no idea it even existed, a fascinating phenomenon, and “Boys” decorates its story with some engaging firsthand accounts and some amazing (and sometimes graphic) footage. Problem is, the film is primarily the work of Sunny Abberton, who co-writes and co-directs… and also was instrumental in the formation of the gang that inspired this documentary, which more than anything else is about the tribulations of Koby and Jai Abberton. See a problem there? “Boys” doesn’t, and the bias is syrupy thick in favor of the gangs’ purported positive influence on its environment. Fun to watch though “Boys” certainly is, its truths should be taken with a grain of sand. Russell Crowe narrates. No extras.

Watching the Detectives (NR, 2007, Peace Arch)
As the owner of an independent video store, movie buff Neil (Cillian Murphy) sees plenty of excitement. Unfortunately, all of that excitement comes in video form, and any attempts to create some real-life thrills fall embarrassingly short. Enter Violet (Lucy Liu), who seems to have the exact opposite situation and plenty of excitement to pass around. Can Neil handle all that stimulation? More importantly, can you? Even more importantly, should you? Likeable though “Watching the Detectives” initially and semi-consistently is, it lacks a cuteness filter. One weird thing begets another, and once the zaniness starts to pile up, it becomes a bit much to bear. Considering all this weirdness is the movie’s main point of distinction, as well as a device to take the story down a rather predictable romantic comedy road, that’s no small problem to have. Though never wholly grating nor so weird that it cannot be understood, “Detectives” still feels like a lot of excessive wackiness just for the sake of it. By the end, exhaustion — and very possibly irritation depending on your threshold for cute overload — has settled in where gratification should be. No extras.

Kenny vs. Spenny: Volume One Uncensored (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
Clarification-slash-trivia time: “Kenny vs. Spenny: Volume One Uncensored” is, in fact, the fourth season of a show that began life as a cult Canadian hit before Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Comedy Central got their collective hands on it. The premise from those first three seasons remains the same: Best friends Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice challenge each other to ridiculous tests of endurance (who can eat the most meat, who can stay tied to a goat the longest, first guy to stop singing loses), with the loser suffering a humiliation as choreographed by the winner. Kenny cheats, Spenny complains and usually loses, and viewers are treated to the lowest form of television ever to grace Comedy Central. That’s not so much an insult as a statement of near-fact, because there’s no harm in enjoying such unbelievably crass stupidity if you take it for the monumentally guilty pleasure this is. Still, should you fancy such fare, you might wish instead to hunt down the past seasons’ DVDs, all of which were sold in Canada but never in the United States. Season four’s antics push the show to new levels of ridiculousness, but the new episodes also feel considerably more staged than the old ones.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, bonus footage, an unaired bonus competition and deleted scenes.

Worth a Mention
— “The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): The worst thing about the final season of “The Wire?” Given how each season of HBO’s best show somehow managed to outshine the one that came before it, we can only speculate how incredible season six would have been. Season five presents the show one final new target, and it’s a big one. Mass media, your table is ready. Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, a documentary exploring the issues behind the season and a retrospective of the first four seasons.
— “South Park: The Complete Eleventh Season” (NR, 2007, Comedy Central): Meanwhile, the gang from “South Park” takes on such pressing issues as the Easter Bunny and head lice. This set contains the “Imaginationland” episodes, so if you wanted to own those but didn’t want to buy the self-standing “Imaginationland” DVD because you saw it for the double-dipping it was, your wait is over. Contents: 14 episodes, plus mini-commentaries.

DVD 8/5/08: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, Terminal City, Code Monkeys S1, Nim's Island, Queen Sized, I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the '60s, Biography: John McCain, Biography: Barack Obama, Star Trek: The Original Series S2 Remastered, I Love the 80s collection

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PG, 2007, Miriam Collection/Weinstein Company)
There exist plenty of serviceable biographical documentaries, which chronicle the life, times and contributions of the subject at hand and illustrate history through archival footage, photos and interviews with those who know him or her best and famous faces for whom he or she served as a primary influence. “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” does all of these things, does them perfectly well, and, at least in the early going, seems content to do no more. Fortunately, Seeger’s multiple existences — folk singer, activist, suspected Commie traitor, Wall Street Journal subscriber, revolutionary musician — compel the story of his life to reach past convention, and “Song” sharply rises to the occasion after the table is set and acquaintances are made. What follows is a magnificent story about an exercise in free expression, the ironic wrath it brought forth, and how a seemingly simple folk singer inadvertently hoodwinked some very powerful detractors into accidentally reigniting the movement they foolishly tried so hard to suppress. “Song” is primarily a movie for people who love music, but it is just as much a film for those fascinated by American history — and the people who, even today, haven’t learned the lessons it tries to teach us.
Extras: Five short films from the Seeger family, deleted scenes.

Terminal City: The Complete Series (NR, 2005, Koch Vision)
Talk about your busy days. Within minutes of receiving confirmation that she has breast cancer, Katie Sampson (Maria del Mar) stumbles uninvited into the lens of a reality show that happens to be filming at the same hospital. As it happens, the camera loves her, and almost overnight, Katie has to simultaneously reconcile the effects of an unprecedented scare and a similarly unprecedented opportunity. The narrow, high-concept premise of “Terminal City” seems better suited for a film than a television series. As always, though, a good cast of characters sustains even the most acute of gimmicks, and between Katie’s family, Katie’s partners in television and most certainly Katie herself, this one isn’t hurting at all in that department. “City” cannot quite decide whether it wants most to be a quirky slice of life, a straight-faced family drama, a serious look at the realities of living with cancer, something in between or something else completely. Fortunately, the show balances its multiple desires with enough care so as to give each of its personalities plenty of ground to cover. What was that again about “City” not having enough material to sustain itself as a series? Never mind. If anything, with only 10 episodes to its name, “City” leaves long before it could ever overstay its welcome. Contents: 10 episodes, plus cast/crew interviews.

Code Monkeys: Season One (NR, 2007, Shout Factory)
“Code Monkeys” is a show about a video game about a group of people who make video games. Confused? Don’t be. It’s pretty easy to understand once you see it in action, and you can ignore the game-within-a-show gimmick and just focus on the characters if you’re still confused and so wish to do so. Problem is, with the gimmickry stripped away, “Monkeys” is just an animated sitcom about an upstart video game company in the early 1980s, and it’s a rather stupid one at that. The characters, though likeable, are pretty one-dimensional, and the jokes rarely reach beyond bathroom humor and sight gags. “Monkeys'” real genius lives and dies with that gimmick, which gifts the show with a dense trove of obscure references and nods aimed at anyone who played the games of that era. For every lame joke “Monkeys” trots out, there sit at least two or three winks ready to compensate. That, along with the nifty pixelated visual style straight out of the Atari 2600/Nintendo Entertainment System era, transforms what should be a completely forgettable show into a strange treat gaming fans would do right to check out.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus behind-the-scenes feature, gaming tips, daily pranks feature, DVD-ROM content (“Monkeys”-inspired games, wallpaper and downloadable posters).

Nim’s Island (PG, 2008, Fox)
For as long as she’s been alive, Nim (Abigail Breslin) and her scientist dad (Gerard Butler) have held court almost exclusively on their own private island. That is, until a series of strange but disconnected events finds Dad lost at sea and Nim unexpectedly charged with protecting the land from an invading force while simultaneously enlisting the help of an adventure writer (Jodie Foster) who isn’t nearly the person she (or, for all Nim assumes, he) seems to be in print. Huh? Don’t worry: It makes more sense on film than on paper, and the result isn’t half bad, either. Say this for “Nim’s Island:” It’s an adventure film aimed at kids and families that relies on actual human characters with personalities instead of the mind-mushing computer-generated visual excess that seems presently to be the unfortunate norm. The busy story is flawed from top to bottom — mainly thanks to the strange pacing and stacking of major plot events, but in no small part due to repeated misguided attempts to entrust Foster with comic relief duties. But even when she utterly fails at comedy, Foster’s character is likeable. Same goes for Nim, even when in full brat mode, and Dad, who keeps the film glued together despite never being the main attraction. When your three main characters are worth rooting for, something must be working, right?
Extras: Breslin/Foster commentary, writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, PSAs.

Queen Sized (NR, 2008, Lifetime/Anchor Bay)
When fat girl Maggie Baker (Nikki Blonsky) finds herself nominated for Homecoming Queen as a prank by some girls from the popular crowd, she sees it as just another cruel prank to ignore. Her friends and supporters, however, see it differently — specifically, as an opportunity to rouse up the disenchanted, win the election and shame the pretty crowd. This should be fun … right? No? Too bad. “Queen Sized” purports to be based on a true story, so some loyalty to source material is to be expected. But no amount of loyalty can justify “Sized’s” need to constantly lead the viewer around by the nose, telegraphing every plot turn and transparently laying bare every character’s simplistic motivation in case you can spell it out yourself. Given the storyline, which is both singular in dimension but ripe for irony, “Sized” had every opportunity in the world to develop a subversive or wicked streak that wouldn’t have interfered with its desire to be likeable. Sadly, it never comes close to doing so, instead resorting to painful levels of overacting, excess mugging, repetitive storytelling devices and pages of “This is how I’m feeling in case you can’t tell” dialogue. Ultimately, what should have been a riotously fun message movie feels instead like something carefully prepared for stupid people or folks who have never seen a movie before. If you’ve managed to read this far, that isn’t you, so keep reading. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ’60s” (NR, 2008, Shout Factory): The latest thing of beauty from Shout Factory compiles three James Brown concerts, including the legendary Boston Garden show that took place one day after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Also included in this three-disc set: The VH1 documentary “The Night James Brown Saved Boston.” Extras include bonus documentary interview footage, a panel discussion from the film’s premiere, and bonus Brown performances and audio.
— “Biography: John McCain” and “Biography: Barack Obama” (NR, 2008, A&E): Each DVD, sold separately, contains the respective candidate’s 47-minute “Biography” episode, but nothing else. It’s a shame the two episodes weren’t bundled together on a single, bipartisan and far more compelling disc.
— “Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Two: Remastered Edition” (NR, 1967, Paramount): In space, no one can hear you complain that you bought inferior versions of these “Star Trek” seasons just a few years ago. Contains 26 remastered episodes, plus home movies, episodes from both “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and four collectable data cards.
— “I Love the 80s” collection (PG/PG-13, 1984-87, Paramount): Don’t get too excited: Beyond the cheesy new packaging, there’s little compelling about the latest DVD go-rounds for “Footloose,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Top Gun” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Each is sold separately rather than in box set form, and only the last two on that list sport anything in the way of special features. Considering each of these films is available in more feature-rich iterations, it’s hard to understand who is supposed to want these versions.

Games 8/6/08: Order Up!, Beijing 2008, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Order Up!
For: Nintendo Wii
From: SuperVillain Studios/Zoo Games

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Were it not for “Cooking Mama,” we wouldn’t be talking about “Order Up!” today. “Mama” made the cooking video game the unlikely phenomenon it somehow became, and “Up’s” core gameplay bears more than a passing resemblance.

But rather than merely hijack a ride on the money train, “Up” does what knockoffs should but rarely do: It contributes to the genre in ways that make sense, and it vastly outclasses the game that inspired its creation in the first place.

As with “Mama,” the core gameplay in “Up” centers around preparing food — flipping this, dicing that, sautéing the other thing and so on. Each recipe features a handful of steps to complete and ingredients to prepare, and you accomplish the various actions by mimicking them with the Wii remote.

But while “Mama” squares its focus on food preparation, “Up” unleashes an entire restaurant simulation that gives the gameplay a major injection of context and purpose. The storyline in “Up” stars you as a nobody chef with dreams of owning a five-star restaurant, and you work toward that end by opening a diner, building a reputation, keeping customers happy and funding everything from equipment upgrades to new restaurant ventures with the money you collect.

Everything ties back to your performance in the kitchen, but “Up” gives you enough freedom to stave off the inevitable repetition of preparing familiar recipes for a familiar cast of customers. You can order special ingredients from out of town, visit the black market for some rare recipe alternatives, and purchase and mix a surprisingly high variety of spices in whatever configuration you please in hopes of dazzling your clientele. “Up” even lets you hire assistants to share the load when balancing multiple orders. Managing your kitchen so that all meals go out hot and on time proves to be a surprisingly engaging challenge, and the way the story rewards you for a job well done is immensely satisfying.

“Up” endears itself further with a flat-shaded visual approach that masks the Wii’s graphical shortcomings while scoring some style points on the side. The game’s sense of humor is pretty sharp as well: How many other Wii games feature spot-on humor about income tax withholding, to name one example?

“Up’s” only major shortcoming, considering the system it’s on, is the complete lack of multiplayer. It doesn’t really need any — the single-player component provides plenty of value — but it’s worth noting for those who care.


Beijing 2008
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Eurocom/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Twenty five years ago, a little arcade gem called “Track & Field” established the norm for what gamers could expect from Olympic-themed video games, ushering in a control scheme — mash buttons rapidly and repeatedly to make athletes go faster — that polarized gamers but also made sense given the context.

The trouble with “Beijing 2008” isn’t its refusal to revolutionize the formula. The scheme still makes sense, and as last year’s “Track & Field” revival on Xbox Live Arcade demonstrated, it remains viably entertaining if done right.

If done right.

Unfortunately, “Beijing” succumbs to temptation to tinker, and not intelligently.

Take, for instance, the start of most race events. Rather than mash buttons the instant the starter pistol fires, you must first massage one of the trigger buttons until a meter nearly but not quite fills up. Once the pistol fires, you must finish filling the meter, switch over to the race controls, and scramble to catch up to the other runners or swimmers who all had perfect jumps off the blocks. “Beijing’s” A.I. is pretty merciless, and convoluted steps like these, in events decided by fractions of seconds, only serve to put you at a greater disadvantage.

The ill-fitting controls get little help from “Beijing’s” vague documentation and tutorials, many of which simply pile on the confusion. Don’t be surprised if, during certain events, you follow the directions, execute, and still foul or fail for no clear reason. Often, the best way to figure events out and not get absolutely buried by the competition is through lots of unsatisfying trial and error. Unfortunately, “Beijing” is so finicky and demanding that by the time you get it down, your fingers are too tired and cramped to perform at the level the game demands. Sound like fun yet?

The sheer labor of playing “Beijing” is disappointing given all it does right. The game looks nice, supports online (eight players) and offline multiplayer (four), and features an appealing array of modes for pursuing personal bests and experiencing the surprisingly large (38) roster of events, which include everything from track to kayaking to judo to archery.

Unfortunately, the six events “Track & Field” trots out on Xbox Live are more intuitive and more fun than their contemporary counterparts. Gaming masochists will find strange pleasure in mastering “Beijing,” but if you need an Olympic fix and don’t wish to destroy your fingers to get it, the original remains — for another four years — the way to go.


Downloadable Game of the Week

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Bizarre Creations/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 MS Points

For the early adopters who embraced the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade service at launch, the reward — “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved,” a gorgeous, addictive space shooter that reimagined a mix of “Robotron” and “Asteroids” and set gamers back a mere $5 — was immediate. “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2” doubles the price of admission, but it’s worth it: In addition to the mode that constituted the whole of the first game, “GW:RE2” features five additional modes that emphasize such skills as evasion (Pacifism), time management (Deadline), poise under pressure (Waves), pattern memorization (Sequence) and forward planning (the brilliant, territorial-minded King). Those intimidated by the first game’s difficulty won’t find much solace here, but “GW:RE2” makes smart tweaks that allow novices to attain insane score multipliers without dumbing the experience down for seasoned players. If all else fails, you can enlist the help of friends in the new four-player co-op mode. Just make sure they’re within shouting distance: Fun though “GW:RE2’s” versus and co-op multiplayer modes are, they’re available offline only. Your interaction with online friends is, at least until next time, limited to pursuing their scores on the leaderboard.

Games 7/30/08: Siren: Blood Curse, Space Chimps, Roogoo

Siren: Blood Curse
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

It takes little imagination to understand why games like “Resident Evil 4” and “Condemned” are popular. They’ve injected the horror genre with the kind of pick-up-and-play gameplay normally reserved for shooters, and with fantastic results.

Problem is, accessibility isn’t very scary. And until that somehow changes, there will always be a need for a game like “Siren: Blood Curse,” which embraces uncompromising design with a suffocating, brilliant enthusiasm that should thrill those with the stomach to handle it.

Available by download only and pieced out like a television show ($15 for a four-episode pack or $40 for all 12 at once), “Curse” reboots the “Siren” series by revisiting the original PS2 game, sprucing it up, remixing the story and adding concessions (most notably, clearer objectives and a map that illustrates them) to make it somewhat more palatable to a wider audience.

Again, though, don’t confuse that for accessibility. While “Curse” won’t remind you of the original “Resident Evil” in terms of control setup, the loose controls it does incorporate, along with a camera that’s far more hamstrung than most modern games allow, means you’ll struggle with things you typically can take for granted. Your visibility options are further crippled by the game’s extravagant use of darkness and fog — an old trick, but one that still works if done right.

Some will argue that such devices are the product of sloppy programming rather than design. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. “Curse’s” bread and butter is a mix of stealth and horror, and the partial (but never total) helplessness these elements bring forth is what makes the game such an unnerving experience. Though many situations put you in a position to fight back, just as many force you to tread quietly and run like hell if you tip off your presence. During those scenarios, “Curse” is tense to the point of panic-inducing and genuinely scary. Stumbling through the grainy darkness with a sure-footed enemy on your tail as a checkpoint lingers mere yards away is what horror games used to always be about, and it’s a sensation “Curse” recaptures with amazing conviction.

With those points in mind, “Curse” isn’t for all. The episodic style makes it easy to digest the game in small bites and piece it out, but it also makes it easy to feel squeamish and head for the exit when one scary episode ends and another lingers. Enter at your own risk: Something very special lurks inside, but only the angelically patient and strong at heart need apply.


Space Chimps
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii and Playstation 2
From: Redtribe/Brash Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, crude humor, language, mild fantasy violence)

It’s been both interesting and disappointing to follow the emergence of Brash Entertainment, which promised to elevate the image of movie-based games but thus far has simply advanced perceptions that movie-licensed titles are the black sheep of the gaming family.

For whatever it’s worth, “Space Chimps” is the publisher’s best work to date, showing flashes of ingenuity that occasionally put it in the same ballpark (though never the same aisle) as the Mario- and Crash Bandicoot-fronted games it tries to emulate. “Chimps” isn’t afraid to switch gears between puzzle solving, combat, platforming and a few faster-paced challenges that send you grinding down rails or careening down a river, and the best of these challenges are legitimately fun and executed well.

Problem is, “Chimps” also displays flashes of rushed development, and not just a few. For every sequence Redtribe executes without incident, there’s another that’s hamstrung by inconsistent design, a camera that goes haywire or some other technical hang-up that causes you to miss jumps you should be able to complete with eyes closed. An extremely forgiving difficulty curve means you’ll get around these issues with minimal persistence, but watching a clever action sequence come undone by issues the developers were able to avoid during other parts of the game is nonetheless disappointing.

Additionally, the weakest aspect of “Chimps” — bland hand-to-hand combat against equally bland enemies — appears in greater abundance than any other aspect of the game. Nothing about the combat is broken, but nothing about it is particularly fun, either. Just mash the button, move to the next enemy and repeat.

But the biggest problem “Chimps” has remains the biggest issue with Brash’s portfolio overall: It ends far too soon. The single-player adventure will take players of reasonable ability little more than three hours to finish, and it doesn’t really command a return visit unless you enjoy collecting hidden items or trying to pass the levels in time attack mode. A two-player (offline only) mini-game mode offers some additional entertainment, but certainly not enough to quell any feelings of buyer’s remorse.

Were “Chimps” a budget title, the short length would be exponentially more forgivable, but it retails for $50 on the 360 and Wii and $30 on the Playstation 2. Value propositions like that are why we have game rentals and quick price drops, and until Brash understands that, those are the only options you should consider.


Downloadable game of the week

For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: SpiderMonk Entertainment/SouthPeak Games
Coming soon to retail for: Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

If ever a video game will teach you not to judge it by its cover, “Roogoo” is it. The object of the game is to match falling shapes — cylinders, cubes, stars and so on — with holes of the same shape. If that recalls images of the square-peg-in-round-hole toy babies play with, guess what? That’s exactly what “Roogoo” looks like, and during the ridiculously easy opening batch of levels, it’s also how the game plays. Fortunately, those lulled into false security by “Roogoo’s” pleasantly colorful look and unpleasantly easy first impression will do so at their own peril. Once acquaintances are made, the game wastes little time tweaking, remixing and piling onto the initial concept, and the challenge ramps up considerably — albeit entirely fairly — in a short amount of time. The concept proves surprisingly viable for a puzzle game concept, and you’ll likely never look at that silly toy quite the same way again. “Roogoo” ships with 45 single-player levels, which is a solid amount for the price, and those who want to throw virtual baby toy parties can enjoy the four-player multiplayer (local or online), which plays the same but employs the usual multiplayer puzzle game tricks.

DVD 7/29/08: Surfwise, Rolling Stones: Shine a Light, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, Barrio, Parking Wars BOS1, Doomsday

Surfwise (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Contrary to what the title, DVD art and pastimes of just about everyone who plays a principle role in the film imply, “Surfwise” is not a documentary about surfing. It isn’t even really about suffers. Rather, it’s about a dad (Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz), the lifestyle philosophy he embraces, the woman he marries, the nine children they produce together, and the consequences that philosophy has on a family full of kids who existed outside of the system and the boundaries of what most would consider a normal upbringing. Were “Surfwise” simply a document of Doc’s lifestyle and approach to family-rearing, as most of the film’s first half is, it would have been a perfectly engaging piece of insightful entertainment. But when the shift turns to the kids, now grown, and the various effects that upbringing had on each, “Surfwise” enters an entirely new plane of must-see filmmaking. Every single Paskowitz who graces the screen — patriarch, matriarch, children, siblings, in-laws — has a couple cents to share, and the diversity and conviction of those opinions, as well as which side you take in the end, will keep you thinking and talking about “Surfwise” long after it ends.
Extras: Filmmaker/Salvador Paskowitz commentary, outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature, Surfers Healing PSA.

Rolling Stones: Shine a Light (PG-13, 2008, Paramount)
As is the case with most concert films, there’s little use in reviewing “Shine a Light,” which captures the Rolling Stones on stage through the eyes of one Martin Scorsese. If you like the Stones — or more accurately, if you’ve ever experienced them on stage and understand the full might of what that experience entails — “Light” almost certainly will touch the right nerves. It’s a bounty of gorgeous cinematography given the limitations of the genre, and in case this doesn’t go without saying, it sounds pristine. Though preceded by a brief look behind the scenes and punctuated by various clips from the band’s past, “Light” overwhelmingly keeps the camera trained on the stage. The lack of backstage material once the show starts is an arguable point of contention, and Stones fans of different stripes will inevitably lament the omission of one song or another from the set list. That said, the Stones haven’t lasted this long by putting on so-so shows, and “Light’s” ability to illustrate this in spite of the unavoidable disconnect enforced by the medium is, overwhelmingly, its greatest asset. Forgettable songs from the Stones’ recent catalog take on new life on stage, while a few selections (namely a beautiful rendition of “As Tears Go By” and a thunderous cover of “Champagne And Reefer” with Buddy Guy) may have you running back to the store to pick up the soundtrack.
Extras: Four bonus performances (including an awesome rendition of “Paint it Black”), behind-the-scenes feature.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay: Unrated Two-Disc Special Edition (NR, 2008, New Line)
One might assume that the art of making stupid comedies is no art at all. But if that’s the case, why are so many of them so bad, and what in the world is it about “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” that makes it so good? It is, in fact, art in motion — in this case, the ability to reach past cliché, sidestep the usual vat of gross-out comedy devices, and come up with something that’s both incredibly stupid and ingeniously self-aware at the same time. Outside of a few unfortunate slips (including, alarmingly, the film’s very first gag), “HKEFGB” demonstrates an understanding of this art with almost miraculous consistency. Or maybe the writers just got lucky and we’re giving them too much credit. Doesn’t matter. If “Stoner Comedy” was an Academy Award category, “HKEFGB” would be commanding Oscar buzz, and Neil Patrick Harris would be in line for a lifetime achievement award for once again stealing the show as himself. John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garcés, David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas reprise their roles from the first film, and Rob Corddry, Roger Bart and Danneel Harris join the fray.
Extras: In what amounts to one of the more inspired bonus features in DVD lore, the first disc contains a horde of extra scenes and the ability, should you choose, to completely change the story’s direction using those scenes. Also: Theatrical and unrated cuts, two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, one behind-the-scenes feature, digital copy.

Barrio (NR, 1999, Studio Canal/Lions Gate)
Any bored teen or former bored teen can relate to the plight of Rai (Críspulo Cabezas), Javi (Timy Benito) and Manu (Eloi Yebra), who face a hot summer of nothing to do and so much to think about as they seek out signs of life in their working-class Madrid neighborhood. For the most part, that’s all “Barrio” is: Three teens passing time while doing that whole coming-of-age thing teens often do in movies. With one arguably regrettable exception, nothing truly seismic happens to any of the boys. But teen angst, tedium and the threat of a directionless day are a dangerous and entirely resonant combination, and even when nothing presumably is happening, “Barrio” still manages to inspire a sharp sense of curiosity about what will happen next. That’s a credit not only to the film’s ability to capture the moment, but develop its characters in all the right ways. When you shower your cast with the attention “Barrio” gives its chief threesome, heavy plot turns and other contrivances aren’t terribly necessary. And when something big does happen, it’s not necessarily a welcome development, even if it gives you something to talk about after the credits roll. In Spanish with English subtitles. No extras.

Parking Wars: The Best of Season One (NR, 2008, A&E)
The latest reality sensation to hit A&E — which at this point should just change its name or find new words to represent the “A” and “E” — follows the Philadelphia Parking Authority as it issues tickets, breaks out the boot, impounds cars and incurs the wrath and jeers of a not-so-adoring public. Set alternately on the streets and at the impound lot, “Parking Wars” simply rolls camera while the PPA does its job, and the result is what you’d expect: a thankless profession in which no excuse goes unmade and, in the case of the impound lot, no obscenity goes unbleeped. “Wars,” as even the name implies, is a train wreck with zero nutritional value outside the random bit of parking trivia. Fortunately, the producers seem well aware of the fact, inserting ridiculous sound effects and other silly tricks that typically are the domain of a “Saturday Night Live” skit making fun of reality television rather than actual reality television. Cringe-worthy though that may sound, it works for this purpose. “Wars” is trash television under any pretense, and if you’re going to make rubbish, you might as well go all the way and do it with pride. The tongue-in-cheek approach transforms a potential disaster into the arguable guilty pleasure of the season — no small feat given the present reality television landscape.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus 30 minutes of bonus footage.

Doomsday: Unrated (NR/R, 2008, Universal/Rogue)
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: A virus has wreaked havoc on the populace, and affected citizens not lucky enough to make it into walled-off cities of the future have created their own society of cyberpunk savagery and anarchy. A clash between the two societies was inevitable, and so here we are. To be fair, “Doomsday” does a few things differently, most particularly due to a mid-movie twist that significantly changes the landscape and rules of engagement. But when your film never stops moving for nearly two hours, it’s bound to do at least something different. Anyone on the fence about “Doomsday” already can glean that it’s a B-movie paying homage to well-worn concepts. But if you expect something — anything — more than an impenetrable wall of loud noise, mindless action, obnoxiously bad design and painful amounts of screaming, grunting and mugging, now’s the time to put that hope to bed. Despite all that “Doomsday” crams in, no allowance appears to have been made for character, subversion or even a sense of humor, any one of which would have done wonders to break up all that endless noise. As such, the resulting experience feels more like a blaring migraine than the guilty pleasure “Doomsday” should have been.
Extras: Theatrical and unrated cuts, cast/director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.