Games 11/25/08: Need for Speed: Undercover, Animal Crossing: City Folk, Bioshock + Challenge Rooms (PS3)

Need for Speed: Undercover
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: PC, Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Some admired “Need for Speed: ProStreet’s” risky venture into the world of legal street racing and safe driving.

Most did not.

For them, “Need for Speed: Undercover” will mark a step in the right direction, even if it basically is a rushed retreat back to everything — open-world street racing, cop chases and general environmental destruction — that made 2005’s “Most Wanted” one of the series’ best and most beloved entries. If you liked that game, it’s hard to imagine “Undercover” leaving you disappointed.

The downside? With only a year’s time to complete the scramble, “Undercover” is split down the middle in terms of steps forward and backward.

Most problematic this time is an erratic framerate, something no “NFS” game has struggled with this generation. Framerate drops are infrequent and only occur in certain spots on the map, but the drop can be severe when it happens. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the game’s early missions take place around this spot, which will lead to some unfavorable first impressions before faster cars and better environments speed things up considerably.

“Undercover’s” other surprising shortcoming is the on-screen GPS and mini-map, which mostly works but occasionally chokes completely during story-based missions in which the entire city is open. The map inevitably will send you down a bad side street or highway ramp, so be glad you can restart a mission quickly and easily.

Fortunately — and in spite of a goofball story that can’t possibly reconcile why you need to win so many races and destroy so much terrain to complete an undercover sting investigation — “Undercover” hits far more than it misses. The races, which take place on semi-closed tracks that won’t confuse your GPS, are textbook “NFS,” as are the controls and physics, which let you drive far more recklessly than in pretty much any other arcade racing game.

While the addition of role-playing elements is a nice touch — you’ll accrue driving skill stats any time you dominate an event — “Undercover’s” most welcome enhancement is its emphasis on pursuit. The awesome cop chases from “Most Wanted” are back almost verbatim, and “Undercover” tosses in handful of other chase events, including sprints down crowded highways and some cat-and-mouse hunts in which the goal is to total the other driver’s car and bring the driver to justice.

An eight-player cops-and-robbers battle marks the highlight of “Undercover’s” solid online multiplayer offerings. Shamefully, the game offers no split-screen offline multiplayer whatsoever — the latest example of a senseless trend that developers need to undo immediately.


Animal Crossing: City Folk
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you fell madly in love with “Animal Crossing” when it debuted six years ago on the Gamecube, you might want to sit down. Because while Nintendo still loves you and treasures your company, it wants to see other people.

For the uninitiated — which was everyone back in 2002 — the joy of playing “Crossing” is almost impossible to understand until you give it a firsthand whirl. You star as a human character living in a neighborhood full of talking animals, and the purpose of the game, which has no end goal, is to be a good neighbor while earning money to afford a nicer house and all manner of things with which to stock it.

The charm of “Crossing” — which “Animal Crossing: City Folk” unmistakably conveys — is a strange combination of relaxation and purpose. Beautifying your village takes work and there are goals to achieve and items to collect, but with no time constraints or threats of failure, it’s easy to lose yourself in the idyllic ease that the game’s visual design exacerbates.

Of course, if you played “Crossing” on the Gamecube or more recently on the Nintendo DS, you already know this — along with roughly 95 percent of what “Folk” has to offer.

“Crossing’s” concept lends itself to boundless ideas, and the Wii’s cursor-friendly control scheme is explicitly capable of rectifying the interface hiccups that hampered the Gamecube game, but “Folk” barely improves on its predecessors in either respect. The city hub, while certainly a new destination, recycles far too many characters and concepts to justify its status as a chief selling point.

The only solid step forward happens in the game’s online component, which allows you to visit friends’ villages and chat using the speakerphone-like Wii Speak peripheral, which sells separately for $20. Visiting villages also allows animal neighbors and crops to cross-populate, which is a neat touch until you’ve seen all the game has to offer in either category.

But this alone cannot justify the large expanse of time Nintendo has had to improve “Crossing” and take it to new frontiers. Fact is, Nintendo wants to sell Wiis to people who have never even seen, much less owned, a Gamecube, and “Folk” is for them more than it is for those who cared before it was trendy to do so. If “Crossing” is new to you, congratulations: It’s one of the most novel experiences in all of gaming, and those of us waiting to be struck by that same lightning a second time are jealous of the fun you’re about to have.


For: Playstation 3
From: 2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

Arguably the best Xbox 360 and PC game of 2007, “Bioshock” is now one of the best Playstation 3 games of 2008. If you held out or lacked the means to play this a year ago, you’ll be pleased to know the game has aged perfectly well in its ultra-tardy migration to the PS3.

If you followed “Bioshock’s” ascension last year, you likely already know all you need to know regarding the core physical game. The PS3 incarnation neither adds nor removes anything the other versions’ storylines did or did not have, and the lone out-of-box enhancement is a Survivor mode, which simply is an parallel-universe version of the adventure with significantly less ammo and special abilities at your disposal.

Of far greater interest to “Bioshock” fans is the one thing that, sadly, costs extra: challenge rooms. Available as a $10 download on the Playstation Network, the three challenge rooms represent the most drastic influx of content fans of the franchise likely will see until “Bioshock 2” appears.

Fortunately, it’s a great influx that speaks to the flexibility of the core game. While one of the challenges asks you use your wits to rescue a Little Sister from atop a broken Ferris wheel, a second challenge sends you through eight chambers of pain, all weapons blazing, to rescue another. The third challenge — in which you must trick one of the ultra-powerful Big Daddies into accidentally imperiling itself — requires both brains and reflexes.

The polish that made “Bioshock” such a stunner in the first place carries down to the challenge rooms, and the game doles out Playstation trophies for clearing established target times. All three rooms allow a myriad means of accomplishing the task at hand, making it fun to try different ideas and replay the challenges in order to beat your best times.

It’s hard to justify spending $70 for the complete “Bioshock” experience if you already paid to play it last year, but if you’re a “Bioshock” vet who wants solely to check out the rooms, renting the game and buying the rooms isn’t the worst way to go. If you enjoy the rooms in the spirit they’re meant to be enjoyed, you’ll easily get your money’s worth despite essentially renting downloadable content.

And if you’ve never played “Bioshock” before? Read that first paragraph again, grab your keys and head to the nearest game store, because this gem has eluded you for far too long.

DVD 11/25/08: Paris, je t'aime LCE, The Nutty Professor Animated, Orthodox Stance, Hancock, Space Chimps, Meet Dave, 24: Redemption, Colbert Christmas, The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection

Paris, je t’aime: Two-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition (R, 2006, First Look)
Even if “Paris, je t’aime” doesn’t wish to be a complete disaster, it should, at the very least, be a mess. Cobbling together five or six loosely-connected short stories in the space of a single film usually leads to unpleasant results, and “t’aime” crams in 18 — each helmed by a different director and starring a wildly expansive collection of American and European talent — in exactly two hours. Beyond the Paris connection, which takes us to vastly different (and starkly underappreciated) corners of the city, the stories share little in common. A heartbreaking tale of a nanny who spends her workday away from her own child gives way to something straight out of a fever dream. Two shorts enjoy the presence of a narrator, while another contains not a single spoken word. Physical comedy gives way to tragedy, tragedy gives way to sweetness, sweetness gives way to escapism, and none of this is to say anything about the mime, the vampire or the boy with the ridiculous backpack. The only defense for such madness is competence, but “t’aime,” to its extreme credit, leaps miles beyond competence and lands squarely on magnificence. Just about every story is an overwhelming hit for reasons entirely its own. Pleasant surprises continually blossom, and even the wrinkles you see coming often manage to surprise in their method of arrival. Ultimately, the small tales in “t’aime” move and impress more in minutes than most whole films can in hours. If this gem passed you by in theaters and during its first DVD go-round, let this time be the charm.
Extras: Making-of documentary, 18 behind-the-scenes features, storyboards.

The Nutty Professor (PG, 2008, Weinstein Company)
The most inventive thing about this computer-animated reimagining of “The Nutty Professor” is, in fact, the medium, which allows Jerry Lewis to reprise his role 45 years later without his character losing nearly as many steps as his real-life counterpart would have. Storywise, “Professor” basically recycles itself, trotting out a fresh-faced nerd (voiced by Drake Bell) who, just like his renowned grandfather (Lewis), devises a potion that gives him an alter ego capable of landing his dream girl. Once again, there are side effects, and really, you can spell this one out every step of the way. But this “Professor” exists for a generation of eyeballs that haven’t seem Lewis’ original or even Eddie Murphy’s update, and taken on its own merits, it’s surprisingly well-written and gifted with an extremely likeable (and often admirable) group of characters. The animated approach allows “Professor” to go a bit overboard toward the end, but it’s pretty visually impressive, and the characters have long since earned your affections by that point. Perhaps best of all, Lewis doesn’t phone his performance in. Praising an actor for that is akin to throwing a party for a six-year-old who just graduated Kindergarten, but considering all that could have gone wrong with this concept, it’s worth noting nonetheless.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, storyboards.

Orthodox Stance (NR, 2007, Indiepix)
There’s nothing terribly unusual about Jewish boxer and Russian import Dmitriy Salita’s professional boxing aspirations … until you discover (a) Salita observes the Sabbath every week without fail and (b) most fight cards take place during that exact window of time. Is Salita’s talent enough to warrant special circumstances, and just how creative need he and his handlers be to make this career choice make any sense? Sets the table for a pretty novel story, no? It does, and as such, “Orthodox Stance,” which follows Salita over a three-year journey from the amateur ranks onto the professional threshold, need only roll camera and glue the thing together to make for a compelling piece of work in its own right. It doesn’t hurt that Salita stands out without help: He’s an interesting, well-spoken guy who just so happens to be doing something very few before him have dared even bother to attempt. With him in tow, “Stance” need not trade on novelty despite its wide availability. The special circumstances provide a fascinating backdrop, but this, more than anything, is a great story about a guy trying to make it in a business that eats people alive without discrimination. If you’ve ever found yourself facing similar odds and fears in your own life, regardless of specifics, “Stance” may provide more value in this respect than in any other.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, Salita update (current as of October 2008), director radio interview.

Hancock: Unrated Edition (NR, 2008, Sony Pictures)
It’s rather amazing it took this long for Hollywood to give us “Hancock,” which tells the tragicomic story of an entirely human superhero (Will Smith) whose sloppy heroics have him in the public’s dog house and have left him a bitter, lonely drunk. The Superhero genre is beyond ripe for a smart send-up grounded in reality, and there certainly exists no shortage of fun ways this could go. Problem is, “Hancock wants all those ways for itself. During its 102-minute runtime — brisk by genre standards — “Hancock” crams in roughly three films’ worth of story arcs. One development crashes into another, and the film overcompensates the lack of time by stuffing it full of in-your-face attitude that grates more than engages. But even with lousy writing devouring it from all sides, “Hancock” remains watchable at worst and reluctantly fun in spite of itself at best. That’s a testament to the cast’s and special effects crew’s talent, but it particularly speaks to the built-in novelty that accompanies the concept. It’s a shame a better script didn’t take the first crack, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t still try. Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman also star.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

Space Chimps (G, 2008, Fox)
At around minute 41, “Space Chimps” introduces us to Kilowatt, a tiny but ample-headed space creature who resembles a cross between a Martian and a talking baby. Kilowatt’s head glows like a bulb when she’s nervous, and she lets out an amusing chirp whenever those oft-unnecessary fears subside. Only with this introduction, roughly halfway in, does “Chimps” finally begin to show it has any heart at all. The preceding 40 minutes are textbook animation-by-numbers: Crazy slacker chimp scoffs at chance to be a space hero like his grandfather, decides to go for it after seeing one of his female would-be crewmates, and spends who knows how many scenes acting like an obnoxious slacker with zero endearing qualities and even less going for him on the originality scale. Toss in some “zany” antics, a little faux-attitude and a handful of pop culture gags that only fans of the Dancing Judge Itos will still find clever, and we’re on the fast track to top-shelf pointlessness. Only when little Kilowatt shows up does “Chimps” give us something to finally root for, and while that’s not nearly enough to make the movie worth a rave or even recommendation, it does make it briefly watchable if your children or younger siblings absolutely insist on making you watch it with them. Should Fox get any ideas and greenlight a sequel, here’s hoping our big-headed friend gets the star turn and our completely forgettable chimp non-hero stays home like he wanted to in the first place.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, stills gallery.

Meet Dave (PG, 2008, Fox)
Dave (Eddie Murphy) may look like a normal person walking around New York City, but he is actually an alien spacecraft operating under the control of tiny, human-like aliens (Murphy again, plus Gabrielle Union, Scott Caan and Ed Helms) on a mission to wring Earth dry of its resources. All goes according to plan until our vessel is forced to contend with humanity — an experience so pleasant, it gives tiny Dave a serious moral quandary to figure out. Nice message, and a little Hollywood magic goes a long way toward giving “Meet Dave” all kinds of imaginative, family-friendly possibilities. Shame the script doesn’t play along, coasting by on a wave of tired stereotypes and lukewarm jokes that will send kids mixed messages and bore the rest of us. “Dave” repeatedly speaks of the merits of human kindness and tolerance, but what it shows continually runs counter to what it tells, making it just another preachy family film that lacks the knowhow to follow its own sermon.
Extras: Crew confessions.

Worth a Mention
— “24: Redemption” (NR, 2008, Fox) and “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!” (NR, 2008, Comedy Central): Just in case (a) your DVR is broken or (b) you dearly enjoyed these the first time around, DVD versions of two specials that aired only this past weekend are now available for purchase. Naturally, the special features are the real selling point. “Colbert” features three alternate endings, a book-burning video Yule log and an interactive Advent calendar. “Redemption,” meanwhile, contains an extended cut of the film, cast/crew commentary, a making-of documentary, a feature about real-life child soldiers a season six recap and the first 16 minutes of the first episode of season seven, which kicks off in January.
— “The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection” (PG-R, various years, Universal): Contains four films: “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man” and “Backdraft.” Each film gets two discs’ worth of content. Extras include commentary on all but “Backdraft,” as well as behind-the-scenes features and deleted scenes.

Games 11/18/08: Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe

Left 4 Dead
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: PC
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)

The honeymoon between gaming and zombie apocalypses is borderline ridiculous right now, with zombies making cameos in everything from “World of Warcraft” to “Grand Theft Auto” to “Call of Duty.”

But while those franchises simply toss out a zombified mode and fight for position on the bed of the bandwagon, Valve heads straight for the driver’s seat and emerges with the best zombie apocalypse simulator in all of gaming.

To fully get “Left 4 Dead,” though, you must first understand its methods, which run fairly counter to convention. There isn’t, for instance, a single story mode, but instead four small “campaigns” that might take an hour or so each to complete. That sounds a bit threadbare until you realize the game never populates its campaigns the same way twice, randomizing zombie placement every time you play to keep you on your toes.

“L4D” gets away with this for precisely one, somewhat ironic reason: brilliant zombie artificial intelligence. The game trots out the same breeds of undead over and over, but individual zombies act as individuals — sometimes cowering in corners, sometimes minding their own business, sometimes coming straight at you or even inflicting harm on one another.

The bevy of tactics means different parts of the same campaign will have you acting proactively and reactively — able to formulate strategies in some areas while forced to run for your life or just unload lead in others. Because you never know precisely what the game has waiting for you, every trip through a campaign feels different. And because “L4D” shares other Valve games’ rabid appetite for physics, even individual zombie encounters will trigger wildly different results.

All that said, if you plan to maximize your “L4D” experience, you best not come alone. In another bucking of convention, “L4D’s” single-player offering appears at the bottom of the main menu, with co-op (two players offline, four online) and competitive (two offline, eight online) taking precedence.

While playing through the campaigns alone is fun — “L4D” outfits you with three very capable A.I. teammates — it’s considerably more exciting to team up with human players. “L4D” not only emphasizes the importance of teamwork when zombies are descending from all 360 degrees, but actually makes it fun to watch each other’s back. Human teammates are prone to fallacies A.I. teammates can avoid, and that alone adds considerably to the excitement of whatever unknown danger lies ahead — or behind.

As for the competitive mode? You get to play as the zombies. No more need be said.


Gears of War 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Epic/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

The question: How do you top a game that, only two years ago, raised the bar in almost every respect in which it attempt to raise a bar?

The answer? Do it again, which precisely is what “Gears of War 2” does.

No sense blowing smoke where smoke need not be blown: “GOW2” doesn’t reinvent the third-person shooter the way its predecessor did. On the basis of control, firepower and general fundamentals, both games operate almost identically. The lone significant addition to your combat repertoire — the ability to turn wounded enemies into hostages and employ them as moving cover — is a good one, but it doesn’t exactly rattle the series at its core.

Rather, “GOW2” mostly leaves the cake be and focuses the bulk of its energy on the icing, packing the same brilliant gameplay inside a campaign that’s both genuinely engaging and ridiculously, hilariously over the top.

It’s hard to fully quantify just how out of control “GOW2” gets without spoiling the fun of uncovering it yourself, so no details will be spilled here.

Just know this: Epic is working without a filter this time around, unloading environments, scenarios and even one unbelievable weather pattern that seem designed primarily to incite giddiness and only secondarily to advance the game’s story, which is surprisingly good despite the almost satirically macho playground on which it unfurls itself. “GOW2” never loses sight of the story, which is something of an accomplishment considering the first game didn’t even really tell one. But the game seems most concerned with letting players do everything they wanted to do in the first game but never could — a point hammered home by some staggeringly cool vehicular missions that barely make sense but are ridiculously fun to play out.

Elsewhere, the improvements are impressive but in line with expectations. The visual leap forward is a pleasant surprise given what a breakthrough graphical showpiece the original was. Online multiplayer (10 players, up from eight), meanwhile, benefits greatly from a party system and better matchmaking.

But no feature endears itself more than co-op play (two players offline, up to five online). The single-player campaign is predictably more fun with friends on board, and the new Horde mode — a collection of 50-wave, arcade-style encounters with increasingly brutal enemies and only your friends at your back — is a viciously fun challenge that will keep the disc spinning long after the story has been told.


Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

“Gimmick” is something of a dirty word in gaming circles, and leaning on DC Comics’ heavy hitters — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Joker, among others — to breathe relevance back into “Mortal Kombat” most definitely qualifies as a gimmick.

But it’s hard to knock a gimmick when it works, and so it’s hard to knock “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe,” which freshens up a franchise stuck in neutral while taking full advantage of the moment to trim much of the fat that had accumulated since “Kombat” went 3D.

That latter point, in fact, is the real story. Whereas recent “Kombat” games have tried half-heartedly to compete with other 3D fighters, “Universe” essentially brings the game back into the second dimension, presenting fully three-dimensional characters who fight almost exclusively on a flat plane. That, in layman’s terms, means “Universe” plays a lot like the original “Kombat” arcade games, combining the fluent animation expected from today’s games with gameplay straight out of 1995.

But if you haven’t played a “Kombat” game since those days, that means nothing to you. Fortunately, if you came to the party simply because Batman scored an invitation, there’s good news there as well. Dual story modes let you play as either faction, and the absurd but entirely enjoyable storyline provides a great means to familiarize yourself with both rosters. The game’s a visual mixed bag overall, but the fighters look great in motion, and Midway has stocked each with an ample supply of satisfying moves (including the series’ trademark finishers) specific to each.

All that said, if you’re coming to “Universe” expecting something on the level of “Virtua Fighter” or even “Soul Calibur,” don’t. Midway is unapologetic about keeping “Kombat” on the casual end of the fighting game spectrum, and “Universe,” while gifted with move sets deep enough to appeal to serious fighting fans, remains a game at which anyone who can mash buttons and master a fancy move or two can excel. It’s wildly imbalanced, but it’s imbalanced on both sides, making for a frenzied, fun arcade experience that nonetheless will rub tournament-level players the wrong way.

Beyond the two story modes, “Universe” features a standard arcade mode, which itself features a unique end sequence for each fighter. Each character also has a Kombo Challenge, which is a great way to “win” something while mastering the game’s more complicated attacks. As expected, “Universe” sports both local and online multiplayer (two players each), and as long as your Internet connection is respectably fast, it works pretty much as you’d hope it would.

DVD 11/18/08: Wall-E, Tropic Thunder, Priceless, The Zombie Diaries, Mister Lonely, Garden Party

Wall-E (G, 2008, Disney/Pixar)
Really, does it matter? Will this paragraph really douse or ignite your present desire to see or skip what already is and probably will remain 2008’s most critically acclaimed film? Here’s hoping not, because nothing you’ll read here reads any different than the mountain of praise you’ve read elsewhere. Yes, Pixar’s latest is quaking with irony — a Disney film that, between the lines, warns of the dangers of commercial excess and mass market indifference. But you can let this message mostly slide off your back if you wish, because while “Wall-E” doesn’t cower behind ambiguity, it also never crams ideology down your throat. Said ideology never stood a chance anyway. Outside of a few fleeting bits of ambiance, the first 39 minutes of “Wall-E” — all of them devoted to our title character, his cockroach buddy and the invading robot that fascinates him into a trance — come completely free of fluent dialogue, and they’re 39 of the most perfect minutes any Disney movie has ever strung together. That creates an impossibly tall order for the second half, which can’t possibly sustain the same level of magic while also guiding the story to a proper landing. Fortunately, it falls short in pretty superb fashion, and no amount of story reconciliation, message moments or irony can prevent “Wall-E” from keeping that magic alive all the way to the end. Pixar gambled exponentially more than it typically does with this one, and it paid off brilliantly.
Extras: New short, “Burn-E,” featuring a side character from the film. Also: “Presto” animated short, director commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, Pixar feature, outtakes, interactive storybook.

Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Director’s Cut (NR, 2008, Dreamworks)
The best defense of a good offense? Make us laugh, even if an eye roll, head shake or full-blown groan sometimes invariably tags along. It doesn’t hurt, either, to do something completely out there and just nail it. So that’s two big points for “Tropic Thunder,” a wildly offensive but relentlessly funny film about a cast of war movie actors (Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel) who accidentally find themselves entrenched in a real war. Numerous opportunities abound for “Thunder” to take the joke too far or let it spin out of control. International incidents and lost-in-translation miscommunications are predictably rampant, and any Hollywood movie that plays around with Hollywood in-jokes as much as this one does is asking for trouble. But any time “Thunder” threatens to cave to cuteness or formula, it pops open a new can of worms and unloads a tasteless but acutely funny torrent of dialogue, social commentary and/or unapologetically ridiculous parody. Instinct might tell you to feel bad for being so amused, but “Thunder” always slips in a wink to remind you that yes, it knows what it’s doing, it knows it’s wrong, and it’s okay to laugh because we’re all in on the joke together. Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader and Tom Cruise (who steals several scenes and the closing credits) also star.
Extras: Filmmaker and cast commentaries, deleted/extended scenes, alternate ending, five behind-the-scenes features, MTV Movie Awards feature, rehearsal footage.

Priceless (R, 2006, First Look)
Don’t believe your bosses: It really does pay to sleep on the job. Just ask Jean (Gad Elmaleh), who fell asleep in the hotel bar he was tending, only to wake in the view of gold-digging Irene (Audrey Tautou), who assumed he was someone else and gave him a night to remember as result. Now, a year after that fleeting moment, Irene is back at the hotel, and there’s no way it can be this easy the second time around, can it? Hey, find out for yourself. Like most well-meaning but needlessly gabby DVD cases, the case housing “Priceless” gives away more than it should on the back, peeling the wraps off a twist that considerably alters the tenor of the movie and might genuinely and pleasantly surprise you if you don’t already know it’s coming. “Priceless,” in fact, is full of surprises large and small, in no small part because it’s a comedy about misunderstandings that doesn’t play host to the usual clichés you find in comedies about misunderstandings. It also isn’t afraid to make its characters look like scoundrels and sympathetic heroes at the same time — in no small part because it fully understands how to do so with conviction. Not necessarily last and not necessarily least, it’s pretty funny. Whether it all leads to a good love story, though, is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

The Zombie Diaries (R, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
Genius Entertainment isn’t exactly living up to its name with its careless branding of “The Zombie Diaries,” which it filed under the same Dimension Extreme imprint it typically reserves for mindless, straight-to-DVD gore-a-thons. “Diaries” isn’t exactly breaking the horror movie mold: It’s a document of a zombie apocalypse, which we’ve all seen countless times, and its camcorder-style presentation isn’t exactly groundbreaking with “The Blair Witch Project” doing it first and “Cloverfield” doing it again just this year. But “Diaries” nonetheless gets it done, taking what little creative wiggle room it’s reserved for itself and utilizing it to the breaking point. It helps that the cast of would-be victims is neither hopelessly weepy (as was the case in “Project”) or obnoxious enough to make you root for the monster (hello, “Cloverfield”). They’re somewhat unpleasant, but credibly and reasonably so given the circumstances. What makes “Diaries” great, though, is its final 20 or so minutes. No spoilers here, but know this: It adds considerable and unexpected depth to the film’s back story, and it changes the landscape so effectively that you’ll probably want to give the film a second, more studious viewing. That alone makes this a smarter beast than the combined entirety of Dimension Extreme’s library up to this point.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, cast commentary, four-part making-of feature, deleted scenes.

Mister Lonely (NR, 2007, IFC/Genius)
Honestly? If the existence of “Mister Lonely” is news to you and you haven’t been following its development since at least the script approval phase, you probably should just keep walking. If that’s not enough to deter you, here’s the gist: A struggling Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) crosses paths with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who invites him to join her on a sheep farm-slash-commune inhabited by other impersonators. On the other side of the world, a priest (Werner Herzog) and his ragtag band of flying nuns do a little soul-searching of their own as they ponder how perfectly human nuns can jump out of an airplane, hit the ground with a thud and walk away unscathed. Still in? Fine, but you’re on your own from here. As bizarre as “Lonely’s” story is, its methods of execution are even further out there, with madcap bouts of beaming energy dancing around and crashing into moments of character-on-character cruelty that seem unremittingly determined to turn you off. “Lonely” isn’t a difficult film to understand, but it’s chock full of barriers seemingly built to keep accessibility far at bay and undo the promise teased early on. Hang on tight to Herzog’s brilliant introductory scene: No moment before or after comes close to matching it, and the letdown that realization creates is a slow, disappointing burn.
Extras: Making-of feature, deleted scenes.

Garden Party (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
“Garden Party” is yet another one of those films that follows five loosely-connected characters as they make sense of their separate existences. This time, the setting is Hollywood, so you can at least half-guess what kind of problems our new friends (Willa Holland, Vinessa Shaw, Alexander Cendese, Richard Gunn and Erik Smith) face. Don’t worry about feeling left out, though: If you watch “Party” to its conclusion, you’ll experience a few problems of your own. There’s the matter of which, if any, of these characters deserve some kind of emotional investment on your behalf. Between their archetypical nature, their oft-derivative stories and the disconnect between id and reality that crops up a bizarre number of times, it’s hard to sink your interest in any of them. Overwhelmingly, “Party’s” characters appear to be doing whatever they do on the will of others, whether it’s a clingy not-quite girlfriend, a thankless boss, a complete stranger or even one another. As such, the strange range of performances — ranging from near-lifeless awkwardness to cartoon-character levels of manic speech — is a bit easier to predict, if no easier to enjoy. “Party” manages to be moderately interesting throughout, but it’s mostly due to the fact that no character stays in our view too long before another one takes over. When a film’s best quality is its ability to hide its pieces from view, something definitely is missing. No extras.

Games 11/11/08: Mirror's Edge, James Bond: Quantum of Solace, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Mirror’s Edge
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Digital Illusions CE/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)

“Mirror’s Edge” is the most irritating, disappointing game that ever will knock your socks completely off.

As the iffy story explains, you star as a messenger who, while not much with a gun, sports some seriously impressive free running skills. You can leap rooftops, run along walls, fly over fences and more without ever breaking your stride.

Translating these acrobatics into video game form is tricky enough when a game takes place from a third-person viewpoint, so it’s all the more impressive that “Edge” nails it while doing one better and presenting the entire experience in the first person. The game never holds your hand as you string together moves that get you from points A to B, but it so expertly drops you into your character’s shoes that it never needs to. It’s hard to explain on paper, but “Edge” takes an extremely complicated (and heretofore unseen) control mechanic and just makes it feel perfectly right.

How bewildering, then, that en route to taking gaming to new frontiers, “Edge” forgets some of the cardinal rules that got us to where we already were.

There are moments in which “Edge” appears to offer multiple solutions to a single problem. Overwhelmingly, though, it isn’t. Windows that break in other parts of other levels suddenly don’t when breaking one would make sense. Poles you can climb elsewhere suddenly become unclimbable, ledges suddenly impossible to grab, objects magically immobile. Your acrobatic talents are tailor-made for riddles with multiple answers, but moments of creative freedom are stiflingly rare, and you’re often left to read the game’s mind and decipher which solution is the real one. A hint button exists, but it merely points to the exit, which is akin to someone pointing out the center of a hedge maze when you’re standing at the outset.

This would be less aggravating if “Edge” didn’t disobey its own interface as well. Occasionally, certain objects, walls and doors glow red to lead you in the right direction — but only occasionally. Just as it doesn’t make sense why some things don’t work sometimes, there exists no apparent science as to why certain key points glow bright red while points of equal importance practically camouflage themselves behind seemingly better solutions that simply don’t work.

The sum total of these issues results in a game so thick with trial and error, any attempt at immersion is undermined and continually shattered. That’s a serious shame, because during those fleeting moments where “Edge” gets it — particularly during the final leg — it absolutely lives up to its promise. Digital Illusions already has announced plans to take “Edge” down the trilogy route, so here’s hoping all this wonderful tech gets a game to match the second time around. This, sadly, isn’t even close.


James Bond: Quantum of Solace
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PC, Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, Nintendo DS
From: Treyarch/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, violence)

This is November, which means one game-changing shooter after another is vying for your attention via any number of features you can’t find anywhere else.

“Quantum of Solace” is not one of those games, and if there’s one truly awful thing about it, it’s the timing of its release, which piggybacks the film of the same name but absolutely gets lost in the tidal wave of flashier, more impressive counterparts.

That’s slightly unfortunate, because taken on its own merits — as a meat-and-potatoes first-person shooter and little else — “Solace” is quite a lot of fun. The game runs on the same engine that powered last year’s “Call of Duty 4,” and the fundamental polish from that game — great controls, convincing gunplay and fast action that rarely gives way to lulls — is entirely apparent here.

The big addition to the engine is the inclusion of a cover system, which in turn reveals “Solace’s” most impressive strength. Several missions allow you to advance quietly using stealth or burst through with barrels blazing, and “Solace” is so equipped to handle either that it’s hard not to want to play both ways even if you normally prefer one method over the other. Bond occasionally gets stuck on cover, which can be punishing if it happens at the wrong time, but things work far more often than they don’t no matter how you approach the situation.

That’s a good thing, too, because there isn’t much more to “Solace” — which bounces between scenes from both “Solace” and “Casino Royale” — than that. There are no driving portions that you actually control, and the game handles hand-to-hand combat through uninspired interactive cutscenes that could scarcely be easier. The high-level gadgetry synonymous with the Bond brand doesn’t come into play beyond your cell phone interface and a lock-picking minigame. This is a pure (and fairly short) shooter with one mind, and while it does what it does awfully well, the singular focus certainly bears mentioning.

“Solace’s” adherence to traditional values is a bigger concern on the multiplayer front, where a lack of breakthrough features leaves it hard-pressed to keep up with all those flashier games that are building communities at the same time. Again, though, what it does, it does well. The engine keeps things exciting, the modes are designed around the Bond universe rather than vice versa, and a “COD4”-style experience system gives the mulitplayer some legs by doling credits you can redeem for weapon and armor upgrades.


Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, fantasy violence)

If you’re a “Castlevania” fan left jaded by the franchise’s excessive sequel prolificacy and excessive pandering to the timid, consider “Order of Ecclesia” your call to arms. This is, by miles, the most challenging “Castlevania” game since 2001’s “Circle of the Moon.”

In fact, even that game arguably cowers in comparison. Part of “Moon’s” difficulty was thanks to its appearing on the Game Boy Advance, which at that time was outfitted with an unlit screen that posed major visibility problems because of the game’s dark visuals.

The DS, in its backlit glory, doesn’t have that problem, and “Ecclesia” instead owes its difficulty to more classic factors. Common enemies, a joke in recent games, are considerably stronger and possess dramatically more sophisticated attack patterns. Boss enemies, meanwhile, are brutally strong and even smarter — so much so that the timid will cry foul and probably give up due to what they perceive as cheapness. As with “Moon,” grinding for experience points will help (tip: Look for the Frankenstein’s monster knockoff in Minera Prison Island for some quick gains.), but the increased toughness of those minions makes even this more of a challenge than it once was.

Whether that news is encouraging or frightening is up to you. But “Ecclesia” plays fair throughout, and beating it is a gratifying, stimulating challenge if you approach it with the right mindset.

“Ecclesia’s” other pleasant surprise is its successful remixing of conventions sorely in need of a fresh beginning. A large chunk of the game takes place outside of Dracula’s castle, and the mix of outdoor environments and townsfolk encounters harks all the way back to 1988’s “Castlevania II.” The weapons system, meanwhile, undergoes a complete reinvention: You now keep everything you pick up, and you can combine new and classic weapons to create some spectacular new attacks.

Fortunately, the stuff that carries over from recent games is the stiff that should remain. Even during the era of ease and sequel excess, every “Castlevania” came gifted with beautiful 2D graphics and hours of non-linear adventure and discovery. “Ecclesia” changes none of that, and its understanding of what works and willingness to fix what no longer did makes it one of the best games to bear the “Castlevania” name.

DVD 11/11/08: Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mister Foe, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Opium: Diary of a Madwoman

Kung Fu Panda (PG, 2008, Dreamworks)

The easiest way to break down the “Kung Fu Panda” mythology is to use a “Star Wars” analogy. There’s Po — a clumsy, rotund panda whose date with destiny is not unlike that of one Luke Skywalker. His reluctant master, Master Shifu (think Obi-Wan Kenobi), must train him to face off against a former protégé whose lust for power turned him to, let’s say, the dark side. And so on. None of this is to sell “Panda” short or dismiss it as derivative. To the contrary, “Panda’s” skeletal similarities to something on the level of “Star Wars” underscores just how ambitious it is compared to your typical anthropomorphic animated film. It colors in that outline with a lore all its own, and once the details of that betrayal are laid out, you might be startled to find out just how drawn into the story you’ve become. It doesn’t hurt that Po is an obscenely likeable main character or that “Panda” earns its laughs through surprising levels of wit. If there’s a downside here, it’s that “Panda” is potentially a victim of its own spectacle: The fight scenes that break out are unbelievably cool and clever in funny and exciting ways, but they may be too much for the film’s supposed audience. Keep that in mind if you’re watching this with young children.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, chopsticks how-to, noodles feature, wild pandas PSA, music video, DVD game, Dreamworks Animation video jukebox.
— “Secrets of the Furious Five” (NR, 2008, Dreamworks): Remember that lore business discussed above? This semi-sequel companion DVD, bundled with select “Panda” DVDs, delves further into the ways and methods of Po’s dojomates, who play a significant role in his film. At 24 minutes long, the feature is on the shorter side, but if you take it for what it really is — a DVD extra that comes in its own case and with its own extras — it’s a cool treat and a nice bridge toward what inevitably will be a full-fledged “Panda” sequel. Extras: Drawing/dancing/Kung-Fu how-tos, Chinese Zodiac feature, DVD game, DVD-ROM content (printables, sound machine, game demos).

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: 3-Disc Special Edition
Like most young children, little Hellboy (Montse Ribé as the kid version, Ron Perlman as the full-grown version) loved hearing a bedtime story before trotting off to sleep. The difference, in this case, is that the mythical army from those bedtime stories not only is real, but led by a prince (Luke Goss) determined to return control of the planet to his people. Sounds like the plot of just about every fantasy film released in the last 10 years, and in several basic respects, it plays out as such. But if you saw the original “Hellboy,” you already know what sets “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” apart: It’s genuinely funny, smartly written, rooted equally in its universe and ours, and fronted by one of filmdom’s more charismatic superheroes (with a cast of brilliant sidekicks to match). On top of bringing all that good stuff over, “Army” also brings with it a new cast of wonderfully designed creatures and special effects that actually enhance rather than drag down the film’s spirited mood. If you’ve avoided “Hellboy” for wariness of its potential blandness and/or excess derivation, great news: Should you give the series a chance, you’re now in for two extremely pleasant surprises instead of just one. Selma Blair,     Anna Walton, Doug Jones, James Dodd, Jeffrey Tambor, John Alexander and John Hurt, among others, also star.

Mister Foe (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) is a bit touched by history — slightly obsessed with his mother’s passing, completely convinced his father’s (Ciarán Hinds) new love (Claire Forlani) had something to do with it, and so socially damaged that he spies on people from afar rather than interact with them. So you can imagine, maybe, how much trouble is possible when Hallam, upon setting out on his own, meets a woman (Sophia Myles) who looks uncannily like his mother. The collision of coincidence and character flaws gives rise to all sorts of cute and trite possibilities — bait that “Mister Foe,” happily, never takes. Rather, it pulls off the kid gloves and lets its lead character twist uncomfortably in his own coming-of-age story — so much so, you may not even like the guy regardless of what his story does for you. That is entirely to the film’s credit, by the way: This is a genre that’s rife with imitation, character coddling and soft landings, and “Foe” takes no such handouts. You might be uncomfortable rooting Hallam on, but that beats feeling cheated by where his story ends up. Jamie Sives, Ewen Bremner and Maurice Roëves also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG, 2008, Warner Home Video)
The hate was strong with this one when it hit theaters this summer, but was it justified? “The Clone Wars” is a “Star Wars” movie, which typically implies event-level status, but it really exists as a 90-minute commercial for the now-airing Cartoon Network show of the same name. Given the tone of that show — action-centric but geared toward kids and families more than anyone who dressed up for the “Phantom Menace” premiere nine years ago — there’s really nothing here that should offend those long-time fans, who must look at this as the final reminder that “Star Wars” isn’t courting them anymore. With all that said, “TCW” isn’t all that bad when taken on its own merits. The action is choreographically pedestrian but visually dazzling, the stylish art direction is a bold step outside the norm, and the writing certainly has more of a pulse than the recent trilogy of films ever did. “TCW” does contain one rather major wrinkle (not spoiled here) in the “Star Wars” universe, but the merit of even this will come down to perspective and individual taste. Longtime fans might be horrified, while those who don’t take it so seriously might find it adorable. (If that word sends a chill down your spine, consider yourself warned.)
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, six making-of Webisodes, three behind-the-scenes features, concept art gallery.

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen) is, on top of being hooked on morphine, a man of creativity badly in need of a muse. Gizella (Kirsti Stubø), meanwhile, is convinced she has no brain and has been possessed by the devil. When the two meet at a mental institution for troubled women, something sparks, doctor connects with patient, and a case is made for the notion that there is someone for everyone. But while “Opium’s” base relationship — one provides hope, the other purpose — is easily understood, the movie that forms around it isn’t nearly as accommodating. To the contrary, “Opium” is almost brutally dreary, meandering awkwardly though opaque monologues and awash in the bizarre growing pains and twisted imagery that accompanied early 20th Century psychology. Fascination gives way to fatigue after a time, and once it becomes clear a connection to these characters is begging not to be made, the relentless melancholy raises questions of what “Opium’s” intentions could possibly have been. Don’t hold your breath looking for answers. In Hungarian with English subtitles, but an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, B-roll footage.

Games 11/4/08: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Far Cry 2

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, PC, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Treyarch/Shaba/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

In “Spider-Man: Web of Shadows,” you star as Spider-Man and enjoy unlimited liberty to swing around New York City to whatever degree you please … just as you could in last year’s “Spider-Man 3.” Oh, and “Spider-Man 2” before that. Doesn’t Spidey ever do any traveling beyond the city limits?

But while a change of venue would’ve been nice, doing away with the sloppy hand-to-hand combat and dull mission objectives that bogged down those other two games is paramount.

On both fronts, “Shadows” scores direct hits. Spider-Man’s combat repertoire always has been expansive, but “Shadows” is the first game that not only gives the moves the oomph they deserve, but removes any static between what you’re trying to do and what Spidey does. “Shadows” mixes land, air, web and even wall-mounted combat in some pretty liberating ways, and practically every move in the arsenal controls and feels as it should.

Remarkably, the expansive fighting controls don’t come at the expense of the swinging controls, though you might initially think so if you don’t check the instruction manual. (The in-game documentation doesn’t reveal how to properly scale buildings until the first act practically is over.) The game’s camera occasionally flips out when the action shifts planes, but it almost always recovers quickly.

“Shadows'” mission selection isn’t wildly inspired compared to past games. To the contrary, almost every mission consists of some variation of going to area X and pounding Y amount of enemies. But by fronting with equally fantastic swinging and fighting mechanisms, the missions are fun simply for letting you go nuts with Spidey’s skill set.

If nothing else, the missions push forward the storyline, which benefits tremendously from having no film tie-in to impose on its creative freedom. It’s tighter than any of the three “Spider-Man” films, and some surprising instances of moral ambiguity allow you to pick your path en route to one of three different endings. “Shadows'” lack of movie ties also means a lack of A-list actors in the voice cast, but the no-names who stand in are miles more lively and much funnier than “SM3’s” sleepwalking stars, so it’s no loss at all.

Finally, while a change of venue once again would be appreciated in the next “Spider-Man” game, it must be said that this is the series’ best rendering of New York by far. The streets remain too sparsely populated, and some weird graphical glitches spring up here and there, but the visual leap forward from “SM3” is pretty remarkable given the short amount of time between the games’ respective releases.


Far Cry 2
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

“Far Cry 2” is, by an arguably absurd margin, the year’s most immersive shooter.

Mostly, that’s a great thing. “FC2” — which shares no storyline ties to its predecessor — drops you in the middle of Africa, and you’re generally free to explore the rather massive area open to you as you see fit. A storyline guides the game, but there exists a massive degree of freedom within that space to collect assignments, form alliances and cause general mayhem on your terms.

Furthermore, everything — from shooting to driving to healing and all that exists in between — takes place in the first person. Given how stunningly good “FC2” looks, it’s easy to buy into the illusion that you’re walking in your character’s shoes. To its credit, the game never sacrifices control or gameplay to make this a possibility. It works.

Sometimes, though, that immersion goes overboard. Found and used guns are prone to jamming, which is a cool touch, but when every other gun jams every other time you engage in a firefight, it gets annoying. Similarly, while trekking across Africa is a thrill the first time around, the lengthy travels between missions grow old once you’re traveling down well-worn roads.

Especially disappointing is when “FC2” breaks its own illusion. It’s hard to convince yourself you’re in real Africa when (a) the continent is populated almost exclusively by mercenaries and (b) almost everyone instinctively wants to kill you regardless of reputation, standing and other factors. “FC2’s” enemy A.I. Is all over the place, too: Some can pick you off practically sight unseen, while a rare few won’t acknowledge your presence if you’re standing two feet away.

In other words, “FC2” can’t escape its fate as a shooter first and everything else second. And really, what’s so bad about that? All the important ingredients — cool guns, solid controls, stuff to blow up — are here, and “FC2” manages to fill its expansive playing field with a ton to do, all the while slipping in a story that drastically improves as time goes on.

Things aren’t quite so philosophically out there on the multiplayer (16-player, LAN or online) side. The usual modes show up, albeit with special “FC2” touches, and that’s good enough.

More impressive, at least on the console side, is the surprising inclusion of a full-featured map editor and distributor. A complete lack of documentation means a high barrier of entry, which, unfortunately, will keep a lot of players from doing anything special with it. At least you can download other players’ creations for free — a nice gesture in this era of overpriced map packs and other downloadable content.

DVD 11/4/08: Get Smart, Reaper S1, Hank and Mike, Futurama: Bender's Game, Henry Poole is Here, Swing State

Get Smart: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Warner Home Video)
So, how seriously do you take your classic TV shows? If your answer hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of “very,” you probably should just move on to the next review. As tributes go, “Get Smart” isn’t much of one. The names are the same and some iconic elements of the show make their requisite appearances. But the characters certainly don’t act as one might remember, certain back stories have been changed, and Steve Carell more closely resembles Michael Scott with a government-issued I.D. than the great Maxwell Smart. If you either don’t care or can just accept that, though, there’s an upside: “Smart” is really quite funny, complementing the predictable blast of slapstick and gadget-gone-wrong humor with moments of actual bona fide wit. Similarly, while storyline is generic enough to come courtesy of a book of secret agent Mad Libs, it suffices plenty as an excuse for both the surprisingly high-brow humor and almost shockingly credible action sequences. “Smart” leeches off its source material more than it pays homage, but that is neither here nor there. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, and considering how many movies of this sort absolutely shred the memory of the shows that inspired their creation, it could have been so much worse. Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terry Crews, David Koechner, Terence Stamp, Masi Oka and Nate Torrence, among others, also star.
Extras: Special “Comedy Optimization Mode,” which allows you to integrate more than 20 minutes of outtakes into the film. Not ideal for your first viewing, but a pretty ingenious way to enjoy a second go-round. Also: Three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, feature on Bruce (Oka) and Lloyd (Torrence), who previous starred in their own straight-to-video spinoff.

Reaper: Season One (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
You think your parents set you up for failure? Please. Sam Oliver’s (Bret Harrison) parents sold his soul to the devil (Ray Wise) before he was even born. Now, upon turning 21, Sam is contractually obligated to help catch escaped souls and return then to Hell before they resume wreaking havoc in our realm. A premise so alternately dark and absurd demands a dark sense of humor to match, and as “Reaper” demonstrates in its brilliant opening episode, it is wholly and distinctly up to the task. What’s more, as soon as the show appears to be falling prey to routine — learn about soul, banter with devil and slacker sidekicks (Tyler Labine and Rick Gonzalez), catch soul — a handful of multi-episode plotlines kick in and rearrange the gears. That sends that goofy premise down some very clever avenues, which cross paths and culminate with a terrific finale. “Reaper’s” future isn’t entirely bright: A 13-episode second season is in the works, but nothing beyond that is guaranteed. Until the plug is officially pulled, though, this is as much an underrated gem as anything on network TV right now.
Contents: 18 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and bloopers.

Hank and Mike (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Who knew? The Easter Bunny is real. In fact, in “Hank and Mike,” being an Easter Bunny is akin to pursuing any other career endeavor. Easter is a corporation, and the bunnies simply deliver the product one Sunday a year. Rather, that’s what our titular characters (Thomas Michael as Hank, Paolo Mancini as Mike) used to do until corporate downsizing and some regrettable antics put them out of a job. If that reads like a blueprint for an odd comedy, you have no idea. “H&M” takes its ridiculous premise to the house and beyond, laying waste to subtlety en route to what happens when “American Beauty,” “Office Space” and the Cadbury Bunny join forces and make an egg. That means a lot of dark humor for the sake of it and no shortage of completely asinine scenes that may prove too much for anyone ill-equipped to play along with the illusion. For those who can suspend disbelief, rest assured that “H&M,” despite its borrowed sensibilities, is like no other movie you’ve ever seen. That, along with its eagerness to lob everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, gives the film all the ammo it needs to entertain in spite of a script that, to be kind, is pretty transparently imperfect. Chris Klein and Joe Mantegna also star.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, the original “Hank and Mike” short film, deleted/extended scenes (with commentary), alternate ending, bloopers, audition footage, image galleries, Easter Eggs (naturally).

Futurama: Bender’s Game (NR, 2008, Fox)
It seems weird too say this so soon as “Futurama’s” triumphant return, but perhaps it’s time for another break. It doesn’t have to be another hiatus of indeterminate length — just a breather that allows the writers the time they need to come back with something better than this. Like the previous film, “The Beast With a Billion Backs,” “Bender’s Game” isn’t completely bereft of laughs. Unfortunately, also like “Backs,” “Game” feels like a hastily-written collection of partial episodes awkwardly balled together to make a movie. The subject matter, which culminates in a send-up of “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Lord of the Rings,” is thoroughly uninspired in light of all that’s possible (and previously achieved) in the “Futurama” universe, and the humor mostly feels stale coming so soon after another less-than-spectacular “Futurama” film. A longer, thoughtful break before movie No. 4 might do wonders for that next film, but considering the trailer for that very movie appears on this very DVD, it probably is best not to get your hopes up.
Extras: Cast/Matt Groening commentary, storyboard, genetics lab game, deleted scene, Bender PSA, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, preview of the next “Futurama” movie.

Henry Poole is Here (PG, 2008, Anchor Bay)
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is, by all appearances, not a very neighborly guy. So when a stain resembling Jesus Christ appears on the exterior of his new house and word of its arrival engulfs the neighborhood, it’s either a life-changing turning point or one cruelly ironic twist. That, in fact, is the topic of the day in “Henry Poole is Here,” which deftly mixes dry comedy while paying smart, evenhanded respect to a subject matter rarely explored to serious satisfaction in movies, much less comedies. Problem is, “Poole” telegraphs early on where its titular character is headed. When Henry finally arrives at that moment, the foundation begins to wobble, and a film that was piling intrigue with each passing minute gets sloppy and lets fantasticality get the best of it. That doesn’t mean “Poole” suddenly becomes unlikeable: Given how much care is invested into the characters by that point, such a stark turn pretty much is impossible. It also doesn’t mean you can’t just buy into the fantasy and enjoy it for what it is. Just don’t be surprised if, after Poole’s” far more absorbing first half, playing along proves more challenging than you might expect. Adriana Barraza, Radha Mitchell, Morgan Lily and George Lopez also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, two music videos.

Swing State (NR, 2008, Morningstar Entertainment)
The state of Ohio’s importance as a bellwether state in presidential elections is excessively documented at this point, and as we touch down in “Swing State,” we’re thrown smack into the middle of the 2006 gubernatorial race, the outcome of which could determine Ohio’s political temperature in 2008. Heavy stuff, huh? On paper, certainly: When “State” isn’t reminding you of Ohio’s importance, the famous faces (John Kerry, Barack Obama, Jerry Springer) who contribute their two cents often repeat the message. Problem is, “State” — which follows the campaign primarily from the perspective of would-be Democratic Lt. Governor Lee Fisher, whose son is the film’s director — is better at verbalizing this importance than actually showing it to us. Bits and pieces of campaign intrigue seep through, but after 16 months of having the 2008 race crammed down our throats, that isn’t so much a selling point as a point of aversion for anyone experiencing election fatigue. “State” is most effective as a behind-the-scenes home movie, and Fisher and his family do make for an intriguing cast of characters, to say nothing of the other candidates. But when the movie itself constantly reminds you that this isn’t supposed to be the point, it’s hard not to hear it, especially when the point it wants to make lands without impact.
Extras: Deleted scenes, tribute to Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones.