Games 12/30/08: Endwar, Rise of the Argonauts

Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, tobacco reference, blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

A real-time strategy game just isn’t a real-time strategy game without a mouse and keyboard at the ready. But console game developers remain undeterred, plugging away for nearly a decade in hopes of properly emulating what remains a PC-or-bust experience.

If you don’t mind potentially annoying your neighbors, family and/or yourself, Ubisoft might have the most intriguing approach yet, even if the game in which it’s packaged isn’t quite as compelling.

Though you can play “Endwar” with a controller, there really exists no point if you’re not on board with the game’s gimmick. As strategy games go, “Endwar” rates on the lower end of the sophistication and excitement scale. Never mind that the story actually manages the miraculous task of making World War III boring: In “Endwar,” you’re more general than mastermind, ordering units around the map but forgoing any sort of in-depth resource management and unit construction, which is the arguable bread and butter of the genre’s best.

The reason “Endwar” can justify this simplicity — at least this time around — is because of how little you need that controller if you have a headset and no qualms about talking to a machine. Every action, ally and enemy in the game has a corresponding voice command, and the game’s system for managing those commands is so intuitive as to become second nature after a couple missions.

More importantly, “Endwar” understands you. The game’s voice recognition technology is stunningly good, and its ability to acclimate itself with your voice after a single, five-minute voice recognition test almost defies logic. Some of your orders inevitably will go misunderstood, but the ratio of hits to misses is so laudably lopsided, it’s possible to forget you’re dealing with artificial ears and lose yourself in the experience.

Whether the brilliance of the voice mechanic is enough to counter the rest of the game’s failings will vary from player to player. “Endwar’s” bare-bones unit hierarchy becomes transparent fairly quickly, and were it not for some shoddy troop A.I. and one unfortunate game mechanic that cheaply rewards near-defeated armies with freebie WMDs, the game would be disappointingly easy for disciplined strategists. Multiplayer (four players, online only) naturally makes for a better experience — voice chat remains possible thanks to an on-the-fly toggle — but the simplicity still trickles down, making this less of a clash of strategies than what’s available from more fully-formed strategy games.

All that said, “Endwar” remains a respectably entertaining start with a potentially game-changing mechanic that really works. If Ubisoft can slide this technology into a strategy game with PC-level trimmings, the platform gap might finally disappear.


Rise of the Argonauts
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Liquid Entertainment/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, mild sexual themes, violence)

The end of a year inevitably brings with it stories and moments in which we reflect on time gone by and remark at how far we’ve come.

Thus, it’s fitting that “Rise of the Argonauts” — which carries the distinction of being the last game of significance to arrive in 2008 — does something of the same thing, however unintentionally. Whether it was rushed out the door to meet a release date deadline (likely) or whether Liquid Entertainment simply lost its way (unlikely), “Argonauts” brings with it numerous problems that better games long ago abandoned.

On the surface, “Argonauts” is a pretty easy sell: It’s an action-intensive role-playing game based on the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The major players, from Hercules to Zeus, make appearances, and “Argonauts” gradually doles out tools and attacks to allow you, as Jason, to wreak all manner of bloody havoc. Done right, this is pretty much fail-proof.

Unfortunately, “Argonauts” has serious problems doing it right. The game’s framerate stutters and chugs regularly, without warning and often without reason. Sometimes, the action stops completely, and sometimes, it doesn’t start back up again unless you reboot the console and lose any unsaved progress. Collision detection occasionally hiccups in bizarre ways, the camera too frequently swings around to unfavorable angles, and the characters often animate jerkily even when the framerate is behaving.

If you can circumvent the technical issues, other problems still loom. “Argonauts” is a pretty talky game, which would be fine if the “Mass Effect”-style dialogue trees actually worked like they do in that game. But bad writing and worse voice acting make these exchanges a chore. You can blow through cut-scenes and dialogue exchanges if you wish, but your dialogue choices affect your character’s growth. If you want to take advantage of “Argonauts'” brightest asset — a character-building system in which you appease Gods of your choosing and attain abilities modeled after their respective attributes — you’ll need to pay some attention.

All that’s wrong with “Argonauts” might be forgiven if the game got combat right, but such is not the case. Attacks and combos are plentiful, but those technical issues, along with dull enemy A.I. that makes it entirely too easy to button-mash your way through most of the game, are deal-killers. It doesn’t help, either, that the attacks don’t actually feel as powerful as they look, or that “Argonauts” insists on slowing the game down — and completely disrupting the flow of the action — every time you finish an enemy off.

DVD 12/30/08: Ghost Town, Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget, Baghead, Eagle Eye, An American Carol

Ghost Town (PG-13, 2008, Dreamworks)
Dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) isn’t much of a people person. Which is a shame for him, because, following a mishap at the doctor’s office, his ability to see and communicate with the dead — including one particularly needy guy named Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants to sabotage his widowed former wife’s (Téa Leoni) new romance — finds him in the company of more people than ever. The unfortunate thing about introducing “Ghost Town” is that most of the film’s biggest surprises lie in the premise. By the time you reach the jump-off point, you pretty well know exactly where this thing is going. But that’s no matter. The best antidote for a predictable comedy is a funny comedy, and while “Town” isn’t particularly bold in the plot twist department, it’s supremely gifted at the art of well-written, inventively funny characters who credibly can deliver line after line of sharply funny conversational brilliance. If a movie can do that, everything else falls in line, and by the time “Town” takes you down that obligatory road toward life-changing sincerity, the film has so deeply endeared itself that it’s completely fruitless to object. Aasif Mandvi and Billy Campbell also star.
Extras: Director/Gervais commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget: Uncensored (NR, 2008, Comedy Central)
If you know the Comedy Central Roast drill by now, then you also know this particular happening — a blue celebration of one of comedy’s most perfectly-orchestrated good-to-evil career turns — was inevitable. “Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget” adheres to the franchise formula: It trots out some of the usual roasters (Greg Giraldo, Jim Norton, Jeffrey Ross), mixes in some long-overdue returns (Jeff Garlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Brian Posehn), adds a few first-timers (Jon Lovitz, Norm MacDonald, Susie Essman), and tops it off with some novelty (John “Uncle Jesse” Stamos as the roastmaster and Cloris Leachman just because). Also per usual, not all is what it first appears, and the runaway stars of the night aren’t who you might expect them to be. (Or perhaps they are, given how this seems to happen every single roast.) Most importantly, though, somebody bombs. But in stark contrast to the usual bomb, the bomber (no names to protect spoilers) becomes so self-aware that a horrible bit magically transforms into a work of art. As usual, the easily offended should run and hide: Saget is a lewd comic, Comedy Central’s roasts are lewd events, and when you mix the two together, the mix of vulgarity and hilarity is practically nuclear.
Extras: Pre-roast, post-roast and Saget interviews.

Baghead (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Four not-quite-but-somewhat-but-its complicated friends (Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig and Elise Muller) have booked it to a lonely cabin in the woods to write a quickie script they hope will kick-start their struggling showbiz careers. They get drunk, one of them stumbles outside and thinks she sees a stranger with a bag on his head, and the idea for a horror film is born. It wouldn’t be fun to spoil what happens next, but from here, “Baghead” cleverly turns into a movie within a movie, mixing the story about the story, the story within the story about the story, and a healthy helping of peripheral character sketching into a film that’s a lot more coherent than it reads on paper. That doesn’t necessarily mean “Baghead” is accessible, however. This is not a typical horror comedy, these aren’t typical horror comedy characters, and it’s highly debatable whether the detached, overly talky script even remotely warrants the comedy tag. “Baghead” comes to us courtesy of a rock-bottom budget, and you’d best believe it looks like it, with shaky camerawork and shoestring production values joining the improvisational-style dialogue to form a shoestring budget trifecta. The production doesn’t hamper “Baghead” at all, but if meandering narratives aren’t your thing, appreciating what it’s doing could prove a trying experience.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, real baghead scares (and non-scares), filmmakers interview.

Eagle Eye: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Dreamworks)
There’s a reason one of the scariest films of all time was about a dumb hungry shark: It resonated, and viewers felt there was some remote chance what they were watching could happen to them. So here’s some good news for the easily rattled: In spite of the “it could happen to you” overtones, this story of a copy shop employee (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom (Michelle Monaghan) who find themselves employed as unwilling pawns in some ridiculously convoluted act of domestic terrorism poses no such concern. Between the god-like manipulation of everything from construction cranes to train station marquees to completely coincidental passengers’ cell phones, none of this could possibly happen to anyone. “Eagle Eye” shatters the plane of believability very quickly, and the hailstorm of eye-pleasing ludicrousness that follows makes it fun, if you’re willing, to enjoy as some bizarre work of genre-bending science fiction. But between the faux climaxes, obligatory “character” moments, excessive need to explain itself and never-ending assault of stock thriller music, even that works for only so long. “Eye,” despite taking disbelief to new heights, seems to want you to take it seriously, even tossing in a bit of preaching right before the credits. Unless your favorite hat is stitched from foil instead of wool, it’s not going to happen. Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson and Michael Chiklis also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, alternate ending, five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, photo gallery.

An American Carol (PG-13, 2008, Vivendi)
Liberal America is as ripe for a good send-up as anybody, and for a little while, “An American Carol” — which finds a documentary filmmaker (Kevin Farley as Michael Moore’s dead ringer) unwittingly helping a group of terrorists record a propaganda video — seems to have some inkling of what it’s doing. Unfortunately, brief early promise gives way to unintended terror as the same tired joke (Liberals hate America! Get it?) gets beaten senseless while the plot careens wildly out of control. What started as a comedy soon reveals itself as a badly-disguised agenda with two audiences in mind. For the mouth-breathers on the far right who inject politics into every facet of their lives and think “liberal” is a dirty word in any context, this one’s for you, because you’ll likely laugh whether you find the film genuinely funny or not. For the oversensitive far leftists who inject politics into every facet of their lives and won’t let a registered republican past the threshold of their front doors, this is for you as well: You can watch it, stew incessantly, and boycott the work of every person who had any involvement in “Carol’s” creation. Fortunately, the vast majority of the country isn’t so easily played. They’re rational, a bit tired of the bickering, and prefer their comedies stick to being funny rather than preachy. This isn’t remotely for them.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.

Games 12/23/08: Ninjatown, Shaun White Snowboarding, Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip

For: Nintendo DS
From: Venan Entertainment/Cashmere Productions/SouthPeak Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence, crude humor)

One of the more upstart gaming rackets of 2008 is the tower defense genre, which basically is the real-time strategy genre with some of the fat trimmed. You’re still building armies and playing live chess with an approaching enemy, but the sole goal is to prevent your turf from succumbing to invasion.

The absolute best introduction to this genre is “PixelJunk Monsters” on the Playstation 3, but the most accessible — and perhaps stylish — comes courtesy of “Ninjatown,” which threads the needle between player freedom and entry-level accessibility to produce one of the most pleasantly surprising experiences to hit the Nintendo DS all year.

Part of that surprise comes from the fact that, with its cheerful color palette and obscenely cute cast of ninjas (the good guys) and demons, “Ninjatown” initially looks like a game for kindergarteners.

Give “Ninjatown” a whirl, though, and it becomes apparent awfully quick how polished every facet of the game, from the menus on down, is. A little time with the game’s characters reveals a sly writing style that both complements and belies the cute exterior. And while the tutorial level is pretty simple, it does more than enough to communicate the possibilities that lie ahead.

Once those possibilities kick in, “Ninjatown” starts rolling. At no point does the game offer troop control on a “StarCraft” scale, but between the different types of ninjas you eventually can employ and your ability to upgrade and manage each unit, there’s plenty of on-the-fly masterminding at your disposal. You’ll also acquire a few special powers, which come in handy when your ninjas need a breather or simply aren’t cutting it.

You’ll need them, too. Tiny opening levels quickly give way to larger maps, and “Ninjatown” steadily ups the challenge ante from there. Once you tap into the game’s latter half, don’t be surprised if you don’t find it so cute anymore, especially when the game slaps you with a C grade after you finally scrounge up a plan that gets you through a map by the skin of your back. (The grades don’t hinder your progress — only your morale.)

“Ninjatown’s” multiplayer component (two players, local wireless only) would have benefitted from co-op or a mode that allowed one player to play as the demons, but what you get — a race against a friend to clear a map first — is quite fun. Experienced players will particularly benefit from this feature, which lets you pit your management tactics against each other in the ultimate test of strategic supremacy.


Shaun White Snowboarding
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Alternate versions available for: PC, PSP and Playstation 2
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, lyrics)

The story of “Shaun White Snowboarding” is a tale of two fun, distinct games that, if joined together, likely would have formed something better than either attempt on its own.

Unsurprisingly, the feature nod goes to “White’s” beautiful Xbox 360/PS3 incarnation, which boasts four (or five, if you get the Target-branded special edition) huge mountains, lets you tackle challenges in whatever order you please, and features open-world online multiplayer (16 players). It also plays nicely, with easy controls and smooth animation leading the way.

Problem is, a major chunk of the game’s single-player objectives centers around platformer-style item collection, which isn’t exactly the best use of a forward-moving snowboarding game. A clumsy interface makes locating these items trickier than it should be, and while the ability to set a warp-to marker at will makes it easy to take multiple stabs at nabbing an item, the process nonetheless feels intrusive when you’d rather be racing down a mountain and racking up trick points.

That’s something the Wii version — a completely different game in every respect — does much better. “Road Trip” is less attractive, less ambitious and more linear than its 360/PS3 cousin, but the events fall more consistently in line with what one expects and wants from a snowboarding game.

“Trip” also benefits from excellent use of the balance board as a mock snowboard, though the game also works, surprisingly well, with just the Wiimote. The Wiimote scheme is considerably easier, but mastering the board is considerably more fun. In a nice touch, the game adjusts the target times and scores for every event to reflect your control method, and you’re free to change back and forth between events without sacrificing your overall progress.

The downside to either method is a familiar song for Wii games: less flexibility in controls. With buttons at a premium, your range of acrobatics is sorely limited, and while pulling tricks off isn’t a mindless cakewalk, the sense of risk and danger is considerably less than what the other game allows. “Trip” would have benefited from some kind of nunchuck attachment support, but the disparity between that degree of control and that of the available methods likely was too large for Ubisoft to justify its inclusion.

In the end, neither game completely nails it. Fortunately, neither game blows it, either. Issues await you no matter which poison you pick, but if you’re pre-steeled for those issues, a good time awaits as well.

DVD 12/23/08: Burn After Reading, Hamlet 2, American Teen, The House Bunny, Death Race

Burn After Reading (R, 2008, Universal)
Even if you cobble it together in a ball and serve it in a trough, a purported cake with the right balance of ingredients baked for the right amount of time still tastes pretty delicious. A similar equation applies to “Burn After Reading,” which chronicles, over 96 insane minutes, an absurd series of misunderstandings between a jilted former CIA agent (John Malkovich), his former employers (David Rasche, J.K. Simmons), his wife (Tilda Swinton), her paranoid lover (George Clooney), a Russian embassy representative (Olek Krupa) and a trio of gym employees (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins). Even by the Coen Brothers’ standards, “Reading” pushes hard the limits of narrative stability and credibility. But whenever the temptation to dismiss the thing looms nearby, “Reading’s” exceptional cast pushes it back — sometimes through a stupidly funny exchange, other times with nothing more than a perfectly-executed nervous tick. “Reading” prioritizes character above all, and it’s brought to life by actors who absolutely get their characters at all costs. A twist at around the hour mark leaves the film with 30 minutes to spare and the tall order of wrapping things up in any kind of sensible fashion. All seems lost as the minutes tick away … until one last brilliantly funny exchange, spanning all of a couple minutes, absolutely nails it.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

Hamlet 2 (R, 2008, Universal)
It may not be Shakespeare, not even close, but this tale of a failed actor, failed husband and failure-in-the-making drama teacher (Steve Coogan) staging some seriously bad Shakespearian fan fiction in hopes of saving his school’s drama program most definitely is epic. “Hamlet 2” is so epic, in fact, it cuts corners to tell its story and leave room for humor for humor’s sake. Most glaringly, the plot smoothes over and sometimes just skips conflicts that would seem to pose a bigger obstacle than they do. But there’s something to be said for a movie that slips past the predictable because it would rather hang out in absurd country. That, from the title on down, is what “Hamlet 2” does, and it’s also something at which it particularly and continually excels. The easily offended probably should pass: “Hamlet 2” isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty just because it feels like it, and the grand finale is an all-you-can-eat buffet of offense. All the decency violations would be hard to defend if the thing wasn’t funny enough to back it up, but “Hamlet 2,” happily, continually ensures that isn’t an issue. If you weren’t a fan of Coogan’s work before, his hilarious, lovable turn here might change that forever. Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Poehler, David Arquette and Marshall Bell, along with a fantastic cast of relative newcomers, also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scene, two behind-the-scenes features, sing-along.

American Teen (PG-13, 2008, Paramount)
Ladies and gentlemen, start your archetypes: Between the jock, the homecoming queen, the supernerd, the heartthrob and the outcast, “American Teen” — which documents a senior year in the life of five high school students — has the bases covered. As entertainment goes, “Teen” certainly understands its material and is exceptionally skilled at weaving our five subjects’ multi-tiered stories into some pretty compelling filmmaking. You might even say it’s too skilled for its own good. More than occasionally, “Teen” produces a scene that feels just a little bit staged, be it due to a suspect camera angle, suspicious audio/visual enhancement or something funny in how the scene is set. The authenticity of certain events and exchanges are arguable, but it’s almost completely beyond debate — regardless of how honest the intentions and results are — that the stories have undergone some severe tinkering in the editing room. That doesn’t necessarily sink “Teen” as a film worth experiencing. Incredibility and murky intentions taint the film’s ability to resonate, but it doesn’t impede “Teen’s” ability to entertain if you watch it with that simple intention in mind.
Extras: Deleted scenes, cast interviews, Hannah (the outcast) video blogs.

The House Bunny (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures)
It remains a shame that Anna Faris seems either uninterested in or incapable of finding her way into better movies than she does. The fortunate side effect, though, is that she takes what she’s given and makes it considerably better than it otherwise ever had any right to be. Unwatchable films become watchable with her in the driver’s seat, while completely uninspired ideas morph into something approaching good. “The House Bunny” falls into the latter pool, with a plot — fallen Playboy Bunny (Faris) stumbles into nerdy sorority house and vows to help the girls (Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Katharine McPhee and Rumer Willis, among a few more) tart up and save their house — that is harmless but wildly derivative. Cross “Revenge of the Nerds” with any number of teen comedies from the last 15 years, and you know exactly where this one is going. But it arguably doesn’t matter. Faris is just that good and just that funny, turning in perhaps the best spacey blonde performance in the history of spacey blondes, and she only rarely disappears from the screen before returning with another killer line or perfectly-timed delivery. That’s not enough to make “Bunny” a great film, but it’s more than enough to keep it entertaining while it goes through its motions.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Death Race: Unrated (NR, 2008, Universal)
Really now, why does this keep happening? In fairness to the Hollywood brain trust, remaking “Death Race 2000” isn’t the worst idea in the world. That film came out in 1975, and the benefits of updating a movie about lowlifes racing high-speed, weapon-encrusted machines of death are pretty obvious. So fine, here it is. Unfortunately, the things that made “2000” such a beloved B-movie classic — social commentary, a dark sense of humor and a soul, to give an idea — go completely missing in the remake, which opts instead for a stone-faced script that, despite a higher violence quotient, is entirely gutless by comparison. Jason Statham takes over the role of Frankenstein, and per usual, his charisma goes completely to waste. Between the list of accomplished actors collecting easy paychecks (Joan Allen, Ian McShane) and unwatchable bores failing miserably to fill big shoes (Tyrese Gibson as Machine Gun Joe), it only gets worse down the line. Fortunately, the pain is temporary. And if there’s one thing fans of the original can celebrate about the new “Race,” it’s that. This mess came and went in theaters, and it’ll do the same on DVD. And long after it’s been forgotten — let’s put the over/under at six months — the classic will live on.
Extras: Theatrical and unrated cuts, director/producer commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 12/16/08: Prince of Persia (2008), WordJong

Prince of Persia
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

The last time a game simply called itself “Prince of Persia,” nothing about it was difficult to understand. You were a prince, you ran and jumped from left to right, and you died a lot because it was really hard.

Nineteen years later, the new “Persia” — which marks the second series reboot in barely five years — is exponentially easier to play but not quite so easy to understand.

Like the subtitled “Persia” games that appeared on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube, the new “Persia” takes place in 3D and stars you as an acrobatic hero who can leap ledges, run along walls and scale impossible heights without hesitation. If you played any of those games, the base fundamentals of this game — which stars you as a new character in a new universe — will make sense on some level.

From here, though, things get a little weird, and your understanding and acceptance of this weirdness will dictate whether you adore “Persia” or get it at all.

For starters? You can’t die. “Persia’s” enjoyable and surprisingly bubbly story satisfactorily explains (a) why you’re paired up with a princess and (b) why she possesses a brand of magic that rescues you whenever you miss a jump or lose a fight, but it’s an unusual design choice all the same. Failure still begets consequence, but it’s minimal, and anyone with any kind of drive ultimately will see “Persia” all the way through. (Those hungry for some real consequence, don’t fret: “Persia” doles out a reward for beating the game without failing more than 99 times.)

On the other end of the coin: the controls, which simply have to be practiced to be appreciated. “Persia” explains what each button does, but doesn’t satisfactory explain how best to use them in relation to the environment, and you might find yourself fighting the game early on while the prince continually disobeys your intentions and takes a dive. The sooner you learn not to overdo it, the sooner the game’s magic shines through, and once you finally “get” it, “Persia’s” beautiful, non-linear levels become a serious joy to traverse.

“Persia’s” combat, while not nearly as exhilarating, is similarly nuanced: Every fight is a one-on-one encounter, and good rhythmic skills will get you farther than button-mashing and brute force. Some greater enemy variety would’ve done wonders for making these fights more intriguing, but “Persia” at least is smart about spacing them out. Most encounters are brief, and then it’s back to running through the world, which is precisely the way it should be.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Gameblend/Destineer
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s been a down year for the Nintendo DS’ puzzle library, which has seen only a trickle of great additions after a few years in which gems practically rained from the sky.

How savvy, then, of Destineer to send reviewers fresh copies of one of those games that got lost in the shuffle of 2007’s downpour. “WordJong” combines two dependable concepts — Mahjong and Scrabble — into one sleek game that’s simple enough to sell itself, and if you never played or even noticed it last year, it’s as good an addition to your DS library as anything that actually came out this fall.

If you’ve played Mahjong — and between the tidal wave of Flash, mobile and other iterations, you’ve likely played or at least seen it — “WordJong” immediately makes sense. Like Mahjong, the object is to match titles and score as many points as possible while ultimately clearing all titles from the board.

The difference, in case you don’t see it coming, is that instead of matching symbols, you’re spelling words from the selectable tiles on the board. As with Scrabble, larger words and words that incorporate uncommon letters yield more points.

Merging the two games makes as much sense in practice as it appears to make on paper, and “WordJong” does nothing to get in that concept’s way. The controls — whether you prefer the touch screen, buttons or both — work exactly as expected, and the game’s interface is pleasantly simple. Destineer throws in a few wrinkles, including an undo button and the ability to occasionally destroy a stray tile, but they’re optional and only serve to enhance the game’s user-friendliness.

Destineer also takes a page from Nintendo, with exceptional results, in the features department. “WordJong” features a daily puzzle to solve (complete with high score to overcome), and the calendar stretches back from present day to December 2006. Collectable rewards and a RPG-like Temple Challenge further sweeten the single-player experience, and “WordJong’s” multiplayer component accommodates local (single/multi-card wireless or pass-the-DS play) and online (two players) competition, as well as demo sharing with friends who wish to sample the game.

Destineer’s shrewd reminder of “WordJong’s” existence had more to do with promoting the all-new “WordJong Party” for Wii than anything else, but in a year in which the best puzzle system around is hurting for new puzzle games, it doubles as a smart reminder of overlooked gems worth a second look. Given all this one contains — and taking into account the extremely inviting $20 price tag — it’s a smart reminder that not every game worth playing in 2008 actually came out in 2008.

DVD 12/16/08: Generation Kill, Peter & the Wolf, Mamma Mia!, Takva/A Man's Fear of God, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Generation Kill (NR, 2008, HBO)
We’ve tried this once before, with “Over There,” and the problem that show had was the same problem most movies about the current Iraq war have: baggage. If they don’t bring it with them, they expect you to, and in either scenario, the covert preaching that ensues leaves everyone more alienated than enlightened. “Generation Kill,” on the other hand, kindly asks you to check your baggage at the door. The opening bell of the war provides the backdrop for this seven-part miniseries, but “Kill” overwhelmingly is about its characters, who in turn are the product of identity and personality rather than a collection of speeches and parables cobbled into human form. The Marines that comprise the bulk of “Kill’s” cast aren’t an instantly loveable bunch, but the longer you watch them work, the easier it is to like, understand or at least appreciate them. That isn’t the same thing, mind you, as liking, understanding or appreciating the situation they’re in, and “Kill” manages to accomplish some amazing storytelling without ever forcing the viewer to fall in line with anyone’s positive or negative view of the conflict as a whole. That, more than every exciting sequence and every whip-smart dialogue exchange, is what makes this one so much better than its contemporaries. Not convinced? Maybe the fact that “Kill” comes from some of the same forces behind “The Wire” will pique your interest. If you’ve seen the respect that show paid toward the two sides of the drug war, no more really need be said about the respect “Kill” pays to conflicts that lie underneath this conflict.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus commentary, video diaries, deleted dialogues, two behind-the-scenes features and a color terminology booklet.

Peter & the Wolf (NR, 2007, Magnolia)
With respect to the personal computer, 3D modeling software and all they can do to entertain us, there remains something hypnotic about stop-motion animation that, when done with care, achieves unique artistic heights that remain the exclusive domain of the medium. That much and more is evident in “Peter & the Wolf,” which brings to life the Sergei Prokofiev story about a boy who attempts to protect his newfound animal friends from a stray (and very likely hungry) wolf. Much in the same way “Wall-E’s” first half managed to captivate without so much as a complete sentence of dialogue, “Wolf” goes the whole way without reliance on voice acting, instead using a terrific orchestral score to set the audial tone. (Without spoiling anything, fans of a certain classic holiday film will particularly delight at the inclusion of one choice piece of music.) “Wolf’s” most glaring shortcoming is that, at 32 minutes long, the main program is pretty short. But like any great work of animation, this one merits multiple viewings, each of which undoubtedly will uncover a surprise or momentary visual gem that you might not have spotted the first or second time around.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, making-of documentary, three behind-the-scenes features, educational workshop.

Mamma Mia! The Movie: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
As often happens when a musical makes that awkward crossover to film country, “Mamma Mia!” comes to us both encumbered and liberated by its roots. No one would be talking about this movie — even if it somehow managed to corral the same cast (Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski and Amanda Seyfried, among others) — were “Mia” not a smash hit on stage first. As such, there’s an obligation to remain as true as possible to the source material, and that loyalty occasionally holds the film back. Certain scenes that would command more weight in traditional form succumb to an awkward song instead, and more than once, “Mia” finds itself following a handful of straight-faced scenes with two or three completely distinct numbers that nonetheless feel bunched together. On the other hand? It sure does sound good. The best prevention for song fatigue is a great soundtrack, and “Mia’s” set — based on the songs of ABBA, in case you didn’t already know — is good enough to endear us to the characters, who in turn are affable enough to turn a rather absurd story with precarious beginnings into a mindless but legitimate feel-good comedy that really can make one feel good.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted musical number, six behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, outtakes, music video, digital copy.

Takva/A Man’s Fear of God (NR, 2006, Koch Lorber)
Hollywood has done a lot more telling than showing when it comes to its insistence that most practicing Muslims are peaceful Muslims. So forget Hollywood — such matters are best handled by those who understand them from up close, anyway. Take, for one example, “Takva,” which tells the story of a humble, technologically primitive, mostly solitary and supremely devoted man (Erkan Can as Muharrem) who finds his entire world upended when a religious leader employs him as a rent collector and outfits him with such Western amenities as a cell phone, a flashy wardrobe and even a personal driver. At no point is “Takva” a statement on (a) a society, (b) a religion or (c) the West’s misgivings with either. Rather, it’s a story about Muharrem, but one that’s absolutely dauntless with its imagery — be they images of a prayer ceremony at its climax or a woman Muharrem steamily dreams about with great regret. Inadvertently, all images point to an internal struggle that is one change of scenery and context away from being just about anybody’s internal struggle. Common ground, as usual, accomplishes what preaching never can. That “Takva” is entertaining on its own merit certainly doesn’t hurt, either. In Turkish with English subtitles.
Extra: Director interview.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
We’ve all heard someone defend a particularly stupid action film as mindless good fun. And who can argue with that? Like other instances of mindless filmmaking, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is nothing if not harmless. And if you don’t mind the fact that just about nothing — from the stock storyline (long-dormant tyrant returns to life and threatens modern civilization as we know it) to the cute dialogue to the excessively long, special effects-laden climax — about “Emperor” is particularly special in its own way, you might indeed find this to be a couple hours of mindless, harmless fun. Of course, there’s something to be said for aiming higher. This is the third “Mummy”-branded film (not counting the “Scorpion King” spin-offs, which bring the total to five), and it arrives at least one (or three, or arguably four) films after the franchise wore out its welcome and started spinning its wheels. There are bolder films — in this and just about any other genre — hitting DVD almost every single week. But if all you want is a film that appears to be having fun and harming no one, this most definitely qualifies. Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford and Isabella Leong star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Games 12/9/08: Chrono Trigger DS, Sonic Unleashed

Chrono Trigger
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

Square-Enix has struggled, rather mightily, to usher the magic of yesteryear into the present generation. Unfortunately — be it due to games that are good but not great (“Infinite Undiscovery,” “The Last Remnant”), sequels that can’t live up to their predecessors (“Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift”) or great games undermined by flimsy marketing and word of mouth (“The World Ends With You,” “Crisis Core”) — nothing seems to land with the splash Square and Enix used to create with seemingly invincible regularity once upon a time.

So it’s hard to blame anybody for retreating back to those glory days and unloading all the first-rate remakes that have graced the PSP and Nintendo DS this year. In fact, if there’s any finger-pointing necessary regarding the reissue of the Super NES role-playing classic “Chrono Trigger,” it’s that it took Square-Enix this long to give us a portable rendition of what many consider the best game (a) in the company’s catalog and (b) the history of the genre.

To its credit, “Trigger” returns as neither a slapped-together port nor a tinkered-beyond-recognition remake. The look of the SNES original is preserved, but the animated cut-scenes from the Playstation reissue are subbed in and gifted with a cleaner translation of the original Japanese script. The migration to the DS produces obvious benefits with respect to touch screen menu management and extra screen real estate, and “Trigger” utilizes them exactly as it should and to whatever degree you want them to intervene. (Translation: No new gimmicky touch screen mini-games gumming up the works.)

“Trigger” keeps it simple with respect to content additions as well, sprinkling some new dungeons, missions and items on top without monkeying too much with the original storyline. Unfamiliar players likely won’t be able to distinguish between new and old, but those who have the game committed to memory will likely appreciate the occasional surprise wrinkle, not to mention a new ending (in addition to the multiple preexisting endings) that give “Trigger’s” biggest fans a few new revelatory stones to overturn.

Somewhat fittingly, “Trigger’s” only major blight comes thanks to its biggest grab at change. The game’s new multiplayer component (two players, local wireless only) is an arena mode in which you train a monster and pit it in battle against friends’ creatures. It isn’t broken, but it’s a long way from great, and there are numerous dedicated DS games that offer a deeper and more engaging take on this idea.


Sonic Unleashed
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)

By hook or by crook, Sega needs to pull the plug on Sonic Team’s disastrous dismantling of Sonic the Hedgehog’s good name and give the reins to a developer that can figure it out.

“Sonic Unleashed,” the umpteenth reboot of the franchise since things started careening south seven years ago, merely drives home this point — yet another example of a developer too stubborn to give fans what they want and not nearly capable enough to justify such obstinacy.

To its partial credit, “Unleashed” isn’t the technical nightmare 2006’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” was. The camera only occasionally rather than constantly interferes, and the game’s failings are merely disappointing instead of staggeringly impossible to understand. “Unleashed” also looks considerably better than its predecessor, which was chock full of graphical glitches, and while the story remains a complete mess, it at least won’t creep you out the way “Hedgehog’s” weird romance did.

At its best, “Unleashed” even behaves exactly like a Sonic game should, with fleeting levels and boss fights that perfectly encapsulate what Sonic is (or should be) all about. These moments are hyper-fast, kinetic and blissfully reminiscent of Sonic’s two-dimensional glory days.

As seems to always happen, though, these moments continually suffer from interruption. Considerably more than half of “Unleashed’s” playtime stars you as a werewolf mutant version of Sonic, and here, the fast gameplay gives way to tedious combat and puzzle-solving that pay respect to “God of War” but fall hopelessly short due to sloppy controls and brainless enemy A.I.

Distressingly, the game’s story portions make the werewolf segments look like a thrill ride. “Unleashed” unnecessarily structures its story around a hub world, which leads to several more hub worlds that eventually let you actually play a level. Traversing those hub worlds is tedious in its own right, but having to gather clues by talking to mostly useless townspeople first is an unbelievable drag.

Slogging through long werewolf levels and dreadful hub crawls might be tolerable if “Unleashed’s” traditional Sonic levels were continually first-rate, but sloppiness yet again takes over whenever one of those fleeting moments of bliss ends. You will die often in “Unleashed,” and often it will be because some aspect of the game — be it loose controls, bizarre momentum shifts, an inebriated camera or something else — fails you.

Perhaps if Sonic Team poured all its energy into these levels, which precisely is what everyone wants it to do anyway, that sloppiness would subside. Once again, though — and, sadly, probably not for the last time — the powers that be have demonstrated that they just don’t get it.

DVD 12/9/08: The Dark Knight, A Man Named Pearl, Swingtown S1, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!, Man on Wire, Phillies World Series DVDs, Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews

The Dark Knight: Two-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Warner Bros.)
Even if they somehow haven’t already seen it in theaters, Batman fans likely already know more than they need to know about “The Dark Knight.” Whichever the case may be, their preorders are in the mail, and any ink “Knight” gets this week has zero value to them. So this is where the rest of you — whether you assume “Knight” is fodder for teenage boys or if you simply avoid comic book movies on instinct — come in. And here is what you may not know: You need not care one iota about superheroes, comic books or even Batman himself to absolutely love this movie anyway. “Knight” delivers as a work of fan service — The Joker (Heath Ledger) is as advertised, and the emergence of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) satisfies on the same level — but it delivers just as powerfully as a smart, morally ambiguous criminal thriller starring characters who would be among the year’s best even if they shed the costumes, washed off the makeup and called themselves Tom, Bill and Dave. “Knight” also proves, beyond doubt, that a first-rate thriller in 2008 need not lean on cheap violence and gore for the sake of it to actual thrill an audience. There are some brilliant action scenes and some stuff certainly goes boom, but it’s the sheer brilliance of the script that takes this one to a plane few of its contemporaries even know exists. Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman also star. Oh, and Christian Bale returns as Batman.
Extras: Multi-part behind-the-scenes feature, six scenes in original IMAX framing, six episodes of “Gotham Tonight,” stills gallery, digital copy.

A Man Named Pearl (NR, 2006, Docurama)
When Pearl Fryar and his wife moved to Bishopville, S.C., and settled into an all-white neighborhood, assumptions about the character behind the color of his skin sent neighbors’ imaginations into a frenzy, with some going so far as to peg Fryar as unfit to keep his own lawn from descending into ruin. Pearl’s masterful response? Win the neighborhood’s yard of the month award and leave no doubt. His method? Twenty-plus years of obsessive, self-taught topiary — creating living sculptures from trees and bushes — that transformed a backyard into a literal tourist attraction and put Bishopville on the map. The work of art Pearl unleashed is an achievement in its own right, but it’s exponentially remarkable when “A Man Named Pearl” reveals how much formal training Fryar accrued before his undertaking began. “Pearl” is full of other pleasant surprises, but perhaps no development is more pleasant than a complete lack of the character conflict that always seems to disrupt documentaries like these. Between Pearl’s achievements and Pearl himself, it would seem impossible to come away anything short of moved and impressed, and it would appear those feelings aren’t limited to the film bearing his name. If you’re the creative sort and/or if you find your ambitions in a rut, this one’s a must-see.
Extras: CD Soundtrack, Pearl/director updates, composer interview, filmmaker bios.

Swingtown: The First Season (NR, 2008, CBS/Paramount)
Seeing how “Swingtown” is not just a network show, but a CBS show, it’s understandably automatic to assume the title’s allusions to swinger culture are either coincidental or accidental. Surprise: They’re not, and “Swingtown” is, as a matter of fact, a show about swingers, their kids and their neighbors making sense of it all in suburban Chicago during America’s bicentennial. This being a network show, the content limitations are obvious. But beyond predictable restrictions placed on swearing and nudity, “Swingtown” feels positively cable-esque: The characters and situations aren’t dumbed-down or coated in sugar for safe consumption, and the show arguably achieves a higher level of maturity by taking taboo head on in spite of the detours it has to take. Given the absurd rift between sexual and violent content that broadcast television allows on its airwaves, a little gap closure is long overdue. “Swingtown” does it with taste, intrigue and style, and it tosses in a monster of a soundtrack — another staple of first-rate cable TV — to boot. Molly Parker, Grant Show, Jack Davenport, Lana Parrilla, Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins, among others, star.
Contents: 13 episodes (just like cable!), plus commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! Two-Disc Special Edition (G, 2008, Fox)
Yes, we’re doing this again. And yes, the latest stretching of a Dr. Seuss story into a feature-length film just so happens put Jim Carrey back in the titular and starting role. Don’t fret, though — there’s good news. Right off the bat, “Horton Hears a Who” appears to have learned a lesson neither “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” nor the dreadful “The Cat in the Hat” could grasp: Instead of using live actors to creep us out, it goes the computer animation route. This alone is all the film needs to bury its predecessors: Seuss’ characters lend themselves awfully well to this medium, and Horton the elephant’s universe is teeming with expressive characters (himself included) who can carry moments of filler storytelling whenever “Who” needs to thin itself out to achieve its feature-length runtime. Happily, that proves less of a problem this time as well. “Who” doesn’t exactly rock you when it comes to surprise twists or even twists at all, but between its clever original premise, a handful of likeable main characters, a few more likeable side characters, and a few bit players who are good for some smiles and laughs, there exists more than enough momentum to keep spirits high all the way to the end. What a difference a medium makes.
Extras: Directors commentary, “Ice Age: Surviving Sid” short, deleted footage, animation screen tests, seven behind-the-scenes features, elephants feature, set-top game, DVD-ROM game.

Man on Wire (PG-13, 2008, Magnolia)
One must wonder what it would be like to watch “Man on Wire” — which documents Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center’s twin towers — had Sept. 11 never happened. Petit’s and his cohorts’ accounts of how a handful of foreigners and a few inside men gained unauthorized access to the towers, no matter how harmless the intention, can’t help but carry an unsettling subtext, and there’s really nothing anyone could do at this point to change that and still keep “Wire” honest. That said, it’s this same subtext, despite “Wire’s” not-quite refusal to even allude to it, that makes “Wire” considerably more transcendent and significant than it otherwise would be for most. And Petit’s professed love of the towers, which bloomed before construction even began, makes “Wire” as much a love letter to the structures as a celebration of the fulfillment of a dream seemingly beyond possibility on numerous levels. Petit and his cohorts narrate their own story with infectious, emotional enthusiasm, and “Wire” mixes in real footage with some inspired dramatizations that skillfully convey the spirit and significance of the moment. Throw in a few mid-mission thrills and a post-climax surprise you probably won’t see coming, and you might be surprised how many directions this straight walk takes you before it’s done.
Extras: Footage of Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbor Bridge crossing, bonus Petit interview, animated 10-minute retrospective.

Worth a Mention
— Phillies World Series DVDs: Two things not to buy a Tampa Bay Rays or New York Mets fan: “World Series 2008: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Tampa Bay Rays” (NR, 2008, MLB/Shout Factory) and “The Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2008, MLB/A&E). The former, a single-disc highlight collection, includes footage of the World Series, playoff and regular season clinching footage, the World Series trophie presentation, an episode of “This Week in Baseball” and two Shane Victorino features. The latter, an eight-disc box set, includes uncut versions of all five World Series games and games four and five of the NLCS (with both the national television and local radio broadcast teams available as options), as well as a bonus disc’s worth of season-wide bonus footage and interviews.
— “Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews” (NR, 1977, Liberation Entertainment): More than 45 million Americans watched Sir David Frost’s all-encompassing interview with Richard Nixon when it originally aired on television. This disc includes the complete 80-minute interview, along with a 17-minute, present-day interview with Frost that immediately follows the program.

Games 12/2/08: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Tomb Raider: Underworld

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
For: Xbox 360
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

If you really want to, you can play large chunks of “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” like a traditional “Banjo-Kazooie” game, which — once upon a time — was Rare’s very capable answer to Nintendo’s 3D Super Mario games.

“N&B” is, in fact, chock full of things to run, jump and climb on — so long as you don’t mind some meager compensation for your efforts. While certain acrobatics will net you exciting bonuses, most simply reward you with the game’s version of currency. Banjo’s gymnastic talents almost never factor in beating the main storyline.

That honor, instead, belongs to “N&B’s” many, many vehicular missions, which see you winning races, conducting rescue missions and engaging in various forms of vehicular combat, among a ton of other clever objectives, to accumulate enough tokens to unlock levels and ultimately beat the game.

That sounds like the last thing the series needs … until you step inside Mumbo’s Garage and discover just how much control you have over the construction of those vehicles. “N&B” gives you plenty of prefabricated land, air and sea vehicles to ride if you lack the creative fortitude to design your own, but the game’s creation tool is a stunning achievement that’s both easy (and fun) to use and shockingly lax in terms of restriction. If you construct a massive, completely unbalanced tank with one sideways wheel, “N&B’s” physics engine will make it impossibly difficult to ride well. At no point, though, will the game prevent you taking it out of the garage and giving it a shot.

That freedom — along with hundreds of parts ranging from simple foundation blocks to weapons and accessories galore — afford “N&B” ridiculous amounts of possibility, and the game’s inspired design fulfills that possibility completely. More than just a beautiful, funny game with great characters, “N&B” is a wonderland of creativity, filled to the brim with challenges and surprises that cater simultaneously to casual and seasoned players. You need only complete roughly half the vehicle challenges to beat “N&B,” but knocking off every last one of them (and earning optional time trial trophies in the process) is a long, entirely joyful endeavor for those crazy enough to take it on.

Rare’s hands-off magic carries over to the multiplayer space (eight players online, two offline), where armchair engineers can engage in 28 different race and stunt events and bring their homemade (and tradable) creations to the party. The races and derbies are fun in their own right, but the myriad ways people can construct a winning vehicle make “N&B” an entirely one-of-a-kind racer on a console that’s stuffed with them.


Tomb Raider: Underworld
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PC and Nintendo DS
From: Crystal Dynamics/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Every kid growing up — including, presumably, future Crystal Dynamics employees — heard the same spiel about the importance of a good first impression. So it’s disappointing to see lessons go unlearned in “Tomb Raider: Underworld,” which follows a brief tutorial with a bland underwater mission whose centerpiece puzzle looks promising until you realize it’s just an uninspired fetch quest.

At least these dull beginnings show off how good “Underworld” looks and moves — an important point for a franchise designed around exotic locales and a main character capable of treating them as her personal jungle gym. More importantly, it does just enough to show that all the improvements “Tomb Raider” has made since its 2006 reboot remain intact, which is good enough to keep players believing better action lies ahead.

It does. “Underworld” treats its environments — jungles, caverns and the sea, to paint a picture — like gigantic puzzles, crafting huge worlds that neither feel contrived in how you maneuver through them nor lean on vagueness and cheap design to ward those contrivances off. Traversing though an area is a satisfying endeavor, but the levels are designed so well that as long as you’re keen to your surroundings and abilities, you’ll never be stuck for too long. When all else fails, “Underworld’s” generous checkpoint system makes it easy to just try something, see if it works, and try something else if it doesn’t.

Doing so is a treat, too: “Underworld” is gifted with extraordinary control and a camera that, outside of its occasional nature to zoom in way too close, keeps up with you. The intuitiveness extends to vehicular segments (the motorbike is a blast to ride) and even “Underworld’s” novel answer to interactive cutscenes, which slow down time and let you figure out what to do rather than simply plaster a button on screen and ask you to press it.

The lone downer? Once again, it’s combat. Between the peashooter power of the guns and hand-to-hand combat that just feels unwieldy, “Underworld” is as ungraceful during a fight as it is graceful most everywhere else. Fortunately, the firefights are both sparse and brief, and a few of them are completely avoidable if you’re fleet-footed.

As often happens in this series, you can take or leave “Underworld’s” story, which is amusingly outlandish but by no means crucial to enjoying the challenges it sets up for you. Good thing, too: Without spoiling anything, the game’s ending is so abrupt, you likely won’t see it coming. Remember “Halo 2?” Consider this a second coming.

DVD 12/2/08: Wanted, Garbage Warrior, Step Brothers, Fly Me to the Moon, Lower Learning, Slap Shot 3: The Junior League

Wanted: 2-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Universal)
Cube rat and lifelong doormat Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is actually an inhumanly gifted assassin. He just doesn’t know it yet. “Wanted” explains the how and why of Wesley’s heretofore-hidden talents, and it’s pretty interesting in an entirely implausible way, but it’s completely your call whether to care about Wesley’s dad, his powers, and this mysterious fraternity of assassins (Angelina Jolie, Common and Morgan Freeman, among others) and to which he appears destined to belong. Like “Shoot ’em Up” earlier this year, “Wanted” exists primarily to entertain by whatever violent and flashy means it can, and the ridiculous, special-effects-laden and sometimes hilarious results it delivers are done so with tongue lodged deeply in cheek. Take it too seriously, and you might as well not bother: Between the absurd script, convenient twists and logic holes large enough to swallow us all, “Wanted’s” cracks are deep and omnipresent. But if that reads like a recipe for possibility rather than disaster — and if an tragicomic opera about superhuman humans and bullets that curve around corners sounds like your idea of a good time — “Wanted” might be some of the most fun your movie-watching eyes have all year.
Extras: Extended scene, four behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Garbage Warrior (NR, 2007, Open Eye Media)
It’s easy to feel humbled by and jealous of Michael Reynolds during the first act of “Garbage Warrior.” Yes, his housing development literally is made of soil and other people’s trash. But the world he and his fellow dwellers designed also made him a completely independent man — able to eat, live, play and even enjoy the latest in electronic convenience without any need to make a dime or lean on the government. Naturally, that’s all the powers that be need to hear in order to begin the process of pulling Reynolds’ dream down an undertow of paperwork, filibusters and absurd legalese. As documentaries go, “Warrior” doesn’t pull any fancy tricks, but it doesn’t really need to. Reynolds’ story is inspiring at first and aggravating shortly after, but what happens in act three — when the issue becomes bigger than all the players combined — is what really makes it interesting. Your preconceived beliefs likely will dictate whether you’re rooting for or against him by this point, but Reynolds makes a case for changing minds by establishing himself as a practical, accessible component of an issue often begging for just such a thing. “Warrior” does engage the global warming dialogue — it’d look silly ignoring it — but this is Reynolds’ film, and those ideals expressed in act one remain the film’s indisputable point of attraction.
Extras: Interviews.

Step Brothers: 2-Disc Unrated Edition (NR, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) is a 39-year-old manchild who still lives at home with his mom (Mary Steenburgen). Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) is pretty much the same thing, only one year old and living at home with Dad (Richard Jenkins). Given the title of the film, you probably can see where this is going, and “Step Brothers,” for its part, doesn’t disappoint in the predictability department. But if you’re a fan of Ferrell’s starring roles, then this, too, comes as no surprise. “Step Brothers” is about laughs first and everything else a distant second, and those who enjoy the dry, funny, sometimes-gross stupidity that happens when Ferrell and Reilly get together likely won’t be disappointed here. That reads like stock praise, but “Step Brothers” is a stock comedy — a film that likely won’t stick with you much at all after it ends, but one that’s well-equipped to entertain while it’s on. Adam Scott (who practically steals the movie as Brennan’s bullying older brother) and Kathryn Hahn also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Fly Me to the Moon (G, 2008, Summit Entertainment)
Bugs and computer-animated films have a strange love affair that refuses to quit, and in “Fly Me to the Moon” — about a trio of adventurous critters who sneak a ride on the space shuttle during the Apollo 11 expedition — ordinary houseflies finally get their big moment. On its own merits, “Moon” is a harmless but likeable kids movie — nowhere near Pixar’s ballpark, but miles better than the likes of “Space Chimps” and similar such dreck. Our fly friends and their relatives are pretty universally likeable, and if “Moon” gets kids curious about space travel and history, so much the better. Of course, the wonders of space will pale in kids’ eyes once they take the included 3D glasses for a test drive. “Moon” includes an optional 3D cut of the film and throws in a couple serviceable pairs of 3D glasses, and skeptics beware: The effect works amazingly well. Watching the film in its entirety this way isn’t at all advisable — hello, eyestrain — but the gimmick is slick enough to merit checking out for at least a little while. Too bad there’s no way to switch between cuts on the fly.
Extras: Interactive planetarium game, two sets of 3D glasses for 3D version of film.

Lower Learning (R, 2008, Anchor Bay)
Were you to reimagine “Lower Learning” as a flow chart or some sort of brainstorming mind map, the result might look positively horrifying on paper. For a film with such pedestrian storytelling designs — elementary school is going under, evil principal (Rob Corddry) is purposely tanking it and well-meaning but somewhat hopeless vice principal (Jason Biggs) must rally fellow teachers (Monica Potter, Will Sasso and Hayes MacArthur, among others) and students to save the school — “Learning” has a ridiculous amount going on. There’s the main plotline, a bunch of side plots involving those and other teachers, even more material about the kids (some who crack wise like grownups and one, in particular, who is the most adorable thing ever), a little corner devoted to a surprise inspector (Eva Longoria Parker), a completely bizarre dissection of our vice principal’s haunted past, and a character (Ed Helms) who exists solely for gag purposes in a film already facing a huge gag surplus. It’s as if someone outlined a television series, had a change of heart, and crammed the whole thing inside a 97-minute film. Predictably, “Learning” is a mess. Surprisingly, though, it’s not a disaster. There’s so much going on and so much talent involved that some things were bound to work no matter what, and while “Learning” is nowhere near the best comedy you can rent this year or even this week, its short attention span continually ensures that something good is never too far off.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes, outtakes.

Slap Shot 3: The Junior League (PG, 2008, Universal)
When fans of a beloved franchise catch wind of a straight-to-video sequel, the reaction typically ranges from revulsion to stark, irrational fear of the worst. Often, the fear goes at least partially unrealized. In the case of “Slap Shot 3: The Junior League,” though, the reality likely is even worse than whatever darkness your imagination could possibly conjure. Whereas the original “Slap Shot” stands even today as one of the great countercultural sports films ever made, “League” is a mopey teen dramedy with an absurd premise (win the game, save the town!) and a laughably bland romantic subplot. That’s a bit brutal in its own right, but it’s nothing compared to how the film turns the great Hanson brothers (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson) into the film equivalent of a hair metal band headlining a county fair. They’re trying to recreate the magic, they fail miserably, and you don’t know whether to feel worse for them for falling so hard or for yourself for wasting time and money to watch them do it. All of which begs the question: Who in the world is this for? New viewers won’t even know who the Hansons are, while Hanson devotees will be left horrified by what money and executive stupidity did to their heroes.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, hockey legends feature.