Games 1/27/09: Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero, Star Ocean: Second Evolution

mebeliElebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Though it’s an “Elebits” game in every superficial respect, “Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero” shares almost nothing in common with the Nintendo Wii game that birthed the franchise. That game was a quirky action/puzzle game that had you using the Wiimote to overturn furniture and play virtual hide and seek, while “Zero” translates some of the same concepts into a far more traditional, two-dimensional adventure game in the “Legend of Zelda” vein.

It works, albeit in spite of itself sometimes, and it allows the series to spread its ever-deepening mythology to systems that (a) can’t do what the Wii can and (b) can do things the Wii cannot.

As with the original “Elebits” — and as satisfactorily explained by a brief storyline introduction — “Zero” has you trapping and collecting little Elebit creatures, which provide you with energy.

This time, though, that energy goes toward more than simply moving forward. Progression through “Zero” rewards you with Omegas — evolved companion Elebits who not only help you round up lesser Elebits, but also exhibit special abilities (breathing fire, freezing and so on) that grant you access to areas on the map you can see but otherwise cannot reach.

For the most part, beyond some boss encounters, that’s how you play: Find the hiding Elebits, collect energy, and use your team of Omegas to ward off small enemies and solve puzzles that impede your progress. But again, it works. “Zero” doesn’t throw a lot of frantic action your way, but the puzzles are designed well — neither embarrassingly easy nor unnecessarily cryptic in their riddle.

The boss fights are similarly fun, though they also best expose “Zero’s” somewhat awkward controls. The game overwhelmingly uses the touch screen to conduct business — move and shake objects to uncover Elebits, tap Elebits to stun them, tap your Omega to send it into capture mode — and it works fine on this basic level. But “Zero” also gives occasion to take direct control over your Omegas, and it handles this change of control awkwardly, which in turn can trip you up during a heated moment. The handoff becomes less jarring with time and practice, and it never develops into a deal-breaker, but the awkwardness never fully dissipates.

Beyond that, “Zero” is quite a pleasant surprise — a visually vibrant, pleasantly paced adventure that uses ingredients from its vastly different predecessor to create its own unique niche on the DS. A return to the wacky Wii format would be most welcome, but kudos to Konami to spinning this one off in just the right way while we wait for that to happen.


Star Ocean: Second Evolution
For: Sony PSP
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

It’s all “Star Ocean,” all the time at Square-Enix, which is gearing up to release a brand-new “Ocean” chapter on the Xbox 360 while giving the original games a well-deserved kick in the pants on a very game-starved PSP.

For those completely unfamiliar, the original “Star Ocean” games played out like your typical role-playing game from the mid- to late-1990s, albeit with one difference: Instead of engaging in turn-based battles, the encounters, while still randomly generated, played out in real time. Players control one character, while the game’s A.I. handles the rest of your party, which fights according to the attributes you’ve established for them. Just imagine an old-school “Final Fantasy” game with real-time battles, and you understand “Star Ocean” well enough to be comfortable with it.

As remakes go, “Star Ocean: Second Evolution” isn’t as drastic a makeover as last year’s “Star Ocean: First Departure.” Nor should it be: Whereas “Departure” reinvented a 16-bit game that never even made it out of Japan, “Evolution” takes on a sequel, “The Second Story,” that both appeared on more modern hardware and debuted in America less than 10 years ago.

Furthermore, most of what was novel about “Departure’s” remake — a polished translation that does the original story justice, brand-new animated cut scenes, a streamlined mix of 2D and 3D graphics that’s tailor-made for the PSP’s screen — returns for “Evolution.” That isn’t bad news at all, because the visual symmetry does wonders for realigning the series’ timeline. But if you played “Departure,” the changes in “Evolution” won’t drop your jaw the same way, and that merits noting.

Where “Evolution” truly excels over “Departure” is, in fact, where it counts most: It’s based on a better game. The two remakes operate almost identically, but where “Departure” was bogged down by sloppy storytelling and the need to backtrack incessantly, “Evolution” continually barrels ahead with a better, more focused story that begets similarly forward-minded gameplay.

Beyond that, little else needs be said. You don’t remake a game if it wasn’t any good and people didn’t treasure it the first time around, and “Star Ocean” isn’t the series to change that rule. Playing “Departure” before getting into “Evolution” is the right move if you want the full series experience, but if you don’t mind skipping ahead a little bit, this easily ranks as the better of the two remakes.

DVD 1/27/09: The Lucky Ones, The Rocker, The Secret of the Magic Gourd, Holly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Mercury Man

The Lucky Ones (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
They served at the same time in Iraq, they’re on simultaneous leave, and they happen to be on the same flight back to the United States, but until a region-sized blackout forces them to band together for an overcomplicated road trip to their respective destinations, that’s about all Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. Poole (Michael Peña) know about each other. Fortunately, a small car and miles of empty highway provide the perfect means for rectifying that. The road trip and the pit stops it entails cover nearly the entirety of “The Lucky Ones'” 115-minute lifespan, and the merger of two seemingly disparate storytelling devices — road trip film, meet Iraq War movie — proves to be something of a brilliant fit. “Ones” uses the war backdrop to paint a completely fresh perspective of soldiers returning to their old lives, but outside of one fleeting exchange, it doesn’t dwell on the positives and negatives of the conflict. Frankly, it doesn’t have time: Fred, Colee and T.K. have a lot of personal ground to cover, and getting to know them while they get to know each other is exponentially more interesting than yet another commentary about current events. Surprises, pleasant and otherwise, abound, and waiting to see what story-within-a-story takes place next is an engaging endeavor for character and viewer alike.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The Rocker (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Robert “Fish” Fishman (Rainn Wilson) stood on the precipice of having it all as the drummer for up-and-coming hair metal sensation Vesuvius. But then the band kicked him out, he succumbed to a life of cubicle work, 20 years passed, Vesuvius made a mint or two, and as you might imagine, the whole thing is a bit of a touchy subject. The good news? Fish’s nephew (Josh Gad) has a band (Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone), and they need a drummer now. How convenient is that? It’s only the tip of the iceberg. As perhaps the best Will Ferrell movie that neither stars nor features Will Ferrell, “The Rocker” follows a path so familiar, it’s almost more a parody of the formulaic redemption film than an actual film about redemption. But even with the basics laid bare and the obvious waiting a mile ahead for your arrival, “The Rocker” only intermittently drags, and only toward the end when scrambling to tie up some telegraphed loose end. Far more often, the film entertains, either by filling out those tired old story trees with some distinctive surprises or simply by powering through familiarity with all kinds of comic gold, which it has in abundance. “The Rocker” makes fine work out of the Fish’s comeback attempt, but like other great comedies of the current age, it’s just as gifted at creating a bounty of supporting characters (Christina Applegate, Jane Lynch, Jeff Garlin,
Will Arnett, Howard Hesseman and especially Jason Sudeikis) who aren’t afraid to steal scenes when the opportunity arises.
Extras: Director/Wilson commentary, supporting cast commentary, digital copy.

The Secret of the Magic Gourd (G, 2007, Disney)
Who knew? Turns out the Magic Gourd that 11-year-old Wang Bao’s (Qilong Zhu) family told him about in fairy tales is real. And because Wang Bao discovered him, he is now the wisecracking gourd’s master, able to wish for food, athletic prowess, good grades and anything else that will allow our young underachiever to keep on coasting by. This being a film for kids, you probably can see where “Gourd” is headed and what lesson it ultimately has in store. Between the discovery and the lesson, though, “Gourd” is a visual treat, mixing live-action film with computer animation that gives gorgeous life to the gourd and the wishes (and mischief) it grants. Here’s hoping the kids you share it with like to read, though. “Gourd” comes with a complete English dub, but the Americanized dialogue and tone clashes weirdly with the actual film, which retains far more of its charm through the original Chinese language track. The film is a treat either way, but if you and yours can be bothered to do a little subtitle-gazing, the effort needed to watch the film in its original form will not go unrewarded.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, DVD Game, music video, bloopers.

Holly (R, 2007, City Lights)
As the world gets smaller, uncomfortable international subjects we’d sometimes rather pretend don’t exist — such as the selling of children into slavery, which “Holly” explores — become a little harder to imagine away. “Holly,” to its immense credit, accomplishes what few like-minded projects have by believably humanizing the problem (Thuy Nguyen as the film’s namesake, Ron Livingston as the dodgy burnout who befriends and then tries to save her) without exploiting it through cheap devices when it’s time to face some topical demons. Thanks to the film’s desire to stay honest — even Holly herself isn’t painted in shades of saint, to say nothing of the characters with whom she shares the screen — it doesn’t need to. “Holly” never jumps from hot to cold, nor does it ever insult viewer intelligence by preaching or beating us over the head with the obvious. Instead, it continually simmers, from opening to closing credits, telling a sweetly believable story of friendship amid a backdrop of endless discomfort that, true to the problem it represents, never fully goes away. Chris Penn, Udo Kier and Virginie Ledoyen also star. In a mix of English, Khmer and Vietnamese with English subtitles when needed.
Extras: K11 Project feature, anti-trafficking heroes feature, excerpt from the “Children for Sale” documentary.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG-13, 2008, Weinstein Company)
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) have developed wildly contrasting definitions of love and what it entails, with the former engaged to a mildly interesting husband-to-be (Chris Messina) while the latter hunts for something more dangerous. Now, with the two embarking together (and sans fiancé) on an extended, loosely-defined vacation to Barcelona, the table is set for those separate philosophies to endure some simultaneous, real-world testing. Like the premise that sets it up, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a bit predictable by design: Unless you’re new to watching movies, you’ve likely seen shades of this conflict and these situations before, and you probably can take a pretty educated guess as to where “Barcelona” plans to take them. Don’t worry; that’s fine. “Barcelona’s” investment in familiarity leaves it with two (and counting) superbly developed characters whose distinctions rise above convention and whose fates easily are worth the 97 minutes of engagement they request. A few twists pop up as the credits draw near, but if “Barcelona” sports a real shocker, it’s that a simple film about familiar material actually ends sooner than you might like it to. Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson also star. No extras.

Mercury Man (R, 2006, Magnet)
Why should Hollywood have all the superhero fun? And so what if Mercury Man (Vasan Kantha-u) sort of looks a little like Spider-Man in his Symbiote form? Certainly not the film in question, even if it is too preoccupied for its own good about our hero’s origins and the minutiae of an amulet and the powers it has over a once-ordinary firefighter. “Man,” for good measure, also uses modern-day terrorism as the basis for introducing our villains (including a character named, no joke, Osama bin Ali), and its attempt to re-center itself as a screed about the American war on terror is adorably, insanely hilarious. It isn’t apparent whether “Man” is winking through all this or taking it entirely seriously, but it’s also unimportant. If letting the film go through the storytelling motions is our end of the bargain, rest assured that “Man” — which tosses out all manner of spinning newspaper montages, rampaging elephants and action sequences that are a blast in spite of (or is it because of?) some low-budget special effects — makes good in meeting us halfway. Happily, “Man’s” crazy side outweighs its storytelling side, so if you can tolerate the dry patches, a campy good time (and some unintended hilarity) lurk in between. In Thai with English subtitles, but an appropriately lousy English dub also is available.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 1/20/09: Moon, Skate 2

For: Nintendo DS
From: Renegade Kid/Mastiff
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, violence)

Before “Brain Age” single-handedly transformed the Nintendo DS into some bizarre educational/self-help/virtual pet device, gamers were salivating over the prospect of the little portable’s potential to replicate the control scheme that makes first-person shooters so popular on the PC.

Finally, “Moon” validates all that long-ago excitement. The control scheme — D-pad emulates arrow keys, touch screen emulates mouse, left trigger emulates mouse button — works as hoped, and the game helps itself by masking the DS’ shortcomings about as much as can be expected.

“Moon” accomplishes that last point, with arguably unfortunate effect, by easing up on the insanity. Though the touch screen absolutely works, it’s still neither as swift as a mouse nor as intuitive as dual joysticks. So the enemy quotient is kept reasonably in check, and other perks, from handy save points to strategically-placed reinforcements, do plenty to keep you and your remote-control droid alive.

Given the amount of storytelling and puzzle-solving Renegade Kid mixes into the equation, though, the slightly lightened load makes considerable sense. “Moon” gradually makes it clear that it’s an adventure game with first-person shooter elements and not vice versa, and it’s hard to mind once the full scope of the adventure comes to light. There are voice-acted cut-scenes as well as tons of discoverable backstory you can choose to ingest or ignore. The 3D environments look fantastic on the tiny screen, and the action is shockingly fast and smooth despite levels that, while nothing artistically revolutionary, are impressive in their scope.

Happily, that ambition fully extends to the gameplay side. The number of unique enemies you’ll face isn’t very high, but the encounters are fun thanks not only to the controls, but how good the guns feel — a staggering surprise given the hardware in question. (That holds exponentially true if you have a Rumble Pack handy.) “Moon” also goes the extra mile by throwing in vehicular and reconnaissance droid segments, which control similarly but still serve to mix up the mood and pace of the action.

None of this is to suggest “Moon” is indistinguishable from more full-featured, big-screen shooters. The hardware makes that impossible, and that’s to say nothing of game’s complete lack of multiplayer features.

But “Moon’s” $30 price tag reflects that, and the lengthy adventure that awaits inside provides more than enough quality and quantity to validate the price tag. The landfill’s worth of showstring-budget game releases has made it harder than it should be to gauge what the DS’ technical limitations are, but until something comes along to knock it off, “Moon” sits atop the bleeding edge.


Skate 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

Given its contributions to classing up the skateboarding genre and returning it to its fundamentals, “Skate” often is misremembered as something of a humorless game despite being nothing of the sort.

Though it refines all that serious stuff that made the first game so good, “Skate 2” likely won’t have the same problem. And you can thank the Hall of Meat — a series of controls and challenges devoted to wiping out and causing as much creative, self-inflicted bodily harm as inhumanely possible — for that. When flying off your board is not only as fun as staying on it, but entirely rewarding in its own right, it’s that much harder to resist the game’s charms.

“S2’s” other big addition — the ability to get off your board, walk freely and move loose objects around to create your own makeshift stunt sequence — is equally welcome, albeit in spite of itself. It works as one would hope it would, and the degree to which it’s implemented — both in the career mode and through a mode that lets you design and share stunt challenges with other players online — is inspired.

Too bad your custom-designed skater walks around like there’s a Festivus pole stuck up his or her shirt. The off-board controls are unreasonably stiff, and that’s a most unpleasant surprise considering how polished “S2’s” on-board controls are.

Fortunately, the extreme majority of “S2” takes place on a board, and the game only improves on its predecessor in that regard. The action on the whole is smoother and snappier, your bag of tricks considerably fattened up, and the ability to string them together made easier and more fun thanks to a little tightening on the accessibility and rough edges front.

Like the original game, “S2” also gives you plenty to do on both the single- and multiplayer sides. The occasional obnoxious objective awaits in the career mode — the antagonizing security guards return, and they’re more annoying than ever — but for the most part, the challenges are accessible, open to creativity and just brief enough to keep you constantly in motion. Beating one challenge often opens two or three more, and between the varying locations and objectives, the game isn’t hurting for diversity.

That’s markedly more true online. Once again, you can set up trick competitions and share and rate highlight reels (which, thank you Hall of Meat, is more fun than ever). But “S2” also takes some of “Burnout Paradise’s” medicine, allowing you to instantly jump into an online free skate session, which features its own set of challenges and a leveling system that will have completionists drooling.

DVD 1/20/09: Repo! The Genetic Opera, The End of America, Saw V, Max Payne, The Deal, Obama DVDs, Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger, Powerpuff Girls Complete Series, This American Life S2

Repo! The Genetic Opera (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
Explaining the outlying particulars of “Repo! The Genetic Opera” is no easy task. Just ask the film itself, which struggles mightily to make sense of its premise (not-too-distant future, organ failure is rampant, private companies find ways to profit from and glamorize surgery, but it comes at a price) during a clever but awkward graphic novel-esque opening sequence. Fortunately, and necessarily, “Repo!” sprinkles in a handful of these sequences, which give us a satisfactory back story and better explain who the Repo man (Anthony Stewart Head) is, why he cuts people open for Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), why his daughter (Alexa Vega) is so ill, and what the heck else is going on. As the title implies, “Repo” is indeed an opera, and the metal, glam rock and occasionally poppy wall of music conspires with garish costume design and occasional splashes of blood and organs to completely annihilate the senses. You might find it a bit much, you might hate it completely, or you may just treasure it as the cult treasure it purports to be. “Repo,” to its credit and in the vein of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” is fully spirited and capable enough to inspire any of the three reactions. Like those films, though, it’s far more enjoyable in a group setting than when watched alone.
Extras: Director/partial cast commentary, Crew commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

The End of America (NR, 2008, Indiepix)
Irony, thy name is release date. “The End of America,” which gives the “Inconvenient Truth” touch to Naomi Wolf’s book of the same name, pushes the argument that the actions of America today are eerily similar to those of iron-fist dictatorships (most particularly, Adolf Hitler’s Germany) before those regimes sent their countries reeling over the edge and into a cultural downturn. Though the premise and dopey title suggests Wolf’s a kook, a closer look at her arguments reveals, however loosely, some creepy parallels that — while not necessarily signals of America’s pending downfall — certainly don’t won’t go down as the finest achievements in the national timeline. Still, a significant majority of Wolf’s points play out more like indictments of George W. Bush’s administration than the culture at large, and if “America” falls seriously short in any area of its argument, it’s explaining how a downfall sparked by these arguments can continue with an incoming administration that has vowed to reverse a handful of policies that led to the arguments. Wolf also fails to note similarities between some of those policies and similar approaches that came and went in America’s past — a glaring overnight considering the film’s closing argument that liberty, once lost, cannot be recovered. That “America” comes to stores on the very same day that administration takes office almost comically undermines the film’s own message — which, in all likelihood, is the complete opposite of the effect all involved had in mind.
Extras: Commentary with constitutional expert Walter Murphy, extended interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, the original pre-election ending, a new post-election update.

Saw V: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)

In case you lost track of the “Saw” franchise, which has tumbled wildly downhill since the brilliant first film, the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell, who returns in flashback form) has been dead since the third one. “Saw IV” was a lukewarm collection of cheap kills and flashback material that attempted, without anyone really asking, to fatten up the series’ back story. “Saw V,” meanwhile, plays out like a series of “Saw IV” B-sides in an attempt to drag the mythology out even further. Problem is, with each passing film, “Saw” drifts further and further away from the spartan horror that made it so engrossing the first time around. The first film focused on one room, two horrible members of society, and the ironic lengths to which they had to go to save their own lives and pay for their misdeeds. By film five, we’re just tossing people into elaborate but mostly unimaginative dungeons and watching them eat it via special effects that appear to have been rendered on a Commodore 64. Outside of one gruesome trap at the very end, it’s not even creepy anymore. That puts the burden of entertainment on the shoulders of a story canon that ran out of powder two films ago, and it leaves the franchise as a whole drifting through a wilderness of boredom that seemed impossibly out of reach only four years ago.
Extras: Director commentary, producers commentary, five behind-the-scenes features.

Max Payne: Unrated (NR, 2008, Fox)
There exists an acute slice of the populace that needs no introduction to Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg), who is responsible for two of the most brilliant video games of the early 2000s and hopefully will be responsible for at least two more once everyone forgets this movie ever existed. The “Payne” games, to say nothing of how fun they were to play, were excellent at turning an ordinary story of a cop falsely accused of murdering his own family into a rollicking, darkly humorous and entirely self-aware slice of pure noir. “Payne” the movie stays true to the concept and frequently evokes the games’ unique visual style. But it tosses everything else aside, ditching the games’ gallows humor in favor of a convoluted and completely witless mess that might as well be an episode of “Criminal Minds.” “Payne’s” only value comes in spurts to fans of the game, who occasionally will recognize a nod to the franchise from which it stole its name. But those same fans will spend considerably more time cringing at the sight of Hollywood fumbling yet another handoff from the gaming industry. Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Chris O’Donnell and Donal Logue also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

The Deal (R, 2007, Peace Arch)
William H. Macy isn’t exactly hurting for work, and one imagines Meg Ryan still has what it takes to land a choice role here and there. So it’s absolutely baffling to see them at the top of the marquee for “The Deal,” a wildly uneven semi-comedy about a near-suicidal film producer (Macy) who somehow goads a film studio executive (Ryan) into green-lighting a film that may or may not have a script and may or may not have a star (LL Cool J) attached to it. The reason for all those qualifiers: Too much of “The Deal” makes no sense, even by comedy’s forgiving standards and even if you suspend your sense of disbelief all the way to the moon. It’s not the fault of Macy, Ryan or their co-stars: The talent is there, and it peeks through as best as it can. But the script is absurd, excessively cute, and horribly overmatched when trying to command laughs. When things go from cute and funny to sympathetic and somewhat serious during the inevitable “everything is starting to work out” scenes, it’s hard to take any of it seriously, much less root for anyone involved. The change of mood is much too abrupt, and it’s practically a given 30 minutes ahead of time how “The Deal” plans to wrap things up, so asking anybody to care is a request beyond reason.
Extras: Cast interviews, digital copy.

Worth a mention
— New Obama DVDs: Don’t look so surprised. Piggybacking both Inauguration Day and the trail of already-released DVDs discussing Pres. Obama’s life and times is a new release, “President Barack Obama: The Man and His Journey” (NR, 2009, Vivendi) and a reissue of the plain-named Biography Channel portrait that first surfaced last year. “Journey” includes an 88-minute feature, as well as extended interviews, seven short films about current events (housing, immigration, the economy and so on) and a music video. “Barack Obama” (NR, 2008, Biography), meanwhile, sprinkles some post-vote footage to complement the original “Biography” episode, bringing the total run time to 47 minutes.
— Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger (NR, 2008, HBO): It’s Chris Rock, it’s an HBO special and it’s 80 minutes from one of the best comics to take a stage, today or any day. “Kill the Messenger” comes in a bare-bones regular edition without extras, but Rock’s biggest fans should opt instead for the three-disc special edition, which includes the special and uncut versions of the three concerts used to create the special. Why watch a best-of when you can witness the whole thing?
— “The Powerpuff Girls: 10th Anniversary Collection: The Complete Series” (NR, 1998, Cartoon Network): Yes, the math isn’t perfect. But the show did at least premiere in late 1998, so it could be worse. Includes all 78 episodes, plus a bounty of extras including interviews, shorts, the holiday special, animatics, music and commentary.
— “This American Life: Season Two” (NR, 2008, Showtime): One of premium cable’s most understated gems is back with six more episodes’ worth of extraordinary stories about ordinary people. Extras include commentary, an extended cut of one episode and a live presentation of the audio show on which this is based.

Games 1/13/09: The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Cradle of Rome

The Lord of the Rings: Conquest
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Pandemic Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Hey, do you like “The Lord of the Rings?” And did you like “Star Wars: Battlefront?” Well guess what: You’ll love “The Lord of the Rings: Conquest,” even when the game itself dares you not to.

Like “Battlefront” — which Pandemic Studios also masterminded — “Conquest” is a tactical action game. Your essential objective is to carve through opposing armies, but you’re working alongside an army of your own and are free to swap between different classes (warrior, archer, scout, mage). While the number of times you can perish in a single mission is limited, “Conquest” otherwise operates like a multiplayer game: If and when you die, you simply respawn as a character type of your choice while the action carries on uninterrupted.

Naturally, a game that functions like a multiplayer experience also works best as one. “Conquest” (16 players online, four offline) takes no chances in terms of mode styles, but it doesn’t need to. Unbalanced though the classes are, all four are fun in their own way to embody, and that’s to say nothing of when the game lets you commandeer a troll, Ent or one of several iconic heroes or villains.

Additionally, while “Conquest” moves and controls like a Playstation 2 game, the somewhat archaic approach remains a perfect fit for this kind of action. Given all the sorry hack-and-slash wannabes that have surfaced this generation, Pandemic’s decision to keep it fast and simple pays off remarkably well.

The retro approach is less glittering, though, if you’re going it alone.

“Conquest” makes a big deal about its single-player component, which lets you relive the films’ story as the good guys and then play a parallel-universe version as the bad guys. But while reenacting and rewriting these moments is fun, Pandemic’s inability to create any kind of compelling artificial intelligence looms awfully large. In too many instances, whether you’re playing as an iconic character or an ordinary grunt, every enemy on the battlefield seems determined to get a piece of you. And they will, because your computer-controlled allies are too busy doing nothing to have your back.

Fortunately, “Conquest” allows co-op play (two players, online or offline) during these missions, so you and a friend can watch each other’s back while the rest of your army stares in amazement.

It says something about the “Battlefront” model, though, that “Conquest” remains fun even if you can’t enlist a friend to save you or compete online. A little advancement the next time around would be welcome, but for now, this marks a fun return to a genre that has a lot of good days ahead of it.


Cradle of Rome
For: Nintendo DS
From: GmbH/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference)

Ready for another high-concept “Bejeweled” remix, a la “Puzzle Quest?” How about a “Bejeweled” clone that lets you rebuild the Roman Empire? No, seriously.

That pretty much is what “Cradle of Rome” is. You’re matching three or more identical blocks and clearing them, “Bejeweled”-style, and your goal is to clear specific, marked areas of each level before time runs out. Blocks are arranged in a grid, per usual, but the grids appear in different configurations (instead of simple 11×9 rectangles) as the levels go by.

The big twist is that the blocks you’re matching represent resources. Match gold coins to accumulate wealth, stones and wood to accumulate building materials, and food to keep your people fat and happy. As you accrue set amounts of each, you unlock different pieces of architecture, which advances your civilization and opens you to additional resources.

While some new ingredients are simply more advanced forms of preexisting resources, others allow you to create special power-ups for clearing select or multiple spaces that might be impeding your progress. That becomes especially critical during harder levels, where the grid patterns grow increasingly complex and certain blocks need to be “unlocked” before you can move them freely.

The power-ups are fun to use, though they also help mask the problem every “Bejeweled” game, clone or original, has. The very nature of “Bejeweled” — clear some blocks, and new blocks of an unknown configuration fall from above — means that the game often is as much about luck as it is skill. The difference between success and failure in some of “Rome’s” levels will come down to how lucky you are in terms of what blocks fall and what power-ups you can create.

But that’s the nature of the game, and if you like “Bejeweled” in any capacity, you’ve probably accepted that by now. “Rome” is helpless to change that, but the high-concept approach does freshen things up. And while the touch controls occasionally goof up and don’t register your movement, the game manages to stay out of its own way for the most part. If you’ve played “Bejeweled” before, you won’t even need a manual to figure this one out.

Given the obvious applications — along with the fact that pretty much every puzzle game has some kind of multiplayer component — “Rome’s” omission of any such thing is harder to defend. But the $20 price of admission at least reflects that, and the 100 levels you do get likely will keep you entertained long enough to collect on that investment.

DVD 1/13/09: Swing Vote, Mirrors, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Brideshead Revisited, Humboldt County

Swing Vote (PG-13, 2008, Touchstone)
You might be surprised to discover that “Swing Vote” — that seemingly dumb comedy about a do-nothing, always-drunk single dad (Kevin Costner) who, due to a voting machine glitch, gets to cast the deciding vote in the Presidential election — runs a few ticks shy of two full hours. But the marketing only told half the story. For one thing, “Vote” isn’t just a comedy. The setup is completely improbable, what happens next almost cartoonishly absurd, but “Vote” finds some impossible way to actually rebuild itself mid-step as a pretty sly (and somewhat prophetic, given similarities to real stories that developed after the film’s completion) allegory for the real-life absurdity that is our electoral process. That’s no easy feat considering the film’s simultaneous desire to please both sides of a bitterly-divided populace without skirting the rhetoric that created that divide. “Vote” pulls it off, rather ingeniously, by squaring its focus on our drunk antihero’s daughter (Madeline Carroll). Anytime “State” threatens to inspire cynicism, disbelief or accusations of oversimplification, there she is, stealing scene after scene from a cast of heavyweights (Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, Paula Patton, George Lopez) and reminding all concerned why all this silly stuff matters in the first place. Not bad for a dumb comedy.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Mirrors (NR, 2008, Fox)
Think Kiefer Sutherland is happy to be back in Jack Bauer’s shoes this week? It certainly beats being disgraced cop Ben Carson, who is biding his time as a night watchman at a burnt-down department store while waiting for a chance to return to the force. Problem is, the mirrors in the store are haunted, vindictive and considerably more hazardous to Ben’s health than his job woes, marital difficulties and prescription drug habit. The absolutely ridiculous premise — and the goofy predicament it leaves Ben in early on — are acceptable on the basis that “Mirrors” is a horror film. But they’re also hard to swallow, because with exception to a successfully creepy opening scene, most of the insanity comes after a chunk of scenes that puts the film on the path of attempted credibility. Ben’s character is credibly sketched, and his circumstances are compelling despite their familiarity. The stabilizing presence of Sutherland and some equally good cast mates (Paula Patton, Amy Smart) only helps. But once “Mirrors” starts letting the bizarre in, that need to take itself seriously doesn’t fade, and the film drags and stumbles by taking on the impossible task of credibly reconciling a bunch of haunted mirrors that can travel through their own dimension and kill at will. There are enough good moments to maintain interest, and the final twist at the end is a worthy payoff. But “Mirrors” would have helped itself by going full crazy and trimming some fat off a runtime that, at nearly two hours, is too much for the premise to sustain.
Extras: Deleted/alternate scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life (NR, 2008, Palm Pictures)
If you looked at the title of this DVD and your first question was in the “Wait, who is Patti Smith?” vein, you are cleared to skip the rest of this review. “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” is, indeed, a look into the life and mind of the legendary musician, but it in no way is designed as a starting point or even any kind of biopic. Smith ruminates on her life’s and career’s beginnings, touches on some significant stops along the way, and gifts fans with some candid footage surrounding her return to the stage she’d left years prior. All that, along with a truly endearing series of scenes in which Smith discusses and visits with her family, serve as a gift for fans who may not be used to seeing her in these lights. For everyone else, though, “Life” is a significantly more difficult picture to enjoy. Scenes crash into one another without setup or context, the film freely meanders between poetry recitations and biographical narrations without warning, and anyone searching for some actual music will be dismayed by the sparse amount on display here. “Life” isn’t a proper concert film any more than it is a proper biopic, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, either. Not every movie is made with everybody in mind, and this one just so happens to target its audience more sharply than most.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interview with Smith’s son, raw footage montage.

Brideshead Revisited (PG-13, 2008, Miramax)
You can watch “Brideshead Revisited,” but if you do, you should realize you are settling. “Revisited” attempts to present the 1945 book (and 11-hour 1981 miniseries) of the same name in movie form, and it makes an admirable effort to balance time management and effect in doing so. But like any film that attempts to cram so much content into so little time, “Revisited” has to cut corners. And when your source material is a dense, 21-year exploration of desire, faith, social mores and the need to shatter or obey them, going the Cliff’s Notes route is a dangerous endeavor. All that necessary clipping leaves “Revisited” with the less-than-enviable task of trying to create a sizzling love story without the context needed to give it weight, and if the dry exchanges and mostly muted performances are any indication, the film never felt it had any chance of rising to meet that challenge. The end result is a solid two hours of storytelling, but very little more than that. If you want the full treatment, your options lie elsewhere. Emma Thompson, Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell and Michael Gambon star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Humboldt County (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Mere hours after his own father (Peter Bogdanovich) had to flunk him out of medical school, Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) finds himself, one chance encounter with a girl named Bogart (Fairuza Balk) later, on her friends’ pot farm with a handful of farmers (Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Frances Conroy, among others) who don’t appear to want him there. Unfortunately for all involved, Bogart bailed without a word, and the uptight former med student and a farm full of weary hippies are stuck with each other until she sees fit to return. Given the comedic beginnings, it’s natural to assume “Humboldt County” is just another movie about a square who learns to loosen up. But “County” dares to be different, forgoing laughs and even smiles by using a collection of mostly hostile and unlikable characters to preach the virtues of their way of living. The film lays it on so thick, in fact, that if Peter had been even remotely interesting in his own right, we might be compelled to root against “County’s” transparent message. But he’s an unlikable bore as well, so it’s a draw. The only truly selfless act that happens in “County” is vilified, the only truly interesting character disappears after one act, and if “County” is attempting to teach a lesson about the values of humanity, the joyless and insulting final scene proves just how laughably unqualified it is to handle such matters.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 1/6/09: Dance Dance Revolution Universe 3 / Hottest Party 2

Dance Dance Revolution Universe 3
For: Xbox 360
From: Bemani/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party 2
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Bemani/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, suggestive themes)

Many thousands of new Wii owners got their first taste of “Wii Fit” this holiday season. And over the course of the next few weeks, most of those people will realize not only that the wait wasn’t justified, but that they’ll need some closet space for that Wii Balance Board until more worthy software comes along.

In the meantime, the original gaming workout sensation remains, 10 years and umpteen editions later, the best way to burn calories and game at the same time. And while the newest round of games does little to set the franchise on fire, they’ll still make you sweat off pounds in ways Nintendo’s trendy peripheral can’t.

If this is your first go-round with “DDR” and you have an Xbox 360 handy, “Dance Dance Revolution Universe 3’s” arrival couldn’t be timelier.

Following two near-identical iterations of the same core game, “DDRU3” significantly ramps up the accessibility quotient, complementing an already-loaded collection of single- and multiplayer modes with a set of tutorials that not only makes the game friendlier to new players, but teaches them how to excel in ways previous games never bothered to do. The single-player quest mode, a source of aggravation in past games, is exponentially more approachable, and the game’s most enjoyable multiplayer mode grades you on competency but lets you and your opponents dance as gracefully or poorly as you please.

“Universe’s” only disappointing holdover remains the workout mode, which tracks your calories game-wide but isn’t a dedicated mode in its own right. Still, with so many play styles at the ready, you might prefer to set up the calorie counter and do your own thing anyway.

“Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party 2” is similarly willing to track your calorie-burning exploits, but that, beyond a love of dance, is where the two games’ philosophies part.

A year of additional development time has allowed Bemani to fine-tune its familiarity with the Wii’s motion controls, which allowed the original “Party” to mix in arm movements with the usual dance steps. The arm motions register more accurately this time, but “Hottest Party 2” compensates by sprinkling in more challenging gestures on harder difficulty settings. Though you can tune the difficulty as much as you wish, true “DDR” purists are in for their most grueling test yet. That’s to say nothing of the extra burn you’ll feel by working the upper as well as lower body.

Beyond that, neither game surprises or disappoints in any striking way. Bemani has “DDR’s” gameplay down cold at this point, and if you’re even remotely familiar, nothing about the controls, soundtrack, visual style or mode overload should surprise you. Whichever platform you pick, there’s more than enough content to keep you moving until the next editions roll out in the fall.

DVD 1/6/09: Pineapple Express, Ghost Writer, Bangkok Dangerous, Babylon A.D., Disaster Movie

Pineapple Express: Two-Disc Unrated Edition (NR, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Despite being the current torchbearer for buddy stoner comedies, the “Harold & Kumar” series has one big problem: Its best character isn’t one of the buddies, but Neil Patrick Harris playing a Hell-dimension version of himself. This, happily, is a problem “Pineapple Express” — which tells the story of a guy (Seth Rogen), his dealer (James Franco) and the massive problem they have after stumbling upon all kinds of serious criminal activity — doesn’t have. This isn’t to suggest “Express” lacks memorable supporting characters; to the contrary, there’s a veritable buffet of those (Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez, Kevin Corrigan, Ed Begley Jr., Amber Heard, Nora Dunn) as well, along with large helpings of screaming, violence, sight gags and ridiculous plot twisting over the course of a runtime that’s maybe 10 minutes too long. But the best defense of comedic excess is, as always, the ability to bring the laughs. And even as it spits out formulaic heist clichés and walls of headless chickens losing their minds, “Express” is so brilliantly, cleverly and stupidly funny enough — from Rogen and Franco on down — to get away with every crime it commits. That said, the easily offended best keep their distance. And if the Judd Apatow film comedy revolution has left you weary so far, “Express” likely will turn you off completely.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended scenes, 13 behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, line-o-rama, direct-o-rama.

Ghost Writer (NR, 2007, Genius Entertainment)
So hey, how’s your blood pressure level these days? It bears checking if you’re considering a viewing of “Ghost Writer,” which tells the story of one creatively frustrated guy (Alan Cumming) who takes in another guy (David Boreanaz) as a boarder, only to discover he’s something of a freeloading playboy. That’s a low-concept concept if ever there was one, and if you judged “Writer” purely by the art on the box, you’d be well within your right to assume it’s some stock horror film that lucked its way into a good cast. Surprise: Not even close. Were “Writer” to achieve typical classification, the “comedy” tag would be far more appropriate, but even that doesn’t properly encapsulate the inspired but wildly overcaffeinated performances our two leads bounce off each another. More a filmed play than your traditional movie, “Writer” is so manic as to be somewhat stressful in spite of its ability to entertain, and the faint of heart may not even be able to take it in one continuous dose. All that energy makes “Writer” impossible to flatly praise or pan: Some will find it brilliant, others violently annoying, and there’s no shortage of arguments for either side. Either way, that’s quite a feat for a film of such pedestrian pretensions. Anne Heche, Jane Lynch, Carrie Fisher, Karen Black and Henry Thomas also star.
Extra: Cumming commentary. (He also directed.)

Bangkok Dangerous: 2-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
“Bangkok Dangerous” does, indeed, take place in Bangkok. So the title is half truthful. But dangerous? Eh, not so much. Films about longtime hit men (Nicolas Cage in this case) who want out of the racket often tend to go the same way, and once our anti-hero decides his next hit is his last, you get the feeling “Dangerous” isn’t taking any less-traveled roads. The details differ, and for a time, the nuances of Cage’s character and the people with whom he most closely associates (Shahkrit Yamnarm, Charlie Yeung) appear interesting enough to carry the film in spite of the ongoing threat of plot predictability and cliché. But you can fool yourself for only so long before it’s time to admit the story isn’t pulling its weight, and it’s hard to care too much about anyone once that admission is out in the open. “Dangerous'” gloomy tone and reliance on stock twists send it limping into its last act, and the final showdown — a sleepy, overlong affair that bears little resemblance to the jaw-dropping climax of the 2001 Asian original of the same name — puts it down for good. When an action film’s final bullet inspires relief instead of exhilaration, something definitely is wrong.
Extras: Alternate ending, two behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Babylon A.D.: 2-Disc Raw and Uncut Edition (NR, 2008, Fox)
American mercenary Toorop (Vin Diesel) is stuck slumming it in war-torn Russia, unable to return home after being branded a terrorist and marked for death. All that changes, however, when Toorop is asked, under shady circumstances and without any real explanation, to escort a girl (Mélanie Thierry) to New York, which is four times as populous as it is today and overrun by corporate control. Sound familiar? If you’re any sort of connoisseur of post-war sci-fi — or perhaps if you saw “Children of Men” recently — large portions of “Babylon A.D.” will definitely invoke feelings of déjà vu. There exists no shortage of cool things to look at, and some of “A.D.’s” visual stabs at post-war tomorrow are compelling on a superficial level. Problem is, all that cool-looking stuff is rooted in ideas we’ve seen in so many other visions of a post-war future, and “A.D.” doesn’t do much to advance them in any unique or meaningful ways. That leaves the burden of engagement on the story and characters, but between some silly dialogue, excessive in-your-face-itude and a budding relationship that never feels nearly believable enough to carry the emotional weight it’s asked to carry, there’s even less going on there. Everything “A.D.” does has been done before, and just about all of it has been done better, making this just another pretty also-ran with potential it won’t ever achieve. Michelle Yeoh and Gérard Depardieu also star.
Extras: Five-minute animated prequel (that, accidentally, suggests the entire thing would have been better off animated), deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, stills gallery, digital copy.

Disaster Movie: Unrated (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
The nicest thing one can say about “Disaster Movie?” All together now: They finally got the name right. “Disaster” is the latest in the strikingly awful line of plain-named parody films that — the pleasantly surprising aberration that was ” Superhero Movie” aside — are among the worst movies ever belched out by a studio of paid, professional filmmakers. The formula remains the same here: Slap together depressingly witless “parodies” of a few dozen films and pop culture figures who passed through the headlines since the last awful “Movie” movie, and justify the horror that ensues with a story that’s little more than a coat rack to keep all these awful skits in place. If there’s a nice thing to be said, it’s that “Disaster” is, if absolutely nothing else, charitable. Rare is the film that nobly and ably makes the likes of “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie” look almost tolerable by comparison. And while the freight train of lousy 2009 DVDs has only begun to roll, the arrival of this beauty straight out of the gate practically guarantees that no DVD released in the 51 weeks ahead need worry about being branded the year’s worst.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, six behind-the-scenes features, two sing-alongs.