Games 2/24/09: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, Halo Wars, Noby Noby Boy

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Requires: Grand Theft Auto IV game disc

No one really knew what it meant when Microsoft promised, seemingly forever ago and at a cost of 50 million of its own dollars, two exclusive downloadable additions to the Xbox version of “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

With the arrival of the $20 “The Lost and Damned,” it’s starting to make sense. Much like Rockstar changed the face of console gaming seven years ago with “Grand Theft Auto III,” it has now dramatically altered what owners of a $60 game should expect when a publisher asks them to invest additional funds atop the initial investment.

“Damned” doesn’t move the action away from Liberty City, and in fact takes place at the same time as the events you experienced as Niko Belic in “GTAIV.” This time, though, you’re filling the shoes of The Lost Motorcycle Club Vice President Johnny Klebitz, who made a cameo but little more in “GTAIV.” Fittingly, most of the action takes place in Alderney, which “GTAIV” presented in full but rarely utilized during its storyline.

In dismissive terms, it’s more of the same. But when your storytelling and voice acting exist in a class all their own — and a fantastic opening cutscene serves as stark reminder just how good Rockstar is at that stuff — a return to that level of quality after a 10-month layoff is entirely welcome. Expansion content or not, “Damned’s” single-player component is good for roughly 10 hours of gameplay, which is competitive with most games that cost triple the price. The new story makes stars out of a new crop of Liberty City citizens, lets us reconnect with a few familiar faces, and includes some fun side missions (biker gang turf wars and “Road Rash”-style bike races, to name two) to complement the main storyline.

Those bike races — which let you enjoy the vastly improved motorcycle physics while also knocking your friends off their rides with a bat — mark the best of “Damned’s” new multiplayer offerings, which mostly (and satisfactorily) remix existing “GTAIV” modes to incorporate the biker gang motif. The other arguable highlight: a two-player Chopper vs. Chopper mode, which has one player in a helicopter hunting an escaping player on a bike. Outside of the turf war modes, it marks the best multiplayer-centric use of Liberty City’s spacious geography.

Given that “Damned” is full-featured to the point that it feels like its own game, it makes sense that Rockstar treats it like a separate entity from “GTAIV” despite using assets from the original game. But that deep division also leads to “Damned’s” only major disappointment: The new weapons (six) and vehicles (17 new bikes, three fantastic new four-wheelers) work only in “Damned” and not in “GTAIV” proper.


Halo Wars
For: Xbox 360
From: Ensemble Studios/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, violence)

Easily the best thing about “Halo Wars” is the degree to which Ensemble Studios has translated the Xbox’s most recognized shooter into a real-time strategy game.

“Wars” steps backward to narrate the events that preceded the first “Halo” game, but it doesn’t dare get fancy with the franchise. The same three factions you’ve fought as or against all return in full, and the troops, vehicles and special facilities from those games are replicated here without exception. (Other staples, including the music, menu interface, mission scoring system and even the collectible hidden skulls that enable special cheats, are tucked inside as well.)

On the other hand, if you don’t care about “Halo” and want, as Ensemble promised, a PC-quality strategy game that’s made for a controller, some measure of disappointment lies ahead.

Yes, “Wars” streamlines the controls, making it effortless to manage units without performing the kind of acrobatics needed in EA’s “Command and Conquer” games. But Ensemble’s solution doesn’t solve the problem so much as smooth it over. You can’t, for instance, create pre-defined assortments of different units for easy reference later. “Wars” automatically figures this stuff out as you send units to different sides of the map, but it’s a level of handholding that experienced RTS players will not appreciate.

Then again, “Wars'” equally simple single-player missions make nuanced micromanagement mostly unnecessary. Resources practically accumulate on their own, and if you build and maintain some relatively inexpensive turrets where the constricted base-building model allows them, you rarely need worry about defense, either. Outside of a few exceptions, the missions place an excessive emphasis on offense: Build an overwhelming force, steamroll forward, and you almost cannot lose.

The problems with the campaign — which, despite a short length and the complete omission of Covenant-perspective missions, drags on due to repetition — mean that, like most “Halo” games, “Wars” is best recommended for its multiplayer features (2-6 players, online/system link only).

Sure enough, this is where it shines. “Wars” lets you play as either the UNSC or the Covenant (though never the Flood) in its freeform skirmish mode, and the hands-off approach — your base and battle strategy versus theirs — makes for less predictable outcomes. It would’ve been nice to see Ensemble try something more ambitious with the Xbox Live infrastructure, but the simple controls and general fast pace of the action (by RTS standards) make this a fun option for those who like their real-time strategy in short, accessible doses.


Downloadable game

Noby Noby Boy
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $5

It’s hard to definitively describe a game whose full intention is either mysterious or completely absent, but that’s what you get with “Noby Noby Boy,” which must be experienced firsthand to be even remotely understood. “NNB” stars you as Boy, and the goal (maybe) is to stretch yourself out, eat stuff and just experiment at your own leisure in a bizarre, physics-centric wonderland. You then can “submit” your stretching totals to the sun, which collects submissions from everyone on the Playstation Network and uses that total to stretch a character named Girl. Once Girl can touch additional planets, those levels will open to everyone on PSN who owns the game. Yep. Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand any of that: “NNB” is so weird that you might not understand it any more after playing it than reading about it. Consider, also, that the endgame remains a secret until the PSN community uncovers it, and “NNB” becomes a purchase only if you don’t mind gambling $5 on what is, without exaggeration, a complete leap of faith. Though “NNB” comes courtesy of the guy who created “Katamari Damacy” and adopts that game’s visual and stylistic methodology, even your feelings about that game cannot dictate whether you’ll get this one. If you’re feeling adventurous, just roll the dice.

DVD 2/24/09: What Just Happened, Hell on Wheels, Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder, Sex Drive, Extreme Movie, Woo Life, The Universe Megaset, The Founding of America, The Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection, Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection

What Just Happened (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies are, most likely, funnier to people who make Hollywood movies. Sometimes you just have to be there. “What Just Happened” is the latest entry in this genre, and initially, that’s all it appears to be. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that “Happened” isn’t so much a commentary on Hollywood as it is a comedy about a producer and two-time marital failure (Robert De Niro as Ben) who is both rewarded by and trapped inside the decorated life he has created for himself. “Happened” dissects Ben so violently and dryly, in fact, that one could argue whether it deserves the comedy tag at all. Maybe, maybe not. Frankly, if you’re willing to follow it down to its darkest corner, “Happened” is as hopeless, hopeful, cruel, just, funny or sad as you want it to interpret it as being. Ben is just a guy, this is just his story, and if the man and the film do one thing best, it’s hanging on to that strange simplicity despite the tornado of madness that threatens to swallow them whole. John Turturro, Catherine Keener, Robin Wright Penn, Stanley Tucci, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott and Bruce Willis also star.
Extras: Director/writer commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, casting footage.

Hell on Wheels (NR, 2008, Indiepix)
“Hell on Wheels” is a film about female roller derby — except, during the vast majority of its runtime, when it isn’t. The packaging might not tip any hands, but it’s apparent pretty quickly (without revealing spoilers) that “Wheels” isn’t the feel-good, without-a-care roller derby documentary one might have expected it to be. Rather, this is a story about the business of business — what happens when one person gets an idea, a few more share in the shaping of that idea, and dozens more donate their time, money and physical well-being in hopes of seeing that idea to completion. It’s also the story of what happens when things don’t go as planned and too many people with different ideas splinter that original vision. “Wheels” has all the ingredients it needs to inspire anyone who understands the entrepreneurial spirit that provides the story’s undercurrent, but getting there isn’t nearly as simple as an outside glance would imply. Red tape, as it turns out, isn’t just for suits. Still, all that hardship only benefits the film, which emerges out of nowhere (and most likely accidentally) to become a must-see film about the price one pays to create something from nothing.
Extras: Three commentary tracks, deleted scenes, two music videos.

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (NR, 2009, Fox)
Don’t be afraid, gentle “Futurama” fan. Yes, the last “Futurama” movie, “Bender’s Game,” was several shades of awful. Yes, each “Futurama” movie has been worse than the one that preceded it, and yes, unless something changes, “Into the Wild Green Yonder” marks the absolute end of the franchise. Don’t fret: “Yonder” makes it right again. “Futurama” forever will work better as a 22-minute episode than a 90-minute movie, and “Yonder,” like the films that preceded it, struggles to maintain the show’s energetic pace and stay on point over that extended runtime. Per usual, it better resembles two or three episodes cobbled together than a single film. But “Yonder” cobbles it all together as well as and arguably better than even the first film. It does justice to the show’s primary cast, gives plenty of deserving face time to some of its best bit characters (including the hilarious Robot Mafia), and introduces one final crop of new faces during a storyline that amusingly plays on half-hearted feminism and the green phenomenon. Most importantly, it gives the series the satisfying conclusion it deserved years ago. Yet another comeback wouldn’t be terrible news, but if it doesn’t happen, “Futurama” finally can rest in true peace.
Extras: Matt Groening/crew commentary, Zapp Brannigan’s Love Guide, Bender’s Movie Theater Etiquette, 3D Models, drawing how-to, Matt Groening and David Cohen in Space, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, storyboard.

Sex Drive: Unrated and Cream-filled (NR, 2008, Summit Entertainment)
Extreme Movie: Unrated (NR, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
If we rated our films on the merits of box art alone, it would appear “Sex Drive” — which dedicates an entire third of its front cover to a loud, gleeful warning — has the crude edge over “Extreme Movie.” But this is why we watch movies instead of simply admire them from afar. The 129-minute unrated cut of “Sex Drive” does, indeed, feature copious amounts of nudity that even the film itself (via a very funny director introduction) designates as blatantly gratuitous. But even in this form (to say nothing of the 109-minute R-rated cut that also comes included), “Drive” is too gosh darn likable — and too genuinely, cleverly, wittily funny — to be the film it warns you it is. That’s a shame for the marketers, but a pleasant surprise for the rest of us. “Movie,” on the other hand, pretty much meets expectations. More a series of interconnected, sex-centric skits than a traditional film, “Movie” has all the freedom it needs to cover the usual points on the lowest-common denominator scale. It has its funny moments, and it’s considerably better than the similarly-branded “Movie” parody films Fox spits out. But it isn’t the funniest movie releasing this week or even within this paragraph, and the ground it covers is entirely too old hat to feel even the least bit extreme at this point.
“Drive” extras: Filmmaker commentary, four behind-the-scenes features.
“Movie” extras: Directors commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Woo Life (NR, 2008, Emerging Pictures)
“Woo Life” is a documentary that attempts to celebrate the life and times of overzealous Chicago Cubs fan Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, who has attended more than 3,000 Cub games and spent the vast majority of those 3,000 games making an ear-piercing “Woo” noise that is responsible for his nickname. The key word in that sentence is “attempts.” “Life” almost instantly sheds any pretense of objectivity, and everything about the film’s almost patronizing tone suggests filmmaker Paul Hoffman buys Wickers’ child-like life outlook wholesale. But while the film and the talking heads who comprise it say one thing, the images — of surrounding fans, bus riders and even airplane passengers wincing in the pain caused by a man whose fandom supersedes personal courtesy and any ability to process that pain — say something else. (Have the mute button handy, too, or else you, too, will feel that pain.) Wickers’ crusade to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley Field — which he and a few friends carried out in a fashion that humiliated the Cubs — just piles on, and unless you already love Wickers the same way Hoffman does, “Life” amounts to one giant turn-off. Wickers accrued much of his fame for being an object of ridicule and derision rather than one of affection, and this film, however accidentally, perfectly demonstrates why. No extras.

Worth a Mention: Gift Sets Edition
— “The Universe: Collector’s Set” (NR, 2007, History): Includes the first two seasons (33 episodes) of the History Channel show, as well as the complete “The Planets” series (eight episodes) and feature-length documentaries “How the Earth was Made,” “Beyond the Big Bang” and “Inside the Volcano.” 14 discs.
— “The Founding of America” (NR, 2008, History): Includes the “Founding Fathers” and “Founding Brothers” miniseries, the six-part “American Revolution” series, the 13-episode “Revolution” series and documentaries about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold. Also included is the “The Crossing,” starring Jeff Daniels, as well as a handful of extras ranging from behind-the-scenes features to selected episodes of other History Channel shows. 14 discs.
— “The Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection” (NR, 1963-80, MGM): Includes 192 episodes’ worth of “Pink Panther” cartoons, as well as a “Panther” documentary, behind-the-scenes features, animated title sequences from the “Panther” films and a tribute to creator Friz Freleng. Nine discs.
— “Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection” (NR, 2003-09, MGM): Includes the complete series (29 episodes) and the new “Dead Like Me: Life After Death” film. Extras include commentary on the film and select episodes, deleted scenes from the show, behind-the-scenes features and photo galleries.

Games 2/17/09: F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, MLB Front Office Manager, Lumines Supernova

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Monolith/WB Interactive
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, partial nudity, strong language)

First (and most important) thing first: Everything that made “F.E.A.R.” so good in spite of itself returns in “F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin.” Judged solely on its mechanics, this is one of the better pure shooters you can play. The controls are dead-on perfect, the guns feel rightly powerful, and your enemies display intelligence typically reserved for human multiplayer opponents. They flank, double-team and alter their attack plan when you’ve got a read on them, providing some of the best fundamental firefights to be found in a first-person shooter today.

“F.E.A.R.’s” main knocks had to do more with its story, which was creepy but excessively vague, and the environments in which you fought, which were generic and repetitive (office buildings and warehouses galore).

“Origin” quite emphatically addresses both issues. The story picks up in a new character’s shoes and shortly before the events of the first game’s visually awesome ending. This allows you to relive that moment from a different perspective, but it also lets you approach the “F.E.A.R.” mystery from a completely different angle, which in turn allows Monolith to completely unfurl the explicit details behind the first game’s vague happenings. The upshot is win-win: “Origin’s” story is sufficiently engaging for those who never played the first game and an extremely satisfying piece of plot resolution for those who have.

Without revealing too much, that story also provides Monolith all the excuses it needs to send you through a significantly better variety of environments. Close-quarters shootouts still rule the day — and rightly so, given the engine’s assets — but “Origin” is significantly better equipped to provide some wide open battlefields as well. A few segments also find you manning a turret or commandeering a mech in what very arguably is the best mech-based video game action ever.

Though both are debatable in terms of validity, “Origin” does have two knocks against it. The game’s noticeably easier default difficulty will inevitably irk some, though simply starting on a harder setting should rectify that issue for most.

Of greater concern is the multiplayer, which feels a bit generic when you strip away all the storytelling and gameplay trimmings that make the single-player component what it is. “Origin” doesn’t break any ground with its mode offerings, and the character designs aren’t so special when removed from the context of the story.

But there’s something to be said for those wonderful control mechanics, which absolutely do carry over. And while the inclusion of mechs turns the Armored Front mode into something of an unbalanced mess, it’s a diabolical treat for the player lucky enough to commandeer the catbird seat.


MLB Front Office Manager
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Blue Castle Games/2K
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Let us begin this review by stating the obvious: This game isn’t for everyone.

In fact, baseball fans, unless you’ve memorized cold the science of everything from Rule Five drafts to the difference between someone who’s designated for assignment and out of options, the first version of “MLB Front Office Manager” probably isn’t for you, either.

It’s not for lack of trying. On the surface, “Manager” appears to have everything a good general manager simulator needs. You immediately can inherit any MLB team you want, and with that comes full management of that team’s entire farm system. A full complement of statistics stands at the ready. You can conduct trades, call-ups and signings as you like. And if you prefer to see your work in action, you can elect to watch and even manage whichever games you wish. A fantasy draft mode lets you completely rearrange the complexion of both leagues, and the truly insane can take on up to 29 friends in a custom-designed online fantasy league.

But all these wonderful choices come with almost no instruction whatsoever, and if you don’t even know what some of this stuff means, you’ll have to crack open a book or Web browser and figure it out yourself. “Manager’s” interface is a menu-driven mess, and between the clutter, redundancy (particularly where roster management is concerned) and the unsatisfactory level of documentation, even baseball gurus will have trouble figuring out how to execute certain maneuvers. Everyone else can simply forget it.

Unfortunately, the very people equipped to wade through “Manager’s” menu maze are the same ones who will grumble over the game’s shortcomings. You can’t, for instance, conduct three-way trades, nor is there any way to negotiate a trade involving players with even partial no-trade clauses. The ability to “level up” your created GM’s stats initially seems novel, but it merely adds an artificial (and intrusive) level of statistical imbalance to a game that should settle everything on the field. Naturally, because those stats are low at first, you’re contending with bouts of bad luck while simultaneously trying to figure all those menus out.

Blue Castle is onto something with “Manager,” and knowledgeable, patient baseball nuts can rest assured that the game does enough right to suffice until a more polished version comes along. If that isn’t you, though, keep waiting. More traditional baseball games — which also let you play actual baseball — have their own GM modes, and until “Manager” can produce something that’s heads and shoulders better, no reason exists for casual fans not to opt for one of those games instead.


Downloadable Game

Lumines Supernova
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Q Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $15

Q Entertainment appears to have learned its lesson from the disastrous piecemeal pricing scheme that fatally undermined its flagship puzzle game on the Xbox 360. “Lumines Supernova” costs the same as the 360’s “Lumines Live” did, but this time, you get a complete game — a full complement of single player modes, two-player local multiplayer, tons of levels, skins and missions to unlock and complete — instead of a crippled starter pack you have to pay extra to complete. The only major blight — no online multiplayer — is a big one, but as anyone who played the original “Lumines” games on the Playstation Portable can attest, there’s more than enough content for puzzle fans to enjoy on their own. As should be no surprise, “Supernova” looks and sounds spectacular — an important point given the series’ emphasis on audiovisual dressing. Q hasn’t complete resisted downloadable add-ons for “Supernova,” but the $5 Classic Pack simply provides players with skins from those PSP games rather than new game modes they otherwise couldn’t play. Additionally, while a free limited-edition holiday skins pack no longer is available for download, its brief existance signals the possibility of similar acts of generosity down the line.

DVD 2/17/09: Changeling, The Midnight Meat Train, Choke, Flash of Genius, Alien Raiders, Still Waiting…

Changeling (R, 2008, Universal)
The period attire and traditionally dramatic tone may suggest otherwise, but let’s be clear: This true story of a mother (Angelina Jolie) who loses her son (Gattlin Griffith), only to be reunited with a different boy (Devon Conti) a corrupt police dept. (Colm Feore, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly) insists is him, most definitely is a horror film. The sheer ludicrousness of that scenario, to say nothing of its actual happening in 1928 Los Angeles, is unsettling in its own right. But “Changeling” compounds rather than coasts on that unease by explicitly illustrating the simultaneous terror that comes from knowing your child remains in danger and trying to understand why those entrusted with bringing him home refuse to even entertain that concern. Without getting particular or spoiling what happens, it’s equally gifted in conveying the full might of what happens next, rattling off a series of amazing, lasting images that comes to a head during one unbelievably powerful scene near the film’s conclusion. The 142-minute runtime is a daunting prospect, particularly given the assumptions one might make based on the film’s marketing. But “Changeling” fills that runtime with fuel to spare, undermining any need to drag or regurgitate emotion by leaving an incontrovertible mark with every curtain it opens. John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

The Midnight Meat Train: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
Effectively low-concept horror appears to be the currency of choice in “The Midnight Meat Train,” where an exceptionally well-dressed mute (Vinnie Jones) catches the late train and proceeds to use an oversized meat tenderizer to viciously pummel the few poor souls unlucky enough to be riding the subway at that hour. But the brutality of “Train’s” early going — a miniscule sliver of which hits the newspaper and piques the interest of photographer Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper) — merely provides the tip of a pretty surprising icebreaker. “Train” is expertly shot and creepily low-key enough to stretch its initial concept as needed, but it elects instead, in direct proportion to Leon’s burgeoning curiosity, to slowly unfurl a genuinely surprising bigger picture. To all who bemoan the sad state of modern-day horror, which has been excessively victimized by empty scripts, blood for blood’s sake, unflattering imitation and long climbs up very short hills, this one’s for you. “Train” is nasty, but it’s a gratifying kind of nasty — one you’ll remember for its story as much as (if not more than) the carnage that story leaves behind.
Extras: Clive Barker/director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Choke (R, 2008, Fox)
We all know someone with enough issues to comprise his or her own book or movie. Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), on the other hand? Between the sex addiction, the horrible job as a Renaissance Age re-enactor, some crippling mommy (Anjelica Huston) issues and the effect these and other problems have when working in tandem, he’s ready for his own television series. That speaks to one of “Choke’s” problems: As traditional feature film fare goes, it’s a mess — to the point that a good half of it only truly makes sense after a late twist completely turns the preceding turns of events on their ear. Until that happens — and arguably, even after it happens — “Choke” continually veers around the edge of the mountain, wobbling through its pitch-black approach to dark comedy and very likely dumping a handful of alienated viewers with each turn. The best way to enjoy the film is for what it offers: an unapologetic portrait of a Class A screw-up whose ocean of troubles might make you feel better about any issues you’re presently facing. It hobbles, meanders and occasionally reaches beyond the limits of credibility. But “Choke” always maintains a tight revolution around Victor, who, mess that he is, is just human enough to provide the film the gravitational center it so badly needs. Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Bijou Phillips and Clark Gregg (who also directs) star.
Extras: Rockwell/Gregg commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers, conversation with Gregg and Chuck “Fight Club” Palahniuk, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

Flash of Genius (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
Every little convenience has a story. “Flash of Genius,” if you can believe it or not, is the incredible (again, believe it or not) story of how the intermittent windshield wiper function came to be. Taking current events out of the equation for the second, “Genius” scores purely on the merit of inventor and family man Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear), whom we first meet in a mentally addled state before flashing back to witness the chain of events that put him there. Despite building itself around Bob, “Genius” feels no obligation to paint him as the saint he isn’t, and the continuous use of gray shades keeps the story from reaching into the bag of David versus Goliath clichés we’ve all seen before. True stories rarely are so neat, and “Genius” affords viewers the simultaneous opportunity to cheer and tsk without overtly prompting either response. The inclusion of the then-invincible Ford Motor Co. as the film’s heavy gives “Genius” more timeliness than it probably anticipated having during filming, but unless there are psychics on Universal’s payroll, Bob’s story was shot under the assumption that it needed no such thing. Between themes anyone with a pulse can understand and the handful of great characters (Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda) who play them out, that intuition was dead on.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary).

Alien Raiders (R, 2008, Warner Bros. Raw Feed)
Though it becomes rather obvious fairly quickly that they’re not there for the cash in the register, see if the employees and customers (Jeffrey Licon, Keith Hudson, Samantha Streets, Joel McCrary) at Hastings Market care when a handful of armed would-be robbers (Carlos Bernard, Courtney Ford, Rockmond Dunbar, Philip Newby) take them hostage at closing time. This little misunderstanding, and the a near-total refusal to clear it up, constitute but one of what proves to be several troubling issues between the two parties, and that naturally leads to people doing things they’ll inevitably regret. Surprised? Unlikely. “Alien Raiders” has its share of novel ideas, but it’s just as comfortable dabbling in convention. That isn’t a bad thing, either: To the contrary, some of “Raiders'” best moments are when it sets up a predictable scenario, makes you perfectly aware it knows what it’s doing, and proceeds to have some combination of thrilling, disgusting and/or silly fun with it. Sometimes the result is as you’d expect, sometimes not, and there are few instances where “Raiders” both appeases to convention and goes its own way at once. This is B-movie quality all the way, but when that appears to be the intention all along, it’s hard not to go with it and enjoy the ride.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, companion footage (not to be confused with deleted scenes).

Still Waiting… (NR, 2009, Lions Gate)
Though not without laughs, “Waiting…” mostly served as a missed opportunity to do for the service industry what  “Office Space” did for the cubicle age. Which brings us to “Still Waiting…,” a sequel no one clamored for and one only a Lions Gate accountant could truly love. Scraps of the last film’s cast  (Rob Benedict, Justin Long, Chi McBride, Luis Guzman) return, but the film mostly reserves its time for forgettable and occasionally wildly unlikeable new faces acting out scenes that may very well simply be scraps themselves. “Still Waiting’s” punch lines too often arrive long after we’ve all figured the bit out, and the result feels like a giant ball of rejected ideas from a preceding film that wasn’t exactly bursting with brilliant humor in the first place. Only the bewildering cooperation of John Michael Higgins in the lead role makes “Still Waiting” merely lousy instead of completely embarrassing. But even still, the strongest emotion his character conveys is the sadness one feels over such a talented and funny actor being forced to slum through such a lousy script for a paycheck.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/10/09: Retro Game Challenge, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, Flower

Retro Game Challenge
For: Nintendo DS
From: Namco Bandai/XSEED Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference, mild fantasy violence, mild language)

The Nintendo DS has its share of real classic game compilations, and now it can lay claim to hosting perhaps the best fake classic game compilation as well.

“Retro Game Challenge’s” premise is ingenious: A grown man, frustrated by the complexity of today’s games, has sent your more skilled self back in time to complete a series of challenges from his favorite childhood games.

The execution is similarly clever. The DS’ bottom screen is devoted to a game room, where your childhood self sits next to your challenger’s childhood self, who cheers you on and offers tips and gossip via some very funny dialogue exchanges. He also owns an ever-growing library of gaming magazines, which you can peruse freely for tips, cheat codes and previews of games you haven’t yet unlocked. Between this brilliant wrinkle and the infusion of in-jokes that only a child of the Nintendo Entertainment System era will truly get, “Challenge” absolutely nails the innocent allure that came with playing video games in the 1980s.

Most importantly, though, the games themselves get it right.

“Challenge” features six original games (and two mostly identical “sequels”), including “Galaga” and “Space Megaforce”-style shooters, a trio of side-scrolling action games, two overhead racers and a shockingly fleshed-out (albeit much shorter than normal) role-playing game.

While some work better than others — and your mileage inevitably will vary based on your personal tastes — there isn’t a dud in the bunch. “Challenge,” for better or worse, completely understands the magic and warts that defined the 8-bit era, and that understanding translates into some surprisingly fun tributes that stand completely on their own, overlying gimmick or not.

That’s particularly apparent when you play the games in free play mode, which is your reward for beating your adversary’s individual challenges. It isn’t always apparent during those challenges, but Namco Bandai went the extra mile and made eight complete games — high scores, multiple paths, hidden secrets and all. And because the games are brand-new experiences in spite of their nods to the past, they’re good for more than just a nostalgia trip, which too often is the only thing real compilations have going for them.

“Challenge’s” only major stumble: No multiplayer. Not every game would be equipped to support it, of course, but there exist some pretty obvious applications that Namco Bandai could have but did not utilize. If you want to compare high scores with friends, you’ll have to take one more page from the 1980s and utilize the honor system.


Tenchu: Shadow Assassins
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Acquire/From/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

It’s reset button time again for Tenchu, the stealthy ninja whose recent adventures have been something of a technical mess.

With “Tenchu: Shadow Assassins,” the series returns to the arms of the developers who originally created it. That’s the good news. The slightly baffling, not-so-good news? It appears exclusively on the console least capable of handling its fickle approach to stealth gameplay.

For those unfamiliar, “Tenchu” takes the complete opposite tack of most ninja games. Rather than carve your way through whole armies, you’re lurking in the dark, traipsing from point to point and avoiding enemy contact whenever possible. You’re capable of performing kills on unsuspecting enemies whose backs are turned, but if one of them sneaks a conscious glance at you and you aren’t equipped with the right weaponry, you’re dead to rights.

“Assassins” isn’t quite as punishing as other “Tenchu” games, which simply marked you for death and sent you back to the start of the mission. This time around, getting caught unarmed sends you back (you automatically “escape”), but lets you keep whatever progress you’ve made in terms of stealth kills and environmental manipulations. Getting spotted with the right weaponry sends you into a so-so first-person swordplay mode, which either ends in their death or your escape.

That’s generous, but it may not be enough to compensate for some annoying issues that the game’s fickle nature merely exacerbates.

“Assassins'” control scheme includes a “Mind’s Eye” view that lets you rotate the camera freely, but adjusting your viewpoint while in motion is impossible thanks to the Wii’s controller setup, which also is responsible for some muddy mechanics with regards to sidling along walls and conducting business with a sword. Unfortunately, leaving the camera to its own devices only leads to different kinds of trouble — and occasionally, straight into the arms of an enemy you never even saw.

Camera issues are devastating to any game that has you sneaking around out of enemy sight, but they’re especially problematic when those enemies’ A.I. patterns are so unpredictable. The things that trigger a response versus those that don’t are sometimes comically random, turning stretches of some missions into a laborious trial-and-error exercise that’s anything but amusing.

But this isn’t news for “Tenchu” fans, who have and will continue to endure technical inconsistencies en route to mastering a game that takes its philosophy about stealth gameplay — if not always the execution on that philosophy — as seriously as any game out there. If that doesn’t sound like you, heed this warning: “Assassins” won’t change that one bit. Softies need not apply.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: thatgamecompany/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

In “Flower,” you star as a single flower petal. As you drift past other flowers, they bloom and donate petals to what eventually becomes a rainbow parade of petals that gradually transform their drab, dead surroundings into fully living dreamscapes. No, really. Making sense of “Flower” without actually seeing how obscenely beautiful it is amounts to one fruitless endeavor, which could explain why the game itself only feeds you scant pieces of instruction before letting you see for yourself what they do and where it all leads. Discovering all that lies inside the six primary levels (to say nothing of some secret areas) is a treat for the eyes and ears, and while the lack of a failure mechanic makes completing each level’s primary objective an inevitability, doing what needs to be done to unlock the game’s best secret will indeed take some skill. Happily, the game plays as competently as it looks and sounds. “Flower” fully vindicates Sony’s seemingly improvisational decision to cram motion sensing into the PS3’s controller, employing motion controls that both work intuitively and capture the breezy physics of the objects in motion. If the game’s aesthetics didn’t already make it the ultimate go-to relaxation game, the controls certainly put it over the top.

DVD 2/10/09: W, Miracle at St. Anna, Soul Men, Blindness, Iowa, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection, Mystery Science Theater 3000 XIV, Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember, The Skulls Trilogy

W (PG-13, 2008, Lions Gate)
Seems like everybody who hasn’t seen “W” has a strong opinion about it anyway, so really, what’s the point of reviewing it? For the few who survived the last eight years and election cycle with their objectivity intact, here’s some news that might surprise you: Pretty much every assumption is wrong. Chiefly, “W” neither lavishes our now-former president with praise nor condemns him as a failure. Rather, it treats George W. Bush’s  story as what it is — a work in progress, with neither the ending nor the full implications of the story ready to be written. “W” rides two intertwining chronological tracks — one at the onset of his college days, the other in 2002 — and it arbitrarily picks and chooses which scenes are worth some in-depth exploration and which don’t bear even a glance. The choices it makes might surprise you, but it’s this very discretion that gives “W” both a level of humanity and style that far, far outstrips the pedestrian expectations most laid at its feet. Josh Brolin makes an uncanny turn as Bush, and Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton and Ellen Burstyn, among others, also star.
Extras: Director commentary, Bush feature, DVD-ROM content.

Miracle at St. Anna (R, 2008, Touchstone)
It’s easier than it should be to forget that wars between nations are fought by numerous small groups of soldiers squaring off in equally minute villages. But it’s that very intimacy — along with a level of creative license rarely seen in World War II films — that makes “Miracle at St. Anna” a compelling addition to a genre that’s seen most everything at this point. True to its genre, “Miracle” isn’t shy about visualizing the horrors of war. But the film’s democratic focus, which gives equal time to soldiers (Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Walton Goggins), civilians (Valentina Cervi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Sergio Albelli, Omero Antonutti), conflict and downtime, gives these small-scale conflicts their deserved significance. Rare is the war film that can employ a small boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and what most perceive to be his imaginary friend as its narrative lynchpin. “Miracle’s” meandering, 160-minute runtime is intimidating, but it’s not for nothing: The film’s exploration of everything from black soldiers fighting on behalf of a country that doesn’t accept them to Italy’s uncomfortable alliance with a burgeoning superpower is exhaustive without resorting to self-righteousness or abandoning the integrity of its characters. The battle scenes — and in particular, one cruel massacre — will supply the most resonant images, but it’s the way “Miracle” peels back the mystery of its surprising opening scenes (sorry, no spoilers) that leaves the most lasting impression. No extras.

Soul Men (R, 2008, Dimension)
Let’s not pretend it isn’t true that “Soul Men’s” primary claim to fame is that it features two performers, Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, who passed away shortly before the film hit the screen. But that doesn’t mean the film itself — which tells the story of two estranged Motown has-beens (Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson) who reluctantly reunite for a tribute show in honor of the late former groupmate (John Legend) who ditched them en route to finding major success as a solo artist — deserves the short shrift. No, “Men” isn’t the best comedy to appear on DVD shelves this year, this month or even within the last seven days. But Jackson and Bernie Mac do as much as they can with a script that, while occasionally very funny, doesn’t always have the same commitment to entertainment. Their ability to wring every last drop out of their roles absolutely shows, and it’s hard not to enjoy watching two actors so blatantly having fun playing off and against each other. That spirit trickles down to the supporting cast (Sharon Leal, Adam Herschman, Affion Crockett and Sean Hayes, along with Hayes), and the crackle of continuous energy makes “Men” leagues better than the mere sum of its parts. The closing credits, which double as a wonderful tribute to Bernie Mac and Hayes, deserve major kudos as well.
Extras: Director/writers commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, tributes to Bernie Mac and Hayes, live footage of Bernie Mac at the Apollo Theater.

Blindness (R, 2008, Miramax)
The title, it does not lie. As “Blindness” begins, people everywhere — to the tune of 90 percent of the population — are finding themselves afflicted by a random, unexplainable virus that renders them instantly and completely blind. The government’s solution is a classic by virus movie standards: Contain them in quarantine until a cure is found, and leave them mostly to their own devices. The catch: One of the detainees (Julianne Moore), who is married to another detainee (Mark Ruffalo), actually can see. All this is laid out fairly early on, and from there, “Blindness” lets the social dominoes drop, exploring in ugly detail everything from the terror of instant blindness to what happens when a group of formerly-civilized adults find themselves treated (and sometimes acting) like a pack of blind rats. Some will love certain characters whom others hate, and group viewings almost certainly will lead to a debate over how satisfactory (or not) the ending is. But that’s the kind of stuff that happens when a great premise gets the exhaustive, arguably fearless treatment “Blindness” gives this premise. Reactions will run the gamut, but the film’s expert use of creativity and suspense ensures few will be bored along the way. Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Don McKellar and Maury Chaykin, among others, also star.
Extras: Making-of documentary, deleted scenes.

Iowa (NR, 2005, Koch Vision)
Describing “Iowa” in any sort of meaningful detail presents a bit of a conundrum: How do you explain that it’s a completely messed-up message movie and discuss that message without somewhat spoiling where the story, about a young dead-ender (Matt Farnsworth) who come into an unexpected family inheritance, eventually leads? You can’t. So if you don’t wish to know anything more about “Iowa” but can satisfactorily be blindly intrigued by the notion of a film that completely, absolutely loses its mind but still quite resoundingly manages to make its point, you’re better off not reading any further. If you need more information or simply don’t care, here’s the scoop: “Iowa” does for methamphetamine what “Requiem for a Dream” does for heroin, and it throws in a bloody, nasty story of greed, love, familial betrayal and revenge for good measure. It isn’t pretty, not even close, and it probably won’t teach you anything you already didn’t know or at least assume. But if you like your entertainment dark to the point of well done, “Iowa’s” tastefully graphic storytelling methodology makes it awfully hard to look away. Diane Foster, Rosanna Arquette, John Savage, David Backus, Amanda Tepe and a completely unrecognizable Michael T. Weiss also star.
Extras: Two Farnsworth-produced documentaries about methamphetamine.

Worth a Mention
— “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” (PG, 2008, Dreamworks): The awkward Friday release date prevented a review copy from arriving before press time, but unless there’s some reason you completely avoided the first “Madagascar” film but have somehow developed an interest in the sequel, you probably already know what you’re getting here. Much like it did with “Kung Fu Panda,” Dreamworks is releasing “Escape 2 Africa” as part of a DVD two-pack, which also includes the new “The Penguins of Madagascar” animated mini-feature. The sum total of extras from both discs includes a handful of DVD games, music videos, outtakes, interactive activities and more.
— “Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection” (R, 1968-75): Four lesser-known Eastwood works — “The Eiger Sanction,” “Coogan’s Bluff,” “The Beguiled” and his directorial debut, “Play Misty for Me” — comprise this set. Extras include a “Misty” retrospective and a handful of behind-the-scenes features.
— “Mystery Science Theater 3000 XIV” (NR, 1998, Shout Factory): Collection No. 14 features four more movies you can’t unsee: “Mad Monster,” “Manhunt in Space,” “Soultaker” and “Final Justice.” Extras include new interviews, the “MST3K” cast on ESPN Classic, mini posters and the original “Monster” trailer.
— “Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember” (NR, 1980, Koch Lorber): He’s best remembered for his work on various British television series, but this set celebrates three of Dennis Potter’s lesser-known teleplays: “Blade on the Feather,” “Rain on the Roof” and “Cream in my Coffee.” Also included in the set is the final interview he taped before his death in 1994.
— “The Skulls Trilogy” (PG-13-R, 2000-03, Universal): Didn’t know there were three “Skulls” films? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Extras include commentary on the first film, deleted scenes, production notes and a behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/3/09: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, Animal Boxing, Savage Moon

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

The liberation of Anchorage, Alaska, from an invading Chinese army has been a source of in-game whispers and references since the original “Fallout” debuted more than 11 years ago, but the $10 “Operation Anchorage” add-on marks the first time fans have been able to experience the event through their own eyes and thumbs.

As such, the first of three downloadable “Fallout 3” add-ons is also the most acute in its target audience. Its ties to the “Fallout 3” storyline are threadbare — you’ll visit Anchorage via a simulation that exists inside the present setting of Washington, D.C., — and outside of experience points and some new weaponry and armor, little that happens within carries over to rest of the game.

The upside to all that autonomy is that “Anchorage” is free to play by some of its own rules. Standard “Fallout 3” protocols apply, but “Anchorage” puts you in the middle of a war rather than a solitary trek across a post-nuclear wasteland, and the extreme emphasis on combat — including skirmishes alongside a hand-picked team of comrades and showdowns against an army’s worth of devious human and vehicular adversaries — lies in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s affinity for solitary discovery.

The downside to that upside? Not all of it works. Bethesda compensates “Anchorage’s” bloodlust by making it a too easy to stay alive and equipped without really earning it. Whereas “Fallout 3” has you scraping for ammo and medical supplies however you can, “Anchorage” spoils you with recharge bins that replenish both without limit. Beyond those bins, 10 intel suitcases and some explosives that are harder to pick up than they should be, nothing in the environments can be scavenged for later use.

Fortunately, while “Anchorage” unquestionably takes you down a more linear path than “Fallout 3’s” missions typically do, you still have the freedom to fight as stealthily, loudly or mischievously as you wish. Per usual, certain characters are off-limits and cannot be killed, and there’s no way to change the ending of a battle that’s already entrenched in “Fallout” lore. But how you reach the end of “Anchorage’s” not-quite-four-hour runtime is largely your call.

Bethesda has confirmed two more downloadable packs for “Fallout 3,” and both appear to deal more directly with the main storyline than “Anchorage” possibly can. Overwhelmingly, this is a fun piece of one-shot fan service that anyone can enjoy but only a select audience of long-time fans will truly appreciate. If you’re not in the latter camp and simply are in it for the new enemies, weapons and armor, it’s important keep that in mind.


Animal Boxing
For: Nintendo DS
From: Gammick Studios/Destineer
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

For an unassuming handheld game about boxing animals, “Animal Boxing” sure covers some ground. It’s brilliantly clever, yet fundamentally broken. It’s impossibly easy and unnecessarily difficult. Finally, depending on the quality and proximity of your friends, it’s both easy and impossible to recommend.

As touch screen boxing goes, “Boxing,” which stars you as a custom-designed human fighting some 50 not-so-innocent anthropomorphic pugilists, nails it. The game uses the touch screen as the top screen — you play “Boxing” by holding the DS upside-down — and your punches are registered through corresponding gestures: Tap to jab, swipe horizontally to hook, swipe vertically to uppercut. The buttons work your defense, and effectively dodging punches both looks and feels really cool given “Boxing’s” first-person perspective.

Unfortunately, the actual fight mechanics can’t — or rather, don’t — keep up. Playing “Boxing” the way it’s meant to be played, by dodging punches and landing a few your own while your opponents’ defenses are down, is far too difficult with the ludicrously small window of time you’re given to recognize your opponent’s action and react.

As if to compensate, “Boxing” includes a block mechanic that isn’t dependent on timing. But it’s too powerful — able to dodge flurries and super punches alike without any need to lay off the button — and it makes the game too easy to exploit. Your fellow fighters don’t vary in technique as much as they do in appearance, and once you realize the block button stops pretty much any attack cold, it’s entirely too easy to lean on it and sneak in enough jabs to score a cheap victory.

Had “Boxing” slowed down a few ticks and adopted the same pace of “Punch-Out!” or even “Fight Night,” playing it legitimately would provide a perfect mix of challenge and intuition. Hopefully, Gammick can tweak the speed for a follow-up endeavor that really does the engine justice.

In the meantime, this is where your friends come in. Assuming you can agree to resist exploiting the block function, “Boxing” works fine as a two-player game. The fact that you and a friend are mutually mashing on each other does plenty to mitigate the aforementioned problems and re-center the emphasis on all “Boxing” does right.

Alas, Gammick hasn’t made this as easy as it should be. “Boxing’s” only multiplayer outlet is via multi-card wireless, which means you’ll need two copies of the game to fight each other. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle given the generous $20 price tag, but it’s an obstacle all the same.


Savage Moon
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Fluffy Logic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, fantasy violence)
Price: $10

If you like real-time tower defense strategy games but are dismayed by their tendency to dabble in the cuter end of the video game graphics pool, “Savage Moon” — which has you defending mining facilities on the moon against waves of giant, ugly bugs — has your name on it. In complete contrast to the likes of “Pixeljunk Monsters” and “Ninjatown,” “Moon” resembles your traditional real-time strategy game, opting for gritty, realistic (by giant-bug-on-moon standards) graphics and explosive defense technology and special effects. That begets “Moon’s” other selling point: It’s fast. Everything, from unit creation to upgrades to researching new technology, happens either instantly or within seconds, and with the bugs marching at you with similar impatience, “Moon” threads the line between traditional strategy and reactionary action. That’s doubly so when you replay completed story missions in Vengeance mode, which sends endless waves of bugs until you’re overpowered. None of this is to suggest “Moon” has an genre identity crisis: Given the range of available technology and the challenges posed by the terrain, brains still trumpet brawn, and the game throws in an excellent risk/reward wrinkle by letting you adjust the ratio of firepower, defensive strength and monetary gain in order to best suit your approach. The lack of multiplayer and co-op is a real bummer, but “Moon’s” single-player scope easily recoups its asking price.

DVD 2/3/09: Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, The Secret Life of Bees, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, AmericanEast, Space Buddies, Killer Movie

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Try though he may, Nick (Michael Cera) can’t quite get over his ex (Alexis Dziena). And by “can’t quite,” we really mean, “has made her 12 mix CDs, complete with elaborate cover and interior art, and is prepared to make 12 more.” Semi-fortunately, while Tris finds the gestures appropriately creepy, her not-quite friend and classmate Norah (Kat Dennings) does not, if for no other reason than because Nick’s taste in music jives explicitly well with hers. As you might anticipate, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” tells the story of how these two forces of good musical taste finally clash. And as you might also anticipate, it’s a portrayal of two people clicking that’s built upon impossible chance and unimaginable ease. But where’s the crime in that? Though “Playlist” certainly isn’t too proud to go where most Michael Cera movies go — including a vomit scene that ranks among the most horrifying of our time — it functions overwhelmingly as a piece of genuinely funny, feel-good escapism that, infeasible though it absolutely is, feels just buyable enough to credibly tug a heartstring or two before it wraps up its business and harmlessly gets out of the way. Rafi Gavron, Ari Graynor, Jay Baruchel and Jonathan Bradford Wright also star.
Extras: Cast/director commentary, writers/director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, puppet show, video diary, storyboards, interviews, photo gallery, music video.

The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
The fierce first two minutes of “The Secret Life if Bees” are an act unto themselves, and they’re also something of a problem for the remaining 108 minutes, which nobly attempt to adapt the Sue Monk Kidd book about a guilt-riddled 14-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens) who, with the help of her caregiver (Jennfier Hudson), flees her abusive father (Paul Bettany) in search of answers about her late mother. This being the period piece it is — racially segregated South Carolina, 1964 — and with Lily’s journey leading her straight through the front door and into the mostly welcoming arms of a black family (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo), it’s somewhat clear where, among other places, “Bees” is headed. But while the film does take those issues on, it treats them as devices rather than destinations, concentrating the bulk of its energy on the singular lives of its characters rather than some meandering examination of societal shortcomings. That individualization, in turn, makes those shortcomings resonate that much more. “Bees” has neither the time nor room to give the book its full due, but a terrific assortment of performances close the gap quite admirably. Tristan Wilds and Nate Parker also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, writer/director/editor commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (R, 2008, The Weinstein Company)
Lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are too poor to pay for running water, much less cover their next rent check. One series of unexpected events later, the solution becomes clear: Make a porno. Ta-da, we have a title. Think you can figure out the rest? Smart money says yes: While the title and premise are certainly unique, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno’s” devices are another matter, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict the precise moments in which the central dilemma comes up, the mood turns, the serious stuff kicks in, and things right themselves in time for the ending that sends everyone home happy. That’s forgivable, because between those moments is where “Porno” shines brightest anyway. Zack and Miri’s saga alternates between clever and stupid comedy with less seams showing than your typical Kevin Smith project, and it balances moments of obscene grossology and sincere sweetness in ways that would make most comedies’ heads spin. Most importantly, though, it gives lots of screen time to Craig Robinson (as Zack’s coworker-turned-producer), who — like Rogen a few years ago — more than deserves a starring vehicle of his own at this point. As usual, he steals scenes without hesitation. Smith staples Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, along with Katie Morgan, Traci Lords, Justin Long and Brandon Routh, also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, making-of feature, Comic-Con 2008 feature, Webisodes, outtakes, bloopers, Seth vs. Justin: Battle for Improvisational Supremacy.

AmericanEast (R, 2007, MGM)
Have you heard the one about the Middle Eastern guy who raises his voice in an airport and finds himself on a one-way flight to Guantanamo an hour later? Don’t worry: This, regardless of first impressions, isn’t that film. If “AmericanEast” has a real problem, in fact, it’s that it isn’t any one film, but several films (comedy, drama, slice of life) touching on more topics than one movie should take on about the plight of the Middle Eastern American. The time constraint rings some characters more hollow than others, and one of “AmericanEast’s” more graphically potent storylines — perhaps in a frantic attempt to garner extra heat as time winds down — goes farther than it needed to in the heaviness department. The sum total sure sounds like a mess, and it very well might have been one had all these genres and storylines not revolved around Mustafa (Sayed Badreya), a father and friend to all whose struggle to turn an empty diner into a thriving eatery is as American as American gets. Badreya isn’t working alone: Erick Avari, Anthony Azizi, Tony Shalhoub, Kais Nashif and Sarah Shahi, among others, also give life to great characters. But his presence gives “East” the stability, perspective and occasional levity it needs to keep its myriad moods in order. No extras.

Space Buddies (G, 2008, Disney)
Yes, it’s completely out of hand now. The series that began as “Air Bud” — a simple story of a dog who can play organized basketball — has now found itself telling a tale about five puppies who accidentally find themselves on an experimental space shuttle destined for the moon while grownups with advanced degrees bumble around on Earth trying to figure out how it happened. But there’s a reason this franchise has stuck around for more than 11 years and through umpteen increasingly absurd movies: It sort of works. Kids love puppies, kids love space, and “Space Buddies” is a sweet, stupid but completely harmless story about adorable talking puppies in space. It’s also a film in which real-life puppies find themselves wearing ridiculous outfits and look completely and genuinely puzzled by the circumstances that have led to a level of fame their innocent little minds cannot even comprehend. The fourth-wall absurdity of it all — and the fun that comes from imagining what the little dogs must be thinking as they run around Hollywood sets like four-legged Buzz Aldrins — makes “Buddies” fun in a whole other way for those of us who elect (or have) to watch along. Bill Fagerbakke, Diedrich Bader, Ali Hillis star on the human side.
Extras: Bloopers (some real, some not so much), space travel Disneypedia, Buddy facts, music video.

Killer Movie (R, 2008, Peace Arch)
Using reality television as the underlying plot device for a horror film is, at this point, a little tired. So that’s strike two against “Killer Movie,” which gets its first strike from the wholly uninspired title. Strike two and a half? Try a handful of trite characters, including a Hollywood has-been-in-the-making (Paul Wesley), a societal princess overtly based on Paris Hilton (Kaley Cuoco), and a gaggle of Hollywood types who invade a small town full of equally objectionable “aw shucks” small-town stereotypes. But a funny thing happens on the way to strike three: “Movie” weaves together a solid, old-fashioned slasher tale that, despite some reliance on cliché and a few predictable details, is genuinely engaging instead of just another vehicle for superfluous gore. The trite characters develop just enough dimension to maintain interest, and while the sum total of the story and its cast don’t elevate “Movie” to any kind of greatness, it definitely keeps things entertaining until the credits come. Even if you figure out the who in this whodunit before the movie pulls back the curtain, “Movie” still saves one somewhat clever surprise for the very end.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery, digital copy.