Games 3/31/09: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, Fallout 3: The Pitt, Pocket God

Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
For: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

At first sight and first play, “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure” is a game that dares you not to love it. It’s immensely pleasing on the eyes, and the storyline — fronted by the charming, monocle-clad title character whose life is in your hands — is adorably but sharply amusing.

Also, the game’s premise — a “Mega Man”-style sidescroller on the top screen working in tandem with a “Tetris Attack” clone on the bottom — is uniquely, expertly executed. Enemies you topple and power-ups you find as Henry become blocks on the puzzle game below, and clearing those blocks away both prevents those enemies from returning and activates those power-ups. The two games influence each other in other clever ways, and you can switch between them at will with one button press.

If it sounds rather unwieldy, a little acclimation proves otherwise. Henry’s adventures use the DS’ buttons, while the puzzle portion works multiple ways but plays best with the stylus. Once you develop a system for keeping the stylus handy while focusing on the top screen, switching becomes second nature.

Most importantly, “Adventure” doesn’t drop the ball in either area. Had the top game released on its own as a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance game, it would be one of the more accomplished sidescrollers on either system. And while the “Tetris Attack” clone pretty much is exactly that, it’s a fast, fun homage that puts many dedicated DS puzzle games to shame in the responsiveness department.

All of this holds true throughout the entirety of “Adventure,” but unless you’re a sidescrolling virtuoso who enjoys an absurd challenge, it grows increasingly difficult to admire once the game unleashes a serious spike in difficultly, which happens around the midpoint of the third world.

At no point is “Adventure” hopelessly unreasonable. But there exist multiple points going forward where you’ll find yourself under attack from all angles with nowhere to escape. Once Henry loses a certain portion of his health, it’s practically a death sentence: He gets knocked into other enemies, who can pile on attacks, and your ability to rebuild his health through the puzzle portion takes a crippling hit. Throw in some sparse checkpoints and the occasional cheap bottomless pit death, and “Adventure” gives gamers of average ability every reason in the world to shut it off and never go back.

It goes without saying, then, that casual gamers seduced by the vibrant artwork and promise of puzzle-solving are better off getting those fixes elsewhere. “Adventure” ultimately is one of the DS’ better games, but not every great game is for every player. Disappointing though it is to say it, only those with godly skills and saintly patience need apply here.


Fallout 3: The Pitt
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)

Though fun on its own terms, “Operation Anchorage” was something of an awkward way for “Fallout 3” to kick off its run of downloadable $10 expansion packs. The episode took place almost entirely within a simulation inside the existing game, and because the story focused on past events in the “Fallout” timeline, little beyond a few new pieces of gear stuck with you once it ended and you were back in Washington, D.C.

“The Pitt,” on the other hand, feels a bit more traditional. The location has changed — to Pittsburgh, accessible now via underground rail — but the norms established in “Fallout 3” mostly translate verbatim. Everything plays out in the game’s real world and present day, and everything from the people you meet to the loot you find is as fair game here as it is in D.C.

Respect to “Anchorage’s” fresh ideas aside, this faithfulness makes for a much better episode. With the ground rules already established, “The Pitt” is free to focus entirely on the human fallout of post-nuclear Pittsburgh, where human slavery has returned and a makeshift monarchy — established by a new strain of the same raiders who run wild in D.C.’s landscape — inexplicably but unmistakably holds rule.

In true “Fallout” fashion, “The Pitt” gives you a starting point — disguised as a slave, with designs to help plot an overthrow — but takes the gloves off from there. A few central characters remain invincible per usual, but the vast majority can, depending on your preferred methods and intentions, be reasoned with, provoked or killed outright. “The Pitt” lets you play devil’s advocate far more than “Anchorage” did, and whether you negotiate with the overlords, play ball with them or pick them off without even introducing yourself, the presence of innocent bystanders means even a reckless gunslinger with good intentions might accidentally find a few casualties on his conscience.

Along with a better roster of characters comes a better storyline with a few fantastic detours and a truly disarming reveal near the end. As it’s presented, “The Pitt’s” storyline matches and arguably outclasses the main storyline from “Fallout 3” proper, though it also benefits from having to fill three to fours’ time instead of 30.

Like “Anchorage,” though, “The Pitt” ultimately feels like a standalone diversion. You can revisit Pittsburgh as you please upon completion of the episode, but your travails through D.C. don’t change much as result. The major exception, of course, is the gear you bring back. In “The Pitt’s” case, that means two truly vicious new weapons that, once found, likely will become staples of your inventory no matter where the game takes you next.


Pocket God
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Bolt Creative
iTunes Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: 99 cents

With respect to processing power, 3D graphics, tilt sensitivity and Internet connectivity, one of the iPhone’s most understated assets is the wide availability of silly, guilt-free, 99 cent amusements. “Pocket God” aptly demonstrates why. “God” gives you a simple desert island and a single inhabitant. From there you can do whatever you please within the bounds of game, which includes adding additional islanders, tossing them into the ocean or a volcano, changing the weather with a flick of a finger or sending everybody clinging for their lives by turning the device on its side. That, and a few other surprises, is all “God” really does, but that’s the point: You pay a buck once, and the game pays you back by being a perennial source of easy giggles whenever a spare moment calls for them. To its credit, Bolt Creative is encouraging return visits via free updates which it dubs as episodes. Each adds a new trick to your godly arsenal, and the title of the episode offers a hint as to what the new power is and how to activate it. Bolt has released 11 episodes since “God” debuted in January, and all indications point to more ahead.

DVD 3/31/09: Slumdog Millionaire, Tell No One, Killer at Large, Fling, The Other End of the Line, Marley & Me

Slumdog Millionaire (R, 2008, Fox)
Hopefully, all the blathering you might have heard about “Slumdog Millionaire” didn’t include spoilers or excessively-worded plot descriptions, because the less you know going in, the better case the film makes for all those awards. You won’t have to wait long, either: Within 30 seconds, you know that Jamal (Dev Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” is one question away from the grand prize, and is sitting in a room with two temperamental interrogators who think he’s a fraud. Not a bad haul for 30 seconds. But where “Millionaire” really earns its kudos is with what it does with that haul. Out of this introduction spins a biopic about a nobody (played at different ages by Patel, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda) whose existence not only leads up to his moment of might-be glory, but finds its way into every question he answers. If you’re a skeptic, the whole thing is a hysterically illogical wave of coincidental overdrive. But if you can just buy into it, “Millionaire” is a great life story, a great love story, and a fantastic mystery that maintains the spirit of those first 30 seconds almost the whole way though. (The closing credits are pretty cool, too, so stick around.)
Extras: Director/Patel commentary, writer/producer commentary, deleted scenes, making-of feature, music video.

Tell No One (NR, 2006, Music Box Films)
The last time Alexandre (François Cluzet) saw his wife (Marie-Josée Croze), she was walking away from an argument they had. The last time he heard her, she was screaming for his help. And for the eight years that followed, Alexandre mourned his dead wife while fighting the glares of authorities who don’t understand how he survived being knocked into the water, unconscious, by the supposed killer. Then — and this is the crazy part — his wife e-mails him. Maybe. “Tell No One” would be a better ride if you didn’t know that last part in advance. But Music Box wants to sell some DVDs, so there it is, laid bare on the cover. Fortunately, it ultimately matters little. “TNO’s” first hour basically leads up to what the box told you first, but it does so with a compelling setting and characters interesting enough to make even the spoiled bits engrossing. Then, the second hour happens, and things just get good. The e-mail brings with it additional skeletons, with those skeletons bring complications even the box art can’t predict. Naturally, there’s also the matter of that e-mail and who may or may not have sent it. “TNO” takes the suspense thriller playbook and generally follows its blueprints, but the simple combination of that good first hour, a unique twist and the fallout that results is all the film needs to melt the minutes away. In French with English subtitles (decent English dub available).
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Killer at Large (NR, 2009, Disinformation Company)
Hey everybody, guess what? There’s this thing called obesity, and it’s killing people slowly. Heard of it? Of course you have: It’s a mass media staple — an endless well from which reporters can retrieve all manner of scary images and threats. Initially, “Killer at Large” seems interested in the same empty entertainment, kicking off with footage of a 12-year-old girl undergoing liposuction surgery and following with completely unappetizing images of what obesity-powered diabetes can do to a person’s foot. Fortunately, covert morbid entertainment isn’t all that’s on the menu. “Large” devotes acceptable amounts of time to lesser-discussed causes of obesity, including a detailed rundown of the role stress plays in undermining diet and exercise. It discusses the economics of eating healthily versus unhealthily. It also devotes considerable time to the epidemic of sedentary kids, tossing out some funny-if-they-weren’t-depressing numbers that, even with all we know, might open some eyes. “Large” jumps without pattern between numerous subjects, causes and controversies, and some — particularly, the damnation of politicians’ inability to do what parents should be doing anyway — land with a thud. More than not, though, it addresses good, smart points. It’s silly to pretend adults who need to see “Large” the most will ever even know it exists. But if educators get their hands on it, “Large” has genuine legs as an invaluable educational tool.
Extras: Condensed (45-minute) educational cut, commentary, deleted scenes, extended footage of a scene from the film, premiere footage.

Fling (R, 2008, Peace Arch)
Welcome to Samantha’s (Courtney Ford) and Mason’s (Steve Sandvoss) open relationship, which appears continually on the brink of disaster during the “tell me one thing, show me another” scenes that comprise “Fling’s” opening act. “Fling” as a film seems destined to follow the same path — hot and happy one minute, cold and anguished another, with pages of solid dialogue undermined by the completely unnecessary presence of a shaky camera and regular blasts of unintentionally amusing in-your-face-itude. On some level, that never lets up. Fortunately, despite threats to the contrary, it also never overwhelms the film, which quite surprisingly manages to grow into all that intensity. “Fling” is, in the end, an overwrought but pretty intelligent dissection of the impossible dream that is a loving relationship without borders. An ability to take interest in Samantha and Mason without necessarily liking them is probably a requisite, but “Fling” deserves credit for making that seemingly impossible task very possible. Brandon Routh, Shoshana Bush and Nick Wechsler also star.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, video vignettes, deleted scenes, digital copy.

The Other End of the Line (PG-13, 2008, MGM)
Give “The Other End of the Line” some points for setting an original table. It takes two uniquely modern problems — identity theft (Jesse Metcalfe as the victimized New Yorker) and outsourcing (Shriya as a credit card call center employee who works in India but masquerades as a San Franciscan) — and spins a potential relationship from their chance tele-encounter. Too bad “Line” only has old solutions to these new problems. Things begin promisingly and with style, but the film simply can’t help itself as it rushes through the interesting setup and jumps into a bed of the same old romantic comedy clichés, complete with familiar misunderstandings you can spot a mile away. That doesn’t make “Line” a total wash, if only because Shriya creates an instantly likable character and does absolutely nothing to undermine that as the story progresses. Metcalfe, on the other hand, is trapped in his role — stuck playing just another not-quite leading man who isn’t nearly as charming and unpredictable as he thinks he is. Unfortunately, for the same reasons, neither is “Line.” No extras.

Marley & Me (PG, 2008, Fox)
“Marley & Me” worked as a book (and an audio book, for those averse to reading) because it was page upon page of a man recounting, affectionately and in great detail, the life and times of the ridiculously misbehaving dog he very obviously loved. So it bears asking: Where’d that dog go when this movie was made? It’s bad enough that “Marley & Me” spends considerably more time on Marley’s owners (Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson) than the dog everyone paid to see. But a long 45 minutes pass before we even see Marley as anything but a nuisance, and it’s another half hour before we see any proof that Marley brought his family any joy at all. In both cases, the moments last less than a moment, and then it’s back to the entire world being mad at Marley in ways that usually aren’t funny and often don’t even seem intended to be funny. Only with 25 minutes to go does “M&M” find something resembling a soul, but it’s really just a device to jerk audiences around as Marley deals with his own mortality. In the proper context, it’s a sweet comedown any respectable dog lover will completely understand. But watching a family pay tear-streaked respect to a dog they spent almost the entire film treating as a despised thorn in their cold sides rings insultingly hollow. “M&M” doubtlessly was made with only good intentions, but it’s a horrendously manipulative misfire. Even a bad dog like Marley deserves better than a film that treats him like an uninvited guest instead of the star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, animal adoption feature, fan contest finalists’ videos, bloopers.

Games 3/24/09: Zubo, Boing! Docomodake DS, Hasbro Family Game Night

For: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence)

The first thing we really learn about “Zubo” is that it stars you as a pretty generic human character. The second thing we learn is that, as this human, you can collect and befriend different creatures, called Zubos, whom you then employ in battle against their evil Zombo counterparts.

Sounds a lot like “Pokémon” — which, with “Pokémon Platinum” arriving at almost the exact same time, also sounds like some seriously terrible timing on “Zubo’s” part.

Once you see how “Zubo’s” fight system works, though, all perceptions fly out the window. Turns out, timing isn’t the game’s biggest problem so much as its greatest asset.

Superficially, “Zubo’s” battle system should ring familiar to anyone who has played a role-playing game. You pick one of (eventually) three available Zubos in your party, tell him or her which attack to use, and a system built around both adversaries’ stats helps determine the effect of those decisions.

But instead of simply watch the action play out, you determine the outcome by playing what essentially amounts to an on-the-fly rhythmic music game. Tapping the screen in time with the visual and musical clues maximizes the effectiveness of your attacks, while completely missing the cues causes your Zubo to do the same to the Zombo. If you’ve played any of the “Paper Mario” games, you have something of an idea how this works: The more effective the attack, the more involved the sequence is that you have to follow.

Happily, pulling off the game’s crazier maneuvers is an absolute riot. The rhythmic music sequences are fun to execute in their own right. If you play “Zubo” with headphones, the wonderfully infectious soundtrack only helps matters.

But the cherry on the Sundae is the nature of all that combat. Far more than your typical punches, kicks or slashes, “Zubo’s” attacks are pantomimic masterpieces, calling on everything from goofy dance steps to slapstick gags that enable Zubos and Zombos to pile oodles of insult atop injury. “Zubo’s” mastery of comical body language comes rivaled only by Telltale’s acclaimed Lego games, and when the game shoots for the moon, it raises the bar to new heights.

The whole shebang is such an explosion of feel-good joy that it’s almost easy to forget there’s an actual adventure tying it all together. Fortunately, while it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, “Zubo’s” story suffices, and it provides excuse plenty to round up a diverse collection of Zubos inspired by robots, monsters, martial artists and pretty much every other fictional archetype. Seeing the tricks hidden up each character’s sleeve provides all the motivation one needs to keep playing, but a little storytelling never hurts.


Boing! Docomodake DS
For: Nintendo DS
From: AQ Interactive/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You may not know it just to look at it, and you may never have known if nobody told you, but “Boing! Docomodake DS” is a commercial mascot tie-in game — the latest in a sometimes-brutal genre that includes the wretched likes of “Yaris” and “Izzy’s Quest for the Olympic Rings.”

In this case, the star of the show is Docomodake, who is to Japan’s dominant mobile phone provider what the Kool-Aid man is to Kool-Aid.

Fortunately, all that amounts to nothing more than trivia. Docomodake is a delightful character, regardless of affiliation. More importantly, “Boing” is a genuinely great game — an inspired platformer/puzzler hybrid that uses the full might of the Nintendo DS’ capabilities in completely new ways.

At first glance, Papa Docomodake is a your typical mushroom with a face, able to walk, dash and jump. But the levels in “Boing” pose challenges beyond his base capabilities, and as such, Papa has to split off into multiple miniature Docomodakes who can, among other things, squeeze into tighter spaces and stand atop one another to form a ladder.

“Boing” keeps the controls practical: The buttons handle Papa Docomodake, while the stylus is used to drag the miniatures, which also can be rolled into balls and used to knock enemies out of the sky or clear other obstacles. You can rebuild and split Papa Docomodake at will, which comes in handy when activating certain platforms that require a specific amount of weight to operate properly.

This, pretty much, is how “Boing’s” levels work, and like a good platformer, the game keeps the controls at this level while introducing new obstacles and doohickeys to overcome and understand as you progress. The primary goal is to reach the end of each level, but ambitious players also can tackle the scoring system, which grades you on your ability to collect treasure, keep all mini Docomodakes healthy and reach the goal as quickly as possible. The game’s primary challenge isn’t terribly taxing, but acing the latter test definitely is.

An interest in replaying levels to perfection is pretty crucial to the long-term value of “Boing,” which proves to be a pretty brisk experience if you simply burn through every level once and never look back.

Then again, the game checks in at a very impulse purchase-friendly $20, and you easily could recoup that investment after only a few hours in Docomodake’s world. “Boing” is a visual charmer, and its devotion to doing things only a DS platformer can do produces one of the most endearing efforts since “Kirby Canvas Curse” blew everybody away four years ago.


Hasbro Family Game Night
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: EA Hasbro
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: Free for host client, $10 for each game

Wii and PS2 owners were introduced to “Hasbro Family Game Night” last fall, but not like this. On Xbox Live, “Night” comes a la carte, and you can purchase as many or as few of the games (Battleship, Connect Four, Scrabble and Yahtzee available now; Boggle, Sorry! and Sorry! Sliders coming later) for $10 each. The downside is obvious: Purchase all seven, and you’re paying $70, which is $30 more than the Wii version currently fetches. More likely, though, you don’t have any use for all seven, and being able to purchase a couple favorites on the cheap and enjoy them in their best virtual incarnation yet (surprisingly pretty graphics and interface, solo/local/online play, Xbox Live avatar support) is a nice option to have. Your favorites naturally will vary, but if the four available games are any indication, EA has done each selection serious justice. All play as you expect them to in their basic incarnations, and each comes with special alternate modes that aren’t possible in their real-life form. Having live opponents ready and waiting at all hours of the day certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

DVD 3/24/09: Bolt, Quantum of Solace, Gardens of the Night, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Cake Eaters, New York City Serenade

Bolt (PG, 2008, Disney)
If you’ve ever watched a dog on film and wondered what’s going through his or her head while everyone else plays pretend, the premise of “Bolt” — about a Hollywood dog who has no idea his fictional powers aren’t real — is immediately engaging. You probably can venture a guess as to which twists will set the film in motion and sustain it for 96 minutes, but that hardly matters. “Bolt” counters every threat of predictability with some truly magnificent, Pixar-esque character design. Bolt himself is a magnetically adorable dog, and the anthropomorphic supporting players who cross his path — be they other dogs, cats, pigeons or a scene-stealing hamster named Rhino — are gifts to the world of animated animal design. Every last expression is inspired, and many of them make “Bolt” as genuinely funny when no one’s saying anything as it is when the script’s best lines are being read. As expected, “Bolt” cashes in all that hilarity and adorability for one giant pull at the heartstrings toward the film’s conclusion. But given how high the deck is stacked by that point, such a predictable turn is not only unstoppable, but entirely allowable. John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell and James Lipton, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: New short starring Rhino, deleted scenes (with director intros), four behind-the-scenes features, DVD game, art gallery, music video, digital copy.

Quantum of Solace (R, 2008, MGM)
The Jack Bauerification of James Bond that began with a bang in “Casino Royale” is now complete in “Quantum of Solace,” which carries “Royale’s” baggage into a brand-new international conspiracy. The details of that escapade provide a basis and a means, and Bond responds in kind by pulling off a new array of amazingly timely stunts in some beautiful new environments. But more than any of that, “Solace’s” true currency is the continued vivisection of a character that previously knew no defect. Craig’s Bond is crafty, quick-witted and as good with a woman as he is a drink, but he’s also bloody, reckless and prone to sloppy, impulsive behavior that gets other people killed. In “Solace,” that puts him simultaneously at odds with adversaries, employers and numerous in-betweens, and with respect to some top-shelf boat chases and shootouts, its the uncomfortable stare-downs with the people he wants to trust — and who want so badly to return the favor — that really lights this film’s fire. Judi Dench, Mathieu Amalric, Jeffrey Wright, Olga Kurylenko, Gemma Arterton and Giancarlo Giannini also star.
Extras: Eight behind-the-scenes video crew files, six behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Gardens of the Night (R, 2008, City Lights)
During its first scene, “Gardens of the Night” introduces us to Leslie (Gillian Jacobs), a teenager who, by her own account, has two dead parents, a brother and an uncle who cared for both of them. Shortly after, we’re back in time, and eight-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) is walking to school when a neighbor (Tom Arnold) asks her if she’s seen his lost dog. “Night” sets this table so effectively that even with the knowledge that Leslie is alive and well years later, a torrent of dread rushes in almost the moment this encounter begins. It doesn’t necessary let up anytime afterward, either. “Night” travels back and forth in time to answer all the questions laid out by that first scene, and at no point, on either side, does it take the easy way out or give in to needless exploitation. By tastefully but gustily toeing a smart, fragile line all the way to the end, it paints an absolutely believable (and, therefore, unsettling without help) scenario of how a perfectly picturesque childhood can go off the rails — and, hopefully, back on track before it’s too late. “Night” lays bare the lines of Leslie’s story in its first act, but it’s what lies between them that provides the film’s many revelations.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, statistics, making-of documentary, photo gallery.

Andy Richter Controls the Universe (NR, 2002, CBS/Paramount)
Television can be a cruel racket, with months of casting, writing and filming flushed down the toilet if a show makes a rocky first impression and isn’t given time to settle in. Such is the sad plight of “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” which needed just about all of its rocky first episode to lay the ground rules of is concept: Andy (Richter) writes technical manuals, counts two co-workers (Paget Brewster, James Patrick Stuart) among his best friends, has a crush on the new receptionist (Irene Molloy), talks to the company’s dead founder (John Bliss), and now has to share an office with the neurotic new guy (Jonathan Slavin). Also, Andy has a wild imagination, which leads to the same kind of hallucinations Zach Braff experiences on “Scrubs.” If you like that show’s dry but whimsically awkward sense of humor, you’ll almost certainly like “Universe,” which marches to the same beat, right down to the missing laugh track. Additionally, once you get past the uneven first episode — which, unfortunately, few viewers did back in 2002 — the show’s genius starts to shine through. Just be prepared to do a double take on disc one: What appears to be the second episode (even labeled as such) inexplicably appears fourth on the DVD, and it introduces two characters you already met two episodes prior.
Contents: 19 episodes (five previously unaired), plus commentary and two behind-the-scenes features.

The Cake Eaters (R, 2008, Screen Media)
“The Cake Eaters” is the story of two people — or rather, multiples of two people. There’s Georgia (Kristen Stewart), a high school who suffers from a degenerative muscular disorder, and Beagle (Aaron Stanford), a socially awkward twentysomething who works in her high school’s cafeteria. There’s Beagle’s brother Guy (Jayce Bartok), who fled town three years ago without warning, and there’s Stephanie (Miriam Shor), the woman he left behind. That’s the tip of the iceberg, and predictably, these and other twosomes increasingly mesh as “Eaters” progresses. All of it amounts to basically a single contained fire burning between two families and a few peripheral characters, and little of it says anything about the world at large or even the world one block over. In that sense, “Eaters” feels like the beginnings of a good television drama — a lot of well-designed characters living in their own worlds while slowly being pulled across each other’s paths. But it also stands on its own as a film — one without grand ambitions, perhaps, but with satisfying results all the same. Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Ashley, Talia Balsam, Jesse L. Martin and Melissa Leo also star.
Extras: Director commentary, cast interviews, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

New York City Serenade (R, 2007, Anchor Bay)
Sneakily — or more likely, accidentally — “New York City Serenade” asks a good question: When you have a good script about mostly rotten people, what is the net result on the entertainment scale? In one corner, we have Owen (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a very small-time filmmaker with the charisma of a butter knife. On the other side: His inexplicable best friend Ray (Chris Klein), who continually lands Owen into all levels of trouble and whose charms could work only in the land of fiction. Together, the two are insufferably ill-equipped to garner anybody’s sympathies, and the characters charged with propping them up (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ben Schwartz, Heather Bucha, Alexander Chaplin and Wallace Shawn) either fall into the same boat or aren’t given enough screen time to make us gravitate to them. The only character who garners any real compassion is a four-year-old girl (Sophie Nyweide) who makes the most of the few minutes she gets to basically validate our feelings about everybody else. Yet, despite all this, “Serenade” really is a pretty good film. It achieves the level of aggravation it achieves by designing compelling situations around characters that, obnoxious though they may be, are sketched awfully well. Whether that sounds like entertaining or punishing, though, is your call to make.
Extra: Writer/director/supporting cast commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 3/17/09: Resident Evil 5, Pikmin: New Play Control, Mario Power Tennis: New Play Control, Peggle Deluxe

Resident Evil 5
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

In what amounts to the ultimate testament to gaming’s breakneck evolutionary pace, the things that made “Resident Evil 4” such a revolutionary shooter are the same things that threaten to haunt the sequel not even five years later.

Somewhat distressingly, these snags — most notably, an inability to move while shooting or take cover at will — are most problematic during an insane ambush in “Resident Evil 5’s” very first level. If you’re playing alone, your partner’s artificial intelligence also appears addled as she steps on your feet and carelessly unloads precious handgun ammo like it’s canned air.

Once past this point, though, “RE5’s” purported shortcomings aren’t disadvantageous so much as just different from the new norm. Given time and adjustment, they even work to the game’s advantage. With respect to “Gears of War” and “Uncharted,” Capcom is treading through entirely different waters here. That means environments, weapons, tactics and enemies that complement a gameplay approach that proves, once all is said and done, to work even better now than it did in “RE4.” The transformation that began in that game feels complete with this one.

The upshot? While “RE5’s” story marks a fantastic return (and, most likely, conclusion) to the Umbrella Corp. storyline, it marks a complete end to the scares that once defined the series. Some fierce enemies lie in wait, but the game’s cut-scenes and music telegraph the arrival of every last one of them. The fact that the game takes place in well-lit environments, to say nothing of the partner who almost always stands at your side, only exacerbates the shift from horror to action.

Overall, though, the addition of a partner proves more welcome than not. If you play alone, Sheva’s A.I. proves surprisingly sharp beyond her growing pains in the first level. She’s so sharp, in fact, that if you allow a friend to assume her role — “RE5” supports drop-in co-op either online of via splitscreen — the tension ratchets up considerably. Your friend has free will to branch off from you, and you’ll have to communicate copiously to watch each other’s backs the way Sheva constantly watches yours under the game’s control.

Like its predecessor, “RE5” encourages you to experience both scenarios by making itself so much more replayable than your typical single-player-centric game. Obsessive types have a treasure trove of everything from weapons to capsule toys to unlock, and the unlockable jewel from “RE4” — a scored, timed survival mini-game called Mercenaries mode — returns with online co-op support added. Weapons and items from one campaign carry over, upgrades and all, into a new game, which allows brave players of all abilities to build up an arsenal and take the game on at its hardest settings.


Pikmin: New Play Control
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Mario Power Tennis: New Play Control
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Camelot/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Some of Nintendo’s most ardent supporters from the pre-Wii days would have you know that the company has been rehashing the same traditional games for far too long while only creating new franchises for the casual end of the spectrum.

The arrival of the New Play Control lineup — which literally repackages Gamecube games with widescreen support and a new control scheme designed around the Wii’s controllers — isn’t exactly likely to alter that perception.

Taken at face value, though, the idea makes all kinds of sense. A lot of people who have Wiis never owned a Gamecube, and outfitting some of the better games from that library with a control scheme that makes them feel native to the Wii is a good way to give the system some new content that also has been partially tested by time. A $20 price tag would have sealed the deal, but pricing them at $30 still seems fair given the target audience.

That said, the initial selections in the library don’t arrive free of caveats. Far from it, sadly.

“Mario Power Tennis,” in particular, has been severely hampered by the control switcheroo. The Gamecube controls allowed for precise shot selection and control, and the same can’t be said with the move to “Wii Sports”-style controls. That makes this a fun multiplayer lark when you’re just goofing off with friends, but a complete letdown for ambitious players who want to master (or re-master) the game’s maze of tournaments and bonus challenges.

It’s a shame, and an inexplicable one, that Nintendo didn’t just leave the original control scheme in as an option for those with a Gamecube controller lying around. It’ll be an even bigger shame if a “Mario Tennis” game built from the ground up for the Wii doesn’t happen because Nintendo deems this as sufficient for that endeavor. Casual players may lap it up, but those who already loved the franchise almost certainly will feel differently.

Unsurprisingly, “Pikmin” fares considerably better: It’s an extremely accessible take on the real-time strategy genre, and while the Gamecube controller made nice work of it seven years ago, the Wii setup is tailor-made for it.

But while “Pikmin” was great seven years ago, “Pikmin 2” was leagues better three years later, and Nintendo already has announced the inclusion of that game in the New Play Control lineup. With the wait likely to span a few months instead of a few years, it’s hard to recommend this $30 game when a better one waits right around the corner.


Peggle Deluxe
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (coming soon to Playstation 3 via Playstation Network)
From: PopCap
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

The unlikely magic of PopCap’s ingeniously simple puzzle addiction is the way it swallows every degree of player — from diminutively casual to helplessly compulsive — using the same simple trick. “Peggle Deluxe’s” objective — aim and fire a ball, Pachinko-style, and try to clear all the orange pegs from the screen before running out of balls — is simple enough for even complete technophobes to understand. It’s also strangely liberating: Once you’ve taken a shot, the game wrestles control from you, using physics and a little luck to decide where the ball lands. That doesn’t mean, of course, that obsessive gamers won’t sink hours into completing every last level. “Peggle’s” adventure and challenge modes present a mountain of levels to complete, and you’ll need to master the intricacies of the physics and special power-ups to truly master the game. “Peggle Deluxe” mostly is the same title PC gamers have enjoyed for a couple years, and the translation is pixel perfect. The only major difference — an online four-player mode called Peggle Party — is an entirely welcome one. With three friends in tow, the experience is jovial on the same level of “Uno” and other casual Xbox Live hits.

DVD 3/17/09: Let the Right One In, I've Loved You so Long, The Village Barbershop, Head Case S1, Punisher: War Zone

Let the Right One In (R, 2008, Magnet)
You always remember your first crush — especially if, like the object of Oskar’s (Kåre Hedebrant) affection, she (Lina Leandersson) only comes out at night and her arrival coincides with a series of gruesome murders and unexplainable disappearances. Fortunately for 12-year-old vampire Eli, Oskar is too busy taking lumps from a flock of local bullies to jump to any conclusions on his own, and a completely strange friendship is born. The duel plights, to say nothing of the sweet “boy likes vampire, vampire likes boy” angle, sets the table for a most unusual story about a creature of the night. “Let the Right One in” doesn’t flinch at the opportunity, simultaneously respecting traditions and conventions from two very different kinds of films while achieving a precious and unsettling tone that’s uniquely its own. That places “LTROI” far outside the typical horror film bounds, and those who hold it to those standards might find themselves turned off by the deliberate pace and very gradual burn that defines the film’s early going. But it all pays off — not only with a back half that cashes in everything the first half sets up, but with a magnificent conclusion that pays better respect to the genre than most of those other movies put together. In Swedish with English subtitles, but a pretty good English dub is available.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, photo/poster galleries.

I’ve Loved You so Long (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures Classics)
Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) are sisters, and all we really know beyond that, as “I’ve Loved You so Long” gets going, is that the two haven’t seen each other in an unconventionally long time. “Long” naturally delves into what made things the way they are, and even hinting at the cause of that separation would spoil a great deal of the discovery. Unfortunately, hiding those spoilers also makes it hard to avoid generic praise when commending what “Long” does with the scenario and where, outside of a few trite and predictable junctures, it goes from there. More than a setup to a climax, “Long” is a comedown and a deconstruction — a surprising early revelation that gives way to some ugly, uncomfortable but completely necessary human fallout. That isn’t a storytelling technique everyone will appreciate, but it is one “Long” does especially well. In French with English subtitles, but a less-than-spectacular English dub (featuring Thomas’ voice) also is available.
Extra: Deleted scenes (with commentary).

The Village Barbershop (NR, 2007, Monterey Video)
Small-time Reno barber Art Leroldi (John Ratzenberger) isn’t exactly a pro when it comes to facing loss head-on, so he has quite the hill to climb when his business partner and best friend passes away and leaves him wading alone through a sea of bills and past-due notices. On the other side of the story coin sits Gloria (Shelly Cole), an increasingly desperate single mom-to-be who needs some kind of financial stability as soon as possible. If you can put two and two together, you likely can guess how these two figure into each other’s lives. That goes as well for a few of “The Village Barbershop’s” other faces, pieces and instances, which pop up at somewhat predictable times and take well-traveled roads to destinations that won’t exactly blow anybody’s mind. Problem? Maybe, maybe not. As simple-minded as “Barbershop” frequently portends to be, it’s an extremely pleasant kind of simple-mindedness that’s mindful of the details. Art’s story isn’t bursting with shock in intrigue, but the mannerisms that tell the story make him worth watching. That goes triple for Cole, whose amusing demeanor would steal the movie outright if the script didn’t delegate so effectively between the two. Amo Glick, George McRae and Cindy Pickett also star.
Extras: Feature on Reno, director Q&A, barbering history and trivia, actor bios.

Head Case: Season 1 (NR, 2007, Starz/Anchor Bay)
Dr. Elizabeth Goode (Alexandra Wentworth) has, in spite of herself, built a plush career for herself as a therapist to Hollywood’s rich and famous. How — or perhaps why — isn’t so clear. Goode’s maddening insecurity propels her to find a way to insert her own insatiable concerns in the middle of her clients’ equally incurable neuroses, and both parties seem too oblivious to arrive at that rather obviously problematic conclusion and do anything to fix it. But that’s their problem. Ours rests entirely on whether “Head Case,” which employs the same unscripted comedic stylings of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Christopher Guest’s filmography, can make us laugh the same way those gems do. Alas, “Case” rarely rises to that level, and there are times, depending on who is guest-starring on Goode’s couch, where the show falls absolutely on its face. Most of the time, though, “Case” rides somewhere in the middle — rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but consistently amusing enough to merit recommendation. The mile-long list of recognizable guest stars (David Alan Grier, James Denton, Lea Thompson, Richard Kind, Christopher Lloyd, Ahmet Zappa and quite a few more) doesn’t hurt, either. Michelle Arthur, Steve Landesberg, Rob Benedict, Aris Alvarado and Channon Roe join Wentworth in the main cast.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus bonus shorts, bloopers and a making-of feature.

Punisher: War Zone: 2-Disc Special Edition (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
If at first you don’t succeed (1989), and if you fail again after that (2004), try again. “Punisher: War Zone” marks the third attempt in two decades to accomplish the presumably brainless task of converting a comic book about a violent but benevolent vigilante on a vengeance-filled warpath, and for serious fans who crave a faithful tribute to the comic, it marks the third failure. For the rest of us, the results will vary a little more. If, for instance, you crave a smart deconstruction of Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) and the means of and methods to his contained madness, you probably should wait another few years and see if someone gives this a fourth try. If, however, you enjoy movies that are so bad as to be good, “War Zone” probably isn’t to be missed. Stevenson is the best fit yet for Castle’s cinematic shoes, but the script he’s given is another matter entirely, chock full of hilariously campy dialogue and choice excerpts from the big book of Hollywood clichés. Meanwhile, a cast of really good actors (Doug Hutchison, Wayne Knight, Colin Salmon, Dash Mihok) have a blast collecting easy paychecks, and Dominic West outdoes himself with the goofiest Italian accent since Bob Hoskins took on Super Mario. Throw in some hysterically over-the-top violence, and “War Zone” emerges as a must-see for your next group movie night — a complete failure of the very best kind.
Extras: Director/crew commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Games 3/10/09: Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, X-Blades, Word Fu

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vicious Cycle/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

At first glance, it’s hard not to love “Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard.”

Unfortunately, once you dig in, trying not to hate it is similarly difficult.

“Lead’s” concept is ingenious: You star as washed-up action game star Matt Hazard, who is mounting a comeback after a torrent of (fictional) spin-offs and sequels destroyed his marketability. Your comeback meets resistance from inside the game, though, and from there, “Lead” (which employs the voice talents of Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris) takes the game-within-a-game idea to new heights in its bid to spoof 20 years of gaming norms and warts.

While “Lead” positions itself as a cover-based third-person shooter in the “Gears of War” vein, the setup allows it to stretch that concept however it likes. You might, for instance, fight cowboys and Russian soldiers simultaneously. Some of them might turn into zombies after you kill them. Fortunately, a bizarre range of weapons, from deadly water guns to plasma pistols, ensures you’ll be able to dispatch the undead in short order.

During these moments, “Lead” is harmless fun. The game’s controls lack a level of polish found in top-tier shooters, but they work, and the ability to bounce from cover to cover with a single button press is pretty clever (as Matt himself points out).

Problem is, many of these shootouts last entirely too long. “Lead” hides its repetition early on by introducing strange new enemy juxtapositions every so often, but by the end of the game, you’re seeing wave upon wave of the same crowd coming at you. Enemy A.I. isn’t particularly sharp, and blasting through these waves becomes an exercise in monotony after a while.

Unfortunately, “Lead” suffers more when it tries to get fancy. A pair of sequences in which you’re bouncing through cover to avoid sniper fire are surprisingly fun, but the fun stops cold during a few of the game’s boss fights, which are funny in concept but aggravating in practice. “Lead” commits a serious cover shooter cardinal sin by spawning enemies out of nowhere behind you, and this problem becomes a deal-breaking liability during boss fights in which one mistake can get you killed instantly. It’s hard to keep laughing when a game punishes you with cheap deaths, and “Lead” is home to some of the cheapest deaths you’ll see all year.

“Lead” goes out on a positive note with a cool final boss fight and a fun end twist, but the overall game outstays its welcome so profoundly that completing it brings relief more than satisfaction. That, along with the lack of any kind of multiplayer option, makes this a better rental than purchase if you’re curious about its finer points.


For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Gaijin Entertainment/TopWare Interactive/SouthPeak Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

Children of the 1980s doubtlessly remember the wave of low-budget Nintendo Entertainment System games that didn’t exactly view user-friendliness as a virtue. Instructions and storytelling were minimal to non-existent, and completing the games demanded some mix of cruel trial and error and/or a strategy guide purchase.

“X-Blades” is, on multiple levels, the modern-day embodiment of those old games.

Take for instance, the Observation Site level, which finds you trapped in a room with spikes that pop out of the floor. “X-Blades” gives you no instruction on how to escape the room, nor does it really explain why the trap even exists. So you’re stuck with your contemporary instincts, which compel you to find a way to escape the room. But there exists no such trick: If you can dodge the spike patterns for an entirely indeterminate amount of time, a cutscene plays and you’re freed.

The same holds true for some of the boss fights.

“X-Blades'” mix of sword and pistol combat takes pages out of the “Devil May Cry” playbook, but as you progress through the game, the elemental spells you unlock take precedence.

For the most part, the system makes sense: Fire-based spells devastate ice-based enemies, light magic counters dark magic, and so on. Once in a while, though, the weakness isn’t really defined, and you’ll have to run down your spells to find something that works while the bad guys pound away at you. “X-Blades” gives no quarter in this regard: If you don’t use the right attack, you can’t damage certain enemies at all. Death isn’t devastatingly consequential — you start the fight over but keep any experience you’ve accrued — but that doesn’t make the guesswork any less obnoxious.

But that’s how “X-Blades” rolls. You enter a level, kill or dodge everything that moves, and repeat. The story is threadbare, the existence of various enemies mostly without explanation, and the motives of Ayumi, the main character, left mostly to your imagination. That never changes, and while the second half of the game presents new enemies and challenges, you’ll face them while running backwards through nighttime versions of the same areas you already saw.

Obviously, this isn’t a game for everyone, and the lack of modern frills (to say nothing of replayability once you beat it) makes it nearly impossible to justify the current $60 ($50 for Windows) price.

However, if the idea of completely archaic storytelling and level structure sounds strangely appealing, you’ll at least be pleased to know “X-Blades” gets the technical stuff mostly right. The action is fast and loose, and the spells only get cooler as the game unfolds. Ayumi’s gracefulness can’t match her speed, but outside of a few optional collectables, platforming isn’t even an issue here.


Downloadable game

Word Fu
For: iPhone and iPod Touch
From: ngmoco
ESRB Rating: Not rated by ESRB
Price: $2

If you’ve ever played Boggle, you’ll understand “Word Fu,” which gives you 20 seconds to roll nine lettered dice to your satisfaction and 45 (and counting) additional seconds to spell as many words as you can using the letters you roll. Naturally, longer words merit larger scores, and “Fu” adds seconds to the timer every time you successfully submit a word. A few additional tricks help ward off the effects of countdown panic: You can use the same die ad infinitum to spell longer words with repeating letters, and submitting words triggers power-ups that let you slow time, reroll one die or play for double points. The Kung Fu motif is purely superficial, but the sounds provide an amusing and satisfying complement to submitting words. “Fu” includes a high score table, achievements (in the form of colored belts) and even local multiplayer over the same Wi-Fi network. The feature set, combined with ngmoco’s now-standard attention to quality, makes the $2 price tag all the more staggering. Unless you can’t read, your return on investment will be almost immediate.

DVD 3/10/09: Rachel Getting Married, Milk, Happy-Go-Lucky, Role Models, Marie and Bruce, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Rachel Getting Married (R, 2008, Sony Pictures Classics)
“Rachel Getting Married” is, in fact and quite exhaustively, about Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting married. It’s also about all such a marriage entails, including the reception, the ceremony, the rehearsal dinner, final preparations, and Rachel’s sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), who has received a brief reprieve from rehab to drop all sorts of accidental and behavioral bombs on the entire proceeding. Wondering why Kym is in rehab? Don’t worry; you’ll find out. “Married’s” 113-minute runtime has a serious infatuation with introspection, dedicating as much time to pure mundanity as it gives to the deconstruction of Kym, her bride-to-be sister and various members of both wedding parties, including characters you’ll never really meet who nonetheless command multiple minutes of screen time. Seriously, take heed: If movies that take their sweet time irritate you, “Married” will institutionalize you. But that’s the tack this film takes, and the upshot is that, if you can tolerate (or better yet, appreciate) such behavior, you almost doubtlessly will find yourself absorbed by it as well. “Married” leaves little to the imagination, but it also doesn’t close itself off to anyone, and the degree to which you’ll feel like you know the Buchmans and their guests after two hours’ time is a serious testament to the film’s methods. Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Debra Winger also star.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, cast commentary, deleted scenes, cast/crew Q&A, two behind-the-scenes features.

Milk (R, 2008, Focus/Universal)
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) said it himself: The movement is the candidate, not him. In “Milk” — a true story based on events that shook up San Francisco in the 1970s — that movement is equal basic rights for gay Americans. On paper, the whole exercise seems pretty rote: Tell the story of how a do-nothing fortysomething became the first openly gay man elected to major public office, and illustrate the predictable ways that rise transformed the environment that bore witness to it. But as with any good biopic — and, in a way, like Harvey Milk himself — “Milk” isn’t just about the guy whose name appears on the box or the causes he represents. The film does a fine job of illustrating both, but its real shining glory is the credence it lends to that old adage about it never being too late to change lives, including your own. Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, Milk retrospective, two behind-the-scenes features.

Happy-Go-Lucky (R, 2008, Miramax)
There certainly is some truth in advertising at work with “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which is a movie more in the technical sense than the traditional sense. “Lucky” is about Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a schoolteacher whose clumsy disposition and penchant for social awkwardness is matched only by her inhumanly cheerful demeanor. She drives her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) crazy, chats up random strangers who may not necessarily talk back, puzzles a dancing instructor (Karina Fernandez) to her own great delight, and basically roars through life while her contemporaries grumble, shrug and occasionally blow a vein. And that, for the most part, is all “Lucky” is about. Stuff absolutely happens, but it isn’t necessarily the stuff that matters so much as how the characters deal with it. That’s the beauty of the whole thing, too. Find Poppy’s demeanor infectious and her brand of comedy hilarious, and you can simply ride “Lucky” out in awe of her. On the other hand, if she aggravates you to no end, the film offers no shortage of characters through which you can see those frustrations materialize. And if you find yourself rooting for one side versus the other, fear not: While “Lucky” isn’t overtly plot-driven, it sneaks a story arc in there, and that arc provides a startling payoff for both sides. Sarah Niles, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Andrea Riseborough, Sinead Matthews and Kate O’Flynn also star.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Role Models: Unrated (NR, 2008, Universal)
These are special times for the comedy genre — so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to take a film for granted when it has your usual assortment of misbehaving male leads (Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott, in this case) and some assortment of Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch and Kerri Kenney doing what they reliably do. “Role Models” doesn’t help itself with its premise, either. Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Scott) have to take on big brother roles in order to pay their debt to society and avoid jail time, and haven’t we gone down this road a thousand times already? And is anyone surprised that one of the little brothers (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a teenage geek while the other is a smack-talking little nightmare (Bobb’e J. Thompson)? Of course not, but it doesn’t really matter. “Models” uses its plot as a cheap means more than an end, and that’s good enough to make way for a funny script and let a bunch of funny actors do what they do so well. Everything here — from the gaggle of Medieval role-playing nerds to the wisecracking authority figure with a hysterically checkered past (Lynch, of course) — has been done elsewhere, but “Models” attacks these tire ideas with a special level of focus that makes them its own.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Marie and Bruce (R, 2004, Weinstein Company)
A script written for a play is different than a script written for a movie, and even if you can’t explain the differences, it doesn’t take a genius to spot them. That much is evident during “Marie and Bruce’s” toxic nine-minute opening spree, which finds Marie (Julianne Moore) verbally savaging a seemingly socially clueless husband (Matthew Broderick) who very visibly has driven her past the point of intolerant. The gradual massacre of a marriage is unmistakable fodder for storytelling in any medium, and while “Bruce” piles it on thick early on, a little intelligent blowback could have made the film work on some darkly comic level. But “Bruce” has no such aspiration. Instead, it just gets weird — inaccessibly, puzzlingly weird, climaxing with an unbearably long party scene that’s punctuated by dream sequences and the agonizing ramblings of party guests in which we’re covertly trained to take zero interest. Soon, it’s apparent “Bruce’s” dialogue isn’t merely a bad fit for a movie, but just plain bad. No one talks like this, on stage or on film, and “Bruce” offers 91 minutes’ worth of reasons why. No extras.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13, 2008, Miramax)
The tagline — “Lines may divide us, but hope will unite us” — sure reads like light, feel-good philosophy. At the outset, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” seems poised to embrace it, too. Bored son (Asa Butterfield) of Nazi solder (David Thewlis) meets Jewish boy (Jack Scanlon) living in concentration camp, the two share words through a fence that divides them, and a curious friendship built on blissful ignorance develops. For a considerable majority of its running time, this is the story “Pajamas” seems to be telling, interspersing simple exchanges between two kids with an occasionally bold but generally benign exploration of what happens when a soldier’s orders and his family start butting heads. The whole thing is a bit underwhelming — perhaps due to the kids’ limited face time, or perhaps because the influx of British accents keeps denting the illusion. But it’s also fairly harmless … until it isn’t. It’s safe to assume “Pajamas” was made with the best of intentions, and perhaps what happens at the end of the film is a device meant to convey the full weight of what, up until then, was more discussed than addressed. But if you haven’t read the book and found yourself drawn to the film because of that hopeful tagline or the saccharine box art featuring two innocent kids sitting in a grassy field, the last impression “Pajamas” leaves is a chilling slap to the face. The real theme at play is what happens to people the moment they realize they’ve made a mistake they can’t unmake. Once you see where “Pajamas'” final minutes are headed, you might know firsthand what that’s like.
Extras: Writer/director/author commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 3/3/09: Killzone 2, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, MLB 2K9

Killzone 2
For: Playstation 3
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

“Killzone’s” ascension — from decent-but-skippable first-person shooter (“Killzone” on the PS2) to underappreciated 2D gem (“Killzone: Liberation” on PSP) to its present status as an event-level blockbuster — means an entire legion of players know nothing about the ISA (good guys/you), Helghast ( bad guys) and why the good guys are the invaders and instigators as “Killzone 2” kicks off.

Unfortunately, while “KZ2” engages in some storytelling, it utterly fails to bring new players up to speed or take advantage of the bounty of metaphorical riches the scenario presents.

Fortunately, the game lives up to its promise everywhere else. You may not care why you’re engaged in this war, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel just how spectacularly alive the conflict is as it comes at and engulfs all around you. “KZ2” looks stunning on multiple levels, but it’s the game’s explicit illustration of ever-present, all-encompassing war that transforms stock skirmishes into absolutely mind-blowing episodes.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that “KZ2’s” semi-tactical control scheme fits so comfortably. Getting used to the game’s intricacies — a slightly unusual control scheme, some deliberate movement physics, a first-person viewpoint that initially feels too close-up for comfort — takes adjustment. The reward for your trouble, though, is a formula that masterfully implements first-person cover without sacrificing anything to make it happen.

The omission of a dedicated cover mechanic in “KZ2’s” multiplayer component is a design choice that will split players, but beyond that, the tactical approach translates nicely to the multiplayer space.

Like any other first-person shooter with multiplayer capabilities, “KZ2” (32 players online, A.I. bots for solo players, no splitscreen) gives you the usual modes and lets you play on either side and customize the game to your satisfaction.

The best way to play, though, is under the default settings. “KZ2” throws you on a battlefield and lets you pick your side, but then tosses one random objective (deathmatch, assassination, territory and so on) after another without interruption until one side collects enough wins to call it a match. A little idea like that goes a long way toward keeping players both on their toes and consistently engaged during longer play sessions.

As is the norm these days, victory has its rewards: Bolster your ranking online, and you’ll be able to play as additional classes (medic, scout, saboteur and so on) and create your own clan, which comes with its own rewards. This, along with the team-centric play that these multiplayer modes encourage almost by default, makes “KZ2” perhaps the best team online shooter since “Team Fortress 2.” That it works beautifully from day one — not necessarily a given for the PS3’s bigger online games — is the icing on the cake.


50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Swordfish Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)

In “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand,” you are 50 Cent, and your objective is to fight your way through a fictional Middle Eastern country and recover a diamond-encrusted skull that was promised to and subsequently stolen from you after concert promoters stiffed you out of $10 million for your just-concluded USO gig.

No, really. That’s what happens.

Conceptually, “Sand” approaches the zenith of celebrity-fronted gaming ridiculousness — rare territory reserved for the likes of Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shaq Fu” and “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.” Had Swordfish attempted to sell this idea to us with a straight face, we’d be hard-pressed to play it with one.

But Swordfish gets the joke, and it’s got the game to prove it. “Sand” very overtly borrows chunks of “Gears of War” (third-person shooting, cover mechanics), “Army of Two” (co-op-friendly objectives and environments) and “The Club” (combos and bonuses for stylish and consecutive kills), but it blends those pieces together with a uniquely maniacal sense of energy and with tongue planted deep in cheek.

The best news? It plays nicely. “Sand’s” cover mechanic occasionally falls prone to stickiness in tight corridors, but it generally functions like it should. The weapons feel appropriately powerful and are fun to use. “Sand” even does “The Club” better than “The Club” itself did, making it a blast to complete mini-scenarios on the fly and rack up combo points for excessive skill or bravery. The missions don’t exactly reek of variety, but the game throws objectives at you so rapidly that it’s hard to be bothered.

“Sand’s” co-op elements (two players, online only) also work as promised. The storyline unfolds identically regardless of whether you play alone or partner up, and your friends (or, if you wish, total strangers) are free to drop in and out of your game at any time. “Sand” gives you a respectably capable A.I. partner (portraying one of three G-Unit sidekicks) when you play alone, but the sheer ridiculousness of the story remains best enjoyed with a friend laughing along.

(In a weird twist on convention, the second player actually gets the better of “Sand’s” driving missions. If you want to man the turret instead of drive the Humvee, you’ll have to latch on to someone else’s game instead of start your own.)

Frankly, no reason exists not to have it both ways. “Sand” lacks any kind of competitive multiplayer mode, but the campaign is one of those fast, arcade-style blasts that is fun to replay simply for fun’s sake. Unlocking all the available weapons and taunts provides extra motivation to go back, but it’s almost unnecessary.


Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Wii, PSP and PC
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“MLB 2K9,” not unlike its most immediate predecessor, has issues.

The default calibration between runner and fielder speed is all over the map. Pokey fielder animations turn even simple double plays into uncertainties, but stretching singles into should-be doubles is similarly dicey.

Then again, the computer’s A.I. occasionally likes to nap on base and in the field. Even completely misplaying a ball doesn’t ensure your opponent will take proper advantage.

A host of rare but unexplainable glitches — be it an infielder throwing the ball to no one in particular or an outfielder literally vanishing with the ball and yielding an automatic inside-the-park homer — dent any illusions of realism. Ditto for many of the player likenesses, which look completely unlike their real-like counterparts and sometimes are just plain ghastly by any standard.

Most distressingly, the game crashed three times, all between late innings.

Were “2K9’s” problems limited to the occasional crash or bug, one might be able to forgive it and hope such occurrences are isolated issues 2K Sports recognizes and can rectify.

But the biggest problem from last year’s game — pitching — remains a killer this year. Simply put, it’s entirely too inaccessible.

“2K9” offers two methods of pitching. But the preferred method, which uses right stick gestures for pitch selection and delivery, is unacceptably fickle. Attempted curveballs become sliders and vice versa, and if you just plain slip on the stick, expect the opposing hitter to punish you for it. A more traditional, button-based style also is available, but it’s even worse: The difference between a good and terrible pitch is minute, and the comically vague meter gives you no indication where you stand on that scale.

The pitching stands in strange contrast to the rest of the game, which — some needlessly complicated but learnable baserunning controls aside — is pretty easy to pick up and play. “2K9” offers two ways to hit as well, but both make sense. Fielding is even easier to figure out.

To its credit, “2K9” also lets you customize every last difficulty detail — from A.I. hitter discipline to the speed of your runners and fielders — to recalibrate the game to your own personal satisfaction. If you don’t mind some major trial and error, you eventually can tune even the pitching to minimize its fickleness. That, along with the usual bounty of feature additions — including a fantastic overhaul to the commentary and the perpetual availability of “live” roster updates — makes it hard to argue that “2K9” isn’t a complete package.

That said, it would be immensely beneficial to have the game in top form without having to coax it there yourself. That wasn’t the case last year, and it appears 2K hasn’t really learned any lessons in the interim.

DVD 3/3/09: Dead in 3 Days, Australia, Weapons, Lake City, The Axe in the Attic, In the Electric Mist

Dead in 3 Days (R, 2006, Dimension Extreme)
Say, have you ever heard the one about the group of not-entirely-likable teens (Sabrina Reiter, Michael Steinocher, Laurence Rupp, Julia Rosa Stöckl, Nadja Vogel) who live in a quiet town that suddenly falls prey to an unknown killer bent on picking them off? Yes, you have, and if you check out “Dead in 3 Days,” you will again. The film’s title is explained in short order, but beyond that little gimmick (which won’t be spoiled here), “Days” appears headed down the same tired path entirely too many other horror films have taken. But as soon as that sobering revelation appears to accrue merit, a little twist gives “Days” just enough promise and wiggle room to keep it interesting and add some dimension to a cast of victims who become more interesting (and even a little likable) as time passes. Little wrinkles like this aren’t enough to make “Days” a game-changer, but they do give the film enough personal flavor to make the outcome worth one’s engagement. What the story can’t do, the characters can, and that’s almost more of an accomplishment given how many horror films utterly fail in that department. In German with English subtitles and an optional English dub. No extras.

Australia (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Was Fox really surprised that a 165-minute Baz Luhrmann period piece — about a cattle driver (Hugh Jackman) and a socialite (Nicole Kidman), no less — couldn’t pack theaters? No matter: It’s moot now, and if you developed a passing interest in “Australia” but lack the attention span required to experience it in theaters, you’re now cleared to enjoy it in pieces on DVD. But even with the comfort of a DVD remote close at hand, it’s hard to imagine why — beyond the complete self-indulgence of an already self-indulgent filmmaker paying tribute to both his homeland and cinema’s golden age — this film runs so long. “Australia” is, in the tradition of that era’s most momentous films, bulging with romance, drama, action, suspense and most every other adjective one can cram into a trailer. But it’s equally rigged with downtime and detours that serve only to elongate slow marches to predictable conclusions. Like any Luhrmann labor of love, “Australia” has some moments of true cinematic wonder, and feel-good scenes you see coming a mile away can still make one feel good if painted with the stylish, loving strokes Luhrmann so expertly dishes out. Just be prepared to take the good with the banal — and perhaps take a break altogether — if you want to bear witness to those moments. Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown and David Wenham, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Weapons (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
Hungry for a dichotomy? How about a character film with no truly likable characters? That’s the dilemma “Weapons” — which uses multiple characters’ (Nick Cannon, Paul Dano, Mark Webber, Regine Nehy) perspectives to explain the run-up to a revenge killing we witness fairly early on — faces. Centering the story around a group of teens who range from listless to objectionable to repulsive presents something of an uphill battle, and the predictable arrival of certain misunderstandings merely compounds whatever outrage one might feel in the first place. But that, as you might have guessed, is the idea. “Weapons'” characters aren’t pretty, but they are thoroughly sketched, and the film uses all that detailed ugliness to piece together a picture of hopeless entanglement that’s bigger than any single one of them. That, in turn, translates into a relentlessly tense story that expertly feeds on the same nastiness that makes you want to turn it off. Good luck doing that, by the way, once you see what happens in the very first scene. Riley Smith, Jade Yorker, Amy Ferguson and Brandon Smith also star. No extras.

Lake City (R, 2008, Screen Media)
One bum character is all it takes sometimes to undermine a scene, regardless of who else is sharing that scene and what else is going on. Unfortunately for “Lake City,” its downer character also happens to be its main character — a mopey recovering alcoholic named Billy (Troy Garity) who, for reasons unknown as the movie begins, is fleeing a whole mess of bad news while watching after a child (Colin Ford) who purportedly isn’t his. “City” has a lot going for it. The aforementioned mess becomes more interesting as details reveal themselves, in no small part due to Dave Matthews’ (yes, that Dave Matthews) excellent turn as the lynchpin of the whole thing. A second set of unraveling mysteries involving Billy and his mother (Sissy Spacek) is similarly interesting. But “City” can’t make the leap from interesting to engrossing because it’s saddled with a central character whose mile-long face sucks the air out of every room it enters and keeps us at bay whenever the film creates an opening for our sympathies. The sum total is a pretty good movie, but also one that suffers from the effect of unfinished business — be it because too many plotlines get jammed together or because a crucial ingredient of each of them completely misses the empathetic mark. Rebecca Romijn and Drea de Matteo also star. No extras.

The Axe in the Attic (NR, 2007, Indiepix)
Sometimes, all that separates a documentary from greatness is interference from the very people making it. “The Axe in the Attic,” which examines multiple facets of the local and national fallout after Hurricane Katrina, suffers from this complex more explicitly than most. The initial concept — traveling from the Northeast on down and letting survivors tell their story — is very obviously sound, and when “Attic” just lets that happen, the results are a mix of intimate, sad, stirring and even uplifting. Unfortunately, filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small absolutely cannot resist getting in the picture. They talk down to some subjects, have conversations with each other that belong on the cutting room floor, too often make the movie about them, and intrude on the images they film by preaching at viewers who don’t need to be told what the film has the capacity to just shut up and show. It’s as if Pincus and Small can’t see what’s in front of them and are trying to add sizzle to a story that would be better served by the humanity that sneaks through. “Attic’s” best scenes make it ostensibly easy to recommend, but the infuriating intrusions, which only grow as the film soldiers on, inspire the complete opposite reaction. In other words, this call is up to you.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary and update, deleted scenes, two short films, film festival Q&A footage, interactive journey map.

In the Electric Mist (R, 2008, Image Entertainment)
This, on paper, should work. Actually, it already does: “In the Electric Mist” is based on one of James Lee Burke’s many Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) novels, and the sum total of all those pages is a heavily fleshed-out main character in the capable hands of an actor fit to communicate his every nuance. But while Robicheaux’s character is a topic of consistent scrutiny, “Mist” is more interested in the murders — some recent, one in particular dating back some 40 years — that are buried beneath a tangle of secrets, corruption and even mob influence. That’s a playground of dependable movie themes. But “Mist” navigates through it with the dry, deliberate pace of a police procedural, spending a considerable amount of time building up the flavor of the New Orleans setting and, at least during the early going, doing a whole lot more telling than showing. That probably makes for a good read, but be it through dry writing or dry acting from a loaded cast (John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen), it falls completely flat in this incarnation. Robicheaux’s delusional conversations with dead Confederate soldiers, meanwhile, come off as completely laughable, and by the time everything clicks and “Mist” heats up, it’s hard to care about the consequences at hand. No extras.