Games 4/28/09: Excitebots: Trick Racing, Rhythm Heaven, Left 4 Dead Survival Pack

Excitebots: Trick Racing
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Monster Games/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)

For all the credit “Wii Sports” garners as the Wii’s gateway drug, perhaps no Nintendo-branded game better demonstrates the benefits of motion controls than “Excite Truck,” which launched on the same day and aptly set itself apart from other racing games in ways no non-Wii game ever could.

The entirety of that game exists within “Excitebots: Trick Racing,” which lifts the controls and methodology and inserts them into an entirely bizarre but blissfully fun racing experience starring giant, mechanized bugs and animals.

Like “Truck,” “Excitebots” asks you to hold the Wii remote sideways and tilt it like a steering wheel to control your bot’s steering. The setup isn’t particularly conducive to precision steering and hairpin turns, but it also doesn’t need to be. “Excitebots” prefers hilly straightaways to sharp corners, overtly encouraging players to drive recklessly and constantly ride the fast, fine line that separates edge-of-seat control from unwieldiness.

That strong embrace, combined with “Excitebots'” unique metrics for success — winning races is helpful, but racking up stars via dangerous driving and gravity-defying turbo jumping takes precedence over everything — make for a racing experience that’s wildly exciting and completely casual at once. Achieving gold medal scores is a worthy pursuit for skilled players, but anyone who can hold the Wii remote can enjoy “Excitebots” on some level.

The inclusion of mechanized turtles, ladybugs, bats and other creatures is the most overt symbol of distinction between “Excitebots” and “Trucks,” but it isn’t the only one. The off-road tracks wouldn’t look out of place in more traditional racing games, but Monster Games has littered them with ridiculous bonus contraptions ranging from stunt triggers to bowling pins to a constructible sandwich. Take advantage of these and other surprises littered around the track — including the cool landscape-altering triggers previously found in “Truck” — and you’ll have all the stars you need to unlock additional tracks and bots.

Annoyingly (and puzzlingly), you’ll also need a few good single-player runs to unlock the game’s multiplayer content. “Excitebots” includes splitscreen (two players) and online (six) play, but you’ll have to play through the first batch of single-player races to access it. Fortunately, it’s worth the small wait: “Excitebots” ranks right up with “Mario Kart” in terms of its online suite, and being able to bet accumulated stars on races is an amusing feature with obvious upside.

Finally, there’s the entirely unexplainable inclusion of the Poker Race mode, which tasks you with simultaneously winning the race while also forming the best poker hand using cards littered around the track. Why? Who knows. Who cares. Like everything else in “Excitebots,” Poker Race is there for your enjoyment more than your understanding, and it serves that purpose beautifully.


Rhythm Heaven
For: Nintendo DS/Nintendo DSi
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you’re rhythmically challenged and prone to bouts of impatience, you may as well stop reading now, because there will be nothing heavenly about “Rhythm Heaven.”

For those unfamiliar with the series’ previous success in Japan, “Heaven” is best described as a “WarioWare” game without Wario and with an acute emphasis on keeping the beat. Like “WarioWare,” “Heaven” is digitized madness — a few dozen or so mini-games, each with its own strange art and music styles and each with slightly different objectives built around a recurrent theme.

In the case of “Heaven,” that translates into a string of minute-long exercises centered around keeping a steady rhythm. The objectives range from pulling radishes to playing ping-pong to controlling a three-piece band of ghosts, but the crux of each challenge involves some combination of tapping, holding, and sliding the stylus across the touch screen in time with the music.

As anyone who has experienced “WarioWare” already knows, the combination of simple objectives and short-attention-span theatrics is a magnificently fun one in the right hands. “Heaven,” happily, channels most of what makes those games so appealing, and it’s almost immediately apparent that it’s a product of the same developers rather than a troubled knock-off.

Just don’t expect it to be as easy as those “WarioWare” games — or anything close, for that matter. “Heaven’s” control scheme starts and ends with the touch screen, and the touch screen simply isn’t as conducive to split-second timing as the buttons would be. Compound this with whatever troubles you might already have with the game’s rhythmic demands — “Heaven” regularly requires you to switch between sliding, holding and tapping at precise intervals — and the result can be disastrous if you can’t bring a certain level of concentration, practice, patience and rhythmic instinct to the table.

“Heaven” isn’t completely unforgiving, and you need not perfectly achieve an objective to pass it and unlock additional challenges. But those fooled by the cute graphics and expecting the usual “WarioWare” cakewalk will find themselves on the business end of a pretty rude awakening.

This, of course, should be music to the ears of player who miss the days of Nintendo knocking them upside the head with brutally challenging games. “Heaven” is surmountable for those willing to bring their “A” game, and the rewards — new mini-games, marathon versions of existing mini-games, a handful of fun digital toys, the simple satisfaction of conquering a legitimately tough game — are immense. The game lacks any kind of multiplayer option, but there’s more than enough single-player content here to justify a purchase for the right type of player.


Left 4 Dead Survival Pack
For: Xbox 360 and Windows
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Price: Free

PC gamers are used to Valve padding its games’ value with free content, but it’s a special day when console gamers get something for nothing. The “Left 4 Dead” Survival pack includes Versus mode versions of two campaigns, “Death Toll” and “Dead Air,” that previously only were playable in single-player or co-op form. But the reason for downloading — and the source of the pack’s name — is the new Survival mode, which tasks you with staying alive as long as possible while an ungodly number of zombies storm you in a confined space. Likely, that won’t be very long, because Survival mode sends special zombies at you in amounts the other modes wouldn’t dream of doing. But dying quickly and repeatedly makes for some exciting short play sessions that — thanks to the addictive nature of trying just one more time for a better score — add up to a lengthy, eventful good time with friends. Not bad for the price. The only nitpick: The mode, outside of a new map that takes place inside a lighthouse, uses the same locations you already visited elsewhere in the game. Also, if you prefer to play “L4D” by yourself, this pack offers nothing for you, as Survival mode supports online multiplayer only.

DVD 4/29/09: JCVD, Hotel for Dogs, What Doesn't Kill You, Pulling S1, While She Was Out, Nothing But the Truth, Johnny Got His Gun, Spin City S2, American Dad V4

JCVD (R, 2008, Peace Arch)
Really, this should be a disaster, or at least a mess. “JCVD” stands for Jean-Claude Van Damme, who stars as a brutally honest interpretation of himself — washed up as an action star, ladies man and father — and the unlucky bystander in a Belgian bank heist. The robbers, hostages, police and crowd of wildly enthusiastic onlookers all know who he is, and that allows “JCVD” to alternate between dark comedy, dry comedy, drama and a tense heist film that continually teases a turn into action hero territory. The film operates in four pieces, each of which operates on a unique chronological track, and two of those parts are separated, without warning, by a six-minute, single-take soliloquy in which Van Damme waxes, with biting honesty, about the lifelong mess in which he finds himself. All that and more in 90 minutes’ time should spell certain doom, but “JCVD” doesn’t just make it work — it dances through the whole thing, gracefully and intelligently balancing all these elements and moods with a magnificent mix of spirit and restraint. Peering so deeply inward while also dismantling the fourth wall (and managing to actually entertain audiences all the while) is a crazy proposition, but Van Damme and the film that bears his name completely knock it out of the park.
Extras: Deleted scenes, digital copy.

Hotel for Dogs (PG, 2009, Dreamworks)
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what adults think of “Hotel for Dogs,” which tells the story of two perennial foster children (Emma Roberts as Andi and Jake T. Austin as Bruce) who turn a condemned building with stray dogs into the canine wonderland referenced in the title. It is, after all, not a movie for adults. But here’s a review anyway: It’s kind a mess, albeit a well-meaning one with some very redeeming pieces. Like too many other movies aimed at kids, “Dogs” views the human adult like the Road Runner views Wile E. Coyote: They look stupid, say stupid things, act with one-track minds and spend their days scowling at children while those same children repeatedly dupe them. Fortunately, “Dogs” makes one exception — for the completely miscast but incredibly welcome Don Cheadle, who stars as the kids’ case worker — and it’s just sufficient enough to make things tolerable on the human side. That’s good enough. The dogs are the real main attraction here, and they absolutely deliver in all sorts of adorable, emotive, unbelievably well-trained ways. So adults get that, kids get that and a silly movie that ostensibly speaks to their mistrust of adults, and everybody wins with the contrived but entirely well-meaning message that rounds the whole thing out. Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

What Doesn’t Kill You (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
The easiest, perhaps only way to describe “What Doesn’t Kill You” is as a movie about two lifelong friends — Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke) — who delved into petty criminal activity as kids and never quite grew out of it. Any other approach, and things get a little wobbly. “WDKY” starts out about as promisingly as possible, with Brian and Paulie in the throes of an armored truck robbery gone horribly wrong, before flashing back and returning us there roughly 75 percent of the way through. But it takes a shaky road back to that moment, erratically hopping past years and events in both lives in rushed, sometimes careless fashion. Though “WDKY” always makes sense, there are times when it feels like a scene, or at least a buffer between two completely different scenes of equal importance, has gone missing. But the film wants to cover a lot of ground in 100 minutes’ time, so that’s the price it decides to pay for doing so. Fortunately, if you can accept the jerky pacing, there’s still plenty to like. “WDKY” succeeds in its attempt to create two interesting characters, and employing Ruffalo and Hawke to bring those characters to full life certainly doesn’t hurt matters. Amanda Peet,
Will Lyman, Brian Goodman and Donnie Wahlberg (who co-writes) also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Pulling: The Complete First Season (NR, 2006, MPI Home Video)
“Pulling’s” themes could fit comfortably in any number of American sitcoms. It’s a half-hour comedy about three women (Sharon Horgan, Tanya Franks, Rebekah Staton) in different stages of their late 20s and early 30s, and it touches on the usual topics — love, singlehood, fears of commitment and the consequences of growing old and losing those good looks. Whether “Pulling” could ever play on these shores, however, is another matter entirely. Never mind the fact that half of any given episode’s material would have to be cut or altered to pass muster with network censors. “Pulling’s” comedic tone poses a whole separate concern: It’s sharply and cleverly funny, but also prone to bouts of unabashed darkness that might prove too dry for bashful programming managers. Thank goodness for the DVD format, then, which not only doesn’t concern itself with these problems, but allows us to experience a level of sitcom greatness we otherwise would likely never experience. Here, “Pulling’s” biggest problem is a familiar one: Like many British shows, it produces only six episodes per season, and like most good shows that wrap a season after what amounts to fewer than three hours’ worth of content, it leaves you wanting much more than it actually gives you. The DVD set obviously isn’t at fault for the failings of convention, but an annoyance by any cause is an annoyance all the same.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature and separate interviews for people who did and did not like the show.

While She Was Out (R, 2008, Anchor Bay)
Somewhere, perhaps in the presence of a cocktail napkin (and a cocktail), somebody got an idea for a story in which an outmanned, outgunned woman (Kim Basinger) escapes her would-be attackers (Lukas Haas, Craig Sheffer, Jamie Starr, Leonard Wu) with nothing but her life and a toolbox of heretofore-mysterious contents. Around that coherent idea exists “While She Was Out,” an 86-minute reverse thriller that sacrifices everything from logic to reason to the art of the believable mood shift to give that gimmick every chance it needs to hammer the whole thing home. This, also, is to say nothing of the film’s weird beginnings, Christmastime setting and almost comically unbelievable ending, which brings one seriously incredible character arc to completion. But “WSWO’s” problems are real problems only if you make the mistake of taking it seriously. Whether it’s intended as legitimate horror or not simply doesn’t matter: It’s farcically bad, but so much so as to be kind of good, and the greater your gift of irony, the more fun you’ll have watching the whole thing repeatedly fall apart and reassemble itself.
Extras: Writer/director/producer commentary, making-of feature.

Nothing But the Truth (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Like the prominent warning at the beginning states, this is a work of fiction. But let’s be serious: Were it not for the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame/ Dick Cheney/Scooter Libbey saga, we almost certainly would not have “Nothing But the Truth,” which tells the story of a journalist (Kate Beckinsale as Rachel Armstrong) who outs a fellow soccer mom (Vera Farmiga) as an undercover CIA agent and faces jail time for protecting the source who originally spilled the beans. Some Hollywoodian creative liberty aside, “Truth” shares some pretty transparent ties to the story that inspired it, and it also struggles to stifle its opinion on the matter of national security versus press freedoms. But it also provides ample opportunity for viewers to disagree with and even vilify the characters the film positions as the protagonists, so cries of propaganda don’t carry much weight. Ultimately, “Truth” positions itself neither as a covert dissection of the real story or a top-shelf thriller that stands on its own, but as something in between — a smart, accessible exploration of important themes that, alas, sometimes can’t resist a twist you can see coming a good distance away. Unfortunately, the most obvious surprise is the one it saves for last. Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Noah Wyle and David Schwimmer also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Johnny Got His Gun” (PG, 1971, Shout Factory): The 1971 anti-war classic, starring Donald Sutherland and Timothy Bottoms, makes its North American DVD debut. Extras include an hour-long making-of documentary, the 1940 James Cagney radio adaption (of the 1939 novel that started it all), Metallica’s “One” video (which “Gun” very clearly inspired), a new Bottoms interview and behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary).
— “Spin City: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 1997, Shout Factory): Includes 24 episodes. No extras, but no Charlie Sheen, either.
— “American Dad! Volume 4” (NR, 2007, Fox): Includes 14 episodes (all with commentary), plus deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 4/21/09: Baseball Superstars 2009, 9 Innings: Pro Baseball 2009, Ninja Blade, Doodle Jump

Baseball Superstars 2009
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Gamevil
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $3

9 Innings: Pro Baseball 2009
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Com2uS
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $5

Let us make no mistake: The best modern, fully-licensed Major League Baseball game of 2009 is and likely will remain on the Playstation 3.

But if the license doesn’t matter or if you simply prefer the gameplay stylings that made virtual baseball so beloved in the 1980s and early 1990s, the iPhone and iPod Touch are suddenly awash in possibilities.

Gamevil’s “Baseball Superstars 2009” isn’t a complete surprise: The franchise already existed on various mobile devices, and any baseball game that can work on a dial pad should do just fine on the iPhone’s roomier touch screen.

“Superstars” makes good on that hope, using the bottom left and right corners of the screen to replicate an eight-button controller that functions like a virtual Super Nintendo pad. Smartly, the button that gets the most use in the game also receives additional prominence on the screen.

The all-new “9 Innings: Pro Baseball 2009” uses a similar control scheme, albeit with a more dynamic look: The buttons are illustrated with their functions instead of symbols, which certainly eases the learning curve.

Both schemes work as hoped, and if you played any 2D baseball during its glory days, the separate approaches feel awfully familiar once you learn a few intricacies and understand each game’s respective metrics with regard to fielder and runner speed. Both approaches have separate upsides: “Innings” offers more complexity in terms of run manufacturing and pitch effectiveness, while “Superstars” surrenders just enough control to feel arcade-like as well as intuitive.

Graphically, the games are straight out of the 2D era, with “Superstars” paying wonderful tribute to “RBI Baseball’s” cartoonish beginnings while “Innings” does similar justice to the “Baseball Stars” look. “Superstars” handily wins in the sound department, but both games are respectable in this regard.

Where things really surprise — particularly given that it costs $8 to purchase both — is in the features department. Both games feature exhibition, season, managerial and home run derby modes. “Innings” has nice stat-tracking capabilities, while “Superstars” lets you trade players in its season mode. “Innings” also includes a slick missions mode, which unlocks various rewards whenever you complete any of 50 different baseball-related objectives during any of the game’s modes.

The best feature, however, is “Superstars'” My League mode, which lets you create a pitcher or hitter and play only as him across multiple seasons. You can improve your stats through training, purchase better equipment with your salary, and reap the rewards of becoming your team’s star player. “Superstars'” mission mode is more self-contained than “Innings'” system, but success in that mode (or in the home run derby) nets you rewards in the My League mode, so it’s certainly worth checking out.


Ninja Blade
For: Xbox 360
From: From Software/Microsoft
ESRB: Mature (blood, violence)

“Ninja Blade” has garnered an unsavory reputation for its dependency on quick-time events — those instances in which a game has you complete some amazing stunt by following a series of onscreen button prompts that bear no resemblance whatsoever.

The rap checks out, because “Blade” indeed employs the technique like perhaps no game ever has. Rarely do five minutes pass where you aren’t interrupted by some bland recitation of prompts that allow your onscreen likeness to do something significantly more exciting than what you’re doing.

To a point, it’s understandable: “Blade’s” cut-scenes are nonsensically, hilariously over the top, and replicating these excessively choreographed maneuvers is more than today’s controllers can handle without cheating.

It would have been nice, though, if these instances carried any consequence at all. There’s no discernable penalty for following prompts sloppily instead of perfectly, and if you miss one entirely, the game simply asks you to do it again until the scene plays out. Before long, you’ll feel more like a tool of “Blade’s” entertainment than the beneficiary — as if the developers designed the game to be enjoyed by non-playing bystanders while you do the work.

Distressingly, the rest of the game — which alternates between “God of War”-like third-person swordplay and a surprisingly high number of on-rails shooting segments — does little to alleviate the oppressive linearity. “Blade’s” increasingly incoherent storyline impatiently whisks you from scene to scene, and the vast majority of the action feels like a slog from A to B. As long as you hold down, mash or press buttons like the game asks, you’ll inevitably power your way to the end of the level, your brainpower no more taxed by the end than it was when you began.

Almost as if to compensate, “Blade” postpones these inevitabilities though a slew of irritating tactics, including overlong boss fights and cheap attacks that don’t challenge or imperil you so much as slow things down for no discernable reason. The tedium ramps up as the story falls apart, and an inability to save your game at mid-mission checkpoints makes for some play sessions that drag on well past their freshness date. If you plan on giving “Blade” a shot, be sure to clear your immediate schedule.

Additionally, make sure you rent rather than buy. In addition to overstaying its welcome the first time though, “Blade” offers no worthwhile reason to reason for seconds, nor does it feature any multiplayer content beyond leaderboard support.


Downloadable Game

Doodle Jump
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Lima Sky
iTunes Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Lots of games try to do too much with the iPhone’s tilt sensitivity, but “Doodle Jump” proves, on multiple levels, why laying off the gas a little doesn’t hurt. Your one and only goal is to help your alien friend jump from platform to ascending platform without missing and taking a long fall down. The alien remains in a perpetual state of bounce, so you must tilt the device accordingly to aim his jumps. The higher he goes, the higher your score and the more perilous the difficulty. The dead simple concept — combined with the presence of online leaderboards and the short play times brought on by having only one life to lose per game — give “Jump” that “easy to pick up, hard to put down” quality mobile games strive to achieve, and the game’s look and sound only compound its charm. “Jump” indeed resembles an animated doodle: The graphics look like little color pencil scribbles, and as you pass other players’ scores on the online leaderboard, your character jumps past a measuring stick representation of their name on the virtual page. Leave it to a game that costs a buck to illustrate the pursuit of high scores better than perhaps any video game ever has.

DVD 4/21/09: Frost/Nixon, Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews, The Wrestler, Notorious, Caprica, A Galaxy Far Far Away SE, Fight Night

Frost/Nixon (R, 2008, Universal)
David Frost’s (Michael Sheen) 1977 interviews of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) were more than simply once-in-a-lifetime sit-downs with the only man ever to resign the American presidency. They also formed the basis of an extraordinary upset — a softballing entertainer pinning an experienced, airtight subject into spilling candidly on the scandal that pushed him out of office. Obviously, nothing compares to being there when it aired, and if you want to witness the full might of the interview, the source material is arriving in full on DVD next week. But none that is here or there when it comes to “Frost/Nixon” holding its own as an enthralling verbal duel between two completely polar personalities. If you’ve seen the interviews or already know the story, you also know how it ends, and if you haven’t but have seen enough movies in your time, you likely can venture a guess. But it doesn’t really matter, just as many of “Frost/Nixon’s” best scenes aren’t recreations of what made it to air. They’re the exchanges that happen right before the cameras roll — or, in one case, during a telephone exchange that singlehandedly takes the film to another level. The interview scenes are faithful to the source material, but in context with the scenes that precede and succeed them, they achieve a new and entirely unique level of effect. Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Rebecca Hall also star.
Extras: Director commentary, comparison footage from the real interview, deleted scenes, making-of feature, Nixon Library materials.
— For further study: “Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews” (NR, Liberation Entertainment): The original program … all 400 minutes of it. Available next week. A single-disc edition, containing only the footage pertaining to Watergate, released previously from the same studio.

The Wrestler (R, 2008, Fox)

“The Wrestler” plays right into the hands of award season cynics who argue that the recipe for any potential Best Picture nominee calls for at least three cups of downer juice. But it’s not a fair criticism, because “The Wrestler” — which sometimes literally follows washed-up pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) as he very literally limps through hard times, growing obscurity and the fallout of a career gone south — isn’t telling a fairy tale. Numerous accounts of the hardships surrounding the pursuit of professional wrestling glory are out there for all to see, be they in a screening of the “Beyond the Mat” documentary or in one of the numerous Web sites or publications devoted to dissecting wrestling’s brutal backstage demands. It’s a hard, painful life, but it’s a life almost always chosen, and even though The Ram is a fictional creation, the sum total of Rourke’s performance and the decades of anecdotal evidence that paved its way feel entirely real. It doesn’t hurt, either, that “The Wrestler” fills its in-ring action with real federations and real independent wrestlers — and, as consequence, some really squirm-worthy illustrations of where all that long-term damage comes from. Soft stomachs, you’ve been warned: “The Wrestler” absolutely fulfills every corner of its promise, but it trudges through some ghastly waters to do so. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood also star.
Extras: 42-minute making-of feature, music video.

Notorious: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2009, Fox)
If you had your pop culture ear anywhere in the vicinity of the ground during the mid-1990s, you likely possess a skeletal or better understanding of the events that led to the separate murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. “Notorious” doesn’t strive to recap, confuse or flesh out those events so much as provide dimension to the men who lost their lives as result, and at that, it capably does its job. Wallace (Jamal Woolard), in particular, is the focus of the film, and “Notorious” serviceably follows him from his roots as a dorky chubby kid with no backbone to the multiplatinum superstar who found himself in the throes of a tumultuous marriage and a meritless feud that turned one of his best friends (Anthony Mackie as Shakur) into his biggest enemy. Structurally speaking, the film is as elementary in practice as it sounds on paper, telling a straight story and keeping stylistic interference to a refreshing minimum. Given “Notorious'” real trick — separating the men from their images and exposing Wallace as the overgrown mama’s boy his mother (who participated in the film’s production) knew him as — anything more would’ve simply gotten in the way. Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith and Christopher Jordan Wallace (playing his late father during his childhood years) also star.
Extras: Theatrical and extended cuts, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Caprica (NR, 2009, Universal)
Telling “Caprica’s” target audience to check it out is like a asking a roomful of kindergarteners to give candy a chance. “Battlestar Galactica” just ended its run on a high note, and the “Caprica” series — which takes place 50 years before “Galactica” and purports to illustrate the happenings that formed that show’s basis — doesn’t air until next year. So until then, we have this, which pulls triple duty as a feature-length film, a pilot episode and a tease. Happily, it succeeds on all three fronts and fulfills its mission of leaving you wanting more. “Caprica” makes an imposing entrance by trotting out an entirely new cast of characters (Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcomson, Alessandra Toreson) and taking its time establishing any intriguing connections between them and the “Galactica” universe. Centering the narrative beginnings around an angst-ridden teenager and the implications of virtual-reality dimensions doesn’t bridge the gap. But “Caprica” uses the extended runtime to its advantage, and by film’s end, the ties between the two series are established and effectively compelling, capping it off with an excellent endgame twist that brings the whole thing around. It’s hard not to want to know what happens next. Shame we have to wait so long to find out.
Extras: Director/writer/producer commentary, deleted scenes, video blogs.

A Galaxy Far Far Away: 10th Anniversary Special Edition (NR, 2000, Cinevolve Studios)
Sometimes all that propels a documentary from also-ran status into full-blown greatness is timing. And of all the films, books and other media that have attempted to understand the phenomenon that is “Stars Wars,” perhaps none benefits from timing better than “A Galaxy Far Far Away,” which sets its table exactly six weeks prior to “Episode I’s” theatrical debut. “Away” probably would be great fun either way: Its subject matter has no shortage of character and material to chew on, and filmmaker Tariq Jalil — who states upfront that he admires “Star Wars” but doesn’t quite understand the obsession — uses his own bewildered perspective as a funny and balanced starting point. But “Away’s” touches down in the eye of a perfect storm of renewed “Star Wars” hysteria, where fans climb over each other for new toys and camp in line a full 42 days before the movie even starts playing. It’s also there for the culmination of that hysteria … as well as the fallout when people actually see “Episode I” for themselves. If you know anything about that film’s critical reception, the few minutes “Away” spends in its aftermath may be the most fascinating part of all. “Away’s” biggest knock is that it’s so short — barely 60 minutes, and far short of the 80 minutes the box promises. Fortunately, some excellent extras provide the necessary value compensation.
Extras: 10th Anniversary video commentary (shot “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-style), new and original producer/director audio commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, old and new trailers.

Fight Night (R, 2007, Peace Arch)
“Fight Night” is two movies in one reel, but don’t mistake that for a value proposition so much as an identity crisis. For a good half of its runtime, “Night” plays like a collection of clichés blown to pieces by an attitude bomb: There’s the slick-talking underground fight promoter (Chad Ortis), the scrappy female fighter (Rebecca Neuenswander) he finds living in squalor, and a series of events that has him hustling male fighters in shady backroom rings while people from his past (Kurt Hanover, Adrian Bartholomew) return with trouble on their minds. Everyone, in fact, appears to have trouble on the brain, and the first half of “Night” absolutely reels with unintentionally funny exchanges of bad dialogue as one character tries to out-attitude the other. Perhaps if that’s all the film did, we could enjoy it as a relentless piece of cornball entertainment with a few good fight scenes to boot. But “Night” takes a stiff right turn halfway through, transforming its toxically (and seemingly intentionally) unlikable main characters into attempted objects of sympathy. A goofy twist sets the table for what should have been an enjoyably cheesy climax, but “Night” suddenly seems so concerned with making us like everyone that it misfires wildly, culminating in a final scene so hokey, you almost feel guilty for laughing it off. Unfortunately, the film offers little alternative.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.

Games 4/14/09: Nintendo DSi, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Flock!

Nintendo DSi
From: Nintendo
Price: $170

It’s always exciting to get a new toy, and unless you count the meteoric advent of the iPhone, it’s been a good two-and-a-half years since a new gaming system touched down.

As such, the arrival of the semi-new Nintendo DSi was cause for more excitement than it probably merits under the harsh light of rationality.

To Nintendo’s credit, the DSi marks improvement over the DS Lite in ways apparent and not so apparent. You wouldn’t know it just to look at it, but it’s more powerful inside than the Lite. Eventually, there will be games that either offer more features on the DSi or simply don’t work on the other DS models at all.

The system’s most visible new feature — a tiny camera on the outside and an even tinier one on the inside — promises similar results, though it remains to be seen how well the cameras function in the areas of motion and light detection. Nintendo’s first attempt, the downloadable “Wario Ware: Snapped,” fails pretty miserably.

Still, the cameras benefit from some fun applications in the DSi’s redesigned virtual dashboard, which also features a fun voice manipulation program. The dashboard also links to the new DSi store, which offers new games for download to the systems internal storage (new) or SD card slot (also new). Nintendo included $10 worth of store credit with each DSi — a shrewd move that could inspire untold numbers of users to give downloadable games a chance. But while the temptation to spend that credit straight away is strong, the iffy early offerings in the store make it wise to hold out for something better.

Elsewhere, it’s the little things that loom large. The buttons feel sturdier than they did on previous models. The battery light indicator says more than just red and green. WPA encryption support is included for wireless Internet access, though a convoluted menu arrangement makes setting it up trickier than it should be. The two screens are larger than before, though some may not even notice the difference. The DSi also finally includes the ability to hot-swap games and return to the dashboard without restarting the whole system — small but wonderful convenience.

The DSi does suffer one big loss with the removal of the Game Boy Advance slot, which both cuts off that entire library and marks an end to such weird attachments as the rumble pack and the goofy “Guitar Hero” guitar peripheral. The value of that slot varies wildly from person to person, but if you ever got a chance to use the paddle controller that shipped with the Japanese release of “Arkanoid,” you probably understand what a loss it is.

Losing anything from the $129 DS Lite becomes hard to swallow when you consider the DSi’s notably higher price tag. Similarly, while the system improves on the Lite in all those aforementioned ways, it’s hard to recommend it to Lite owners until some compelling games arrive that take specific advantage of its power and abilities. That day will come, but DSi’s price may drop before it does. The immense range of the DS’ library makes the DSi easy to recommend to anyone who lacks any kind of DS hardware at all, but Lite owners might feel some serious buyer’s remorse once the novelty wears off and there’s little else to show for their purchase.


The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Starbreeze/Tigon/Atari
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

If selling games is a race, then “The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena” is a 100-meter sprinter with an eight-second head start. In a move that hopefully becomes a trend, developers Starbreeze and Tigon have included a remastered copy of “Athena’s” prequel, “Escape From Butcher Bay,” as bonus content.

“Bay” was incredible enough to command $50 on its own five years ago, and its approach to first-person stealth still feels fresh in its 2009 incarnation. Tigon and Starbreeze took an oft-inaccessible genre and made it immersive and exciting by nailing the control scheme and devising some ingenious means of communicating your ability to hide and remain hidden. It didn’t hurt that the game’s storyline and characters were more engaging than those found in the “Riddick” movie that released around the same time.

“Athena,” at least initially, doesn’t monkey around with the formula. The story picks up where “Bay” left off, and following a brief reintroduction to the controls and nuances of the stealth system, you’re back in the shadows, avoiding fights whenever possible and dividing and conquering when that won’t do. As was the case in “Bay,” even the most pedestrian of enemies can deal quick and debilitating damage, and picking multiple fights at once almost always is fatal.

But it’s on the same token where “Athena” arguably loses its way. Following a deeply satisfying stretch in which melee weapons and a dodgy tranquilizer gun are your only bets, the game slathers you in guns and ammo, and it counters this bounty by sending waves of stupid enemies storming your way. You still can shoot out lights and lurk in the shadows, but you don’t necessarily need to, and once you face enemies who only succumb to gunfire or force you to fight in entirely cover-free environments, all that delicate balance takes a flying leap.

This isn’t to suggest “Athena” is a failure. It’s more fun than not, and some of its best moments are during these wheels-off-the-bus stretches. But with “Bay’s” meticulous construction feeling fresh all over again in the same package, the reckless abandonment of stealth and artificial intelligence feels sloppy even when it’s fun.

Even with “Athena’s” problems taken into consideration, though, the total package — two nice-sized campaigns and a respectable suite of multiplayer offerings (12 players, online only) that capitalize on Riddick’s special abilities — comes recommended without hesitation. “Bay” did things in 2004 that no game until now has done since, and its rerelease to a wider audience is absolutely deserved. That it brings a whole additional game along for the ride is merely a very, very nice bonus.

(For those wondering, “Bay” and “Athena” exist as separate options in the main menu, so you can play them in whichever order you please.)


For: Playstation 3 via PSN, Xbox 360 Live Arcade and Windows PC
From: Proper Games/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (crude humor, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $15

“Flock!” presents a stiffer barrier to entry than most downloadable puzzle games — and not merely because it’s $5 more expensive than most think it should be. In “Flock,” you’re a UFO, and your objective is to herd farm animals around hedges, past natural and unnatural pitfalls and doohickeys and onto your mother ship. The idea is inspired, and a fantastic look and personality pile on the whimsy. But because you’re merely herding animals instead of controlling them directly, “Flock’s” intricacies may give you fits. Things start to click when you learn not to overdo the controls and let the animals do some of the work for you, but that’s not an easy thing to understand when the game rewards speedy herding with medal bonuses. Fortunately, finding a way to carefully herd every single animal on the board is more fun and worth more in the rewards department, and “Flock’s” 50-plus levels don’t disappoint in the brainteaser department. The game also earns its price tag by letting players design and trade their own levels online. If the game finds a devoted following, that translates into months of continuous (and free) downloadable content. It’s merely a shame you can’t actually play the game online with those same people: “Flock” has co-op play, but it’s offline only.

DVD 4/14/09: The Reader, Splinter, Road to the Big Leagues, Shuttle, Exosquad S1

The Reader (R, 2008, Weinstein Company)
If one could assemble an Oscar-nominated film using a paint-by-numbers construction kit, the result probably would look a little bit like “The Reader.” Things begin promisingly and simply enough with the unlikely relationship between a sick teenager (David Kross and young Michael Berg) and the older woman (Kate Winslet) who finds him vomiting in a rain-soaked alley and cleans him up before sending him home. As that relationship grows, the meaning of the film’s title is revealed, and with it comes an unspoken but patently obvious twist-in-waiting that would appear to dictate where things go next. But then, the other colors and numbers start to pile up, and “The Reader” becomes a period piece, a slice of historical context, a multi-decade epic and perhaps an allegory or two as well. Nothing about the film stands out in any negative way: Kross, Ralph Fiennes (as Michael’s older self) and especially Winslet’s performances are the stuff of Academy voter dreams, and “The Reader” has that sweeping epic quality to complement a handful of equally favorable sweeping emotional crescendos. But the whims of the Academy do not matter when it comes to your entertainment, and the increasingly, oppressively heavy nature of the film — to say nothing of its somewhat remarkable inability to mine a historical tragedy for deeper meaning in its own world — doesn’t necessarily play as favorably on a lazy evening as it does on an awards mantle. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Extras: Deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Splinter (R, 2008, Magnet/Magnolia)
Familiar devices? Yes, “Splinter” has familiar devices. There’s the random character whose only purpose is to die at the hands of the film’s chief threat before the opening credits even arrive. There are the two not-necessarily-likeable protagonists (Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner) who picked this weekend of all weekends to solidify their inability to go camping in the middle of nowhere, as well as the unsavory couple (Shea Whigham, Rachel Kerbs) that antagonizes couple A but then must reconsider once that thing from the first scene comes along to turn everything upside down. There’s also more where that came from, as “Splinter” lifts trick upon trick out of the horror movie playbook, right up to and including the traditional big finish and tease at the end. What “Splinter” also has, though, is one of the more ridiculous (in a completely complimentary way) monsters to enter the horror movie ring in some time. The title provides a clue, but it’s best not to spoil any further, because discovering just what a visual mess our heroes have on their hands is the easily the film’s biggest treat. The gradual reveal also does much to mollify whatever grievance one might have with the derivative nature of the rest of the story, which at least benefits from a low-budget sensibility and some partially (if not completely) inventive solutions to the problem at hand. How many films can use the phrase, “It’s OK, we’re cutting your arm off” as a form of straight-faced reassurance? Only this one.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, director/crew commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features, art gallery.

Road to the Big Leagues (NR, 2008, Indiepix)
Here’s a story that won’t surprise anybody: As baseball’s global appeal expands its reach, major league dreams inevitably follow close behind. This is acutely apparent in the Dominican Republic, where the likes of David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, among a growing list of others, have traded impoverished childhoods for million-dollar careers in the big leagues and uncomfortably high levels of hero worship in their homeland. “Road to the Big Leagues” checks in on both Ortiz and Guerrero during their respective offseason existences while also tracking the progress of one major league hopeful and touching on everything from the alternatives to baseball success and the fatal damage a faulty birth certificate can wreak on one’s aspirations. It’s all fascinating stuff, and it’s a shame “Leagues” feels a need, for whatever reason, to cram it all into a mere 53 minutes of space. That’s the main (and, really, only) knock against the film, which would only benefit from more time to spread around. To its credit, it at least takes full advantage of the time it has. It’s not necessarily a good tactic to leave people wanting more to the degree this one does, but it beats overstaying your welcome any day.
Extras: Director interview, extended and new footage.

Shuttle (R, 2008, Magnet/Magnolia)
How much is $15 worth to you? For Mel (Peyton List) and Jules (Cameron Goodman), it’s the difference between taking one airport shuttle over the other. For us, it’s the difference between “Shuttle” being a pointless movie about a routine ride home and what it actually is, which is anything but. Yes, there’s trouble on that airport shuttle, and for a while, “Shuttle” appears to be just another horror movie about a maniac bent on tormenting and destroying people for reasons that never go explained. But even when “Shuttle” is at its most banal and unpromising, it’s just creepy and curious enough to merit engagement. And once it turns a corner and heads into its second half, that engagement pays off. “Shuttle” doesn’t merely wish to explain its madness; it expounds wildly on it, and even the twist you see coming pays off thanks to the amount of energy the film and its creepy characters invest into it. The complete disclosure of “Shuttle’s” madness makes for one of the more unsettling gotchas to grace the horror genre this year, and even the most hardened fans of the genre will be pressed not to feel just a little bit creeped out by the sequence that brings it home.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, casting footage.

Exosquad: Season 1 (NR, 1993, Universal)
Your typical action-oriented Saturday morning cartoon goes a little something like this: Bad guys hatch scheme to destroy good guys and/or whatever they stand for, good guys find out just in time, bad guys imperil good guys, good guys pull off a comeback victory, bad guys escape, and everything starts over again the next week. Not so with “Exosquad,” which not only hatches a rather sophisticated plot about a race created by humans taking over the human race, but uses a serial format to stretch the multithreaded story over the entire season. The best part? It does all this high-concept stuff on the strength of the same hokey dialogue and B-level voice acting that so explicitly exemplifies the Saturday Morning cartoon. The sides can’t help but clash, but that’s part of the entertainment. Additionally, the overarching storyline and serial format are sufficiently satisfying enough that rolling your eyes and anticipating what happens next need not be mutually exclusive.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras. Hopefully Universal will follow up with the comparatively monstrous second season, which concludes the saga over a whopping 39 additional episodes.

Games 4/7/09: The Godfather II, Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game, Burn Zombie Burn!

online casinoGodfather II
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

Sometimes, it’s the little things. In a game as wonderfully, erratically ambitious as “The Godfather II,” it’s the little things that, however subtly, sometimes save the day.

Take, for instance, the game’s ingenious living map, which not only helps you get from point A to B — handy, considering the story takes place in open-world Florida and open-world New York City at the same time — but keeps track of your targets, your allies, your family’s holdings, the profit margins at each property and just about everything else you need to manage via the game’s newfound Don powers. When a holding is under attack, the animated 3D map quite decisively illustrates the urgency. Ditto for when a rival holding is up for grabs.

And thank goodness, too. The original “Godfather” game was a busy affair, but “II” takes it to another plane. You’re still on the ground as a soldier — intimidating businesses, picking locks, battling rival gangs, handling random strangers’ dirty business and doing what needs doing to stay out of jail. At the same time, though, you’re also building your own branch of the family from the base. Among other activities, you’ll build your own crew, assign guards to newly-acquired businesses, and send protection whenever your family — in New York, Florida or both — comes under attack.

That’s a lot to ask of a game that’s also cribbing from the “Grand Theft Auto” school of open world game design, and “II,” much like its predecessor, proves to be a jack more than a master of many of its trades. The third-person shooting controls are good enough, but prone to sloppiness in close quarters or when cover is concerned. Opposing A.I. isn’t particularly bright, bystander A.I. often is ridiculously inept, and sometimes, objects and people just plain disappear when you hit them.

The management stuff proves a surprisingly good fit considering how different its demands are from the ground-level gameplay, but some will find it an intrusion when, for instance, rival gangs repeatedly attack your holdings and force you to divert attention from whatever task is already at hand. Some will feel the same about the family management and character upgrading — all handled well, but all logistically demanding stuff that typically falls outside the bounds of this genre.

The natural upside is that “II” is one heck of a meal for players who bring their appetite. All those logistics translate into a maze of ways to see the story to completion, and the usual torrent of unlockables and side objectives are there for the truly ambitious. “II’s” online component (16 players) isn’t quite as interesting — the available modes are themed, but typical of team-based squad shooters — but any money you make (or lose) online does apply to your single-player family’s balance sheet.


Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 2 and Windows PC
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Every spring, a wave of kids’ movie tie-in games, ranging from bland to terrible, invades stores and preys on unsuspecting parents.

This year almost certainly will be no different. But before that wave crashes down, we have “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a game that not only is terrifically fun for kids, but legitimately good enough for their older siblings and parents to enjoy with or without their participation.

The monsters are the good guys in “MvA,” and you’ll have ample opportunity to control three (and possibly four) of them. Ginormica, a 49-foot woman with pickup truck-sized roller skates, typically handles racing- and on-rails missions. The Missing Link, a weird fish/gorilla hybrid, is gifted in the arts of brawling and the scaling and deconstruction of enormous alien robots. Finally, there’s a dopey blue blob named B.O.B., whose ability to stick to walls and ceilings and squeeze through grates makes him good for a legion of platforming missions through puzzle- and maze-like arenas. (An offline co-op mode allows a second player to play as head monster Dr. Cockroach, but he functions more as support for the first player than a full-blown character.)

During its opening slate of missions, “MvA” shifts frequently between characters and displays an impressive grasp of all three play styles. It also raises some red flags with safe level design and a need to repeating certain objectives almost verbatim and in succession.

Once the acclimation period ends, though, business picks up dramatically. The levels are longer, and the extra time allows “MvA” to drum up some really clever designs that engage your monsters’ abilities in ways the earlier missions couldn’t even imagine. When the game is at its best — particularly when going nuts with B.O.B.’s labrythinine levels — it operates on a plane typically reserved for the likes of Ratchet and Mario.

This isn’t to suggest the game completely escapes perception. Repetition definitely returns toward the end, peaking during a final boss fight that rehashes the same sequence two too many times. “MvA” occasionally leans excessively on context button sequences, and while the characters are funny and appealing, this is in no way a showcase of the 360 or PS3’s graphical capabilities.

Still, it cannot be stressed enough how much this one outclasses the vast majority of its counterparts. “MvA” handles numerous play styles without any one dragging down the others, and it never underestimates its audience. If the kids want a new game to play this summer, this, until further notice, is the one to get.


Burn Zombie Burn!
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: doublesix games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $10

“Burn Zombie Burn!” would appear to be self-explanatory: It’s an overhead, “Geometry Wars”-style shooter, only with cartoon zombies chasing you instead of shapes. Nevertheless, a trip through the tutorial is a must, because only there will you learn, despite appearances, how unique this little gem is. “Burn” lacks “GW”-style dual stick controls, but the scheme it uses instead proves a better fit once you master strafing and befriend the lock-on button. The title isn’t kidding either: Zombies you set on fire are considerably more dangerous than regular zombies, but the more inflamed undead you have on your tail, the more points you get for each kill. The points matter, too, because high scores are the only way to unlock all six levels and the surprising multitude of mini challenges tucked inside each. A terrific risk/reward system emerges from “Burn’s” strange science of normal versus inflamed zombies, and some seriously diverse weapon and zombie types complicate things to a satisfying degree. For those willing to master it, the total package is an impressive return on investment: Unlocking and mastering every last one of “Burn’s” challenges provides the kind of time sink $10 — and sometimes $60 — rarely gets you. The only bummer: Co-op is splitscreen and offline only.

DVD 4/7/09: Doubt, Bedtime Stories, Donkey Punch, The IT Crowd S1, The Day the Earth Stood Still

Doubt (PG-13, 2008, Miramax)
Perhaps the best thing about “Doubt” is its ability to play you maybe once, possibly twice, and still leave you feeling smarter for your cooperation. There’s the initial ruse — that this, because of the setting and initial imagery, is a film that will resonate only to those with strong connections to or feelings about the Catholic Church. “Doubt” builds its deck slowly, carefully introducing us to Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Sister James (Amy Adams) and oh so slowly alluding to the rift that prompts one to damn another without anything more than anecdotal proof. Once beneath the surface, though, those early perceptions fall away, surrendering to a metaphorical illustration of gossip’s damaging hand that is unforgettable and instantly, universally resonant to just about anyone. All the while, though, “Doubt” is pulling us back around, picking at viewers’ own pre-conceived notions about the church, the nun and priest archetypes, and whether those characters embody or rebel against those notions. Who do you believe? Is it the same person you want to believe? Or is it the person your intuition compels you to believe even as his or her own words give you reasons not to? “Doubt’s” ability to keep your head continually spinning, while using nothing more than images, themes and tricks we’ve all seen before, cements its claim as one of the best films of last year. Viola Davis and Joseph Foster also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Bedtime Stories (PG, 2008, Disney)
The logistics of Skeeter Bronson’s (Adam Sandler) life aren’t worth delving into here; “Bedtime Stories” does a better job of laying it out anyway. The important points are that his life is kind of a disappointment, he’s an overgrown child in a cynical man’s body, and he’s tasked, along with a neighbor (Keri Russell) who doesn’t find him nearly as charming as he thinks he is, with watching his sister’s kids (Laura Ann Kesling, Jonathan Morgan Heit) for a few days. Yes, “Stories” really is a movie for kids, who probably will tolerate all the grownup stuff to get to the parts where portions of the bedtime stories Skeeter makes up come true in real life the next day. But more than anything, “Stories” is a parents’ movie — a clever idea with some very creative twists, but also a story full of genuinely funny adult humor that shouldn’t bother kids too much. Sandler is the rare comic actor who can legitimately deliver a line written for adults with a face or voice made for kids, and “Stories” is one of the better displays of that gift in action. The premise occasionally paints the story into predictable corners, and some of the usual Disney movie clichés apply, but it’s never too long before something sweet, funny or joyously weird happens. Guy Pearce, Courtney Cox, Richard Griffiths, Lucy Lawless and Teresa Palmer, among others, also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, feature about Bugsy (you’ll understand after you see it), behind-the-scenes feature, digital copy.

Donkey Punch (NR, 2008, Magnet/Magnolia)
Would you venture onto a soon-to-be-undocked boat and imbibe with four strangers you met practically minutes before? Seems safe, right? Apparently Tammi (Nichola Burley), Kim (Jaime Winstone) and Lisa (Sian Breckin) think so when they set sail, inhale some drugs and pair off with four overtly eager male hosts (Robert Boulter, Tom Burke, Julian Morris and Jay Taylor). Again, model behavior. What happens next isn’t to be spoiled, but if you know the not-safe-for-work origins of the term that inspired “Donkey Punch’s” title, you probably can guess what simple mistake turns the whole thing sour. Once it does, “Punch” takes a turn for the absurdly fantastic — a mercurial, temperamental mess that isn’t afraid to drag you, slowly, through some very ugly consequences of one very stupid mistake. Thrillers built on human stupidity are rife with far greater possibilities than those built around plain old evil, and “Punch” — be it during the anticipatory dread that embodies the pre-storm calm or the complete derailment of rationality that succeeds it — gloriously demonstrates why.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

The IT Crowd: The Complete First Season (NR, 2006, MPI)
Creating a television show is an impressive endeavor in its own right, but the creators of “The IT Crowd” deserve special recognition for the way they essentially bent space and time to make this one happen. Taken on its premise, “Crowd” — a workplace comedy about a trio of underappreciated tech support professionals (Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson) slumming it in the basement of a large corporation — is straight out of today. The ubiquitous IT guy is the 21st century equivalent of the washer/dryer repairman, and “Crowd” farms the bulk of its material from a well of geek humor and cynical observations about corporate culture. And yet, all of this happens in the bounds of a format straight out of the 1980s — shot in video, before a boisterous live studio audience, and chock full of shamelessly broad humor and sight gags. Even weirder, the dated look and feel proves to be an asset. Had sitcoms never evolved, “Crowd” would fit right in and do little else. Buy they have, and so this show completely stands out, buried to its neck in modern and antiquated sensibilities that clash in a brutal but strangely delightful bang of weirdness. You need a special sense of humor to truly appreciate it, but if the concept on paper makes you smile, you’ll probably do just fine.
Contents: Six episodes, plus deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, nerd-friendly subtitles and a DVD menu system that, if you grew up playing computer games in the 1980s, will entertain you as much as the show does.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Grumble grumble, right? Fair enough. But here’s the thing: As unnecessary CGI-ified remakes go, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is pretty harmless, especially if you just consider it an alternate interpretation instead an unwelcome replacement, which it isn’t. In the original film, a highly personable alien named Klaatu brought Earth’s electricity to a halt and threatened humanity with extinction if it continued to harm one of the galaxy’s few inhabitable destinations. This time, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), while thoughtful, isn’t nearly as charming. That goes double for the obnoxious kid who crosses his path (Jaden Smith). In the original, the kid was polite and almost dangerously naive; this time, you want Klaatu to wipe out humanity just to shut him up. “Still’s” other point of contention is the message behind the fiction. The original waxed about nuclear proliferation, but this one stays vague — almost as if to nod at environmentalism without being held culpable by those who accuse it of preaching. It doesn’t really matter. The original remains the better film, but “Still,” for all its comparative faults, leaves enough of the important bits intact to tell a good story. As it should, it also ups the visual ante: The dinky robot from the original is impressively imposing here, and the illustration of Klaatu’s threat is, even if it doesn’t make much sense, a pretty amazing sight. Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates and John Cleese also star.
Extras: Writer commentary deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.