Games 5/26/09: Punch-Out!! Wii, Bionic Commando (2009), Star Trek: DAC

For: Nintendo Wii
From: Next Level Games/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

With “Punch-Out!!’s” dreadfully overdue return to the big stage, Nintendo has ignored its typical attention to all-ages accessibility with regard to its Wii lineup.

If you’re a fan of past “Punch-Out” games, the news of this lapse could not be better.

Exteriorly speaking, everything about the new “Punch-Out” is exponentially more inviting than what older games could ever possibly deliver. The cast overwhelmingly consists of holdovers from games past, but they’re significantly more alive thanks to a some inspired cel-shaded art, a loving attention to animation detail, and voice acting, which adds an entirely new (and frequently funny) dimension to each boxer’s preexisting personality. In terms of presentation, it’s everything “Punch-Out” should be in 2009.

But all that audiovisual likability is merely a front for a game that remains as faithful as ever to the “Punch-Out” philosophy.

In fact, though the challenge is never unfair, this is the most imposing iteration yet. The classic fighters have modified and diversified their attack patterns since you last saw them, and there are numerous instances in which dodging in a specific direction and countering with a specific punch is the only way to expose a fighter’s true weaknesses. The extra frames of animation give fighters more opportunities to fake you out, while other ticks and vocal cues clue you in on what you need to do and how quickly you best do it.

Best of all is what happens when you knock out the defending champion and take the belt. Previous “Punch-Out” ended here, but this time around, you have to fight the entire cast again and figure out a slew of dramatically more challenging new attack patterns. Each fighter also has addressed a glaring weakness you might have exploited the first time through, so you’ll have to find another way to put them down before they get you first.

“Punch-Out’s” unflinching dedication to its original ideals is wonderful, almost astonishing news, because this level of challenge also completely undermines the game’s optional support for motion controls and even the Wii Balance Board. Using motion controls to punch and the Balance Board to dodge makes for a silly good time during the game’s no-frills multiplayer mode (two players, offline only), which pits you against friend as dueling Little Macs. But the fighters in the single-player modes’ upper echelon, to say nothing of challenge you face when defending the belt, are simply too quick to take down using any of these methods. “Punch-Out” allows you to turn the Wii remote sideways and use it like an NES controller, and if you wish to master “Punch-Out” in 2009 as you did in 1987, this unequivocally is the way to go.


Bionic Commando
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: GRIN/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
optical communication

There aren’t many hard and fast rules that apply to the entirety of game design, but there are some.

For instance: Don’t punish your most spirited customers.

That “Bionic Commando” even nicks this rule is bewildering when you realize GRIN got the hardest part absolutely right. The original 1988 “Commando” made its name entirely through the main character’s bionic arm, which allowed him to swing through the kind of 2D levels most characters jumped through at the time. It worked then, and it works remarkably well now in spite of a third dimension and a mostly hands-off approach that makes it easy to miscalculate a swing and plummet to your death. Intuitive controls, combined with credible motion physics, make for a fun swing mechanic that’s neither too hard to master nor so easy as to be mindless.

The arm proves just as invaluable in combat. Spencer (that’s you) can toss everything from parked cars to park benches at enemies. He also can, among other tricks, lift enemies into the air like kites and swing kick into them like they’re bowling pins. “Commando” employs a deep rewards system for using every trick in your arsenal, but considering how pithy your firearms are by comparison, the bribery isn’t even necessary.

But all this cool stuff never gels like it should because of some constricting level design, which teams up with some unfortunate methods of punishment to keep adventurous players from getting too frisky. Outdoor levels that look like open-ended playgrounds reveal themselves to be anything but, walled off by a very blurry line of radiation that quickly kills players who accidentally cross those lines and can’t cross back quickly enough. Optional collectables off the beaten path should be a blast to acquire due to the gymnastics needed to reach them, but many of them take you so far out of the way that it’s hard to even get back to square one without risking a plummet.

That alone wouldn’t be so bad if “Commando’s” sparse checkpoint system didn’t punish you for playing adventurously. After a few instances of losing 10 minutes of forward progress because you accidentally landed on a radioactive rooftop or missed one jump after nabbing some useless collectable (which you lose anyway if you don’t reach another checkpoint before perishing), you might be too annoyed to bother anymore.

The bitter taste left by moments like these, to say nothing of a storyline that’s hammered by awful voice acting and frightfully unlikeable characters (Spencer absolutely included), makes “Commando” a game that’s as detestable at its worst as it is loveable at its best. Those entranced by the series’ legacy absolutely should carry out any plans to give it a run-through. But a weekend rental likely will be all “Commando” needs to make its mark, provide some entertainment, and subsequently wear out its welcome.


Star Trek: DAC
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Naked Sky/Paramount Digital Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Price: $10

The “DAC” in “Star Trek: DAC” would seem to stand for “Deathmatch, Assault and Conquest,” if only because those are the gameplay options presented to you in the game’s menu screen. The actual game is similarly straightforward. “DAC” is a two-dimensional, overhead-perspective space shooter. It features four environments inspired by “Star Trek.” It pits the Federation against the Romulans, and allows you to embody one of three ship types on either side of the fight. The aforementioned modes provide the basis of the game’s objectives, and while “DAC” allows soloists to play against A.I. bots, it’s clearly designed with online play (two teams of up to six players each) in mind. The actual gameplay is unspectacularly solid: The three ships on each side (Flagship, Bomber, Fighter) have unique characteristics, controls and firing methods, and an abundance of power-ups caters to both strategic and frantic combat styles. The different modes of play are timeless for a reason, and while “DAC” does absolutely nothing to break any ground anywhere, it plays competently and looks nice doing it. Just don’t expect much more than that: “DAC” doesn’t expound on the “Trek” universe for any sort of storyline, and beyond the timing of its release the game shares no significant ties of any kind with the new film.

DVD 5/26/09: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, The Ramen Girl, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yonkers Joe, New in Town

Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth (NR, 2007, Docurama)
Author Harlan Ellison has been published, queried and celebrated more than most men have been kissed, but that doesn’t mean he’s a particularly pleasant man with whom to spend an afternoon, much less a lifetime. It does, however, make him ripe for one savage deconstruction, a job “Dreams With Sharp Teeth” gleefully undertakes while establishing a blueprint all documentaries about living individuals should follow. If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison’s work, it barely matters: “Teeth” touches on enough important points to construct an acceptable timeline. But the film leaves the dry facts to text overlays, electing to dedicate the vast majority of its existence to a coherent but dangerously careening drive-by of rants, readings and anecdotes about or courtesy of the man on the cover. Powered almost entirely by the energy of its subject matter and its subject, “Dreams” alternates effortlessly between hilarity, epiphany and disarming informality. But the multiple moods ride a single live wire that provides a strange, almost cryptic warmth the entire maddening way through. Spending a lifetime in Ellison’s wake — or inside his head as him — appears to be an exhausting endeavor only those with tireless, thick skins could probably engineer. But in this 96-minute burst, it’s pretty well perfect — and a must-see for anyone whose feet are dangling in any level of any creative process.
Extras: Six bonus readings, bonus footage, premiere footage.

The Ramen Girl (PG-13, 2008, Image Entertainment)
In America, the Ramen noodle is synonymous with poor college students and little else. In Japan, if “The Ramen Girl” is to be believed, it’s a much different level of reverence, and that’s one on a very long list of things lifelong journeywoman and hopeless romantic Abby (Brittany Murphy) will have to understand when she moves to Tokyo, promptly gets dumped by her boyfriend, and is too prideful to hop on the first plane back to the States. “Girl” regularly flirts with bring too cute for its own good, in no small part because of Abby’s truly inexplicable ability to charm a stodgy Ramen chef (Toshiyuki Nishida as Maezumi) who doesn’t like her and can barely communicate with her into bucking all kinds of tradition and taking her on as a protégé. It also, for similar reasons and despite the unique setting and themes, never feels significantly more authentic than oh so many other undemanding comedies. But Abby isn’t charming just because the script tells us she is, and “Girl” doesn’t have to strain itself to give her credibility as a likable mess. Maezumi, meanwhile, steals the show, pulling triple duty as a cranky foil, a kicking-and-screaming father figure, and an overt conduit for all those aforementioned concerns viewers might have about the movie. Our incredulity is his as well, and that allows “Girl” to skate safely on the edge of illogicality, lay its many flaws bare, and charm us slightly silly anyway. In English and Japanese with English subtitles where necessary.
Extras: Deleted scenes, alternate ending.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (NR, 2007, Magnolia)
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect with family, and if “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is any indication, it doesn’t necessarily even help to be one. “Prayers” finds retired rocket scientist Mr. Shi (Henry O) traveling to America from China to visit his recently-divorced daughter Yilan (Feihong Yu), who made a similar but more permanent migration in hopes of starting a new life. She speaks fluent English, he doesn’t, and once that obstacle is established during the first scene, it becomes clear it’s the first of many divisions between father and daughter. Intelligently and thoughtfully devised all the way through, “Prayers” nonetheless is an impossible film to universally recommend. Mr. Shi’s divides his American experience between moments spent with his daughter and those spent in attempted communication with an Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani) he meets one day on a park bench. “Prayers” only has 83 minutes to spread around those and other moments, and while wounds are opened and feelings are laid on the table, the film is more concerned with painting a portrait of three people than forcing them into the kind of emotional climax a film of this sort typically entails. Rarely a word or mannerism in the script goes to waste, but if you demand a clearly-marked endgame payoff, you won’t find it here. In English and Cantonese with English subtitles where necessary.
Extras: Interviews, photo gallery. Sold separately or as half of the “Two Films by Wayne Wang” bundle, which also includes 2008’s “The Princess of Nebraska.”

Yonkers Joe (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Sometimes, a movie tries to be two movies at once, and sometimes, it’s a little too clear where a scriptwriter’s specialties lie. At least in the case of “Yonkers Joe,” the strong suit also happens to power the main plotline, which finds a brilliant but fading hustler (Chazz Palminteri as the title character) trying to shake down a heavily fortified Las Vegas for one final, massive hit. When Joe is demonstrating his prowess, plotting his scheme or attempting to make his play, “Joe” is supremely engaging and a fascinating battle between technology, manpower, ingenuity and unreasonable bravery. But while its strengths keep it in line, “Joe’s” peripheral material — particularly, Joe’s difficulty in handling his relationships with his alleged wife (Christine Lahti) and his mentally-challenged and temperamental son (Tom Guiry as Joe Jr.) — still holds command over most of its runtime. Palminteri holds his own, Lahti shines and Guiry arguably steals the show. But the production as a whole continually wobbles because of the script, which telegraphs some moments and shoddily composes others when trying to maneuver through these scenes and get back to its strong suit. When “Joe” jumps from a tight scene about the task at hand to a sloppy deconstruction of Joe’s personal life, the seams absolutely show. Fortunately, they’re not so unforgivable as to completely undermine what the film does best.
Extras: Premiere footage, four behind-the-scenes features.

New in Town (PG, 2009, Lions Gate)
A fast-living executive (Renée Zellweger as Lucy Hill) relocates from sunny Miami to snowy, sleepy Podunk, Minn., to oversee the restructuring of one of her company’s manufacturing plants. And for roughly 35 or so minutes, “New in Town” illustrates the culture shock in as many irritating, predictable and unpleasant ways as perhaps the full sum of every fish-out-of-water film that preceded it. Lucy is culturally refined but somehow kept alive by a heart made out of black, soulless rock. Her new neighbors and underlings (Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon, J.K. Simmons), meanwhile, are slow-speaking dopes who immediately grow weary of their big-city invader despite simultaneously preaching the warmth of a human spirit those fancy Miamians couldn’t possibly understand. But then something happens, and instantly, “Town” kind of drops the cultural dichotomy act in favor of something that, while every bit as formulaic, is exponentially more pleasant to be around. It never really takes a third turn to rise beyond that, but the mood shift is so unbelievably stark that “Town” comes off as a much better movie simply for its ability to correct itself midstream and regroup as something that’s pretty gosh darn likable by the time its predictable slide toward the finish comes around. That doesn’t propel it to full-blown recommendation status, but it at least avails itself of a much better fate than those wretched early scenes originally imply. If you’re powerless to resist the charms of the cast, that’s something to keep in the back of your mind.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Games 5/19/09: UFC 2009 Undisputed, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Zen Pinball

UFC 2009 Undisputed
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Yuke’s Co./THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

No sense being coy: This, despite being developer Yuke’s Co.’s very first effort, easily ranks as one of the very best instances of a video game replicating the sensation of the sport it’s emulating. In terms of demands and payoff, “UFC 2009 Undisputed” simply has mixed martial arts down cold.

Part of MMA’s appeal is its capacity to pit fighters of different disciplines — wrestling, karate, boxing, jujitsu — against each other, and in its remarkably successful attempt to map all those moves to the controller in reasonable fashion, “Undisputed” presents a similar demand. Technical fighters will benefit from memorizing the controller gymnastics needed to execute takedowns, throws and submission maneuvers. (Tip: Play through the tutorial. Maybe twice.) Timing, meanwhile, is of the essence if you prefer to weaken your opponent through quick strikes (or, more importantly, counterstrikes and reversals).

Then, there are moments that degenerate, as they should, into furious bouts of button mashing. A well-executed shoot takedown might still fail if you don’t follow up by pounding the buttons to overpower your opponent’s like-minded efforts to withstand your charge. Ditto for attempted submissions or the omnipresent temptation to unleash a flurry of strikes in hopes of pulling a knockout out of the sky, which absolutely does happen.

That, in fact, might be the game’s best asset, even if everyone who plays “Undisputed” almost inevitably will find themselves on the wrong side of it at some point. You can win a fight through points and by simply wearing your opponent down, but, just as in the real thing, knockouts sometimes happen out of nowhere and with only one perfect punch. It’s a downer when it happens to you, but it never feels completely unfair, and it’s obscenely gratifying when you do it to someone else.

“Undisputed,” in addition to looking outstanding, is no slouch in terms of content. The 80-plus-deep roster includes current and former fighters, you can design up to 100 more, and the single-player career mode makes for an extensive simulation of the life of an up-and-coming UFC fighter. Online play (two players) isn’t too fancy, but it works, and the game keeps good records of your win-loss totals.

But while “Undisputed” is a terrific experience for solo and online fighters, it is, like its source material, best enjoyed in the company of others on the couch. The differing styles make it a game players of all abilities can effectively enjoy in different ways, and stuff that might frustrate players who fight alone — particularly those out-of-nowhere knockouts — are good for a thrill and probably a laugh when experienced among a crowd of players passing the controller around.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii and Playstation 2
From: Raven/Activision (PS3/360), Amaze Entertainment/Activision (PS2/Wii)
ESRB Rating (PS3/360): Mature (Blood and gore, intense violence, language)
ESRB Rating (Wii/PS2): Teen (Blood, mild language, tobacco reference, violence)

With all due respect to what it is — a “God of War” knockoff built around the story and murderous stylings of Wolverine — “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” deserves credit for what it isn’t.

For starters, “Wolverine” isn’t nearly as mindless or shameless as your typical knockoff. There are a few basic attack maneuvers you could, theoretically, mash ad infinitum up to and through the closing credits. But the game quickly complements those moves with some unique attacks — including grapple maneuvers and an awesome lunge attack that allows you to pinpoint and pounce on an enemy from the other side of the screen — that simply are too fun to ignore.

“Wolverine” also resists most urges to use onscreen button prompts as a means of executing routine finishing attacks or playing out elaborate action sequences. There are cutscenes, but you’re free to simply enjoy them before the game frees you back up to do whatever you want. A special quick kill attack, which seems destined to be dumbed down through onscreen prompts, instead uses a cool slowdown mechanic that tests your timing rather than some ability to mindlessly obey simple commands.

The sum total of Wolverine’s diverse offense makes navigating the game’s shortcomings less of a chore than they otherwise would be. “Wolverine,” like most movie-based games, has the unenviable task of turning a two-hour film into a six-to-eight-hour story, and the game strains by taking you back and forth in time (and, consequently, through a few mid-game levels that look awfully similar to early levels).

For similar reasons, you’ll encounter huge numbers of the same enemy types, which can be a chore when the enemy in question poses little challenge but still requires time to take down. Wolverine’s innate ability to regenerate health makes for some easy boss fights that drag on longer than necessary, though some impressive set pieces in the late going do plenty to mitigate the onset of repetition. A continuous leveling system, which expands your arsenal and makes finding the optional collectables a fun and worthwhile endeavor, also keeps things from getting too mindless.

The only place “Wolverine” can’t escape its fate is in the perceived value department. Like its fellow knockoffs, it’s a single-player, single-trip experience that, despite an unlockable extra difficulty setting, won’t entice a great deal of immediate return engagements. Recommending this as a buy will be easy once it inevitably drops into the $20-$30 range, but anyone who drops $60 for a game that requires a weekend to turn inside out is likely to regret it soon after.


Zen Pinball
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Zen Studios already proved itself in 2007 with “Pinball FX” on Xbox Live Arcade, and this first-rate follow-up only cements its standing in video game pinball simulation circles. “Zen Pinball” brings with it four original themed tables (classic cars, jungle adventure, shamans and Nikola Tesla), and per usual, each comes loaded with visual eye candy and a myriad of unlockable bonuses and mini-objectives. More importantly, Zen once again nails the nuances of real-world pinball, from ball and flipper speed to the angles the ball takes when bouncing off different objects and corners. But “ZP” also improves on “FX” on numerous fronts. The default camera viewpoint is more useful than any of “FX’s” five viewpoints, though those are included as well if you disagree. Superficially speaking, the game’s interface is considerably more polished, and the sound department benefits immensely from the inclusion of announcers unique to each table. Last but not least is the optional slowdown feature, which allows you the toggle slow-motion on the fly. Enabling the feature voids your ability to record high scores and earn PSN trophies, but it’s a great way to dissect each table’s intricacies, which is no small benefit for gamers bent on mastering these tables before Zen produces more.

DVD 5/19/09: Fanboys, Valkyrie, True Blood S1, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Eden Log, Friday Night Lights S3, 24 S7, Scholastic Storybook Treasures, Paramount Centennial Collection V8-9, A Bug's Life

Fanboys (PG-13, 2008, The Weinstein Co.)
You think speaking ill of “Star Wars” is asking for trouble? Try breaking bad on “Fanboys,” in which five friends (Dan Fogler, Kristen Bell, Jay Baruchel, Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette) attempt to break into the Skywalker Ranch to steal a cut of “Episode I” so their terminally ill friend (Marquette), who won’t live to see it premiere in theaters, can sneak a peek at the most anticipated film of all time. A motivated cynic could pick “Fanboys” apart on numerous levels. As road trip films go, it takes zero chances, thrusting its fearless heroes into the usual string of wacky circumstances that never seem to happen during road trips in real life. It trades on some old “Star Wars” jokes, makes fun of Trekkers, and rides the curtails of a scheme that’s riddled with logical holes. But “Fanboys” isn’t meant to challenge cynics. It’s a silly, cute, genuinely funny and overtly loving homage to friendship and a special group of moviegoers who have heard all the jokes before but don’t mind hearing them again if they’re told well. “Fanboys” absolutely tells them well, and the cavalcade of smart but accessible bonus winks — from some great cameos to umpteen references to all things 1999 — merely make a sweet thing sweeter. Seth Rogen, Christopher McDonald, David Denman and Danny Trejo, along with a handful of special surprise guests, also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes Webisodes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Valkyrie (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
It’s hard not to tip a cap to “Valkyrie,” which attempts the impossible as a taunt suspense film whose ending has been available in history books for more than six decades. Yes, the film is about a group of German military dissidents who plot to kill Adolf Hitler in July of 1944. Hitler died more than nine months later. You can do the math. Guess what? The film succeeds anyway. Explosive introduction aside, “Valkyrie” very arguably suffers from dry beginnings while it introduces the players and explains exactly what Operation Valkyrie entails and who is supposed to approve and enact it. For the uninitiated, though, understanding the full implications of those whats and whos is an eye-opener and very possibly a jaw-dropper once you realize just what had to happen — and how much control these dissidents had to cede to potential whistleblowers and the targets themselves — for such a process to set itself in motion. Those implications leave “Valkyrie” with a stacked deck of characters and shaky scenarios, and even if you already know their names by heart and know how it ends, the slow, dreadful deconstruction makes for a wonderfully tense creep toward the inevitable. Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, David Bamber as Hitler. Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Carice van Houten and Eddie Izzard, among others, also star.
Extras: Cruise/director/writer commentary, writers commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

True Blood: The Complete First Season (NR, 2008, HBO)
Maybe you’ve read the Charlaine Harris novels on which it’s based. Maybe the premise — publicly-outed vampires fighting for acceptance as a race of people in modern-day New Orleans — intrigues you. Maybe you simply have “Twilight”-instilled vampire fever. There are numerous reasons to give “True Blood” a chance. Problem is, there are numerous reasons to give up on it as well. Even by HBO’s standards, “Blood” is fearlessly divisive, stacking a brick wall of sexuality, attitude and crudity that some will find too wide to circumvent. Worse, most of the main cast — be they strange, unlikeable, archetypical or some combination thereof — take their time leaving any kind of favorable impression. Shows with this level of temperament don’t exactly lighten up as the storylines stack up and the stakes (pun not intended) rise, and it might take a full five or six episodes before enough humanity seeps through or you simply get used to the tone enough to let the concept take precedent. As perhaps is no surprise, that’s where “Blood” shines brightest. Few shows could afford the luxury of taking that much time to let viewers get comfortable, but there’s more than enough intrigue to make that a possibility here. Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Rutina Wesley, Nelsan Ellis, Ryan Kwanten and Sam Trammell, among others, star.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, a vampire mockumentary, Tru Blood beverage and service ads (you’ll understand after the first episode) and mock PSAs.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Any hope that the Segway scooter could make good on its original promise (a method of transportation that will change the way cities are designed) instead of settling for its current status (humorous physical comedy prop) is now lost. For roughly two-thirds of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” the Segway is the arguable star, carting around the film’s eponymous, hypoglycemic mall cop (Kevin James) while he haphazardly attempts to maintain order after a band of athletically-gifted thieves (Mike Escamilla, Natascha Hopkins, Mike Vallely, Rick Thorne, Jason Ellis and a few more) take the mall under siege. Frankly, it could be worse for the Segway, because as pandering comedies go, “Blart” could be a whole lot worse itself. James pokes easy fun at his job and his lifestyle, but somewhat remarkably, the film goes for likeable laughs instead of the same old mean-spirited cheap shots at the usual easy targets. “Blart” goes so far as to humanize its not-quite hero with almost remarkable credibility, reserving the bulk of its cartoon potshots for the characters who deserve them. What ultimately happens isn’t the least bit believable, but it is surprisingly likeable, and it’s hard to begrudge a film that elicits good feelings even as it makes your eyes roll. Jayma Mays, Keir O’Donnell, Stephen Rannazzisi and Raini Rodriguez also star.
Extras: James/producer commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, 10 behind-the-scenes features.

Eden Log (R, 2007, Magnolia)
For the first six-plus minutes of its life, “Eden Log” barely goes anywhere while its main character, the amnesia-addled and mud-covered Tolbiac (Clovis Cornillac), crawls around in the darkness and tries to make any sense at all of his surroundings. Consider it a test, because few of the 92 minutes that follow are much different. “Log” does gradually shine some light on Tolbiac’s whereabouts and the societal implications they represent, and even a peek at those answers fills the film with oodles of potential. Whether it achieves all of any of that promise will lie in the eye of the viewer. “Log’s” artistic shooting style — lots of contrast, color desaturated to near-monochromatic levels — screams “art film,” and for impatient viewers who expect too much, the script may inadvertently do the same thing. Dialogue is sparse, character progression even sparser, and if the blocks of silent, slow plot movement cause you to space out, “Log” will make zero sense when that movement arrives at a stop. But all of this amounts to giving “Log” more credit than it deserves or needs. It looks high-minded, but it’s really no more than an amalgamation of classic sci-fi and horror themes repackaged with an artsy exterior. The temptation to make more of it than that is there, but you’re best off resisting the urge.
Extras: The original French cut of the film, which essentially is the same movie outside of a few scenes that were replicated with English dialogue for the English cut. English subtitles are included.

Worth a Mention
— “Friday Night Lights: The Third Season” (NR, 2008, NBC Universal): The show with at least four lives continues to stave off cancellation with short but excellent seasons. Includes all 13 episodes (including an extended finale) from season three, as well as commentary and deleted scenes.
— “24: Season Seven” (NR, 2009, Fox): The paint is barely dry on “24’s” seventh season, which wrapped this week, but Fox is trying something new by making the DVD set available immediately. If you missed it while it aired and dread the usual exercise of avoiding spoilers until November, this should work quite nicely. Includes all 24 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Scholastic Storybook Treasures: Treasury of 25 Storybook Classics” (NR, Scholastic/New Video): On the heels of its wonderful 50-story compilation of preschool classics come two more volumes — “Dinosaurs, Trucks, Monsters and more” and “Fairytales, Magic and more” — aimed at a slightly older crowd. As the titles indicate, each set features 25 uniquely animated and narrated stories based on books from Scholastic’s vault.
— “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Centennial Collection (NR, 1962, Paramount) and “El Dorado: Centennial Collection” (NR, 1967, Paramount): Volumes eight and nine of Paramount’s terrific Centennial Collection treatments include new commentary tracks (two on “El Dorado,” one complete track plus additional selected scene tracks on “Valance”), seven-part behind-the-scenes features on both, image and trailer galleries and more.
— “A Bug’s Life” (G, 1998, Disney/Pixar): Blu-ray incarnations of existing DVDs aren’t a terribly big deal anymore, but there are exceptions. Chief among those exceptions: Pixar releases. New extras include a filmmaker roundtable and heretofore-unseen animated sequences from the film’s first draft. Preexisting extras (the short “Geri’s Game,” director commentary, outtakes, behind-the-scenes features) are also included, as is a digital copy of the film.

Games 5/12/09: Klonoa (Wii), Fallout 3: Broken Steel, Top Gun (iPhone)

For: Nintendo Wii
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

It’s hard not to admire Namco’s resilient love for “Klonoa,” which soldiers on despite more than a decade without ever setting foot in mainstream popularity’s ballpark.

“Klonoa” takes it back to the beginning on the Wii with a philosophically verbatim remake of the 1997 original that debuted on the original Playstation.

The predictable changes are here on schedule. The blocky 3D graphics are completely redone and look thoroughly modern (by Wii standards) thanks to better animation and a much smoother framerate. Gibberish gives way to a full complement of voice actors, who class up what remains a pretty goofy storyline.

Beyond that and a few new bonus stages, though, it’s the same game “Klonoa” fans adore and everyone else may or may not understand — even more so in 2009 than in 1997.

That’s because “Klonoa” is, despite its graphics and its ability to utilize the third dimension, a 2D platformer in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” vein. Levels change orientation as you twist around corners, and you can interact with certain objects that lie in front of or behind you, but you mostly are moving left and right rather than in all 360 degrees. The levels generally operate in linear fashion despite a few discoverable secrets off the beaten path.

Perhaps more distressing is “Klonoa’s” length (roughly five hours your first time through) and difficulty (pretty easy). Platforming aficionados hungry for a nail-biting challenge will not find it here.

Then again, there’s a reason a devoted swath of that very audience is what has kept this series afloat. “Klonoa’s” levels rarely leave you in great peril, but they’re imaginatively designed and a whole lot of fun to traverse anyway. The game doesn’t demand reflex perfection, but it fully understands what a good obstacle course should look like. This attention to design, combined with a control scheme that finds the happy medium between looseness and responsiveness, make those levels a whole lot of fun to run, jump and climb through.

The same philosophy holds true for the game’s enemy and boss quotient. They won’t fray your nerves like “Mega Man’s” enemies can, but taking them down is strangely, enjoyably satisfying anyway.

Hitting that seemingly unhittable sweet spot between mindlessly easy gameplay and something hardened platforming veterans can enjoy allows “Klonoa” to be one of those rare Wii games that speaks equally to everyone without leaning on gimmickry. Kids and novice players can wet their feet here, while others can have a completely different kind of fun blowing through the game every now and then. “Klonoa” remains a cult classic 12 years on because it’s as fun to replay as it is short and easy to beat, and the Wii makeover (to say nothing of the $30 price tag) does nothing to change that.


Fallout 3: Broken Steel
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)

Your successful ability to download “Fallout 3: Broken Steel” will be acknowledged in “Fallout 3” via a dialogue box stating as much, but beyond that — and unlike “Fallout 3’s” previous content packs, which jetted you off to faux-Anchorage and Pittsburgh — “Steel” leaves it up to you to find it.

That, mostly, is due to the fact that “Steel” not only takes place after the events of “Fallout 3,” but possibly alters some of those events as well. If you’ve witnessed the game’s final scene, you likely know what, precisely, needs altering.

Awkward though it is for Bethesda to basically change the storyline seven months after “Fallout 3” first appeared, the new narrative developments should please players soured by the original, abrupt finish. In addition to telling a better story, “Steel” makes it possible to continue playing at your leisure once the main storyline wraps — a huge boon given that the vast majority of “Fallout 3’s” content is optional and waiting to be discovered far outside the bounds of the main storyline. (As if to motivate you further, “Steel” raises your character’s level cap from 20 to 30 and throws in a few new perks that appear designed to reward players who wish to step off the main road.)

First, though, the story continues. Without spoiling anything for those who are no where near the game’s conclusion, here’s the basic rundown: The enemy you may or may not have taken down at the game’s conclusion has hit back, and your job is to find out how that’s even possible, to say nothing of how to stop it.

The six new missions — three mandatory, three optional — keep you inside the Wasteland, but they take you to some new areas of D.C. that did not exist previously. “Steel” also introduces you to some brutally tough new strains of familiar enemies and, per usual, counters that with some new gear — including some new weaponry that makes some of your existing arsenal look peashooter-esque by comparison.

One could credibly argue that the level cap and ending adjustments feel like a digital mea culpa that Bethesda would simply have given away as a patch in the days before paid downloadable content became the norm. “Steel” is as attractive for those tweaks as it is for the new missions and content, and any frustrations stemming from having to pay extra for (or, in the case of spurned Playstation 3 owners, never experiencing) something that should have been there all along are completely reasonable.

But those frustrations won’t change anything at this stage, so the point is moot. “Steel’s” primary objective is to live up to its $10 price tag, and it easily succeeds when all is tallied and considered. If you only indulge in one of “Fallout 3’s” downloadable episodes, this is the one to get.


Top Gun
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse/Paramount
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $2, though Paramount has indicated this is subject to change shortly

For all the talk about the wretched history of movie-based video games, the 1986 rendition of “Top Gun” remains an arguable Nintendo Entertainment System classic. How nice, then, to see the spirit of that game so overtly entrenched in this one. The new “Top Gun” features the kind of modern frills one expects, including a softer learning curve, achievements and a sufficient (though very visually strange) storyline to glue its 10 missions together. At its core, though, the objectives — dodge enemy fire, take down enemy planes — remain as pleasantly straightforward as ever. Freeverse’s most clever gameplay addition is a cheekily-named “Danger Zone” mechanic: The longer you stay in a danger zone — and thus, completely vulnerable to enemy fire — the more points you rack up. (As if to beat the point home, the Kenny Loggins song of the same name provides a portion of the game’s soundtrack, which, fortunately, can be muted.) “Gun’s” tilt-based flying controls work as they should, and taking down enemy aircraft is as easy on the touch screen as it is on the NES pad. Sadly, and in stark contrast to the famously difficult NES game, you can’t attempt to land the plane yourself once the battle ends.

DVD 5/12/09: Just Another Love Story, Taking Chance, Taken, Personal Effects, How it All Went Down, The Dana Carvey Show, Penn & Teller: B.S.! S6, Walt Disney Classic Short Films Animation Collection V4-6, Galaxy Quest DE

Just Another Love Story (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
“Just Another Love Story” is one of those wildly original movies that starts twisting so quickly, even describing the premise that dictates the bulk of the film’s storyline would qualify as a plot-spoiling disservice. So here are the vague details: One of the main characters lies dead in the first scene. Another, completely unrelated character is shot shortly after. There’s a family of four, an unrelated family that’s swimming in money, and there’s a car crash that begins a bizarre but darkly understandable chain of events that brings the disparate parties together. If you wish to know more, feel free to read the back of the spoileriffic box and partially deny yourself the morbid enjoyment that comes from watching this one unravel. Between the description and the artwork, the DVD’s sleeve is as offensive as the guy who shouts the ending of a film to line full of theatergoers purchasing tickets. If you like your movies dark, know what’s good for you and wish to enjoy “Story” on the level it’s meant to be enjoyed, just take a chance and dive in. The serpentine road this one takes you down is occasionally cryptic and frequently unbelievable, but that, along with a seemingly endless barrage of “What next?” developments, is what makes it so much fun. In Danish with English subtitles. No extras.

Taking Chance (NR, 2009, HBO)
The “based on actual events” pretense that precedes some movies can represent anything from the straight story to an awfully loose interpretation of the truth. In the case of “Taking Chance” — which follows the real-life 2004 journey of one marine (Kevin Bacon as Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, who wrote the script) as he delivers the remains of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps to Phelps’ family — it’s awfully hard not to want the former to apply. At its most basic, “Chance” merely goes through the motions of Strobl’s assignment. But in doing so, the film gives us a close, humane look at what amounts to one extraordinarily exhaustive show of respect for troops who die in combat. “Chance” never concerns itself with telling you what it thinks or what you should think about the Iraq War’s merits and deficiencies. There’s a persistent dialogue running throughout the film, but there’s also the notion that all the hypothetical chatter, for or against, falls away when ordinary Americans come face to face with the likes of Strobl and the realization of what he is tasked with doing. “Chance” need not be cloying or forceful to get that point across. It sticks to the story, lets the process do the talking, and emerges as a startlingly illuminating portrait almost as if without even trying.
Extras: Two features about the real people behind the story, deleted scene, making-of feature.

Taken: Two-Disc Extended Edition (NR, 2008, Fox)
Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a retired secret agent with a dead marriage and an itch to stay in the game. Kim (Maggie Grace) is his teenage daughter. She’s going to Europe with one friend (Holly Vance) and no parental supervision. The name of the movie is “Taken.” Can you connect the dots yet? Yes, “Taken” sets its table somewhat exactly like you expect it to, even if it has to hop a few logical turnstiles and play to a few stereotypes about overseas travel to get there. If that bothers you, guess what? The dialectically-bankrupt second half will give you fits. “Taken” seems to exist simply as a means for Neeson to unleash his inner Jack Bauer/Jason Bourne/Indiana Jones, and if you can tolerate his amazing ability to get answers in record time and dodge every bullet that comes his way, it’s an easy movie to enjoy. Famke Janssen, Nicolas Giraud, Leland Orser and Xander Berkeley also star.
Extras: Theatrical and extended cuts, director/cinematographer commentary (extended cut only), writer commentary (same), two behind-the-scenes features, premiere footage.

Personal Effects (R, 2009, Screen Media Films)
Were it not for separate tragedies that took family members from each of them, Walter (Ashton Kutcher) and Linda (Michelle Pfeiffer) wouldn’t have much of anything in common. But those things happened, and a few chance encounters in courtroom lobbies and group therapy sessions brought them together for what amounts to one strange relationship in one tricky movie to peg down. Loss is the theme of order in “Personal Effects,” which erroneously describes itself on its own box as an “uplifting romance” but in reality is no such thing. To the contrary, “Effects” is more frustrating than uplifting. Squeezing raw emotion out of Walter’s dead stales and muted responses is like extracting ketchup from a sun-dried tomato, and the wearisome wait for his inevitable spring to life spreads to the rest of the film. “Effects” sketches its characters intelligently, tells a good story, and caps things off with a compelling turn of events at the end. But it also appears hesitant to let its characters and scenarios emerge from the dull pain caused by those initial losses until deep into the film. By the time the gloves finally come off, you may have lost too much patience to care anymore.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

How it All Went Down (NR, 2003, E1 Entertainment)
Carmine Cavelli (Silvio Pollio) is making a film that, in all likelihood, will bomb upon release if it ever even reaches completion. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite see it that way, he needs nearly half a million dollars to prove it, and in order to raise that kind of money, he needs to return to a chapter of his life he’d hoped to have left behind. It’s at that point that “How it All Went Down” transforms from potential black comedy about the film business to a dead-serious (albeit very unpolished) look at one bull-headed guy’s attempts to achieve a means to his end at any cost. The coarse approach mostly works in “Down’s” favor: Its characters are a collective mess, but they’re pieced together in such a way that they almost have to be based on people Pollio, who also wrote and directed, knew in real life. If not, then bravo for a script that is as authentic as it is corrosive. It’s merely a shame Pollio’s script can’t quite finish what it starts. Once “Down” heads down the dramatic road, its brakes stop working, and the melodramatic eruption that closes things out is a bit much. Fortunately, it’s not so bad as to undo all that preceded it.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Worth a Mention
— “The Dana Carvey Show” (NR, 1996, Universal): Dana Carvey’s short-lived sketch comedy show returns from obscurity, and you might be surprised what’s inside — namely, among other things, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert and the now-famous Ambiguously Gay Duo. Someone was ahead of his time, it seems. Includes eight episodes (one of which never aired), as well as deleted scenes and new interviews with Carvey and Robert Smigel.
— “Penn & Teller: B.S.! The Complete Sixth Season” (NR, 2008, Showtime): One of cable’s most perfect shows returns with skewering exposés on such topics as NASA, world peace, sensitivity training and dolphins. Yes, dolphins. Includes 10 episodes.
— Walt Disney Classic Short Films Animation Collection, Volumes 4-6 (NR, Disney): “The Reluctant Dragon,” “Wind in the Willows” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” (sold separately) join last month’s initial offerings. Each DVD includes three to five animated shorts in addition to the short featured on the cover, as well as a litho print.
— “Galaxy Quest: Deluxe Edition” (NR, 2000, Paramount): It was Tim Allen’s only good live-action movie nearly 10 years ago, and it remains that today. Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Rockwell also star. Special edition extras include five behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes and a Sigourney Weaver rap session.

Games 5/5/09: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat: New Play Control, Velvet Assassin, Banjo-Tooie (XBLA)

Donkey Kong Jungle Beat: New Play Control
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Nintendo’s first two entrants in its “New Play Control” series, which repackages Gamecube games with Wii-friendly controls and sells them like new for $30, weren’t particularly inspired choices.

At first glance, its third selection doesn’t seem any better. “Donkey Kong Jungle Beat” was one of Nintendo’s most ingenious Gamecube games precisely because of how it controlled — using a plastic bongo controller to play what otherwise was a pretty traditional 2D sidescrolling action game — and the notion that the Wii’s controllers could match, much less enhance, that experience is laughable. That this iteration doesn’t even allow support for the bongos, which still work on the Wii via the system’s Gamecube controller ports, almost seems petty. Why not give players the option if they have the means and are willing to buy this version over a used Gamecube copy that runs just fine on the Wii? It makes no sense.

But to complain solely about what “Beat” doesn’t do is to slight the many wonderful things it does do with or without the gimmicky bongo controls. Leaning on the joystick to move Donkey Kong left and right is an entirely different sensation than banging on the drums was, but the traditional approach also allows “Beat” to step out of the gimmick’s shadow and stand on its own as yet another terrific sidescroller from the house that Mario, Luigi, Samus and Kirby built.

“Beat” doesn’t disappoint at all in this regard, either. Each level is divided into three parts, and the general object is the collect as many bananas in the first two parts (which play like traditional sidescrolling levels) and expend as few of them as possible in the boss fight that comprises part three. The bananas form the basis of your health bar in the boss fight, which might take shape as a boxing match with another ape or a battle of wits that incorporates tactics learned in the preceding two parts.

As usual, it comes down to how diverse these levels and showdowns are. And in true Nintendo style, “Beat” goes buck wild, harnessing those basic controls through a barrage of ever-changing obstacles, enemies and sequences that have you swinging, bouncing and riding other animals through all manner of danger. Collecting bananas sounds like a chore on paper, but Nintendo integrates it into the action so seamlessly that it never even feels like a focus, much less a burden.

As for the new controls, they’re a mix of traditional button controls and motion gestures that at least mimic the Gamecube’s more frantic drumming demands. They’re nothing special, and in no way an enhancement, but they work. That the game is a trip to play with two so starkly different configurations speaks to how good it is on its own merits.


Velvet Assassin
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Replay Studios/Southpeak Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, intense violence, use of drugs)

Provided you have your wits about you, “Velvet Assassin” — which loosely takes its inspiration from the heroic efforts of World War II Allied Forces secret agent Violette Szabo — is a game with small issues that only occasionally prove troublesome to the overall experience. That’s saying something, because if there’s a kind of game that really can’t afford to get sloppy, it’s a stealth action game that, like this one, penalizes you hard for your own lack of self-discipline.

“Assassin’s” issues run the gamut. The framerate sporadically swims in choppy waters, which can be a problem when you’re taking measured steps behind an enemy soldier to remain both undetected and ready to strike. The third-person perspective also leaves the game prone to instances of the environment obscuring your character — an obvious problem when you’re trying to calculate the perfect hiding spot in a cramped room with multiple armed soldiers. “Assassin” offers precious little in the way of firepower, and a few shots is all any given soldier needs to finish you off, so positioning isn’t exactly a trivial matter.

The severity of other aggravations, including a lagging menu system and a puzzling inability to use downed enemies’ weapons, will vary from user to user.

But the most alarming of “Assassin’s” problems is its very rare but inarguable tendency to just not cooperate. Once in a while, you’ll be positioned perfectly for a takedown, and the button to finish the job won’t register, giving your would-be victim ample time to turn around, see you and punish you before you have a chance to react. Other times, an enemy that shouldn’t be able to spot you does anyway, and if he alerts any other enemies in the same area, you’re pretty much up a creek. Considering the arguable infrequency of checkpoints in certain stretches, catching one of these hiccups at the wrong time can kill any desire to continue.

Again, though, these instances prove infrequent most of the way through, and “Assassin” mostly weathers its deficiencies to emerge, overall, as a pretty good addition to a genre in desperate need of fresh blood. It also shines some light on an unheralded chapter in World War II history — no easy feat given the bounty of WWII games already in existence. “Assassin’s” actual storyline, told in flashbacks, lies on the muddy side, but the point nonetheless is made.

Just make sure your play is never as sloppy as the game’s execution sometimes is. Enter a later mission with low ammo or low health, and there might be no saving you. Fortunately, “Assassin” allows you to load up an older checkpoint if you want to redo a stretch of the game without starting the whole thing over.


For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $15

It came as a very pleasant surprise to see how well the 1998 Nintendo 64 classic “Banjo-Kazooie” had aged in its 2008 transition to Xbox Live Arcade. The 2000 sequel “Banjo-Tooie” can’t possibly take anyone by the same level of surprise, but that’s where the bad news ends. Like its predecessor, “Tooie” is a 3D platforming wonderland, albeit one centered around collecting 100 of this and 10 of that. But “Tooie” also demonstrates what separated a Rare collect-a-thon from other like-minded platformers of the day. The levels — right down to the hub levels that glue the game together — are ingeniously designed, each containing a mix of story-focused objectives, integrated mini-game challenges and discoverable rewards that come from exploring the environments at your own pace. “Tooie” was a massive game by N64 standards, and it’s a gargantuan experience by Xbox Live Arcade’s standards, offering more hours of gameplay than many $60 games can muster. The $15 price tag is probably $5 more than most would like to pay for a slightly enhanced port of an eight-plus-year-old game, but given how well the game holds up — and given how badly the Xbox platform could use games of this sort — “Tooie’s” return on investment is undeniable.

DVD 5/5/09: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Smother, Incendiary, The Wedding Weekend, Look, Gigantor V1, Crusoe, Earth: Final Conflict S1

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection (PG-13, 2008, Criterion/Paramount)
Funny thing about epics with lots of time to fill: They tend to scramble more than much shorter films to cram every last one of their ideas into the frame. Some hide it well. Others — like the story of Benjamin Button (multiple actors, Brad Pitt most extensively), who was born an old man and grows young instead of old — do not. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” clocks in at 165 protein-filled minutes long, but it also scrambles to cover every important point of Button’s long life, including a fling that arguably goes nowhere and a strange detour into World War II that feels like a deleted scene from “Forrest Gump.” Fortunately, and crucially, “Button” also keeps at least one eye on two central threads that continually do battle no matter what else the rest of the film is doing. There’s the notion that Button’s unique life is an amazing gift — a simultaneous accruement of wisdom and youth that most would die to experience. But there’s also the sight of Button traveling through life in the opposite direction of everyone he loves, as vulnerable to the pains of aging as anyone else in the film. No matter how loose “Button” plays with its timeline and appetite for non-sequitur, it always brings it back to the middle, injecting this implausible fable with enough plausible humanity to make the whole strange journey plenty worthwhile.
Extras: Director commentary, four-part behind-the-scenes features collection, interviews, image galleries, premiere footage, liner notes.

Smother (PG-13, 2007, Screen Media Films)
The “unwelcome houseguest” comedy is a trite genre unto itself, often following a pattern of “houseguest does increasingly annoying things while host gradually loses mind and eventually blows a vein.” “Smother” looks to up the ante by giving us not one, but two unwelcome houseguests: Marilyn (Diane Keaton), the nagging mother of Noah (Dax Shepard), and Myron (Mike White), the effortlessly annoying cousin of Noah’s wife Claire (Liv Tyler). Let wacky, over-the-top hilarity ensue, right? Surprisingly — and in a completely pleasant way — not quite. Yes, “Smother” is the play on words you think it is, and the script gives Keaton plenty of space to perform the kind of broad comedy she does best. But “Smother” also allows Shepard to be as dryly funny as he wants to be while also letting White do his thing as the loveably pathetic human train wreck his character so clearly is. This is to say nothing of a few bit players (Ken Howard, Jerry Lambert, Selma Stern, a quartet of hysterically happy yapping dogs), who bring even more unique shades of funny to the party. “Smother’s” script isn’t poetry in motion, but it’s a master delegator, allowing the film to go for a cute laugh one minute and descend into hilarious darkness the next. The sum total is a complete surprise, a shot in the arm for a stagnant sub-genre, and one of the better comedies you’ve never heard of to hit DVD this year.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Incendiary (R, 2008, Image Entertainment)
An unnamed woman (Michelle Williams) spends the bulk of “Incendiary” in a dual state of shock and remorse, and once you see her connection to a terrorist attack that rocks London, you’ll probably understand why. It’s hard to say anything more without unspooling a thread of spoilers and giving the whole thing away, but that’s sort of a testament to the approach “Incendiary” takes to what has become an awfully common story idea over the last several years. Per usual, there’s the attack, there’s something fishy going on, and there’s something that comes a bit unraveled when one character does some math. But Williams’ character — who is neither a terrorist nor a government agent, but a total nobody with an acutely accidental connection to the whole thing — remains the sun around which this story orbits, and her moods dictate those of the film regardless of where the story goes. That, along with an intelligently measured script and a great supporting cast, gives “Incendiary” a memorable and unique point of view in a genre in terrible need of precisely that. Ewan McGregor, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Gleaves and Sidney Johnston also star.
Extra: Photo gallery.

The Wedding Weekend (R, 2006, First Look)
Outside of the fact that the guys used to sing together in a college a cappella group, there really is no efficient way to describe “The Wedding Weekend’s” premise — the guys and their various spouses convene for the weekend marriage of one of their own — that makes it sound anywhere near interesting. The more pressing bit of information is that “Weekend” is a truly democratic ensemble comedy, with 12 main cast members passing the focus around like it’s a hot potato. That, in turn, allows the film to be a movie about anything and everything — from lost jobs to fading desire to grudges that refuse to die to the joys of divorce — that pertains to college friends reaching their middle 30s. Again, not exactly groundbreaking stuff. But what “Weekend” lacks in earth-shattering plot reformation, it redeems in actual substance. Most of its characters carve out a likeable (or at least memorable) identity despite sharing 95 minutes with 11 other people, and “Weekend’s” script is smart, sharply observant and often genuinely funny. Not everything it tries works, but the film throws a lot out there and freely bounces from one conversation to another, so its failures at least pass through quickly. When all else fails, there’s the soundtrack, which takes songs you almost certainly already know and gives them a terrific a cappella makeover. David Harbour, Rosemarie DeWitt, Molly Shannon, Chris Bowers and Alexander Chaplin, among others, star. No extras.

Look (R, 2007, Anchor Bay)
As the tagline on the box says, you never know who is watching. But if you were one of the characters in “Look,” would you really expect anybody to waste their time looking in on this? As gimmicks go, this one’s pretty clever: Every scene in “Look” is shot through the perspective of a security camera — be it in a parking lot, an ATM, the changing room of a department store or some other such place. For a while, that’s enough to keep it interesting. But once “Look” introduces us to the people we’re spying on, it becomes clear the gimmick is all it really has to offer. The characters aren’t terribly interesting, the dialogue a little too forced to feel authentic, and the storylines completely ordinary. Only one person merits any real interest at all, and a stupid twist toward the end completely nullifies whatever sympathy one might have had. Outside of camera viewpoints, “Look” doesn’t try to tell a story that hasn’t repeatedly been told better before. Worse, the cameras factor into the narrative exactly once, and their role merely speaks to their value to society rather than whatever threat they purportedly present. That, obviously, defeats the entire point of the whole exercise in the first place. Oops?
Extras: Filmmakers/cast commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention:
— “Gigantor: The Collection: Volume 1” (NR, 1964, E1 Entertainment): The classic cartoon, which broke ground as one of the first examples of Japanese animation on American television, finally breaks ground on DVD as well. “Volume 1” includes digital transfers of the first 26 episodes, as well as commentary, interviews, a companion booklet and six issues of the “Gigantor” comic book in DVD-ROM format.
— “Crusoe: the Complete Series” (NR, 2008, Universal) and “Earth: Final Conflict: Season One” (NR, 1997, Universal): Two syndicate shows, one demonstrably more popular than the other, make their respective DVD debuts. “Crusoe” contents: 12 episodes, plus a paperback copy of the “Robinson Crusoe” novel. “Conflict” contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and an introduction by Rod Roddenberry, son of series (and “Star Trek”) creator Gene Roddenberry.