Games 6/30/09: Grand Slam Tennis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fallout 3: Point Lookout

Grand Slam Tennis
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Before the Wii was marketed as a system for everyone, it was pegged as a beacon for unprecedented immersion. Now that Nintendo’s $20 Wii MotionPlus peripheral is finally here — and, more importantly, games like “Grand Slam Tennis” are on board to support it — that original claim finally holds true.

It demands mentioning that “Tennis” plays fine without the peripheral. The same control scheme from “Wii Sports” is included, and “Tennis” betters it by mapping lob and drop shots to the A and B buttons and allowing players to use the D-pad to shift their character between quadrants on the court. A more advanced scheme, incorporating the nunchuck attachment, affords players full character movement along with the same shot controls. “Tennis” allows you to swap schemes and difficulty levels on the fly, which makes establishing your ideal setup reasonably painless.

But “Tennis” becomes an exponentially better game when the Wii MotionPlus enters the picture. Instead of simply reading every motion as a generic swing, “Tennis” translates your handling of the Wii remote directly into how your character handles the racket. Shots are aimed rather than merely timed, and the trajectory of your motions significantly affects the path the ball takes.

The irony of this is that en route to becoming a better game, “Tennis” becomes a much more unfriendly one first — to the point where it initially doesn’t even seem like the thing works. “Tennis'” video tutorial is decent, but this kind of precision is so foreign to the Wii that a significant period of acclimation almost certainly will be necessary.

Give it that time, though — and that may mean an hour, even two, of solid play — and it should click. When it does, it feels extraordinarily precise.

Either way you play, “Tennis” backs it up with a hefty feature set. The single-player career mode is fairly standard stuff, but some of its ideas — particularly the ability to beat the likes of Nadal, McEnroe and Williams and then assign a signature move of theirs to your created player — are implemented really nicely. Local multiplayer (four players) comprises of both traditional tennis and a handful of party configurations. Online multiplayer (four players) sticks strictly to traditional singles and doubles matches, but in another nice touch, two players on the same console can play doubles together against online competition. “Tennis” also uses EA’s superior online service instead of Nintendo’s friend codes system.

But the slickest trick of all might be the Get Fit feature. Link your created character to a slot in Get Fit, and “Tennis” tracks your activity throughout the entirety of the game’s other modes whenever you play with that character. One can only guess what method of calorie counting “Tennis” uses and how accurate it is, but seeing this little bit of progress stamped across the game’s other screens adds a nice layer of secondary reward that turns even the most abysmal tennis performance into a source of positive reinforcement.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Also available for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Windows, Mac
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for feeling a whole lot like “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which came and went two full summers ago. “Phoenix” broke significant ground by giving players complete, open-world access to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and “Prince,” which aims to faithfully replicate a film that largely takes place in the same world, has no choice but to do the same thing.

Fair or not, there’s no way trekking through these same classrooms and corridors can inspire the same level of awe it did the first time around. “Prince” provides as much access as “Phoenix” did, and it does make improvements on your ability to adjust the camera manually and find the fastest route between two points. But the improvements are incremental, and beyond a few new areas and some new side objectives to complete, the game feels handcuffed by its need to stay faithful to a story that, at least in the present tense, goes few places “Phoenix” already hasn’t been.

(The flashback scenes, which play a crucial role in “Prince’s” story, play out purely as non-interactive cutscenes, which makes sense but, if you’re familiar with their implications, arguably represents the game’s biggest missed opportunity to shake things up.)

Perhaps the most notable addition to “Prince” is the return of Quidditch, which finds you playing exclusively in Harry’s shoes as the Gryffindor seeker. As a diversion to the rest of the game, the Quidditch bits are fast and fun. But they also never aspire to be more than a diversion. There’s no sport-specific strategy to capturing the Golden Snitch: All you have to do is fly around some obstacles and through star-shaped rings, and it’ll be yours. The speed of these sequences makes them more exciting than they sound on paper, but by no means does this aim to replicate Quidditch the way EA’s “Quidditch World Cup” game did back in 2003.

“Prince” also introduces a nifty potion-building mini-game, which gets over some slow and simple beginnings and evolves into a surprisingly fun franchise answer to the “Cooking Mama” games. The object is the same — mix the requested ingredients in a specific order without overdoing it — and “Prince” doesn’t really take it anywhere beyond there. But the relative freedom the game affords with regard to handling ingredients keeps it from being a mindless exercise in following onscreen prompts.

Overwhelmingly, though, “Prince” is more of the same. The Dueling Club challenges are repackaged instances of the wand duels that already appeared in “Phoenix,” and they’re not deep enough to make the inclusion of a two-player duel mode a terribly big deal.

The ultimate draw of “Prince” remains its capacity to bring the story to interactive, single-player life. For those who understand what that entails — and how it handcuffed the developers — there’s a pleasant, if very familiar, experience to be had.


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

The arrival of “Point Lookout” feels somewhat anti-climactic following the release of “Broken Steel,” which both changed the ending to “Fallout 3” and raised the game’s level cap by 50 percent. But “Lookout,” which takes us up the Potomac River and into Maryland, more than compensates. “Lookout” trades in the grey, concrete wasteland of post-nuclear D.C. in favor of shorelines, marshes and Civil War-era mansions — a stark change of scenery that occasionally better resembles Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” games than “Fallout 3.” With the change of scenery comes a change of culture, which pretty significantly affects both the storyline and the characters you befriend and battle. All that liberation allows “Lookout” to spin whatever wild yarn it pleases, which (without spoiling anything) also leads to the most phantasmagorical tangent since the virtual reality sequence in “Fallout 3” proper. “Lookout” unfolds on what rather convincingly ranks as the largest chunk of virtual real estate in any “Fallout 3” expansion thus far. Point Lookout is nearly one-fourth the size of the D.C. Wasteland, and those who travel off the beaten path will uncover a couple of first-rate side quests that both enrich the local mythology and fortify its ties to the larger “Fallout” universe.

DVD 6/30/09: Eastbound & Down S1, Parker Lewis Can't Lose S1, Apollo 11: A Night to Remember, Rip! A Remix Manifesto, Two Lovers, Jockeys, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season (NR, 2009, HBO)
“Eastbound & Down” looks like a comedy about baseball, and for a time — roughly five minutes — that’s what it appears to be. But it’s around then that we discover Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) was, not is, a baseball hero. When “Down” touches down, it’s just another comedy about a former big shot who is forced to come crawling back to his lousy hometown. That’s probably enough, too. Kenny’s pathetically stubborn bravado and continued self-love make him an effortlessly hilarious lead character, and his supporting castmates (Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin, Ben Best and especially Andrew Daly and Steve Little) are such caricatures in their own right that “Down” just coasts by on a blend of dry, crude but continually smart writing that makes the art of sitcom writing look so much easier than it actually is. But without delving into spoileriffic specifics, there’s more to “Down” than first meets the eye. And with all due respect to how funny the show is throughout its first six episodes, it’s this “more” that ultimately makes the wait for a second season — which hopefully brings with it more than six additional episodes — that much harder to bear. Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, Kenny Powers’ Greatest Hits, Schaeffer Motors commercials (you’ll get it when you see the show), Stevie’s Dark Secret (same).

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose: The Complete First Season (NR, 1990, Shout! Factory)
So is “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” ahead of its time or planted firmly where it belongs? Either case could be made. On paper, “Lose” is so absolutely ’90s. Parker Lewis (Corin Nemec) is the most popular kid in school despite a wardrobe and haircut only 1991 could love. And “Lose” treats his high school existence like some kind of Technicolor fight to the death, complete with a loyal sidekick (Billy Jayne), a nerdy and unreasonably faithful freshman assistant (Troy W. Slaten), a principal (Melanie Chartoff) bent on destroying him, her equally (and inexplicably) blood-hungry assistant (Taj Johnson), an unstoppable bully (Abraham Benrubi), and a kid sister (Maia Brewton) who might be the most wicked of them all. The stories dial up the absurdity from 11 to 12, with planet-swallowing logic holes and Parker’s amazing technological contraptions competing neck-and-neck for ubiquity. But “Lewis” never expresses any delusion about what it is: It’s a farce, it knows it’s a farce, and it’s sharply written in such a way that makes it clear it wants you to know it knows. Best of all, it’s aged rather splendidly, in large part due to its use of single-camera production tricks (think “Scrubs” and “30 Rock,” right down to the missing laugh track) most sitcoms wouldn’t adopt until a good decade later.
Content: 26 episodes, plus commentary and a cast/crew retrospective.

Apollo 11: A Night to Remember (NR, 2006, Acorn Media/BBC)
The front of the box doesn’t make it entirely clear what, exactly, “Apollo 11: A Night to Remember” is, and the description on the back implies that it’s some sort of retrospective that incorporates footage from both the expedition and surrounding coverage. That’s all technically true, but in a nice twist and to its great benefit, “Remember” actually turns the table on the format. Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who covered the mission as it happened in 1969 for the BBC, both narrates and provides the glue that keeps “Remember” in some sort of order. But his appearances are sparse and brief when they happen, leaving the vast, vast majority of “Remember’s” 118-minute runtime to dole out one reel after another of original footage and coverage. It isn’t always pretty: The clips are perfectly legible, but there’s no arguing how poorly they’ve aged since their original airing. But that obviously isn’t “Remember’s” fault, and it nowhere near cancels out the benefits of letting some truly awesome footage — be it of breakfast with the astronauts on launch day, extensive radio transmissions or various reporters’ firsthand explorations of the rigors and technology involved in such an endeavor — play out without interruption or interference. It’s hard to top the genuine article, and “Remember” sees no reason to even try.
Extras: “The Sky at Night” episode, Moore biography.

Rip! A Remix Manifesto (NR, 2009, Disinformation)
If “Rip! A Remix Manifesto” was really supposed to be a fiery manifesto, it certainly didn’t turn out that way. But that’s somewhat fitting for a movie that discusses the merits and intentions of artists who take a preexisting (and very often copyrighted) work and remix it to create something completely different — be it a funny YouTube video or a commercially viable piece of entertainment. “Rip,” as should be obvious, makes a case that such work should be celebrated rather than sued out of existence, and the way it literally wears that argument on its (DVD) sleeve leaves it open to being dismissed by naysayers who never even bother giving it a fair shake. That’s a real shame, too, because “Rip” turns out to be a rather fascinating documentary first and a thoroughly well-researched and disarmingly respectful piece of advocacy cinema second. The history of copyright protection, right down to its original intentions, is an eye-opener, as is filmmaker and narrator Brett Gaylor’s dissection of certain corporations’ comings into being. (If you don’t already know the story about “Happy Birthday,” prepare to be amazed and depressed.) “Rip” makes its arguments without ever feeling forcefully argumentative and keeps the information coming without losing sight of its need to entertain. It also practices what it preaches: Should you be so inclined, you have Gaylor’s blessing to remix “Rip” to whatever degree your heart, if not the law, desires.
Extras: Deleted scenes, seven mashup favorites.

Two Lovers (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) has a thing for Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), who recently endured watching his recent engagement fall to pieces. Problem is, Leonard has a developed an interest in Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who recently moved into his apartment building with her father. And the problem with that? Michelle is in love with a married man (Elias Koteas) who seems unwilling to end said marriage. Oh, and also? Just about everybody in this picture is either slightly or alarmingly crazy. All of this makes “Two Lovers” prime fodder for all kinds of dark, farcical comedic dissection … except it isn’t a comedy at all. To the contrary, “Lovers” is completely, almost stiflingly serious — a precarious, slightly unnerving tale of shaky characters teetering on the edge of meltdown and hoping to be rescued from their doldrums by other characters who themselves sit one disappointment away from some kind of collapse. Nuanced, believable writing is the only thing that could really save this day, and fortunately, “Lovers” has that in abundance. Wobbly those this group may be, their plights and words are bound to resonate on some level so long as their dispositions aren’t too much to bear. That’s isn’t an unfounded concern, either: If “Lovers” sounds like too much to deal with on paper, it likely will be exactly that when it’s on your television.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

Jockeys (NR, 2009, Animal Planet/Genius Entertainment)
Some people merit reality shows more than others, and that’s especially true when a show can shine some light on a recognizable but deeply misunderstood profession for which a very precious few are qualified to even understate. “Jockeys” looks in on a season in the life of Santa Anita Race Track, closely following the tribulations of six jockeys but keeping an eye on any peripheral stories that might ensue at the same time. The chosen six are going through vastly different phases of their respective careers and lives, and “Jockeys” can’t help but fall into a few reality traps, be it a cheesy musical montage here or some trite storyline repetition there. Overwhelmingly, though, the personalities the show follows are actually worth following, in large part because their trials provide us an intimate, informative and surprisingly well-rounded inside look at both the job and the business of doing it well. A few overindulgences aside, “Jockeys” deftly balances the personal and professional while never ignoring what else is going on at the track, and its illustration of the run-up to the Breeders’ Cup — easily Santa Anita’s showcase event — is genuinely exciting because of how well all these stories are told.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus five behind-the-scenes features and a Q&A.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (R/NR, 2009, Fox)
Only one slice of the population could possibly have any significant need to see “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.” That, of course, would be aficionados of the critically adored “Street Fighter” video games, which already suffered one fairly abysmal film treatment back in 1994. “Chun-Li” attempts to rebuild the deck by orbiting around one of the games’ supporting characters (Kristin Kreuk as Chun-Li) instead of attempting, as the first film did, to cram every last character into the picture. It also tries, ostensibly, to paint the characters with real-world strokes and treat them with some measure of credible respect. Unfortunately, all that does is make “Chun-Li” an atrocious bore. With the exception of one pretty wild mid-film scene, the film seems almost terrified to take any kind of memorable creative liberty, choosing instead to tip-toe through a barren wasteland of lazy dialogue, vengeance film clichés and action scenes that either outstay their welcome or feel ridiculously out of place given the source material. Bad though the original “Street Fighter” film was, it also was fearlessly crazy. That resulted in a seriously special kind of train wreck, but even that is better than the snoozefest that ensues this time around. Chris Klein, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou and Michael Clarke Duncan also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, episode of Fox Movie Channel’s “Making a Scene,” storyboard/production galleries, “Marvel vs. Capcom 2” video game sneak peek.

Games 6/23/09: MySims Racing, The Conduit, Rocket Riot

MySims Racing
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

When EA started spinning off “The Sims” beyond its original intentions, jokes invariably were made about when, not if, the brand would succumb to its inevitable kart racer incarnation.

All joking aside, now we know.

But while “MySims Racing” most assuredly owes no small thanks to “Mario Kart” for its existence, it sidesteps most of the pratfalls that sank so many “Kart” rip-offs over the years. More importantly, it adds a few things to the experience that not only justify the franchise’s move into this arena, but also give the game some legs even “Mario Kart Wii” lacks.

“Racing” leaves little to chance in terms of its basic racing component, which looks like “Kart,” moves like “Kart” and follows the same blueprint in terms of controls, drifting techniques and the implementation of power-ups on the track. Like “Kart’s” Wii incarnation, “Racing” lets you choose between multiple control schemes, supporting motion steering with the Wii remote and more traditional play via the Gamecube controller and Classic or nunchuck attachments.

Generally, it does a sufficient job of mimicry. The handling is a touch more unwieldy than in “Kart,” but “Racing’s” drift mechanic compensates adequately with a little practice. The power-ups are similarly mixed: Some are clever and funny, while others feel either like useless throwaways or less effective imitations of “Kart’s” more iconic offerings.

“Racing’s” lone tweak to the formula — collectable on-track gems that build up your cart’s turbo capability — isn’t particularly ingenious in the realm of racing games. But those gems’ secondary purpose — as off-track currency — is a bit more interesting, and it opens the door for those aforementioned new ideas.

As any “Sims”-branded game should, “Racing” allows you to design your character, which goes a long way toward mitigating the game’s lack of identity when compared to kart racers that are stocked with familiar mascot characters. But “Racing” also lets you design and modify three carts — normal, large and toy-sized — with upgrades, accessories and paint/decal jobs. The customization tools can’t hold a candle to the likes of “Need For Speed” or “Forza,” but they fulfill their purpose in giving “Racing” enough tools to keep the experience reasonably fresh and tailor it to individual player tastes. They also, along with the surprising presence of a nonsensical but rather entertaining storyline, give the game a steady stream of rewards to achieve beyond the usual cup trophies “Kart” trots out game after game.

“Racing” falls back to earth with its multiplayer (four players, offline only), which doesn’t even attempt to match “Kart’s” exquisite online component. The four-player splitscreen works fine, though, and it serves as a nice alternative to (though not necessarily a replacement for) “Kart” when a change of tracks and power-ups is in order.


The Conduit
For: Nintendo Wii
From: High Voltage Software/Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)

“The Conduit’s” visual aptitude has been the source of buzz since the game’s unveiling, but a Wii game best known for its graphics is like a baseball player who leads the minor leagues in hitting. If it’s going to stand out among a sea of gorgeous, full-featured Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 first-person shooters, “The Conduit” needs more than just the best graphics on its platform to stick around.

That’s where the game’s attention to movement swoops in. “Metroid Prime” and “Medial of Honor” already illustrated how uniquely cool a Wii first-person shooter can feel, and “The Conduit” drives the point home. Motions made with the Wii remote skillfully translate to the onscreen character’s handling of the game’s guns. The default settings are spot-on with respect to turning sensitivity and differentiating your character’s head and hand movements, and a laundry list of adjustable settings gives players who disagree a foolproof degree of on-the-fly fine-tuning. Under optimum settings, it feels great — neither necessarily better nor worse than the traditional controller method, but unique in a way that makes for a fun, divergent experience.

The attention to movement, as it happens, saves “The Conduit” from the rest of itself, which otherwise suffers from a severe lack of identity and some common missteps that would be less forgivable in a more traditional shooter.

Nothing about the storyline is particularly bad: It’s entirely sufficient, with good voice acting and a plot that takes us through some cool environments. But nothing about what happens is particularly extraordinary, either, and most of it results in the same enemies attacking you in increasingly familiar waves. The game’s looks, while certainly nice by Wii standards, aren’t pretty enough to hide these bouts of repetition.

But the most glaring of “The Conduit’s” issues lies in its enemy A.I., which ranges from indifferent to relentless with very little in between. Enemy soldiers occasionally take cover, but they’re more likely to just stand still and let you unload. Some of the game’s other enemies, conversely, pounce at you and keep coming until you find and destroy the conduit from whence they came. The massive discrepancy between A.I. leads to a similar rift in difficulty, with cakewalk sequences punctuated by instances that just feel cheap.

But it bears repeating that the unique control scheme makes these issues more forgivable than they normally would be. Disappointing though some of “The Conduit’s” facets are, it’s still fun to play a shooter this way, and until it becomes a more common experience, this suffices.

That goes as well for the online multiplayer (12 players). It breaks zero ground, and the Friend Code system remains a bummer. But it works and, free of those A.I. issues, it’s pretty fun. In a nice (and depressingly unusual) touch, “The Conduit” supports the Wii Speak microphone, though whether anyone will bother hooking one up anymore remains to be seen.


Rocket Riot
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)
Price: $10

The $10 downloadable game concept was devised precisely for games like “Rocket Riot,” which stars you as a tiny character wearing a jet pack and firing rockets (and other power-ups) at other tiny characters inside arenas designed entirely in pixel art. The concept could have existed decades ago, but the controls (left joystick to propel around the area, right joystick to flick or launch rockets at whatever angle you choose) play according to more modern conventions. That’s true also of the rocket physics as well as the fully destructible areas, which explode in tiny pixilated messes whenever rockets make contact with walls or other objects. It’s a great effect, and it contributes immensely to “Riot’s” colorful, infectiously cheerful demeanor, which itself stands in humorous contrast to the conflict at hand. “Riot” earns its asking price with a lengthy and increasingly challenging single-player component, but it’s the eight-player online (or four-player offline) multiplayer that really drives home how chaotic and silly things can get. The feel-good presentation and pick-up-and-play nature immediately make this one of the better fast-action party games in Xbox Live Arcade’s library.

DVD 6/23/09 [shortened column]: Dragon Hunters, Guns, Table for Three, The IT Crowd S2

Dragon Hunters (PG, 2008, Peace Arch)
The mightiest of warriors are no match for a stubborn child. And few children are so cheerfully, unflappably hardheaded as Zoe, who is convinced beyond reason that the small-time dragon hunters she’s stumbled upon not only are fairy tale-level heroes (they’re not), but sent to help her uncle Lord Arnold rid the land of a terrible evil. (They probably can’t.) In outline form, “Dragon Hunters” — which originated as a French television cartoon before its transformation into a computer-animated feature film — sounds like any other story about unlikely heroes. In practice, it sort of is that. But to dismiss it simply as just another animated adventure is to sell sort just how inventive its ingredients are, be it the entirely non-medieval floating landmass set pieces or some completely out-there creature designs. That’s especially true of our main foursome, each of whom begin as comfortable archetypes before blossoming into completely distinctive characters most animated films would kill to be able to create. “Hunters” is drenched with loving detail, both in its script as well as its visual presentation, and while its present low profile is unfortunate, the right word of mouth could turn this into one of this summer’s most pleasant sleeper surprises. Forest Whitaker, Marie Drion, Vincent Lindon and Patrick Timsit, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Whitaker interview, character bios, art galleries.

Guns (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
The long length (exactly three hours), large ensemble cast and umbrella of a name would suggest “Guns” is a hodgepodge of stories loosely connected by a single theme, and the initial batch of scenes merely lends credence to that assumption. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because these bits of story — an arms dealer (Colm Feore) no authority can touch with a not-quite heir (Gregory Smith) he doesn’t quite trust, a recently-released convict (Clé Bennett) bent on returning to old ways in spite of his cousin’s (K.C. Collins) desire to go legit, a shooting in a crowd that puts a child’s life in danger — are familiar but compelling in their presentation here. The writing is good, the characters are solid, and “Guns” generally does all the right things despite doing nothing particularly groundbreaking. But things become that much more interesting when it becomes apparent (a) these stories have more in common than a theme and (b) none of them seem destined to end neatly. Like “The Wire” or “Traffic,” “Guns” tells a single story, but also recognizes that if the story is good enough, it can move more than just a handful of people a handful of ways. The wealth of characters and scenarios work in nice tandem with the main plotline’s connecting thread, and while “Guns” still breaks no real ground during that three-hour runtime, the time flies anyway. Lyriq Bent, Shawn Doyle and Elisha Cuthbert also star. No extras.

Table for Three (R, 2008, Anchor Bay)
So Brandon Routh didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Superman. Between “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and now “Table for Three,” comedy might be more his thing anyway. “Three” stars Routh as recently-single Scott Teller, and it kicks off slightly in the middle of the story, with a slightly intoxicated Scott warning two random strangers about the perils of letting a couple (Sophia Bush and Jesse Bradford) become your second and third roommates. (As if that isn’t a very obviously terrible idea.) As could be gleaned from both the setup and Scott’s implied present condition, the plan doesn’t go off as originally devised, and you probably can think of a number of predictable scenarios that occur between the time “Three” flashes back to the beginning of the story and when it returns to the bar. In some cases, your guesses will be dead on. But “Three” dabbles in a blend of humor that’s mostly dry, occasionally silly but also effortlessly dark without resorting to ugliness or mean-spirited one-upmanship. That, in turn, makes it pretty genuinely funny even at its most predictable and familiar. Major credit for that accomplishment goes to Bush and Bradford, who create a ridiculous monster of a couple that, while an absurdly extreme case, likely will remind everyone of somebody they know. But credit also goes to Routh, whose dry delivery gives him some great material as both a sympathetic protagonist and the hopelessly overmatched (but completely self-aware) foil. Jennifer Morrison and Johnny Galecki also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The IT Crowd: The Complete Second Season (NR. 2007, MPI Home Video)
No one who watched the first season should be surprised by now, but it bears repeating just how weird “The IT Crowd” — which combines present-day humor about tech support and all it entails with a brand of broad, laugh track-happy comedy that’s more commonly found in museums than on television today — is. Somehow, it worked the first time around. This time around, it works even better. The humor focuses on the three main characters (Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson as the IT department) and their supporting cast (particularly the perfectly-cast Matt Berry as their new boss) more than it panders to the tech crowd, but never so much that it becomes just another sitcom about dysfunctional people earning a paycheck. The storylines, no longer hampered by a need to familiarize us with everything, are more bizarre, and the humor on the whole is sharper and more self-assured. The only major criticism is the same major criticism that exists of every great British sitcom: At six episodes per season, it’s over entirely too soon.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, outtakes and recording sessions. Also, continuing the tradition established by the first season’s DVD, the menus (this time lampooning early-1990s video games) are practically a must-see in their own right.

Games 6/16/09: Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PS3/360), Fuel, Gunstar Heroes, Sega Vintage Collection 2

Ghostbusters: The Video Game
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Wii, PS2 and PSP
From: Terminal Reality/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild language)

It’s rare, perhaps unprecedented, to praise a video game for its incorporation of imprecise controls.

But there’s nothing graceful about the way a Ghostbuster wields a proton stream when it’s at full blast and the ghost on the other end of the line is doing everything in its power to make a bad thing worse. “Ghostbusters” gets a whole heaping lot of things right, but the way it so perfectly captures this struggle — as well as the gratification of winning that struggle — reigns supreme as its best asset. It’s a magnificent movie-to-game translation.

Terminal Reality keeps that sensation fresh throughout the game by finding reliable and clever ways to diversify the gameplay. You’ll fight more than ghosts, and as the story explains, you’ll also receive proton pack modifications that can do things your default stream cannot. The new tricks (which are better enjoyed if not spoiled here) spice up your attack plan with some variety, but they also allow for some surprisingly fun, physics-based puzzle solving during the game’s second half.

The puzzles and freeform ghost-trapping action underscore one of “Ghostbusters” finest points: It’s refreshingly hands-off. There is, for instance, no heads-up display to lead you around the levels. All the information you need is available on your proton pack, and you can pull up a wonderfully implemented first-person Paragoggles mode and inspect your PKE Meter at any time to further track down suspicious activity.

“Ghostbusters'” multiple difficulty levels will allow just about everyone to experience the entire script, which shines brilliantly under the immensely talented guidance of the original writers and cast. But the game poses a legitimately fierce challenge on the harder levels, and some stretches are as genuinely spooky as others are funny. It’s a remarkably adept use of the franchise, with classic “Ghostbusters” references and creative license teaming up to enrich both gameplay and story alike the entire way through.

Little buzz has been made of “Ghostbusters'” multiplayer (four players, online only) offerings, but that merely allows the game to continue its run of pleasant surprises. “Ghostbusters” doesn’t allow co-op play of the main storyline, but the six game types it does offer nicely thread the needle between cooperative and competitive play. You can work together to take down as many objectives as possible or compete for selfish personal glory (the game keeps a lifetime tab of your monetary earnings), and each of the game types has the potential to turn from cooperative to competitive and back depending on how players decide to conduct themselves. Sadly, no mode exists that allows players to be the ghosts.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (Coming June 30 for Windows PC)
From: Asobo Studio/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

“Fuel” has neither difficulty nor reservations about showing you some of the amazing things it can do. Codemasters boasts that the game is home to more than 8,600 square miles of open-ended terrain on which to race motorbikes, ATVs, cars, trucks and more, and once you realize (a) it takes 30 minutes to drive from the first camp to the second and (b) there are 17 other camps ahead, it’s hard to doubt the claim.

“Fuel’s” groundbreaking scope is all the more impressive because of how good it looks and moves. The various vehicles handle as they should, and the dynamic weather and day/night cycles combine with some pretty scenery to create some gorgeous odes to the great outdoors.

But Asobo Studio appears to have had considerably more trouble figuring out what, beyond the occasional jaw drop, “Fuel” is supposed to accomplish from there. The sheer enormity is impressive, but it also sheds some unflattering light on how little there is to do between hot spots on the map. Once the novelty wears off, driving for 20 minutes on near-empty roads to pick up an out-of-the-way collectable feels like a chore. “Fuel” smartly allows you to instantly access each camps’ events and challenges via a menu once you’ve discovered that camp, but completionists who want to see all the game has to offer will need some serious free time to do so.

Philosophies also clash during some, though not all, of “Fuel’s” races.

Winning races — and you have to win them, because finishing second awards you nothing in terms of currency or career progression — is a matter of clearing checkpoint gates in order. During “Fuel’s” better races, those checkpoints are spread far apart, leaving it up to you to navigate the terrain however you please so long as you hit each gate. But “Fuel” also is full of races in which the gates are crammed together, and it’s not particularly good at notifying you if you missed a gate or hit them out of order. This, along with the long length of the races and the fact that one mistake on the home stretch can leave you completely empty-handed instead of with some reward for your time, can make “Fuel’s” career progression a frustrating affair.

These issues would be enough to sink “Fuel” in the fall, which is loaded with top-shelf racing games that won’t make these kind of mistakes. But fall is a few months away, “Fuel” has most of the summer to itself, and the game’s unique shortcomings don’t completely overtake the things it does with respect to the vehicles, the controls and some really impressive tech. If you’re starved for some solid racing action and a gimmick you’ve never seen before, this will do.


Gunstar Heroes, Altered Beast, Comix Zone, Phantasy Star II, Shinobi, Sonic the Hedgehog 3
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade (Gunstar Heroes also available for Playstation 3 via Playstation Network)
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone-Everyone 10+
Price: $5 each

At first glance, it looks like quite a haul for Xbox Live — six classic Sega games, all benefiting from good emulations of their original arcade or Sega Genesis forms. Thing is, five of them are already available on both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 as part of the disc-based “Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection,” which is a supremely better value with 44 additional games and a $30 price tag. That leaves “Gunstar Heroes,” which makes its debut on both platforms and, quite frankly, might be better than all 49 of the games that preceded it on “Collection.” The game, which plays like a “Mega Man” game but operates with the kind of frantic energy reserved for the likes of “Radiant Silvergun” and “Ikaruga,” has aged magnificently since its original 1993 inception, and the emulation doesn’t slow it down any. Spending $30 to acquire all six games makes no financial sense unless your 360’s disc drive no longer works, but “Heroes” is an absolute steal on its own at $5.

DVD 6/16/09: Morning Light, Elsewhere, Dough Boys, Best of Snoop Dogg's Father Hood, Nobel Son, Transformers S1 25th Anniversary, Friday the 13th Deluxe Eds.

Morning Light (PG, 2008, Disney)
The back of “Morning Light’s” box claims that the Transpac Yacht Race is the “most revered sailing competition on Earth.” You can debate that at your leisure, but it’s hard to doubt that any 2,225-mile race across the Pacific Ocean doesn’t at least belong in the conversation. “Light” follows 15 rookie sailors as they put their lives on hold to not only compete for one of 11 spots on the Morning Light, but also compete in the Transpac not too long after. The film follows standard documentary procedure — meet the competitors, watch them relay their experiences as they compete as individuals before teaming up as one, blah blah blah — but the impressive scope of the endeavor alone makes “Light” a more engrossing experience than its outline would suggest. Sorting out so many faces in the space of 98 brief minutes isn’t easy no matter how conventionally the task is handled. But “Light” also conveys the sheer mental and physical exhaustion that comes from 11 inexperienced sailors democratically navigating through dangerous waters with no safety net and with precious little downtime. Sailing as a grueling endurance sport might sound ridiculous on paper, but seeing most definitely is believing.
Extras: “Stories from the Sea” feature, ESPN “Making the Cut” feature.

Elsewhere (R, 2009, E1 Entertainment)
Jillian (Tania Raymonde) recently dumped her boyfriend (Paul Wesley) in lieu of pursuing the simple thrills that come from meeting random guys on the Internet, and when comparatively safe-living best friend Sarah (Anna Kendrick) gets a weird text message from her the night after a party, it not entirely clear whether it’s due to Jillian’s reckless ways or a pattern of disappearances that has developed in a town that seems not to care too deeply. It all sounds painfully academic, but “Elsewhere” injects new energy into old ideas with well-written characters, a strong attention to mood and a heavy but never excessive use of technology that hasn’t existed long enough to be tired. In fact, “Elsewhere” would have benefited from exploiting these things further instead of losing its nerve and settling on such old favorites as a dark cornfield and a car that won’t start. The cliché invasion occurs around roughly the same time it becomes clear the story isn’t as carefully constructed as it originally appeared to be, and those who demand narrative satisfaction from their creepy movies likely won’t be too thrilled when “Elsewhere’s” questions finally get their answers. There’s enough goodwill built up in the first half to counter the sloppy comedown, but that doesn’t mean the lost potential isn’t disappointing. Jon Gries, Olivia Dawn York and Chuck Carter also star.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Dough Boys (NR, 2009, BET/Paramount)
“Dough Boys” tells its story from the viewpoint of Corey (Arlen Escarpeta), a might-be-reformed small-time hustler who has dreams of going completely legit and settling down with his girlfriend (Kerisse Hutchinson). As often happens, though, the lure of one last big hit — made stronger by a little peer pressure from his friends (Gabriel Casseus, Cory Hardrict, Lorenzo Eduardo) — lands him in over his head at the worst time imaginable, and now it’s a case of digging back out before any number of bad things happen first. It’s also around this time that “Boys” briskly changes its tune from character study to a parade of calamities, taking some thoughtful (if tired) subject matter and reducing it to popcorn-level dramatic entertainment. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you don’t mind taking it for what it is. Just don’t be surprised if “Boys” fights you the whole way: Its well-developed main characters make the film’s slide to absurdity easy to bear, but it’s a slide all the same. Some late-breaking melodramatic fumbling sends the film careening toward an ending that is arguably bananas, leaving “Boys” with a final impression that sits in stark (and very arguably unfortunate) contrast to its first impression. Wood Harris and Sticky Fingaz also star. No extras.

Best of Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
If you’ve seen one celebrity-fronted reality show on VH1 or E!, you’ve at least partially seen them all, and “Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood” won’t exactly be sore in the morning from breaking through any genre molds. “SDFH” follows Snoop, his wife and his kids (both biological and ceremonial) as they do various things people do. And that’s pretty much it. As usual, these everyday exploits are adjusted to accommodate the level of fame involved, because not every dad can employ David Beckham to help him explain his surprising passion for soccer to his kids. But that little bit of unmistakable non-reality does speak to the show’s best asset. Snoop has long claimed to be a regular guy who long ago put his family first and his career a distant second, and unless the wife and kids are really, really faking it here, he backs it up here. He and the family also have a genuinely likable quality that, with all undue respect to the likes of Baios, Hogans and Bonaduces, makes “SDFH” pretty likable in spite of its similarities in the contrivance department.
Contents: Eight episodes, dictionary quiz, cars tour.

Nobel Son (R, 2007, Fox)
Professor Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) hasn’t exactly taken saintly roads en route to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. There are the students he beds and subsequently tosses out. There’s his son (Bryan Greenberg), who visibly resents Dad for trampling his passions and betting on his imminent failure. Mom (Mary Steenburgen), meanwhile, is stuck in the middle, and none of this is to say anything of the trouble Michaelson left in his wake en route to immortality. “Nobel Son’s” very first scene cloudily depicts the graphic removal of a thumb, so smart money says Eli has some bad times ahead of him. Shame we have to endure a few of our own in order to see what those moments are. “Son” certainly does a nice job, at least on paper, of establishing an intriguing group of characters, thrusting them into a good mystery, and rather significantly twisting that mystery around. But the massively over-the-top execution — which continually assaults poor viewers’ ears with terrible dialogue, unwatchable meltdowns and frightfully excessive use of car chase-level mood music throughout practically the entire film — is a killer. By the time “Son” steers down the home stretch, its welcome has badly expired, and with just about every character attaining comparable heights of unpleasantness, it’s hard to care who emerges on which side of the story. Bill Pullman, Shawn Hatosy, Eliza Dushku and Danny DeVito also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “The Transformers: The Complete First Season: 25th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1984, Shout Factory): Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” movie tried its darndest to trample the memory of the cartoon that made it possible, but now, as a second film draws near, the cartoon is fighting back. Includes 16 episodes, plus a retrospective, a rare Bumblebee PSA, old commercials of the original Hasbro toys and DVD-ROM content.
— More “Friday the 13th” deluxe editions (R, 1984-86, Paramount): “Part V,” “Part VI” and “The Final Chapter” all receive the deluxe edition treatment, which includes lenticular packaging and extras ranging from commentary to behind-the-scenes features. “The Final Chapter” also includes a fan commentary.

Games 6/9/09: Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings (Wii), Damnation, Trash Panic

Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Other versions available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo DS and PSP
From: LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

“Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings” is, when its ideas are working, a crazy good time that deftly embodies the spirit of the films.

That’s a good thing, too, because when its ideas aren’t working, “Kings” is a mess teetering on collapse.

Structurally, “Kings” is attention-deficit gaming at its finest. A brief adventure sequence, which finds you swinging between and sidling along ledges, is followed by a brief brawling sequence in which you use the Wii remote to throw down with a handful of indistinctive goons. A 30-second quick-time event might follow that before the game whisks you into a brief cover-based shooting level (hold the Wii remote like a pistol), a jaunt on a plane (steer it like a flight stick) or some other means of navigation through some other set piece.

More than not, the ideas come together satisfactorily, if not necessarily spectacularly. The fighting controls are sloppy due to the Wii’s inability to always differentiate jabs from hooks, but the degree to which the game lets you use foreign objects (either as weapons or as an environmental tool for Hollywood-perfect finishers) makes these sequences a whole lot more fun than their technical deficiencies would suggest. The vehicular missions are enjoyably arcade-like in their simplicity, and once you realize the shooting bits are more like cause-and-effect puzzles than traditional shootouts, they mark a nice diversion from the rest of the action.

But “Kings” never stands more than three steps away from some miniature breakdown or another. The motion controls work, but not always, and the whip-cracking motions aren’t as responsive as they should be. The shooting cursor occasionally falls prone to jerkiness, and every now and then — be it during an adventure sequence or a quick-time event — stuff simply doesn’t respond like the onscreen example suggests it should.

A puzzling checkpoint layout, easily “Kings'” worst issue, occasionally turns these small problems into big ones. A slip can cost you five or 10 minutes’ worth of effort, and sometimes, you’ll have to watch an unskippable cut-scene multiple times before you pass a checkpoint that finally leaves it behind. The first post-tutorial shooting sequence is particularly maddening: You might require two or three attempts before you realize how these sequences truly operate, and if you die figuring it out, you have to start the entire (long) tutorial over.

That “Kings” is fun in spite of these slips is a testament to its willingness to try so much and mostly succeed. Still, those with options might wish to inquire about the Playstation 2 version instead. A review copy wasn’t available for testing, but if it’s the same game with foolproof button controls (and a $20 price difference), it likely is the way to go.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Omega/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, language, violence)

If handled competently, “Damnation” — which combines third-person shooting, “Tomb Raider”-style platforming, steam-powered weaponry and an alternate-reality 19th Century United States — should be able to coast by as a fun action game built atop a great premise.

But trouble slips through the front door almost as quickly as “Damnation” can open it, and it doesn’t take very long before it’s clear even basic competency lies well beyond this game’s reach.

It’s not all terrible. In fact, if “Damnation” had found some way to exist purely as an evasive platforming game, it might have been all right. As rebel leader Hamilton Rourke, you can rather acrobatically leap between ledges, backflip up the side of a building, ride zip lines and generally take roads untraveled by your less athletic adversaries. “Damnation’s” control scheme is more complicated than it needs to be with regard to pulling these moves off, but it’s something you can get used to fairly easily, and Hamilton is satisfyingly agile despite his slow speed on the ground.

Problem is, “Damnation” is a shooter first and a platformer second, and it’s a disastrously bad shooter at that. The various guns, in addition to feeling underpowered, also suffer from unwieldy aiming controls that constantly leave you vulnerable to enemy fire before you can properly fire back.

Sometimes, for no reason beyond buggy code, an enemy doesn’t even notice if you line up a perfect shot and shoot him point blank. Other times, he might mysteriously jump a few feet to the side. In both cases, you simply will have to take another shot and hope the game understands what you’re trying to do. “Damnation” is, unfortunately, full of strange and unintentionally instances of bugs completely undermining your progress.

Things aren’t helped any by Blue Omega’s staggering attempt to replicate the cover systems found in the likes of “Uncharted” and “Gears of War.” You can press a button to take cover, but there’s no way to quickly pop out of cover and take a shot, as has been customary since “Gears” popularized this genre three years ago. Instead, you have to manually stand up, then align your shot, then hope your shot actually registers before your enemies fatally pepper you. More likely, you’ll avoid the cover mechanic altogether in favor of shooting and fleeing.

Little can be done to redeem a shooter with such issues in the shooting department, and nothing about “Damnation’s” other particulars — unremarkable story, uninspired level designs that run too long, a framerate prone to stutters, sorely dated graphics and animation — is up to the task. Codemasters has shipped a game that feels decisively unfinished in far too many respects for it not to notice, and its insistence on selling it at all in this state, to say nothing of asking $60 for it, is pretty unreasonable.


Trash Panic
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: SCE Japan Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Imagine a real-world implementation of “Tetris” and replace the shapes with pieces of trash, and you have a basic understanding of what “Trash Panic” is all about. The objective, as with “Tetris,” is to keep the mass of falling pieces from reaching the top. But doing so here involves not only arranging falling trash (everything from light bulbs to staplers to televisions to a giant safe) in as neat a fashion as possible, but using each object’s real-world properties to your advantage. Heavy objects crush less durable trash, while dropping a lighter near some toilet paper might set the whole pile ablaze and clear out tons of room. “Panic” throws a few additional objectives into the mix, and between the penalty for failing those and the general randomness of the order in which different pieces of trash arrive, it’s considerably (and sometimes unfairly) more difficult than appearances first suggest. Still, the premise is novel, the execution is sound, the graphics and sound are viciously charming, and the $5 asking price is more than right. All that’s missing is online play. Between two-player local multiplayer and three varieties of solo play, “Panic” has the other bases covered.

DVD 6/9/09: Gran Tornio, Ibid, Sisterhood, The Cleaner S1, Spinning into Butter, Baby on Board, Reaper S2, Woodstock DC

Gran Tornio (R, 2008, Warner Bros.)
Few actors do indignation quite like Clint Eastwood, and his turn as grumpy widower Walt Kowalski — whose distrust of all things non-white is on full display with the increased diversification of his neighborhood — is as good as any he’s ever taken. About the only thing the man seems to live for anymore is the film’s eponymous automobile, which he keeps pristinely under wraps in his garage, and it’s only when that situation faces unwanted change that Walt himself might have to do the same. There’s really only one way “Gran Torino” can go, and it’s pretty clear, once two of Walt’s neighbors (Bee Vang as Thao, Ahney Her as Sue) emerge as self-standing (and instantly engaging) characters, which general direction that is. But “Torino” is predictable only in the most abstract sense, and the constant threat of redemption serves more as source of comfort than a pending spoiler. It’s from the thoughtful details — of not only Walt’s life, but those of Thao, Sue and all their worlds entail — where “Torino’s” story really is told. Nothing Walt does feels terribly unforeseen when it happens, but that’s merely a testament to how skillful the film is in the brick-by-brick construction of its characters. Every word and tick, and every reaction and retaliation those words and ticks inspire, feels deliberate and handled with care, and each compounds all that preceded it to create a film that is, all the way to the credits, more satisfying with every passing minute.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.

Ibid (NR, 2008, IndiePix)
Some movies completely telegraph their intentions well before the halfway mark has even arrived. Others demand a more careful viewing. And then there are the films that, even if you devour every frame with your undivided attention, may nonetheless demand a second viewing before it all makes sense. And then, beyond all that and deep inside a forest few filmmakers or filmgoers dare tread, lies “Ibid,” which finds two mental patients (Christian Campbell as Lionel, Russell Friedenberg as Tin) busting out of their ward in hopes of both giving dramatic life to a script Lionel has written and getting to the bottom of the rather harrowing journey that is their own two lives. There’s a hostage (Heather Rae), some other mental patients on the prowl, the possible appearance of God himself, and a pursuit force that follows the script better than Lionel and Tin themselves do. Say what? Exactly. “Ibid” is a crazed, shameless, fearless mess of humanity, existentialism, demon slaying and narrative and stylistic non-sequiturs run absolutely wild. Arguably — very, very arguably — it also makes complete sense. “Ibid” completely blurs the lines between the script, the script within the script, and the separate principles of fact and fiction within the world. At no point does it explain these lines, either. That’s left up to you, the viewer, to mold and interpret your own way — a ridiculous proposition for 95 percent of us and a completely tantalizing cerebral dare for all who remain.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Sisterhood (NR, 2008, Cinevolve)
Catherine’s (Isabelle Defaut) mom and Shirley’s (Emily Corcoran) mom are both, within minutes of “Sisterhood’s” arrival, fatally electrocuted by separate but equally faulty vacuum cleaners. And while Catherine and Shirley don’t realize it or even know each other, this not-quite coincidence isn’t where their ties end. (Consider the title a clue.) Like just about any other movie you’ve ever seen about long-lost siblings, “Sisterhood” has some wacky ideas about what happens when a cultured, big-city sibling is forced to contend with a sister who can’t even walk in heels without risking a fractured tibia. “Sisterhood” also is fearlessly British in the “Benny Hill” vein, substituting ear-ratting screams and muscle-tearing mugs where most comedies would settle for grimaces and heads in hands. On its own and with nothing else to keep it going, that would probably prove a bit painful. But the dead moms and faulty vacs are merely the tip of a darkly comic iceberg that, in addition to giving the girls the extra dimension they need, rolls out the carpet for a show-stealing third character (Nicholas Ball as the girls’ father) who gives the film itself the extra dimension it needs. The mix of broad and dark comedy works strangely well in spite of “Sisterhood” never even trying to gel the two, and that’s all the film needs to sidestep the usual odd couple trappings and emerge rather magnificently as its own creation.
Extras: Interviews, six behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

The Cleaner: The First Season (NR, 2008, CBS/Paramount)
Sometimes it’s worse when a show comes close instead of misses entirely. And “The Cleaner” comes close on so many levels. The premise — recovering drug addict William Banks (Benjamin Bratt) uses his experience and the literal help of God himself to save other would-be addicts from themselves in conventional ways — is pretty cool. The cases are fairly compelling, as are resolutions. But “The Cleaner” can neither leave well enough alone nor build on it from the inside out. William’s a moderately interesting character, but rarely more than that. His cast mates (Grace Park, Kevin Michael Richardson, Esteban Powell, Amy Price-Francis, Brett DelBuono, Liliana Mumy) generally fare worse as forgettable archetypes too often forced to spout attitudinal but completely empty drivel when it’s their turn to speak. “The Cleaner” wastes too much energy building an edge that obscures rather than alludes to the story it’s trying to tell at the same time. All that posturing doesn’t completely undermine those situations and the premise at large, but it most definitely keeps the show from being all it could have been.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, bloopers, music excerpts.

Spinning into Butter (R, 2007, Screen Media Films)
Spirited debate and beautiful scenery are two of a long list of things that shouldn’t inspire feelings of depression. But there’s just something unintentionally funereal about “Spinning Into Butter,” which takes us to the campus of a prestigious and picturesque Vermont college that finds itself making news after a student (Paul James) receives a handful of anonymous racial threats. “Butter” unspools itself largely from the perspective of the college’s second-year dean (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose own brush with racial tension led her to Vermont from Chicago in the first place. Parker herself helps orchestrate some gutsy exchanges with her students, colleagues and especially a reporter (Mykelti Williamson) who has a past of his own. But even when the debate reaches its highest volume, there’s some serious drab in “Butter’s” air. The characters emit a downtrodden aura that runs counter to those fiery exchanges, and there’s an irreconcilable but heavily implied air of hopelessness that seems to envelope the entire campus. All this unspoken glumness gives “Butter” a dated “Movie of the Week” quality it neither wants nor necessarily deserves, and the unfortunate trajectory the story takes in the final act just knocks that notion home. Mykelti Williamson, Beau Bridges and Miranda Richardson also star. No extras.

Baby on Board (R, 2009, National Entertainment Media)
In comedy as in life, it is not advisable to be caught out in the open with your pants down. But that’s where “Baby on Board” finds itself — stranded in a clumsy middle between cute comedy, gross-out comedy, black comedy and a sad attempt at something heartwarming. “Board’s” premise isn’t rocketry: Angela (Heather Graham) and Curtis (Jerry O’Connell) are married and on the precipice of starting a family when a series of misunderstandings separately leads each to believe the other is cheating on them. Their best friends (John Corbett and Katie Finneran) find themselves in the same predicament, and the stage is set for one of those completely unbelievable farces that either darkly or goofily plays on all that disbelief. But “Board” tries instead to be cute and ugly at the same time, and in the resulting self-confusion, it weakly picks scraps from both sides. From that emerges a foursome of unlikable characters — something of an achievement given how likable Graham is by default — that might play if “Board” had the gumption to send the story spiraling down a black-comedy stairwell. But it doesn’t, instead grasping for cutesiness that misfires completely and a resolution that lacks any kind of satisfaction given how little sense these misunderstandings make in the first place. Pity the poor child that would have to grow up in either of these families.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, photo gallery.

Worth a mention
— “Reaper: Season Two” (NR, 2009, Lions Gate): The good news is that there even is a second season of one of the sharpest comedies not nearly enough people are watching. The even better news is that it’s better than the first. The not-so-good news? This might be the last we see of Sam (Bret Harrison), Sock (Tyler Labine) and television’s best-dressed demon (Ray Wise). Includes 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, bloopers and a making-of feature.
— “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music: Director’s Cut” (R, 1970, Warner Bros.): Every five years seems like an excuse to trot out some Woodstock anniversary material, and 2009 officially is no different. Available in a two-disc edition and, for Amazon shoppers, an exclusive four-disc collector’s edition with cooler packaging. Extras include hours of bonus performance and interview footage.

Games 6/2/09: inFamous, Boom Blox Bash Party, Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures E1: Fright of the Bumblebees

For: Playstation 3
From: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Yes, this looks like new territory for Sucker Punch Productions, which previously dabbled in the considerably cuddlier worlds of cartoon raccoons and unicycling robots.

But while “inFamous” takes place in a considerably darker arena — a recently-terrorized Empire City, starring you as Cole, a messenger who inadvertently delivers the bomb that kills thousands but gives him electromagnetic superpowers — the philosophy behind the game’s design has the same old fingerprints all over it. Every facet of “inFamous” — the powers, what you can do with them, the city and the playground it lays at your feet — is designed with an overt willingness to treat players first and challenge them second. And at this, it succeeds rather magnificently.

Following a few mandatory missions that set the table, “inFamous” settles in as a traditional open-world game. Main and side missions are marked around the city, and while you’re free to explore Empire City’s Neon District at your leisure, you’ll want to hit those mission points to push the story forward and unlock the rest of the map.

Naturally, it’s those aforementioned powers that make “inFamous” more than just another open-world affair. By default, Cole can toss bolts of electricity with his hands, send cars and people flying with a shockwave, climb just about anything in Empire City and take a dive off of the tallest building in the skyline without incurring so much as a scratch. Completing missions and taking down enemies nets you experience points, which go toward upgrading and purchasing new powers, including new forms of electrical firepower and the ability to glide through the air and grind power lines like a skateboarder rides a rail.

The powers are as fun to mix and match as they should be, and every facet of the game’s design, from the architecture to the nature of the missions, caters to that sense of adventure. Everything controls perfectly, and Cole has a weird but reasonable means of gravitating onto objects in such a way that makes it easy to fluidly bounce from piece to piece. “inFamous” occasionally misreads your acrobatic intentions, but it works perfectly 95 percent of the time. The third-person shooting and hand-to-hand combat controls are similarly on point, and a generous checkpoint system provides backup for the few times the game lets you down.

As a surprisingly rich superhero story that’s based on no preexisting fiction, “inFamous” also lets you dictate whether those powers are used for good or evil. The karma system that sorts it out is pretty binary, but your moral compass determines which additional powers (good or evil) you can access and upgrade. Sucker Punch clearly wants players to experience “inFamous” twice, and given how fun the core game is and how diverse the separate moral paths are, a second trip comes wholeheartedly recommended.


Boom Blox Bash Party
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

The visual tornado that erupts within “Boom Blox Bash Party’s” haphazard box cover art probably isn’t intended as ironic commentary. But that’s precisely what it is anyway, because if there’s one thing “Party” has going for it that last year’s original “Boom Blox” did not, it’s a streamlined user interface that keeps the series’ onslaught of awesome ideas and features on point.

At its core, “Party” adheres to the same “Blox” principles as its predecessor. The goals sometimes vary slightly, as do the available methods of completing these goals. But the overwhelming general gist has you tossing a projectile at a structure of blocks in hopes of devastating the structure as quickly or in as few moves as possible.

Why the game worked last time — and works again this time — is simple: It embraces the joy of harmless but wanton destruction, and it does so proficiently and cleverly. “Blox’s” Wii remote controls pretty well nailed the sensation of lobbing a ball at a wall of destructible blocks, and “Party” tinkers the scheme to make it slightly more forgiving without sacrificing that sensation. “Party’s” 400-plus levels hit the same sweet spot between challenging to all and accessible to all, and the new environments (space, the deep sea), block styles and methods of destruction (a slingshot, a cannon) inject the game’s excellent devotion to real-world physics with some fantastical new equations and possibilities.

As the name implies, “Party” has designs as a multiplayer as well as a solo experience. It handles that admirably — which is no surprise, because the original “Blox” also tackled it rather well. Four-player competitive and co-op local multiplayer return, but the addition of two-on-two team play, which works exactly as one would expect it to work, is most welcome. Also welcome this time around: Most of the levels are open to play in multiplayer right out of the box. No unlocking necessary.

Where “Party” really surpasses its predecessor is in the level-sharing mode. “Blox” already allowed players to create their own levels and share them with friends, but the swapping process was clumsily hampered by the game’s dependency on the Wii’s equally clumsy WiiConnect24 technology.

This time around, “Party” handles all the business in-game via a central sharing plaza that allows you to download anybody’s submitted levels instead of simply those sent to you by friends. The game allows you to sort levels and filter them based on game style, making it easy to download an armful of new levels whenever the existing batch isn’t doing it for you.


Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, Episode 1: Fright of the Bumblebees
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Previously released on: PC
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $10

Telltale’s inspired mission to reinvigorate the point-and-click adventure genre has been far north of successful thus far, but is “Fright of the Bumblebees” trying to do too much by playing to a system that lacks any proper point-and-click device? Arguably, yes. “Bumblebees” uses the Xbox 360 controller’s left stick to move either Wallace or Gromit around, while the right stick (or RB button) handles the task of sifting through objects in the environment with which you can interact, take or use. It works, and suffices, but the scheme definitely lacks the more natural finesse of a mouse and keyboard-style setup. Fortunately, that’s the worst that can be said about the game, and a little practice with the controls is all that’s needed for “Bumblebees” to live up to its promise. The wit and visual style of Wallace and Gromit’s animated adventures make a nearly spotless translation despite all that a change of medium entails, and the same attention to smart puzzle design that made Telltale’s “Sam & Max” revival such a pleasant surprise is on display here. “Bumblebees'” puzzles are neither stupidly easy nor unreasonably arcane, and the cause-and-effect riddles prove a perfect fit for all those wacky contraptions Wallace has invented over the years.

DVD 6/2/09: Revolutionary Road, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Defiance, He's Just Not That Into You, Spring Breakdown, Warner Bros. Director's Showcase: Take Four, Eddie Murphy: Delirious: 25th Anniversary Ed., The Jetsons S2V1

Revolutionary Road (R, 2008, Paramount)
With respect to cinematic grandeur, “Revolutionary Road’s” title — which instantly calls to mind anything from a stuffy period piece to an emotionally suffocating film about war — doesn’t necessarily do the film any favors as the season of light summer viewing commences. That’s a bit of a pity, because while “Road” takes place in the 1950s, its premise — two one-time dreamers suddenly shaken awake by their creeping suburban existence and soulless pursuit of status quos — is nothing if not relevant in this age of lost jobs and human reinventions. “Road” does the premise justice by taking clichés we’ve seen countless times before (Leonard DiCaprio as the husband unhappily following his father’s career footsteps, Kate Winslet as the wife and mother who finds herself disillusioned with the limits of either vocation) and rounding them out in compelling ways unique to this particular story. More importantly, “Road” lacks any fear of getting dirty when a few wheels inevitably fall off — be it through the unfiltered mouths of the main and supporting characters (Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn) or through a final block of scenes that, unless you watch alone, will almost certainly spark some spirited conversation once the credits roll.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), behind-the-scenes feature.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (NR, 2008, New Video)
It’s not easy being a burgeoning supervillain in any context. But it’s especially tricky when — as is the case with Billy, aka Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) — you’re too shy to even talk to the cute girl (Felicia Day) at the Laundromat, much less assert yourself as a proper archnemesis to hunky Captain Hammer (Nathon Fillion). But that is Billy’s mission, and this is his live-action blog, which also happens to be a musical. “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is a funny and dense chunk of genius: The premise and role reversal are endearing, the songs are clever and catchy, and the cast is brilliantly capable of bringing a relentlessly smart script to life. But part of “Blog’s” charm also lies in its very existence, which itself is something of an odd phenomenon. At 42 minutes, it’s less than half as long as a feature film, but it also isn’t a pilot episode or the beginnings of a miniseries, nor is it even affiliated with anything beyond the production company that made it happen. “Blog” is completely its own thing, it’s not afraid to be that and nothing else, and as such, it feels free to come at you with 42 minutes of frantic writing, singing and superhero antics without having to pace itself or worry about overstaying its welcome. Should you want more than that, some equally inspired special features should more than suffice.
Extras: An amazing musical commentary track, cast/crew commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, 30-minute Evil League of Evil audition reel compilation.

Defiance (R, 2008, Paramount)
There is a loud, winding, emotional debate as to how truthful the story of the Bielski brothers is in the first place, to say nothing of how honest “Defiance” is or is not with regard to the story that may or may not be enhanced for legendary purposes. You are free to develop your own viewpoint at your leisure, and that viewpoint inevitably will play heavily on “Defiance’s” value as a dramatization of some seriously amazing (or not) history (or not). On its own merits — and taken purely at face value as a film about two bickering Jewish brothers (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) who cobble together a makeshift, gender-neutral resistance army in the woods during the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe — it’s a good film that benefits from crisp storytelling and workmanlike character development but consequently suffers from a persistent inability to convey the importance of the world that exists around it. The endeavor is impressive, and “Defiance” aptly illustrates both the logistics of such a grassroots achievement and the difficulties of managing so many individual personalities while keeping egos with opposing ideas in check. Did it happen as the film states it did? Did it happen like this at all? Do your own research and decide for yourself. “Defiance” works as a piece of entertainment, but there are numerous alternative media already in place that better close the book.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

He’s Just Not That Into You (PG-13, 2009, New Line)
Not all chick flicks are created equal. Some, including “He’s Just Not That Into You,” arguably don’t even deserve the tag at all. Yes, “HJNTIY” centers its collection of loosely-connected stories around the not-so-romantic adventures of one girl (Ginnifer Goodwin as Gigi) who overtly wants someone to love but can’t quite keep her foot out of her own mouth during some lively attempts to make it happen. But just as the book that inspired the film wasn’t afraid to tell women that sometimes the problem is them, so too does the movie, which manages to build Gigi into both a genuinely loveable lead and a potent object of amusing, face-palming ineptitude. “HJNTIY” is nothing if not democratic, splitting the blame between men and women alike and doing it through stories that share characters intelligently and alternate just as skillfully between authentic, cringe-worthy, sharply funny and (occasionally) inspiring and uplifting. You can laugh at it, laugh with it, or do a little of both. “HJNTIY” is as much a chick flick as “Lady and the Tramp” is a cocker spaniel flick, and its capacity to be enjoyed on two completely perpendicular levels makes it a much more entertaining movie than it probably had any right to be. Scarlett Johansson, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Justin Long and Kevin Connolly also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes (with commentary).

Spring Breakdown (R, 2008, Warner Bros.)
With a scandalized Vice President bounced from the White House and deranged but clean-living Sen. Kay Bee’ Hartmann (Jane Lynch) in the running to take his place, it has fallen on Hartmann’s youthful but lame aide Becky (Parker Posey) to secretly keep her daughter (Amber Tamblyn) out of trouble during spring break week. The assignment also doubles as a chance for Becky and friends Gayle (Amy Poehler) and Judi (Rachel Dratch) to experience the spring break they missed as nerds in college. All that and more contributes to a stupidly outlandish plot that lends hope that “Spring Breakdown” exists as a smart send-up of all those dumb spring break films that continue, somehow, to propagate. But once in South Padre Island, “Breakdown” completely spins its wheels, riding the same quirks and scenarios into what amounts to a prolonged excuse to allow Poehler and Dratch to do what they do best. Posey and Tamblyn’s characters quietly attain secondary status, and most of “Breakdown’s” funniest characters (Lynch, Missi Pyle, Seth Meyers and Will Arnett) either take a long break or (in the case of Arnett’s disappointingly brief appearance) disappear completely. It’s too much to call “Breakdown” a bad film: There are some truly funny moments, and it’s reasonably entertaining. But with the amount of talent on hand, that’s about the least it could do.
Extras: Dratch/director commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers.

Worth a Mention
— Director’s Showcase: Take Four (PG-13-R, 1970-95, Warner Bros.): Four films (“Zabriskie Point,” “Revolution Revisited,” “M Butterfly” and “Beyond Rangoon”) from four directors (Michelangelo Antonioni, Hugh Hudson, David Cronenberg and John Boorman, respectively) join one of Warner’s better clubs of catalog DVD releases. Each release sells separately, and there really isn’t anything in the DVDs’ packaging to tie them together beyond their initial marketing push. But any excuse to give special recognition to unsung films in the library is a good one.
— “Eddie Murphy: Delirious: 25th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1983, Entertainment Studios): The main program likely needs no introduction if you’re a fan of Murphy’s past life as a cutting-edge standup comedian, because this arguably is his most cherished performance of all time. Extras include new footage, a Murphy interview and a making-of feature.
— “The Jetsons: Season 2, Volume 1” (NR, 1985, Warner Bros.): In case you’ve been waiting three years for Warner to continue what it started in 2004, wait no longer. Hopefully, “Volume 2” will arrive sooner than 2012. Includes 21 episodes, plus a series retrospective.