Games 7/28/09: Treasure World, NCAA Football 10, Shatter

Treasure World
For: Nintendo DS
From: Aspyr Media
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s a shame it’s taken this long for a game to take the plunge and base itself completely around the Nintendo DS’ built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. But if we had to wait this long, at least it was for a game that isn’t afraid to run with the idea — to the point where it arguably isn’t even a game anymore.

The overriding goal in “Treasure World” is to collect enough fuel to help a fellow named Star Sweep refuel his ship and resume his galaxy-wide treasure hunt. To do this, you employ the Star Sweep’s trusty robot companion, Wish Finder, to find stars in the galaxy, clean them, and collect whatever fuel or treasure is hidden inside.

Translated, Wish Finder is your DS’ Wi-Fi finder, and the stars in the game’s galaxy are Wi-Fi hotspots in ours. Whenever the DS discovers a new hotspot, Wish Finder discovers a new star in the game.

Essentially, you play “World” by carrying the DS around with you and letting it discover stars by itself while you go about your day. “World” is one of those rare DS games that runs even when the lid is closed, so you conceivably can boot the game up, drop it on your bag and collect a mountain of stars for later perusal. Depending on the density of Wi-Fi signals in your area, “World” might nab hundreds of them within a few hours. Just mute the DS before you stash it, because the game dings loudly whenever it finds a star.

All those stars add up to treasures and fuel, which you can trade with Star Sweep for yet more treasure. A few stars also hold Web keys, which players can take to and, among other things, trade for items unavailable elsewhere.

That treasure, believe it or not, goes toward enhancing a music creation tool reminiscent of “Mario Paint” from the Super Nintendo days. Every treasure in “World” emits a musical sound when tapped with the stylus, and you can arrange them on a stretch of grass to create some surprisingly intricate and tuneful melodies, which can be shared with other players on

That, along with the oddly satisfying compulsion that comes with collecting so much stuff, would be all “World” would need if it didn’t so badly hamper the music creation tool’s versatility. Nice though the tunes can sound, they can’t exceed five seconds in length, which is a killer. The site also includes no means to export the songs, which would have transformed “World” into the world’s strangest ringtone creation device.

Such limited functionality makes “World” impossible to universally recommend. Connoisseurs of the truly weird and original will find more than enough of both to justify “World’s” $30 asking price, but those in search of a game that truly feels like a game will walk away perplexed and probably underwhelmed.


NCAA Football 10
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Playstation 2, PSP
From: EA Tiburon/EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

If you’re a fan of EA Sports’ college football juggernaut but haven’t yet introduced your console to the joys of the Internet, now probably is the time to fix that, because “NCAA Football 10’s” two most prominent new features require it.

“10” marks the return of the too-long-lost ability to create a custom-designed school for use in exhibition play as well in the game’s offline/online dynasty modes. But in a surprising move that’s bound to burn some, the tools for doing so are available on a Web site ( instead of inside the actual game.

The decision to go this route makes more sense than it doesn’t. The Web tool — and, particularly, the portion where you can edit every single player’s name and attributes —works exponentially more efficiently with a mouse and keyboard than it ever possibly could be with a controller. Being able to turn any image file into a truly personalized team logo with a few mouse clicks is a pretty nice touch as well.

Still, there’s no reason EA shouldn’t — in next year’s game, anyway — provide at least a bare-bones in-game tool for those who lack the means to take advantage of what turns out to be “10’s” best new feature.

But “10’s” other nifty addition, the metagame “Season Showdown,” couldn’t exist any other way. Once you enable “Showdown” by picking your favorite school to represent, “10” keeps a continual tally of your game-wide accomplishments, converts them to points, and combines your score with the scores of other players representing the same team. Schools facing each other during the real NCAA season also face off each week in “Showdown,” which plays (and presumably culminates) like a popular-vote version of the 2009 season.

Elsewhere, “10” is a whole lot like “NCAA 09,” albeit with the customary annual refinements. The new “Road to Glory” mode, hosted by ESPN’s Erin Andrews, essentially is last year’s “Campus Legend” mode with a better presentation. Other presentational touches include the return of marching bands — no small deal in a game such as this — and various stadium effects.

The biggest on-field beneficiary is the playcalling screen, which functions the same as ever but includes a few new tricks — chaining plays together to exploit defensive weaknesses, setting up overriding strategies beyond formation, defensive coverage adjustments with a flick of the right stick — that both add depth for studious players while allowing less experienced players to feel empowered without understanding all those formations.

Alas, the same can’t be said of the optional Family Play controls. Giving new players a simpler control scheme with which to get comfortable is a fine idea, but this scheme goes overboard and feels childishly simple even by the humble standards of EA’s football games from 15 years ago.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Sidhe Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $8

“Shatter” is the latest attempt to freshen up the “Breakout” formula of hitting a ball into a collective of bricks with a paddle. It also might be the first to truly pull it off, thanks to a number of ideas that give it more depth than its peers. The object is the same, and nothing about the paddle controls or angle the ball takes off the paddle should surprise “Breakout” veterans. But “Shatter” includes a mechanic that allows you to apply a gravitational push or pull to the paddle, which lets you bounce the ball without actually hitting it. The push/pull mechanic also affects anything else floating around the level, including broken brick fragments (which, when accumulated, add up to a special attack) and stray bricks that stun your paddle upon contact. It sounds like a gimmicky trick, but it essentially doubles the available plans of attack of any other “Breakout” game. “Shatter” further goes its own way with its willingness to mix horizontal, vertical and even radial levels. The audiovisual design, reminiscent of “Lumines” and “Wipeout,” gives way to some clever brick arrangements, up to and including boss fights against what essentially are living bricks. The only downside: Sidhe didn’t find a way to make “Breakout” multiplayer-friendly. Outside of leaderboards, “Shatter” is strictly a solo endeavor.

DVD 7/28/09: Bart Got a Room, Dollhouse: S1, Life on Mars S1, Fast & Furious, Streets of Blood, The Alzheimer's Project, This American Life S2, Madoff and the Scamming of America, The Spectacular Spider-Man S1, Comic Legends: Four Disc Collection

Bart Got a Room (PG-13, 2008, Anchor Bay)
A lifetime of looking at movie posters and DVD covers might lead you to believe that the Bart in “Bart Got a Room” is the pathetic-looking guy in the tux on the front of the DVD case. But no, that’s actually Danny (Steven Kaplan), the latest in a never-ending line of flustered, dateless teenagers who feel an unnatural compulsion to jump through all the hoops necessary to attend their senior prom. Because if the unseen kid known only as Bart can do it, then what’s Danny’s problem? Every theme “Room” touches on feels some degree of familiar, be it the platonic female friend (Alia Shawkat), the newly-separated and newly-dating parents (William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines), or the usual spate of improvised and ill-advised solutions to time-sensitive problems. But “Room” treads through this familiarity with unmistakable ease, toeing the line between awkwardly funny visual humor (not to be confused with cheap gags) and smartly hilarious (and uncommonly understated) writing to keep the visual gags from having to carry the familiar themes to completion. You can see the path some scenes (and perhaps the whole film) are going to take from miles away, but a thousand words are just as perceptible in any random look of horror on poor Danny’s face. With that kind of care going into so much of “Room’s” finer points, the clichés in the bigger picture are of no concern.
Extras: A pop-up production notebook visual track, which plays on top of the movie when enabled.

Dollhouse: Season One (NR, 2009, Fox)
The advantage of watching a new television show on DVD? You don’t have to wait six weeks to wait and see if it’s ever going to find its groove. “Dollhouse” initially coasts by on its concept: The Dollhouse is a top-secret service in which the rich and connected can employ a “doll” (Eliza Dushku) whose memory has been artificially rebuilt to give him or her whatever personality or expertise he or she needs to complete the assignment. But outside of a slightly intriguing story arc about an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) obsessed with outing the whole thing, the show seems content with a procedural format that finds the dolls inhabiting some well-written but disappointingly ordinary scenarios. But then the sixth episode happens, a barrage of awesome twists rather dramatically changes the landscape, and for whatever reason, “Dollhouse” takes a sharp turn into serial territory. The one-shot stories are still there, but they feel more distinctive to the show’s established characters and norms, and they share equal time with overriding story arcs that benefit significantly from those twists in episode six. One helps the other, and from there out, it’s like watching a completely different (and significantly better) show.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, the unaired pilot, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.

Life on Mars: Series 1 (NR, 2006, Acorn Media)
Suddenly finding yourself stripped of 33 years’ worth of human ingenuity is a jarring prospect for anyone, and that’s particularly true for detective Sam Tyler (John Simm), who wakes up as a cop in 1973 after a car barrels into him in 2006. It’s silly, but it works, because “Life on Mars” uses the concept to cash in on two separate levels. The cases contained within individual episodes achieve their own unique flavor not only due to how wildly different Sam’s ideas are from his comparatively technologically primitive colleagues (and, as it happens, bosses), but due also to how hardheaded both parties are in their strained attempts to work together. “Mars,” to its endless credit, eschews snappy dialogue and detached characters in favor of a cast of detectives (Sam included) who are jagged around the edges but awfully good at what they perceive the job to be. At the same time, the mystery of Sam’s bizarre reawaking looms. Is he nuts? Dreaming? Or is it all real? “Mars,” with its clever illustrations of Sam’s condition — or clever teases toward that end — makes it fun to find out. John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Noreen Kershaw and Tony Marshall also star.
Contents: Eight episodes (commentary on every episode), plus an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary, interviews, outtakes and two behind-the-scenes features.

Fast & Furious: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
It goes almost without saying that, more than any “The Fast & the Furious” sequel before it, this really didn’t need to get made. “Fast & Furious” ostensibly marks the series’ final lap, and like other sequels that refuse to title themselves like sequels (see “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo”), it marks something of a return to form. That, in this particular case, means the old cast (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster) is back after mostly disappearing in the second film and playing almost no role in the third. In terms of story, it also allows “Fast & Furious” to revisit a few ends left loose by the first film’s story. Problem is, that story wasn’t particularly interesting, nor were the stories that developed in the following two movies. So really, who cares? “Furious” comfortably trots out more of the same: There’s a story, it’s entirely stock and bland, and while it exists primarily to truck the film from one action scene to the next, it also steals far too much time from that action. Those action scenes, however, make for a good time per usual. If that’s enough — and the continued success of this franchise suggests it must be — then “Furious” shouldn’t let anyone down.
Extras: Director commentary, prequel short film “Los Bandoleros,” five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, digital copy.

Streets of Blood (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Six months after Hurricane Katrina touched down, New Orleans remains a dangerous, precarious place. In fact, if “Streets of Blood” is to be taken with anything heavier than a grain of salt, it’s quite possibly the most dangerous place in the history of the universe, with drug lords popping up like weeds in heat and dirty cops openly violating every imaginable human right, life included. To what end, it isn’t so clear. “Blood” begins with real news footage of Katrina’s destruction, sort of mumbles its way through a completely half-hearted segue to its present condition, and then just lets the blood and bullets rain down. Naturally, this being a movie with a finite lifespan, there are a couple of cops (Val Kilmer, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) who, apparently all by themselves, aim to make it all just a little bit right. But with opportunistic storytelling running wild, their good intentions feel like a complete waste of time. “Blood” paints New Orleans with insultingly cartoonish strokes, plugging every other scene with some excessively silly depiction of depravity (often for depravity’s sake). The cookie cutter case at the center of the film gets lost in the mess, and attempts to humanize Jackson’s and Kilmer’s characters are vastly undermined by Kilmer’s and Sharon Stone’s (as the police department’s resident psychologist) horrifying attempts at Cajun accents. When unintentional comedy is the only thing a post-Katrina drama has going for it, look out. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “The Alzheimer’s Project” (NR, 2009, HBO): No one does the epic documentary better than HBO, which proves it again with this four-part, eight-plus-hour, all-points exploration of Alzheimer’s disease. Extras include four additional hours of supplementary material and a 16-page program guide.
— “This American Life: Season Two” (NR, 2008, Showtime): One of premium cable’s most understated gems returns with six more episodes’ worth of extraordinary stories about ordinary people. Extras include commentary, an extended cut of one episode and a live presentation of the audio show on which this is based.
— “Madoff and the Scamming of America” (NR, 2009, History): The feel-good story of 2008 is now a feel-good, feature-length History Channel documentary. Need more cheer? No worries: Another documentary, “Crash: The Next Great Depression?,” is included as well.
— “The Spectacular Spider-Man: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2008, Sony Pictures): Spidey’s latest animated reboot marks a sharply entertaining return to form. In other words, no episodes about a mentally-addled Peter Parker cutting a rug, a la “Spider-Man 3.” Includes 13 episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Comic Legends: Four Disc Collection” (NR, 2009, MPI Media): You can’t really argue with the title. It really is a collection of legendary comedians — Dick Van Dyke, Phyllis Diller, Tim Conway, Redd Foxx and Groucho Mark — on four discs. Each gets a close-up in the form of standup appearances, interviews, sketch comedy and/or some song and dance.

Games 7/21: Wii Sports Resort, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, The Punisher: No Mercy

Wii Sports Resort
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Nintendo was perhaps more lucky than good with “Wii Sports,” a terrifically fun compilation of games that made the Wii remote look considerably more versatile than it actually was.

With “Wii Sports Resort” — and particularly, thanks to the Wii MotionPlus attachment that’s bundled inside — that illusion is now for real. The MotionPlus attachment allows the Wii remote to mimic real-time motion in ways the remote cannot do on its own, and “Resort” takes full advantage en route to establishing itself as a superior sequel.

Structurally, “Resort” feels a lot like the original “Sports.” Each of the 12 available sports (up from five) features a handful of modes built around the sport, and each mode offers a single-player mode with scalable difficulty, two- or four-player local multiplayer or (in most cases) both. Online play, once again, is a no-show.

The incremental differences are no surprise, because “Resort” exists primarily to make the MotionPlus’ introduction a smooth one.

That, happily, is where the game shines. Bowling returns almost structurally unchanged from “Sports,” but the added control flexibility makes it easier to add spin and pick up trickier spares. Tennis, now reborn as Table Tennis, also benefits immensely by giving you more control over not just the trajectory of your shot, but the angle with which you hold your paddle. (Golf, unfortunately, still suffers from the excessive sensitivity that hampered it in its original incarnation.)

The new events hit more than miss as well. The Frisbee events, which include Frolf and a Frisbee Dog contest, replicate the sensation of tossing a Frisbee shockingly well, taking into account both your toss and how you hold the disc while doing so. Archery, which employs the Nunchuck attachment, never quite feels realistic, but it nevertheless incorporates the motions and the science of archery to surprisingly good effect. Basketball’s Pickup Game mode is a bit weird — you can’t control your player’s on-court movements — but the 3-Point Contest is great because of how well the remote replicates the artistry of a perfect jump shot. Even the Canoeing event shines due to how responsive and flexible the paddling feels.

But it’s the Swordplay events, which allow you to wield a Nerf-style sword with remarkable freedom of motion, that headline this endeavor. The freedom is such that you can even turn the Wii remote around and bonk opposing swordfighters with the butt of your sword, and the range of events — from one-on-one battles to a surprisingly lengthy single-player adventure game in which you take down waves of enemies like a wannabe Jedi — allow you ample opportunity to take full advantage.

Doing so much right makes “Resort’s” lowlights entirely forgivable. Cycling and Power Cruising, in particular, feel gimmicky and unnatural to the point of unwieldy. The Air Sports (flying, skydiving) and Wakeboarding events fare better, but their simplicity positions them as occasional diversions rather than heavy rotation material.


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
For: Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and PC
From: Blue Sky/Eurocom/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Games based on kids movies absolutely love to bounce around between genres under the assumption that multiple jobs acceptably done makes up for an inability to do any one of them especially well. More often than not, the assumption doesn’t fly.

It takes longer than it should, but “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” emerges as an exception to the rule. Instead of diluting the experience democratically, “Dinosaurs” lives dangerously by getting its worst moments out of the way and rewarding anyone who remained faithful long enough to keep playing.

It isn’t easy. “Dinosaurs'” first level, starring players as Sid, feels like any old so-so 3D platforming level from any old so-so game. Sid controls sloppily, his hand-to-hand combat repertoire is pitifully bad, and his mission objectives never aspire beyond simple forward progress and item collection.

The second mission, which thrusts Sid into what essentially is a multiple-part chore simulator, fares even worse. It also ranks among the game’s longest levels, combining with the preceding level to create a most distressing first impression.

But it’s during mission three that “Dinosaurs” starts turning it around, embarking on the first of what amounts to an impressively high number of successful right turns. The mission, starring players as Diego and sending him on a high-speed chase to catch a gazelle, is as simple as it sounds and lasts barely two minutes long. But it’s fast, slightly exciting, and more fun in those two minutes than the preceding two missions combined.

Following another so-so Sid level — which, happily, is better conceived than the preceding two — “Dinosaurs” mixes it up again with a mission objective that sends Sid rolling down a mountain atop of giant snowball. The challenge amounts to a simplified but fun riff on “Super Monkey Ball,” and bumping into certain enemies like a high-speed sumo is a blast.

From there, “Dinosaurs” tries a little of everything — second-person-camera escapes from rampaging dinosaurs, 2D platforming levels starring Scrat, third-person projectile shooting, a ride on a pterodactyl that pays strikingly good homage to 2D sidescrolling space shooters that dominated arcades in the 1980s. Somehow, it all works. Even “Dinosaur’s” later 3D platforming levels, starring the much more capable Buck, are a considerable upgrade over what preceded it. It’s as if another developer took the reigns halfway through the game’s creation.

The sum total of “Dinosaurs” — a single-player story mode that runs five or six hours and a healthy collection of single-player challenge levels and multiplayer party games — would amount to ideal rental fodder were it made for older players. But the level of variety found inside — to say nothing of how well “Dinosaurs” pulls most of it off — makes this a surprisingly viable (and replayable) buy for younger fans of the movies. Outside of perhaps “Monsters vs. Aliens,” it’s the best of its breed so far this summer.


The Punisher: No Mercy
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: ZEN Studios
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $10

“The Punisher: No Mercy” comes to the Playstation 3 on the assumption that those who purchase it have no need for the mountain of advances first-person shooters have made in the last 10 years. It exists primarily as a multiplayer shooter (eight players), but the online play lags and the interface makes it trickier than need be to set up a game with friends. In terms of action, “Mercy” is similarly uninspired: The bounty of unlockable weapons and power-ups is nice, but the modes, maps and general look and feel of the action just feels old and excessively simple. It doesn’t help that you need to play through the single-player mode — essentially a collection of multiplayer matches with absolutely lobotomized A.I. bots charging at you instead of human opponents — to access most of that armory. The reliance on such ancient conventions and technology is slightly forgivable considering “Mercy’s” $10 price tag, but that leniency goes out the window when games like “Battlefield 1943,” which costs $5 more but feels exponentially more modern, release at the same time. In terms of which shooter deserves your dollars, it’s not even a contest.

DVD 7/21/09: Watchmen DC, Coraline, The Mighty Boosh S1-3, Explicit Ills, Dakota Skye, Echelon Conspiracy, Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II, G.I. Joe S1.1

Watchmen: Director’s Cut (R/NR, 2009, Warner Bros.)
If Batman’s badly-needed cinematic reboot put comic book films on a new kind of notice, “Watchmen” — which brings the cherished 1986 graphic novel both to the big screen into the mainstream — essentially raises the bar beyond reach. That’s in equal parts due to how well the film brings to life the anti-superheroes and villains (Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode) that comprise the cast, how faithful it is to the source material in doing so, and how perfectly it makes the alternate-history United States in which they exist practically a starring character in its own right. “Watchmen” checks in at a bloated 162 in theatrical form and 24 minutes heavier in Zack Snyder’s director’s cut. But outside of a few momentary lulls and the occasional narrative redundancy, it utilizes that time to pay meticulous tribute to the source material without drowning in the details. It also captures, unflinchingly, just how savagely violent the original comic was. Even if Marvel’s and D.C. Comics’ finest can approach “Watchmen” in terms of faithfulness and substance — to say nothing of how good the film looks — there likely is no way they’d have the fortitude to do so as brutally as it’s done here. In the saturated genre of superhero films, this one’s a one-of-kind almost by default. Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer and Stephen McHattie, among others, also star.
Extras: Feature on the “Watchmen” graphic novel, 11 video diaries, music video, digital copy.

Coraline: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (PG, 2009, Universal)
Coraline’s family has uprooted and moved into a gigantic but fairly barren old house in the middle of nowhere, and Coraline’s workaholic parents are too busy to liven up the place, much less make an effort to entertain their bored daughter. But everything changes when Coraline finds a secret door that leads to a wondrous, magical parallel dimension where her neighbors and parents drown her in equal parts affection, attention, top-shelf entertainment and first-rate home cooking. So what’s the catch? Because by the time “Coraline” arrives at this juncture, it goes completely without saying that there must be one. Yes, “Coraline” is a visual marvel — a stop-motion masterpiece that very obviously comes from some of the same brain trust behind the similarly stellar “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” But “Coraline” performs just as marvelously in the realm of the written word, injecting its characters and worlds with dark moods and dryly amusing cynicism that won’t ruin the story for younger viewers but continually rewards those who get it. The much-celebrated ability to watch the film in true 3D is pretty cool, and the included glasses really do work. But watching it this way also does a number on the film’s color palette, and it’s recommended only after seeing the visually superior 2D version first. Fortunately, both are available on the same disc.
Extras: Four pairs of 3D glasses, director/composer commentary, deleted scenes, making-of documentary, behind-the-scenes feature, digital copy.

The Mighty Boosh: Season 1 (NR, 2004, BBC)
The Mighty Boosh: Season 2 (NR, 2005, BBC)
The Mighty Boosh: Season 3 (NR, 2007, BBC)

Rare is the sitcom that can take you just about anywhere it feels like going in any given 27-minute span of an episode. But that’s exactly what “The Mighty Boosh,” which ostensibly is about two guys (Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding) who work at what likely is the world’s sorriest zoo, does. There are certain threads of consistency, insofar that the show centers around these two guys and, at least initially, takes place in some capacity at a location related to their amazingly bad zoo. Within those parameters, though, absolutely anything goes, up to and including the death (and, because it’s a comedy, return to life) of one of the main characters. Songs break out, dance often follows, time is traveled, dimensions are traversed. And yes, there are animals, who aren’t actual animals but people in hilariously fake animal costumes (and, occasionally, people playing people dressed as animals in even worse costumes). Some episodes hit more than others, and some gags just collapse outright, even over multiple episodes. But “Boosh’s” mesmerizing blend of dry wit, physical comedy and wondrous understanding of basement-budget hilarity works considerably more often than it doesn’t, and its insatiable appetite for trying absolutely anything and going absolutely anywhere makes every single episode, good or bad, an adventure of its own being.
“Season 1” contents: Eight episodes, plus commentary, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, a musical numbers compilation and an image gallery.
“Season 2” contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, the pilot episode, 10-minute short film “Sweet,” deleted scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, a musical numbers compilation and an image gallery.
“Season 3” contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features and a musical numbers compilation.

Explicit Ills (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
“Explicit Ills” is one of those movies that sounds entirely ordinary in pitch or summary form — driven not so much by a plot as it is a locale (North Philadelphia), a problem (poverty) and a handful of characters whose lives only vaguely intertwine. Even the stories, on their surface, feel a bit ordinary. There’s a drug-addled artist (Frankie Shaw) and her dealer (Lou Taylor Pucci), a mother (Rosario Dawson) who can’t cover for her child’s (scene stealer Francisco Burgos as Babo) healthcare needs. There’s the struggling actor (Paul Dano) slumming it at a kid’s birthday party. There’s middle school-aged boy (Martin Cepeda) who develops a crush on a girl (Destini Edwards) but doesn’t quite know how to garner her interest. As always with movies like these, it comes down to what the film does with all these ideas we’ve all seen before. “Ills” rather artfully rises to the occasion not only by giving the more serious stories the distinction and care they need to carry the film, but by taking those lesser stories and the stuff that happens between the lines and making it matter just as much. The endgame that ties it all together is a shaky and arguably out of left field, but “Ills” combines those little victories into bigger victories in such a way that the message relays itself without the ending’s help. Naomie Harris and Tariq Trotter also star.
Extra: Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign Outreach information.

Dakota Skye (R, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
As super powers go, soon-to-be high school graduate Dakota Skye’s special ability — being able to literally see the truth, like a subtitle, whenever people lie to her — rates pretty low on the excitement scale. It also has opened her eyes to just how prevalent an activity lying is, which in turn has reduced her to the world’s youngest and prettiest grumpy old man. But then one of her boyfriend’s (J.B. Ghuman) best friends (Ian Nelson) comes to town for a visit, and she discovers she either can’t see his lies or he simply isn’t telling any. And thus, an arch-nemesis is born. Sort of. From here, “Dakota Skye” gradually transforms from a slyly amusing picture of disillusionment to a reasonably entertaining story about things girls and guys go through when girls and guys meet. That’s all well and good, but when the focus goes from A to B, the film loses its edge, and the super power gimmick simultaneously gets watered down and left out to dry. Maybe that’s how it was supposed to happen, because “Skye” seems poised to use the trick as a means to a storytelling end rather than its centerpiece. But the safer approach makes for a more ordinary experience that, in tandem with an ending that’s far too neat to exist in this reality, resonates no more than if “Skye” went the other way and took its original gimmick as far as it could go.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, outtakes, making-of feature, cast interviews, bloopers.

Echelon Conspiracy (PG-13, 2009, Paramount)
Contemporary international espionage thrillers are slicker, prettier, more meticulous, and generally more careful than ever about tying up even slightly loose ends before barreling toward a climax. Sometimes, though — and absolutely in lieu of viewing “Echelon Conspiracy” — the obvious needs to be stated: They’re still just movies. “Conspiracy” gets off to a perfectly fine start, with a network security expert (Shane West as Max Peterson) receiving a mysterious cell phone gift, followed by a series of anonymous but extremely fortuitous text messages, during a work-related trip in Bangkok. Things get more interesting when, as expected and teased with another character in the film’s first scene, the messages begin inducing more danger than good luck, and “Conspiracy” peaks when we finally get a sniff of just how many parties are involved and what’s at stake. But things take a rough turn when that sniff turns into a full-on reveal. Without getting specific and spoiling anything, the tail that wags “Conspiracy” is inarguably fictional at best and laugh-it-out-of-the-room ridiculous at worst. For those who cannot suspend their disbelief and play along, it’s also more than enough to undo everything, from some serious visual polish to cool gadgetry to good character design to picturesque local overload, that “Conspiracy” has going for it. Edward Burns, Ving Rhames, Tamara Feldman, Martin Sheen and Sergey Gubanov also star. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II” (NR, 2008, Adult Swim): “Robot Chicken” is one of the best things ever to happen to Adult Swim, and “Robot Chicken: Star Wars” is, besides being perhaps the funniest “Star Wars” parody ever conceived, one of the best things ever to happen to “Robot Chicken.” “Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II” is every bit as funny as its predecessor, so do the math and consider this a recommendation of the highest order. The DVD includes both the 22-minute broadcast version and a 38-minute extended edition, as well as sketch-by-sketch video commentary, eight behind-the-scenes features, Skywalker Ranch premiere footage, video blogs, animatics and bonus audio.
— “G.I. Joe: Season 1.1” (NR, 1983-85, Shout Factory): Should the upcoming “G.I. Joe” movie complete the one-two childhood gut punch the “Transformers” movies started, this will be waiting for you when you’re ready for the healing to begin. This set includes the 15 episodes that comprised the three miniseries that preceded and kicked off the series’ first season, as well as the first seven episodes that followed. Extras include a collection of “Knowing is Half the Battle” PSAs and Hasbro toy commercials, a three-part writer retrospective, footage from the original 1963 Toy Fair presentation and a printable episode script.

Let's Tap, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Battlefield 1943

Let’s Tap
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

Tired of plastic guitars, drums, racing wheels and zapper guns cluttering your life? “Lets Tap” offers a solution: a gimmicky peripheral you can fold flat and even toss into the recycling bin once you’re done playing with it.

The vast majority of “Tap” is played with the Wii remote not in your hand, but placed face down on a cardboard box of your choosing. (“Tap” recommends something akin to a tissue box, but the game’s adjustable sensitivity settings make it easy to use whatever box is handy.) Playing the game, in case you haven’t drawn the conclusion already, consists of you (and up to three other players with three other boxes) tapping said box like a cheap drum.

As stupid as this all sounds, “Tap” actually works. The game can sense three different levels of tapping intensity, as well as single- and double taps, with rather remarkable accuracy. The accuracy is such, in fact, that one can navigate the menus using nothing but single and double taps and do so without aggravation. The traditional navigational method obviously works faster, and “Tap” is keen enough to pause gameplay the instant a player picks the remote up off the box, but it’s still a pretty cool trick.

The surprising degree of control on display allows “Tap” to dole out an impressively diverse, if small, collection of mini-games to support the concept.

“Tap’s” arguable showpiece mini-game is “Tap Runner,” which pits players against three human- or computer-controlled opponents in a race through an obstacle course. Tapping softly makes the onscreen character run, while a soft but fast tap sends him into a sprint and a hard tap makes him jump. Maintaining an optimal sprint without accidentally jumping is trickier (and more labor-intensive) than it sounds, and that’s especially true as “Runner” piles on hazards and alternate paths in more advanced levels.

“Tap’s” other selections run the gamut in terms of surprise. “Rhythm Tap,” which finds you tapping in time with various music tracks, makes perfect sense. Ditto for an open-ended visualizer toy, which lets you tap at your leisure to launch fireworks, paint a canvas and more.

But “Silent Blocks,” which combines tapping with what essentially is Jenga, is pretty out there. And “Bubble Voyager,” a sidescrolling shooter that adapts a “Joust”-style control scheme to tapping, might be the gem of the bunch, thanks in part to a wild multiplayer mode that’s essentially tap “Asteroids.”

Beyond its mere ability to work as advertised, what’s especially nice about “Tap” is that each mini-game comes with multiple stages, options and modes designed separately around solo and social play. For a game that revolves around a completely silly gimmick, “Tap” pretty convincingly justifies its budget price.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Other versions available for: Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

As licensed tie-in products do, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” scores an unintentional direct hit as a game that, for seemingly avoidable reasons, feels every bit as disposable as the movie on which it is based.

It didn’t have to be this way, because “Fallen” does an awful lot right on the mechanical side. The various Transformers — and you can embody quite a few of them by playing out the story from both the Autobots’ and Decepticons’ sides — control as they should in robot form. Outside of some temporarily clumsy helicopter controls, they also move fantastically well in their vehicular incarnations.

Switching between forms happens instantly, and “Fallen” makes it fun to do so by allowing you to execute transformations and attacks in a single motion. The distinctive transformations, weapon arsenals and special attacks give each Transformer a unique fighting style that, in turn, gives “Fallen” more variety than its structure otherwise suggests.

When those ideas are given room to breathe — say, during a one-shot level above the Atlantic ocean or during some of the missions set in Egypt — a simple but fun action game emerges.

But those instances overwhelmingly lie in the minority, vastly outnumbered by claustrophobic missions set in cities so cramped, it’s often tricky just to get around, much less do so gracefully. The act of transforming in these areas causes the camera to jerk violently in search of a desirable angle, which disorients players enough to undo whatever good the transformation was supposed to accomplish.

“Fallen” does itself further disservice by ordering players to accomplish the same handful of objectives numerous times, and it only mildly rearranges these objectives between the two campaigns. That makes some missions seem longer than they are — a point made sorer by a complete lack of mid-mission checkpoints. Spend 12 minutes taking down waves of the same enemies over and over, only to die near the very end? Sorry, start over.

Outside of a few unlockable pieces of eye candy, which along with both campaigns can be turned inside out in the span of a weekend, “Fallen” sports an online multiplayer component (eight players) that, for better or worse, does exactly what one would expect it to do. The modes are standard multiplayer modes, and the cramped levels give way to chaotic fights that, while fun for a while, lack the direction and organization needed to give them any meaningful legs.


Battlefield 1943
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (coming September for PC)
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)
Price: $15

Despite the lower price and budgetary disposition, “Battlefield 1943” is, in ways crummy and wonderful, a “Battlefield” game through and through. There are only three (eventually four, pending the release of free bonus content) maps, and they’re essentially remakes of maps from 2002’s “Battlefield 1942.” There’s also only one objective (territorial control) and three soldier classes (infantry, rifleman, scout) from which to choose. But the pared-down options palette merely pushes “1943” along as the get-in-play-a–round-and-get-out experience it purports to be, and at that, the game excels magnificently. “1943” allows friends to set up custom matches if they prefer, but for those who just want to play, a single button click is all that’s needed to drop into battle. Once one 24-player fight ends, “1943” whisks you straight into another and continues doing so until you decide you’ve had enough. It might be a while: The classic maps from “1942” and the technology from last year’s “Battlefield: Bad Company” are a fierce tandem, and everything that made past “Battlefield” games great — guns, tanks, planes, jeeps, boats, medals and ranks — is here. Like too many “Battlefield” titles before it, “1943” has suffered early from server overload and all the misery that entails. But those issues have grown scarcer by the day, and they’ll likely be just a memory by week’s end.

DVD 7/14/09: Leverage S1, Eldorado, The State, Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, Horsemen, Push, Mad Men S2, Reno 911! S6, American Gladiators TOS

Leverage: Season 1 (NR, 2008, Paramount)
Very little about “Leverage” — which finds a badly spurned former insurance company investigator (Timothy Hutton as Nathan Ford) accidentally teamed up with four impossibly compatible and excruciatingly clever thieves (Aldis Hodge, Beth Riesgraf, Christian Kane and Gina Bellman) — is grounded in any rational human being’s idea of reality. But when a show fully realizes that and moves forward with the expectation that viewers both understand and are on board for the ride, great things can happen. And so they do. “Leverage” is ridiculously slick, wrapping some clever storylines and awesome “Sneakers”-style technology around an ensemble cast that’s shockingly democratic in its likability. The dialogue occasionally waltzes along the border of too-cute-for-its-own-good country, and our anti-heroes’ schemes are blessed with a level of good luck even Indiana Jones would find a bit excessive. But it’s entirely deliberate and entirely in the name of entertainment, and all the illogical absurdity in the world doesn’t count for a thing when it has scripts as smart as these continually at its back.
Contents: 13 episodes (commentary on every episode), plus deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.

Eldorado (NR, 2008, Film Movement)
Yvan (Bouli Lanners) doesn’t have a lot, but he does have something, and when he comes home to find that pittance threatened by one sorry excuse for a thief (Fabrice Adde) hiding under his bed … a road trip movie is born? Without spoiling what takes “Eldorado” from A to B, indeed it is. Past that simple classification, though, “Eldorado” becomes a tough movie to put in a nutshell. The setup seems ripe for comedy, and the film indeed is very funny in spots. But “Eldorado” is a story about its characters more than a collection of instances, and it takes a special kind of longing for the story to reconcile what happens in act one with what happens next. That progression happens more naturally in the film that it reads on paper, in no small part due to the film’s ability to delegate and mix moods — darkly hilarious one scene, uncomfortably frank the next, wince-worthy after that, awkwardly heartwarming after that — without feeling like it’s ever doing so. In other words, it takes a threadbare genre that’s been done to death and completely owns it.
Extras: Short film “Icebergs,” director bio.

The State: The Complete Series (NR, 1993, MTV/Paramount)
When a sketch comedy show pops up on DVD a good 16 years after it first aired, there’s bound to be concern over how well the material has aged. But cult sensation “The State” has some advantages other sketch shows do not. On its own terms, it’s aged pretty well. Like “The Kids in the Hall” before it and “Mr. Show” slightly later on, “The State” played on the respective comedic and storytelling strengths of its cast instead of any need to riff on current events. It was subversively funny then, and it still mostly works now in spite of how much growing up televised comedy has done in the interim. But unless you’re already intimately familiar with the show, that’s only half the story. “The State” also is a hotbed of talent done good, including the threesome behind “Stella” (Michael Ian Black, David Wain, Michael Showalter), much of the “Reno 911!” brain trust (Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney) and a few other names and faces fans of cult comedy likely know (Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Kevin Allison). Watching all these people work together so early in their careers is a total treat. That their work remains funny all this time later merely is a really nice bonus.
Contents: 24 episodes, plus commentary, the pilot episode, unaired sketches (with commentary), outtakes, interviews, outtakes, promotional content and footage of cast appearances on other MTV shows.

Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes (NR, 2009, Docurama)
Of all the things with which “Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes” comes equipped, the element of surprise is not one. Nor, fans of Keillor’s work would probably argue, should it be. “Shoes” somewhat aimlessly follows Keillor through what presumably is a pretty standard patch in his life — as a writer, stage performer and kingpin of one of public radio’s premiere programs. Keillor speaks frankly about his life and the creative process, a series of audiovisual aids back up all the talk, and “Shoes” is continually (though subtly) bombarded by a one-two-three punch of insights, life experience and the philosophy of entertaining against the popular grain. The sum total never approaches glass-shattering, to say nothing of earth-shattering. But it most certainly is pleasant, and that’s probably suits Keillor’s most devoted fans just fine.
Extras: Outtakes, Robert Altman and Keillor interview, Keillor speaking to students, filmmaker bio.

Horsemen (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
Some movies start hot before petering out. “Horsemen” has the opposite problem, and it isn’t necessarily a better predicament. Things start off like any given episode of any given police procedural, with a victim of a grisly murder on display upstairs while the kids who found her and the husband who rushed home grieve one floor down. Things venture deeper into cookie cutter territory when the full plight of our detective hero (Dennis Quaid) is unveiled: He’s a widower (check), raising two kids by himself (check), and constantly sets his kids up with the prospect of finally spending time with them before the phone rings, another body turns up and he has to break their hearts and leave them with the babysitter (triple check). But things finally pick up once the table is set, and “Horseman” excels in the one department — the big reveal of who, how and why — that it couldn’t really afford to leave to cliché. From there, things snowball, and the story takes a turn that’s crazy but, at least in the bounds of its own weird existence, reasonably explained. The sum total isn’t a great film — at all — but it’s more entertaining (and certainly bolder) that its cardboard beginnings would suggest. Ziyi Zhang and Patrick Fugit also star.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes.

Push (PG-13, 2009, Summit Entertainment)
As science fiction concepts go, “Push’s” has potential. And it should, because if you count the number of ideas the film flings at a wall, you’ll need all your fingers, all your toes and perhaps a friend’s help. “Push’s” world takes all kinds: There are psychic Watchers like Cassie (Dakota Fanning), who tracks down a telekinesis-enabled Mover (Chris Evans as Nick) to help her recover a government secret that could save their kinds from their predestined extermination. Also in the mix: A Pusher (Camilla Belleas Kira), who can read minds and create memories that didn’t actually happen in order to manipulate people. But there’s also Henry (Djimon Hounsou), who essentially serves as the Emperor Palpatine to the poor man’s Jedi and Sith (including two guys whose power is, no joke, screaming) that comprise the rest of the cast. A maddeningly slapped-together storyline explains why these parties oppose each other and what’s ultimately at stake, but other than send us on some eye candy-laden chases through Hong Kong, all it manages to do is collapse painfully under the combined weight of bad dialogue, soundtrack excess and a system of logic that contradicts itself. The everyman superhero gimmick no longer is fresh, and other than straight off a narrative cliff, “Push” doesn’t take it anywhere it hasn’t already been.
Extras: Cast/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Reno 911! The Complete Sixth Season” (NR, 2009, Comedy Central): Three rather major cast members (Carlos Alazraqui, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Mary Birdsong) are no longer with us at the start of the sixth season, and the jury remains out whether their replacements (Joe Lo Truglio and Ian Roberts) can fill those big shoes. Includes 15 episodes, plus commentary, outtakes/extended scenes and profiles of our two newest conquering heroes.
— “American Gladiators: The Original Series: The Battle Begins” (NR, 1989, Shout Factory): If you pine for the glory days of the original “American Gladiators,” you officially are no longer alone. And even if you are, Shout has been kind enough to make this DVD set just for you. Includes 14 episodes, plus gladiator commentaries, a contestant interview and a 10-page color booklet.

Games 7/7/09: Red Faction: Guerrilla, The Bigs 2, Battlefield Heroes

Red Faction: Guerrilla
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Volition, Inc./THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

Volition’s past work on the “Saints Row” and “Red Faction” have joined forces for one extraordinary lovechild in “Red Faction: Guerrilla,” which ditches the franchise’s claustrophobic first-person shooter roots in favor of a full-scale, third-person liberation of open-world Mars.

“Faction” originally established itself by allowing players to destroy environments before destructible environments became remotely commonplace, and “Guerrilla” makes its name not only by applying that principle to a persistent, open-ended landscape, but by once again doing it better than anyone ever has. Advancement through the game opens the door to all manner of explosive technology (rockets, atomic rifles, armored vehicles and mechs), but it’s just as fun to leisurely decimate a fortress with nothing more than your absurdly powerful sledgehammer. The ensuing mayhem feels astonishingly authentic: Buildings come apart and topple realistically rather than in a manner that feels anywhere near scripted.

Getting this right makes “Guerrilla” a game worth playing, and Volition’s all-points grasp of shooting, driving and on-foot controls pushes the experience beyond simple novelty.

But the game’s best quality, as seen previously in “Saints Row,” is the sheer amount of objectives it gives you to accomplish with these cool toys.

“Guerrilla’s” main storyline, which finds you rising against the same people you helped empower in the original “Faction,” is pretty smart about diversifying and giving weight to its various missions. But an abundance of fun side missions — raids, destruction puzzles, hostage rescues and more — is ripe for completion at the same time. Your headset also alerts you to optional, in-progress events you can help complete, and traversing the landscape reveals strategic, enemy-controlled structures that you’re free to destroy at your convenience.

Just don’t expect much help when you engage. “Guerrilla’s” lone major misstep is its failure to convey the sense that you’re fighting alongside rebels instead of alone. Comrades do come to your aid, but only in small handfuls that are laughably paltry next to the endlessly large opposition forces. On harder difficulty settings, that imbalance leads to some frustrating and cheap gameplay discrepancies. (For those who want the fun without the headache, the casual difficulty setting tempers the imbalance without dialing down the mayhem.)

All the technology that makes “Guerrilla” good on the single-player side translates over to multiplayer (16 players online or LAN). That, along with the fact that all the weapons and gadgets are immediately available, is all the game needs to stand out in spite of its reliance on the same old modes you can find most anywhere else. More surprising is the game’s local multiplayer component, which allows up to four friends to pass the controller and compete in a series of destruction-themed party games. It’s not terribly deep, but it is terribly fun, and Volition deserves major kudos for providing something for players who like to play in the same room.


The Bigs 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Other versions available for: PSP, Playstation 2
From: Blue Castle/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild language, mild violence)

2007’s “The Bigs” was a major surprise, and not just because its first attempt to spell modern-day arcade baseball was so spot on.

Rather, the big shock was how well the game pulled that off while also giving armchair managers everything they need to execute a smart as well as forceful game of baseball. Turbo, accumulated through good pitching or plate discipline and used to temporarily superhumanize players, could be applied to fielding and baserunning as well as pitching and hitting, and allocating it smartly was paramount toward manufacturing and preventing runs. The game’s stellar, arguably revolutionary baserunning controls also made it easy to play all manner of small ball, making a perfectly-executed hit-and-run as exhilarating as the game’s cinematic home runs and diving catches.

Everything that made the first game work is preserved in “The Bigs 2,” which leaves well enough alone and elects instead to make a series of mostly welcome refinements.

Most prominent is the Batter’s Wheelhouse, which provides a visual indication of each hitter’s sweet spot. Attack a hitter’s sweet spot and fool him, and you receive an extra turbo boost and shrink the spot. Attack and serve up a bad pitch, though, and you probably can guess the consequence.

Elsewhere on the field, pickoff attempts now actually might work (or result in an overthrow), while losing a home plate collision or failing to catch a bullet line drive can lead to player injury. (So can beaning a hitter, for you nefarious types.) Turbo plays and stockpiling the offensive cache necessary to execute a no-doubt homer are fundamentally unchanged, but “The Bigs 2” adds a tier of risk/reward to both sides with the opportunity to make legendary catches or shoot for the moon with a supersized grand slam.

Feature-wise, the story is similar. A full season mode is most welcome, and the Be a Legend story mode — which finds you as a former Major League superstar beginning a post-injury comeback in Mexico — is an inspired (and meatier) sequel to the first game’s Rookie Challenge. The skills mini-games place a greater emphasis on multiplayer, as does the awesome Home Run Pinball mode, which now supports simultaneous two-player co-op/competitive multiplayer and lets you use Las Vegas, Shibuya and retro Times Square for home run target practice alongside the first game’s modern-day Times Square.

As far as dressing goes, everything looks better, with crisper player models, sharper lighting and livelier stadiums. Dedicated players can unlock retro uniforms (including those of the Montreal Expos) for each franchise, as well as a handful of classic stadiums and legendary players (no surprise, once you see how reverential the story mode is toward baseball immortality).


Battlefield Heroes
For: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Teen (tobacco reference, violence)
Price: Free to play

The free-to-play model — a free base game, with peripheral content sold at a premium — has enjoyed modest success in its short existence, but it receives a major credibility boost with the debut of “Battlefield Heroes.” “Heroes” plays like a “Battlefield” game should: You fight as part of one of two armies, and it’s your job — by gun, by knife, by tank or by plane — to control various territories before the enemy does so first. “Heroes” presents the action in the third instead of first person, and the cartoony graphics are a dramatic (and welcome) departure from the series’ traditionally realistic tendencies, but it’s as much a “Battlefield” game as any other game bearing the brand’s name. The difference, of course, is that “Heroes” runs — and runs nicely, thanks to its scalable graphical demands — in a Web browser. Outside of a plugin, the game lives entirely on a server, which allows you to access your custom-designed soldier from any PCs equipped to play the game. “Heroes” is perfectly fun in its free state, but the degree to which you can level up your soldier gives the game surprising legs, and those legs might make investing in some of “Heroes'” premium content (clothes, weapons and some unique perks) worth the expense. In a nice touch, “Heroes” also allows dedicated players to accrue valor points, which work toward the purchase of some store items, simply by playing the game. If you’re savvy enough to keep those points rolling in, “Heroes” may never cost you a dime to play.

DVD 7/7/09: Nursery University, Young & Handsome: A Night With Jeff Garlin, Kath & Kim (USA) S1, Five Fingers, Knowing, Night Train

Nursery University (NR, 2008, Docurama)
The baby boom that has descended on Manhattan in the 21st Century has far outperformed any boom in preschool development. That can mean only one thing: flustered parents everywhere jumping though ridiculous hoops to enroll their newborn children in preschools they won’t even attend for a year or two. The final insult? These schools cost more than many universities charge over the same period of time. “Nursery University” follows the process from both sides, rolling camera as a group of hopeful parents enter the circus while a group of preschool administrators try to make sense of the mountain of applications they must sort through and eliminate via lotteries and arbitrary roundtable discussions. That alone is some maddening (and, depending on where you are in life, darkly funny or completely infuriating) stuff. But it’s when “University” takes a closer look at the absurd opportunism that erupts around the process — the private consultants, the seminars and they additional bills they charge — that the whole thing feels like a farce come alive. The line between a parent’s love and a parent’s insanity could scarcely be thinner — or more morbidly entertaining — than it is here. Be afraid, future parents.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, Q&A with filmmakers and subjects, expert tips (in case seeing this film hasn’t warded you off the idea completely), filmmaker bios.

Young & Handsome: A Night With Jeff Garlin (NR, 2008, Shout Factory)
It doesn’t get much lazier than this, but here goes anyway: if you like Jeff Garlin — be it through his hilarious star turn on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or his conversational comedic style in general — you’ll probably enjoy his debut standup special. And if not, this won’t change your mind. “Young & Handsome: A Night With Jeff Garlin” takes place in Chicago’s Second City theatre, and the venue choice becomes rather fitting when it becomes apparent how much flying Garlin is doing by the seat of his pants. Garlin’s act travels to galaxies beyond improv, exploring extreme (and unplanned) tangents during some bits and ending others with Garlin giving up mid-punchljne and praying the special’s editors know what to do. But that’s par for Garlin’s course, and he’s made a career on the same candid delivery that, for those who already are fans, works surprisingly well in standup form. Those not into Garlin’s style likely will vehemently disagree, and such an objection is completely defensible, but if “Handsome” was ever intended for that crowd in the planning stage, it most definitely is not in its finished form.
Extras: Deleted scenes, Bob Odenkirk interviews Garlin.

Kath & Kim: Season 1 (NR, 2008, NBC Universal)
Kath (Molly Shannon) is a single, “with-it” mom who stands on the precipice of engagement to her dorky new beau (John Michael Higgins). Her daughter Kim (Selma Blair), meanwhile, stands on the threshold of divorcing her husband (Mikey Day) and moving back in with Mom after a request for some home (microwaved) cooking proves too much for her to handle. If any of this rings familiar, it’s because “Kath & Kim” is merely an Americanized remake of an Australian show that bears the same name and has enjoyed four (and possibly counting) hit seasons. But while the American remake shares much in common with its source material in terms of setup and premise, it also benefits immensely from Shannon’s and Higgins’ well-established individual comic stylings, which themselves prove a perfect fit for a show about four people seemingly trapped in a bizarre confluence of 1980s, 1990s, urban and suburban style gone hilariously wrong. Blair has no problem playing on her co-stars’ level as the strangely likable but completely impossible Kim, and the lesser-known Day is a scene-stealer as Kim’s sympathetic hero of a husband. The scripts, happily, do their part with patches of brilliant physical comedy breaking up some dryly funny dialogue. It’s merely a shame this is all we’re likely to get: Despite the “Season 1” tag, all current indications give little hope that more lies ahead.
Contents: 17 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and bloopers.

Five Fingers (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
With the help of a tour guide (Colm Meaney), Martijn (Ryan Phillippe) has arrived in Morocco in hopes of creating a long-the-in-making food program for malnourished kids. That’s all well and good until both are drugged and abducted, only to wake up in the presence of a Muslim man (Laurence Fishburne) who is convinced Martijn is a threat to his interests and is misrepresenting himself. Those little bits of intrigue — along with the fact that neither party has anything more than rhetorical ties to America — offer some hope that “Five Fingers” is a little more nuanced than just another movie about Muslims with an appetite for abducting angelic Westerners. The script doesn’t always carry this hope to fruition with a great deal of grace, and there are unmistakable instances where “Fingers” either feels like it’s repeating itself or (particularly as the conclusion draws near) exists on a plane of logic not of this world. Provided you can accept those conditions, “Fingers” ultimately does fulfill that hope, prioritizing microcosmic characters and scenarios over some laughably sweeping commentary about current events. It’s a better psychological thriller than it is a portrait of the realities of modern-day international relations, and it embraces that role rather well.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features, trivia track.

Knowing (PG-13, 2009, Summit Entertainment)
In 1959, as her classmates draw pictures of what they expect the future to look like for a time capsule project, a young girl instead fills her page with a long, continuous string of numbers that don’t appear to mean anything (but obviously do). Though the meaning of those numbers — which a classroom of kids uncover while opening the capsule 50 years later — is unfortunately laid bare on the back of the DVD case and is the premise of the movie going forward, it nonetheless feels wrong to expound any further here. That’s because that reveal, along with some fancy special effects that accompany it in scenes ahead, easily rank as the best parts of “Knowing,” which otherwise finds itself treading water in a pool full of tired psychological thriller tricks and an overt need to explain away everything that’s happening. The latter point in particular is a killer, because it puts the film constantly on the defensive, justifying some out-there happenings with equally out-there explanations before, eventually, conceding that it’s just a movie and it doesn’t have to make complete sense. Unfortunately, that only happens at the very end, climaxing with an exclamation point that’s as narratively hollow as it is visually satisfying. Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury,
Lara Robinson and D.G. Maloney star.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Night Train (R, 2008, National Entertainment Media)
Shortly after boarding a late train, a mysterious man slumps over dead in his chair. Peter (Steve Zahn) and Chloe (Leelee Sobieski), who are sharing the same car, naturally are the first to discover this — as well as the mysterious box of valuable jewels the man was holding when he died. Train conductor Miles (Danny Glover) is third on the scene, a plan to hide the body and keep the valuables is hatched, and “Night Train” looks like it has the potential to go deliciously awry and play in “A Simple Plan’s” backyard. That, for a while, is what it does — albeit with an iffy script that leaves our three leading characters with very little in the interest and distinction departments. Problem is, even that eventually becomes too good for “Train,” which abandons any shred of high concept in favor of a completely crazy twist-o-rama that ropes in every last passenger and some ambiguous mysticism for good measure. “Train” never completely forgoes being entertaining, but it devolves into such a mess that it’s easier to enjoy it on an ironic rather than straight-faced level — if only as a means to see just how far it feels like going before deciding enough is enough.
Extras: Making-of feature, photo gallery.