DVD 9/1: Goodbye Solo, Nights and Weekends, Duplicity, The Informers, Earth, Scrubs S8, Unwigged & Unplugged: An Evening with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer

Please note: This is an abbreviated column. Part of it was lost (along with last week’s work) due to a bad laptop going haywire and breaking down. Such is life.

Goodbye Solo (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) lives on the far reaches of the edge of the cab driver spectrum, cheerfully engaging his customers and uncovering layers even a shrink couldn’t peel back in three times the time. That charm isn’t quite enough to transform grumpy old William (Red West) into a gabby Ray of sunshine, but it is good enough to convince him to offer Solo a lot of money to drive him somewhere else in a few weeks. Without spoiling anything, it isn’t a particularly good place, and that knowledge is enough to compel Solo, who has a few emotional irons of his own in the fire, to elect himself as William’s personal cabbie. “Goodbye Solo” uses this reasonably simple premise as a means to painstakingly (by movie standards, anyway) pore over two lives that both converge and stand completely at odds with each other. And because the film does such an entertaining job at establishing both characters through images and exchanges rather than by spelling it out and holding the audience’s hand, it makes this dissection both look easy and feel uncommonly meaningful all at once.
Extra: Director/cinematographer commentary.

Nights and Weekends (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
You have to hand it to the allegorical public relations firm responsible for popularizing the dating staple known as the long-distance relationship, which has maintained a startling level of romanticism despite a failure rate of more than 99 percent. Similar credit, however, is due to “Nights and Weekends,” which ignores that romanticism and rather painfully picks apart the realities of a seemingly doomed relationship between Chicagoan James (Joe Swanberg) and Manhattanite Mattie (Greta Gerwig). The film isn’t so much a story arc as it is a collection of scenes that, in many cases, could be presented out of order and still tell the same story. But it works anyway — and it works awfully well — because those scenes are so gosh darn authentic in their presentation. Gerwig and Swanberg are very chemically compatible (no surprise, seeing as “Weekends” is their fourth collaboration either in front of or behind the camera) and the slice-of-life nature of the storyline perfectly captures the sad banality of a relationship working on borrowed time. Such compulsive devotion to authenticity most definitely is not everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies, but “Weekends” need not apologize for sticking to its mission and seeing it to completion.
Extras: Producers commentary, test short, Swanberg teasers.

Duplicity (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
The business of conducting business is pretty serious business — an adage “Duplicity” exuberantly illustrates during an opening fistfight between two CEOs (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson). That fight spills over into the rest of the film, which finds one of the CEOs babying a top-secret breakthrough product while the other scratches feverishly to uncover the details and steal it out from under him before the plan goes public. In the center of it all: a pair of double agents (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) who must balance their roles in protecting and uncovering the secret with their compulsive need to deceive and seduce one another. The whole charade, to say nothing of the rest of the players involved in the production, is nothing short of ludicrous — especially when you realize what this high-stakes confidential battle royal is over. But that’s sort of the point. “Duplicity” is a little too slick for its own good, particularly early on before we really get to know anybody well enough to find the greasy dialogue smart rather than cute. But smart ultimately does take over cute in the writing department, and the story’s breakneck pace and appetite for twists and double-twists is complemented nicely by the many foreshadowing winks it throws the audience’s way. Best of all, it never takes itself too seriously, settling quite comfortably as a cartoonish, escapist look at corporate bloodlust — and, in doing so, thriving in that role.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary.

The Informers (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
A student of film might watch “The Informers” and wonder what, beyond a paycheck, was the point of it all when work on the script first began. That isn’t a knock against the quality of the cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder, Chris Isaak and Amber Heard, among others), or even the short-term merits of the slightly interwoven stories (a Hollywood producer trying to rekindle his dead marriage, a group of not-quite friends not-quite mourning the fatal overdose of one of their own, an ex-con engaging in a horrifying act of illegality, a father and son’s love/hate relationship with each other) that cast acts out. The performances are fine, and had any of the stories received some breathing room, the film might have turned out fine as well. But “Informers” seems to lack the narrative confidence needed to make any of these stories feel like anything more than bite-sized retreads of similar, better stories. And beyond the place (Los Angeles) and time (the 1980s), there exists very little — arguably nothing — to meaningfully connect one episode to the rest. The purpose of so many characters and scenarios seems solely to keep “Informers” from exposing this inability to do anything special with any of them, but the charade can last for only so long before it becomes obvious the film isn’t going anywhere its audience hasn’t already been.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a mention
— “Earth” (G, 2007, Disneynature): Disney’s love affair with Blu-ray enters phase two with the release of “Earth,” which not only is the studio’s feature film-length answer to Discovery’s “Planet Earth” series, but also the linchpin for a new brand. (Yes, “Disneynature” is one word and not a typo.) James Earl Jones narrates, but the pictures, as they should, steal the show. Per recent custom, Disney packages the Blu-ray and DVD editions into the same box. Extras include filmmaker annotations (Blu-ray version only) and a making-of feature.
— “Scrubs: The Complete Eighth Season” (NR, 2009, ABC studios): The only evidence of “Scrubs'” migration to ABC from NBC? The inclusion of an ABC Starter Kit DVD with sample episodes of six ABC shows. The important stuff — the same great cast and the same great writing — remains as intact as ever. Includes 19 episodes, plus deleted scenes, alternate lines, bloopers and intern Webisodes.
— “Unwigged & Unplugged: An Evening with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer” (NR, 2009, Courgette): The three musicians/actors/writers/whoknowswhatelse convene on stage, sans costume, to perform hits from “This is Spinal Tap,” “A Mighty Wind” and more. Also part of the festivities: an audience Q&A, movie and fan clips and a few other random surprises. Also includes liner notes from Harry Shearer.

Games 8/18/09: Little King's Story, Daisy Fuentes Pilates, Trials HD

Little King’s Story
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Marvelous Entertainment/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

There’s nothing particularly little about “Little King’s Story,” which takes the gameplay sensibilities of Nintendo’s “Pikmin” and mashes it into a kingdom-management game that’s as ambitious and guilefully challenging as it is charming and surprisingly accessible.

As “Pikmin” did, “Story” stars you as the central figurehead — the titular king, in this case — and lets you instruct your underlings to do your bidding and heavy lifting. In “Story’s” case, those underlings come from your kingdom and train to become soldiers, carpenters, cooks and more. You can train your citizens (the population of which grows as you expand your kingdom) to embody different job classes, and you then can instruct different configurations of workers (up to six at first, and eventually up to 30) to follow you as you complete tasks each class is best suited to handle.

As you might have already gleaned, “Story” essentially is one giant cause-and-effect puzzle: You’ll need to establish job classes to do what is necessary to grow the kingdom, which in turn creates new challenges, which in turn creates new jobs that grow the kingdom yet more. “Story” doesn’t offer enough kingdom-building freedom to classify itself as a true simulation, but it nonetheless is fun to give orders and witness growth from the throne in between expeditions that drop you into the thick of the process.

Part of that reward comes from just how sweeping — and, after a few simple combat-centric challenges, challenging — the process reveals itself to be, particularly when it comes to managing your underlings’ strengths and vitals in battle. Taking down grunts is a simple matter of sending a few soldiers their way and letting them do their job. But “Story’s” tougher enemies — to say nothing of some delightfully inventive but brutally tough boss enemies that block your kingdom’s expansion — require significant finesse with regard to ordering troops to attack and retreat in a pattern that maximizes their effect while minimizing casualties.

“Story,” for its part, keeps the controls simple, eschewing pointer or motion controls in favor of the same lean control scheme that made “Pikmin” so easy to enjoy. The use of the analog stick instead of a pointer to pick targets for your underlings occasionally makes it difficult to quickly distinguish between two adjacent targets. That, along with your underlings’ occasional propensity to get stuck on objects and lose their way, creates a one-two punch of trouble that together take the cake as the game’s most frustrating issues.

But bad as those issues sound on paper, neither proves nearly troublesome enough to damage the overall experience, which is lengthy (30ish hours), infectiously charming, and more fun than the some of its already fun parts as result of all that personality. This has been a good year for unexpected sleeper surprises on the Wii, and for “Pikmin” fans who want to see the genre venture to the next level, “Story” may be the gem that tops them all.


Daisy Fuentes Pilates
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Collision Studios/Interactive Game Group/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s hard to discuss “Daisy Fuentes Pilates” in the context of a game review, because when it comes right down to it, it isn’t even a game so much as (a) an interactive, customizable workout tape or (b) a personal trainer you can mute with a remote control.

As serviceable introductions to Pilates go, “Pilates” does a serviceable job. Ten exercises (not including warm-up and cool-down exercises) are available for perusal, and each features a demonstration of the exercise, a narrated tutorial, and three difficulty settings that alter some (but not all) of the exercises’ physical demands.

In a nice touch, “Pilates” also supports user-customizable workouts: Users can pick which exercises to perform, the order in which to perform them, and the number of reps for each exercise. The game has save slots for five custom workouts and complements those with five prefabricated workouts based on need and experience.

All of this, of course, leads to the exercises themselves, and this is where any notion of “Pilates” being a game in the vein of “Wii Fit” or “EA Sports Active” completely falls apart.

“Pilates” aspires to score players by using simple timing metrics to calculate whether a player is using proper form. The measurement of that aptitude is displayed in the form of a timing bar that glows green, yellow and red based on one’s ability to mimic what Fuentes’ onscreen avatar is doing. This sort of works during exercises that rely on the Wii Balance Board, because all the game does is track when a player’s feet touch the board.

If you lack a Balance Board, the exercises that employ it lack any means of scoring your work. But it honestly is just as well, because the exercises that use the Wii remote to gauge your form might as well not score you either. The motions that constitute a typical Pilates exercise are far too slow and controlled for the remote to properly understand, the game has no real way of properly judging your form, and taking the score to heart merely creates frustration where there need not be any.

The complete uselessness of the scoring mechanic — which is the only means of stat-tracking the game has — makes “Pilates” similarly useless as a tool for tracking progress. Other attempts to give credence to the “game” claim — a tool for changing Daisy’s outfit, a flimsy resort tour option (which basically just changes the backdrop), a smattering of low-tech tips to accompany the general budget-mindedness of the overall look and experience — don’t fare any better.

On the other hand, while it’s still $10 more expensive than it should be, “Pilates” costs $30. That puts it in the same price ballpark as numerous Pilates DVDs that lack the interactivity this, in spite of its significant failings as a game, ultimately does provide.


Trials HD
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: RedLynx/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild violence)
Price: $15

Though its visual resemblance to the Nintendo classic “Excitebike” is obvious and its control scheme similarly streamlined, “Trials HD” is a deviously different, and appropriately evolved, animal. For starters, you aren’t racing other bikers, but instead riding through some ingeniously intricate obstacle courses with one goal: finish as quickly as with as few crashes as possible. The game doesn’t impose a time limit, and a generous in-track checkpoint system means you won’t have to retry difficult early jumps if you crash during a later jump. But while anyone can conceivably complete any track, finishing quickly and safely enough to rack up medals is another story. “Trials” places a heavy emphasis on bike and course physics, and mastering the intricacies of each bike is a daunting but rewarding challenge. Racking up medals is paramount toward unlocking bonus mini-games, which allow for such silly experiments as performing a ski jump off the bike or staying upright while riding inside a giant hamster ball. But the real carrot on the fishing line is the integration of Xbox Live Friends leaderboards inside every race and every bonus mode. “Trials” lacks any sort of online or pass-the-controller local multiplayer, but the ability to continually chase friends’ record times — which appear both in the heads-up display and on the track when applicable — more than compensates. The only caveat, of course, is a biggie: You need friends on your list to buy and play the game.

DVD 8/18/09: Surveillance, Sons of Anarchy S1, The Garden, The Golden Boys, The Poker House, The Last House on the Left (2008) UR, TV roundup (Dexter, Everybody Hates Chris, Tim and Eric, Flight of the Conchords, Californication, House M.D.)

Surveillance (R, 2008, Magnolia)
“Surveillance” doesn’t waste much time getting going, brutally killing off a sleeping couple roughly one minute into the show. From there, the story migrates to the local police precinct, where a police chief (Michael Ironside), his officers (Charlie Newmark, Kent Harper, Gill Gayle) two FBI agents (Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman) and two witnesses (Ryan Simpkins, Pell James) of unknown origin gather in three separate rooms for supervised questioning. If that sounds like a positively heatless story on paper, it’s because it is … on paper. But if “Surveillance” is just another story about just another murder, no one told the characters, who by and large lack anything resembling a filter. Nor did anyone inform the cast, which is gifted to a startling degree with actors who know how to play that role for maximum effect without overdoing it. All that hilariously dark candor makes for some great exchanges at the station, but it also opens the door for numerous possibilities when the film goes back to reconstruct how what happened in minute one involves all these separate parties. As should be no surprise, “Surveillance” tops it off with a few twists, including a biggie at the end. You might see it coming — it would seem the film wants you to figure it out — but even if you do, what happens in its wake is as unhinged, and fiendishly enjoyable, as all that preceded it. French Stewart also stars.
Extras: Director/supporting cast commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One (NR, 2008, Fox)
With respect to Hollywood’s Golden Age and all the images it brought forth, being in a motorcycle gang — check that, a motorcycle club — isn’t nearly as reckless and carefree as outside appearances would suggest. To the contrary, the same non-rebellious hassles of normal life apply, right down to the workplace politics that find a club president (the always fantastic Ron Perlman) diplomatically but impatiently butting heads with his young vice president (Charlie Hunnam), who also happens to be the son of a dead former member and his widow (Katey Sagal), who just so happens to be presently romantically involved with the aforementioned president. Like the best of its FX Network brethren, “Sons of Anarchy” isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty — as a show about a motorcycle club should. But while “Anarchy’s” depictions of violent means to violent ends is as good as any on television presently, its best moments transpire when the show drills deep into the oft-mundane nitty gritty of all the stupid little things that make a motorcycle club and its members — like any other job or family and its members — operate. The writing’s first-rate, the characters instantly interesting, and some terrific story arcs effortlessly take it from there. Maggie Siff, Kim Coates, Johnny Lewis, Tommy Flanagan and Theo Rossi, among several others, also star.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.

The Garden (NR, 2008, Oscilloscope)
Were “The Garden” a work of fiction about a 14-acre garden established in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots, it’d likely emerge as a feel-good redemption tale about a small subset of people who allowed such a project not only to take shape, but to flourish in the face of politicians and developers bent on stealthily reclaiming the land for commercial purposes. But the garden is real, the gardeners are real, the developer who wants his land back is real and the meddling politicians with conflicting interests are real. Thus, “The Garden,” being the good documentary it is, has no choice but to take all that attempted human spirit and trample all over it with eight axles of business and politics as usual. As it should, “The Garden” quietly rolls camera and distributes its time between the garden, the lives of those tending to it, the trials they face and the groups and institutions that picked this fight. Everyone gets a chance to speak freely, and while it doesn’t take a great deal of courage to put money on where the filmmakers’ sentiments lie, the film itself doesn’t actively meddle in the discussion. The story doesn’t need the help, anyway: As a microcosm for bureaucratic struggles everywhere and a picture of what happens when a labor of love is interrupted by those who don’t understand it but still can disrupt it, it’s first-rate storytelling all by itself. In English and Spanish with optional subtitles as needed.
Extras: Director/producers commentary with farmer and activist Tezozomoc, extended scenes, bonus footage, director interview.

The Golden Boys (PG, 2008, Lions Gate)
Like the DVD box says, “The Golden Boys” finds retired shipmates (David Carradine, Bruce Dern and Rip Torn as Captains Zeb, Perez and Jerry, respectively) having a bear of a time transitioning into their new lives as housemates. It’s so bad, in fact, that the three have hatched a scheme for one of them to marry a woman simply for the purpose of having a female roommate who can cook for and clean after the three of them. (It’s 1905, so this is in perfectly politically correct taste for the time.) In contrary to what the box says, though, the caper doesn’t send the former sailors into hilariously uncharted waters. And thank goodness for that, because such madcap hilarity would simply disrupt the pleasant buzz that ensues instead. “The Golden Boys” is about as effortlessly enjoyable as silly comedies get, parlaying the talents of its cast into some accessibly interesting characters and getting similarly amusing results from the turn-of-the-century setting and all the backward good intentions it entailed. The scheme, of course, benefits as well though, it’s striking (and ultimately telling) how much more “Boys'” heartfelt story and character turns have to do with that success instead the pedestrian hilarity original promised on the box. Mariel Hemingway and Charles Durning also star. No extras.

The Poker House (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
“The Poker House” is a picture-in-a-dictionary example of a movie that, for all it does well, is a vastly different experience for the writer/director (Lori Petty) tasked with creating it than it is for the audience tasked with watching it. “House” is a dramaticized account of Petty’s (played here by Jennifer Lawrence) early-teenage years in the eponymous house, which was headed by her strung-out prostitute mother (Selma Blair), co-inhabited by her two little sisters (Sophia Bairley and Chloe Moretz) and overrun at any given hour with pimps, addicts, gamblers and hustlers. As should be expected from a film based on the life of the person making it, “House” also is brimming with intimate detail that’s distributed equally to some impressively through character designs, a setting that really takes you there, and numerous of scenes that thrive on their authenticity more than their place in the story’s central thread. That last part is the closest “House” comes to having an undoing. Petty seems determined to paint as all-encompassing a picture as she can in 93 minutes’ time, and moments that hold special significance in her memory don’t necessarily play as strongly for the rest of us. But those little detours ultimately do contribute, leaving behind little details about the characters that make the film’s most powerful moments that much more significant once the story returns to the main road.
Extras: Petty commentary, photo gallery.

The Last House on the Left: Unrated (R/NR, 2008, Universal)
It’s a bit unfair to penalize a horror film for being too horrifying, so what follows isn’t so much a condemnation as a warning: This film — about a daughter (Sara Paxton as Mari), her friend (Martha MacIsaac) and the turn of events that finds them in the middle of nowhere and in the company of an escaped killer (Garret Dillahunt) and his cohorts (Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark) — is dangerously good at being absolutely savage. That, of course, denotes a mission accomplished: “The Last House on the Left” is a predictably gorier remake of the 1972 original, but it doesn’t simply lean on better special effects and excess blood the way so many sorry horror remakes so often have lately. Its principal characters benefit from actual, honest-to-gosh character development, and the film’s grasp of genuine suspense and pit-in-stomach dread is deniable only by those who dismiss its tactics as abhorrent. This, of course, is where the warning lies. Without spoiling what happens or where it goes from there, “Left’s” story takes a swift and dramatically dark turn roughly halfway through the film that almost certainly will have perfectly sensible viewers shutting it off in disgust or derision. For horror connoisseurs, that might be the best warning ever, but for the rest of you, consider that a caution not to be taken lightly. Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention: Must-See Returning TV Edition
— “Dexter: The Third Season” (NR, 2008, Showtime): Includes 12 episodes, plus the first two episodes of Showtime’s “The United States of Tara,” interviews, the first two episodes from the third season of “The Tudors” and excerpts from the newest “Dexter” novel.
— “Everybody Hates Chris: The Final Season” (NR, 2008, CBS): Includes 22 episodes, plus commentary, executive producer introduction, director Webisodes, bloopers, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.
— “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!: Season Three” (NR, 2008, Adult Swim): Includes 10 episodes (including an extended version of “Muscles for Bones”), plus deleted scenes, bloopers, a behind-the-scenes feature and more.
— “Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): Includes 10 episodes, plus Dave’s pawn shop commercials, New Zealand Consulate Meetings with Murray and Greg, deleted scenes, outtakes and a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Californication: The Second Season” (NR, 2008, Showtime): Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, interviews, the first two “Tara” and “Tudors” episodes and a behind-the-scenes feature. Available August 25.
— “House, M.D.: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, Universal): Includes 24 episodes, plus commentary, a 100th episode feature and four other behind-the-scenes features. Available August 25.

Games 8/11/09: Space Bust-a-Move, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Space Bust-a-Move
For: Nintendo DS
From: Taito/Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

A dramatic overhaul would not appear to be in the cards for “Bust-a-Move,” which has stuck to the same script — shoot bubbles toward a cluster of bubbles at the top of the screen and match sets of three or more same-colored bubbles to clear them — for ages now. That’s doubly true for “Space Bust-a-Move,” which isn’t even the first “Bust-a-Move” game to appear on the DS.

But within the confines of that formula, “Space” turns out to be a surprising departure from 2006’s plain-named “Bust-a-Move DS” — and not just because, for whatever reason, it takes place in space.

The starkest change comes in the control scheme. The first DS game used a fun touch screen mechanic that allowed you to shoot bubbles with a virtual slingshot, but “Space” opts for more traditional, button-friendly controls (D-pad to aim the bubble shooter, shoulder buttons to fire). You can use the touch screen to emulate the button controls, but it’s disadvantageously slow.

But the loss of slingshot controls, which took up the entire touch screen in “BAM DS,” isn’t in vain. “Space” shifts the action down so that the shooter and the bubble cluster share the same screen, which also alleviates the previous game’s biggest problem: that annoying gap between the two screens and the havoc it could wreak on a perfectly-angled shot. The top screen generally serves a presentational purpose, which means different things in different modes.

The big exception to that rule takes place during “Space’s” entirely nonsensical but entirely wonderful story mode, which finally gives Bub and Bob some narrative motivation for clearing all those bubbles. It also blesses “Space” with some impressive two-screen boss fights, and guess what? “Bust-a-Move’s” gameplay lends itself startlingly well to boss fights.

The story mode headlines a slew of new feature tweaks “Space” tosses at the wall to belie its $20 asking price. Single-card local multiplayer (four players, down from five) returns, and the debut of online multiplayer (four players) goes off without a hitch despite some occasional and very temporary lag issues.

For dedicated solo players, a game-wide rewards system awards currency good toward unlocking a handful of alternative modes that tack on different rules to the standard “Bust-a-Move” gameplay. “Space” even tosses in a “Brain Age”-style challenge system, which tracks daily progress through a pair of time trial challenges. The customary, no-frills endless mode is, of course, in there as well.

Under the “useless but cool” umbrella, “Space” also lets you use the rewards currency to change the bubble and shooter designs, which only enhances what already amounts to a hilariously whimsical explosion of audiovisual cute. Charming though “BAM DS” was, “Space” ups the ante in every respect, and the goofy storyline knocks it out of the park.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Double Helix/EA

Double Helix wants to take you down memory lane with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it probably isn’t the destination anyone had in mind.

Rather, instead of capitalizing on the nostalgia of the cartoon and toys that inspired the movie of the same name, “Cobra” evokes memories of the original Playstation era, when third-person shooters first ventured into three dimensions but lacked the sophistication or capability to do the things we now take for granted.

Instead of over the shoulder or even behind the back, “Cobra’s” action takes place from a partial bird’s-eye view. The right analog stick controls neither the camera, which sits at a fixed perspective, nor your weapons’ aiming reticule, which doesn’t even come into play. Holding a trigger activates the game’s auto-aim capability, and all the right stick does is swap between enemy targets. In terms of shooting sophistication, “Cobra” doesn’t even approach “Robotron,” much less “Gears of War.”

“Cobra” attempts to compensate for the mindless demands by laying down a pretty thick gauntlet of enemies. The game tips its cap to present day by including a cover mechanic, but the action tends to get so manic that you’re almost better off continually running and dive-rolling under hails of gunfire whenever your Joe’s health needs replenishment.

Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. “Cobra’s” fixed camera usually does what it should, but there are recurrent instances in which you’ll be firing blind because the enemies have spawned from behind or have populated an area before the camera swings around to show them. “Cobra” flirts with complete disaster during fights against ultra-powerful mechs that are only vulnerable from behind: Not only does the camera lag miserably while you try to get in position for a sneak attack, but occasionally it hides the enemy altogether, which for obvious reasons is a potentially fatal problem.

Dying is no small matter in “Cobra,” either. Each mission features two faux-checkpoints, but failing a mission sends you back to the start no matter where that failure happens. You can sidestep this problem by playing “Cobra” on its easiest difficulty, which revives your Joe ad nauseam until you beat the mission, but there’s no real gratification in playing a game you essentially cannot lose.

The strange nods to outdated conventions, along with “Cobra’s” bland presentation — a byproduct of staying faithful to an equally drab film — add up to a game that cannot possibly be universally praised nor recommended as a $50 purchase in 2009.

But “Cobra’s” unwavering adherence to its bizarre design sensibilities also makes it more unique than the bevy of third-person shooters that aim higher. When the game isn’t getting in its own way — and, particularly, when you have a friend (offline only) instead of the computer playing alongside you as the second Joe — “Cobra” makes for a stupidly fun good time for an audience that can appreciate the old-time mentality. For that small sliver of the gaming public, this has “guilty pleasure” stamped all over it.


Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta
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)
Price: $10

It’s been an exemplary ride for “Fallout 3,” which followed a fantastic core game with four pieces of downloadable content that each improved on what came before it. So it’s quite a shame to see “Mothership Zeta” not only end the game’s run on a down note, but lay bare “Fallout 3’s” most glaring weaknesses in doing so. The premise, which finds you the object of a 1950s-style alien abduction, is no slouch, and it certainly marks a departure from everything that preceded it. But it also means you’re conducting business almost entirely in the tight confinements of a spaceship, traversing one generic corridor after another while doing little more than hitting a few switches and blasting the same aliens and drones ad nauseam. “Fallout 3’s” shooting mechanics have always fared competently in the wide-open wasteland against a wandering enemy or two, but they’re a nightmare in a claustrophobic hallway against a half-dozen ruthless aliens. Some audio logs and a few cool (but only incrementally more powerful) weapons aside, “Zeta” also leaves nothing to discovery, which arguably is the bread and butter of the “Fallout 3” experience. The listless story isn’t nearly compelling enough to counter all that’s wrong here, and it’s probably best to save those $10 for 2010’s “Fallout: New Vegas” instead of spending it here.

DVD 8/11/09: I Love You Man, London to Brighton, 17 Again, Gigantic, The Wild Man of the Navidad, Pulling S2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 25th Anniversary CE

I Love You, Man (R, 2009, Paramount)
Sometimes, a comedy doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud hysterical to be a good comedy. Witness “I Love You, Man” which finds slightly uptight realtor and bromantically-challenged Peter (Paul Rudd) desperately hunting for some guy friends before walking down the aisle with his friend-endowed fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones). As Paul Rudd-fronted comedies go, “Man” is lighter than usual in the belly laugh department, settling mostly instead for smirks and chuckles. That’s all the more surprising given the considerable comedic gifts of the supporting cast (Jason Segel, Jaime Pressly, Jon Favreau, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Lennon). But while “Man” falls a bit short in the laughs department, it so perfectly captures the trying ritual of post-graduate male bonding that it doesn’t matter. Rudd’s socially awkward plight is funnier and more dead-on than any one gag can convey, and the desperation that pours out of his every faux pas is relevant enough to carry the movie on its own. “Man” doesn’t leave it much choice: Funny scenes abound and there’s a dog who can mug with the best of them, but there’s also the tired pattern that finds the film abruptly veering into serious territory before going through the same predictable motions too many comedies endure when trying to wrap up the story neatly. By then, though, enough goodwill has accrued to make these motions tolerable, if never actually satisfying.
Extras: Rudd/Segel/director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, making-of feature, bloopers.

London to Brighton (R, 2006, E1 Entertainment)
It’s best to check your wandering minds at the door when engaging in a viewing of “London to Brighton,” which kicks off with a three-headed batch of scenes (a girl and a woman on the run from someone, a seemingly powerful man apparently looking for someone else, a small-time hustler with no overly obvious ties to either party) that only loosely make relative sense without any context to prop them up. But upon close study and in spite of the ensuing confusion, those scenes still manage to establish a mood and build some compelling character foundations that make all those unknowns worth waiting for. And once “Brighton” decides to pay out some answers, it doesn’t ever really stop, choosing one moment to filling in the blanks laid out by those early scenes and choosing the next to take all we know and barrel forward with the story. “Brighton” mixes the separate chronological tracks sharply and effortlessly, the separate story elements comes together as one, and without spoiling what ultimately happens (don’t let the back of the box ruin it for you), the payoff is unflinchingly harsh and unsettling to a commanding degree. Lorraine Stanley and Georgia Groome, among others, star.
Extras: Director commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

17 Again (PG-13, 2009, New Line Cinema)
As is depressingly common in real life, Mike (Matthew Perry) peaked in high school and never really lived up to the hype from there. And as seems to be common in movie land, some inexplicable voodoo has given Mike a second chance to embody a modern-day version of his younger self (Zac Efron) in hopes of rediscovering the fire that sparked him back in the day. The plot of “17 Again” is so trite, even Mike’s best friend (Thomas Lennon, who essentially steals the movie out from under the main characters) acknowledges as much in the film. But that quick, subtle and funny self-admission also makes it clear “Again” isn’t, as the marketing and premise might imply, trying to sell us warmed-over 1980s movie leftovers. The script is blessed with similar winks where needed, Lennon and Melora Hardin (as New Mike’s high school principal) alone provide more real laughs than one could possibly see coming, and Mike’s adventures take a number of original, sharply-written turns that a 1980s film in the 1980s couldn’t even envision, much less tackle. Leslie Mann, Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg also star. No extras.

Gigantic (R, 2008, Vivendi)
“Gigantic’s” maiden scene finds mattress salesman Brian (Paul Dano) discussing the behavior of rats with a researcher friend. A few moments later, Brian leaves that friend to his work, steps outside, and gets inexplicably roughed up by a homeless man (Zach Galifianakis). Later on, at the depressing mattress warehouse where he works, he receives a visit from an eccentric rich man (John Goodman) with an equally unusual daughter (Zooey Deschanel) who decides without warning to take a long nap on one of the showcase beds. And on and on this story sort of randomly goes. Pinning a plot on “Gigantic” is a fruitless endeavor, because as soon as it seems clear what the movie’s intentions are, a handful of scenes featuring characters we haven’t even met clouds the picture all over again. Under careless conditions, that’d make for an aggravating experience. But “Gigantic” knows its characters are its reason for being, and it places an appropriate level of importance on giving them dimension and making those quirks funny and endearing rather than just quirky for quirky’s sake. That’s all the film needs to cobble together a proper beginning, middle and end, even if our time in “Gigantic” feels like little more than an entertaining look-in on a handful of lives in progress. Ed Asner and Jane Alexander also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, image gallery.

The Wild Man of the Navidad (NR, 2007, IFC)
Sometimes, a movie is so bad that it’s good. Other times, as with “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” it’s so enjoyably multifaceted in its delightful awfulness that it honestly becomes impossible to tell whether it’s really this bad or the filmmakers are doing it on purpose. At that stage, it doesn’t even really matter. “Navidad’s” premise — a mysterious creature lurks in the woods, seen by some but dismissed as legend by most — comes straight out of a textbook. But the oversaturation of 1970s grit isn’t quite as common, nor is the unfiltered, moonshine-soaked portrayal of backwoods living run amok. Then there’s the awesomely terrible acting and the monster itself, which, in keeping with the microscopic-budget theme, looks like a guy running around in a badly shredded Snuggie. The sum total of all these pieces is a film as hypnotically entertaining as it is powerfully awful — a crown jewel in the rare air of so-bad-you-have-to-experience-it cinema. Don’t plan your next group movie night without it.
Extras: Director commentary, director introduction, three behind-the-scenes features, pre-production footage.

Worth a Mention
— “Pulling: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, MPI): The darkly, astoundingly funny British sitcom about three women hanging onto their 20s for dear life — and a hapless ex-husband who frequently makes the girls look normal by comparison — is back for seconds and easily keeps pace with its nearly-perfect first season. Includes six episodes, plus deleted scenes.
— “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” (PG, Warner Bros.): Enjoy all the moments from your favorite “TMNT” films, and look good doing so. This set includes the three original live-action films, as well as computer-animated 2007 film, inside a nifty manhole cover-themed DVD tin that handily doubles as a 10-disc DVD holder. Each movie features the extras that accompanied them in their previous DVD incarnations, and the set also comes with four turtle masks and some temporary tattoos.

DVD 8/4/09: The Great Buck Howard, Race to Witch Mountain, The Soloist, The Chaos Experiment, Hippos & Rhinos, Project Runway S5, The Tigger Movie 10th AE

The Great Buck Howard (PG, 2009, Magnolia)
Like so many others studying law, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) doesn’t actually want to become a lawyer so much as he feels pressured to by his dad (Tom Hanks). But that pressure works only for so long, some stuff happens, and a few movie minutes later, Troy instead finds himself chasing his as-yet-unknown dream while working as the road manager for temperamental mentalist Buck “The Great Buck Howard” Howard (John Malkovich). This relationship, and basically this relationship alone, is what saves “The Great Buck Howard” from being just another slightly funny movie about some slightly tired showbiz themes. “Howard” goes through numerous cute motions when it becomes a movie about Howard, who once was a big deal on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” but now can’t even pack a tiny theater in the middle of nowhere. Malkovich takes the character — one part cheesy, two parts bitter, three parts desperate for the affections of all — and does all one could hope with it, even if the script doesn’t give him any real breakout material. But it’s Troy, and his interplay with Buck and the people (Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Debra Monk and a handful of familiar faces making cameos) Buck tramples during any given stop on his career, that ultimately makes “Howard” work watching.. If Malkovich’s caricature gives the film energy and laughs, Hanks’ foil gives it a soul, which pays off immensely during a third act that cashes in on that early goodwill.
Extras: Writer/director/Colin Hanks commentary, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, The Amazing Kreskin feature.

Race to Witch Mountain (PG, 2009, Disney)
Former wheelman and current cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) doesn’t have a clue how a couple of kids (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) with a huge wad of money ended up in the back of his cab. Nor does he understand why they want him to drive them to a destination they can identify only by its latitudinal and longitudinal parameters. That, of course, marks only the first stop on a long road of surprises for Jack, even if it essentially marks the end of the line for us. After an entertaining and reasonably clever segment explains exactly who these kids are, “Race to Witch Mountain” settles in as a completely stock adventure movie about kids, their charismatic and accidental accomplice, and the three-pronged legion of bad guys who seemingly will stop at nothing to stop everything. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, thanks in particular (and once again) to Johnson, whose impossibly strong charisma lends an improbable amount of soul to a script that otherwise seems to lack any. (Lesser but similar credit goes to Carla Gugino, who eventually joins the ride as a scientist whose work makes her a key component in the mess that ensues.) Johnson’s likeability is enough to make “Mountain” tolerable for adults while the kids enjoy the rest of the spectacle, which at least is as action-packed as it is unoriginal. This movie was slapped together with that purpose in mind, and it definitely succeeds, if never really shines, in that regard.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, digital copy.

The Soloist (PG-13, 2009, Paramount)
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is, as columnists often are wont to do, looking for a story. Because of a chance encounter with a homeless street musician (Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers) who casually mentions his past life as a student at The Julliard School, he thinks he’s found one. And as often happens in movies based on true stories about heart-on-sleeve writers who stumble into tragic figures (see “Resurrecting the Champ” from just two years ago), the relationship evolves into something far more personal and involved than was originally foreseen. The lack of surprise in that regard is in no way a bad thing, because the cold alternative wouldn’t make for much of a film. “The Soloist” also doesn’t do any one thing particularly poorly: Lopez and Ayers are far better developed characters than their stock roles would suggest, and Downey and Foxx only help that cause with their performances. But at some point in the transition from true story to film, a sense of authenticity either goes missing or just got in the way. Too much of the “The Soloist” coasts by on verbally dense but substantially disposable scenes that trade on simple emotions and entirely repetitive use of the same devices. That adds up to a lot of words that ultimately feel kind of empty, giving “The Soloist” a preachy vibe that says nothing countless other works of art haven’t said considerably better. Catherine Keener and Nelsan Ellis also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, animated PSA.

The Chaos Experiment (R, 2009, Genius Entertainment)
If you’re dreading an upcoming dentist appointment or employee performance review, you’ll find no better way to slow down time than through a viewing of “The Chaos Experiment.” The premise — a discredited and potentially crazy scientist (Val Kilmer as Jimmy) has trapped six people in a steam bath to demonstrate the mental effects the planet will suffer once global warming starts flexing its might — is ingeniously crazy. The film likely would be as well if it had taken the idea to any sort of ironic, darkly comic or campy extreme. But right from the distressingly slow music montage that constructs the very first scene, “Experiment” demonstrates a complete incapability to get the joke. What ensues instead is abysmally warmed-over horror: Our six completely disposable victims indeed descend into madness, but they’re so toxically antisocial from the get-go that it’s hard to tell when the excessive heat hits the crazy switch. A dreadfully dull parallel plotline involving Jimmy’s interrogation unfolds, an even more painfully slow music montage plays where the film’s climax should be, the whole original point of the film gets lost in the cliche storm, and a completely textbook final non-twist finally caps what might be the longest 90-minute movie ever made. Armand Assante, Eric Roberts, Megan Brown and Patrick Muldoon also star. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Hippos & Rhinos” (NR, 2009, Animal Planet): Animal Planet takes a break from its recent run of DVDs about wildlife’s scariest animals to bring us some mercifully lighter fare. “Hippos & Rhinos” includes four shows — “Jessica the Hippo,” “That’s My Baby,” “Saba and the Rhino’s Secret” and “There’s a Rhino in My House!” — that adds up to roughly three hours of hippos and rhinos playfully running wild.
— “Project Runway: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, The Weinstein Company): It isn’t completely clear whether network and production company shenanigans will kill this show before it sees a sixth season, but if “Project Runway” does indeed meet its demise, this fifth season makes it clear it wasn’t because of any dip in quality. Includes 14 episodes (many of them extended beyond their original broadcast length), plus a catchup feature on the season’s winning contestant.
— “The Tigger Movie: 2-Disc 10th Anniversary Edition” (G, 2000, Disney): It’s not exactly on the same level of Disney’s 40th and 50th anniversary celebrations — nor is it technically 10 years for a few more months — but “The Tigger Movie” gets a pretty nice party nonetheless. Extras include the DVD debuts of two new Tigger adventures (“King of the Beasties” and “Tigger’s Houseguest”), plus two DVD games, a DVD storybook, a family tree how-to, a music video and a sing-along song.