Games 11/24/09: Assassin's Creed II, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, WireWay

Assassin’s Creed II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

Most games, broken down, are simply collections of similar actions and commands repeated over and over. But most hide it better than 2007’s “Assassin’s Creed,” which combined majestic core gameplay with an oppressively patterned quest structure that neutered its inventive storyline and instilled some serious déjà vu in many players.

Almost from the start, though, “Assassin’s Creed II” demonstrates that it has learned its lesson. The storyline, now set in 15th century Italy as well as present day, receives the narrative justice it deserves: The present-day cast accrues some essential dimension, the characters in Italy are exponentially more likable than the first game’s humorless cast, and the game lets the story breathe by staying in place over multiple missions instead of continually jumping back and forth in time.

“Creed’s” timeline liberally and cleverly mixes factual and fictional history to reconstruct the legend of its characters’ lineage, and witnessing this reconstruction is miles more rewarding this time around. An optional collection of puzzle-oriented missions unlocks even more doors, connecting everything from Adam and Eve to John F. Kennedy to engineer some wild possibilities for future series installments.

The anatomic improvements extend to “AC2’s” gameplay, which reaps the reward of a quest structure that no longer requires players to complete X number of side missions before assassinating subject Y, jumping through time and repeating. The side missions return, but they’re significantly more diverse and more savvily ingrained into whatever else is happening in the landscape, which feels more alive thanks to some sharper A.I., the introduction of an economy and some great (albeit gamey, so relax your sense of disbelief) new mechanics for managing notoriety and seeking cover from guards while in a crowd.

The main storyline missions integrate themselves better as well: “AC2” makes it easy to start a new storyline mission almost the instant the previous one concludes, and the game tells much of its story while the player directs the action. Players who skip all that markedly improved optional content to beeline through the main story will do themselves a disservice, but “AC2” at least leaves that decision up to you. However you approach it, there’s always something to do, and there exists no lingering sense of familiarity haunting the game despite the 15 to 30 hours of gameplay it has in store.

Elsewhere, “AC2” doesn’t mess with what made its predecessor so great in spite of its unmistakable shortcomings.

The simple act of getting around Italy as Ezio is as fun as it was traversing the Holy Land as Altaïr: The cities are meticulously designed, and Ezio’s freerunning capabilities — combined with a control scheme that’s fantastically intuitive in spite of the demands it puts on a gamepad’s button real estate — make it tremendously fun to scale buildings, leap rooftops and position yourself for the perfect takedown.

“AC2,” for its part, offers a larger repertoire of weapons and techniques to wield, and thanks to the presence of Ezio’s good buddy Leonardo Da Vinci, the inventions — including a flying machine that practically doubles the fun all by itself — pour in throughout the entirety of the adventure.


New Super Mario Bros. Wii
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

The worst thing about “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” besides its abysmally uninspired title, is the way Nintendo itself has misrepresented it as a shell of Super Mario games past that requires four players in order for fun to be had.

Fun indeed is had by turning what traditionally has been a solo endeavor into a two-, three- or four-player free-for-all, with all active players running through the game simultaneously as Mario, Luigi and two Toads. (The princess, per usual, has been kidnapped.) Nintendo doesn’t change one iota of the levels regardless of whether one or four players are running through them, and the results are predictably and often hilariously chaotic.

Players can cooperate and spring off one another to perform amazing stunts and reach impossible heights. But they also can antagonize one another, going so far as to pick other players up and toss them to their demise. It’s a riotously fun time, but those who want to ace the game — finish every level, find all three special coins in each level, discover every hidden pathway and, of course, rescue the princess — will be impossibly hard-pressed to do it with the “help” of friends.

Fortunately, wonderfully and despite implications to the contrary, “NSMBW” is an equally amazing game as a solo experience, meeting and arguably exceeding the bar set by “Super Mario Bros. 3” and “Super Mario World” some 20 years ago. Ideas introduced in those games return fearlessly reinvented here, and “NSMBW” continually surprises with new platforming contraptions, level designs and power-ups. The new penguin suit is possibly the most versatile Mario upgrade ever, while the propeller suit ranks with the best of the best on the fun scale.

Classic characters and level archetypes also return, but 20 years of technological and graphical advancements allow them to do things that simply weren’t possible before. Happily, beyond the new suits, the same doesn’t apply to Mario and friends: Nintendo keeps the control scheme classically simple, and instances of motion control in “NSMBW” are infrequent enough to be novel and surprisingly fun in how they function in conjunction with the levels in which they appear.

Totaled up, “NSMBW” is, to perhaps an unprecedented degree, that rare game that is as magnificently enjoyable for long-suffering 2D Mario fans as it is for those who have never played one and had no idea a 19-year drought even existed. It’s an enormous value simply by being a full-featured game that offers two diametrically different experiences that can be cherished on wholly separate levels.

The only bug in the pancake batter is the lack of an online co-op option. Four-player “NSMBW” is a farcical mess in person, and Nintendo is dead right in assessing that the mood wouldn’t translate nearly as well online. But for those who lack the means to set up a local game, having an online consolation prize still trumps not having it.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

Given the myriad of fun possibilities, it’s somewhat amazing only one game — “Bust-a-Move DS” — has prominently leaned on a control mechanic built around using the Nintendo DS’ touch screen as a virtual slingshot.

That changes rather dramatically — albeit imperfectly — with “WireWay,” which builds an entire adventure game around the idea.

“WireWay” stars you as a strange little alien named Wiley, and the completely weird storyline — which deliberately is silly to the point of genuine amusement — has Wiley on a quest to gather valuable stars that are useless to Earthlings but extremely valuable to Wiley and his strange kind.

But the game isn’t about controlling Wiley so much as the areas through which he must navigate. Each level starts with Wiley grabbing onto the lowest-hanging wire, and you propel him forward by pulling back on the wire, picking your angle and launching him at stars, special items, enemies and other wires. “WireWay” introduces new contraptions as the game soldiers ahead, but the primary mode of transport involves firing Wiley around the level like a rock in a slingshot.

It isn’t a perfect science. The action takes place on both screens, and the space between screens translates into a blind spot that can complicate your shot selection. A nice touch allows you to shift the camera using the D-pad, but doing so also limits how far back you can pull the wire in certain directions. Practice makes near-perfect and it’s never a game-breaking problem, but it would’ve been preferable if “WireWay” let you zoom in and out rather than simply shift the viewpoint.

Other than that, though, the mechanic makes for a fun trick around which to build a game, and “WireWay” helps itself by regularly introducing variety to the levels and making them challenging to complete. For those who enjoy perfecting games, a grading mechanic that scores your ability to grab all the stars, find the special items and get to the ship as quickly as possible should induce a nice amount of replayabilty. Acing the game is no easy feat.

“WireWay” complements its goofy storyline with a two great challenge modes. Flick Trials limits how many moves you can make to send Wiley to the ship, while Strategery — the jewel of the game both in name and concept — forces you to pause the action and draw in the wires and contraptions yourself. Both modes use the same scoring system as the story levels, so they offer the same level of replayabilty for perfectionists.

All those calls for perfection make “WireWay’s” multiplayer mode, which turns the action into an anything-goes race to the ship, a pleasantly mindless change of pace. Four players can compete locally using one copy of the game, but only two courses are available unless everyone has their own copy. Online play isn’t available, but it’s hard to imagine a niche game arriving smack in the middle of the holiday blockbuster season accruing a major online following anyway.

DVD 11/24/09: Funny People, Familiar Strangers, Is Anybody There?, Evergreen, Humpday, Angels & Demons

Funny People: 2-Disc Unrated Collector’s Edition (R/NR, 2009, Universal)
“Funny People” is, inarguably, a movie. Whether it’s actually two movies, though, is a little more open to interpretation. “People” begins as a cross-section of the depressing backstage life and times of two comedians — supermarket employee and total nobody Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and jaded movie megastar George Simmons  (Adam Sandler) — whose separate inabilities to successfully participate in society run somewhat parallel in spite of their disparate career successes. When the two cross paths by chance, “People” zooms in a little closer and becomes both a buddy picture and, due to plot circumstances best left unspoiled, an especially unflattering look at one character’s uncanny gift of all-fronts alienation. Some more unspoiled events happen, things reach something of a conclusion, and if “People” barely changed a thing about its first 85 minutes and wrapped right there, few would accuse it of being an unfinished product. But it doesn’t, marching merrily on for another hour-plus of storytelling to clock in at 146 (or, for the unrated cut, 153) minutes, which is unheard of for what humbly begins as just another Judd Apatow comedy. And with so much good storytelling done already and, as it turns out, so much left to do, why not? “People” never runs on fumes and never compromises between being very funny, very cruelly honest and very intelligently heartfelt. More of that is never a bad thing, especially now that you can hit pause whenever you need an intermission. Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza and Jason Schwartzman also star.
Extras: Theatrical and unrated cuts, Apatow introduction, Apatow/Rogen/Sandler commentary, deleted/extended scenes, four-part making-of documentary, George Simmons retrospective (will make sense after seeing the film), an episode of “Yo Teach…!” (same), uncut Sandler prank call (same), documentary about Randy (same), outtakes, bloopers, line-o-rama.

Familiar Strangers (PG-13, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
As history has shown umpteen time through umpteen films about a son (Shawn Hatosy as Brian) returning home to reopen old familial wounds over a hot Thanksgiving meal, there are numerous ways to steer this ship. Given the wealth of baggage — divorce, father-son alienation, failed expectations on multiple levels — passed between the six people and two dogs who comprise the immediate Worthington family, “Familiar Strangers” easily could have taken the road repeatedly traveled and devolved into a depressing tidal wave of bottled feelings finally uncorked. Instead, and to its great benefit, it elects to toe a very fine line between garden-variety drama and a general disposition that’s dryly funny enough to make that garden-variety drama more interesting in practice than on paper. “Strangers” neither breaks the mold nor aces the exam: Its devotion to that balance sometimes comes at the expense of a few supporting characters, who flash promise early but ultimately feel like devices for helping color Brian’s story. But while that approach breeds some narrative dissatisfaction, it also help Brian emergence as that rare character who is funny, engaging and very likable despite also being kind of a dullard. And how many holiday films legitimately culminate through a game of donkey basketball? Only one, and this is it. Tom Bower, Ann Dowd, Cameron Richardson, Georgia Mae Lively and Nikki Reed also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Is Anybody There? (PG-13, 2009, Magnolia)
Like many people incapable of taking complete care of themselves, Edward (Bill Milner) lives in a nursing home. Also arguably unsurprising: Edward has parlayed a bored existence into a fascination with morbidity, going so far as to attempt communication with the dead. But Edward isn’t near the end of his life — he’s 10, and the only reason he lives here is because his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey), who themselves are going through a spot of disenchantment, run the thing. And when a slightly senile, very cranky washed-up magician (Michael Caine as Clarence) enters the home kicking and screaming, “Is Anybody There?” becomes a bastion of people living lives they never counted on living. Impressively, though it flirts with both angles, “There” doesn’t take this occasion to bring its audience down any more than it uses it as a stage for darkly ironic comedy. Instead, it’s an honest, explicitly character-driven story that unloads more human interest than the 94-minute runtime can completely handle. Throw in another layer of interesting supporting and prop characters, and it becomes quickly clear that some of them aren’t going to get their full due. Fortunately, where it counts — a corrosive friendship between Edward and Clarence that finds Caine delivering some of the best lines of his career to an 11-year-old kid astonishingly capable of handling them — “There” is  magnificently resonate success that doesn’t come around nearly enough.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Evergreen (PG-13, 2004, Indiepix)
There is no such thing as an instruction manual for raising a child. But you’ll have to forgive 14-year-old Henri (Addie Land) for her waning sympathy for journeymom Kate (Cara Seymour), who has been carting her from one barely adequate living condition to another her whole life. This time, the leaky roof over their head is that of Henri’s grandmother (Lynn Cohen), whom Kate has enlisted to help raise Henri while she tries to find some kind of stable cash flow. The sympathy/longing quotients are further complicated when, as the new kid in yet another school, Henri strikes up a relationship with a kid (Noah Fleiss as Chat) who has both significantly greater means and a seemingly functional family who welcomes her into their lives. If you’ve hypothesized that “Evergreen” isn’t the knee-slapping laugh fest of the season, you done so correctly. But while “Evergreen” is a bleak movie about dead ends and promises seemingly destined to go unfulfilled, it takes on those topics in a fashion that’s more uncomfortably honest than cloyingly weepy. Henri and Kate in particular are developed to the point that their stories are involving in spite of their implied and seemingly inevitable dreary end, and the script has some rewards hiding in wait once that heavy lifting is done. Bruce Davison and Mary Kay Place also star.
Extra: Cast/crew bios.

Humpday (R, 2009, Magnolia)
A meandering conversation between intoxicated old friends Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) has turned into a serious dual dare: What would happen if the two straight friends shot a sex scene together and presented it at the pornographic art film festival that’s about to roll into town? A few other details worth noting: Ben is married, and Ben’s wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) had never even met Andrew until he unexpectedly showed up at their house in the middle of the night not even 24 hours prior. Also? The meandering conversation took flight during an impromptu party with strangers that went deep into the night while Ben’s wife waited at home with a dinner she prepared for the three of them. How’s that for a situation? “Humpday” has enough absorbing weirdness in its premise to coast to the credits on intrigue alone. So that’s what it does, electing for a conversational, almost documentarian storytelling style that allows the ensuing fallout to develop naturally and without twisty contrivance. The characters achieve dimension through rambling, imperfectly-delivered dialogue, and the rest of “Day’s” bone-dry manner, right down to the grainy cinematography, falls in line stylistically. The ultra-indie approach will inevitably annoy those who prefer a little gloss, but for what “Day” is trying to do here, it’s an uncomfortably enjoyable success.
Extras: Director/crew commentary, Duplass/Leonard commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Angels & Demons: Two-Disc Extended Edition (NR, 2009, Sony Pictures)
One person’s wall of blather is another person’s two-hour blockbuster thrill ride, and that person’s mindless fun is another person’s personal affront. So here’s something about “Angels & Demons” that’s pretty harmlessly universal: It’s exquisitely polished in all the usual Hollywood ways, and for being a companion piece to (though, per usual, no replacement for) a book that itself has brought more baggage to the table than all the marketing and word of mouth ever could, it does a respectable job. Corners, as usual, get cut when paring 480 pages down to 146 minutes, and a different set of eyes easily could spot chunks of “Demons” that run unnecessarily long for their cinematic purposes. Someone’s favorite portion of the book inevitably has been shortchanged, while those who see “Demons” without reading the book inevitably will roll their eyes at some wink at the readers that never receives any follow-up treatment. Other than the strange rearrangement of chronology — the film is a sequel to “The Da Vinci Code” despite the book being a prequel — nothing “Demons” does changes the trajectory of book-to-film translation history, making it a complete disappointment or a comfortably fun success depending on your expectations. At least, as with “Code,” we have a likable lead (Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon) to steer the whole weird ship. Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer,     Pierfrancesco Favino and Stellan Skarsgård also star.
Extras: Seven behind-the-scenes features.

Games 11/17/09: Left 4 Dead 2, Modern Warfare 2, Buzz! Quiz World

Left 4 Dead 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)

What does a sequel look like when it’s turned around in a year by a studio notorious for taking twice as long to develop an episodic expansion pack?

Actually, if you’re the audience Valve is targeting with “Left 4 Dead 2,” it looks pretty good. “L4D2” is a wholly incremental upgrade over its 2008 predecessor, but it hits all the marks — new campaigns, new characters, new modes and new infected freaks to play as online — it needed to hit to command another $60 from players who still have the original in heavy rotation.

Elementarily speaking, “L4D2” changes nothing: It’s a first person shooter, starring you as one of four human survivors navigating a zombie apocalypse (this time, in New Orleans and its outskirts). The objective: Kill hordes of attacking zombies, as well as less common but exponentially more dangerous special infected, whose attacks are more powerful and harder to circumvent.

As per last time, the game splits into five bite-sized, hour-plus-long campaigns, and it dynamically rearranges how and from where the infected attack each time you play. You can take on campaigns solo (with three A.I.-controlled allies) or with friends (two-player split-screen, up to four online).

While a couple of the new campaigns feel like uninspired bridges between the better offerings, “L4D2” hits more than misses. The introduction of daytime campaigns provides a dramatic change of mood to the action, and some of the locales — a shopping mall, an amusement park, a concert stage and a storm-drenched cornfield you have you traverse back and forth without alerting a band of witches — are pretty inspired. A new Realism mode toggle, accessible from any difficulty level, removes a few video game safety nets in favor of forcing players to communicate better and stay continually on their toes.

“L4D2’s” new survivors don’t add as much as one might hope: They say little between missions, and they pretty much just emulate “L4D’s” foursome when the heat is on. Much more impressive is weapons list, which expands to include better rifles, upgradable ammo rounds, new explosives and some disgustingly effective melee weapons.

But “L4D2’s” most notable (and necessary) bump is in the modes department. The Survival mode, added to “L4D” as downloadable content, is intact from the start, while a new Scavenge mode tasks survivors with collecting fuel for an escape before time runs out while playable infected try to stop them. The standard Versus mode also returns, and this time it supports all five campaign maps and features a more inclusive scoring mechanism. “L4D2” introduces three new special infected types, and all three are a treat to play as in Versus matches.

The only thing “L4D2” doesn’t improve is its general indifference toward solo players. The single-player suite consists strictly of the campaigns — all other modes require multiplayer participation — and if you refuse to play with friends or head online, too much of the experience remains off-limits to recommend this as a full-price purchase.


Modern Warfare 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Infinity Ward/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, language)

“Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” spins in gamers’ drives to this day because of its multiplayer suite, which took traditional first-person shooter multiplayer and tacked on a leveling system that rewarded players with special weapons and tactics as they racked up in-game experience points.

As such, it’s best to head off a review of “Modern Warfare 2” by stating that the competitive multiplayer suite (18 players online, four players offline) returns fundamentally unchanged. There are 16 new maps, new weapons, new ways for players to accrue experience and some amazing new perks, including a tactical nuke that instantly ends a match and an EMP bomb that can neuter the nuke. Some nagging issues, including a matchmaking system that regularly tosses novices into the fire against pros with perks to spare, also return, but Infinity Ward’s terrific technical underpinnings — lag-free combat, spot-on control — ensure it’s built to last another two years.

“MW2’s” more significant improvements take place in the single-player campaign, which resumes five years after the events of “COD4” and follows a storytelling bent that’s more “24” than “Saving Private Ryan.” Infinity Ward spins a cool yarn about a misunderstanding that leads to a Russian invasion of the United States, but it does a clumsy job of explaining how one crazy twist leads to another. All the details are there, but they’re half-heartedly scattered during between-mission cutscenes that play down the significance of these explanations to a damaging degree.

In action, though, “MW2” finally addresses issues that have plagued the series for years. The enemy A.I. is drastically improved: Where “COD4’s” soldiers stood in place and pelted you almost the instant you left cover, “MW2’s” enemies are more kinetic and react to your actions more accordingly. Your allies are similarly capable, able to dynamically call out enemy locations and tactics as they’re happening in battle.

The shift in behavior gives some overdue breathing room to more stealthy missions. Whereas “COD4’s” centerpiece stealth mission was rigid to the point of failing you the instant the enemy spotted you, “MW2” gives you a chance to fight back and get back into hiding. Best of all, taking down an enemy doesn’t magically respawn another one in his place until you advance past some arbitrary invisible line, so you’re free to fight defensively as well as offensively.

Numerous instances still exist in which you’re more a participant in a scripted action scene than the director, and there’s still one mission objective in which “MW2” forgets itself and bombards you with legions of soldiers blasting you from every direction. But this, finally, is the exception rather than the rule.

“MW2’s” campaign lacks co-op support, but Infinity Ward’s consolation prize — a 23-mission Spec-Ops mode — is arguably better anyway. The missions better emphasize cooperation than the campaign, and the objectives and scenarios (and in several cases, levels) are exclusive to this mode. The mode is also available for solo play, effectively doubling the amount of original single-player content that “COD4” had.


Buzz! Quiz World
For: Playstation 3
From: Relentless Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

“Trivia game” and “cutting-edge graphics” aren’t terms you regularly find arm in arm, but they’re practically making out in “Buzz Quiz World,” which excels magnificently in its audiovisual recreation of the prime-time quiz show format.

That it looks so pretty is, of course, secondary to numerous factors ranging from user-friendliness to the quantity and quality of the questions buried inside. But it also speaks to a larger facet of what makes “Buzz!” the best of its breed and easily worth a look on a system normally reserved for blockbuster action bonanzas.

For those who already picked up “Buzz! Quiz TV” last year, “World’s” presentational splash isn’t any great surprise, nor are the features that debuted in that game and slide over in improved states.

“World’s” online multiplayer is the most significant beneficiary, doubling the player count to eight and allowing for “Family Feud”-esque four-on-four games in which every player has his or her own buzzer controller. “World” also supports voice chat, and if you’re a fan of Sony’s Playstation Home service, you can win prizes for your virtual apartment. Locally, “World” still supports eight players and, if you can commandeer two bundles’ worth of buzzers, eight buzzers.

“World” also introduces some welcome interface improvements. You can set up customized games in advance that cater to your preferences, mixing modes liberally or, if you prefer, leaving out the gimmicky variants and sticking to straight trivia. You can save your player profile this time, and in a nice touch, your always-affable host (named Buzz, of course) will address you by your name if it’s in the game’s directory.

All the question packs released for “TV” — either as downloadable content or free user-generated content created at — work in “World,” which also includes 5,000 new questions on the disc. Unfortunately, sorting through user-created quizzes isn’t any easier this time around: Sony can’t realistically vet every quiz for quality and accuracy, and the in-game tool for finding the good stuff isn’t as refined as, say, its “LittleBigPlanet” counterpart.

“World” also doesn’t provide much for single players to do: The smattering of available modes pales in comparison to what players can do with friends locally or online, and while that’s understandable — this is a party game, after all — it’s still a bummer that quiz fanatics who prefer to fly solo have no rewarding single-player path through what easily is the best quiz video game in existence.

If this is your first “Buzz” rodeo, it’s worth noting that the game only supports the Buzz controllers and not the standard PS3 controller. The good news is that the bundle that includes four buzzers commands the same $60 as a typical standalone PS3 game. That isn’t a reflection on the quality of the controllers, either: They’re satisfyingly sturdy and, because of how they emulate a game show buzzer, fun to use. Just pick up some AA batteries in the same trip, because they aren’t included.

DVD 11/17/09: Thirst, Brüno, How to Be, Andy Barker, P.I., Skills Like This, The Open Road, The Limits of Control, The Steve Coogan Collection, Farscape/Rome Complete Series, UFC: The Ultimate 100 Greatest Fights

Thirst (R, 2009, Focus/Universal)
Even priests have crises of confidence, and in Father Sang-hyeon’s (Kang-ho Song) case, it’s enough to propel him to participate in an experimental blood transfusion that could benefit society but also is so risky as to be arguably suicidal. What wasn’t explained to him was the possibility that, upon death, he could wake up as a vampire. But it’s too late for warnings now, so here we are. Yes, “Thirst” is yet another vampire movie. But Father Sang-hyeon isn’t just another mopey dreamboat with a complex: He’s unstably hungry, thoroughly rattled by the blow his faith’s been dealt, a bit angry, a bit scared, but also completely enraptured by his newfound strength and abilities. And that’s to say nothing of his followers, who think he’s some kind of deity for surviving the transfusion, or the married woman (Ok-vin Kim) who lusts after him before she even knows he’s anything but a priest who should be completely off-limits. “Thirst” pays respect to numerous vampire film conventions, but it does so with its own brand of barely-contained madness, and by the time the story reaches its completely crazy and morbidly satisfying conclusion, it has become an animal of its own creation. In Korean with English subtitles. No extras.

Brüno (R, 2009, Universal)
Borat Sagdiyev is one seriously tough act to follow, and perhaps no one knows that quite as intimately as the man who created him. “Brüno” plays out in similar fashion to “Borat,” with Sacha Baron Cohen once again undercover in the titular role as he tries to achieve fortune in America. Fans of Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” already know Brüno, whose segment regularly followed Borat’s on the show, so it’s not as if he’s a brand-new creation hastily devised in light of “Borat’s” big-screen success. But even with that said, it’s pretty clear “Brüno” is trying to out-Borat “Borat” — and with the main character being an outwardly gay fashionista and with most of the film’s stomping ground being rural and suburban America, it’s about as challenging as setting a leaky gas can on fire. But that’s also “Brüno’s” problem: While Cohen regularly puts himself at risk for physical harm with his stunts, the vast majority of his antics revolve around the same gag (making prudes deeply uncomfortable), and the thoroughly course nature of the stunts feels far more confrontational than Borat’s hilarious but outwardly well-meaning social flaps. That, of course, doesn’t mean “Brüno” doesn’t have its moments, because it absolutely does. Cohen’s most dangerous stunts — including a doozy at a mixed martial arts event — are wince-worthy on a horror film level, and some of his throwaway lines (or better yet, the things he gets other people to say in their haste to fulfill their own interests) are just magnificently funny.
Extras: Revelatory commentary with Cohen and director/partner-in-crime Larry Charles, deleted/alternate/extended scenes, extended Larry Robinson (makes sense if you’ve seen the movie) interview.

How to Be (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
For those unnerved and annoyed by the return of “Twilight” fever and Robert Pattinson’s thousand-mile stare assaulting television commercials and movie posters everywhere, here’s an early holiday present from the man himself. In “How to Be,” Pattinson (starring here as depressed supermarket clerk and wannabe musician Arthur) trades dreamy glance for every page in the socially hopeless playbook: He’s on the verge of either an epiphany or full-scale nervous breakdown, and he’s flailing wildly away at anyone and everyone — a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (Alisa Arnah), his best friends (Jeremy Hardy, Mike Pearce, Johnny White), his parents (Rebecca Pidgeon and Michael Irving) and eventually a published psychologist (Powell Jones) who makes extended house calls — in hopes of getting someone to understand. “Be,” for its part, travels on a similarly unstable path, regularly flirting with both light and dark comedy while also veering into darkly dramatic waters every once in a while. The result isn’t your traditional three-act storyline, and Arthur is such a bundle of nerves that he’s bound to annoy entire swaths of people in ways even Edward Cullen couldn’t, but “Be” is starkly honest, funny, and completely dead-on in its portrayal of a person who just needs a hand while waiting for all these weird new feelings to make sense.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, Pattinson interview, audition footage, photo gallery.

Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series (NR, 2007, Shout Factory)
The good news about the light-speed cancellation of “Andy Barker, P.I.,” which chronicles the adventures of a floundering, goody-two-shoes accountant (Andy Richter) who accidentally stumbles into a career as a suburban private detective? It gave Richter the free time he needed to reunite with Conan O’Brien (who co-created “Barker”) on “The Tonight Show.” The bad news? Take your pick. Though it shares no narrative ties with Richter’s similarly under-appreciated “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” “Barker’s” comedic philosophy should strike an immediate chord with anyone who loved that show. Similarly, while Richter doesn’t play himself the way he did in “Universe,” his lovably self-depreciating turn as Barker might as well make this a spiritual sequel. The supporting cast (Tony Hale, Harve Presnell, Marshall Manesh, Clea Lewis) keeps up, though their growth obviously suffers because of the show’s stunted run. Lack of time also hurts a few loose plot ends, which cap otherwise terrifically-written episodes with cliffhangers that never stop hanging. But that isn’t the fault of the show, which uses the little time it has to tell six pretty great stories. Watching them now is somewhat bittersweet because of how much potential “Barker” had in the tank, but that doesn’t mean Richter fans shouldn’t indulge anyway.
Contents: Six episodes (cast/crew commentary on all six), plus a behind-the-scenes retrospective, a writers roundtable and bloopers.

Skills Like This (NR, 2008, New Video NYC)
Wannabe writer Max’s (Spencer Berger) most recent play was so awful, it caused his grandfather to pass out and end up in the hospital before it ended. His friends (Brian Phelan, Gabriel Tigerman) aren’t doing a whole lot better at their respective ambitions, and there appears to be no end in sight for all this lack of life direction. So when one of them off-handedly suggests that Max should rob a bank, Max steps outside, crosses the street, robs the nearest bank, sort of charms the teller (Kerry Knuppe as Lucy) handing him the cash, and discovers his real calling. How’s that for a productive 15 minutes? “Skills Like This” can’t credibly get away with such a silly premise without being a little silly itself, and that pretty much is what it is. That means a number of things, from characters who sometimes are too cute for their own good to plot turns that could and would never pass muster in the real world. If authenticity is a problem, watching “This” will bring with it no shortage of fits. But Max is a pretty likable character in spite of his new hobby, Lucy makes a great foil once she inevitably reenters the picture, and the whole dance comes off as a well-written, pleasantly light comedy about young idiots doing something even grizzled geniuses could never pull off.
Extras: Deleted scenes, cast/crew interviews, filmmaker bio.

The Open Road (PG-13, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Take an empty script, cover it in glue and dip it into a box of stock storytelling scraps to see what sticks, and you’ll probably come away with something like “The Open Road,” which amounts to a nicely-shot, well-acted, talent-laden collection of storylines you’ve almost certainly seen countless times already. Minor league baseball player Carlton Garrett’s (Justin Timberlake) mom (Mary Steenburgen) is undergoing potentially life-threatening surgery, but she won’t go under the knife until Carlton can convince his estranged baseball legend father (Jeff Bridges) to visit her. So he, along with his ex-girlfriend (Kate Mara), head on a road trip that will change all their lives and so on and on. You’ve heard this riddle before, and because “Road” takes no more chances with its storytelling than it does with its setup, you also know where it’s headed. The film does a nice job of getting there: The characters are sufficiently developed, the cast is certainly capable, and there’s a nice attention to detail with regard to setting and backdrop. But given how well-worn every narrative road in “Road” is, that’s probably the least it could do. A little note for those intrigued by the box: Despite Carlton’s vocation, “Road” isn’t a baseball movie. It also isn’t a comedy, despite the box’s puzzling claim — unless your idea of funny is broken families, men who hide their feelings and mile after mile of bottled-up regret coming unspooled.
Extras: Writer/director/Bridges commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Limits of Control (R, 2009, Universal)
There’s something completely romantic about the way Isaach De Bankolé’s unnamed character, who is sent to Spain and tasked with completing a dangerous but otherwise unspecified assignment, goes about his work, and it’s that romanticism on which “The Limits of Control” hopes to coast. The character says not a word beyond what is necessary, and multiple strings of dialogue-free scenes find him interacting blankly with his targets while working his way through his mission’s pieces with robotic precision. For a while, it’s slightly hypnotic, and “Limit” certainly is nice to look at when no one’s saying anything. But as the wait for answers grows and one character after another follows with opaque, often repetitive turns of phrase that reveal even less than our lead’s silence often does, the illusion succumbs completely. Once the jig is up, all that remains is a pretty, artsy but absurdly pretentious two-hour lull that takes shallow roads and tries to pass itself off as something far more refined than it even remotely is. “Control” doubtlessly has all the ingredients it needs to fool some into giving it art-film cred it doesn’t earn, but anyone with an ounce of critical self-confidence will laugh it out of the DVD tray. Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Luis Tosar, Gael García Bernal and Bill Murray also star.
Extras: Cast interviews, bonus landscape footage (which, as it happens, is the best part of the film anyway).

Worth a Mention
— “The Steve Coogan Collection” (NR, BBC): Most collections devoted to a single actor are just excuses to sell a handful of said actor’s most obscure movies in a pretty box. But “The Steve Coogan Collection” exists on the complete opposite extreme: It includes the full series runs of “I’m Alan Partridge,” “Saxondale,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Coogan’s Run” and “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible,” as well as “The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon” and the Paul and Pauline Calf specials. Given the brevity of British television series, it isn’t as immense as it sounds on paper, but it’s awfully hard to argue that it isn’t comprehensive. Special features that appeared on previous DVD iterations of the series featured here are included as well.
“Farscape: The Complete Series Megaset” (NR, 1999, A&E): The brilliant sci-fi classic belongs in the dictionary next to the definition for “cult favorite,” but if it’s still new to you, the time has never been better to dive in. Includes all 88 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes documentaries, a handful of smaller behind-the-scenes features, home video premiere footage for the long-lost behind-the-scenes special, series wrap footage, interviews, bloopers and promotional stuff.
“Rome: The Complete Series” (NR, 2005, HBO): It didn’t last very long, but it was awfully good while it did. Includes all 22 episodes, plus commentary, nine behind-the-scenes features, two interactive historical guides and a photo gallery. As per usual with HBO series sets, the packaging is almost too classy for the humble DVD format.
“UFC: The Ultimate 100 Greatest Fights” (NR, UFC/Anchor Bay): The Ultimate Fighting Championship has persevered and prospered over the course of 100 pay-per-view specials since 1993, and so this set, which features 100 hand-picked fights (tallying more than 26 hours of content) in their entirety, provides a most fitting tribute.

Games 11/10/09: Half-Minute Hero, Need For Speed Nitro, Lego Rock Band, Band Hero

Half-Minute Hero
For: Playstation Portable
From: Marvelous Entertainment/XSEED Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, language, mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)

If you’re one of those poor souls who enjoys the trappings of a good role-playing, real-time strategy and/or tower defense game, then boy, does “Half-Minute Hero” have a wholly unique and brilliantly original deal for you.

“Hero” arrives divided into three (and, after a little unlocking, six) pieces, with each piece representing an era in the game’s storytelling legend. Additionally, four of them represent a separate popular (and, in three cases, traditionally complex) gaming genre. The “Hero 30” chapter is “Hero’s” answer to role-playing games, while “Evil Lord 30,” “Princess 30” and “Knight 30” respectively take on tactical strategy, overhead 2D arcade shooting and tower defense.

“Hero’s” willingness to cover all four of these bases is potentially remarkable in its own respect, but it’s how the game does it — and where it gets the “Half-Minute” part of its name — that elevates it to a world all its own.

In a nutshell? Each level must be completed in 30 seconds. In the case of the Evil Lord, Princess and Knight chapters, that means completely wrapping up a battle and meeting any necessary objectives in the time it takes a commercial to air. In the Hero mode, that means completing an entire role-playing game — complete with title card and end credits for each “sequel” — in that same span of time. You don’t have a choice: The world ends if you fail.

“Hero” predictably skirts this time mechanic to some degree: You can pray for more time in the role-playing game and purchase it in the tactical games. The shooter levels feature special red carpets that, if traversed, add seconds back to the clock.

But even with those limited-use workarounds, you never have more than 30 seconds to spare at any point in “Hero,” which brilliantly bucks the conventions of the genres it mimics by turning them into frantic sprints against always-ticking clocks. RPG battles began and end in a second or two. Full-scale wars against enemy armies take 15 seconds. The gameplay is far more manageable than it sounds on paper, but the speed at which is soars by is nonetheless truly remarkable, and the whole experiment is a shocking success given all the conventional polarities in play. (“Hero’s” fifth and sixth mode, bend the RPG mode by putting 300 and three seconds, respectively on the clock. That ladder mode is as ludicrous as it sounds.)

“Hero’s” spirit is similarly buoyant on the outside thanks to an inspired audiovisual style that harkens back to 16-bit gaming’s early-1990s glory days. The game’s dialogue reads like the work of a junior high school kid writing fan fiction, but it does so deliberately and with a dry wit. What “Hero” lacks in sweeping storylines, it more than makes up for in funny characters and absolutely hilarious throwaway lines that come out of nowhere.


Need For Speed Nitro
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Montreal
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, mild violence)

At first blush, it’s easy to mistake “Need for Speed Nitro” — which takes a proper “Need for Speed” game, strips it of its simulative leanings and whittles it down to a streamlined racer with a very heavy arcade bent — as something of a raw deal.

But “Nitro’s” arcadey disposition isn’t just a case of subtracting and oversimplifying for a more casual audience. Rather, because it isn’t constrained by the same parameters, “Nitro” does things a traditional “NFS” game cannot. Depending on how you choose to play and how extensively you wish to succeed, it also poses a more satisfying challenge than its more well-rounded cousins.

Speed rules everything in “Nitro,” which gets its name from the two tanks of nitrous oxide equipped on all 30 of its licensed vehicles. Driving with style replenishes your nitrous bars, and from there you can activate one for a significant speed boost or both for something not of this world.

“Nitro’s” low camera placement and overall visual presentation convey a nice sensation of speed all by themselves, and the brake button exists more as a means to drift around corners at high speeds than as a tool for cautious driving. Master the drift, enable a double nitrous boost and weave between cop cars bent on shutting your race down, and the action moves at an exhilarating clip more straight-faced racing games can’t feasibly deliver.

The arcadey approach, thankfully, doesn’t translate into a powderpuff challenge. “Nitro” offers steering assistance for those who want it, and the control schemes that only require the Wii remote are forgiving enough for “Mario Kart” graduates. For more experienced players, though, the traditional schemes and assist-free physics complement a surprisingly ruthless A.I. to make “Nitro” a legitimately (but never unfairly) challenging game. Completely cleaning up in the career mode — winning events, beating par lap times and accruing style points across a variety of event styles — is tougher here than in a traditional “NFS” game.

Similar design decisions course through the entirety of “Nitro,” which counters most of what it lacks with something of its own that traditional “NFS” either couldn’t do or couldn’t get away with. The stylized, spirited graphical presentation — which uses graffiti art in a brilliant way that’s best unspoiled — nullifies the Wii’s technical shortcomings to a startling degree. Similarly, while you can’t tune cars to nearly the same extent that you can in other “NFS” games, you can paint them however you please using the Wii remote as a freeform paintbrush, which arguably is better as far as personalization is concerned.

The only gap “Nitro” can’t close, though, is a big one. The game’s local multiplayer support — four players and drop-in/drop-out capabilities even in the career mode — is terrific, but its online component is nonexistent. Painting cars would be that much more satisfying if you could show them off online, and that’s to say nothing of the extra longevity online competitions and record-keeping would provide.


Lego Rock Band
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Harmonix/TT Games/MTV/Warner Bros. Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild lyrics)

Band Hero
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, Nintendo DS
From: Neversoft/RedOctane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

The grudge match between “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” rages on, and because “Lego Rock Band” and “Band Hero” exist primarily to lure in families put off by the parent games’ more mature set lists, even the children no longer are safe.

If you’re a cynic, “Band Hero” probably merits a dirty first look: The name will positively terrify parents already confused by the two franchises’ shrinking discrepancies, and the game itself is basically a cloned “Guitar Hero 5” with a pop theme and a family-friendly, 65-track setlist that’s 20 songs poorer than “GH5” despite matching it in price.

But if you don’t have “GH5” and prefer “Hero’s” family-friendly disposition, that’s actually perfectly good news. “Hero” doesn’t dumb the gameplay down in any respect, and outside of the setlist size, it matches its parent product in terms of features — career mode, support for any configuration of up to 4 (local multiplayer, online co-op) or eight (online competitive) drums, guitars and mics, even the imposingly robust studio mode that lets you create and share your own instrumentals.

“Lego Rock Band” can’t make quite the same claim, in large part due to the puzzling omission of any online play whatsoever. If the idea wad to protect the children, an option to disable online functionality would have more than sufficed. The 45-song setlist also presents an even bigger drop-off from “Rock Band 2’s” 84 tracks.

Presentationally speaking, though, “LRB” is a brilliant realization of what should happen when Harmonix’s airtight gameplay mixes it up with TT Games’ masterful use of the Lego license. “LRB’s” storyline is as cleverly funny as TT’s “Star Wars” and “Batman” send-ups, and the Lego setting allows it to explore storytelling frontiers — monster-infested mansions, outer space, a drumming octopus seeking vengeance — traditional “Rock Band” games could never visit. Players who play through the storyline also unlock furniture, instruments and body parts, which they can use to customize their characters and rock den.

Additionally, while “LRB’s” setlist is smaller than it should be and home to its fair share of flavor-of-the-month hits, it also brings along the likes (and in a few spectacular cases, playable Lego facsimiles) of Queen, Spinal Tap, David Bowie, T-Rex, Elton John and Iggy Pop. For parents who want to instill some reverence and good taste in their kids at an early age, this — along with a new Super Easy difficulty setting that’s extremely accommodating to entry-level players — makes “LRB” a pretty powerful ally.

DVD 11/10/09: Up, Monsters Inc. Blu-Ray, Paraiso Travel, Spread, Xavier: Renegade Angel S1&2, Show me Yours CS, Enlighten Up!, The Offical Major League Baseball World Series Film Collection, G.I. Joe: The Complete Series

Up: Blu-Ray and DVD Combo Pack (PG, 2009, Disney/Pixar)
Once Pixar knocked out a few cute character movies and got the computer animation ball rolling, it forged ahead to more complicated fare while everybody else flooded the market with more cute character stories. That journey comes fittingly full circle with “Up,” which itself chronicles a journey devised by a boy and potentially realized ages later by a cranky old man who grew to fear the world he once promised to explore. “Up” raises the maturity bar yet again with its disarmingly ardent (but, in true Pixar show-don’t-tell fashion, completely elegant) look at the dark side of mortality. But in the same space, and often without losing a beat, “Up” reaches back for familiar conventions — hilarious physical comedy, clever dialogue that works on multiple levels, a cute kid, some adorably personified animals — it mastered years ago in ways few studios have even now. Per usual, “Up” also looks magnificent down to the most minute texture or light source, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the relationship between the film’s script and its visual style. Pixar’s track record is dependable to the point of predictable by now, and “Up” has its share of arguable nitpicks, particularly with regard to a cluster of scenes in act three that go on a bit longer than is necessary. Overwhelmingly, though, it’s a remarkable display of all the things that make film so great working in near-perfect harmony.
Extras: Two shorts (“Dug’s Special Mission” and “Partly Cloudy,” which opened for it during the theatrical run), alternate endings, nine behind-the-scenes features (eight are exclusive to the Blu-ray disc, but the 22-minute centerpiece is on the DVD), Blu-ray game, international trailer/promo collections, digital copy.
Also available this week: “Monsters, Inc.: Blu-Ray and DVD Combo Pack” (G, 2001, Disney/Pixar): The Pixar classic makes its high-definition debut, and it hasn’t aged a moment. Extras include the “For the Birds” and “Mike’s New Car” shorts, a new filmmaker commentary and roundtable, a new behind-the-scenes feature, a new Blu-ray disc game, a Pixar factory tour, outtakes, a compilation of banished concepts and a digital copy.

Paraiso Travel (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
“Paraiso Travel” is the heartwarming story of how Marlon (Aldemar Correa) and Reina (Angelica Blandon) braved the odds, chased the American dream and scratched their way to a storybook ending in bustling New York City. Or rather, that’s how the young lovers think it’ll go when we flash back in time and find them hatching their migration plan in Columbia. “Travel” doesn’t keep us in suspense about whether it’s a fairy or cautionary tale: The unpleasant aftermath of the trip is laid bare in the film’s very first scene, and the film jumps back and forth in time to tie fantasy and reality together before the storylines merge for the final act. Given the heat surrounding the subject matter — it’s illegal immigration, perhaps you’ve heard about it recently — “Travel” can’t escape whatever preconceived (and immovable) notions viewers might have about its characters. Fortunately, it doesn’t try to, either, ducking the message movie route and emerging simply as a polished and honest story about two people doing what they’ve set out to do. All that time-traveling allows “Travel” to pile extraordinary amounts of history and dimension on its characters, and by the time the story reaches its conclusion, all those exterior notions have long faded out of view. John Leguizamo and Ana de la Reguera also star. The original Spanish theatrical cut is available with English subtitles, but an English dub also is included.
Extra: Photo Gallery.

Spread (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Nikki’s (Ashton Kutcher) life’s mission is simple: Move to Los Angeles, say the right things to the right people, look as pretty as a man can look, and coast through life as a paid boy who trades sexual favors with the rich and glamorous (Anne Heche, in “Spread’s” case) for a free slice of their lives. “Spread” initially tells its story  through Nikki’s narration, and it does so without any overly apparent irony or self-awareness, which means it also requests your cooperation while it tries to develop Nikki into a credibly likable lead rather than simply some schmuck whose potential downfall becomes the film’s primary rooting interest. Whether it pulls that off comes down to personal perception, but without spoiling much, “Spread” at least gives both audiences a chance to get their way — sometimes predictably, but just as often surprisingly. And while the script gets off to a dangerously pretentious start and occasionally falls back into bad habits, it’s smart enough to make Nikki — whether you like him or wish him the worst — a better character than he probably had any right to be. Margarita Levieva also stars.
Extras: Kutcher/Heche/Levieva commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Xavier: Renegade Angel: Season 1 and 2 (NR, 2007, Adult Swim)
Some shows are so completely beyond weird as to defy the typical parameters that constitute a review. Many of those shows make an appearance on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. “Xavier: Renegade Angel” makes most of those shows appear somewhat normal by comparison, because that’s how far out there this one lies. “Xavier” follows a self-appointed guardian angel Xavier, who goes on what he (and only he) classifies as spirit walks and quests to help regular Joes going about their lives. From there, the 11-minute plotlines simply explode in a fireball of inanity. Ever hear the one about the kid in a wheelchair who creates life in a petri dish and turns it into a persistent explosion that not could destroy the planet, but also happens to be his dad? Give “Xavier” a chance, and you will. The writing is so purposefully beyond bad as to be kind of hilarious, and the animation — 3D computer animation that would look horribly dated in 1997, to say nothing of 2007 — fits right in. It’s terrible and incredibly wonderful all at once, so who needs a review? Figure it out yourself.
Contents: 20 episodes, plus fan commentary, fan-made “Xavier” tribute shorts and an Xavier workout video.

Show me Yours: The Complete Series (NR, 2003, E1 Entertainment)
Trite premise, thy name is “Show me Yours,” which finds a slightly uptight, not-quite-happily-involved psychologist (Rachael Crawford as Kate Langford) unhappily forced to co-research a book about sexual experiences with a silver-tongued counterpart (Adam Harrington as Benjamin Chase) who very openly wants to free her from that aforementioned involvement. Wonder what’s going to happen here, right? Fortunately and probably necessarily, “Yours” gets a good chunk of the inevitable out of the way in the first episode, and in the same stroke leaves us with some characters who have a little more going on than those initial archetypes promise. “Yours” also is good with words, capably dabbling in storylines and exchanges that never get too smart or silly for their own good. And because it’s Canadian rather than American network television, it can linguistically and visually go places a show about this stuff probably should go. Rachel Wilson, Jeff Seymour, Jennie Raymond and Alberta Watson also star.
Contents: 16 episodes, no extras.

Enlighten Up! (NR, 2008, Docurama)
Before you watch “Enlighten Up!,” which bills itself as a “skeptic’s journey into the world of yoga,” ask yourself this: Are you here to be enlightened, or will some simple light entertainment suffice? If it’s the latter, “Enlighten” is a reasonably fun documentary about filmmaker and yoga fanatic Kate Churchill’s attempt to communicate the virtues of yoga through a lab rat — journalist Nick Rosen — who previously has never partaken and indeed lives up to his billing as a skeptic. The pair travel the world over a period of several months, meet a number of renowned yoga masters and receive some hands-on knowledge about a number of rather extraordinarily different disciplines. That makes for some good storytelling, as does the bickering that ensues when Churchill can’t leave well enough alone and lets her emotions interfere with the purity of the experiment. But if it’s wisdom you seek, it’s there where the wheels fall off the film. For all the talking “Enlighten” does, the knowledge it passes along to the viewer rarely reaches beyond the superficial or abstract. If you come looking for answers to the same questions Rosen has, the film will leave you pretty much right where it finds you, and that’s quite a bummer, entertaining or not.
Extras: Extended interviews, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes photo montage, filmmaker bio.

Worth a Mention
— “The Offical Major League Baseball World Series Film Collection” (NR, 2009, MLB/A&E/New Video): Yankee fans will rightly argue that this set arrives a teensy bit out of date right out of the gate, but that’s about as harsh as the criticism gets for this set, which packages its discs as companion pieces inside a so-beautifully-illustrated-it’ll-make-you-cry picture book. The films — 50 hours’ worth over 20 discs, covering the series between 1943 and 2008 — are still the main attraction, but it’s a closer call than one might expect. Simply gorgeous.
— “G.I. Joe: The Complete Series” (NR, 1985, Shout Factory): Shout Factory’s “Transformers” set was something to behold, and its treatment of “G.I. Joe” is no less sterling an example of how to do a gift set right. In addition to all 95 episodes, this 17-disc set — packaged inside a sturdy footlocker case that’s as functional as it is pretty — includes eight new behind-the-scenes features, an archive of the “G.I. Joe” PSAs and Hasbro toy commercials, footage from G.I. Joe’s 1963 Toy Fair presentation and fan submission material. Other in-box extras include a 56-page companion booklet, rub-on tattoos and a 1 GB flash drive, fashioned in the form of a dog tag, that includes two digital comic books. In a final nice touch, Shout includes an empty disc slot for the 1987 animated movie, which hits DVD next year. Just be sure to explain that to any giftees, because while the set makes many mentions of the 17-disc count, it doesn’t outright say that the empty slot is a case of inspired design instead of missing materials.

Games 11/3/09: A Boy and His Blob, DJ Hero, Tekken 6

A Boy and His Blob
For: Nintendo Wii
From: WayForward Technologies/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

David Crane’s “A Boy and His Blob” was, at least in terms of concept, ingeniously ahead of its time back in 1989. Everywhere else, though, it was right on schedule: The graphics didn’t live up to the premise’s charm, and the game’s difficulty level regularly reached kick-you-in-the-mouth heights due to some slippery controls, steep demands and rigid artificial intelligence.

The time is beyond right to give the concept another go, and developer WayForward gets it almost perfectly right, gifting a great idea a control scheme, personality and visual presentation that simply weren’t possible 20 years ago.

Though the new “Blob” isn’t a remake, the overriding concept is the same: You control the boy, and you get around each 2D level by running, jumping and feeding your trusty friend Blob different colored jellybeans that turn him into different forms. Black jellybeans turn Blob into a ladder, for instance, while white turns him into a bowling ball and lime green turns him into a deployable parachute. Different forms allow the boy to access otherwise unreachable areas, and while there’s a storyline to explain the means and reasons, the overriding goal is to reach the exit of each level (and, if you’re really good, find and collect three treasure chests along the way).

The system for feeding Blob back in 1989 was logistically messy, but the new “Blob” fixes everything that plagued the old system. Picking a specific jellybean color is as simple as calling up a radial menu on the fly and flicking the joystick in the right direction. An aiming mechanism allows you to toss the jellybean at the optimum angle rather than just hope for the best, and while Blob occasionally suffers a temporary brain freeze and ignores your commands, he now is smart enough to go after dropped jellybeans rather than simply hope you toss it straight at him.

The added flexibility extends to the levels, which can accommodate richer puzzles that are challenging for the right reasons. Reaching the end of a level often means solving a cause-and-effect puzzle that has Blob using multiple forms in sequence, and figuring this stuff out is a ton of fun thanks to how little the game gets in your way.  (This goes double for the treasure chests hunts, which are optional but reward your efforts by unlocking some great bonus levels.)

Even when an idea fails miserably, “Blob’s” extremely generous checkpoint system almost always puts you right where you want to be without so much as a load screen preventing you from trying again immediately. As such, “Blob” never becomes unnecessarily frustrating, nor does it ever need to resort to hand-holding to pull players through a particularly tricky puzzle.

The good vibes easily extend to the game’s presentation, which is graced with a startlingly minimalist menu interface, a beautiful soundtrack and some truly magnificent artwork and animation that may as well be lifted straight out of a big-budget animated movie. If you’re having a conversation about the best-looking games of 2009, “Blob” absolutely belongs in the thick of it.


DJ Hero
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii
From: Freestyle Games/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

It’s been only four years since “Guitar Hero” first took the planet by storm, but an oversaturation of incremental sequels, offshoots and competitors’ products has made it feel at least twice as long.

How nice, then, that “DJ Hero” has the gall not only to freshen up the landscape, but do so with greater concern for achieving its vision than trying to please everybody the way its spiritual predecessors so often have.

“Hero” shares structural similarities to its guitar-based cousins, and during the first tutorial lesson, it appears to be the same old game with a new controller and soundtrack. Notes slide toward you down a track, and you need to press the correct buttons in time with those notes. Been there, right?

But then different tracks call for you to scratch the vinyl on the controller — sometimes indiscriminately, but other times quickly and precisely in very specific directions. Then the path of track bends, and you need to slide the crossfader dial to follow the track — sometimes for a bridge, other times for a single beat and back. An effects dial allows for some freestyling, a euphoria button activates the game’s version of star power, and certain portions of songs have you banging the red button at will to spice up the track with a sample of your choosing.

When “Hero” is cruising at full speed — tossing different arrangements of notes and tracks your way while you scramble to quickly but precisely manage all the different buttons and dials during a frantic four-song set with no break between tracks — it’s an exhilarating, exciting challenge that transcends “Guitar Hero’s” simpler casual leanings. The game ships with five difficulty settings, and the easier ones make “Hero” as much of a casual party game as any of its rhythmic contemporaries, but you’ll want to play it on at least medium difficulty — which tests your turntable mettle without feeling unfair — if you want to see it really sing.

Whether the turntable justifies “Hero’s” inflated price is a matter of personal taste, but for whatever it’s worth, it’s a sturdy and elegant piece of hardware. Lefties can rearrange the button layout to suit their orientation, and all the parts feel made to last. Some will find the crossfade slider looser than they’d like, but that looseness comes in handy once you’ve made acquaintance with the layout and need to navigate it without hesitation. “Hero” includes support for two-player, two-turntable local and online play, and in a nice nod to interoperability, also allows a second player to jam along with a guitar controller.

Considering it was produced specially for the game, “Hero’s” 93-mix soundtrack — each track mashing together two popular songs from all over the radio dial — is as impressive an achievement as the game itself. The soundtrack draws its material from 102 songs, which means some songs are used multiple times, but the sheer technique employed in constructing these mixes makes that mostly a non-issue.


Tekken 6
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Tekken 6’s” scenario campaign mode — a multithreaded, story-driven brawler featuring the series’ mountainous cast — is a fun but troubled mode. The camera struggles mightily with the full 3D range of the action, and that, along with some questionable hit detection and schizophrenic enemy intelligence, adds up to cheap deaths made worse by the omission of mid-mission checkpoints in all but a few levels. The series’ iconic characters make appearances in novel ways, but the storyline is, as always seems to happen in fighting games, a narrative mess.

What makes this all forgivable, besides the fact that it’s good dumb fun in spite of its issues, is that the scenario campaign will be a complete surprise to most people who pick up “Tekken 6,” which remains an accessibly fun one-on-one fighter first and whatever else it feels like second.

Little feels surprising about “Tekken 6’s” fighting engine, which retains its arcade-friendly sensibilities both in how it plays and how it presents itself. The visual leap over “Tekken 5” is satisfactory but completely in line with what one would expect. The game’s roster, at 42 fighters (40 fully playable, eight new) deep, hasn’t taken a hit the way some other fighting game lineups have while transitioning to new hardware.

In terms of the main course, the available modes aren’t any great surprise either. There’s the base arcade mode, which sees you picking a fighter and fighting your way up the ladder, and the usual variants (time attack, four-on-four tag team fights, a single-round survival mode, one-on-one offline multiplayer, a practice arena for the hopelessly inexperienced) also arrive on schedule.

Online multiplayer makes its first appearance in a proper “Tekken” game, but it’s exactly what’s expected of a fighting game in 2009: ranked/unranked matches, support for ghost fighter downloads and leaderboard support. “Tekken 6’s” online interface takes no chances, but it works, and while lag ran rampant during the game’s first days in the wild, performance has improved markedly in a hurry.

Where things take a turn for the pleasantly surprising is in how well the game ties all this stuff together and opens the door for obsessive players to keep coming back. Playing any of the game’s modes earns fight money, which can be spent toward customizing any of the playable fighters’ respective visual appearances in flashy and funny ways. The makeovers carry over to the online arena, and some of the items have special effects in the scenario campaign, which rewards you with yet more stuff when you complete levels and find treasure chests.

Additionally, each fighter has a separate leveling metric that increases by playing and winning fights as that character, and it’s long climb to the top of the hill for each character. Multiply that climb by 40 — and throw in the fun of mastering all 40 movesets and possibly dominating the online area along the way — and that adds up to a lot of gameplay time for those crazy and gifted enough to wring “Tekken 6” completely dry.

DVD 11/3/09: Where God Left His Shoes, The Answer Man, Will Ferrell: You're Welcome America, Food Inc., I Love You Beth Cooper, Who is KK Downey?, The Tournament, Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro, Scholastic Storybook Treasures 100, Leap Frog Learning DVD Set, Spin City S3

Where God Left His Shoes (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
It’s November, which means it’s Christmastime as far as studios, merchandisers and marketers are concerned. It’s also 2009, which means it’s high time for a holiday movie that name-drops the economic downturn in some way. That leads us to Frank Diaz (John Leguizamo), a married father of two who must find a way to provide shelter for his recently-evicted family (Leonor Varela, David Castro, Samantha M. Rose) despite some skill setbacks and an employment history that consists solely of a failed boxing career and some off-the-books odd jobs. No problem, right? After all, look at the title of the film and the cover art on the box: Both have “Christmas miracle” slathered all over them. That’s something of a shame, because it clears a lane for people to dismiss “Where God Left His Shoes” as nothing more than hokey fluff that makes light of and cashes in on complicated problems for which there is no neat, happy ending. “Shoes,” in fact, is nothing of the sort: Its characters are spectacularly imperfect, their problems authentically ugly and complicated. And while Frank occasionally gets off a little easier than a real-world counterpart in the same situation might, good breaks are the exception more than the rule. “Shoes” still has its points of inspiration, but they come in the form of a likable lead character and a family’s attempt to stick together in spite of its failings rather than some cheap and easy miracle that bails them all out. That makes for an exponentially better story, and it’s a script “Shoes” sticks to all the way through to the bittersweet end. No extras.

The Answer Man (R, 2009, Magnolia)
For 20 years, author Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) has enjoyed a stratospheric level of fame and reverence for a book that very convincingly documents a conversation he had with God. Actually, scratch that — he hasn’t enjoyed it much at all, which is why he’s taken on the life of a recluse despite living smack in the middle of big-city civilization. A few turns of events draw him out of seclusion, and wouldn’t you know it, the great guru of all things mystical can’t stop tripping over his own feet when it comes to simple human interaction and the art of conversing with the opposite sex. For a while, “The Answer Man” seems content to lean on this cute irony, and exist as yet another movie about a life expert who can’t sort his own life out. But then a funny thing happens: “Man” sees its fate as a humorous also-ran, cringes, and decides instead to get honest and put all the yammering to genuinely good use. Turns out, Arlen isn’t simply a recluse because it makes for a good comedic device: He has his reasons, and the film does a nice job of sneaking in little insights before dressing him down completely once it has your interest. That goes as well for the film’s supporting cast (Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby and Max Antisell), who initially feel like little more than talking plot devices meant to push Arlen in certain contrived directions. Once Arlen blossoms into a real character, they follow his example, and “Man” becomes a much better film than it initially ever had any right to be.
Extras: Crew/Graham commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome America (NR, 2009, HBO)
Will Ferrell’s send-up of former president George W. Bush made for a terrific five-minute “Saturday Night Live” skit, but a 90-minute stage show? Surprise: It works even better here. “Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome America” finds Ferrell, continuously in character as Bush, monologuing about everything from his college days to the before, during and after of his presidency. At first, it’s the silly Bush Ferrel crafted on “SNL.” But as time passes, Ferrell gradually slips deeper into character, and there are moments where “America” flirts with what feels like genuine reflection and projected sorrow. Once in a while, Ferrell brings the laughs to a complete halt, only to bring them back by calling them names or venturing down some fantastically, hysterically funny tangent about monkey troops or a family vacation to a mineshaft gone disastrously wrong. Ferrell’s impersonation of Bush may be the funniest in the business, but his ability to weave it between moods — and take a packed auditorium with him every step of the way — is another gift entirely.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, Bush on Bush interview, Decider true or false game, digital copy.

Food, Inc. (PG, 2009, Magnolia)
By now, pretty much anybody with any kind of media savvy has some sneaking ballpark suspicion as to the inconvenient realities of what goes into processing the foods we eat. But vague ideas and suspicions are one thing and, as “Food, Inc.” once again proves, images and testimonials straight from the source is quite another. “Food, Inc.” touches on several of the same issues other books and films previously have — the abusive environments in which animals are raised, the demoralizing and unsanitary conditions under which workers operate, the propagation of disease from these awful conditions, and the ridiculous abuse well-meaning farmers face from corporate bullies who want the industry completely to itself. The arguments are numerous, but as usual, the real impact moments come with imagery on top of words, and “Food Inc.” doesn’t pull punches in either regard. Unfortunately, the film also shares the same problem most documentaries of this sort have: It’s 90 minutes of problems and one minute of solutions, and a lot of its best information — most of it arriving during the end credits — feels like anticlimactic common sense that its target audience already would know. Maybe that’s the best anyone can do, but somehow, that doesn’t seem likely.
Extras: Deleted scenes, ABC News “Nightline” segment, two how-to features, celebrity PSAs, tip sheet.

I Love You, Beth Cooper (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
The title doesn’t lie: Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) really does love Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). He loves her so much, in fact, that he uses his high school valedictorian speech not only to speak to her for the first time, but to tell her in no uncertain terms that he loves her. That, to his credit, leads to a post-ceremony conversation, which (to perhaps his lesser credit) leads to an invitation to a bogus party he and best friend Rich (Jack Carpenter) aren’t actually throwing. That, in turn, leads to the fake party, and from there, it’s a wacky night to remember featuring all kinds of wacky antics with Denis, Beth, Beth’s friends (Laurene Landon and Lauren Storm) and oh yeah, Beth’s boyfriend (Shawn Roberts). How much you enjoy these antics depends rather explicitly on how much tolerance you have for cuteness. “I Love You, Beth Cooper” features two scoops of it: The humor aims more for cartoony antics than the usual gross-out stuff, and once we get to know everybody, the film lays it on pretty thick with the sentimentalism. In the real world, Denis’ antics probably would lead to a slap in the face rather than a night to remember, so “Cooper” is best enjoyed as the lightly funny fantasy it portends to be and nothing more than that.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes.

Who is KK Downey? (NR, 2009, Indiepix)
Terrance Permenstein (Darren Curtis) is a failing musician in love with a girl (Kristin Adams as Sue) who has moved on from him to someone else (Pat Kiely as Connor). Terrance’s best friend Theo Huxtable (Matt Silver) — and no, that isn’t a typo — is a failing writer who can’t get his memoir-style novel published because he’s too plain for the publishing world’s liking. So Terrance and Theo put their heads together and devise a plan that has Terrance inhabiting the character from Theo’s book and concocting a level of celebrity that could help him get Sue back. And because the world of “Who is KK Downey?” is overrun by mindless hipsters who froth for bad literature and at least one sweet girl who can’t recognize her ex-boyfriend when he don a wig and sunglasses, the plan takes flight. “Downey” gets off to a pretty weird start, but it really piles it on once the plan goes into effect, and the insanity just spikes from there. As such, recommending it becomes a matter of personal taste. The film’s thirst for unbridled unpredictability makes for a most unique experience, and the hammy acting and visual style complement it perfectly. On the other hand, Terrance and Theo are accessibly interesting characters early on, and most of the weirdness that follows arguably betrays that. Additionally, where some will see hammy exuberance, others simply will see bad acting, and both sides have a point.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, photo gallery.

The Tournament (R, 2009, Dimension)
The respective rises of reality television, the YouTube generation and the straight-to-DVD market have given way to a torrent of “Running Man” knockoffs that find a handful of seedy, desperate people legally killing each other for (a) their freedom and (b) the entertainment of a depraved gazing public. But even by the middling standards established over the last few years, “The Tournament” doesn’t even try aspiring for anything better. The titular tournament refers to a top-secret competition, knowingly viewed only by a select few very rich people, in which combatants murder each other before a frightened populace until only one is left alive. The top-secret wrinkle is different, particularly because it ropes in one accidental competitor who has no idea what’s even going on, but beyond that, “The Tournament” is just one long treadmill of obnoxious, charmless idiots killing each other while equally charmless captains of industry whoop and clink glasses at all the death. The few protagonists “The Tournament” gives us fare even worse: Their back stories are completely stock, and the only purpose they serve is to completely make obvious how this competition is going to end before it even begins. A pretty good cast (Ving Rhames, Kelly Hu, Robert Carlyle, Ian Somerhalder) provides the only highlight, but only because it’s morbidly fun to watch skilled actors mail it in for an easy payday. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro: The Complete First Season” (NR, 1957, Disney) and “Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 1958, Disney): With all due respect to the many beautiful silver tins Disney has released over the years as part of its “Disney Treasures” collection, the black tins that house these sets exist in a class all their own. Both sets, at six discs each, contain the 39 episodes (digitally remastered, naturally) from their respective seasons, and each set comes with a collectible pin, lithograph and certificate of authenticity. Both sets also include two one-hour “Zoro” specials each (“El Bandido” and “Adios El Cuchillo” on the first season set, “The Postponed Wedding” and “Auld Acquaintance” on the second season set), introductions by Leonard Maltin, and two behind-the-scenes features each.
— “Scholastic Storybook Treasures: Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics” (NR, New Video): Scholastic previously has released these excellent storybook DVDs — featuring illustrated, animated readings of everything from “Curious George” to “Harold and the Purple Crayon” to “Where the Wild Things Are” — separately and in themed anthologies of 25 stories each. Now, thanks to the magic of slim DVD cases, the entire 16-disc, 100-story set is available inside one extremely attractive box set. No new material that hasn’t been released already, but if these DVD treatments are new to you, this is as good as it gets.
— “Leap Frog Learning DVD Set” (NR, 2009, Learning Path): Parents who want something a little more interactive out of their DVD purchase can take some solace in this set, which includes three 35-minute volumes — “Let’s Go to School,” “Letter Factory,” “Talking Words Factory” — and 26 flash cards intended to help kids learn about letters, learn about sounds, and take a more active role in the viewing experience. Intended for ages 2-6.
— “Spin City: The Complete Third Season” (NR, 1998, Shout Factory): Includes 26 episodes, plus liner notes.