Games 1/26/10: Mass Effect 2, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, Dark Void Zero

Mass Effect 2
For: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

“Mass Effect” marked a bold venture for Bioware, which took the underpinnings of its superlatively deep role-playing games and crammed them into a tactical third-person shooter with combat as real-time as in any other sci-fi action game. Surprisingly, it worked: The combat was highly imperfect but easily sufficient, and the branching storylines, deep character progression and ridiculous interplanetary scope made for one of 2007’s best games.

How impressive, then, that “Mass Effect 2” comes along and makes its predecessor look like a rough draft by comparison.

Principally, “ME2” doesn’t mess excessively with what worked previously. In particular, the storytelling — and the absolutely amazing branching conversation trees that allow the player to mold the personality of chief protagonist Commander Shepard and, by proxy, the story and galaxies around him — retains its considerable polish. “ME2” is as saturated with planets, alien races and mythology as “ME1,” but it also benefits from not having to introduce it all to the degree its predecessor did. The story takes a sharp turn straight away — a dramatic change of fortune and a pretty serious turning of some tables dictate the game’s first sequence — and while “ME2” has hours’ worth of optional side missions in tow, pretty much everything operates in the name of barreling the story forward.

(Side note for those who missed “ME1:” While “ME2” offers additional benefits to players who are already familiar with the characters and alliances, Bioware offers enough guidance to bring new players up to speed without boring those who need no introduction.)

Though “ME2” is large enough to span two discs on the Xbox 360, Bioware has done a commendable job of cutting fat where it needed cutting. A slick mining mechanic allows players to explore barren planets from the ship instead of via a pointless ride in the Mako buggy, which has been excised completely. The side missions, by extension, have more consequence in the overall ecology, and a cleaner set of menu interfaces makes it easier to (among other things) jump from one mission to another with little downtime in between.

Speaking of saving time, the famously long load times from “ME1” are considerably more tolerable (and more elegantly presented) this time around. Even more importantly, the wretched save system — which almost everyone learned, the hard way, didn’t autosave like it appeared to — has received a very user-friendly overhaul. (It works, in other words.)

But what truly is remarkable about “ME2” is how profoundly Bioware transforms the weakest ingredient of “ME1” into this game’s most jaw-dropping asset. The combat in “ME2” is more than just sufficient: It’s completely indistinguishable — in terms of speed, control fluidity, explosiveness, and enemy/squad A.I. — from the best cover-based third-person shooters available today. A stunning visual presentation, led by perhaps the best camerawork the genre has yet seen, arguably puts it at the top of the heap.

Best of all, Bioware sacrificed exactly none of the role-playing underpinnings that carried the combat in “ME1.” Those systems worked together well enough back then, but they sing in perfect harmony this time around, putting “ME2” in a class all its own when it comes to blending two traditionally disparate genres into one.


Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars
For: Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Fans of Capcom’s lighthearted “Vs.” fighting games have felt understandable pangs of jealousy since the distinctively beautiful, meticulously polished but decidedly more serious “Street Fighter IV” raised the bar for fighting games nearly a full year ago.

Fortunately, “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars” doesn’t simply end the near-decade-long “Vs.” game drought; it also closes the gap almost completely between Capcom’s 2D fighting past and the arguably perfect mix of two and three dimensions that made “SFIV” such a staggering treat for the eyes and thumbs.

This being a Wii game, “TvC” understandably cannot match the level of visual detail “SFIV” pulled off on more powerful hardware. But in borrowing that game’s approach — characters animating in full, fluid 3D but fighting on a 2D plane — it reaps the same benefits: The fighters pull off spectacular moves with abandon, but the removal of unnecessary 3D space whittles the fight down to the same psychological science that made “Street Fighter” so special in the first place. (“TvC,” to its credit, closes the graphical gap by opting for a cel-shaded visual style that really makes its infectiously outlandish style pop.)

Though the fighting shines under the guidance of the new engine, “TvC” is unmistakably a “Vs.” game at heart. The two-on-two matches represent a paring back from “Marvel Vs. Capcom’s” three-on-three insanity, but the speed and accessibility of the fighting remain several notches beyond “SFIV’s” more methodical leanings. Per brand tradition, “TvC” provides a generous arsenal for button-mashers while reserving the really good stuff for players who hunker down and learn each fighter’s respective intricacies.

Whether the roster is a boon or burden will come down to individual tastes. The Tatsunoko half of “TvC” consists of anime characters who are big in Japan but significantly lesser known here, but while the relative obscurity robs “TvC” of the dream fights “Marvel” had, it’s an arguable benefit to players intrigued by the multitude of surprises 13 brand-new (and often wildly designed) characters will afford them. Capcom’s 13 offerings should prove a bit more familiar, but the wide diversity of the cast — Ryu and Chun-Li are here, but so is Mega Man, “Dead Rising’s” Frank West and characters from “Lost Planet,” “Viewtiful Joe” and “Rival Schools” — means a bounty of quirks and highly divergent (but reasonably well-balanced) styles awaits discovery on both sides.

“TvC” complements its polished gameplay by offering enough control styles (remote/nunchuck, Classic controller, Gamecube controller) to suit everyone, and it provides plenty of longevity with a 26-ending single-player component and online multiplayer (two players) that worked without incident in pre-release testing. (Whether that holds up under the stress of thousands of players remains to be seen, but so far, so good.)

Just for fun, Capcom tosses in a “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Shooters” mode, which is a bizarre but surprisingly filling top-down shooter that features the game’s cast and supports up to four players. The mode has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in terms of gameplay. But neither the freebie “Geometry Wars” mode that snuck its way onto “Project Gotham Racing 2,” and look how that one turned out.


Dark Void Zero
For: Nintendo DSi via the Nintendo DSi Shop
From: Other Ocean Interactive/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Price: $5

Capcom’s infatuation with making mock Nintendo Entertainment System games in the 21st century isn’t new (see “Mega Man 9” and the upcoming “Mega Man 10”), but “Dark Void Zero” takes the trick to a new level of imagination. Like the new Xbox 360/PS3 game “Dark Void,” “Zero” is a standard shooter that sets itself apart by strapping a jet pack to the player’s back. In the case of “Zero,” though, that translates into a sidescrolling action game that looks, sounds and acts like a game from 1988. In a vacuum, “Zero” is perfect for the price: The controls are polished and responsive in spite of the retro presentation, and with three difficulty settings and a tough-but-fair continue system, it’s challenging without resorting to “MM9’s” level of punishment. But “Zero” is especially cool when viewed in context. The nostalgically sparse story sets “Void’s” table surprisingly well, and it successfully manages to imbue a sense of history into a franchise that doesn’t actually have any. The developers really run with the joke, too: “Zero’s” digital manual includes a mock story detailing why it didn’t come out in 1987 as originally intended, and the composer responsible for “Void’s” score also orchestrated an 8-bit facsimile for “Zero.” Other clever and funny touches await — including one right when the game boots — but they’re best left unspoiled.

DVD 1/26/10: The Escapist, Surrogates, Pontypool, Pawn Stars S1, The Boys Are Back, Saw VI, WWII in HD, MI-5 V7, Top Gear V11 & V12, Country's Greatest Stars Live V1 & V2

The Escapist (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
Is there room for another no-nonsense prison escape film in a world that’s already seen so many? If it receives the level of care this one receives, then yes, yes there is. “The Escapist” could not play it straighter in the plot department: An aging prisoner (Brian Cox) wants out of a London penitentiary when he learns his daughter is terminally ill, and he’ll form whatever alliances he deems necessary to make it outside. The film steers similarly clear of gimmickry and contrived plot twisting when moving from the planning stage to the eventual attempt. All that energy instead goes toward assembling a roster of deeply engaging characters (Damian Lewis, Seu Jorge, Joseph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Liam Cunningham, Steven Mackintosh) who embody characteristics one expects from hardened convicts while still managing to avoid the usual stereotypes and pratfalls that undermine so many prison films. Their interesting respective constructions provide more than enough ammunition for “The Escapist’s” own unique construction, and the little things that formulate these characters translate into the little scenes — shaky alliances, brilliant plans-within-plans, egos butting heads and, of course, things that fall apart — that make this simple but acutely intelligent film so much fun to watch in spite of its modest aims. Just be sure to give it your undivided attention: Though it plays it straight, “The Escapist” jumps between chronologies and continually hinges on minute details, and it expects everyone watching to keep up while it does.
Extras: Deleted scenes, making-of feature.

Surrogates (PG-13, 2009, Touchstone)
Hollywood’s sci-fi wing has continually screwed things up when it comes to imagining a future in which humans exhange their real existences for a virtual reality that inevitably goes awry. So it’s worth noting that “Surrogates,” while no picture of logical impregnability itself, at least manages to screw up less than most of its contemporaries eventually do. As often happens, “Surrogates” gets a little lost when things go awry, and in an attempt to quell the volcano of narrative contradictions that erupts, the film devolves into a typical thriller with sci-fi leanings instead of a sci-fi movie with a few thrills. Predictable twists arrive on schedule, and even if you can’t guess them, you likely will recognize them from any number of other movies. But these problems, while unfortunate, arrive after “Surrogates” has taken us pretty deep into the world it has constructed. And that world — including 14 years of history the film skillfully sums up within its first four minutes — is too intriguing to completely succumb to the formulaic twists and plot gaps that follow. All that scrambling still keeps “Surrogates” from being all it could’ve been, but what ultimately emerges (including an ending that rights the ship and pays off nicely) still provides a more interesting look at a worst-case-scenario future than most movies can assemble without making a much bigger mess. Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe and Ving Rhames star.
Extras: Director commentary, music video.

Pontypool (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
Making a refreshingly original zombie movie was tough enough five years ago, and it would seem to be borderline unimaginable after the recent glut of re-imaginations, spoofs and also-rans. So let’s hear it for “Pontypool,” which pulls it off by simultaneously reinventing and sidestepping the conventions that blazed its way. “Pontypool” overwhelmingly takes place in one room — a smallish-town Ontario radio station — and it almost constantly trains its sights on three station employees (Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) who are as normal as normal gets in this genre. Spilling the details of how that transforms into an original, slyly funny but legitimately creepy monster movie is to spoil the fun of watching it happen, and explaining the new ideas “Pontypool” puts in play to make it all happen would be similarly counterproductive. So let’s just say, without saying too much, that it works surprisingly well. “Pontypool” divides its priorities between smart, fun character development and a story that gradually but unmistakably bubbles to a boil, and the result could scarcely do more with so little.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, original CBC radio show, three short films (“Eve,” “Dad Dum” and “The Death of Chet Baker”).

Pawn Stars: Season One (NR, 2009, History)
The History Channel has become thoroughly overrun with reality shows that seemingly have nothing to do with history, so one would be forgiven for dismissing the cheekily-named “Pawn Stars” — which looks in on the day-to-day dealings of a three-generation, family-run pawn shop in Las Vegas — as just another show in legion with those shows about truck drivers and fishermen. But while “Stars” is as much about the personalities of the grandfather, father and son running the store as it is anything else, it nonetheless manages to slip in a pretty hearty education about the services pawn shops provide. Turns out, the pawn shop has a pretty interesting history — and not simply as the vestige for drug addicts and thieving scoundrels that television and movies regularly portray it to be. And because a number of high-end collectors bring their wares to the Harrison family’s shop, any given episode of “Stars” can detour into history lessons about military-grade weapons, music, sports, autographs and pretty much anything else capable of churning out a good antique. The family dynamic is straight out of “American Chopper,” the lessons not far removed from “Antiques Roadshow,” and the sum total educates as much as it entertains.
Contents: 14 episodes, plus bonus footage and two behind-the-scenes features.

The Boys Are Back (PG-13, 2009, Miramax)
Clive Owen is one of those effortlessly likable actors who often makes a movie better than it might otherwise be were someone else at the helm. That’s good news for “The Boys Are Back,” because, all good intentions and heartwarming results aside, it needs the help. “Back” stars Owen as Joe, a twice-married, two-time parent who suddenly finds himself alone with youngest son Artie(Nicholas McAnulty) after wife and mother Katy (Laura Fraser) passes away. That, skeletally speaking, is pretty much the full gist of it, too. Joe struggles with single parenthood, Artie struggles to understand and cope with his mother’s death, Joe’s older son (George MacKay) and first marriage enter the picture, and the story does what stories do. But while “Back” has its share of well-written moments, those moments take the film backward and sideways as often as they do forward. The mood repeatedly shifts from hopeful to dour and back, and too many of those shifts feel like repeated motions under different guises but with similar results. Good performances and a thoughtful script offer some semblance of payoff, and Owen’s presence at the center of it all alleviates some of the frustration brought on by the spinning wheels. But viewers waiting for “Back” to turn a corner and stay on track might be too weary to appreciate it when it finally happens.
Extras: 16-minute behind-the-scenes photographic feature (with optional director commentary), one other behind-the-scenes feature.

Saw VI: Director’s Cut (NR, 2009, Lions Gate)
It’s strangely fitting, however unintentional, that the downward spiral “Saw” has endured since the great first film has been as metaphorically torturous as most of the traps the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) sets for his victims in any given “Saw” film. “Saw VI” deserves some credit for being better than the pointlessly awful film it succeeds, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that the sixth “Saw” film to appear in a five-year span is good about bringing back old faces and closing plotlines the previous films opened. Problem is, those storylines are so completely bland that it’s conceivable to have seen all six movies and retain no memory of why Jigsaw’s legacy lives on three films after he died — or even how the first film’s simplicity of message degenerated into a muddy story about legacies in the first place. “VI” strives to recharge its relevance by centering itself around greedy insurance company executives and the health care issue, but if it’s really trying to send a message here (and you get the feeling, some attempts at humor aside, that it is) it’s thoroughly ill-equipped to actually do so. Considering yet another “Saw” movie is in development for yet another October, the posturing about everything coming full circle feels similarly pointless. All “Saw” has left are its trap designs, but past the first scene, even those have run out of gas.
Extras: In a tactic to emphasize the full-circle theme (or, more cynically, in a desperate plea to kickstart the franchise’s DVD sales), Lions Gate includes the superior “Saw I” DVD as a bonus feature. Extras relating to “VI” include filmmakers commentary, writers/director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and feature about the “Saw: Game Over” maze at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Worth a Mention
— “WWII in HD” (NR, 2010, History): New footage of World War II seems to emerge from vaults on an annual basis, so what makes History’s “WWII in HD” so special? The answer lies in the wholly utilitarian name: The footage is in color, and because it was shot on film and since has been restored, it’s presented here in true high definition. If images of the war fascinate you on any level whatsoever, this seven-hour document is not to be missed. Available both in DVD and, for an experience of the most eye-popping kind, Blu-ray. Extras include two behind-the-scenes features and profiles of the people featured in the footage.
— Latest British TV on DVD: The BBC’s newest wave of DVDs includes the seventh volume of the excellent espionage thriller “MI-5” (think “24” without Jack Bauer or the ticking clock, but with considerably more respect for logic). The set includes all eight season seven episodes, plus commentary, a behind-the-scenes documentary and two shorter behind-the-scenes features. Also out: volumes 11 and 12 of “Top Gear,” which for car fanatics has no equal that merits any kind of comparison. “The Complete Season 11” features six episodes but no extras, while “The Complete Season 12” includes eight episodes plus commentary, deleted scenes, some extended cuts, an extended interview with London Mayor (and “Gear” guest star) Boris Johnson and a photo gallery.
— “Country’s Greatest Stars Live: Volume One” and “Country’s Greatest Stars Live: Volume Two” (NR, 1978, Shout Factory): With respect to fans of what passes for country today, the best collection of country music to release so far in 2010 probably sits on these DVD sets, which collect 86 performances (35 on volume one, 51 on volume two) from the likes of Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, Merle Haggard and numerous others who descended on the Grand Ole Opry House for a seven-hour tribute in 1978. Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton and Roy Clark (all of whom also perform) handle hosting duties on volume one, while Charley Pride, Tennesse Ernie Ford, Crystal Gayle and Eddy Arnold (same) emcee volume two.

Games 1/19/10: Army of Two: The 40th Day, Alien Breed Evolution E1, Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter

Army of Two: The 40th Day
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Alternate version available for: PSP
From: EA Montreal
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

The things that polarized players of 2008’s “Army of Two” return either mostly or completely intact in “Army of Two: The 40th Day,” and depending on what side you’re on, that’s either somewhat unfortunate or the best news this review could provide.

That’s because, feelings about the things “AO2” did aside, it was those things that made it a wholly unique third-person shooter in an era crawling with them. “Day” is designed to be played with a friend (or, failing that, a surprisingly capable A.I.-controlled partner), and while its attempts to stress the value of teamwork come off as pretty contrived, they’re also pretty effective if you’re willing to play along and take advantage.

For its part, “Day” at least learns from some of its predecessor’s missteps. It still places a premium on one player drawing fire while the other moves around and flanks the enemy, and it still communicates this technique with the occasional enemy who only takes damage from behind and an entirely manufactured “Aggro” meter that shows which character has the enemy’s attention and which is free to advance and find cover.

But while the first game compounded these techniques with levels so obviously designed to take advantage of them in terribly obvious ways, “Day” offers larger, more open-ended environments that afford players considerably more strategic freedom. The set pieces are pretty cool to experience just on a visual level — war-torn Shanghai falls spectacularly apart while the action pushes forward, and some buildings become so torn that indoor and outdoor levels blend together — and the ability to tackle them numerous ways is never a bad thing.

With that said, the increased scope regularly finds “Day” elongating fights, trotting out soldiers as if from a clown car to engage in battles that sometimes drag out longer than seems reasonable. That, along with a puzzling save system that often places checkpoints right before (not after) unskippable cut scenes players potentially will have to watch multiple times, represent the game’s most unfortunate slips.

One also could argue that “Day,” broken down, is just one similar firefight after another for five or six hours. But while that’s somewhat true, “Day’s” gunplay and control fundamentals are so sound that the moment-to-moment action is too fun to grow stale during any reasonable sitting. That’s especially true for those who take advantage of the staggeringly deep weapon customization system, which allows players to customize and outfit their arsenal (and, with’s help, their outfits) in the same manner a racing sim lets them customize cars.

As it did with “Two,” “Day’s” teamwork methodology trickles down to multiplayer. The campaign, as mentioned, is playable via local or online co-op. And while the competitive multiplayer modes — deathmatch, territory and objective-based — are the usual standards, the unique team distribution (up to five teams of two players each) and special techniques that arrangement entails give “Day” more legs than if it was just another third-person shooter doing the same old thing.


Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Team17 Software
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, violence)

Connoisseurs of 20-year-old computer games might remember the Amiga game “Alien Breed,” a fairly traditional overhead shooter in which players defended the corridors of a spaceship from waves of aliens bent on hijacking the ship and taking humanity down with it.

Two decades and numerous technological advancements on, the premise remains unchanged in “Alien Breed Evolution: Episode 1.” A new ship is under attack by a horde of bug-like aliens, little human life remains aboard, and the object — fight off the aliens, escape with your life — hasn’t changed.

Because this is a $10 downloadable game and not a big-budget reboot, “Evolution” is, indeed, little more than an evolution. Polygons constitute the graphics instead of pixels, but the action still takes place from an overhead perspective, and it rarely gets more complicated than “shoot aliens, go to checkpoint, trigger switch, repeat.”

Taken for what it is and within the constraints of its old-fashioned sensibilities — and it’s important to emphasize that these old methods most definitely aren’t for everyone anymore — “Evolution” gets far more right than it does wrong. Like “Shadow Complex” and “Bionic Commando: Rearmed” before it, the game deftly mixes 3D graphics and 2D perspectives, resulting in animation and visual effects that weren’t even imaginable during the Amiga’s prime.

The general gameplay benefits in kind. Doubling back to avoid encroaching aliens, for instance, is easy because the animation and controls are so fluid. And while this isn’t a dual-stick shooter in the same vein as “Geometry Wars” and its ilk, “Evolution” uses both joysticks to great effect, making it easy to strafe and shoot when aliens attack from multiple directions. As contemporary solutions to old gameplay problems go, “Evolution” gets the important stuff right.

With that said, there’s a reason these games don’t appear as often as they once did. “Evolution’s” moment-to-moment gameplay is fun, but it sticks to a formula, and little happens in the last chapter that doesn’t also happen in the first. A secondary Assault mode, which supports co-op play (two players, local or online) and ditches the exploration in favor of punishing players with ridiculous waves of aliens, is a nice bonus. But that mode is as straightforward as it sounds, and no part of “Evolution” dares to be different than the many overhead shooters that preceded it.

Consequently, it’s a bit puzzling that “Evolution” is coming at us in three episodic installments. The first episode’s gameplay and production values make it an excellent value in its own right, but its storytelling — to say nothing of the iffy end-episode cliffhanger — leaves a lot to be desired. Whatever lies in store for the second episode, it’ll need to provide more than a continuation of a story that, so far, isn’t terribly engaging. Paying $10 after 20 years for an updated take on “Breed” is an entirely recommendable act, but dropping another $10 a few months later won’t be if episode two is nothing but more of the exact same thing.


Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Croteam/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $15

Here’s the easy part: “Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter” is a perfectly proficient high-definition repackaging of the PC first-person shooter of the near-same name. It looks sharp (albeit unmistakably aged), moves at a recklessly high speed, and includes four-player co-op support (online only) for maximum fun and insanity. The harder part is whether, in 2010, you want to play a 2001 shooter that itself is a callback to (or arguable parody of) shooters from 1996. All the hallmarks of old shooters — brain-dead AI, tissue-thin storytelling, enemies that spawn behind you from nowhere and create occasion for very cheap deaths — are here, and the perks one from a 21st century shooter are completely nonexistent. That isn’t an altogether bad thing: “Encounter” comes alive as a brutally tough test of twitch reflexes more than just another series of engagements against the same old enemy, and its weird sense of humor and wonderfully bizarre enemy design are a callback to the days when arcade games stopped at nothing to break players first and entertain them second. Given how quickly contemporary games drop to $20, “Encounter’s” $15 tag is $5 too high, but for the crowd that loves this game as much now as it did then, a return on investment is assured regardless.

DVD 1/19/10: Damages S2, Passing Strange, Big Fan, The Invention of Lying, No Impact Man, Gamer

[Note: This is an abbreviated column. Part of the copy was lost due to misbehaving computers. Apologies to the DVDs affected, at least one of which will be re-reviewed next week.]

Damages: The Complete Second Season (NR, 2009, Sony Pictures)
It isn’t very often a serial drama can spoil entire pieces of a season in the first episode’s first scene and get away with it. But “Damages” doesn’t simply pull this trick off — it perfectly toes the line between teasing and spoiling, giving just enough away to answer some questions before they’ve been asked but opening up so many more doors that it scarcely matters. The balancing act resulted in one explosive first season, and the best news about season two is that “Damages” not only goes back for more, but pulls it off perfectly yet again. Those unfamiliar with season one need only know that, while “Damages” technically is a legal drama, it’s a legal drama in the same sense “Eastbound and Down” is a comedy about a baseball team. There’s a case running throughout the season, and it isn’t insignificant, but the real mess lies inside Patty Hewes’ (Glenn Close) own firm (and, this time, mind). Spoiling more than that would ruin the fun of discovering just how cold-bloodedly well “Damages” dresses down its characters, so if you haven’t seen the first season, consider this your sales pitch. And if you have, here’s the spoiler-free setup: Season two picks up immediately where season one left things, the first scene (six months into the future) is as jarring (albeit on a wholly different level) as season one’s introduction, and despite some new trials and new characters, all that was wonderful about season one is doubly wonderful in its catastrophic wake.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, one behind-the-scenes feature, character profiles and, for those who need a memory jog, a thorough (17 minutes) recap of the first season.

Passing Strange (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
With respect to all the exquisitely shot, A-list-laden musical-to-film conversions that have hit the screen since it became fashionable to do so again, “Passing Strange” takes them all to school, by taking the concept back to the basics. “Strange,” like most recent musical films, comes on the heels of a Broadway hit — in this case, a fantastically lively coming-of-age story about a young black musician (Daniel Breaker) who discovers himself while trotting the globe in the 1970s. But rather than reinvent the production as a splashy film with Hollywood superstars, director Spike Lee just shoots the actual production with the original cast. The so-simple-as-to-be-perfect approach not only gives us “Strange” in the same manner that made it a hit in the first place, but it also allows the cast to do proper justice to a script written for a live audience instead of a camera. That live audience, in turn, provides a special energy that most musical films carelessly toss away in their migration to screen. “Strange” is an outstanding collision of classic coming-of-age storytelling and staggeringly good live music, but the ability to enjoy it in this incarnation — not only as the audience did, but virtually in a seat alongside them — adds a priceless component the rest of the genre should not be so quick to dispose. Original cast members Stew, De’Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Breaker star.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, theatrical promo.

Big Fan (R, 2009, Vivendi)
“Big Fan’s” dependably funny leads (Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan) and package design suggest a wacky comedy in the offing, and the premise — Paul (Oswalt) is an obsessive New York Giants fan who toils in a lousy job, expends all his aspirational energy perfecting calls to the local sports station, and seems destined to live with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) all his life — doesn’t change the perception. But while assumptions say one thing about what’s in store, the tone established from the moment “Fan” flashes the title card says something else entirely. Make no mistake: “Fan” has funny moments that are presented as literal comedy, and Oswalt and Corrigan each have chances to flash the talent for which they’re best known. But more than amusingly funny, “Fan” is darkly funny, and more than that, it’s just plain dark — a harsh dissection of the hopeless endeavor of caring so profoundly for something upon which you have no effect and for players who, if they even know you’re alive, couldn’t care less in return. “Fan” takes liberties to tell an extreme case of this phenomenon, but it resonates hard nonetheless. The cheery exterior is bound to trick a few real-life Pauls into watching this and having some unflattering epiphanies about themselves, but it’s hard to knock a movie for ambushing viewers when the ambush is so much better than the assumption. Michael Rapaport and Jonathan Hamm also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, NPR “Fresh Air” segment, outtakes, downloadable poster.

The Invention of Lying (PG-13, 2009, Warner Bros.)
The unsung everyday utility of a well-told lie previously received a very funny close-up in “Liar Liar,” and now, with “The Invention of Lying,” we finally get a look at the other side of the coin. This time, in a world closely resembling ours, no one ever tells a lie — it’s biologically impossible for reasons “Lying” smartly refuses to attempt to explain — until a lowly jobless screenwriter (Ricky Gervais as Mark) triggers an internal switch and tells the world’s first lie. No one calls him out on the fib, of course, so the lies keep coming until Mark establishes a new reality that falls more in line with his fantasies. In the process, though, “Lying” gradually falls out of line with what’s typically expected from a comedy: Its explorations of a fibless planet are clever and considerably well-reasoned given how impossible the whole notion seems, but outside of one outstanding scene featuring Gervais doing what he does best and a confused public playing along perfectly, the result is more think-out-loud fascinating than laugh-out-loud hilarious. That absolutely isn’t criticism, by the way: “Lying” seems to knowingly go this route for the sake of its premise, and it’s too bad more comedies don’t opt out of their obligation to make viewers’ sides hurt when the alternative track would make for a better movie. With that said, of course, here’s your warning: If laugh-out-loud hilarity is your endgame, this likely isn’t your movie. Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill and Rob Lowe also star.
Extras: A “prequel” documenting the dawn of lying, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, Karl Pilkington (Gervais’ best friend) feature, video podcasts.

No Impact Man (R, 2008, Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Colin Beavan’s challenge in “No Impact Man” — survive, along with wife Michelle and their young daughter, in New York city for one year without making any dent whatsoever on the environment — is a cool idea that, while an extreme case for the sake of setting an example, has value as self-discovery (for them) and fascinating entertainment (us). The only problem? Not to be mean, but it’s Colin. “Man” kicks off on a lively note while it introduces the family and sets up the experiment, and the possibilities reach another plane when we really get to know Michelle, whose consumptive lifestyle makes her concerns about suddenly living in the dark and without a fridge empathetically easy to understand. But once the experiment kicks into gear, that lively tone starts putting up walls. Be it due to selective editing or something else, Colin’s likable beginnings give way to a portrait of a worst-case-scenario activist prone to childish behavior and an inability to see even his wife’s side of things. The people Colin enlists to reach the next level often are even worse: If they look so coldly down on someone trying to advance their causes, one can only imagine what they think of the rest of us, and those thoughts are bound to push regular viewers away rather than bring them in closer. The conclusion of the story brings with it an arguable sense of accomplishment for the family, but all that potential alienation makes it awfully difficult for the story of their endeavor to claim a similar victory.
Extras: Sundance Film Festival audience Q&A, bonus footage, Freeganism feature, bike activism feature, fruit vinegar recipe, clean (swear-free) audio track for educational use.

Worth a Mention
— Gamer (R, 2009, Lions Gate): A review of “Gamer” wasn’t possible for purposes of this column, because the first 20 minutes of the film were so gratingly awful that the will to keep watching was crushed like a bug. Maybe the remaining 75 minutes of the movie, which trots the umpteenth “convicted criminals fighting for freedom in a living video game” plotline of the last few years, redeems everything. You’re free to find out on your own time. Michael C. Hall, Gerard Butler, Kyra Sedgwick and Alison Lohman, among others, comprise a cast that’s way too good to be slumming it like this. Extras include commentary and two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 1/12/10: Bayonetta, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, Polar Panic

Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 3
From: Platinum Games/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)

The net worth of “Bayonetta’s” idiosyncrasies is game for debate until time ceases ticking. Some will marvel at the insane narrative theatrics and some will find the overt sexuality of the vixenish titular main character either genuinely titillating or so overt as to be farcical. Others will be repulsed or embarrassed by what they view as a sophomoric display of adolescent fantasy come bursting alive, while still others will find themselves unable to tolerate how little sense the story makes or how incomprehensibly noisy the whole production generally is. (If you’re on the fence, both systems offer a downloadable demo that should clear up any confusion.)

But “Bayonetta” is what it wants to be and probably wouldn’t dream of being something for everyone. And while what it is makes it impossible to blindly recommend or pan, how it goes about being what it is is almost inarguably impressive.

Themes and imagery aside, “Bayonetta” plays in the “Devil May Cry” and “God of War” school of action games, and it matches those games in terms of combat arsenal, control responsiveness and general visual and technical polish. Button mashers can wreak havoc on the easier difficulty settings, while a huge list of special attacks allows more skilled players to deal damage with a surprising degree of strategy for such a frantic game.

Most impressive about the combat is the emphasis placed on fighting defensively. Dodging enemy attacks the instant before they connect — and every enemy has tells — temporarily sends all but the player into slow-motion, allowing Bayonetta to unleash unspeakable damage before the enemy even knows what happened. Bull-rushing the enemy on normal or higher difficulty is a recipe for trouble —  like the best of these kind of games, every fight in “Bayonetta” has the potential to cost dearly — but using these defensive techniques is so much fun that no extra motivation is necessary to learn them.

Structurally, everything else falls in line. The polish and fearless design translates into labyrinthine levels and massive, multi-part boss fights that give “War” a run for its money, but “Bayonetta” complements these ruthless fights with a generous checkpoint system that lets players of all disciplines fight dangerously. Old-school pattern memorization comes in handy when taking on tougher enemies, but the controls are so fluid that it’s easy and entirely fun to wing it and take Bayonetta’s combat arsenal for a ride. All that zaniness will rub people different ways, but it does translate into a healthy variety of environments that keeps things interesting over the course of a satisfactorily lengthy single-player trip.

A review of “Bayonetta” would be incomplete without mentioning that Platinum Games, which developed the Xbox 360 version in its entirety, passed off some of the Playstation 3 version’s development load onto Sega’s internal studio. A review copy of the PS3 edition wasn’t available for evaluation, but while the games remain identical in terms of content, reports of performance issues in the PS3 version — in particular, some ugly slowdown and longer load times in spots — are commonplace enough to recommend picking up the 360 version if it’s an option.


Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces
For: Wii
From: Project Aces/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

Those unfamiliar with Project Aces or the origins of its latest dogfighting game won’t know it just to look at it, but “Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces” comes courtesy of the same development shop behind the deservedly-beloved “Ace Combat” games. So while the $30 price tag and slightly out-of-left field release might make “Aces” look like just another budget flight sim on a console that’s already full of them, its pedigree suggests something else entirely.

Happily, pedigree beats perception, in large part because “Aces” soars and stumbles in much the same way the “Combat” games do.

The stumbling happens, albeit innocuously, when “Aces” tries to tell its story. Fans of the “Sky Crawler” novels (and eventual animated film) have more than enough guidance in the game to know exactly what’s going on, but those who come in cold won’t get as much from the narration as they might want. Like “Combat,” “Aces” sets the table with some nice cutscenes and some compelling mythology, but also like “Combat,” it leaves much of the storytelling to between-mission briefings that look and sound great but can do only so much in terms of character and environmental development.

Fortunately, a bare-bones understanding of the situation is enough to enjoy the game, and those bare bones (world at peace, greedy corporations disrupt peace, war erupts) aren’t terribly difficult to grasp.

Where “Aces” gets it right, as Project Aces always does, is in the air. Neither the air combat nor the art of banking and diving is mindlessly simple, but “Aces” places a premium on action over simulation and backs it up with fast, intense dogfights that are accessible to anyone in spite of the challenges they present.

Additionally, “Aces” lets players play their way within the confines of its tempo. Control schemes range from traditional (Gamecube/Classic controllers included) to a motion scheme (nunchuck emulates the yoke, Wii remote emulates the throttle) that works pretty well with practice. Per developer tradition, “Aces” also allows players to view the action from inside the cockpit or behind their plane. The former adds an extra layer of immersion and challenge while the latter allows less experienced players to play without handicapping the action.

“Aces'” more substantial misgivings arguably are more the fault of the system its on than the game itself. It looks great but obviously cannot touch what “Ace Combat 6” did visually on the Xbox 360. That game’s online multiplayer functionality also doesn’t cross over — no surprise, given that the odds of an online community forming around a niche flight simulator on the Wii is basically nil.

But “Aces” also costs a full half of what “AC6” cost when it first released, which more than compensates for some unavoidable graphical downgrades and the loss of a mode most people likely would ignore anyway. XSEED has done an admirable job of importing great Japanese Wii games, localizing them and selling them for a song, and if the Wii’s first notable game of 2010 is any indication, there’s more to come in that department.


Polar Panic
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Eiconic Games/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence, tobacco reference)

Most puzzle games aren’t actually puzzles so much as color-matching reflex tests, but the charming “Polar Panic,” which stars players as a polar bear who has to get his paws dirty to keep trappers off his back, embodies the genre’s name quite nicely. “Panic” takes place in a series of top-down, maze-like levels, and the general objective is to eliminate the trappers by pushing ice blocks off maze walls and, eventually, straight into them. There’s an element of action to the challenge — the trappers don’t stand still — but pushing the ice blocks off the right sequence of walls in order to line up a direct shot at each trapper (or better yet, multiple trappers at once) requires a good degree of on-your-feet thinking once the game takes the kid gloves off and starts delivering harder levels. “Panic’s” 50-level Story mode is its arguable centerpiece, but the 50-level Puzzle mode (which ditches the trappers and tasks players simply with escaping the maze in as few moves as possible) and Survival mode (take out as many trappers as possible, ad infinitum) do wonders for giving a simple concept a ton of legs for the price.

DVD 1/12/10: In The Loop, The Hurt Locker, Moon, Amreeka, Goliath, Post Grad

In The Loop (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Let’s not waste time: “In the Loop” was the funniest collision of dry wit, satire and F-bombs to hit theaters in 2009 … and 2008, 2007 and possibly every year since the events that undoubtably formed its inspiration — the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — took place. The war and principal characters in “Loop” are works of fiction, and between the film’s refusal to name a Middle Eastern country and its inclusion of some of the best Facebook and Google Earth references in a movie thus far, all indications point to this being current events in a universe parallel but not factually identical to ours. That’s fine, too, because “Loop” is a conversation about war the same way “The Big Lebowski” is a commentary about competitive bowling. There’s a call for war here, a call for restraint there, leaks spilling out everywhere and the eventual cramming of factual square pegs into ideologically round holes, but “Loop’s” primary objective is to present distinguished generals, small-time British ministers, press secretaries and everyone in between as petulant, petty, insecure overgrown children who lose control of their adulthood when they don’t get invited to the secret meeting at the secret clubhouse. “Loop’s” sharply hysterical script is as judicious as it often is vulgar, too, so no matter what views you have going in, some seriously vitriolic and very funny vindication awaits. Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Gina McKee, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky, Steve Coogan, Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche, among others, comprise one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory, if not ever.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, TV spot.

The Hurt Locker (R, 2009, Summit Entertainment)
It’s seemingly been done a thousand times and a thousand ways over the last few years, but there’s always room for one more movie that depicts the absurd impossibilities of modern combat when that movie captures it as skillfully as this one does. “The Hurt Locker” follows a team of soldiers (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce) whose primary objective centers around the disarmament of explosives — roadside explosives, could-be car bombs, huge caches of potent homemade weapons for which there is no instruction manual for proper disassembly — and whose job takes place in the view of citizens, children and the occasional enemy combatant indistinguishably standing in the same crowd. Discussions and productions about the Iraq War often have a tendency to lob numbers and technology around in a way that makes 21st century warfare sound like child’s play for desk jockeys and satellites, but “Locker” splashes cold water over that nonsense every time a soldier overturns yet another jumbled mess of wires that are one mistake away from leveling them while the enemy very possibly watches them work from a second-story window. If that’s easy, then everything’s easy, and viewers who see “Locker” for what it is — neither pro- nor anti-war, but a dramatized document of a real, seemingly impossible job some are tasked with completing to perfection — will be pressed hard not to come away with their appreciation renewed. That it so effortlessly adds up to one of the best action and suspense films of last year is, while certainly no accident, a nice bonus. Ralph Fiennes and David Morse also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, stills gallery.

Moon (R, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics)
For three years, astronaut and contractor Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has lived and worked almost completely alone, mining the dark side of the moon with only an artificially intelligent robotic companion named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) providing any semblance of companionship. The assignment alone is enough to break most normal men in a fraction of the time, so Sam’s ability to keep it together — albeit helped along by the occasional video e-mail from his wife (Dominique McElligott) and child on Earth — is pretty remarkable. Or hey, is it? Saying any more about “Moon’s” plot trajectory would be to spoil the film to an unreasonable degree, so let’s just say that while the film’s lonely energy is pretty striking in its own right early on, enough stuff happens to take that loneliness places and satisfactorily fill the 97-minute runtime. Whether it takes a weird, scary, humorous, chilling, creepy, trippy or some other adjective-y turn won’t be specified here, nor will any specific instances to illustrate “Moon’s” gift for digging deep into the heart of its character and the crushing loneliness that’s closing in on him. If you like smart science fiction that touches on familiar themes in wholly original ways, spare yourself the spoilers, take a leap of faith and check it out.
Extras: Writer/director/producer commentary, additional crew commentary, short film “Whistle,” two behind-the-scenes features, two Q&A sessions.

Amreeka (NR, 2009, National Geographic/Virgil Films)
The talking points for “Amreeka,” in which a Palestinian mother (Nisreen Faour as Muna) and son (Melkar Muallem as Fadi) act on a chance to leave the West Bank, move in with family in downstate Illinois and take advantage of all that entails, aren’t hard to guess. But here’s what “Amreeka” gets right that a lot of films with similar intentions get wrong: It lets the ignorance fly from both sides, and it does so without preaching or abandoning its sense of humor. Yes, Fadi gets picked on at school by kids who call him a terrorist, and Muna feels shame and disgust when she realizes what 10 years of banking experience halfway around the world does for her resume in Illinois. But for every observation about Americans’ oft-misguided uneasiness regarding Palestinian immigrants, “Amreeka” fishes out a complementary and completely believable misconstruction about American culture courtesy of Fadi, Muna and family. Throw in some not-so-surprising generational gaps — a phenomenon that knows no border — and add a little humor, and suddenly “Amreeka” is so democratically steeped in silly misconceptions that nearly everyone emerges on the same footage once all is said and done. Transforming a film about immigration and Arab culture into a film about a typical American family is no trivial thing, but “Amreeka” very credibly nails it. Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Yussuf Abu-Warda and Joseph Ziegler also star.
Extras: Short film “Make a Wish,” deleted scenes, outtakes.

Goliath (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
There are indie films, and there are really indie films. And then there are films like “Goliath,” which gets the “indie” tag more as a warning to unassuming passersby than a badge of honor. “Goliath” hits the ground running with a spectacular first scene involving our unnamed main character (David Zellner, who also writes and directs), a funeral, some pent-up anger and a voicemail to a soon-to-be-ex-wife (Caroline O’Connor) gone agonizingly wrong. From there, the downward spiral continues as we learn about our hero’s unenviable job status and the sudden realization that even his cat, Goliath, seems to have stepped out on him and gone missing. But “Goliath” never quite reaches back for the same relatable insanity of that first scene, instead opting for an energy that isn’t necessarily energetic at all. Some scenes carry on for atmosphere’s more than necessity’s sake, and while “Goliath” has some more very funny scenes in its 80 minutes, there also are numerous instances in which it seems to just stop and stall. Some will find value in these stalls and the way they so subtly illustrate our subject’s crumbling psyche. But others will just wonder what the heck is going on, and a select few will wonder if Zellner simply forgot to cut some scenes down in the editing room. “Goliath” wasn’t made with the latter two crowds in mind, and it deserves kudos for taking roads far less traveled than most movies about general hopelessness do, but that doesn’t mean those latter crowds’ points lack merit. See it if you’re in the mood for something experimental, but take heed if you aren’t.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, filmmaker Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature.

Post Grad (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
These are severely dark times for college graduates, jobseekers and anyone trying to get a grip on some kind of fulfilling career path, and dark times deserve some dark comedy that champions those teetering on defeat and reenergizes their fight as only epiphanic art can. Unfortunately, and instead, we get this — a cutely amusing comedy about a new college grad (Alexis Bledel as Ryden) who cutely falls on her face while also treading though the same rotation of scenarios you’ve already seen done better in any number of movies about quirky parents (Jane Lynch, Michael Keaton), a platonic relationship (Zach Gilford) that’s begging to reach the next level, and the academic rival (Catherine Reitman) who ekes past our heroine for class valedictorian status and does it again in their squeaky-clean incarnation of the real world. “Post Grad” never really stoops to offensively bad levels, and in another era, it would stand as a perfectly OK light comedy about amusing themes Hollywood has mashed into paste. But in terms of artistic expectations and general discontent, this most certainly isn’t that time, and “Grad” looks so much worse than it actually is for missing the point by such an absurd margin.
Extras: Deleted scenes, job tips, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, two quiz games, music video.

Games 1/5/10: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, Piyo Blocks

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
For: Wii
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

For better or worse — and a trip through this game provides ample evidence of both — “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers” is trying to do exactly what Wii games should be doing in the system’s fourth year of existence. Whether the result is good or not — and again, the pendulum swings both ways — “Bearers” does things that are unique, weird and physically impossible on other hardware.

“Bearers” certainly gets off to a fun start — first, by tossing players into a free-falling shootout in the sky, and then by putting them at the literal wheel of a humungous airship for a chase sequence through tight canyon corridors. The convoluted storytelling aside — and per “Crystal Chronicles” tradition, the tale of good, evil and crystals is a potpourri of incomprehensible mythology and bad dialogue — it’s clear almost immediately that “Bearers” is going for a much more action-oriented bent than its series predecessors.

The game’s primary means of action also steps far outside traditional “Final Fantasy” bounds: Using a cursor-centric aiming system, players point the Wii remote at people and objects on the screen and then lift them into the air, Darth Vader-style, to move or toss them around. Anyone who played “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” can grasp the combat and level-manipulation possibilities here, and while “Bearers'” control scheme and camerawork leave plenty to be desired, it nonetheless fulfills that promise.

The combination of this core mechanic, a sloppily passable story, “Final Fantasy” iconography and a consistent barrage of experimental diversions — from Chocobo races to a flawed but fun stealth challenge to a completely bizarre game involving girls, a beach and good balance — is enough to make “Bearers” fun when it works.

But “Bearers” often falls short, and when it does, it falls hard. Worse, the most offensive problems stem from lousy design decisions that would seem almost mandatorily avoidable in 2010.

Far and away the game’s biggest issue is the onscreen prompts it uses to instruct players on what to do during these one-off diversions. Too many of them are confusingly vague, while a few are cryptic to the point of misleading, throwing up meters without explanation and displaying controller animations that only barely resemble what a player is supposed to actually do. “Bearers” is generous with save checkpoints and many of these diversions are impossible to completely fail outright, but stumbling your way through a badly-designed challenge isn’t fun simply because it doesn’t halt your progress.

The problems are less acute during the main adventure, but they’re no aggravating. The opaque map and navigation system feel strikingly unfinished given Square-Enix’s experience with interface design in traditional “Final Fantasy” games, and getting lost or slogging from point to point is entirely too easy. That isn’t helped by the fact that during these slogs, there simply isn’t much to do. For every example of blinding ingenuity “Bearers” displays, there are two or three that feel perplexingly amateurish, and the ratio may prove too much for all but the most ardent and adventurous “Final Fantasy” fans to handle for very long.


Borderlands: Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

Though entirely enjoyable as a solo first-person shooter experience, “Borderlands” relies on a story, quest and inventory structure that’s best enjoyed with teammates (four players online, two locally) via cooperative play. Happily, players who want it both ways have the flexibility to play parts of the game alone and bring in friends on the fly without starting over as a new character.

Good thing, too, because whether you’ve played “Borderlands” alone, with friends or both up to this point, there’s pretty much no point in playing the “Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot” downloadable expansion without help.

As its name somewhat implies, “Riot” ditches the typical exploratory nature of “Borderlands'” quests in favor of post-apocalyptic arena combat: Moxxi is the host, and her “sport” consists of a survivor or four shooting their way out of a labyrinth that’s parts shanty town, stadium and game show studio. Moxxi emcees the action, and between her amusing taunts and the general gaudy design of the three arenas, “Riot” is a fantastic demonstration of the audiovisual spectacle that makes “Borderlands” so unique in spite of its bleak setting and genre.

Just don’t bask in the spectacle alone unless you really enjoy punishment.

“Riot” divides each match into five rounds, and those rounds split into five themed waves. Completing each wave consists of mowing down every enemy in the arena, and the reward for doing so is a brief supply drop of ammo and health. When all five waves of a round are wiped out, Moxxi drops a few items of actual value beneath the stage. Complete all 25 waves, and the match ends. Easy, right?

Not so much — and definitely not if you’re playing alone. Players who succumb to the enemy can continue to assist in the fight, but are confined to a penalty box until the next wave. If all players get sent to the box, gameplay halts and the round starts over from the first wave.

The task of conquering the harder waves and rounds is daunting enough, particularly when Moxxi alters the rules to remove gravity, nullify certain weapons useless or even strip away players’ shields. The challenge amplifies when fighting alone, and it’s made arguably unfair by the fact that if you get banished to the penalty box, the round automatically starts over by virtue of your having no teammates on the ground. Because “Riot” puzzlingly awards no experience points for killing enemies in the arena, it amounts to a lot of effort for no reward.

Though the continued emphasis on teamwork in “Borderlands” is admirable, it would’ve been nice, just this one time and only because the pool of “Borderlands” players has understandably shrunk since October, if Gearbox backed down a little and allowed solo players to enlist an A.I.-controlled teammate or two. “Riot” offers players a mountain of content and perhaps the stiffest challenge so far, but unless you make a pact with friends to take it on together, proceed with caution.


Piyo Blocks
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Big Pixel Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

Turnabout appears to be fair play to “Piyo Blocks,” which borrows some unmistakable design points from a game, “Zoo Keeper,” that itself was a pretty transparent knock-off of “Bejeweled.” If you’ve played “Bejeweled” — and pretty much everyone in the world has at this point — the core gameplay in “Blocks” offers little surprise: A grid of colored blocks fills the screen, and players switch two blocks to create as many rows of three or more as possible before time runs out. Creating rows clears the blocks and adds some time to the clock, and meeting certain quotas (as defined by “Blocks'” three separate modes) advances the action to new levels with trickier (albeit randomly-generated) starting patterns. Though it doesn’t have “Keeper’s” charming animal characters, “Blocks” still pretty faithfully mimics that game’s cheerful, intentionally blocky good looks. More importantly, it gets the basic mechanics of “Keeper’s” controls — including the ability to string combos together while the game clears other blocks away — down perfectly. For a game that costs less than a bag of chips, the level of polish, if not the originality of the concept, is most impressive. For good measure, Big Pixel includes support for the OpenFeint network, which provides online leaderboards, friends support, chat functionality and achievements.

DVD 1/5/10: 50 Dead Men Walking, Falling Up, The United States of Tara S1, The Final Destination, The Philanthropist, Chuck S2

50 Dead Men Walking (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
There’s an element of predictability to “50 Dead Men Walking,” and it isn’t simply because (a) the film’s first scene takes place 11 years after nearly the entirety of the rest of the movie or (b) its main character (Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland) also wrote the autobiography upon which the film is semi-loosely based. “Walking” tells the story of Martin, a small-time hooligan whose exceptional thickheadedness and local ties sends him down a path that has him infiltrating the Irish Republican Army for the British police. And like most movies about thick skulls doing dirty work for purportedly clean people, “Walking” goes through a few motions in which Martin finds himself in way over his head and doing things he never dreamt of doing as a humble troublemaker. Naturally, there’s a girl (Natalie Press) in there to complicate matters as well. But what “Walking” lacks in revolutionary plot development, it redeems everywhere else. Characters benefit from intricate development, which naturally affords some importance to situations we’ve otherwise seen before. “Walking” further complements these scenes with intelligently blunt writing and imagery that’s harsh enough to make an impact without overdoing it or taking away from all the little things the film does in the interim. That it’s based on a true story — and, as such, provides some unique insight into the roots of a maddeningly senseless conflict — is no small bonus, either. Ben Kingsley, Kevin Zegers and Rose McGowan also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Falling Up (NR, 2009, Anchor Bay)
We all have one, and everyone’s is different. So what’s your tolerance for new stories that don’t really tell a story that’s all that new? Your particular threshold will likely determine how much capacity you have to enjoy “Falling Up,” in which a penniless wannabe-nurse-turned-temporary-doorman (Joseph Cross as Henry) charms a sweet but very possibly spoiled rich girl (Sarah Roemer as Scarlett) who lives in the 5th Avenue building where he works. That outline alone probably fills viewers’ heads with images of what’s to come, and in most cases — be it the scene where Scarlett’s parents (Mimi Rogers, Jim Piddock) condemn the courtship or Henry’s family (Rachael Leigh Cook, Annette O’Toole) gives him the pep talk about character over class stature — “Up” disappointingly doesn’t disappoint. The good news is that with those clichés comes a good, satisfactorily unique group of characters to go through those motions, along with a handful of bit characters (Snoop Dogg, Joe Pantoliano, Sam Page) who possess scene-stealing powers. Their particular quirks, and “Up’s” likably smart script, make the film fun to experience despite the safe, well-worn roads it continually takes us down.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The United States of Tara: The First Season (NR, 2009, Showtime)
What does it say about “The United States of Tara” when the woman (Toni Collette) whose name makes it into the title might be the least interesting character on the show? Is might be condemnation of the concept, which finds Tara fighting to achieve wife-and-mom normalcy despite suffering from a multiple-personality disorder that has her embodying the spirit of a teenage girl, a male trucker and a Stepford wife. At least early on, the concept feels like anything from a tiring gimmick (once the novelty of each character wears off) to a losing battle (it’s hard to resolve differences between four characters when only one appears at a time) to a convenient plot device to drag out at will. Eventually, though, it becomes apparent that the most interesting thing about “Tara” isn’t the sideshow in the middle, but the comparatively normal husband (John Corbett), son (Keir Gilchrist), daughter (Brie Larson) and sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who must deal with these transformations while also handling a multitude of far more relatable issues in their own lives. “Tara” bounces between comedy and drama with so much regularity as to be neither, and it has a tendency to drag when an alternate personality wears out its welcome. But between those annoying moments, it tells a pretty good story about some surprisingly good characters. And as the season trucks along, the balance seems to improve, signaling good episodes ahead for season two.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, the first episode of season three of “The Tudors,” and DVD-ROM content (podcast interviews, the first two episodes of season two of “Californication,” another episode of “The Tudors” and another behind-the-scenes feature.)

The Final Destination (R, 2009, New Line)
“The Final Destination” — which apes some bizarre new trend of signaling a film franchise’s painfully overdue end by using a barely modified version of the first film’s name — would appear to go somewhere, you know, final. But is that really possible for a series that kills its entire cast during each outing and otherwise spins its creative wheels? Like the first three films, “Destination” begins with one character’s (Bobby Campo) premonition of violent impending death, and it proceeds with him and a select supporting cast of friends and other characters escaping with their lives while everyone else dies exactly as he envisioned. Death doesn’t like this, and so Death sets out to kill each character in the order he or she should have died in the opening disaster. And around and around the wheel of misfortune goes until, per usual, Death gets its way. The only reason to see “Destination” at this point is to see what wacky kills the filmmakers have devised, but outside of one unintentionally funny death early on, it feels like a phoned-in exercise this time around. So all we’re left with are characters we couldn’t care less about, dialogue that’s more wince-worthy than the gore, a story that’s already been told the same way three times and an ending that, at this point, is as predictable as rain falling after grey clouds assemble. None of it merited a fourth movie, much less one so profoundly “final,” and the 3D effects are simply pitiful in light of the spectacle “Avatar” is putting on in theaters right now.
Extras: Deleted scenes, 3D glasses.

Worth a Mention
— “The Philanthropist: The Complete Series” (NR, 2009, NBC): NBC sent this one to die by airing it in June, and sure enough, eight episodes later, die it did. What’s that? You never even heard of “The Philanthropist?” Yeah, no kidding. James Purefoy, Neve Campbell, Michael K. Williams and Jesse L. Martin star. No extras.
— “Chuck: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, Warner Bros.): Proof that not every good show that appears on NBC is doomed to a short life. Includes 22 episodes, plus deleted scenes, bloopers, two behind-the-scenes features, Web mini-features, tips for being awesome, and “John Casey Presents: So You Want to Be a Deadly Spy?”