Games 2/23/10: Aliens vs. Predator, World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars, Walk it Out!, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

Aliens vs. Predator
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Rebellion/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)

There are moments in each of “Aliens vs. Predator’s” three single-player campaigns where the game flashes some honest-to-goodness greatness that other first-person games can’t touch.

The brightest of these flashes happens straight away in the marine campaign, which outfits players as a standard soldier in a world crawling with aliens and, eventually, the Predator. “AvP” drops players into an environment where light is a precious commodity, and the game doesn’t waste time with dull shootouts against grunt enemies. The aliens are the enemy, and each one alone can easily take a player from healthy to dead. In packs and in darkness, they’re a nightmare.

But once the scene changes to less intimidating pastures and the aliens resort to less frightening tactics, “AvP” regresses to also-ran status. The fights start repeating themselves, the level designs feel more generic, and when Rebellion recycles an old twist from a previous “AvP” game and introduces the androids enemy class, this might as well be any shooter.

Unfortunately, “AvP’s” antiquated controls — which lack a lean or even crouch mechanic and rely too much on auto-aim assists to bail out some sloppy aiming precision — ensure it isn’t even just another shooter once the scares peel away and the dated mechanics are exposed. The action is more uninspired than truly bad, but when the game drops piles of enemies in one spot and expects players to avoid making mistakes while it makes so many, it feels pretty cheap.

Fleeting flashes of excellence also seep into the alien and Predator campaigns, which value stealth and melee combat over gunplay. Disabling the lights, climbing the walls and terrorizing humans is a fun thrill early in the alien campaign, and the Predator campaign offers enough trick (albeit with a slightly clumsy control scheme) to leap around the map and massacre humans, aliens and androids alike.

But these two campaigns eventually suffer the same problem: Most of what you see and do will be seen and done within each campaign’s opening scenario, and the same flat levels players see as the marine await yet again once the novelty of both campaigns wears off. None of the three campaigns requires more than three hours to finish, but all manage to wear out their welcomes because of how repetitive they are with regard to design, tactics and enemy intelligence.

Online multiplayer (18 players competitive, four players co-op) fares little better. The survival co-op mode, which pits player-controlled marines against endless alien waves, is just the single-player game’s bad controls and A.I. on overdrive.

Most of the competitive modes, meanwhile, are dampened by player-controlled aliens’ and Predators’ melee kill animations, which are so excessively drawn out that by the time Player A kills Player B, Player C is halfway finished killing a hopelessly vulnerable Player A. A few modes that play off the series fiction establish gameplay conditions that mitigate these domino effects, but it’s a testament to “AvP’s” overall haphazardness that such a hindrance plagues any, much less the majority, of these modes.


World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars
For: Xbox 360
From: Big Ant Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

The enormously successful advent of $10-$20 downloadable games left doubts that games like “World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars” — a retail product that shares shelf space with $60 games but costs $20 out of the gate — would ever have a place on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3.

They do, it seems, but they probably shouldn’t, because while times have changed, the problems that plagued shoestring-budget games with retail ambitions have not.

It’s not like “Outlaws” lacks merit, either. This is the first racing game in the Xbox 360’s existence that bears the World of Outlaws branding, and with that come racers, vehicles and tracks that fans of the touring series will certainly recognize. For those who never even heard of WoO, there’s value as well, because the combination of sprint cars and tightly-contained dirt tracks is a rare sight in a racing game landscape that’s beyond saturated in most every other area.

But the true value of a racing game always, always hinges on how it moves on the track, and “Outlaws” simply lacks polish in too many areas to make all that uniqueness enough of a compensation.

Most of “Outlaws'” shortcomings are forgivable. The overall interface is cumbersome and, in the career mode, a little bit confusing to maneuver at first. The career mode feels a bit thin, particularly with regard to car tuning flexibility, but that’s understandable given the budget price. Same with the graphics on the track: “Outlaws” looks a few years old, the cars appear to glide on the dirt rather than dig into it, and despite the box’s promise to the contrary, the lines torn into the dirt don’t seem to have much effect on the action in subsequent laps. Not ideal, but no big deal.

But things completely fall apart in the one area — control — where “Outlaws” couldn’t afford to slip. Steering is entirely too touchy, and the cars lack any sensation of weight. Taking a corner with any kind of force practically guarantees a spinout, but the alternative — babysitting the left stick and practically tapping it so as not to oversteer — just isn’t fun.

Compounding the problem is the game’s A.I., which seems to have no such trouble. Make one mistake in a 30-lap race, and catching up is nearly inconceivable. There simply is no reward for driving dangerously, because doing so is pretty much impossible, and that’s a killer for a game that’s trying to sell arcade-style excitement.

Things fare slightly better in multiplayer (two players split-screen, eight online), if only because everyone is prone to the same steering issues and the playing field is more level. “Outlaws” doesn’t do anything fancy online, but it lets players tweak races according to basic parameters and throws in a hot potato-style bomb tag variant for those who want a little extra danger. But the likelihood of a strong online community surrounding a shaky, budget-priced game is practically a pipe dream, so make sure you have friends waiting to play before placing too much stock in this portion of the game.


Walk it Out!
For: Wii
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild lyrics)

Given the Wii’s initial potential to immerse players and simulate the experience of interacting more freely with virtual worlds and activities, a game built around the entirely banal practice of walking — yes, walking — would seem just a wee bit ridiculous. Even with the Wii’s unexpected transformation into a virtual fitness tool taken into account, who needs a $30 piece of software to motivate them to walk in place?

The good news is that even the goofily-named “Walk It Out!” seems to understand how absurd the whole thing sounds on the surface. The better news is that in subscribing to a formula that’s pretty much a descendent of Konami’s “Dance Dance Revolution” games, it circumvents the issue and emerges as a fun, original and surprisingly rewarding exercise tool.

As implied by the title, the premise in “WIO” is to, in fact, walk it out. Some introductory tutorials and the occasional trainer chatter aside, the game’s primary mode drops players (either solo or with a friend via local co-op) into an open world, and they’re free to walk around at their leisure while the game tracks their step counts.

The kicker is the way “WIO” engages players’ completist tendencies by scattering more than 3,500 icons across the world. Each icon has a price attached to it, and steps are the game’s currency. Accumulate steps and point the Wii remote to “purchase” icons, and the game turns those icons into scenery, new songs for the soundtrack and new pathways that open the environment up for additional exploration.

Players who get into “WIO’s” gamey, collectable nature will rack up steps without even thinking about the working going into doing so. If the point of an exercise video game is to make players forget they’re exercising, this one nails it.

But what of the actual act of walking in place? It works, and surprisingly well, because Konami translates the rote original act into a light rhythm game. “WIO” comes with 120 songs, and players who want to accumulate steps will need to step in time with each song’s beat to do so. The variance of beats gives “WIO” about as much variety as one could expect from a game centered around walking. For players who find “Dance Dance Revolution’s” aerobic demands appealing but can’t get past those games’ difficulty, this offers the same benefits without the imposing drawbacks.

To no surprise, “WIO” supports Konami’s dance pad controller for Wii. But the pad isn’t required, and the game counts steps with surprising competency when players simply put the nunchuck attachment in their pockets and walk on any flat surface. The Wii Balance Board yields similarly accurate results, and it emerges as the ideal setup by giving players something solid to stand on and control their steps.

As any respectable fitness game should, “WIO” tracks calories, steps, distance walked and (special to this game) how competently players stay on the beat. The results aren’t entirely scientific, of course, but any gauge is better than no gauge, and the game’s ability to graph progress over time is a nice touch.


The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: The Odd Gentlemen/2K Play
ESRB’s Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

For all the wonderful ways 2008’s “Braid” combined art, music, storytelling, “Super Mario Bros.”-style 2D action and some truly mind-melting puzzles built around time manipulation, the production struck many as unnecessarily stuffy. For those folks, “The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom” is a double victory, because in addition to sparkling on all the same facets, “Winterbottom” does it with a sly grin and under the silliest pretense possible (a pie thief manipulating time and space to, yep, steal pies). “Winterbottom’s” puzzles aren’t quite as elaborate as “Braid’s,” if only because the game elects to break them into single-screen challenges instead of larger sidescrolling levels. But the intellectual itch this one scratches is completely the same and, in the hardest challenges, every bit as rewarding. That victory alone makes “Winterbottom” a no-brainer to recommend. But the game significantly sweetens the deal with an outstanding audiovisual presentation that brilliantly recalls the whimsical style of an old silent film serial. The game’s nefarious but silly sense of humor falls perfectly in line: Winterbottom might be the most lovable video game ratfink since Wario, and the rhyming between-level dialogue is as funny as it us clever.

DVD 2/23/10: $9.99, The Informant!, The Damned United, Shall We Kiss?, Nurse Jackie S1, Eleven Minutes, Superjail! S1

$9.99 (R, 2008, Regency Releasing/E1 Entertainment)
Though it sort of centers a theme around a somewhat central character — Dave, a directionless, unemployed 28-year-old who orders a $10 book about the meaning of life and decides to share his epiphanic moment with anyone who will listen — “$9.99” never really settles on one thing that traditionally constitutes an A-to-B plot line. It meanders — a lot — and though its characters exist in Dave’s neighborhood, their worlds rarely and sometimes never intersect. These are big problems for a movie to have, and they’d probably sink “$9.99” if all the little things it does weren’t so ridiculously, near-perfectly wonderful. 78 minutes of stop-motion animated characters waxing randomly about different facets of existence could very easily have descended into a soulless, pretentious nightmare, but “$9.99” strikes and holds a shrewd balance between showing and telling. Poignance has its place, but so does irony and dark comedy, and the stories are full of minute surprises in spite of their familiar backdrops and setups. The quality of the design and animation, old technology or not, also is first-rate: It’s a superior fit for the film’s overall tone, and it captures certain moods and details in ways all that newfangled computer animation still can’t and probably never will. Samuel Johnson, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Two short films, “Crazy Glue” and “A Buck’s Worth.”

The Informant! (R, 2009, Warner Bros.)
“The Informant!” would almost be a pleasure to watch even if it had no central storyline whatsoever coursing through the sea of thoughts that continually invade the mind of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a could-be corporate superstar who awkwardly stumbles into an agreement with the government to uncover a massive price-fixing scam that could devastate his employer. This isn’t to suggest the storyline doesn’t impress: To the contrary, “The Informant’s” ability to turn the prototypical whistleblower storyline on its head by injecting it with a dry, lively comic energy that doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the issue is as fantastic as it is overdue. But Whitacre’s mess of contradictory personality traits — well-meaning and sort of savvy, but also helplessly dishonest and supremely bumbling in how he carries himself — are what ultimately make this something special. And the clever way “The Informant” develops this character — though a continuous barrage of narrated non-sequiturs about the metric system, attractions to low-priced ties and an admiration for ants’ ability to capitalize on lucky breaks — is as effective as it often is funny. What happens to the company is of no small consequence, given that this is based on a true story, but it can’t help but finish a distant second when the fate of such a phenomenally constructed character also hangs in the balance. Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

The Damned United (R, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics)
There are good biopics that faithfully recreate their subjects, the impacts they left and the environments where those impacts were left. Then there are great biopics, like “The Damned United,” which don’t merely recreate these faces and moments so much as they absolutely revel in them. To be fair, “United” has a little help: This is the story of outspoken soccer manager Brian Clough, and his unlikely ascension to manager of England’s most celebrated soccer club — and what happens after he takes over the club that previously had been his most bitter rival — is surpassed in energy by only Clouth himself, who was to soccer managers what Muhammad Ali was to boxers. “United” maintains a persistent momentum by bouncing back and forth in time to simultaneously dramatize Clouth’s not-terribly-humble beginnings and what happens upon his securing the Leeds United job, and true to the source material, the film’s lively energy plays second only to Michael Sheen’s spot-on embodiment of Clouth. Sheen pretty well nailed Tony Blair and David Frost previously, and he nets the hat trick here with perhaps his best show yet. A stellar supporting cast (Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham and Peter McDonald) more than pulls its weight as well.
Extras: Director/producer/Sheen commentary, deleted scenes, Cloughisms, four behind-the-scenes features.

Shall We Kiss? (NR, 2007, Music Box Films)
“Shall We Kiss?” begins with an extremely fortuitous chance encounter between Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) and Émilie (Julie Gayet), and were one to watch the first five minutes and not a moment more, one might assume this meeting (and where it leads) forms the narrative backbone for the 97 minutes that remain. But more than the story of Gabriel and Émile, “Kiss” is the story of Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) and Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), two friends who resort to rather awkward and unconventional means to diagnose the source of some troubling emotional issues one of them is experiencing. “Kiss” doesn’t try anything fancy with its basic premise, and seasoned movie watchers feasibly could tally up much of the film’s final score before it is even halfway finished. But the amusingly, painfully, authentically awkward way “Kiss” dresses down its characters and their plights is dense with pleasantly surprising little details and moments to such a degree that the slight predictability of the overall picture ceases to be a major issue. This isn’t a movie about what happens so much as what happens while it’s happening, and “Kiss'” ability to keep these pleasant surprises coming while staying grounded in convention is no small achievement. In French with English subtitles. Content of extras not available at press time.

Nurse Jackie: Season One (NR, 2009, Showtime/Lions Gate)
Stories about high-level professionals who achieve even higher levels of personal ineptitude have become excessively common in the last several years, and one wouldn’t be foolish to assume, at least early on, that New York nurse Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) and the show that bears her name are headed down the same highway. Those assumptions are validated to a point, and once the first episode peels away a couple of revelations that won’t be spoiled here, “Nurse Jackie” leaves no doubt that its namesake has some mental housekeeping to do. But that first episode also gifts Jackie with a comparatively helpless but entirely sharply constructed cast of doctors (Eve Best, Peter Facinelli), administrators (Gloria Akalitus), pharmacists (Paul Schulze), nurses (Mohammed de la Cruz and occasional show-stealer Merritt Wever), relatives and patients. Falco plays the personal mess with skill, but she’s even more fun to watch as the show’s rock, and the way “Jackie” weaves between the two positions — and pushes out a medical comedy-drama that somehow feels different than the glut of other medical shows already out there — makes it easy to recommend.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, nurse stories and three behind-the-scenes features.

Eleven Minutes (R, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
Bystanders who had no way of knowing better assumed that when Jay McCarroll won the first season of “Project Runway,” he would remain in safe hands up to and possibly beyond his promised showing at New York Fashion Week. But beyond the guarantee of a slot, McCarroll was left completely to his own devices and budget. Fortunately, one of those devices was this documentary, which McCarroll commissioned as a way to earn some extra cash and also set the record straight about his post-“Runway” foray into the ridiculously unforgiving world of fashion design. “Eleven Minutes” absolutely succeeds at painting an unflatteringly honest picture of that pressure, and it’s something of a wonder to watch McCarroll hang onto his sanity while banking years of dreaming, planning and preparation into an 11-minute presentation that could sink the whole ship. But perhaps the best thing about “Minutes” is how democratic it is in distributing the flatter-free images: The industry looks harsh through this lens, but McCarroll, who occasionally comes off as ungrateful and entitled beyond his rights, often fares no better. Given his involvement at least in the early stages of “Minutes'” realization, the objective slant is commendable and something of a pleasant surprise.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews with McCarroll and the directors.

Superjail! Season One (NR, 2007, Adult Swim)
Yes, “Superjail!” is about a super jail, but a premise may never mean less to a show than it does to this one. Because more than being a show about a jail, each 11-minute episode of “Superjail” is an 11-minute animated fever dream that travels such wild roads as to make its perfectly crazy Adult Swim contemporaries look straight and sane by comparison. Setting and character titles aside, this could be a show about supermarket employees or a bowling league and most of the episodes could still find a way to their completely bizarre conclusions without too much trouble. That’s a talent, by the way, and it’s one “Superjail” masterfully succeeds at for those who like their cartoons to be dizzyingly unpredictable from moment to moment. The caveat, of course, is that this in no way is for everyone by any means whatsoever. “Superjail’s” endgame isn’t to tell a terrific story or even (it seems) make viewers laugh, but instead to cram as much animated insanity into an episode as possible without losing the right to classify as a show with settings and characters. It accomplishes that feat, but the terms on which it does so are completely unwavering, so don’t say you weren’t warned.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus the pilot episode, animatics and a music video.

Games 2/16/10: Bioshock 2, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, iBomber

Bioshock 2
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: 2K Marin/Digital Extremes/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

The game-playing public spent roughly two years wringing its collective hands over why anyone would dare make a sequel to a game so perfectly complete as “Bioshock.”

2K Marin, which assumed primary development duties this time around, needs roughly five minutes to render that worry mostly worthless.

This isn’t to say the worries lacked any merit. “Bioshock 2’s” storyline picks up 10 years later, but a decade isn’t nearly enough time to dramatically change the landscape in Rapture, the brilliantly-realized underwater not-quite-utopia that supplied the stage for “Bioshock’s” arguably groundbreaking storytelling. The sequel takes players into new areas of Rapture, but the overall visual presentation, combined with a reliance on the same mechanics that made “Bioshock” its own creation, can’t help but leave “Bioshock 2” feeling superficially like an imitation product barreling down pre-blazed trails.

But while recreating the wow factor behind “Bioshock’s” architecture and lynchpin twists is pretty much impossible, 2K Marin nonetheless runs with the opportunity to extend the storyline past the first game’s fallout. “Bioshock 2’s” story is a bit more traditional in structure, but it very satisfactorily answers some lingering questions. The first game’s narrative hallmarks — namely, first-rate voice acting and an enviable attention to character development and design — are on full display once again, and the player’s role in shaping that story’s outcome has increased.

Where the sequel fully bests the original is in the actual gameplay, which fundamentally feels identical but benefits from some corrective and clever tweaks. The first game’s inexplicable inability to wield weapons with one hand and plasmids (biological modifications that allow for such tricks as telekinesis, hypnosis and fireball tossing) with the other has been corrected here. The simultaneous wielding helps offset a more frantic pace of action: Rapture’s enemies are faster, meaner and more diverse, and activities from the first game — including hacking machinery (now via a fun timing-based challenge) and researching enemies with a camera that now shoots video — now take place in real time.

Surprisingly, the placement of the player in the boots of a Big Daddy — one of Rapture’s neutral (but, if provoked, extremely dangerous) guardians — affects the story more than the gameplay. With that said, the drill might be the most fun melee weapon to appear in a first-person shooter in years. (Thankfully, as the story explains, players aren’t forced to lumber around as slowly as most Big Daddies do.)

While a great many people couldn’t care less that “Bioshock 2” includes a multiplayer mode (10 players, online only), the pretense under which it appears — the Rapture civil war that preceded the events of the first game — is pretty ingenious.

The seven available modes aren’t terribly unique to veterans of multiplayer shooters, but the way they incorporate Rapture’s mythology and tell a personalized story in the process most definitely is. A “Modern Warfare”-style upgrading system allows players to level up over time and acquire new plasmids and weapons, and six of the seven modes allow one player at a time to assume control of a Big Daddy and wreak all kinds of truly fantastic havoc.


Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth
For: Nintendo DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Capcom developed a nice stable of truly bizarre characters in its first four “Ace Attorney” games, but through three games starring defense attorney Phoenix Wright and a fourth game centered on Wright despite carrying another lawyer’s name in the title, it’s been reluctant to embrace that in any remotely risky way.

Though “Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth” doesn’t deviate wildly from its predecessors in terms of how it fundamentally looks and plays, it does finally take the series to some new frontiers — in large part by framing the story around Wright’s prosecutor nemesis and leaving Wright himself mostly out of the game, but arguably more so by taking the gameplay almost entirely out of the courtroom.

Instead, “Edgeworth” takes place at the crime scene, and a new third-person perspective and control scheme allows players to directly control Edgeworth and navigate the scene in a way that somewhat recalls traditional point-and-click adventures. The change makes sense given the increased emphasis on looking for finer details amid a fine mess, but it also just feels more freeing than what Wright was afforded during his investigations.

With that said, though, the changes don’t really rock the boat. Scanning the scene for inconsistencies and sifting through their connections in the new Logic screen isn’t entirely unlike what players had to do when presenting a case as Wright, and confronting suspects and witnesses — and pointing out inconsistencies in their statements — isn’t terribly different from catching them in a lie on the witness stand. Most of these portions take place in screens that are functionally similar to their corresponding screens in previous “Attorney” games.

The ensuing compromise ends up working rather well. Capcom has the science of making this stuff fun down pretty cold after four games, and even though some familiar aggravations pop up — including the occasional penalization of should-be solutions that aren’t solutions because the game simply isn’t flexible enough to recognize certain creative conclusions — no game really does this stuff better than these do.

Attempting to make sense of the “Attorney” canon is not for the weak, and “Edgeworth” — which takes place over a few harried days in the middle of the “Wright” timeline but flashes back to five self-contained cases spanning some seven years — doesn’t make things much easier.

But for those who are invested, “Edgeworth” offers a ton of welcome insight into the titular character’s past and methods. And while Wright himself isn’t a major player this time around, a number of memorable characters from previous “Attorney” games do show up in some fashion or another. (No spoilers.) The tenor of the game changes slightly due to the change in venue and perspective, but the overall tone — from bizarre character designs to hilariously weird dialogue to Miles screaming catchphrases in a manner befitting of a game show constestant — remains wonderfully intact.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Cobra Mobile
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

The name may inspire visions of really bad Apple peripheral ideas, but everything else about the very pretty “iBomber” is an ode to World War II-era flying aces. “iBomber’s” 14 missions vary in terms of objectives, but they all typically revolve around dropping bombs from above on enemy submarines, anti-aircraft weapons and other points of strategic importance. The action presents itself from a first-person cockpit view, and the controls are explicitly iPhone-friendly: Tilting the device handles all flying maneuvers, while a bright red “Bombs Away” button does just what it says. “iBomber’s” tilt controls command a wider range of motion than most tilt-based iPhone games — you’ll probably have to play this one sitting up rather than lounging to succeed — but the upside is an optimum level of control over the aircraft. A striking audiovisual presentation makes nailing targets a surprisingly satisfying endeavor, and a smattering of power-ups enhances that satisfaction without breaking the presentation. Cobra has released a two-mission premium content pack for $1 and promises more where that came from, but a great scoring system and wealth of optional medals to earn in the base missions should give thrifty perfectionists plenty of gameplay for their initial $3 investment.

DVD 2/16/10: Black Dynamite, Bronson, Good Hair, Women in Trouble, Law Abiding Citizen, Maneater

Black Dynamite (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Often, the best send-ups are the ones where the lines are too thin and blurry to confidently conclude whether it’s even a spoof at all. “Black Dynamite” doesn’t quite blur the line that thoroughly — nor, in its hilarious resurrection of blaxploitation cinema, does it try to. But a funny thing happens to “Dynamite” while it so thoroughly and gleefully riffs on its influences: The story, at face value, gets pretty legitimately good. The names, period-piece visuals and avalanche of nods and inside jokes are too overt (and too funny) to ever suggest “Dynamite’s” first priority isn’t to make people laugh. But the titular character (played by Michael Jai White) is too awesome a hero to dismiss simply as a means to an ironic end, and his cohorts and enemies (Arsenio Hall as Tasty Freeze, Tommy Davidson as Cream Corn, Mykelti Williamson as Chicago Wind) are similarly fantastic. Not so coincidentally, the joke never gets old, and “Dyamite” never wears out its welcome. Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Kevin Chapman also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, Comic-Con footage.

Bronson (R, 2008, Magnolia/Magnet)
The heavily stylized tale of Michael “Charles Bronson” Peterson — a petty thief who turned a lousy robbery and minor prison sentence into a three-decade career as one of the world’s most violent prisoners — is based on the true story. Whether “Bronson” itself is a story, though, will vary based on the respective tastes and patience levels of those who see it. It certainly isn’t for lack of talent: Tom Hardy is no less than awesome in his darkly funny portrayal of “Bronson’s” surprisingly engaging titular character, and his supporting cast (Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton and a large array of bit players) keeps up. “Bronson” similarly isn’t lacking in execution: To the contrary, between Bronson’s fourth wall-breaking monologues and makeup-encased sermons and the various degrees of pacing and artistic license taken with the film’s more traditional scenes, it’s a marvel of bold, imaginative storytelling. But one viewer’s idea of fearless originality is another’s self-indulgent pretense, and those looking for simple, point-to-point plot development about one of the world’s nastiest criminals are likely to leave frustrated by a story that’s more concerned with tearing down its main character than exploring the moments that made him famous. That in no way is a criticism, because there are a thousand biopics like that for every one like this, but it bears mentioning all the same.
Extras: 17 minutes’ worth of monologues from the real Bronson, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, 11 minutes of random behind-the-scenes footage.

Good Hair (PG-13, 2009, Lions Gate)
Hair very often is a misunderstood animal, and for most men — and Chris Rock, who mans the ship in this surprisingly insightful documentary, is no exception — that goes double for women’s hair. Now take that doubled misunderstanding and multiply it by seven, and you have the painful ordeal of many black women, who spend small fortunes and sometimes undergo maddenly painful treatments just to achieve an effect that the social order deems desirable (and more to the point, employable). Whoever wrote these unwritten rules is a fool, but there they are, and “Good Hair” explores them in a painfully honest, dryly funny and sometimes self-depreciating way that’s easy for anyone to understand and appreciate. Rock occasionally staggers in the role of documentary emcee, but he finds his footing as “Hair” gets down to business, and a number of spirited celebrity appearances — from Ice-T to Raven-Symoné to Nia Long to some extremely funny quips by Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton — combine to tear down a touchy subject and allow “Hair” to have a discussion that, in this medium, is ages overdue. A fantastic subplot following the Bronner Bros International Hair Show — and all the pageantry, personality and anxiety the world-famous show entails — provides some bonus drama to complement all the talk.
Extra: Producer/Rock commentary.

Women in Trouble (R, 2009, Screen Media Films)
The title does not lie, because whether it’s the newly-pregnant porn star (Carla Gugino) who’s stuck in an elevator, the flight attendant (Marley Shelton) who accidentally does something awful while purposely doing something terrible, the psychiatrist (Sarah Clarke) who discovers her husband is cheating with a patient’s mother (Caitlin Keats), or a call girl (Adrianne Palicki) whose getting hit by two cars is the least of her problems, there are a lot of women in trouble here. “Women in Trouble” does its best to connect these and other stories to each other, and it actually manages to do so better than most movies about multiple separate stories do. Like most movies of this sort, “Trouble” stumbles when trying to fit too much into too little time, and the harried pace often finds it wobbling between comedy and drama in ways that occasionally push the melodrama quotient past agreeable levels. But “Trouble’s” funniest moments are genuinely funny, and its most poignant moments are often carried by some brilliant writing that supercharges a character’s development in the space of a sentence or two. Moments like these outnumber “Trouble’s” stumbles by a nice margin, and even if the whole puzzle never comes together quite like it might’ve hoped, the entertaining and thoughtful picture it paints will certainly do. Connie Britton, Josh Brolin and Garcelle Beauvais, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Law Abiding Citizen (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Meet Clyde (Gerard Butler), an inventor and loving family man whose wife and child were savagely murdered during a home invasion. Just don’t meet him if you’re Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), who killed both, framed his partner for the killings and skated with three-year prison stint, because Clyde is looking for you. “Law Abiding Citizen” hits its first crescendo almost immediately with the invasion, and some very efficient storytelling ensures it isn’t very much longer before we’re 10 years into the future and bearing witness to what, precisely, Clyde has in mind for payback for the man who killed his family and the pieces of the justice system (Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Annie Corley) that ultimately let him off the hook. As exquisitely-crafted thrillers go, “Citizen” simply isn’t one: Clyde’s plan is too perfect and too ridiculous, and attempts to make a statement about justice are drowned out by how completely ludicrous things get. But as twisted good times that scratch the revenge itch go, this suffices: Even if Clyde goes entirely too far to make his point, it’s unsettlingly easy to take some dark enjoyment in watching him pull the trigger on 10 years’ worth of payback planning. Sometimes — and with all due respect to morality and messages — that’s all a movie needs.
Extras: Producers commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, trailer contest winner.

Maneater (NR, 2009, Sony Pictures)
You need to toe a pretty thin line to make a sympathetic hero out of Clarissa Alpert (Sarah Chalke), a never-employed thirtysomething who finally gets a clue that her days of leeching off her parents (Gregory Harrison and Maria Conchita Alonso) and rich and famous men has an expiration date. That’s doubly true when it becomes apparent Clarissa’s solution to this revelation is to prey on (and, with or without his help, plan a wedding with) a fresh-faced heir (Philip Winchester) who has barely touched down in Hollywood. Fortunately, few can simultaneously look like a Barbie doll and convincingly play the likable fool quite like Chalke can, and her gifts buy this miniseries the time it needs for us to give this whole vapid odyssey a chance. That patience isn’t always rewarded, because when “Maneater” isn’t being mostly predictable, it’s dissecting its subject matter with all the edginess of a handle end of a butter knife. But vapidity steadily gives way to humility, and while it never approaches the level of must-see in any dimension — you kind of know how this one’s ending roughly 170 minutes before it does — it’s a considerably more pleasant experience than it ever should have been. No extras.

Games 2/9/10: Dante's Inferno, Darksiders, Chime

Dante’s Inferno
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: PSP
From: Visceral Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

It isn’t very original to half-dismiss “Dante’s Inferno” as a “God of War” knockoff, but guess what? “Dante’s Inferno” isn’t very original, either, because guess what? In every way beyond the source material that inspired its storyline, “Inferno” is the “God of War” knockoff to end all “God of War” knockoffs.

It’s good to preface this by stating that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing or even a criticism, because for the most part, “Inferno” pays pretty good tribute to the game that so obviously provided its blueprint. Dante executes his arsenal of moves with the same fluidity as does Kratos, and “Inferno” tosses nine circles’ worth of demons, behemoths and the damned at him without any wear whatsoever on the action, which cruises along at the same rocksteady framerate for which “War” is so well known (and, to Visceral Games’ credit, few “War” imitators get remotely right).

Though some will never see the transformation of the 14,000-line, 14th century Divine Comedy into a high-octane video game as anything short of blasphemous (and though they certainly have an argument), “Inferno” doesn’t trample the poem’s memory as it so easily could.

Visceral whittles Dante’s odyssey down to consumable levels, piecing the nine circles of Hell into objectives and environments designed around their themes. But while the game takes liberties in order to be a game, it stays faithful to the outline. Those who accept “Inferno” for what it is — a gutsy reimagination of a seemingly completely incompatible art form that in no way is meant to replace the original form — the translation is quite an achievement in terms of the balance it strikes between reverence for the original work and an understanding of what it needs to work in this context.

And if you don’t care about any of that, “Inferno” still is a solid action game that, like “War,” borrows from legend to create some visually awesome locales for its fights, platforming challenges and environmental puzzles. Chunks of the game fall prone to fights against the same old enemies, and the last circle absolutely phones it in with a series of challenges entirely too contrived to sustain any sense of narrative immersion. But “Inferno” hits more than it misses, and some of the imagery Visceral brings to life — waterfalls of the damned splashing into lakes of fire, walls made of souls screaming for redemption, rivers of blood — is effectively unnerving.

As if to acknowledge the fact that “God of War III” is barely a month away on the PS3, EA has sweetened the pot on the PS3 side with a forthcoming bonus prequel level that will be free to download in March. The PS3 edition also includes a making-of documentary, soundtrack, digital artbook and digital reprint of the poem.

But “Inferno’s” real downloadable treat (for both consoles) might arrive in April in the form of an online co-op mode that also allows players to create and share their own custom-designed circles of Hell. No telling yet whether it’ll be good or how much it’ll cost, but the teaser video on the disc hints at a pretty robust level designer that, in the right hands, will give the game some inspired additional legs.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vigil Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)

Games imitating games isn’t exactly press-stopping news, but it’s pretty well impossible to ignore the influences — “The Legend of Zelda” here, “God of War” there, a few other surprises in between — at play in “Darksiders.”

It also isn’t a bad thing, most particularly because in borrowing so many little things that make “Zelda” games what they are, “Darksiders” also manages to do one thing — kick players’ tails — they haven’t done in forever. “Zelda” fans who admire the series’ clever dungeon designs but long for the days when the games used to punish players might want to give this a hard look, because it’s pretty clear Vigil Games got tired of waiting and just took matters into its own hands.

“Darksiders'” story — in which War, the first Horseman of the Apocalypse, must redeem himself after accidentally igniting a war on Earth between Heaven and Hell — is darker and bloodier than your typical “Zelda” tale, but the little things that series (and often, only that series) does are nonetheless peppered all over this one.

A fairly robust overworld notwithstanding, the game’s primary action takes place in dungeons — some of which (wait for it) contain an item that (surprise) comes in handy in defeating that dungeon’s boss enemies. One of those items? It’s a boomerang, which War utilizes via a targeting system that’s an unmistakable descendent of “Zelda’s” near-proprietary Z-targeting system. Numerous puzzles utilizing the boomerang (and, among other “surprise” items, bombs that grow in plants) are cleverly designed in “Darksiders,” but “Zelda” pros almost instinctively will have some semblance of how to overcome them.

But while “Darksiders” isn’t short on influences, it also isn’t short on surprises. And while its dungeons are evocative of “Zelda” in numerous spots, they regularly surpass “Zelda’s” offerings in terms of scope. The satisfaction of toppling them comes compounded by the fact that, wholly unlike “Zelda,” the enemies lurking inside are formidable and occasionally brutal.

This is where the “God of War” influence rolls in. If you’ve thrown down as Kratos, a considerable chunk of “Darksiders'” combat — from the camera perspective to the controls to War’s finishing maneuvers to the orbs enemies spew upon perishing — should instantly resonate. “Darksiders” takes some welcome liberties by placing additional emphasis on evasion and counterattacks, and some will certainly appreciate that War’s finishing moves require only a single button press instead of a series of monotonous prompts. The weapons, move sets and terminology also are original, even if their influences are laid pretty bare.

Sincere forms of flattery aside, the sum total gels well… mostly. “Darksiders” occasionally stumbles when influences clash — relying on a targeting system designed for a much easier game can lead to fatal camera problems in tight areas packed with enemies, for instance — and there are occasional encounters that propel the difficulty to an arguably cheap degree.

For some, the biggest problem “Darksiders” will pose is its inability to change difficulty settings midstream. Players of so-so ability may want to swallow some pride and play on Easy, lest they continually succumb to one of these spikes and have no recourse but to start the game over.


For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Zoë Mode/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Even if you don’t like “Chime,” you can feel good about giving it your five dollars, because developer Zoë Mode is donating more than three of those dollars to the OneBigGame initiative, which distributes those donations to the Save the Children Fund and the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Fortunately, players who love puzzle giants “Tetris” and “Lumines” most likely also will love “Chime,” which takes portions of both games, mixes in some Tangrams, and emerges with something serenely unique. The object in “Chime” is to arrange shapes (some straight out of “Tetris,” others inspired by it) into quadrants with the eventual hope of filling every block on the playing grid before time runs out. As in “Lumines,” a virtual beat line slides horizontally across the screen, and portions of the song play in concert with how many squares you clear in any given measure. “Chime’s” excellent five-song soundtrack, along with the fact that players arrange shapes at their pace instead of catch them as they fall from the top of the screen, makes for a experience that’s considerably more tranquil than those from which it draws inspiration. But while “Chime” offers enough mode flexibility to engage just about anyone, those looking to tackle all five levels with 100 percent completion will be shocked to find out just how entertainingly tall an order that turns out to be.

DVD 2/9/10: A Serious Man, The House of the Devil, More Than a Game, The Life and Times of Tim S1, Couples Retreat, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Planet Hulk, Doctor Who: The Complete Specials, New Archive of American Television DVDs

A Serious Man (R, 2009, Universal/Focus)
Great movies express powerful emotions — heartbreak, joy, love, anger — in ways that resonate strongly with viewers. But it takes something truly special to convey the dull ache of fading dreams and encroaching irrelevance as masterfully as poor physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) does while his employers debate his value, his wife (Sari Lennick) kicks him out of his own house, his next-door neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) greets him with unsolicited death stares, and his friend of 15 years (Fred Melamed) so politely moves in on his wife. “A Serious Man” flies the dark and dry comedy flag with unbridled pride, but it also leapfrogs past those simple classifications by investing more care into a blank stare or idle twitch of the mouth than most dark comedies invest in their dialogue. Years of watching sympathetic heroes like Larry have trained us to wait patiently for the moment in which the hero angrily decides to reclaim his pride, but while the truth won’t be spoiled here, “Man” makes it clear early on that such conventions are in no way promised. Given how enjoyable each and every moment of “Man” is on its own level, anything less than complete, unnerving (but morbidly funny) uncertainty would do anyway.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The House of the Devil (R, 2009, Dark Sky/MPI)
There’s a fine line between tribute, parody and something resembling a possible resurgence of an art form, and while it isn’t totally clear where “The House of the Devil’s” original intentions lied, it doesn’t really matter when the result so clearly belongs in column C. “Devil’s” spartan premise arrives straight out of the 1980s: A struggling college student (Jocelin Donahue as Samantha) takes a babysitting job deep in the country despite the fact that the man who interviewed her (Tom Noonan) was both a little rude and a lot creepy. Working in concert with the premise is “Devil’s” overall style, which — from Samantha’s feathered hair to the technology on hand (pay phones in, cell phones out) to the visual presentation — removes all doubt that this is a callback to olden times. But along the way and without changing its tone, “Devil” migrates from arguable sendup to real-deal minimalist horror. Minutes pass in which little happens, but everything about those minutes makes it entirely clear something awful could happen any second now. “Devil” giftedly veers from tease to jolt and right back to tease, and it thrives on creeping viewers out with what it doesn’t say instead of dumping buckets of gore all over the floor. It works beautifully, and it begs the question: Why did this style ever disappear in the first place?
Extras: Director/Donahue commentary, crew commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

More Than a Game (PG, 2008, Lions Gate)
“More Than a Game” tells the story of five basketball players (one of them LeBron James) whose bond — the roots of which began at the grade school level — molded them into one of the most dominant forces ever to blow through high school basketball. If that sounds like an ordinary story with a completely predestined ending, it’s only because cheesy, mostly fictional sports movies have trained us to think it is. But while we all know what has happened to James since his high school days, none of it was written in stone when a film crew followed him and his teammates around over a period of several years. And even if “Game” wasn’t special in any other regard, its document of a professional superstar’s developmental years is unprecedented in terms of detail and intimacy. But James isn’t the only fascinating subject on hand here: His teammates, coaches and mother have some pretty extraordinary stories of their own to tell, and “Game” is democratic in exploring their respective highs and (because this is a documentary and not scripted entertainment) lows. The sum total is considerably more exhilarating than anything a screenwriter can conjure, and while James’ story always will be the exception to the rule, “Game” does the dream proud nonetheless.
Extras: Three making-of features.

The Life and Times of Tim: The Complete First Season (NR, 2008, HBO)
Do you miss “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist?” Or rather, did you sort of admire that cartoon’s conversational tone and ultra-crude animation but wish Dr. Katz could drop an F-bomb and let his too-hot-for-basic-cable flag fly every now and again? Here’s your show. “The Life and Times of Tim” does not come from the same brain trusts responsible for “Katz” or the similarly great “Home Movies,” but the stylistic similarities — bone-dry dialogue and delivery, grade school-level artwork and animation that a five-page flip book could outdo — are too unmistakable not to mention. “Tim” veers down its own road by virtue of being on HBO, which means episodes like “Angry Unpaid Hooker,” “Bashko’s Hairy Daughter,” and “Tim vs. the Baby” are possible. Fortunately, while “Tim” certainly benefits from the lack of boundaries, it values dry wit over shock for shock’s sake, so while some episodes collapse beneath their premises, most wind up on the pretty amusing side. And because each half-hour show comes divided into two episodes, the bad ones at least don’t stick around for too long.
Contents: 20 episodes over 10 shows, plus a collection of 10 animated shorts.

Couples Retreat (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
If the thud with which “Couples Retreat’s” theatrical run landed was deserved, it wasn’t due to it being an awful movie, because “Retreat” isn’t awful so much as it is just so-so. There’s even a point, when we’re getting to know everybody, where “Retreat” — which finds four couples (Vince Vaughn, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk) unwittingly at a luxurious resort that’s a front for intensive, mandatory new-age couples therapy — is quite good and quite funny. But “Retreat” expends the bulk of its funny energy during its early going, and once we get to the resort, it’s already in the process of awkwardly coasting on the character quirks it set up in act one. The thinning laughs aren’t helped by the fact that “Retreat” basically runs through all the predictable scenarios one expects from a stock vacation-in-not-quite-paradise film. All that clinging to convention never makes for a terrible film, and there are moments where “Retreat” looks poised to break out as a cutting dialogue about commitment rather than an elongated sitcom with a soppy ending. But it never fully takes that gamble, and what remains feels like a so-so film that, given the talent within, should be miles better than so-so. Jean Reno and Peter Serafinowicz also star.
Extras: Director/Vaughn commentary, alternate ending and deleted/extended scenes (with commentary), three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
So here’s a question: How important is it to you that, during the course of a movie, stuff happens? If the question sounds like a joke to you, it’s probably best to deny yourself the likely displeasure of watching “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” which follows the plain but disarming Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks) as she grifts her way through an otherwise directionless New York City existence. That aforementioned ability to disarm — and the live-for-the-moment disposition that accompanies it — makes Eléonore a frustratingly difficult character to dislike, and there’s something weirdly serene about watching her stumble from instance to instance without fear of plot developments, twists, and grand finales getting in the way. On the downside? “Robbed” doesn’t have any plot developments, twists or finales that change things in any lasting, remotely meaningful way from the beginning of the film to its conclusion. “Robbed” is a unique, pretty film that, at 70 minutes long, also is easy to digest. But for a lot of movie watchers, it’s missing too many parts to even rate as a movie at all. If the premise on paper gives you fits, the genuine article likely will leave you with a brief complex.
Extras: Musical commentary track, short films “We’re Going to the Zoo” and “There’s Nothing You Can Do,” three super-short films (shorter than a minute each) made during the making of “Robbed.”

Planet Hulk: 2-Disc Special Edition (NR, 2010, Lions Gate)
Marvel is attempting to turn a corner in its redoubled efforts to produce high-quality animated action movies, and there are numerous points in “Planet Hulk” — the level of animation detail, the overriding presentation, an appetite for blood not allowed on Saturday morning cartoons, a nice quotient of DVD extras — where this effort is evident. But it’s hard to make a ton of lemonade with a lemon like “Hulk,” which shortchanges its main character and relies on a script so formulaic as to undermine all that pretty action taking place when it climaxes. It’s not really the movie’s fault: “Hulk” is based on the multi-issue comic book of the same name, and the comics had considerably more room to develop Hulk and his supporting cast and provide the kind of details that more than offset the generic skeletal plot. An 81-minute movie can’t feasibly do the same, and in this context, “Hulk” just feels like a “Gladiator” knockoff that revolves around a character without dimension. The good looks don’t go unnoticed, but stacked up against the flat setting, characters and dialogue, they’re still overmatched.
Extras: Two crew commentary tracks, two behind-the-scenes features, “Wolverine and the X-Men” episode, “Thor: Tales of Asgard” opening sequence, two motion comics, two music videos, digital copy.

Worth a Mention
— “Doctor Who: The Complete Specials” (NR, 2008-10, BBC): These are tumultuous times for “Doctor Who” fans, who must bid farewell to David Tennant — arguably as popular an actor to inhabit the Doctor’s shoes as any who preceded him — and say hello to Doctor No. 11 Matt Smith, who has some serious shoe-filling to do. Regardless of how that turns out, this set — which contains Tennant-fronted specials “The Next Doctor,” “Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars,” and the two-part “The End of Time” that sees Tennant passing the torch to Smith — certainly makes for a comprehensive celebration. Extras include deleted scenes (with introduction by Russell T. Davies, who also signs off as lead writer and executive producer), video diaries, commentary, behind-the-scenes features and Comic-Con footage.
— New Archive of American Television DVDs (NR, E1 Entertainment): E1 and the Archive of American Television’s excellent restoration of classic programs hits a new peak with separate releases of the 1954 production of “Twelve Angry Men” with Norman Fell and Robert Cummings, Orson Welles’ 1953 production of “King Lear,” a two-parter featuring the Rod Sterling dramas “The Arena” (1956) and “The Strike” (1954), and a four-disc set chronicling Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus productions. Each package comes with a companion booklet, while “Lear” also includes backstage footage and a handful of bonus performances.