Games 3/30/10: WarioWare D.I.Y., Just Cause 2, Game Room

WarioWare D.I.Y.
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

An important warning for those who like “WarioWare” games but despise the idea of creating their own fun: This one may not be for you — at least, not yet.

Also, a word of warning for anyone who enjoys a creative challenge or has aspirations to enter the world of animation, character and/or game design: If you don’t at least check this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Like every “WarioWare” game before it, “WarioWare D.I.Y.” sports a collection of microgames, which are like minigames but generally toss out one vaguely-worded objective, allow five seconds or fewer for players to figure out and complete the challenge, and then whisk away before another microgame pops up and repeats the cycle until players simply cannot keep up.

But the “D.I.Y.” in the title isn’t kidding. Where previous games came bundled with more than 200 microgames each, “D.I.Y.” has a few north of 90, and not all of them are even new. If you want more than that, guess what? Make them yourself.

Fortunately, that’s not a concession of laziness on Nintendo’s behalf, but instead the real reason “D.I.Y.” even exists at all. And in spite of the obvious limitations on hand with regard to the hardware and the microgame format, Nintendo has put together a game design tool that’s shockingly robust.

The full might of the tool isn’t apparent at first glance, when “D.I.Y.” asks players simply to draw a character that the game inserts into a pre-scripted microgame. Initially, this appears to be all “D.I.Y.” is — players performing fill-in duty while the game does all the creative, complicated stuff.

But a trip through the 65-page manual and absolutely staggering collection of thoroughly thorough in-game tutorials changes the picture completely. “D.I.Y.” obviously doesn’t allow for the creation of the next “Legend of Zelda” game, and the limitations of the microgame format are in place, but the tools do not skimp on control. Players can create objects separately using a pretty capable paint editor and, in similar fashion to basic Adobe Flash design, can script those objects to move and react according to input triggers and other conditions. Ambitious creators can stack win conditions for extra challenge, and there’s even a little music composition tool for soundtrack creation purposes.

Nintendo goes a little crazy with the tutorials — Photoshop pros who don’t need basic paint program instruction will be dismayed to discover they can’t just skip ahead — but the lessons are brisk, effective and, with Wario’s help, pretty funny. The tools’ respective interfaces benefit from similar attention to detail, and “D.I.Y.” toes the line between whimsy and efficiency to resonate equally with designers-to-be and Nintendo fans.

Happily, all your hard work need not be for your eyes only. “D.I.Y.’s” content sharing suite allows players to share microgames with friends (locally or online), including anyone who downloads the $8 microgame player for the Wii. But the centerpiece of the suite is the Design Challenge, which offers up themed contests for anyone to enter and will feature the winners in the in-game Nintendo channel, which also will house a stream of new downloadable games from Nintendo and other well-known game designers.


Just Cause 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Avalanche Studios/Eidos/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)

The original “Just Cause” was sensationally fun despite having more issues than a panophobia convention, so how much better is “Just Cause 2” by touching the same fun-at-all-costs nerve and doing it without all those aforementioned issues?

No one really knows, because “JC2” brings back several of those issues en route to a sloppy opening hour that, thankfully, isn’t a complete indication of things to come.

Most glaringly, “JC2” shoots like a third-person shooter from 2003. Auto-aim runs rampant, manual targeting is unwieldy, and players looking for a way to seek cover will be dismayed to discover even the basic crouch mechanic is completely useless.

The old shooting controls work in tandem with a scripted opening suite of missions that mostly penalizes players for using the barrelful of cool action-movie stunts — jumping between vehicle rooftops, shooting while hanging from a bumper, zip-lining between any two objects bolted to the ground — it taught them only moments earlier. “JC2” embraces playground physics and open-world cause-and-effect like no game before it, but that embrace backfires until players are past the toe-dipping stage and left to their own devices.

The good news is that once that happens, “JC2” does things its predecessor couldn’t even fathom doing four years ago.

Rico’s semi-magical grappling hook returns, but as alluded to earlier, it’s significantly more versatile this time, and that alone is a game-changer. Anything bolted down and within range can be zipped to instantly, and anything (or anyone) not bolted down can be launched into the air, fished out of the air or tethered to anything else using the absurd but wonderful dual-hook capability. The exaggerated physics that initially betray players become their best friend when it becomes clear how much havoc one can cause using just the hook.

There’s no shortage of mischief-making opportunities, either. “JC2’s” controls may be from another era, but the game’s scope is from another galaxy: The fictional Panau Island encompasses some 400 sq. miles, and it’s wide open for perusal once those opening missions conclude. Rico can scale enormous mountains using the hook, and per genre custom, all vehicles are operable.

But “JC2” truly amazes when viewed from an airplane or helicopter. Panau’s scope is as vertical as it is horizontal, and watching the island’s scale change while ascending and descending is a magnificent sight. That it happens almost completely free of load times is a feat of programming.

“JC2’s” story isn’t quite as ambitious, though the voice cast’s use of deliriously bad accents at least makes it fun to experience.

Regardless, it provides occasion for Rico to unleash untold dollars’ worth of damage over anywhere from 20 to 80 hours’ worth of mainline and optional missions. Some missions are more fun than others, some have the capability to aggravate the same way those early missions do, and it’s a bummer there’s no way to share the fun via co-op play. But when it becomes clear just how big “JC2” is and how well it understands the value of creative, explosive, dumb fun, those dud missions and other deficiencies become surprisingly easy to accept.


Game Room
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Windows PC via Games for Windows Live
From: Microsoft/various publishers
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: Free for client, $3 per game (360 or PC only), $5 per game (both platforms)

Superficially, “Game Room” is enticing. Eventually, it could be pretty special. Out of the gate, though, Microsoft’s new retro games client, —which refashions a menu of downloadable arcade classics as a virtual arcade for players’ Xbox and/or Windows Live avatars — is too compromised to be either. For starters, the virtual arcade is little more than an additional menu laye
r: Players can decorate their arcades and customize the arrangement of purchased virtual cabinets, but because there’s no way to roam the arcade in avatar form and interact with friends controlling their avatars, the interface is little more than busywork with limited novelty. More problematic is the excessive pricing for a selection of games that, so far, aren’t very good. “Room’s” initial library of 30 games hails from the Intellivison and early Atari era, and while the addition of client-wide achievements and online leaderboards is excellent, the $3-$5 price to own each game (and 50 cents to demo a game beyond the single free demo play) is too high when newer, better games are available everywhere for similar prices. Should “Room’s” selection exponentially improve, and should Microsoft introduce a sensible subscription pricing model that affords players access to the whole library, “Room” could be pretty awesome. Right now, though, it’s just a prettied-up menu of downloadable games that aren’t nearly worth what they cost.

DVD 3/30/10: The Baader Meinhof Complex, An Education, I Sell the Dead, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Steven Seagal: Lawman S1

The Baader Meinhof Complex (R, 2008, MPI Home Video) If your knowledge of world history falls in line with a dog’s understanding of the U.S. Postal Service, “The Baader Meinhof Complex” might look like nothing more than a wonderful confluence of guns, blood, romance, ideology, international espionage and stuff exploding. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because for all you might care, “Complex” dabbles in a palette of all those things and tells a pretty awesome story in the process. The bonus, of course, is that it’s a true story — that of the 1967 rise of Germany’s Red Army Faction and what ostensibly became the ground floor for terrorism as we know it today. Despite running 150 minutes long, “Complex’s” reenactment of a decade of history is illustrated with surprising efficiency. More importantly, it’s admirably objective: This is neither a romanticism nor condemnation of neither revolution nor the status quo, but instead an exciting, fluid look at two completely disparate bodies of power that each find themselves completely overwhelmed by the situations in which they find themselves. A few characters fall disappointingly to the wayside, but “Complex’s” general attention to character detail is terrific, and that makes the continual payoffs even more rewarding than all the explosions, gunfire and lip-locking already make them in the first place. Who said a history lesson has to be boring? Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek and Nadja Uhl, among numerous others, star. In German with English subtitles. Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, three-part interview with “Baader Meinhof” author Stefan Aust, two-part interview with film writer/producer Bernd Eichinger.

An Education (PG-13, 2009, Sony Pictures) On paper, “An Education” — which finds 16-year-old student and book-smart Oxford University hopeful Jenny (Carey Mulligan) suddenly finding herself enchanted by an older man (Peter Sarsgaard as David) with a thirst for living in the moment by any means necessary — sounds as plain as its name. But in short order, it becomes clear the film understands the difference between what it means to just watch a movie and what it means to briefly vicariously live through one. “Education” doesn’t run wild in the twists department outside of a few good ones, and it opts more for semi-predictable authenticity over keeping viewers pinned to the edges of their seats. That, by the way, is fine — not only because contrivance would spoil the mood, but also because Jenny’s and Peter’s stories really aren’t the point anyway. The real satisfaction with “Education” is all the different things it stands to represent to all who see it and see themselves through either character’s eyes. The battle between living smart and living well, and the belief that they need not be mutually exclusive, is more than resonant enough in “Education” to make it far more engrossing than its pedestrian plot outline might otherwise suggest. Extras: Director/Mulligan/Sarsgaard commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

I Sell the Dead (NR, 200x, IFC Films) A former cohort (Larry Fessenden as Willie Grimes) just took a hard one under the guillotine, and now Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) has come to collect a confession from body parts dealer and suspected murderer Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) before he, too, fulfills his hastily-arranged death sentence. Arthur’s recollection of a lifetime’s worth of misdeeds, told predominantly through flashbacks, comprises the bulk of “I Sell the Dead,” and what follows is a remarkable lesson on how to turn a story about grave-robbing, murder, deceit, literal arms dealing, arguable mutants and inarguably despicable people into a positively personable, almost feel-good comedy. “Dead” doesn’t try too hard to be unnecessarily cute or even likable, but the script is too sharp and funny and the characters too endearing in spite of themselves for likability not to happen anyway. Amidst a sea of horror and monster movies that all seem to aim for gratuitous self-seriousness or gratuitous parody, “Dead’s” credibly playful tone, and its ability to smartly nail that tone all the way to the credits, absolutely is a welcome shift. Extras: Monaghan/Fessenden commentary, director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, 40-page color comic book.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel: Two-Disc Special Edition (PG, 2009, Fox) First, the possible bad news: If you’re a child of the 1980s and still hold out hope that “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” won’t trample your memories of the “Chipmunks” cartoon the way the first film so thoroughly did, stop hoping. The good news, though, is that “Squeakquel” at least approaches the goofy, somewhat earnest tone of the cartoon in a way its precursor didn’t even bother trying to do. Alvin’s almost likable, Simon and Theodore completely are, the Chipettes make an entirely agreeable debut, and even the generally dependable David Cross, whose turn as greedy music producer Ian Hawke crystalized the first movie’s soulless cynicism so detestably well, is a harmlessly silly cartoon character this time around. “Squeakquel” relies on easy gags, well-worn themes and yet another plot that inexplicably has a bunch of rodents as dreamy pop idols, but the vibe is a lot more playful the second time around. It won’t appease those in the mood for some nostalgia fulfillment, but that ship has sailed anyway. As good-hearted family films go, it suffices just fine. Extras: 10-minute “Chipmunks” retrospective, eight behind-the-scenes features, Chipmunk jukebox (shudder), five music videos.

Steven Seagal: Lawman: The Complete Season One (NR, 2009, A&E) It sounds like a joke or a stunt, but it isn’t. Steven Seagal has served remarkably quietly for more than 20 years as an unpaid reserve deputy in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and while “Steven Seagal: Lawman” seems like a case of a television show tail wagging the dog of reality, it’s actually the other way around. Beyond the possible shock of discovering a movie star has been pulling this admirable double duty at no cost for this long, “Lawman” doesn’t really offer any huge surprises. It follows a similar format to “Cops,” riding along with Seagal and his fellow officers while they answer calls that sometimes are dangerous and sometimes mundane. Episodes also regularly cut away from the street to document some other facet of the job, be it Seagal passing his martial arts knowledge down to police recruits or training his dogs to act as responsible guardians of the house when he’s away. The sum total of “Lawman” occasionally feels like a bit of image rehabilitation for an actor dismissed as a has-been years after being dismissed as a single-note charismatic black hole. But Seagal’s fellow officers share the spotlight with him, and the footage captured in “Lawman” never stinks of contrivance the way almost every other celebrity-fronted reality show does, so where’s the harm in that? Contents: 13 episodes, plus bonus unaired footage.

Games 3/23/10: Metro 2033, Calling, Perfect Dark

Metro 2033
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: 4A Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)

Give 10 nitpickers 10 hours each to run through “Metro 2033,” and each probably would emerge with a unique laundry list of missteps. There’s no multiplayer. The gunplay is just a touch off. Checkpoints occasionally appear before unskippable (and, upon failure to reach the next checkpoint, repeating) cutscenes. The running animation looks hilariously wrong. The voice acting cuts out when it shouldn’t. Human enemies have weird, sometimes amusing A.I. patterns, and they occasionally can withstand a perfect headshot and continue functioning like it’s a bee sting.

But a staunch dedication to atmosphere — and a willingness to do anything, even to the player’s occasional temporary detriment, to creatively make that ambience sing — is perhaps the one thing that makes grievances easiest to forgive. Despite dealing with themes (Nazis, Soviets, mutants, post-apocalyptic wastelands and subterranean warfare) other games have wrung dry, it’s this attention to mood that makes “2033” not only forgivable, but an arguable must-play.

“2033” doesn’t get terribly fancy with the basics. Mutant enemies act like rabid mutants, and soldiers, despite the aforementioned occasional A.I. disorder, act like soldiers. Controls, though a slight touch loose, are more than sufficiently solid, and “2033” rewards ammo conservation and tactical warfare over rushing and spraying anything that moves.

But “2033’s” setting, a modern society made post-apocalyptically archaic, trickles into those basics. The result of that infection is intriguing initially and enthralling once the full might of surprisingly cinematic story is felt.

If, for instance, those slightly loose shooting controls were an accident, they’re a happy accident that creates the sensation of using tinpot weaponry that still packs a punch. Gas masks are prone to visor cracks that can prove fatal if a replacement isn’t found in time, and the stock flashlight comes with a ridiculously oversized manual charger that players must pump with the right trigger. Pre-war, military-grade ammunition doubles as valuable currency toward the purchase of shoddier bullets in higher quantities — a must, given the scarcity of ammunition in general. Homemade pipe bombs substitute for grenades, “towns” consist of dingy subway corridors, and the sky is an object of legend more than a daily reality.

The mastery of atmosphere doesn’t hide the aforementioned quirks in “2033’s” gameplay, nor does it make the occasional bout of crushing difficulty any easier for casual gunslingers to swallow. (Tip: There’s zero shame in playing this one on Easy.)

But for every shaky patch, “2033” has a shining moment waiting nearby. An escort mission that finds players carrying a kid on their backs significantly hampers player aim with realistic kid-on-back physics, but it eschews the trappings that typically make escort missions so contemptible by not allowing the kid to wander into harm’s way. And the game’s centerpiece, an enormous mission that finds players separately infiltrating both the Nazi and Red Army front lines, is a spectacularly fun confluence of open-ended tactical warfare. “2033” rewards an achievement to players who kill every last soldier as well as those who sneak past both lines without hurting a fly, and the multithreaded design of the level easily allows for either possibility and numerous more in between.


For: Wii
From: Hudson Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

There’s a line horror games must toe in order to entertain players while simultaneously turning them into nervous wrecks, and despite doing some things pretty well, “Calling” stumbles and falls clean off it shortly after it sticks its foot out.

It isn’t all bad at first. In fact, “Calling” gets off to an interesting start because of how quickly its clever and unfortunate sides begin butting heads.

The first-person perspective, for instance, falls prey to the general messiness that ensues when using the Wii remote to control a first-person camera. But it’s also pretty cool to play a game that isn’t a shooter from this perspective, and the lack of full-body awareness lends some extra discomfort to an interactive ghost story that favors cramped rooms and dark hallways.

“Calling’s” interface and exploratory controls contradict similarly. Opening a door, for instance, takes two presses of the A button and a swing of the remote, while examining objects and interfacing with the game’s virtual cell phone is downright laborious. But the need to make deliberate actions in the unpredictable dark enhances the tension for obvious reasons, and where the game’s visual interfaces sometimes fail, its aural design — particularly with regard to that cell phone and the role it plays in the story — is excellent.

But “Calling’s” divergencies descend from interesting to obnoxious as soon as players find their characters endangered, and between the game’s inability to (a) translate that danger into exciting gameplay and (b) do anything but repeat itself ad nauseam outside of some very uninspired puzzles, the fight between clever and unfortunate quickly turns lopsided.

Every now and then, while traversing one of “Calling’s” vaguely designed levels — lots of locked doors and hallways that all look the same, to paint a picture — players will come under attack by one or more spirits. Allow too many hauntings to spike the playable character’s heart rate past a certain level, and it’s game over.

But rather than ratchet up the tension, all these chases do is trigger frightfully annoying exercises in which players must aimlessly scramble to find the one random door or hallway that goes somewhere and, upon inevitably getting stopped by a ghost while doing so, shake the remote furiously until it backs off. Scramble, get caught, shake, repeat, repeat, repeat.

The transgressions of “Calling’s” opaque level designs would be forgivable if breaking free of a ghost required some kind of skillful play, but it doesn’t: Shaking the remote aimlessly isn’t fun, and it’s a tiresome pain to do so every 20 seconds while reconciling the sloppy camera and deducing which door is the one that actually goes somewhere.

Worse, once players find that door, all that awaits behind it is more of the same until the game ends — or half-ends, at which point “Calling” deals out a fake ending and makes players replay the whole thing to see the entirety of the story. (No joke.) Nothing about the storyline justifies repeating these exercises once, and Hudson has lost its mind by demanding players repeat the repetition to see how “Calling” ends.


Perfect Dark
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Price: $10

No piece of entertainment of any kind has aged as gracelessly as older first-person shooters, which look like cave drawings next to their modern counterparts and often play just as unflatteringly. It’s with that in mind that the blissfully nostalgic return to “Perfect Dark” with a level head, lest their memories of 2000’s best shooter undergo harsh tarnishing. “Dark’s” story holds up reasonably well by today’s standards, and some of the things it does with regard to special enhancements — remote-control spy cams, unique weapons with creative alternate fire mo
des, unlockable mods for a multiplayer suite (four players locally, eight online, with combinations of the two allowed) that’s faster and looser than most modern-day counterparts — are unique enough to still be special. But even with a new dual-stick control scheme, “Dark’s” aiming mechanism and oppressive reliance on auto-aim feel really archaic, and players looking for a lean button will be dismayed to discover they can’t even jump. The smooth framerate and high-definition sheen are welcome upgrades to “Dark’s” rough visual exterior, but neither is nearly radical enough of a makeover to hide the engine’s age, and the overriding level design — lots of identical corridors, doors and elevators — would never fly in a brand-new product.

DVD 3/23/10: The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, talhotblond, Brothers, Séraphine, The Prisoner, After Dark Horrorfest Wave 4, Mad Men S3

The Men Who Stare at Goats (R, 2009, Overture/Anchor Bay)
A disclaimer at the top of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” claims that “more of this is true than you would believe,” and even if that’s there for comic purposes (it might be, it might not be), that disclaimer has a point. Maybe it has nothing to do with the story of the New Earth Army, a fantastically wild wing of the United States Military that specializes in mental harmony, psychic warfare and dancing. And maybe it has nothing to do with how the near-dilapidated remains of the NEA, the origins of which “Goats” explores in thoroughly amusing detail through a series of flashbacks, inspired two defeated men (George Clooney as former NEA soldier and current underground “Warrior Monk” Lyn Cassady, Ewan McGregor as newly-single small-time journalist Bob Wilton) to try and make it matter again. But “Goats” most certainly is rooted in truth, because the only thing more potent than all the psychic powers and fancy technology on display is the extreme need for these and other poor souls (Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick) to be somebody special and do something amazing before their time is up. “Goats” never lets its characters’ personal angst undermine its cheerfully funny script, but it’s the film’s ability to so thoroughly and pointedly wear its heart on its sleeve that makes it something far more treasurable than its funny exterior might initially suggest.
Extras: Director commentary, book author commentary, deleted scenes, a feature on the real men of the First Earth Battalion, one behind-the-scenes feature.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (PG, 2009, Fox)
2009 was an uncommonly special year for uncommonly thoughtful treatments of children’s books — first “Where the Wild Things Are,” and now this — that in greedier hands would have no business whatsoever being feature-length movies. Like “Things,” “Fox” looks superficially like a movie for children, and thus may as well be one: The stop-motion animation style is so classic and refined as to feel fresh all over again, and the characters (human and animal alike) are charming in their disposition as well as their animation. Visually and aurally, there’s plenty here for even preschoolers to enjoy, and “Fox’s” overlying story isn’t so complex as to completely stymie anyone. With that said, though, parents and older siblings can expect to enter a different world entirely — one full of themes about commitment, getting older and the meaning of life, and one as stitched together by its whip-smart script and sharply funny voice acting as it is its visual style. These completely divergent levels of entertainment for wholly disparate audiences work simultaneously and in tandem, making “Fox” that rare jewel of a family film — and, outside of Pixar’s reach, even rarer animated movie — that really is for everybody watching. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Michael Gambon, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features and a filmstrip-style introduction to the sport of Whack-Bat.

talhotblond (NR, 2009, Paramount)
What “talhotblond” has to say — that there’s potential danger lurking behind chance Internet encounters that ensnare real-world emotions and drive people to do shocking things — isn’t novel anymore. But a documentary about human behavior, when done well, doesn’t lose its ability to drop a jaw just because we all know the capacity for that behavior exists. Faux-narrated by Brian Barrett — a 22-year-old whose life ended because of the events that transpired within — “talhotblond” initially is a pretty predictable realization of what might happen when an unhappy, middle-aged man randomly exchanges pleasantries with a pretty 18-year-old girl online. 48-year-old Tom Montgomery turns into an 18-year-old Marine, 18-year-old Jessi takes notice, Tom charms Jessi, Jessi sends pictures, and a relationship unfolds. But what happens next, which the film explores in unsettling detail through chat logs and interviews with Montgomery and others, is entirely too tangled to fall prone to simple predictability. (Let’s not forget that in this story of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl, it’s Barrett who died.) “tallhotblond” weaves through the mess with a master storyteller’s touch, and the uncomfortable truth is that, for anyone savvy enough to seek this out, this operates more as morbid entertainment than cautionary cold water for the naive. So enjoy the darkness and pass it on to someone who needs it — the nearest high school classroom, preferably — to cleanse your conscience. No extras. In fact, no menu: The movie just starts playing.

Brothers (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
There might come a day when entertainment has run every theme ragged and viewers become so keenly trained to see it all before they even see it. Should that happen, it’ll be a shame for a film like “Brothers,” which does what it does supremely well but struggles mightily not to continually tip its narrative hand. As the name implies, “Brothers” (a remake of the 2004 Swedish film “Brødre”) is the story of two brothers — Sam (Tobey Maguire), a decorated Marine set to leave his wife (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) for another tour in Afghanistan, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who faces another tour of directionless freedom after completing a stint in prison. What happens next is best left unspoiled as a common reviewer courtesy, but it also remains best unspoiled because once the first big storyline milestone happens, “Brothers” almost has no choice but to allude to what’s happening next well before it happens. A number of powerful moments and story turns define “Brothers” going forward, and some outstanding performances — from the two girls as well as the three dependable leads — work in tandem with some truly great moment-to-moment instances to leave an impact. But “Brothers” cannot control its tendency to telegraph what happens before it happens, lest it resort to deception or insulting contrivance. A little predictability beats dishonesty any day, but it’s a slightly losing proposition either way.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Séraphine (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
Some movies aren’t necessarily for people who love movies so much as those who love what the movie is about. Witness “Séraphine,” which tells the story of Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), a superfluously humble servant and closet artist whose life takes a significant turn during a brief period of servitude for renowned art collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). On a purely quick-pitch level, “Séraphine” has it all — a rags-to-riches true story of the chance encounter that ultimately exposed Séraphine’s gift to the world around her, and the resonant ache that sets in once emotions, outsiders and other uncontrollable factors (the Great War being one) get in the way of a perfectly good Cinderella story. What “Séraphine” does not necessarily have, however, is universal accessibility. The film tells Séraphine’s story without narrative embellishment of any kind, and that translates into many, many scenes in which we’re watching her in her element while little to nothing is said. As an illustration of its subject’s methods, “Séraphine” feels masterfully authentic, and as a piece of inspiration to unconventional closet artists everywhere, it’s a must-see. But as entertainment fodder for people who simply want to be entertained, “Séraphine” is too deliberate and entrenched too deeply in its own world to merit universal recommendation. That isn’t a knock on the film — just a little bit of fair warning. In French with English subtitles. Content of extras not available at press time.

The Prisoner (NR, 2009, Warner Bros.)
What the recent “Battlestar Galactica” reboot did for its 1978 inspiration and namesake, “The Prisoner” attempts to do for the 1967 series of the same name. The difference, in this case, is that while the original “Galactica” was more beloved than actually great, the original “Prisoner” was and remains both. The sharpness of the original series’ writing, characters and even ideas holds up remarkably well in the face of four decades’ time, and an attempt to refine the original series in the span of a miniseries would have to at least take chances with the original template if not blow it away completely. But after a really strong first episode that makes anything seem possible, things go awry, and the new “Prisoner” finds itself somehow needing to fill time with visually pretentious stretches of mostly empty storytelling that do nothing to eclipse nor enhance the original series’ memory. As the wasted minutes tick by, the intrigue behind the premise finds itself neutered to the point where none of the characters’ fates, Number Six (Jim Caviezel) included, matter a great deal. And once that reality sets in, the surrounding ideology just feels like empty blather. Beyond curiosity fulfillment and some admittedly nice eye candy nourishment, nothing here merits visits, much less treasuring. Ian McKellen, Ruth Wilson, Hayley Atwell, Lennie James and Jamie Campbell Bower also star.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, McKellen interview and a Comic-Con panel.

Worth a Mention
— “After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For” Wave Four (R, 2008-10, Lions Gate): Between these sets and the “Ghost House Underground” sets, Lions Gates pretty much has the indie horror compilation game all to itself. Wave four of the “After Dark Horrorfest” collection includes “Dread,” “The Final,” “The Graves,” “Hidden,” “Kill Theory,” “Lake Mungo,” “The Reeds” and the beautifully-named “Zombies of Mass Destruction.” All films are sold separately for those who want a sample, but as always, those who pick up the box set and go digging for gems — and every set has diamond-in-the-rough potential for fans of different horror bents — will have the most fun.

Games 3/16/10: God of War III, Pokémon: HeartGold/SoulSilver Versions, Tiki Totems

God of War III
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony Computer Entertainment Santa Monica Studio
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content)

An uncommonly high number of games that owe an uncommon amount of debt to “God of War” rolled out quickly and furiously in the early going of 2010, and upon completion of “God of War III,” it’s pretty clear why they did.

They wanted to get out of this thing’s way, and with good reason.

To keep the conversation grounded: No, “GOW3” doesn’t shake up the formula — brutal third-person melee combat combined with ambitious environmental puzzle-solving — that made its predecessors among the best games in the Playstation 2’s and Playstation Portable’s libraries. Not accounting for the obvious advances in visual fidelity, ardent fans could still point to “God of War II” as the best in the mainline trilogy in terms of storytelling and level composition.

But that fight is too close to call with any authority, and for that same reason, “GOW3” plays on a plane that all those imitators, good though most of them really were, simply cannot match.

A good portion of that comes in the construction of the game’s contemptible anti-hero. Kratos might be the scariest controllable protagonist in all of video gamedom, and Santa Monica Studio complements that persona with a vicious arsenal of weapons and attack patterns to match.

“GOW3’s” imitators typically understand the importance placed on a fluid control scheme and the ability to chain attacks without interruption and change tactics on a dime. But “GOW3” compounds that attention to detail with a level of two-way savagery that simultaneously makes the player feel like an unstoppable monster and turns ordinary fights against nobody enemies into trap battles that can turn fatal quickly. Kratos’ tribulations have never been one for squeamish eyes and nervous hands, and some of the imagery “GOW3” doles out is harsh enough to make anyone wince.

The unchained appetite for murderous grandeur spreads to the scope of the overall game, which occasionally zooms out to reveal environments, puzzles and even traversable enemy titans who reduce Kratos to the size of a nickel on the screen. Santa Monica has a knack and a half for presenting its idea of scope in a way that’s intimidating without being disorienting, and the way “GOW3” shifts between such ridiculously divergent scales and perspectives is simply awesome. The series may best be recognized for its outlandishly epic boss fights, pitting Kratos against mythical gods and beasts many times his size, and that doesn’t change here.

With the core ingredients down to an art form, the game’s nitpicks are debatable and likely come down to individual perception. Certain puzzles might take too long for some players’ liking, and the bloodthirsty among us won’t love it when the game occasionally strings together two consecutive puzzles with maybe a short bout in between. The penultimate portion of the game drags a bit due to enemy repetition, and there’s one challenge in particular that briefly abandons all that’s good about the combat.

Fortunately, the payoff after this lull is enormous. “GOW3” presents itself as the culmination of Kratos’ journey, and if that’s really the case, then the dazzling batch of sequences that comprise the game’s ending could scarcely be a better sendoff.


Pokémon: HeartGold Version
Pokémon: SoulSilver Version
For: Nintendo DS
From: Game Freak/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

The first 10 weeks of 2010 have been more generous to gamers than the first half of most years typically are, and the release calendar is so full that a remake of a game that already feels like it’s been remade ad infinitum shouldn’t be worthy of a mention, much less 500 words’ worth of ink.

That is, of course, unless it does something as bizarrely revolutionary — and potentially beneficial beyond the realm of entertainment — as this twosome does.

Skeletally speaking, “Pokémon: HeartGold Version” and “Pokémon: SoulSilver Version” are, respectively, remakes of “Pokémon: Gold” and “Pokémon: Silver,” which released simultaneously on the Game Boy Color in 2000. Per “Pokémon” custom, those games were mostly identical outside of a few special Pokémon exclusive to each, and the same holds true of the remake.

In fact, a lot of what holds true in the remake has held true throughout the series’ lifetime — so much so that casual onlookers likely couldn’t tell the difference between a remake of a 2000 game and a brand-new chapter in the series. That’s something of a testament to the system in place, which combines classic role-playing gameplay with classic obsessive-compulsive completionism to create gameplay that’s addictive, accessible and rewarding over the long haul. But for players who hit their limit at some point in the last decade and are waiting for Game Freak to rock its own formulaic boat, watching the series reach into the past isn’t exactly encouraging.

With all that said, though, “SoulSilver” and “HeartGold” at least feel like more than simple retreads. Players with fond “Gold” and “Silver” memories can enjoy them anew with all the perks — sharper graphics and interface, stylus-friendly controls and the same wireless/online battling and trading modes that debuted in “Pokémon: Diamond” and “Pokémon: Pearl” — that have been added since the series migrated to the Nintendo DS.

But it’s the accessory bundled in the box — a fully functional, Pokéball-shaped pedometer that players can drop in their pockets and use to level up their Pokémon simply by getting out and walking around — that transforms the news of “HeartGold’s” and “SoulSilver’s” arrivals from pleasantly pedestrian to pretty exciting.

Nintendo previously produced a pedometer accessory for its “Personal Trainer: Walking” self-improvement game, and the pedometer here functions similarly. It counts steps and converts them into in-game experience independently of the game or DS, and transferring the data happens via a wireless infrared signal swap that requires no accessory hookup. Press a button, transmit data, reap some in-game rewards, and go rack up a few thousand or so more steps while developing your Pokémon in the healthiest manner possible.

The idea is pretty seriously out of left field, but it’s an ingenious way to add real-life value to a role-playing game’s most monotonous moments, and “HeartGold” and “SoulSilver” prove it also works. Here’s hoping, for the sake of those of us who have tired of “Pokémon” but not necessarily its principles, that other developers take the idea and do something similar.


Tiki Totems
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: spokko
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price at time of review (subject to change): Free for basic version, $1 for premium version

Great fun though physics-based puzzle games usually are, they’re also kind of high-maintenance on the iPhone. Games that require precise degrees of tilting and touching also demand that players sit upright and use both hands, which isn’t ideal for a lazy pre-bedtime game session. So “Tiki Totems” gets points for adopting a “less is more” approach. The object of each level is to remove bricks and planks in order to safely drop a Tiki statue from the top of a structure to safe ground below, and removing certain pieces of the structure can ignite a chain reaction that’s enti
rely physics-powered. But the game’s low-maintenance control scheme — tap pieces of the structure to remove them, with no tilting or other precise motions running interference — makes it easy to pick up and play without sacrificing all that’s good about a physics-driven puzzle game in the first place. Now also is a good time to pick “Totems” up: The basic version, which comes bundled with 80 levels and the option to purchase 64 more, is currently free, while the premium version, which includes all 144 currently available levels and a promise to include all future level packs for free, only costs a buck. The games’ iTunes descriptions indicate these are temporary prices, so don’t waste time if you’re feeling thrifty.

DVD 3/16/10: The Princess and the Frog, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Astro Boy, Paris, Wonderful World, The Fourth Kind, MST3K XVII, new History Channel DVDs

The Princess and the Frog (G, 2009, Disney)
A whole lot of noise was made about “The Princess and the Frog” when it first entered the public consciousness, and little of it had anything to do with the actual movie itself. The film’s premise — an impoverished black girl, Tiana, sharing princess dreams with her rich white best friend, who practically gets the nod automatically when a prince comes calling — was ripped for its covert racism, while snipers all but assumed Disney would take the film’s 1920s New Orleans setting and tear it to shreds in as exploitative a fashion as possible. But in the end, the only thing the noise did was signify why it’s better to know than assume. Per Disney tradition, “Frog” doesn’t hide from the social implications of its situation or setting. But guess what? Far, far more than a story about status or sociology, “Frog” is a funny, lovable, respectful and very clever twist on a story — a princess kissing a frog and turning him into a prince — that’s as classic and baggage-free as anything in Disney’s vault. Tiana’s story is authentically inspiring, but it’s also completely silly, and “Frog” is that pricelessly rare film that can touch real nerves while mixing in trumpet-tooting alligators and never miss a beat. “Frog’s” voice cast (Anika Noni Rose, Michael-Leon Wooley, Keith David and Bruno Campos, among others) is infectiously stellar, and if Disney exploits the setting at all, it’s merely to the tune of perhaps the best soundtrack the studio has ever produced.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, Princess Portraits game, six behind-the-scenes features, music video, art galleries.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
John Krasinski may be in the director’s chair, and it may have a funny name and a picture of a guy with a paper bag on his head as the cover art, but that doesn’t mean “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a comedy. It isn’t. But “Men” not being a comedy doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, because every now and then, it really is. More than anything, though, “Men” is a conversation about relationships and human behavior — a continuous, winding conversation that slips between the interview room and the subjects’ (and interviewer’s) daily experiences with only requisite respect for convention. Trains of thought sometimes continue uninterrupted while everything else in the film completely switches tracks, and one character might adopt another’s mood regardless of whether the two share any other connection at all. The bluntness of the whole thing sends “Men” careening into deep patches of harsh darkness as well as sharp comedy, and while it’s kind of disorienting and occasionally just a little heavy on pretense, just about every word is delivered with care. That combination of skill and initiative — to say nothing of the versatile talent (Krasinski, Julianne Nicholson, Ben Shenkman, Timothy Hutton, Michael Cerveris, Will Arnett, Joey Slotnick and numerous others) tasked with making it work — makes “Men” considerably more thrilling than an 80-minute dialogue would seem to have any right to be.
Extras: Krasinski interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

Astro Boy (PG, 2009, Summit Entertainment)
It was a mere matter of time before “Astro Boy,” which has reinvented itself numerous times across numerous media, got a chance to play on the computer-animated playground. Problem is, if you’re one of those folks who have been waiting for this to happen, you likely aren’t the person for whom this film ultimately was made. “Boy” follows the title character’s well-documented origins reasonably faithfully, and some of the series’ most iconic characters — namely, Dr. Tenma and Professor Ochanomizu, known here as Dr. Elefun — are accounted for as well. The film also looks terrific, staying faithful to the characters’ preexisting designs but making them pop anew with a 3D animation style that isn’t as sterile as other similar productions. But “Boy” lacks the luxury of time the original and rebooted series had, and as consequence, it can’t tell its characters’ stories with nearly the same elaborate care. So it leans instead on action sequences and so-so secondary characters who give the film a storyline that’s sufficient but, for ardent fans, arguably a little soulless compared to all that preceded it. This isn’t the same as calling “Boy” a bad film, because for a new audience of younger viewers, it’s anything but. But longtime fans who wish to enjoy this for what it is, rather than what might have been, should manage expectations in advance.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, image gallery.

Paris (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
“Paris” earns its name by most definitely taking place in Paris, and if we’re to make assumptions that it has designs of being the namesake film of one of the world’s most-filmed cities, then it at least justifies those designs by showing the city in a refreshing number of different lights. But “Paris” isn’t really about Paris or even what it means to its enormous ensemble cast, all of whose minds are entirely too preoccupied with problems and developments — a young man (Romain Duris) with a failing heart, a fortysomething (Juliette Binoche) who has completely lost her romantic way, a professor (Fabrice Luchini) embarrassingly smitten with a student (Mélanie Laurent) while he fumbles to connect with his overtly emotional brother (François Cluzet), a woman (Julie Ferrier) playing den mother to a group of manchildish co-workers — that could foster from just about anywhere. And that’s just fine, because it’s better to marginalize the setting than the characters living within. “Paris” occasionally makes the same mistakes most ensemble movies do by allowing the occasional character to disappear for half the movie before cutting his or her story short, but for the most part, it does all the little things right to give its cast far more life than their compartmentalized existences would suggest. And while Paris itself isn’t doesn’t really star so much as provide the story a sense of place, it looks no less alive in its secondary role. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, table reading/discussion.

Wonderful World (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Sad sack proofreader Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) is so depressingly negative that even his young daughter (Jodelle Ferland), to say nothing of his ex-wife (Ally Walker) and co-workers, is plotting ways to avoid spending time with him. Unfortunately for “Wonderful World,” and in spite of the things it occasionally does rather well, the rest of us might be best off following their lead. “World” has its flashes of good performances and sharp dialogue, and a storyline involving Ben’s best friend (Michael Kenneth Williams as Ibu) and Ibu’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) provides a few unique backdrops for what otherwise is just another story of a washed-up grump trying to rediscover his soul. But that’s the kicker: Even with a few unique ingredients, “World” still is just another story about a guy we’ve all almost certainly seen too many times already. “World” doesn’t take any real chances in terms of dark humor or innovative observations about soul-searching, and those occasional flashes of excellence just aren’t bright enough to overcome how ordinary and overly familiar it feels the vast majority of the time.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.

The Fourth Kind (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
Say, you like horror movies? How about movies about alien abductions, or films that, like “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity,” try to blur the line between fiction and faux-fact? In its own mind, “The Fourth Kind” is all three of these things, and presented on paper in terms of fulfillable potential, it’s a pretty interesting idea. Unfortunately, none of that means any
thing when the finished product is as relentlessly boring in practice as this one is. “Kind” is a film about people recounting alien abductions rather than the actual abductions themselves, and in order to reconcile being a film about people talking about horrifying experiences rather than the experiences themselves, it uses the trick of showing “real” footage of “real” abductees while a cast of actors simultaneously mock-dramatizes the sessions. Presenting the mock footage as real is the only hook “Kind” has, and either you realize the footage is very obviously fake or will feel like a fool when the end credits or someone you know explain later that it’s all made up. With that dishonest illusion stripped away, what remains — a non-story about non-events, as presented by a cast of actors delivering lines with a whispery quiver that would make even Aaron Neville go a little crazy after 90 minutes — has no merit whatsoever. Milla Jovovich, Will Patton and Enzo Cilenti star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Worth a Mention
— “Mystery Science Theater 3000 XVII” (NR, Shout Factory): Shout Factory’s outstanding compilation of “MST3K” episodes is giving the Super Bowl a run for its money in terms of best product with a Roman numeral attached to it. “XVII” brings “The Crawling Eye,” “The Beatniks,” “The Final Sacrifice” and “Blood Waters of Dr. Z” to the DVD library. In addition to the excellent mock miniature movie posters that come packed inside, extras include a new introduction to “Eye” from “MST3K’s” own Joel Hodgson, Dragon*Con 2009 footage, a new interview with “Sacrifice” star Bruce Mitchell, a “Waters” photo gallery and original theatrical trailers and promotional material.
— History Channel DVDs: Easter is inbound, and per what seems like tradition at this point, so are a handful of History Channel DVDs that touch on religion in some fashion or another. The feature-length “Holy Grail in America” (NR, 2009) wonders aloud if the Holy Grail has been in the United States this whole time, while the two-disc, seven-hour “Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years” (NR, 2001) is pretty self-explanatory in its intentions. For something a bit more fantastical, there’s the three-disc, 10-part, eight-hour “Clash of the Gods” (NR, 2009), which explores history’s most famous mythological figures one episode at a time.

Games 3/9/10: MLB 10 The Show, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Jungle Swing

MLB 10 The Show
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: PSP
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Maybe the best news about “MLB 10 The Show” is that nobody broke anything.

In terms of fundamentally emulating the game of baseball, “MLB 09” got practically everything right. The audiovisual presentation blurred the lines between video game and real-life broadcast. The button-based pitching and hitting control schemes didn’t shake things up and use the right stick for the sake of doing so, and they straddled the “easy to learn, hard to master” line almost perfectly by sticking to stuff that works just fine. Fielding felt entirely natural, baserunning controls made sense, the pace of every action felt right, and the game had just about every base covered in terms of features to complement what was an unprecedented emulation of professional baseball.

The simple act of getting all of that right all over again makes “MLB 10” a pretty amazing game straight out of the gate, and players who logged a significant number of hours into last year’s game will spot any number of little presentational details — in camera angle selections, player animations, outside-the-lines interactions, day/night lighting effects, even something as innocuous as public address system announcements — that have been added or refined during Sony’s continued pursuit of broadcast-quality perfection.

A few gameplay tweaks, including more expansive pickoff controls and an optional mound warmup mode for incoming relief pitchers, also are present. But the fundamental game has not been mucked with just for newness’ sake, and Sony’s decision to reheat what already worked so perfectly well absolutely works to the “MLB 10’s” advantage.

For the most part, the show’s primary talking points lie in the features realm. The “Road to the Show” centerpiece, which lets players emulate the rags-to-riches career of a minor leaguer with Hall of Fame aspirations, returns with slightly better incidental controls and, for catchers, a significant (and overdue) emphasis on the value of calling a game.

The frighteningly deep franchise mode, meanwhile, now allows up to 30 players to play armchair general managers in the same league. Also included: a mock e-mail inbox to streamline franchise-wide communication and an interface for examining and managing player injuries. The practice mode also makes some needed enhancements, better emphasizing pitching and now including fielding training as well.

“MLB 10’s” resurrection of the Home Run Derby mode isn’t a particularly splashy development, but the matter in which it returns — alongside the Futures Game in an all-points replication of All-Star Week festivities — perfectly underscores Sony’s ability to understand the wants of baseball fans and go a step beyond the expected.

That goes as well for the new multimedia features: The ability to save end-game highlight reels won’t rock anybody’s world, but the new Movie Maker feature, which allows players to cut and edit together game highlights of their choosing, just might. “MLB 11” needs to include some functionality for sharing these videos online to really make this feature sing, but as is, it’s just another toy in what easily has become the premier video game baseball playhouse.


Battlefield: Bad Company 2
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

All the important bullet points that were present in 2008’s “Battlefield: Bad Company” — and, fundamentally, just about every “Battlefield” game in the series’ magnificent lifetime — are present in “Bad Company 2” as well. Mechanically, there might not be a better military first-person shooter, and the multiplayer component that is the franchise’s hallmark has only improved with the refinements DICE has made.

This is good, maybe essentially so, because the single-player campaign that was such a major surprise in the first “Bad Company” has taken a slight turn into sophomore slump country this time around.

This isn’t the same as saying it’s bad, because for the most part, the campaign actually is pretty good. “BC2’s” gunplay is every bit as polished as that of “Modern Warfare 2,” and the more expansive environments and amazing attention to sound detail, to say nothing of the staggering tech that makes pretty much everything destructible, arguably make it the new best in class.

“BC2’s” warfare also is more tactical in nature: It’s easier to die here on normal difficulty than it is in “MW2,” and the battles place a premium on fighting defensively and catching enemies unaware over mindlessly rushing in with guns blazing.

But while “BC2’s” campaign takes full advantage of all these exemplary mechanics, its stumbles are too notable to ignore. Checkpoints are placed inconsistently, occasionally sending players through a long string of firefights that all need to be repeated if something goes wrong at the very end. Three A.I. squadmates are on hand to assist throughout the majority of the campaign, and they’re as fun to listen to as they were in “BC1,” but when they aren’t hanging too far back to even participate, they’re demonstrating some comically bad aim. Enemy soldiers, perhaps sensing this, overwhelmingly target the player no matter how the battle is arranged. (In case you’re wondering: Sorry, no co-op support.)

Too many moments like these — and a few unfortunate instances of contrived scenarios that require contrived solutions — add up to a campaign that, while still absolutely worth playing, outstays its welcome before the credits roll.

Fortunately, and to absolutely no surprise, “BC2’s” single-player action really is just an elaborate primer for the obscenely good multiplayer, which takes all that wonderful tactical gunplay and puts it to spectacular use on huge maps with fully operable vehicles (tanks, helicopters, even jet skis) and up to 23 other human players.

Per “Battlefield” tradition, “BC2’s” multiplayer modes emphasize teamwork and strategic 12-on-12 territorial play over the lone-wolf run-and-gun deathmatch action most multiplayer shooters favor, and the diversity in player classes speaks to that approach. “BC2’s” upgrade and perks system isn’t as elaborate as “MW2’s” upgrade bonanza, but with so many more strategic possibilities available right from the start, it doesn’t need to be.

Still, in what amounts to a nice compromise, “BC2” introduces the squad deathmatch, which pits four four-player squads against each other in an old-fashioned free-for-all. The action’s a bit more uncorked here than in a typical “Battlefield” excursion, but not so much that it doesn’t betray the things that separate a “Battlefield” shootout from the rest of the pack.


Jungle Swing
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Category 5 Games
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

A number of factors have come together to make the iPhone a surprisingly viable gaming platform, and the unassuming “Jungle Swing” pretty well illustrates all of them. Conceptually, it couldn’t be simpler: The goal is to keep the monkey swinging, Spider-Man style, from tree to tree without falling into the water, and the further he travels, the better the score. Playing “Swing” is simple, too, but as is the case with the best low-concept games, mastering the timing and swing physics takes a lot more skill than the one-button control scheme initially implies. A handful of unlockable item
s and upgrades is on hand to reward players who sink a lot of time into the game — a simple feat, given how easy it is to knock out a game or two during the course of a spare moment — and OpenFeint support sweetens the deal with online leaderboards and unlockable achievements. Finally, there’s that price tag. “Swing,” like so many absurdly-priced iPhone games, costs as much as a bag of chips, and the price-per-pound value is incalculably small for players who really get into the game and all it has on offer.

DVD 3/9/10: Precious, Up in the Air, The Boondock Saints II, Planet 51, Fix, Capitalism: A Love Story, Service

Precious (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
The difference between an unintentionally funny after-school special and a Best Picture Oscar nominee isn’t necessarily easily described on paper, but it’s pretty easy to recognize when you brace yourself for the former and come away, 109 minutes later, having experienced something else entirely. “Precious” has more than enough ammo to set itself up for mockery: Between Claireece “Precious” Jones’ (Gabourey Sidibe) abusive mother (Mo’Nique), the father who sexually abused (and impregnated) her, her imminent dismissal from one school and the fact that she’s morbidly overweight, barely literate and carrying a second child she cannot afford to raise, there’s enough here for a Lifetime miniseries and possibly an entire spinoff network. But perhaps consequently, “Precious” does all it can not to fall into the same traps that ensnarl the accidental comedies that came before it. Sidibe’s and Mo’Nique’s performances are unapologetically strong but rarely ever sympathetic, and the film works without fear in completely tearing both to pieces in tough-loving fashion. The story takes the path that best suits it, regardless of whatever compassionate or feel-good properties that brings, and everything else, from the supporting cast (Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz) to the shot selection, adopts the same bent. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but in the end, that collective desire to cut to the heart of everything and leave remorse on the floor makes all the difference in the world. “Precious'” ability to toe that line the whole way through is skillful to an enviable degree.
Extras: Conversation between Director Lee Daniels and Sapphire, who wrote the novel, “Push,” on which “Precious” is based. Also: director commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, Sidibe audition footage.

Up in the Air (R, 2009, Paramount)
It’s never pleasant to tell someone his or her job has been eliminated … so some bosses just don’t. Instead, they hire guys like Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) to fly in, drop the hammer for them, and do a little post-firing counseling so as to ensure a non-violent exit from the premises. Ryan relishes the job, if only because constantly being in transit is his idea of living, and when a young, up-and-coming know-it-all (Anna Kendrick) suggests replacing face-to-face firings with video teleconferencing, the gates burst open. “Air’s” overriding premise is timely for extremely obvious reasons, and the film uses it well. But more than anything, that premise is here to serve as an allegoric means (at best) and a paper-thin excuse (at worst) for unleashing a maelstrom of smart, funny and unpleasantly honest observations about what success and living really mean when life unexpectedly and inconveniently gets complicated. Some of the routes “Air” takes are completely foreseeable, but enough of them aren’t, and either way, the resolution isn’t necessarily even the point. Ryan’s story carries the weight it’s meant to carry, but it’s when “Air” touches a nerve with its observations — and if you’ve given this stuff any thought whatsoever, it will touch a nerve — that it transforms from something good to something special. Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Delusions of grandeur and excessive self-importance can convincingly sink a long-in-the-making sequel, and for a good five or so minutes, “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” looks like it might be in danger of basking a little too much in its own glow. Fortunately, the self-seriousness doesn’t last, and before long, it’s almost as if no time has passed at all. Like its predecessor, “Day’s” overlying story — in this case, a priest’s murder designed to frame the Saints (Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and Billy Connolly) and force them out of exile — has nothing if not violent ambitions. But also like its predecessor, “Saints” carries out those ambitions with a wild mix of pageantry, self-depreciating comedy and a willingness to paint every character and scenario with all the outrageous strokes that will fit without sending the production into full-blown farce country. “Day” occasionally gets a bit too crazy or cute for its own good. But it hits far more than it misses, and the occasional missteps of a movie that’s willing to do anything in the name of entertainment are very easily forgiven. Just be sure to see the first film first: “Day” explains itself more than sufficiently for newcomers to understand, but a number of scenes — particularly later on — will mean considerably more to those who know the full back story. Clifton Collins Jr., Julie Benz and Peter Fonda also star.
Extras: Director/Saints commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Planet 51 (PG, 2009, Sony Pictures)
There exists a bounty of scathingly ironic possibilities when it comes to telling a story about human beings invading another planet and swapping roles with the little green men who have invaded Earth in countless books, films, TV series and radio serials. Should you be planning on utilizing some of that cutting social commentary to your creative advantage one day, you’ll be happy to know the computer-animated “Planet 51,” in its quest to entertain kids first and their parents second, has left the bounty as ripe for picking as it found it. That, by the way, is perfectly fine, because “51,” which finds a solitary human astronaut touching down on an alien planet that looks strikingly like 1950s America, does what it wants to do perfectly well. The aliens are completely genial hosts, and while lazier storytellers would have turned the human invader into a full-blown meathead idiot, “51” elects instead to construct him as a likable guy who is understandably confused by his new surroundings. The storyline is conventional and the observations about the planet are more cute than anything else, but the sheer likability of the whole thing — to say nothing of how nice it looks or how awesome dogs, among other things, are in the alien world — more than compensates. Dwayne Johnson, Gary Oldman and Jessica Biel, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: DVD game, three behind-the-scenes features, animation progression reels, extended scenes, music video montage.

Fix (R, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
Some people like to interpret a filmmaker’s intentions while watching a movie play out. Some couldn’t care less. But with “Fix” — which follows aspiring filmmaker Milo (Tao Ruspoli) and his reluctant girlfriend Bella (Olivia Wilde) as they migrate from a failed film project to a daylong quest to keep Milo’s parole-violating brother (Shawn Andrews as Leo) raise money for rehab and stay out of jail — it’s almost as if there isn’t a choice. “Fix’s” plot hinges on Milo’s decision to turn this change of plans into a makeshift documentary, and with the plot goes the overall approach, which subtly morphs from traditional fiction to mockumentary and takes on all that entails. Most of the time, that means “Fix” stays trained on its characters — sometimes, as with in documentaries, for long periods of time in which nothing terribly amazing is happening. Now and then, though, it means the film pays more attention to its surroundings than it otherwise would. And when those background characters are grousing about societal issues in fairly unsubtle ways but presumably according to a script, it’s impossible not to wonder if the characters are simply a means to getting these thoughts in front of an audience that otherwise wouldn’t pay attention. No matter: The approach is clever, and even if it leads to some dry moments that emulate textbook documentary downtime a little too well, “Fix’s” story ultimately is engaging as well. Megalyn Echikunwoke a
lso stars.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, cast commentary, interviews, three behind-the-scenes features.

Capitalism: A Love Story (R, 2009, Overture/Anchor Bay)
A box quote claims “Capitalism: A Love Story” is Michael Moore’s “magnum opus,” and hey, maybe it is. It certainly feels like a Moore production: The filmmaker narrates the action while taking viewers down a labyrinthine path though all manner of situations — pilots working for pennies, people losing their homes, seemingly harmless teenagers getting locked up for profit, large corporations cashing in on the horribly-named Dead Peasant life insurance plan — while bouncing similarly between smugness, sadness, sarcasm and anger. Mostly, the fenced-off stories achieve their desired effect, and the few examples of the little guy beating the big guy certainly make an inspiring impression. But the problem with Moore is the same as it’s been for years now: He’s a partisan lightning rod — embraced by those who likely already had a bone to pick with his targets, ignored by those whose changing stance might actually effect real change. By extension, even sight unseen, his movies take on the same life, and they’re damaged goods as result. “Capitalism” is entertaining, occasionally insightful and unafraid to unload on pretty much anything in its sights. But it’s too scattered and too hopelessly tainted by outside forces to be even remotely transformative.
Extras: 10 outtakes, repackaged as self-standing short features.

Service (NR, 2008, Regent Releasing/E1 Entertainment)
Here’s a question: Is it possible to strip a film’s pretensions so thoroughly that what’s left sort of becomes pretentious all over again? “Service” (translated from its original title of “Serbis”) tells the day-in-a-life story of an extended family that not only runs a deeply dilapidated but still-functioning adult film theater in the Philippines, but takes residence inside it as well. That family includes Nanay (Gina Pareño), who struggles to manage both family and theater at once. But it also includes her mother (Jacklyn Jose), who is in the process of divorcing her bigamist husband, and little Jonas (Bobby Jerome Go), who playfully and carelessly careens through the theater’s sketchy clientele traffic on his tricycle. The disparate ends of the age spectrum, to say nothing of the setting and additional drama surrounding the rest of the characters (Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristofer King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan), allows “Service” to employ some pretty unique means to tell what otherwise might be pretty conventional stories. To that end, it delivers, capturing the degradation of the crumbling theater and the world in which it exists in extremely vivid detail — so much so that the story arguably suffers by comparison. “Service” isn’t designed to begin neatly or wrap cleanly before the credits roll, but even with this in mind, it’s a little surprising how little (if any) resolution there is from beginning to end. In Tagalog with English subtitles. No extras.

Games 3/2/10: Heavy Rain, MLB 2K10, Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx

Heavy Rain
For: Playstation 3
From: Quantic Dream/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature

Early on, when it becomes clear just how good “Heavy Rain” is at doing the unique little things it does, it also becomes clear that this might be the first video game capable — to a stunningly unsettling degree and under the cover of complete banality — of making players feel like a lousy parent.

The guilt is somewhat temporary, if only because “Rain” periodically shifts the player between four characters — two detectives, a photojournalist and a fourth person whose role won’t be specified for spoiler-proofing purposes — with ties to a story centered around a serial killer and a race to find his latest abductee alive.

But “Rain” has a knack for using small details and interactions to engender some surprisingly strong connections to all four characters, and those connections prove invaluable toward transforming a reasonably conventional suspense thriller into something pretty special. That some of them are borne out of completely pedestrian moments — one character helping his son with his homework, another reaching for his inhaler during an asthma attack — speak to the game’s striking attention to detail.

The connection between player and characters appears to be “Rain’s” primary objective, and the game goes to unconventional gameplay lengths to fulfill its mission. The camera perspective harkens back to “Resident Evil’s” formative years, and “Rain’s” walking controls — hold R2 to walk and use only the left stick to control all movement — fall similarly in line. It’s initially jarring and, in certain tight spaces, clumsy.

But in the context of everything else, it also makes sense. “Rain” uses the rest of the controller for a myriad of small, context-sensitive movements — a measured pull on the right stick to sip coffee without spilling, a quick twirl to open an envelope, a tilt of the controller to yank the steering wheel during a skid down the highway, timed alternate presses of L1 and R1 to straighten out a character’s left and right feet while he climbs a slippery mud hill.

“Rain” handles the majority of these actions through time-sensitive onscreen prompts, which on paper sounds like a nightmare to gamers already fed up with developers’ overuse of the technique.

But where most games seem to spit out random prompts without any rhythm, “Rain” maps them so thoughtfully as to change the entire tenor of the mechanic. The input choices make actual sense, and “Rain” uses numerous techniques with regard to combinations, timing and speed of execution to match the situation on the screen. The attention to detail, once again, makes all the difference.

These scenarios have additional significance because, unlike almost every game ever, “Rain” only flashes a “Game Over” screen when the story ends. Failed challenges and foolish decisions with regard to the story’s many moral and dialogue choices can kill a playable character, and if a character dies, the story still continues.

“Rain’s” four characters face some 20 or so combined fates that can lead to dramatically different stories for different players, and it often isn’t the obvious decisions and scenarios that can take the storyline down a completely different road. Dare we say it again? Attention to small details sometimes makes all the difference, and that’s true of the player as well as the game.


MLB 2K10
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, Windows PC, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s usually a pretty funny sight when a major league pitcher completely fouls up and accidentally launches a pitch six feet over the catcher’s head.

But Visual Concepts seems to think it’s downright hilarious, because it happens more times in one game of “MLB 2K10” than it likely will throughout the entire 2010 season.

To be fair, “2K10’s” pitching controls, which use right-joystick gestures to control the speed and movement of each pitch, are considerably more user-friendly than “2K9’s” system. Conceivably, it’s also more fun to pitch this way than by hitting buttons and navigating meters.

But just like in “2K9,” the margin for error is absurdly fickle. Miss the gesture by a tick, and even a fastball sails out of the strike zone. Miss it by two ticks, and it flies wildly over the catcher’s head. The degree between a lights-out pitch and a wild pitch is unrealistically small, and players who lack surgeon hands are bound to pay unfairly because of it.

The continued problems with pitching underscore the story of “2K10” as a whole. It’s better than its broken predecessor and has some nice overdue features — most notably the My Player mode, which apes Sony’s MLB game by allowing players to experience a professional career from a single player’s perspective. But too much sloppiness carries over to call this a return to the series’ better days, and because those new features don’t fix the regressions the series has endured over time, they feel the same effects.

The best news about “2K9” is that the aggravating (and occasionally hilarious) bugs that often changed a game — disappearing outfielders, fielders catching balls with their face, baserunners running to who knows where — appear squashed.

But numerous weird instances remain — including, for instance, baserunners’ bizarre propensity to slide into first far too often. Occasionally, the runner gets up and inexplicably rounds first without getting tagged out even though the first baseman has the ball. Once in a while, he’ll slide into first before circling the bases after hitting a home run.

Strange occurrences like these don’t cripple “2K10’s” gameplay so much as damage the illusion, but when something so instantly and continually out of place in “2K9” shows up yet again in “2K10,” it speaks either to the developers’ disinterest in refinement or its inability to understand its subject matter. That, in turn, kills hope that real problems — including A.I. pitchers picking off would-be stealers with psychic accuracy and the aforementioned wild pitch bonanza — will ever get a patch.

Per tradition, “2K10” allows players to adjust difficulty sliders to somewhat mitigate these problems, but players who do so also lose access to all unlockable achievements, trophies and virtual baseball cards — as if “2K10” is punishing players who just want to take extra steps to enjoy their $60 purchase rather than fight it.

As always, those who play with friends or online will benefit the most, if only because both teams have the same issues to overcome. Questionable gameplay aside, “2K10” at least delivers in terms of features, with full-featured online leagues and the fun highlight reel editing and sharing tool back for another season.


Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx
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

A lot of people weren’t thrilled with the second “Borderlands” downloadable pack, which felt more like a self-contained (and oppressively difficult) extra mode than a seamless extension of the game world. For those folks and everyone else who loves that world, this latest pack is more like it. “The Secret Armory Of General Knoxx” introduces a huge new plot of frontier to explore, and with that comes new instances of everything — guns, vehicles, enemies (hello giant mechs), main/side missions, weird characters, dark humor — that make the main game great. The level cap receives an overdue boost, from 50 to 61, and with that comes new privileges with regard to abilities and rare weapon types. All the rewards naturally carry back into the rest of the game, and per “Borderlands” tradition, Gearbox encourages multiple playthroughs by dialing up the difficulty and payoff the second time around. Just be sure to have your wits about you before digging in: Gearbox recommends players enter “Knoxx” at around level 35, which means beating the main game’s storyline first is advisable. “Knoxxx” won’t stop anyone who wishes to dive in sooner than that, but it also won’t scale down its difficulty to accommodate low-level characters, so consider this your fair warning if you’re feeling bold.

DVD 3/2/10: We Live in Public, Where the Wild Things Are, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, Cold Souls, Bollywood Hero, Gentlemen Broncos, Alice in Wonderland releases, Small Wonder S1

We Live in Public (NR, 2009, IndiePix)
In case you weren’t there (or simply are trying your best to forget), the end of the 20th century brought with it a phenomenon where people with lots of money chased people with wild ideas down every rabbit hole imaginable in hopes of striking gold on the Internet. One of those wild visionaries was Josh Harris, who conceived Internet television when most of the public still struggled to download animated GIFs, and later parlayed those ideas into massive privacy-eroding experiments that both made the “The Truman Show” a reality and subsequently put it to shame. In documenting this with a combination of hindsight, candor and absolutely staggering footage of the experiment in action, “We Live in Public” enters documentary masterpiece country almost without breaking a sweat. Harris’ bizarre ride along the cutting edge of technology’s next great frontier presented him numerous opportunities to step on throats, burn bridges and engage in reckless experimentation with other people’s money, and his polarizing (understatement) personality (possible poor choice of word) ensured he approached every bridge with a match in hand. “Public” doesn’t try anything fancy with its storytelling, but it doesn’t need to. It comprehensively and resourcefully tells an amazing true story from all necessary angles, and it’s an absolute must-see as result.
Extras: Harris commentary, filmmaker commentary, Sundance 2009 footage, footage of Harris watching the film for the first time, two bonus segments, making-of feature.

Where the Wild Things Are (PG, 2009, Warner Bros.)
For such a humble little picture book about a mischievous boy and his imagination, “Where the Wild Things Are” sure caused a stir when it released in 1963 and promptly found itself banned from libraries everywhere. In that respect, the live-action adaptation does the source material absolutely proud. Warner Bros. marketed “WTWTA” as a kids movie based on a kids book, but the actual product is, like its inspiration, not nearly so easily classified. “WTWTA’s” opening scene, for instance, finds Max (Max Records) playing with his dog, but it’s filmed in a manner and at a volume that might send timid children running from the room. Subsequent scenes, which attempt to provide some fill-in plot past the book, occasionally engender the same reaction — or, during tranquil, dialogue-free scenes in which Max and the Wild Things let their actions and surroundings do the storytelling, the complete opposite effect. All put together, “WTWTA” steps too far outside the lines of traditional kids film norms to be something for everyone. But a little strength of conviction is never bad thing, and if the goal was to somehow bottle the aura from a 10-sentence book and expend it across 101 very pretty minutes of screen time without tearing the fabric, mission magnificently accomplished.
Extra: Four behind-the-scenes features.

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak (NR, 2009, Oscilloscope)
Along with the film itself, perhaps the best thing about the release of “Where the Wild Things Are” was the book’s author, Maurice Sendak, telling parents to “go to hell” and kids to “wet their pants” when asked what he’d say to those who complained the film was too scary for children. “Tell Them Anything You Want” doesn’t contain this wonderfully blunt attack on the bubble-wrapping of our youth, but this portrait of Sendak — directed by the same man, Spike Jonez, who directed “WTWTA” — pretty well matches it in terms of candor and insight. Be it about his childhood, his career, his personal shortcomings or the onset of death, Sendak turns no question away, and Jonez isn’t afraid to step in front of the camera and treat the experience like a no-holds-barred conversation between close friends (which, to the film’s benefit, it is) instead of some objective piece of film journalism. The only downside? It ends too soon. “Want’s” picturesque DVD packaging implies the film runs 88 minutes long, but that tally includes the extras. Though a good portion of those extras benefit from the same volume of insight and candor, it’s still worth noting the main program is only 40 minutes long by itself.
Extras: Jonez and Sendak Q&A, Sendak birthday tribute readings and speeches, “Maurice at the World’s Fair” short starring Jonze and Catherine Keener.

Cold Souls (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
The title is considerably more literal than you might assume. Because in the world in which “Cold Souls” exists, souls not only are tangible, extractable pieces of the human body, but have become a tradable commodity for those weary and brave enough to exchange their soul, and all it entails, for another. One such person? Paul Giamatti, playing himself, and so deeply frustrated with his present actor’s block that he decides to put his soul temporarily in cold storage and try another on for size — or perhaps take a spin without any soul whatsoever and see what happens. The novel premise has no shortage of tantalizing possibilities and consequences, and “Soul” fearlessly and intelligently pounces on as many as it can, shifting from dry comedy to drama to black comedy to science fiction mind warp with great care but without any regard for classification or convention. The sum total of that energy won’t necessarily sit well with viewers who come in expecting one mood and getting another, but not taking full advantage of all these storytelling possibilities would have been a significantly bigger shame. Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Katheryn Winnick, Emily Watson and and Lauren Ambrose also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Bollywood Hero (NR, 2009, Anchor Bay)
It’s fun to watch typecast, marginally successful actors play against type and have some fun with that marginal success by playing an alternate-universe version of themselves. Occasionally — say, with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s awesome dramatic turn in “JCVD” — it forever changes perceptions of what the actor can do. But the news isn’t quite that good for Chris Kattan, who stars in “Bollywood Hero” as a struggling former “Saturday Night Live” star (named Chris Kattan) whose sorry Hollywood luck finds him traveling to Mumbai in hopes of landing a game-changing role and resurrecting his career. Kattan plays Kattan pretty straight, and early in the first chapter of this three-part miniseries, “Hero” seems willing to take a dryly, ever-so-slightly-darkly funny look at the business of being famous. But that doesn’t last long, and before long, Kattan is saddled with material that leaves him looking more confused than wry as he bounces between a handful of unimaginative plot turns you’ve seen countless times before. “Hero” maintains a likable disposition throughout, and its inclination to break into song and dance every now and then is fun (if a little forced). But if Kattan was hoping for life to imitate art, he needs a gutsier vehicle than this. Neha Dhupia, Ali Fazal, Pooja Kumar and Ruma Sengupta also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Gentlemen Broncos (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
“Gentlemen Broncos” comes from the same creative mind behind “Nacho Libre” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” and boy, is it ever completely obvious that it does. The scenario is different, this time centering around a young, socially awkward would-be science fiction writer (Michael Angarano) who attends a fantasy writing convention, makes a few socially awkward friends (Halley Feiffer, Héctor Jiménez) meets his socially awkward author hero (Jemaine Clement), and promptly has his manuscript stolen by said hero. But as evidenced by the repeated use of the term “socially awkward” in the previous sentence, the constant that made “Dynamite” so bizarrely novel and “Libre” kind of annoying is back in force in “Broncos.” Every single character is weird in that same inhumanely-sheltered-from-society way, and numerous social interactions come down to one person talking or acting strangely and the other kind of blankly staring at them before returning the gesture. “Broncos” slowly gathers a pulse as the story goes somewhere, but all that early awkwardness sets the tone, and what once felt charmingly weird now comes off as overdone and too self-aware not to feel completely contrived. A few laughs sneak in, and the film occasionally ditches the contrivances for fleeting instances of sharp wit. Mostly, though, viewers can expect to return the same blank stares “Broncos'” characters almost continually flash back at them.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes.

Worth a Mention
— Alice in Wonderland fever: The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp re-imagination of “Alice in Wonderland” opens this Friday, and in what can only be an amazing coincidence, a handful of “Wonderland” DVDs are releasing separately this week. Among the releases: the 1933 Cary Grant/Gary Cooper/W.C. Fields film, the 1966 BBC film starring Peter Sellers and John Gielgud (and featuring a Ravi Shankar soundtrack), and the 2009 miniseries, “Alice,” that aired on Syfy. Of the three, only the BBC film comes with extras, and they’re good ones: director commentary, the 1903 “Wonderland” silent film, the 1965 biopic about the real-life inspiration for Alice, Shankar performance footage and a photo gallery.
— “Small Wonder: The Complete First Season” (NR, 1985, Shout Factory): The 1980s did its absolute best to undo all the progress the 1970s made by trotting out one gutlessly awful sitcom after another, and perhaps none were more delightfully terrible than this one. “Small Wonder’s” premise — a top-secret robot tries to fit into a family as a normal 10-year-old girl — is silly in its own right, but it’s the bonanza of bad execution — cheeseball storylines, hysterically cheap production values and some of the worst acting anyone ever paid for — that really makes this something special. Children of the ’80s looked to “Small Wonder” as their first understanding of the “so bad it’s completely entertaining” phenomenon, and a quarter century of aging has only enhanced that sensation here. Includes 24 episodes, plus commentary, original episode promos and a fan art gallery.