Games 4/27/10: Super Street Fighter IV, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, Crush the Castle

Super Street Fighter IV
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

To decide whether you should pick up “Super Street Fighter IV,” just take this simple test:

A) If you scoffed at the notion of Capcom rereleasing the year-old “Street Fighter IV” in enhanced form as a $40 standalone product (instead of, say, a $15 downloadable update) but played enough “SF4” over the last year to justify its asking price several times over, then yes, you should.

B) If you squealed with delight upon hearing the news of “SSF4’s” arrival, then yes, you should.

The old-fashioned sensibilities of Capcom’s business model aside, “SSF4” earns its worth by leaving the underpinnings alone but adding, improving and occasionally swapping out parts in just about every department.

Most apparent straight away is the boost to the roster. Eight fighters from the series’ past (DeeJay, T. Hawk, Guy, Cody, Adon, Ibuki, Makoto and Dudley) and two new fighters (Tae Kwon Do expert Juri and wonderfully bizarre Turkish oil wrestler Hakan) join “SF4’s” existing cast to bring the total to 35. All characters are unlocked straight away, and the original 25 fighters all receive a new ultra attack.

Arguably more impressive is “SSF4’s” mode expansion, which potentially caters to terrified newcomers as well as “SF4” pros. The Quarter Match mode from 2008’s “Super Street Fighter II” reboot finally arrives here as the Endless Mode, and it supports up to eight players and spectators in the closest online approximation of the arcade fighting game scene. Newcomers, meanwhile, can enter the Replay Channel to download replays of better players’ matches and put their newfound knowledge to safe use in the freeform Training Room. The new Team Battles configuration, meanwhile, falls under the “something to bridge the gap” banner, allowing players of different abilities to team up in team elimination battles supporting up to four fighters per team.

Ultimately, though, it’s the devoted students of “SF4” who stand to benefit the most from the additional year of fine-tuning Capcom has invested in its baby. The immediate availability of all characters allows the truly confident to skip the single-player warmup and jump online immediately, and Capcom’s up-and-down tweaking of the entire roster gives players both a conceivably more balanced game and volumes of new discoverable matchup minutiae on which to feast.

Presumably, once the cream rises to the top of the online universe, the Replay Channel, team-oriented modes and year’s worth of improvements upon “SF4’s” online matchmaking system should also allow an easier uphill climb for new players who want to cut their teeth online without getting completely obliterated. But if you tried “SF4” last year and found the game too imposing for your tastes, it’s worth noting that this year’s edition doesn’t change the basic underpinnings in any way that would make it any less of a climb toward mastery. Nor has Capcom produced a more guided means of understanding the game beyond the hands-off Training Room and admittedly outstanding instruction manual. If you want to get good at “Street Fighter” and are hoping “SSF4” contains shortcuts its predecessor did not, consider that hope officially — and, as “Street Fighter” devotees would tell you, deservedly — dashed.


Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

“Splinter Cell: Conviction” is a magnificently pretty example of how to present a mature game using vibrant environments and bright colors, so it’s a little bittersweet that its most beautiful moments take place when the lights are off and all that color is chucked by the wayside.

But only a little bittersweet.

“Conviction,” in a nutshell, is the reformed “Splinter Cell” game we’ve long been promised. Sam Fisher remains in the lead role — forced out of retirement to address a personal vendetta that cost the lives of his best friend and daughter — and he still does his best work by stealthily dispatching enemies instead of barreling forward with guns blazing.

But where previous games imposed all-or-nothing restrictions that left Sam as good as dead the instant players accidentally blew his cover, “Conviction” finally lets him give as good as he gets.

With bullets flying, “Conviction” plays like a contemporary third-person shooter: Players have powerful weaponry and environmental cover to aid their fight, and Sam is agile and tough enough to win a shootout when clandestinity fails. (During some of “Conviction’s” later missions, which take place in the bright light of day, barreling forward practically is encouraged.)

But what makes “Conviction” special is how deftly it mixes run-and-gun gameplay with the methods that have always defined the series.

Ubisoft introduces a number of new interface tweaks to make the pursuit of a perfect sneak attack accessible to anyone, and all of them pay off. The game’s graphics go gray whenever the player is safely concealed in the shadows, and alerting enemies of Sam’s location briefly marks the spot with an outline of his body. Disabling some light sources, tipping enemies off, executing an end-around and dispatching them from behind as they descend on your former position is as fun here as Jack Bauer makes it look on television, and “Conviction’s” engine is flexible enough to allow players who get caught in the act to fight their way out or at least attempt a dash for cover.

Experienced “Splinter Cell” pros might not appreciate all this emphasis on accessibility, but the Realistic difficulty setting should satiate their thirst for challenge. A brilliant mission inside a parking garage, where detection isn’t an option, also temporarily resurrects the original games’ sensibilities with exemplary results.

“Conviction’s” single-player storyline suffers a bit on the voice acting side — grunt enemies have roughly three sayings, and they spray the air repeatedly with them — but the actual plot is refreshingly personal compared to Sam’s previous assignments. Considering how concentrated that storyline is, the environmental diversity, and Ubisoft’s repurposing of different set pieces as stealth playgrounds, is absolutely terrific.

But “Conviction’s” arguable shining moment happens during a collection of two-player (online or splitscreen) co-op missions that doubles as a prequel to “Conviction’s” single-player story. (Quick aside: No competitive multiplayer. Sorry.) Neither player stars as Sam, but the full complement of his abilities lay at both players’ disposal, and coordinating stealth attacks with a teammate opens the door to numerous strategic possibilities that aren’t possible when fighting alone. Solo players can engage in most of this content by themselves if they prefer, but modes centered around cooperation — storyline portion included — are off-limits without a second player.


Crush the Castle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Armor Games
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild realistic violence)
Price: $2 (free lite version also available)

Anyone who ever took delight in setting up action figures with the sole intention of knocking them down can take similar delight in “Crush the Castle,” which skips step one and lets players use a catapult, some projectiles and gravity-intensive physics to reduce shoddily-built castles and their inhabitants to rubble. “Castle” isn’t a terribly demanding game: A couple taps determine the angle and force of the catapault launch, and beyond the arsenal of projectiles (rocks, bombs, mystical potions) players accumulate by advancing through the game, that’s all the strategy there is. But “Castle” provides as much enjoyment in watching the aftermath as it does in creating it: The physics are wonderfully condusive to chain reaction collapses, and whether it’s intentional or the byproduct of a shoestring budget, the sound and non-animated animation of the inhabitants is genuinely funny in a “Monty Python”-esque way. It’s unclear whether Armor Games plans to support “Castle” with new levels: The 90 levels available now are fun but quickly mastered, and while the level creator is outstanding, an inability to share creations with others hurts its value. But even if “Castle” never updates again, the fun and amusement it provides makes an easy return on the $2 investment it commands if you possess the mischievous state of mind that likely made its existence possible in the first place.

DVD 4/27/2010: Five Minutes of Heaven, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, It's Complicated, Survivors (2008) S1/2, Survivors (1975), District 13: Ultimatum, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Five Minutes of Heaven (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Sometimes, the aftermath is better than the actual event, and “Five Minutes of Heaven” is a pristine example of why. “Heaven’s” opening block of scenes depicts a 1975 encounter, propelled by the conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, between teenager Alistair Little (Mark Davison) and a young Joe Griffin (Kevin O’Neill), and without spoiling what happens for those who don’t read the back of the box and find out that way, the miniature thriller that results is terrifically tense even if you can bet the farm on how it’s likely to end. But that encounter comprises only a fraction of “Heaven’s” runtime, the vast majority of which centers around a reunion, 30 years later, between a seemingly reformed Alistair (now played by Liam Neeson) and a cripplingly bitter Joe (James Nesbitt). “Heaven” becomes an entirely different kind of film in its modern light, and while the uncertain outcome of Joe’s and Alistair’s second confrontation provides an even better climax than that of their first meeting, it’s the stuff in the middle that really makes the film special. Neeson’s dissection of a changed man trying to reconcile (but also arguably benefit from) past misdeeds is a sight in its own right, but Nesbitt’s schizophrenic portrayal of a man trying to come to terms with his past, present and Alistair’s aforementioned arguable fortune is just mesmerizing. When “Heaven” finally comes to a head, the only thing it does wrong is end too soon.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (PG-13, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Some movies more than others leave their watchability at the mercy of personal subjectivity, and if there ever was a fork in the road of personal taste, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” would be as qualified as any film to be its gatekeeper. Described one way, “Imaginarium’s” storyline — a father (Christopher Plummer) sits days away from facing the fallout of a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), and his daughter (Lily Cole as Valentina) sits unknowingly at the center of that deal — is easy to grasp. But that simple description doesn’t adequately explain the presence of the Imaginarium, an old-fashioned sideshow that allows participants to enter a ridiculous wonderland designed according to the constrictions of one’s own imagination. And while the presence of Tony (played alternately by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) also is easy to explain — he’s there to rescue Valentina from her fate, even if he doesn’t know it — it’s a bit more dense in practice. “Imaginarium” liberally mixes modern and ancient imagery to establish a disorienting sense of context, and while the Imaginarium plays pivotal roles in the story’s advancement, its presence occasionally feels like an excuse for Director Terry Gilliam to spray his own imagination at will. One could argue in depth that the whole thing makes perfect sense, but another pair of eyes could write an essay about what a mess “Imaginarium” is and have pages of arguments to back it up. This is artistic conviction on overdrive, and whether you come away loving it, hating it or having no idea what you just saw, you’ll almost certainly come away having seen something you’ve never seen before. Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield also star.
Extras: Gilliam introduction and commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

It’s Complicated (R, 2009, Universal)
Judge a movie by its first 10 minutes, and “It’s Complicated” doesn’t seem very complicated at all — just another cute but inordinately formulaic comedy that is bound to be remembered for its impressive cast (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski) if it’s remembered at all. But all that onboard talent gives “Complicated” — which finds middle-aged Jane (Streep) facing an empty nest as her kids leave home and her ex-husband (Baldwin as Jake) steps out with his younger new wife (Lake Bell) — enough likability to overcome how stale the whole setup feels. From there, the characters who grow out of that talent and likability give the film enough ammo to make Jane’s and Jake’s clumsy but entirely predictable reunion (it’s on the front of the box, for crying out loud) more entertaining than it otherwise might be. Once “Complicated’s” story truly gets complicated, all bets are off, because where so many likeminded films lose comedic steam as the plot piles up and pushes them into corners, “Complicated” actually becomes considerably funnier. The inevitable dramatic dips arrive on schedule, and “Complicated” never blows one’s mind with its storytelling choices, but it never loses its sense of humor and never leans on the plot to provide the entertainment. The end result is so much better than initial appearances suggest that “Complicated” comes off as a much better film than it probably actually is. But given the old saying about perception, who cares about the truth?
Extras: Crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Survivors: Complete Seasons One and Two (NR, 2008, BBC)
Stories about flu scares that evolve past the scare stage pretty much write themselves … which is why so many of the movies and miniseries centered around them produce 10 scary minutes followed by countless minutes of tedious, dialogue-deficient reconciliation. But the original “Survivors,” which aired in 1975, played the virus-wipes-out-humanity card long before it was fashionable to do so, and the remake seems intent on following that series’ blueprint rather than hopping on the godawful fear-monger bandwagon that’s been rolling through town since “Outbreak” scared people silly. The new “Survivors” gets off to a slightly shaky start by taking itself a little too seriously too soon. But the scare materializes into reality and passes through humanity before the first episode is even two-thirds finished, and “Survivors” spends its remaining time exploring a world through the eyes of a precious few survivors who must cope with the loss of technology and modern conveniences as well as their loved ones. “Survivors'” characters initially fall into archetype country — there’s the playboy, the prisoner, the kid and so on — but all this free time allows them to evolve into something more unique while their new surroundings shape up similarly. The achilles heel of most disaster stories ends up being this one’s strength, and that’s a good a tribute to the original series as one could want.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus three behind-the-scenes features, an Easter egg and character profiles.
— Speaking of which, also available: “Survivors: The Complete Original Series” (NR, 1975, BBC): The series around which the present-day “Survivors” was remade. Includes 38 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes feature and photo galleries.

District 13: Ultimatum (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
Here’s the thing about “District B13:” It was smarter than your average dumb action film, but not so much that it needed a sequel to address whatever questions it left unanswered. That, however, does not mean “District 13: Ultimatum’s” arrival isn’t welcome. Narratively, “Ultimatum” picks up where “B13” left off: Police Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and vigilante-with-heart-of-gold Leïto (David Belle) restored order to the semi-lawless Paris sub-city known derisively as District 13, but (surprise!) two years later, the gang wars are spiraling back out of control and the government once again is contemplating nuking the area off the map. So here we go again. Fortunately, while “Ultimatum’s” storyline feels like a rewrite of “B13’s” script, it also gets right the things “B13” got right. Tomaso and Leïto are fun to root for, the rest of the characters (district- and government-dwellers alike) are more colorful than their archetypes would suggest, and the story hits the same smart-sla
sh-B-movie sweet spot. Most importantly, the action scenes deliver. “B13” found a deserving audience by mixing stunt displays and explosions to an almost artful degree, and “Ultimatum” earns its return visit by doing the same thing and maintaining the same pace despite a longer (by 17 minutes) runtime.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, production diary, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (NR, 2009, Arthouse Films)
Documentaries about controversial subjects have the potential to go down some ugly avenues when, as with this biography of legendarily controversial attorney William Kunstler, they come courtesy of the subject’s children. Kunstler’s body of work — which includes representation for suspected violent criminals (the Attica Prison rioters, Assata Shakur, Gambino crime family associates) as well as civil rights icons (Martin Luther King Jr., the Chicago Seven, Leonard Peltier) — lays out the red carpet for scrutiny and criticism, and “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” doesn’t shy away from taking hard looks at what made Kunstler tick during different missions in different eras. Those hungry for nepotistic payback won’t get it here, because Kunstler’s daughters appear to have created “Universe” out of their own fascination than because of any bone they have to pick. But the daughters, who provide some narration but mostly let interviews and footage do the talking, also don’t hide their misgivings about certain cases Kunstler took or his motivations for taking him. The end result is surprisingly evenhanded without ever losing its point of view. That works just fine, too: Kunstler’s resume is all the fascination this one needs, and attempts to cloud it with personal baggage would only get in the way.
Extras: Additional Kunstler speeches, interviews and performances, home movies, courtroom audio and footage, filmmakers interview.

Games 4/20/10: MotoGP 09/10, Bird Strike

MotoGP 09/10
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Monumental Studios/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)

Criticizing a racing simulation for being imposingly difficult is like docking points from lemonade for making your lips pucker, because that’s arguably the whole point of a good simulation in the first place.

So what follows isn’t a criticism of “MotoGP 09/10,” and for fans of serious sims and the venerable and resilient “MotoGP” line, it might as well be high praise. But casual racing fans who look at Monumental Studios’ motorcycle racing game and envision a chance to relive their glory days playing “Super Hang-On” in the arcade, take note: This most certainly counts as a warning, because “MotoGP” most certainly is not the game you have in mind.

The gravity of the situation makes its presence felt regardless of difficulty level or whether players venture down “MotoGP’s” season/career modes or settle for the arcade mode, which at least emulates “Super Hang-On” in structure if not in any other way. Even on the easiest setting, “MotoGP’s” A.I. riders rarely lay down for anybody.

More immediately pressing, though, are the riding controls. As with most driving sims, they treat gunning the gas pedal and careering around turns about as kindly as a mother bear treats a human being walking into her den. Disrespect a track’s racing line and take too long to brake, and it’s entirely too easy to enter a turn so wide that it takes you right off the track.

In a car racing game like “Forza Motorsport” or “Gran Turismo,” your problems likely would end there, with the car skidding out and maybe dusting a wall before coming to a stop and ceding control back to the player. But in “MotoGP,” trying to fight a skid also entails leaning hard on the bike, and players who lean too far in either direction will see their bike careen out of control from a distance while they fly off of it in another direction. Slightly missed turns very quickly can mushroom into problems that send a player from the head of the pack to 10 places back in the span of a single mistake. See how much fun you’re having if this happens near the end of a race you’ve led the entire way to that point.

But again, that’s the point of a racing sim — either ride smart or lose big. And while “MotoGP’s” learning curve is considerably more imposing than that of just about every other racing game out there, Monumental Studios never stacks the deck so high as to be unfair. The A.I. is good, but it isn’t cheap, and the controls are responsive and perfectly tenable if players take the time to master their subtleties.

For those who overcome the curve, most of “MotoGP’s” other frills reward in kind. The career mode incorporates team management, reputation management and the ability to research new bike technology on top of a lengthy trip through the 2009 MotoGP season, and Monumental promises to offer whatever free downloadable content is necessary to emulate the 2010 season as it happens. (Hence the game’s title.) The multiplayer component (20 players online, two splitscreen) is very basic, but the 20-player support certainly is nice if the game develops a hardened following of skilled players.


Bird Strike
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: PikPok
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

“Bird Strike” understandably draws comparisons to the mega-popular iPhone game “Doodle Jump,” because the base object of both games — continually ascend higher and higher without exhausting all means of doing so — is identical. But while “Jump” finds players helping a scribbled, spring-loaded alien bounce between platforms with no room for error, “Strike” is both a little more lenient and a little more open in its design. Beyond the initial leap off a sling, your obscenely charming cartoon bird friend doesn’t even jump: Rather, he soars upward using stray rockets and jetpacks, and upon reaching the top, purposely careens back downward to wreak obscenely cute havoc on all the obstacles he avoided on the way up. Reaching the top in “Strike’s” puzzle levels is a challenge, and the ceiling-free endless mode makes it impossible. But where “Jump” penalizes almost any downward descent with a “Game Over” screen, “Strike” lets players attempt a recovery by catching any unused rockets they spot on the way down. The overriding goal, regardless of mode or technique, is to score as many points as possible during a single flight. Players who fly solo can aim for the gold medal-worthy scores in each level, but those who take advantage of “Strike’s” OpenFeint support — and one of the better examples of how to integrate leaderboards into an iPhone game — can chase and surpass their friends’ marks as well.

DVD 4/20/10: Crazy Heart, Uncertainty, I'm No Dummy, Mammoth, Broken Lizard Presents: The Slammin' Salmon, Avatar

Crazy Heart (R, 2009, Fox)
The Oscar season is the perfect time to bust out stories of washed-up fallen stars taking unkind tumbles down the mountain of life, and while 2008 kicked the bleak bar into the stratosphere with “The Wrestler,” 2009 might be home to the better story. “Crazy Heart” has all the ingredients one could want in a story about a country music star whose career beelined south: Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a perennial drunk, he’s broke, he plays gigs in bowling alleys instead of amphitheaters, every relationship he has lies in ruin, and all anyone wants to talk to him about is the former understudy (Colin Farrell) whose stardom soared while Blake’s cratered. But while “The Wrestler” was a magnificently executed supernova of despair, “Heart” is a much more versatile cross-section of faded stardom. The sadness of the situation is unmistakable, and when Blake is battling a dirty physical and emotional hangover, the film conveys its ugliness with enough force to give viewers a vicarious headache. But between these lows, “Heart” is rich with highs — some funny, some insightful, some sweet, some coasting on the infectious mood-boosting effect a terrific musical soundtrack often has. Neither the highs nor the lows feel out of place amongst each other, and as such, “Heart” emerges as an illuminating portrait of what Blake lives for as well as what he lives with. Call it the feel-good sad sack story of the year. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Nation and Robert Duvall also star.
Extra: Deleted Scenes, alternate music cuts (Blu-ray only), Bridges/Gyllenhaal/Duvall commentary (Blu-Ray only). Someone wants you to buy the Blu-ray version, hint hint.

Uncertainty (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
On an otherwise ordinary 4th of July, Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins) have a choice to make: head to Brooklyn and visit with Kate’s family, or spend a day in Manhattan? The two leave the decision to a coin flip, and “Uncertainty” shows us the consequences of both outcomes. The objective, ostensibly, is to show us how dramatically life can change based on any single seemingly benign decision, but the respective outcomes are so disparate and too often due to factors beyond the coin toss that the gimmick doesn’t really hold much water. The good news? By the time the air’s out of the gimmickry balloon, the balloon no longer is needed. “Uncertainty” plays out both scenarios concurrently, cleverly distinguishing between the two via a subtle color palette swap, and both stories are engrossing for entirely different reasons. What develops are essentially two movies — a thriller and a drama — in one, but because both have the same two characters in the lead, they’re able to use character development from one scenario to aid events taking place in the other scenario. The shared runtime also allows both stories to operate in efficient fashion, and each achieves the same satisfaction of a two-hour film in less than half the time each. It’s too bad the message behind the original intention doesn’t really play out, but for all the cool things “Uncertainty” does anyway, that shortfall barely even rates as a shortcoming.
Extras: Audition footage, script/scene comparison, photo gallery.

I’m No Dummy (NR, 2009, Salient Media/Vivendi)
It’s not so much that the art of ventriloquism isn’t appreciated today the way it once was. Rather, it’s mocked outright and often dismissed in popular culture as an artistic domain for dorks, creeps and social outcasts. And that, as “I’m No Dummy” demonstrates with almost exhilarating spirit, is a shame. “Dummy” is an A-to-Z look at the history of ventriloquism, exploring the careers of the best original and contemporary performers in reverent detail and with the help of some convincingly funny interviews and performance footage. But more than a history lesson, “Dummy” is a celebration of the rare combination of versatility and off-centeredness that has to mesh in order to make a great act happen. Mastering the illusion of speaking without moving jaw or throat muscles is an art form in its own, but parlaying that skill into a fall-down-funny routine — something most aspiring stand-up comedians can’t do with their own voice, much less two or more voices and a puppet’s expressions to manage — adds a whole other tier of demand to the challenge. “Dummy’s” subjects — Jimmy Nelson, Jeff Dunham, Jay Johnson, Lynn Trefzger, among other performers — discuss their craft with humility and accessibility, and their candor with regard to what they do and how it’s perceived is amusingly frank. All that likability, and a little insight too, gives “Dummy” more than enough ammo to swiftly and definitively transform derision of ventriloquism into appreciation.
Extras: Additional interviews, behind-the-scenes footage.

Mammoth (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Though “Mammoth’s” title has nothing to do with the adjective, it fits anyway, because explaining the film in brief doesn’t really work. It’s a story about a wife, mother and surgeon (Michelle Williams). It’s also a story about a husband, father and ultra-successful Internet games developer (Gael García Bernal), as well as the Filipino nanny (Marife Necesito) who helps care for their daughter (Sophie Nyweide) in hopes of saving money to take care of her own two children living on the other side of the world. Describing “Mammoth” as a simple slice of life isn’t really fair, because what takes place during its 126 minutes isn’t exactly banal. But conveying what does happen also doesn’t work, because on paper, “Mammoth’s” plot turns won’t sound like much to anyone who doesn’t really get to know the characters first. There’s no good way to discuss what that means without spoiling the trajectory the storyline takes, so even that doesn’t work here. So here’s the deal: The four aforementioned main characters are more interesting than their brief descriptions would suggest, and the things that happen to them are, by extension, more interesting as well. The script is thoughtful but qualm-free about dressing its characters down, and all of that makes “Mammoth” much more interesting than the sum of its parts. It takes something special to keep an explosion-free movie interesting past the two-hour mark, and even if that something is hard to describe, “Mammoth” makes it easy to find. No extras.

Broken Lizard Presents: The Slammin’ Salmon (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Sometimes, a good delivery fixes everything. This is one of those times. “The Slammin’ Salmon’s” plot — a Miami eatery’s nearsighted owner (Michael Clarke Duncan as heavywight boxer-slash-entrepreneur Cleon Salmon) bribes his staff (Kevin Heffernan, April Bowlby, Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter, Cobie Smulders, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske) with a prize in hopes they’ll fatten the cash register and help him settle a debt with some crime bosses — is straight out of cookie cutter sitcom country. Additionally, most of the film’s gags fall in the realms of cute, trite, overly familiar, repeated ad nauseam or subtle like a frying pan to the face. But what “Salmon” lacks in almost every facet of its game plan, it inexplicably redeems in execution to an almost unfathomable degree. Groaner-worthy jokes and dopey plays on words become funny by way of pitch-perfectly dry delivery, and the cast’s gift of continually mixing cute and crass into something legitimately, sharply funny is some kind of special trick. Part of this likely is due to chemistry: The Broken Lizard guys have been together for ages, and their ability to play off each other the way less familial casts cannot certainly gives “Salmon” an intangible benefit. But chemistry alone doesn’t Duncan, who goes completely to town in a wild sendup of the meatheaded athlete-turned-clueless restauranteur. On paper, his lines are as hokey as anyone’s. In practice, though, it might be his best display of grand theft scenery since
“The Green Mile.”
Extras: Two Broken Lizard commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature.

Avatar (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
Nostalgia likes to play a dirty trick by making us remember things fondly and blindsiding us with disappointment when we face those memories again. But is it possible to do that with a movie that still plays in theaters today? If you saw “Avatar” in 3D and remember it more fondly for its introduction to new viewing technology than its story or characters, then yeah, possibly. Provided you can stomach an overdose of CGI, “Avatar” remains visually impressive in this format, and the creature, horizon and foliage designs that comprise the world of Pandora are pretty to look at. But the novelty of Pandora’s beauty lasts only for so long, and “Avatar” wants 162 minutes of your time. And while the conflict between the cartoonishly greedy humans and tritely constructed indigenous Na’vi tribe might have fostered some innovative ideas when director James Cameron first envisioned “Avatar” in the mid-1990s, an endless cavalcade of entertainment media has long since beaten it to conception. Precious few exceptions aside, “Avatar” paints its picture of good and evil with broad, childish strokes, and the entirely telegraphed road every character and story point take are further beaten by dialogue that would make George Lucas proud and self-indulgent scenes that appear designed more to pop in 3D than aid the film in any special way. On top of that, the level of pro-environmental preaching is so blatant as to potentially annoy people who agree with the message, to say nothing of the poor souls who simply want to be entertained. Without the novel tech to provide distraction, “Avatar’s” ability to provide said entertainment is weakened arguably beyond salvation. Available April 22.
Extras: No extras. Fox already has announced additional versions of “Avatar” that will include features and support for 3D-capable televisions, so if you’re dead set on owning this one, budget accordingly.

Games 4/13/10: Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mysteries of Little Riddle, Supreme Commander 2, Final Fight: Double Impact

Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mysteries of Little Riddle
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Relentless Software
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, cartoon violence)
Price: $7.50 per episode, $15 for a bundle that includes episodes 1-3

As is always the case with a Playstation 3 game, “Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mysteries of Little Riddle” requires a Playstation 3 controller.

Not required, but arguably equally valuable to those who wish to maximize their immersion and success, is a pen and some paper.

Superficially, “Riddle” is, like the recent “Sam & Max” and “Tales of Monkey Island” reboots, part of the pleasantly surprising revival of point-and-click adventure games, which have found new life as downloadable games served in episodic installments. In this case, the three available episodes center around the murderous developments taking place in the quaint English town of Little Riddle, and players are tasked with solving each crime before the killer gets away.

But where most point-and-click adventure games employ a system of cause-and-effect in which players figure out how to use various objects in the environment to trigger story advancement, “Riddle” takes the murder mystery motif to heart.

The storytelling in each episode comes punctuated by 16 challenges that unlock clues and paint a clearer picture of the killer. But while some of the challenges are self-contained brainteasers in the traditional sense, “Riddle” just as often tests players’ memory of events that have transpired up to that point. That includes information about the environments of Little Riddle, the answers its residents give during questioning, and pretty much any other cue that might be construed as a clue. Some of these challenges are straightforward quizzes, but others are packaged within something more clever, and “Riddle” doesn’t necessarily focus on the obvious in either format. So don’t feel bad about using the aforementioned pen and paper: Real detectives don’t commit every last detail to memory, and “Riddle” seems to prefer challenging players to pick their observations carefully rather than simply memorize and regurgitate the obvious stuff.

The nature of the action, or lack thereof, seems an odd fit for a Playstation 3 library better known for the likes of “God of War” and “Uncharted,” and it’s an understatement to note a game that’s niche even by adventure game standards isn’t for everyone.

But “Riddle’s” presence on the Playstation Network makes more sense when you realize the same folks who created Sony’s phenomenal “Buzz!” quiz games are behind this series as well, and many of the same things that make “Buzz” special also are present here. The same cartoony character design that makes Buzz such a distinctive character does similar favor to the people of Little Riddle, and the writing and voice acting that give life to the narrator and characters are more polished (and spirited) here than in most $60 games.

The addition of four-player multiplayer support (local only) is another nice touch in a genre where lack of multiplayer functionality is practically a foregone conclusion. “Riddle” doesn’t do anything fancy with the multiplayer component, but the ability for players to work together on clues or compete to outsmart each other is all it needs to turn itself into a surprisingly successful party game.

“Riddle’s” first three episodes are available now, and the fourth, fifth and sixth episodes will be available at the end of April.


Supreme Commander 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Gas Powered Games/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The bad news about “Supreme Commander 2” is the same bad news that’s held true for every real-time strategy game developers have attempted to migrate from PCs to consoles: If you’re playing it this way, you’re settling.

The good news? You’re settling a lot less this time around.

Contrary to the buggy volcano that erupted when Hellbent Games ported the first “Supreme Commander” to the Xbox 360, “SC2” generally functions as it should. It isn’t as pretty as on a top-shelf PC, but it’s pretty enough, and outside of the occasional framerate dip, it keeps up on the performance side as well.

A handful of interface changes also makes “SC2” more accessible to consoles without neutering the depth that has made the series what it is. The number of unit types in each faction has decreased in favor of fewer unit types with higher upgrade ceilings, and the new tech tree and research points system make upgrading these units notably less laborious than it was in the first game. That adds up to a less imposing learning curve than what “SC1” threw at players, which allows the game to get off to a faster start and drop players into battles that neither overwhelm nor insult them.

Most important, “SC2” does not — as happened in “Halo Wars,” for instance — nullify players’ ability to build units and structures how and where they want. “SC2” softens the curve without flattening it, meeting players halfway for an experience that’s approachable but free of the lingering suspicion that the kid gloves are on.

This isn’t to suggest “SC2” completely closes the gap between a controller and the keyboard and mouse. The game maps all major commands to buttons in ways that make sense, and the one-button shortcuts that allow players to select multiple units certainly help. Even better is the ability to zoom so far out that the map turns into a virtual game of Risk, with units represented by easily-identifiable icons that are just as easily dispersed as needed.

But when the battle is in full rage, it’s still easy to get rattled when there’s no keyboard and mouse to provide the flexibility and speed a controller simply cannot replicate. Even with the action zoomed out and the whole map visible at once, the analog stick’s cursor control is too loose to replicate the more natural sensation a mouse allows. That isn’t the game’s fault, but it also can’t not be mentioned.

Fortunately — arguably — “SC2” is designed in a way that encourages players to face off against equally disadvantaged human competition. There are three campaigns (one for each faction) and a so-so story accompanying each, and the Skirmish mode allows solo players to set up custom matches with computer-controlled opponents and allies. But online play is the real heart of “SC2,” which supports any combination of four human and A.I.-controlled players one can devise using the three factions. The large maps and lack of unit construction restrictions become enormous assets when combined with customizable victory conditions, and the shortcomings imposed by the controller become less of an issue when they apply to everyone equally.


Final Fight: Double Impact
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Most longstanding game publishers are savvy enough nowadays to tap into players’ nostalgic nerves. But nobody has as much fun doing it as Capcom does, and if the PSP compilations, “Mega Man” revival and brilliant “Dark Void Zero” weren’t proof enough, “Final Fight: Double Impact” should do it. “Impact’s” main attraction is, naturally, the arcade-perfect translation of 1989’s “Final Fight,” which endures remarkably well as one of the best 2D brawl
ers ever made. The port is spotless, and Capcom does it modern justice with online leaderboards and two-player local/online co-op support. That alone would comprise a job well done for most publishers, but Capcom showers its source material with additional love by way of a superbly remixed soundtrack, an awesome optional visual presentation that filters the graphics through a mock arcade cabinet screen, and a large assortment of in-game achievements that unlock various “Final Fight” multimedia and give longtime fans of the game entirely new challenges to overcome. Additionally, and because Capcom can, “Impact” also includes an arcade-perfect port of another game, “Magic Sword,” that’s too obscure to sell on its own but a fantastically fun sidescroller in its own right. The same care that goes into “Fight” — co-op support and achievements included — graces “Sword” as well, giving fans of arcade gaming’s most golden years something to discover as well as something to treasure.

DVD 4/13/10: Pirate Radio, We Believe, Tenderness, Tenure, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, The Madeline Movie: Lost in Paris, Jim Henson's The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories, Jim Henson's Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Lions, Tigers and Bears

Pirate Radio (R, 2009, Universal)
As tributes to bygone eras go, “Pirate Radio” is nothing if not loving: Its illustration of the days when radio jockeys literally took to the seas to broadcast rock ‘n’ roll over the objections of British government killjoys determined to censor them is deliriously, infectiously fun. Unfortunately, that’s just about all it is. As if a case of art imitating life, “Radio” arrived in America in vastly different shape than what debuted months earlier in Britain, and many of the scenes that were scrapped — now part of a 42-minute deleted scenes feature with a very necessary introduction by writer/director Richard Curtis — often are the ones where “Radio” does its most courageous and meaningful storytelling. What makes it into the main feature is nothing close to bad, and watching this enormously talented cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, Chris O’Dowd, Tom Sturridge and Kenneth Branagh, among others) go completely to town in character is, again, enormously fun. But many of those deleted scenes make it clear that fun wasn’t all that was on “Radio’s” original menu, and it’s too bad so much of what defined and drove these characters to such extremes in the name of free expression was on the floor.
Extras: The aforementioned deleted scenes, director/producer/Frost/O’Dowd commentary.

We Believe (NR, 2009, Virgil Films)
If all you knew about “We Believe” is that it’s a film about a Major League Baseball team, would you even need a second clue to guess which team it’s about? Of course you don’t need a second guess. But while numerous songs, films, plays and other often painfully bad love letters from Chicago Cubs fans have surfaced over the past 102 years, “Believe” actually has the good grace to present itself in a way that makes all the misery they endure actually make some — if only some — sense. Partly, that’s because “Believe,” which chronicles the 2008 season while simultaneously reaching back into the team’s once dominant and now darkly humorous past, doesn’t really take itself too seriously. A number of familiar faces — from Ernie Banks to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to Billy Corgan to Ryne Sandberg to several members of the 2008 team — chime in, and the sum total of their comments paints a picture of a fanbase and franchise that understands how maddening the whole thing must look to the rest of us. (Full disclosure: This review was written by a White Sox fan.) Simultaneously, when “Believe” tries touching nerves, it does so in funny and poignant ways any devoted fan of any team can understand and potentially appreciate. The takeaway from the whole thing is that Cub fans, weird though they may be, are just people, and baseball, despite all the agony it causes, is really just an excuse for people to share an experience no matter the outcome.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Tenderness (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
“Tenderness” does itself little favor by calling itself an “edge-of-your seat thriller” on the front of the DVD case, because that cliched description says nothing about just what kind of tension waits inside. When “Tenderness” opens, an 18-year-old (Jon Foster as Eric) who killed his parents three years prior has been set free from an absurdly generous trip through the juvenile prison system, and the detective (Russell Crowe as Cristofuoro) who helped put him behind bars is devising ways to keep watch and prevent what he assumes is the inevitability of Eric killing again. Were “Tenderness” a typical edge-of-seat thriller, one could probably read this description and fill in the rest of the script’s blanks without setting one eye on the film. But “Tenderness” is a thriller only during the rare moments when it isn’t a completely brutal vivisection through the psyches of Eric, Cristofuoro and the girl (Sophie Traub) whose past intersects with Eric’s and whom Cristofuoro assumes needs rescuing. The vast, vast majority of the film is talk, but the talk adds up to a mental teardown that’s far more interesting than just another movie about stopping just another murderer. When “Tenderness” gets dangerous, any value that danger carries owes a thank-you card to the mountain of character development that paved its way.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Tenure (R, 2009, Genius Entertainment)
It isn’t a bold statement to suggest the primary goal of a comedy is to make people laugh. So what happens if a comedy looks like a comedy, isn’t terribly hilariously funny, but is still somewhat good? That’s where we are with “Tenure,” in which a college professor (Luke Wilson as Charlie) who is popular with his students but misunderstood by superiors faces the prospect of receiving tenure or receiving his pink slip. Charlie isn’t a terribly moving character as comedy needles go — not terribly funny, nowhere near dark enough to pass for ironic. His tenure competition and adversary (Gretchen Mol as Elaine) isn’t much different. “Tenure” leaves most of the comedic to its supporting characters, and they sometimes make good on those opportunities. But Charlie and Elaine are just likable and easy to root for, and their mutual likability leads to scenes that have them doing respective soul-searching more than scheming. What ultimately emerges is definitely a comedy — a handful of hopelessly typical plot turns dissolve any confusion — but it isn’t so much a conduit for laughs as a lighthearted look at the stupid things educators sometimes have to do to be educators. You may not remember even seeing it a few months from now, and that certainly isn’t the kind of thing you say about great movies, but 89 minutes invested in “Tenure” are 89 feel-good minutes nonetheless.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Plunder: The Crime of Our Time (NR, 2010, Disinformation)
Filmmaker Danny Schechter was dismissed as an alarmist for his 2006 film, “In Debt We Trust,” which took creditors to task for practices that sent Americans deep into debt. But the financial meltdown validated some of his fears, and in case you don’t spot the thinly-veiled “I told you so” on the back of “Plunder’s” box, Schechter himself will remind you during the opening minutes. But that’s the problem with too much of “Plunder:” Not quite a cautionary tale like “Trust” partially was, it feels like rundown of events that should already ring familiar to anyone still engaged enough to seek this out in the first place. “Plunder” does a fine job of recapping, and it especially succeeds in exposing popular media’s reluctance to embrace the story until the story exploded and offered no alternative. But while “Plunder” calls out just about everyone who had a role in the subprime mortgage scam spectacular, it makes the same mistake “Trust” made and just glosses over the issue of accountability. Chastising victims for not being more knowledgeable about the loans that financially ruined them would take serious nerve on Schechter’s part and would likely alienate the audience he intends to accrue. But a film that honestly instructs people on how to watch their backs has far more utility than one that, ultimately, just tells people to get angry without telling them what to do about that anger.
Extras: Schechter interview, two additional segments.

Worth a Mention: Just for Kids Edition
— “The Madeline Movie: Lost in Paris” (NR, 1999, Shout Factory Kids): The charming children’s book series makes for an appropriately charming animated feature, which finds Madeline in a bit of a pickle when a man disguised as her uncle turns out to be someone else entirely after he takes her away from the boarding school she previously called home. There’s no way to lay out that plot and make it sound like anything but a great story for kids, but “Madeline’s” character design is about as classically harmless as cartoon heroes and villains
get, and everything else about the film — the rhyming narration, the songs, the art and animation style — is delightful in ways too many kids’ films don’t get. Jason Alexander, Christopher Plummer and Lauren Bacall, among others, lend their voices. No extras.
— “Jim Henson’s The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories” (NR, 1989, Lions Gate): Left-wing propaganda or cute stories about the planet that kids (and anyone who fancies Jim Henson’s work) will enjoy for what they are? Sorry, alarmists, but it’s the latter. In addition to the story in the title, “Stories” includes three additional features — “Fraggle Rock: River of Life,” “Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Owl & Frog” and “Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Kangaroo & Frog” — for 100 total minutes of first-rate puppet storytelling. No extras beyond the four stories.
— “Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Lions, Tigers and Bears” (NR, 1994, Lions Gate): Stinky the skunk and Jake the polar bear share hosting duties on this talk show, which mocks the late-night talk show format while educating kids (and again, anyone who loves Henson’s work and legacy) about the animal kingdom. Guests in this five-episode set include a zebra, a tiger beetle, a chimpanzee and a hyena. No extras beyond the episodes.

Games 4/6/10: Red Steel 2, Rooms: The Main Building, Save the Turtles

Red Steel 2
For: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Remember how awesome “Red Steel” was going to be, and how the amazingly immersive mix of first-person shooting and motion-controlled swordplay promised to take action games to an entirely new plane? And remember how none of that happened at all? Oh, you do? Well “Red Steel 2” would rather you didn’t, because three years later, all those empty promises finally have a game on which to hang their hats.

Fundamentally, what “RS2” does is similar enough to its predecessor to bear the franchise name. It’s still a first-person shooter and motion-controlled swordfighting game cobbled together as one.

But everything about “RS2’s” methods stands in stark, and entirely welcome, contrast to its predecessor.

For starters, and maybe finishers, it’s just plain fun. Unlike the first game, “RS2” allows players to switch between gunplay and swordplay whenever they want instead of when the game dictates, and Ubisoft puts all the pieces together to make what should be a complete controller nightmare into a slightly unwieldy but astonishingly pleasant ride. The cursor-based shooting feels considerably more intuitive this time around, and switching from gun to sword and back, while inevitably a bit disorienting given the disparity in control styles, works plenty well enough to avoid becoming the source of frustration it so easily could have been.

Though some inevitably won’t like it, Ubisoft’s decision to not just support but flat-out require Nintendo’s MotionPlus controller attachment pays off enourmously on the swordplay side. The game guides players’ movements to a small degree, but overwhelmingly, striking, thrusting and parrying are mapped precisely to how players hold the Wii remote.

The extra precision allows “RS2” to introduce a surprisingly large arsenal of swordfighting moves as the story advances, and the combat is very gratifyingly active — arguably to a fault if active gaming isn’t your thing. Lazy flicks of the wrist won’t suffice the way they did in the first game, and if you can’t get into the idea of swinging the remote with the full might you would a sword, you should just find a game that isn’t as committed to the Wii’s original vision as this one so satisfyingly is.

Superficially, the story isn’t much different. The bland, overly serious storyline from the first game is scrapped in favor of an exuberant mix of Asian cinema, post-apocalyptic dark comedy and spaghetti western, and “RS2’s” narrative structure now breaks down, “Borderlands”-style, into bite-sized missions that players eventually can accept by the handful.

The “Borderlands” approach extends to “RS2’s” visual presentation, which combines realistic and cel-shaded graphic design to create a game that would look good on any system and stands head and shoulders above most of its Wii counterparts. That the art style also suits the storyline and action so perfectly — everything about “RS2’s” approach in all three departments seems developed with a brazenly fun-first spirit in mind — certainly doesn’t hurt matters.


Rooms: The Main Building
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Considering the main objective of “Rooms: The Main Building” is to rearrange the game world in order to help the onscreen character escape the room, is it fitting or ironic that the game’s biggest problem might be its inability to get out of its own way?

Conceptually, “Rooms” is sound, if something of an odd fit for a big-screen console game. The overriding objective is to move pieces of a room around, sliding puzzle style, in such a way that allows the onscreen character to reach the exit and head to the next room. The number of pieces increases as the story progresses, and the game occasionally introduces new items and situations to mix things up a bit, but the general gist doesn’t change. “Rooms” gives players point-and-click control over the onscreen character’s movements, but the tile sliding is where the game’s real action lies.

The idea of “Rooms” being little more than a string of ornate sliding puzzles — precisely the kind of toy people invented video games to get away from — would make it a pretty hard sell in its $30 Nintendo DS form, to say nothing of its $30 Wii form.

But whether “Rooms” helps or hurts itself with the extra frills it piles on is legitimately arguable. Some will adore, possibly for all the wrong reasons, the story and overall design, which incorporate full-motion video animation and the kind of sound effects that would make 1993 proud. But anyone who wasn’t around during the CD-ROM game heyday (or was, but wishes they weren’t) likely won’t see the story as anything but intrusive and confusingly designed for no real benefit.

Those who do, meanwhile, will find it hard to endure the 100 levels it takes to see “Rooms” to its conclusion. The high level count obviously is a must for Hudson to justify the high price, but all the items and special level circumstances can do only so much to spice up what essentially is the same trick repeated ad nauseam.

“Rooms'” multiplayer suite engenders a similar lack of fulfillment. The battle mode, which pits two players in a race to complete the same puzzle at the same time, is fun for a while, but only so long as the basic gameplay holds interest in the first place.

The existence of a level design tool, meanwhile, is thoroughly puzzling. It’s sufficiently robust and probably the most polished facet of the entire game, but it includes no way to share the level with other players unless they play it on your console. Having the ability to trade more sliding puzzles online with others probably wouldn’t do much to help a game whose concept runs out of steam long before the single-player supply is tapped out, but if you’re going to these lengths to give players a means to create, why neuter the process by quashing the ability to share?


Save the Turtles
For: Nintendo DSi via DSiWare shop
From: Sabarasa
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Devising clever scenarios for match-three puzzle games is about as easy these days as inventing new uses for a glass of orange juice, so Sabarasa gets credit out of the gate for doing exactly that. The goal in “Save the Turtles” is indeed to match three of a kind. But instead of sliding gems or shapes, players have to guide cartoon turtles into matching rows in order for the ocean to send a wave to pick them up. The act of guiding living objects is novel on its own, and “Turtles” builds on that novelty by populating the beach with crabs, debris and other obstacles the turtles must avoid. The sun, and its ability to give the turtles sunburn, poses an additional threat to players who don’t make matches quickly and consistently. “Turtles'” stylus controls occasionally hiccup when creating a path for a turtle to follow, but for the most part, the controls and interface function exactly as they should. Players who get used to the mechanics might be surprised how intricate the seemingly basic gameplay eventually becomes, and “Turtles” rewards those who do so with enough content — a 32-level story mode, an endless survival mode, a quick-play mode that changes certain story mode rules, unlockable achievement-like trophies — to easily justify the $5 asking price.

DVD 4/6/10: The Yes Men Fix the World, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Loins of Punjab Presents, The Collector, Dirt! The Movie, The Lord of the Rings: Original Animated Classic: Remastered Deluxe Edition

The Yes Men Fix the World (NR, 2009, Docurama)
Unless you’re in school and there’s going to be a test on it the next day, it’s likely you have no obligation to watch documentaries that strive to educate and/or mobilize. And if no one’s making you, and you aren’t interested enough to care about the subject matter in the first place… you see the problem here? It would seem the Yes Men — Andy Bichibaum and Mike Bonanno — do, which is why they turn to outrageous pranks to get their point across instead. “The Yes Men Fix the World” is the duo’s second feature film, and the marks this time include a roomful of post-Katrina opportunists, readers of The New York Times and 300 million BBC viewers. The stunts Bichibaum and Bonanno devise are hilariously ambitious, watching them being put into play is thoroughly entertaining, and whether the dupes call shenanigans immediately or play along without any suspicion whatever, the reactions often are priceless. The film’s messages are undeniable, and “World” kind of loses itself in a vat of unreasonably syrupy preachiness during its last batch of scenes. But Bichibaum and Bonanno’s sense of humor — and the surprising level of humility and occasional terror they display when a prank enters the wild — makes them potentially thoroughly likable even if their ideas don’t mesh with yours. If the point is to make a point, there’s no better way than 90 minutes of juvenile civility to break the ice.
Extras: A bonus stunt, deleted scenes and bonus footage, filmmaker bios.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (R, 2009, First Look)
Everything about “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” from that completely awkward title on down, is just weird — though not necessarily in a bad way. As different parts of that title suggest, Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is something of a despicable (albeit effective) member of the New Orleans Police Department, and it isn’t clear what — a taste for cocaine, contempt for the people he’s vowed to serve, a gambling problem that might leave less influential people with severe injuries — is his biggest ill. There’s an investigation at the center of the storyline, and it provides all the means necessary for Cage to interface with a great roster of supporting characters (Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Shawn Hatosy), but at the same time, the details of the case almost don’t even matter. This is McDonagh’s story, and Cage goes absolutely crazy bringing his every extreme emotion to blindingly vivid and entirely unsubtle light. That, along with the style choices “Lieutenant” makes and the unusual trajectory the story takes (to say nothing of its resolution at the end), makes for one strange movie that is likely to leave some completely perplexed while others step away thoroughly entertained. But either outcome beats outright boredom, and “Lieutenant” is entirely too out there to ever deserve the dull tag. So if you’re feeling adventurous, take a chance on it and see where it takes you.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature

Loins of Punjab Presents (NR, 2008, Indiepix)
Just about everything brushes up against some degree of cute in “Loins of Punjab Presents,” which finds a confusingly-assembled collection of promotors and personalities putting on a Bollywood pop idol competition in (where else?) suburban New Jersey. Fittingly, the seven featured hopefuls all have weird makeups of their own — a small-time inventor of an off-brand yoga variant here, a failed Hollywood actress hoping to fake her way into Bollywood there, an Indian who moved to America only to watch his job get outsourced to India somewhere in between. “Punjab” plays the mockumentary card a little bit early on, settles in nicely as a slightly dry comedy later, and dabbles in some drama before finally — at least for one would-be winner — homing in on a happy ending. It isn’t exactly a chancy formula, and even when “Punjab” has its straight face on, there’s an air of aw-shucks adorability to the whole thing. But that works just fine: “Punjab’s” characters are roundly likable at best and amusingly obnoxious at worst, and the film builds them up enough to make the outcome strangely compelling in spite of how self-depreciatingly slapped-together the whole competition is established as being. Jameel Khan, Shabana Azmi, Ajay Naidu, Manish Acharya, Michael Raimondi, Ayesha Dharker and Seema Rahmani, among others, star.
Extras: Two short films “The Driver” and “Partner,” director/writers/critics commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, three behind-the-scenes features, two music videos.

The Collector (R, 2009, Vivendi)
You might call it streamlined and refreshingly free of pretense; someone else might see the same thing and call it lazy and an elaborate excuse to break out the blood buckets. Either way, it’s no small point to note that “The Collector” reveals next to nothing about the motives and means of the character (Juan Fernandez) who gives the film its name. Whether it even needs to is somewhat arguable, thanks to an imaginative premise that finds the titular character descending on a suburban family (Andrea Roth, Michael Reilly Burke, Karley Scott Collins, Madeline Zima) the very same evening a contractor (Josh Stewart) who knows the family attempts to rob the place. Character development duty falls to him and his struggle to convince the family he’s there to help them — which, of course, he initially wasn’t, which naturally makes the rescue talk a hard sell. If that’s good enough, you’re in luck, because while “The Collector” arguably goes overboard in the gore-for-effect department — the squeamish absolutely need not bother — it certainly knows what it’s doing in the unsettling suspense department. It’s just too bad it’s all happening for reasons we’ll largely never know.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, music video.

Dirt! The Movie (NR, 2009, Docurama)
It might be packaged under the pretense of being a spirited and fun look at its namesake, but anyone who takes one look at “Dirt! The Movie” can assume with high confidence what’s in store. And after a start that indeed revels in refreshing levels of whimsy, those assumptions are realized. This isn’t really a knock: A feature-length discussion about soil almost invariably must touch on sobering concerns about not only the environment, but also the expensive and often counterproductive trajectory the farming industry has taken since big companies started bullying everyone else out. “Dirt,” to its credit, does a nice job of conveying people’s concerns without losing itself in a sea of preachiness. But the sobering stuff appears during the heart of the movie and easily commands more minutes than “Dirt’s” more lighthearted (and often, more illuminating) material, and the turn from fun and fascinating to slightly depressing is so stark as to undermine the mood more than convey its importance. Fortunately, the fun stuff makes a comeback in the third act. And if you fancy a movie about all the cool things dirt can do but have had your fill of the sobering stuff for a while, there’s still enough great material (and yes, whimsy) to make “Dirt” worth seeing.
Extras: Additional scenes, extended interviews and animations, filmmaker bio.

Worth a Mention
— “The Lord of the Rings: Original Animated Classic: Remastered Deluxe Edition” (PG, 1978, Warner Bros.): Before Peter Jackson came along and made the film adaptation trilogy to end all film adaptation trilogies, there was this 133-minute animated treatment, which was and remains a rather magnificent treatment in its own right. In addition to bringing the film to Blu-ray for the first time and giving ardent fans the first new cut of the film in nearly 10 years, the new edition includes a new 30-minute intervi
ew with the film’s director, Ralph Bakshi. The new cut is available in DVD-only form, but videophiles for which neither money nor format is an object will prefer the combo pack that bundles the Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy versions for $10 more.