Games 5/25/10: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Split/Second, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, 10 Pin Shuffle

Super Mario Galaxy 2
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Nintendo has made zero bones about “Super Mario Galaxy 2” being more of the same stuff that made “Super Mario Galaxy” what it was, and because “Galaxy” was one of 2007’s best games, no one really seemed bothered by the idea of “SMG2” being, at worst, the same fundamental game with new levels.

And at worst, that’s exactly what this is. But that’s also what the first “Galaxy” was — a prototypical 3D Mario game that had the same old story and was more notable for the unbelievable variety of new level designs it unleashed than any revolutionary change to the way players controlled Mario.

This time, just like last time, Nintendo relegates motion controls to special self-contained challenges that serve as diversions more than the main course, which plays out using the same traditional control scheme Nintendo has been using since Mario first entered the third dimension in 1996. A second player can once again use a Wii remote to help (or hinder) Mario in a few minor ways, but this doesn’t change the core game so much as give it a light social element. Like its predecessor, and unlike last year’s “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” “SMG2” isn’t designed with multiplayer in mind beyond sharing turns and passing the controller around.

With none of “Galaxy’s” basic ingredients needing any repair, Nintendo did as it should and focused primarily on unleashing two-plus years’ worth of whatever crazy new level ideas it could conjure.

The result, without getting too specific and spoiling anything, is nothing short of exquisite. “SMG2” reuses bits and pieces of certain “Galaxy” levels, but it largely reinvents the wheel, constructing worlds that play liberally with the laws of gravity, collapse upon themselves, make Mario feet 2 feet tall, dream up impossibly crazy boss fights and even pay tribute to Mario’s past adventures. New characters join in, old favorites return, and the whole thing is an unapologetically colorful ball of joyful, brilliant design that perfectly toes the line between welcoming players of all stripes and challenging the best of them to bring their A-game. Picking every level clean will take a good 15 skillful hours to do, and there isn’t a moment in those hours where Nintendo’s level designers just coasted by.

“SMG2” expands Mario’s suit repertoire by combining his classic (Fire Mario) and “Galaxy” (Bee Mario, Spring Mario, Boo Mario, Rainbow Mario) power-ups with a couple new entrants. Rock Mario can wreak havoc as a living boulder, while players who could use a hand will appreciate Cloud Mario’s ability to create his own platforms.

But perhaps the most welcome addition — along with being able to occasionally play as Luigi without beating the whole game — is the return of Yoshi, whose unique abilities come into play much more effectively than they did in his last appearance eight years ago. “SMG2” generally reserves Yoshi’s appearances for specific levels, but the upshot is that those levels better cater to Yoshi’s ability to eat this and grab onto that than would be the case if Mario could enlist him at any time. Yoshi gains a few new powers of his own, including the ability to illuminate like a light bulb and turn into a makeshift blimp, but the same abilities he’s had for 20 years remain the most fun to use here.


Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Black Rock Studio/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

It’s pretty clear how “Split/Second” wants to set itself apart as more than just another arcade racing game. The game’s premise exists inside a reality television show, which exists inside a fake city that players can thoroughly blow to pieces while simultaneously working their way around otherwise traditional racetracks.

Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is how well “Split/Second” does the little things — difficulty balancing, single-player rewards, a pattern of destruction that relies on timing and physics instead of simple scripted explosions — to make the big thing work so splendidly.

“Split/Second’s” core racing component should ring mostly familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how arcade racers work. The game is generous with the crash physics, allowing and encouraging dangerous driving over pristine technique, and players who draft, drift, catch air and otherwise live dangerously are rewarded with further abilities toward gaining an edge.

In this case, though, those abilities translate into limited-use but freely deployable triggers that level portions of the environment and brutalize all cars that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those triggers translate into everything from helicopters dropping bombs to collapsing bridges to a yacht taking out a piece of highway, and “Split/Second’s” outstanding graphics engine brings every calamity to eye-popping life.

But it’s the physics more than the graphics that keep those explosions fresh beyond the novelty period. “Split/Second’s” impressively spartan heads-up display offers clues as to when it would be best to trigger a disaster, but simply hitting the button doesn’t promise anything. A.I. drivers can sidestep a poorly-timed trigger, and players very easily can trigger an attack on their own car if they don’t think it through. Nothing about the mechanic is scripted, and A.I. drivers are as prone to making the same mistakes.

For the same reasons, dodging other drivers’ attacks is arguably even more exciting than setting them off. The arsenal of trigger possibilities shrinks considerably for players who lead the race, but driving with seven targets on your back changes the game enough to more than compensate. “Split/Second’s” superb driving controls make skirting disaster by inches a tangible thrill, and the game’s diversionary events — which find players dodging bombing helicopters and outrunning semis bent on sabotage — play to this thrill as perfectly as the more traditional races do.

A point could certainly be made that “Split/Second’s” single-player career mode is hampered by some ruthless A.I. that can send players from first place to last in the blink of a single mistake. But the game rarely trips players into making unfair mistakes, and the career mode counteracts by rewarding players who finish in fifth as well as first with some kind of progress compensation. Players can repeat races at any time (and with better vehicles acquired by accumulating progress elsewhere), and while the system occasionally feels cheap, there’s something refreshing about an arcade racer that challenges you to conquer it from the very first race.

Naturally, any grievances with the A.I. fall away in “Split/Second’s” multiplayer mode (two players splitscreen, eight online), and all that’s great about the on-track action in single-player play applies here as well. Just don’t expect much beyond that: It works, and it supports most of the single-player modes in multiplayer form, but that’s about as fancy as it gets.


Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Five “Prince of Persia” games in seven years after three in the preceding 14 has taken the franchise from nowhereville to sequel city in a hurry, and “The Forgotten Sands” does itself no favor by abandoning the dramatic visual and narrative makeover that made the 2008 reboot such a pleasantly fresh surprise.

“Sands” instead is a direct sequel to 2003’s “The Sands of Time,” which provides the basis of the “Persia” film currently in theaters (and, consequently, should answer whatever questions you had about Ubisoft ditching that reboot and rushing “Sands” out 17 months later).

Early on, “Sands” feels less like a sequel to “Time” than a capable but uninspired imitation of it. It plays like a typical “Perisa” game, mixing some ambitious environmental platforming with sword combat that’s more fun than special. Per series tradition, the massive traversable environments — ledges, trapeze swings, poles, cliff sides — feel like gigantic environmental riddles more than simple action game playgrounds, and the game uses an assisted character movement scheme that doesn’t hold players’ hands but also doesn’t require angle-perfect precision jumping. As with “Time,” and per story dictation, players eventually receive a limited-use ability to rewind time and correct mistimed jumps without reverting back to a checkpoint.

That rewind trick becomes indispensable once “Sands” comes into its own and gives the Prince powers that dwarf anything “Time” did. Players gradually receive the ability to alter the environment — freeze and unfreeze water, make entire structures appear and disappear — while simultaneously jumping through and climbing around it in traditional and (thanks to yet more abilities) exhilarating new ways. “Sands'” early levels aren’t exactly dull, but the designs in the second two-thirds of the game, which mix and match abilities with abandon and place a premium on meticulous timing and some serious thumb gymnastics, put them to shame.

“Sands'” combat, which pits the Prince against several dozen grunts and the occasional heavy at once, is considerably less impressive, but also an improvement on the 2008 game’s drab one-on-one combat. The Prince has a modest array of upgradable sword attacks and spells, but the combat typically amounts to little more than mashing buttons to kill a few dozen enemies while dodging the glacial attacks of the handful who get a chance to fight back. It’s nothing other action games haven’t done considerably better, but it is good for a mindless break between the more cerebral platforming parts, and it never carries on long enough to become a detriment to the fun.

What can be a detriment is “Sands'” occasional ability to just act up and not play nice. During the course of this review, for instance, a segment near the end of the game proved impossible to pass until the game was rebooted, after which point everything clicked and the same attempted maneuvers worked perfectly. The game’s checkpoint system is generous enough to make this an inconvenience more than a deal-breaker, and there’s no telling how likely it is you’ll even encounter this problem. But if you suddenly find certain techniques failing you no matter what you do, your best recourse may be the reset button.


10 Pin Shuffle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (Universal App)
From: Digital Smoke
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $4 (free demo version available)

The complexity of mobile games has skyrocketed since the iPhone development floodgates opened a couple years ago, but sometimes the best games remain the simple ones that just use the touchscreen perfectly right. “10 Pin Shuffle” aims to replicate the shufflepuck bowling game found in arcades and bars everywhere, and while the default control setting is excessively sensitive, the Easy Controls setting perfectly nails the sensation of sliding the puck at those pins. That alone makes this one of those games that even technophobic non-gamers don’t need instructions to play. “Shuffle’s” feature set nicely complements its intuitiveness: The 3D graphics look great, the little touches in the sound and presentation departments are a treat, and the game’s stat-tracking is impressive in its details. Best of all, there’s a bounty of modes, including traditional bowling, a really clever poker mode that combines bowling with video poker, and a version of straight-up, pins-free shufflepuck with customizable win conditions. In-progress games are autosaved if interrupted, and almost all modes support solo play, single-player with an A.I. opponent and pass-the-device or Bluetooth multiplayer. (The poker mode can’t support pass-the-device multiplayer due to its design, but it does support Bluetooth play.)

DVD 5/25/10: Mystery Team, Owl and the Sparrow, Royal Pains S1, Hoarders S1, Tell-Tale, All My Friends are Funeral Singers

Mystery Team (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
Like a lot of kids with active imaginations, Jason (Donald Glover), Duncan (D.C. Pierson) and Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) like to run around their neighborhood and solve not-quite crimes as the Mystery Team. And the whole exercise — disguises, tech from a 1985 Toys ‘R’ Us catalog, an “office” that looks suspiciously like a lemonade stand — would be awfully cute if they weren’t 18-year-olds on the cusp of going to college. But they are, and when a real crime lands in their lap, they’re as predictably overmatched in solving a double murder as they are in every other facet of their young-but-not-that-young lives. Fortunately, the story of their plight doesn’t have nearly the same issue. “Mystery Team’s” immaculate sense of self-awareness makes its cute bits exponentially funnier than they would be in the hands of most comedies, and its amazing control over that tone makes it that much funnier when it decides, for whatever reason, to drop a blue humor bomb right in the middle of everything. But while “Team” achieves parody nirvana in its successful evisceration of the after-school-special-esque coming-of-age story, it allows just a small piece of itself to play it straight, making our awkward heroes considerably more fun to root for than if they simply were pawns in the joke. The resolution of the mystery isn’t really the point, but if “Team” wants to make it fun to see how it wraps up, who is anyone to argue?
Extras: Cast commentary, “Who is Wally Cummings?” comedy short, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, test footage, Sword Club Hall of Fame (makes sense after you see the movie).

Owl and the Sparrow (PG, 2007, Image Entertainment)
Moving to a bustling new city is a scary endeavor for anyone of any age to undergo alone, so it must take some serious determination for 10-year-old Thuy (Pham Thi Han) to run away to Saigon with no family, no plan and barely any money in her pocket. Can you relate? Two people — a woman tired of meaningless relationships and a man still reconciling the sting of a failed engagement (Cat Ly and Le The Lu, respectively) can, and when their paths each cross with Thuy’s, you probably can figure out what she has designs to do next. But the great thing about “Owl and the Sparrow,” beyond its skillful development of all three characters, is the way it takes a potentially lethally contrived storyline and, by way of such great character designs, nearly completely strips it of any such hollowness. As much as it is about what happens next (and Thuy’s fantastically blunt delivery makes those developments more unpredictable than they would be in the hands of your typical saccharine kid), “Sparrow” really is a story about what brought everyone here in the first place. Be it though its photography or its characters’ words, the movie’s observations about what a joy and what a pain it can be to need other people are thoughtful, dead honest and never prone to ham-handed preachiness. When everything comes together, what ultimately happens is far more captivating than “Sparrow’s” seemingly predictable setup would imply. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Royal Pains: Season One (NR, 2009, USA/Universal)
Whether intentionally or not, the USA Network has cornered the market for shows that borrow formats and formulas traditionally reserved for dramas and inject them with enough comedy to completely blur the genre lines. So if you’ve seen and enjoyed the likes of “Monk,” “Psych” and “Burn Notice,” your capacity to enjoy “Royal Pains” is practically predestined. In outline form, “Pains” shares a lot of common ground with any number of other medical dramas, introducing self-contained medical mysteries in each episode while also telling a bigger picture about its characters’ lives. But instead of a hospital, “Pains” takes place in the Hamptons. And while the personal lives of Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein) and his slacker brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo) provide a significant portion of the show’s comedic content, “Pains'” real trick is its ability to laugh at the expense of Hank’s excessively wealthy, often street-stupid clientele while simultaneously making just enough of them just human and likable enough for Hank’s work to matter. Like most of the shows with which it shares a network, “Pain” is neither viciously hysterical nor edge-of-seat suspenseful, but a perfectly entertaining hybrid of both extremes. It feels like formula in light of USA’s other offerings, but in the larger pool of me-too medical dramas, it’s a pleasant novelty that’s engaging enough to merit a long look.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, video blogs, one behind-the-scenes feature and bloopers.

Hoarders: Season One (NR, 2009, A&E)
If a messy house or even the prospect of too many icons cluttering your computer’s desktop makes you uncomfortable, consider this a warning: “Hoarders,” a reality television show that observes compulsive hoarders trying to clean their way out of abysmally cluttered and potentially unsafe living conditions, might be the scariest thing you’ve ever seen. The mountains of clutter these folks scale just to get from room to room — old newspapers, empty fishtanks, toiletries, boxes that long since have served any purpose — is one thing. But even someone comfortable with clutter might have trouble stomaching some of “Hoarders'” nastier episodes, which find people living in oceans of expired foods, bacteria, mold, bugs and worse. (Warning: Way worse.) The show provides a service insofar that the objective of each episode is to dispatch experts who can help turn these lives around and clean house before landlords and government employees have to get involved, but there’s no sense denying it: This is exploitative theatre that, for most of us, has zero educational value and zero value of any kind beyond that of witnessing a train derailment. There’s also no denying this: Like any good horror show that touches certain uncomfortable nerves, it’s as hard to look away from — if your conscience can handle it — as it is to look at in the first place.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus unaired footage.

Tell-Tale (R, 2009, Vivendi)
After receiving what appears to be a successful heart transplant, Terry Bernard (Josh Lucas) is all set to resume tending to his ill daughter (Beatrice Miller) and courting her doctor (Lena Headey) when an incident outside the hospital triggers a memory he’s sure isn’t his. The flashback leads to questions, those questions open a floodgate, and the subsequent visions have Terry wondering if his heart is trying to tell him that its journey into his body wasn’t exactly routine. If the title and premise call a certain Edgar Allan Poe poem to mind, it’s no accident. “Tell-Tale” represents itself as a re-imagination of the poem, but it really only borrows the gist, letting modern conventions and plenty of creative license take it the rest of the way. The result isn’t narratively impeccable: Some deep plot holes open up, and some characters do some things that seem, politely put, to be a stretch. But provided you can suspend some intermediate levels of disbelief, it’s a pretty creepy good time anyway. Those leaps in logic allow “Tell-Tale” to go kind of crazy with a classic premise (which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly ground in authenticity in the first place), and while what happens doesn’t always make total sense, it still entertains on its own unsettling level. The final turn, while not entirely unforeseeable, is pretty great as well. No extras.

All My Friends are Funeral Singers (NR, 2010, IndiePix)
It’s pretty uncommon for a movie to save itself in its first scene. But one could argue that’s what “All My Friends Are Funeral Singer
s” — which opens with a dryly, very funny exchange between a dead male ghost and the dead female ghost he’s trying to seduce — does. These and several other ghosts inhabit the home of Zel (Angela Bettis) — who makes a living as a psychic and medium and who counts the ghosts as the only real friends and family she has — and “Singers” isn’t really a movie about the ghosts so much as it is one about what a lonely girl must do when it’s time for everyone else to move on. Just don’t expect the film to lay that out for you. In between the occasional scene that matches the deadpan perfection of that first scene, there are stacks of scenes that often do their storytelling through musical interludes and body language instead of spoken words. “Singers” does a pretty good job of conveying its storytelling purposes through both means, but it would be a lie to say that the more opaque stuff, which also outnumbers the funny parts by a wide margin, won’t come off to many as a wastefully inaccessible intrusion of what might otherwise have been a very original and very funny comedy. If unapologetically artsy films rub you the wrong way, there’s a strong chance this will sand your sides right off.
Extras: Ghost interviews, three behind-the-scenes features, music video, live music performance.

Games 5/18/10: Alan Wake, Lost Planet 2, Smiles

Alan Wake
For: Xbox 360
From: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

Until now, “Alan Wake” was best known in gaming circles as a title in development since before the Xbox 360’s mere existence was public knowledge.

The effects of the lengthy development are apparent in the final product, which occasionally looks older than it is and forces players to contend with some unwieldy (and slightly incomplete) third-person shooter controls. But all those years also have been very kind to the titular character and his story, which are so carefully and cleverly constructed as to render any shortcomings almost completely moot.

It’s no great surprise that “Wake’s” storyline — which finds Alan, a famous mystery writer, racing through a secluded resort town to discover why the pages of his unfinished manuscript have come true and made his wife disappear — is a cut above. Remedy Entertainment produced some of the best storytelling of the early 2000s with its “Max Payne” games, and while the particulars have changed, the ingredients — narration from the playable character, generally stellar voice acting, a word-perfect script that touches darkly comedic, self-depreciating and noirish nerves in the right ways at the right times — have all returned.

Where Remedy outdoes itself is with its thorough understanding of the art of the cliffhanger.

“Wake” presents its story as a six-episode miniseries, complete with “Previously on…” recaps at the top of each episode. The approach greatly enhances the game’s personality, but it also provides a means to drop a terrific reveal at the bottom of each episode that makes it awfully hard not to immediately dive right into the next one. (Sidebar to alleviate potential confusion: “Wake’s” generous checkpoint system does not require players to play entire episodes in single sittings.)

What initially begins as a collection of winks at nods toward classic horror tropes gradually becomes its own creation, and by the time the third episode kicks into gear, “Wake” has enough great characters and distinctive twists to keep its ultimate destination a genuine mystery. (Whether the culmination of that mystery satisfies or aggravates will, of course, come down to individual taste.)

All that wonderful storytelling is enough to offset issues with “Wake’s” gameplay, which is fun but would be unremarkable and kind of repetitive without the story and setting taking it down new avenues.

Though “Wake” utilizes an over-the-shoulder perspective, Alan’s aim — be it with his flashlight or his firearm — isn’t exactly refined. That in itself is an arguable service to the game’s immersion, given that he’s an author and not a soldier. But it also allows the game’s possessed but combat-savvy enemies to flank rather easily, and the shaky aiming translates into some poor field awareness that can prove fatal. A slick dodge mechanic comes in handy when things get hairy, but “Wake” is begging for a melee button that would have made fighting out of a jam more flexible and fun.

Again, though, when all else fails, the checkpoint system is pretty benevolent. “Wake’s” higher difficulty settings pose a nice challenge to those hungry for one, but Remedy ultimately wants to show the ending to anyone who wants to see it. Balancing those two priorties and pleasing everybody is an unenviable task, but Remedy does a very enviable job of pulling it off.


Lost Planet 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Lost Planet 2” is the most aggravating kind of game there is, because when it isn’t busy being unreasonably toxic, it’s kind of awesome.

At its core, “LP2” is, like its predecessor, just a ton of dumb third-person shooter fun. The weaponry packs an exaggerated punch (both in recoil felt and damage dealt), the operable mechs allow for joyously destructive rampages, and the explosions and screen-sized bug enemies are as impressive here as they are anywhere. “LP2” primarily squares players off against human opposition this time around, but it still takes frequent occasion to bust out some show-stopping encounters against absolutely gigantic bugs.

The net visual and tactile effect of all this action remains incredible and distinctive fours years after we first experienced it, and while the run-and-gun controls feel slightly archaic in this era of cover-based shooters, they’re a perfect complement under these conditions.

Sounds great, right? It should be, and it would be if “LP2’s” overlying particulars didn’t have more left feet than an groggy millipede. But they do, and most of the fault lies with an startlingly unfriendly implementation of co-op play into what used to be a single-player-friendly game.

Like its predecessor, “LP2” tells a story — and, at some 15 hours long, a lengthy one at that. But instead of present it like any other single-player game with co-op functionality, Capcom dresses each chapter in a multiplayer lobby interface. Players load out as a foursome, and those who wish to play alone are gifted three A.I.-controlled players with immersion-shattering fake screennames floating above their heads. The interface is similarly kludgy, offering no way for players to drop into games already in progress and never bothering to explain the confusing setup to players who played the first game alone and expected a similar road through the sequel.

But the real trouble awaits in the gameplay, which operates by multiplayer rules even for those who play alone. That means no checkpoints or save spots during the span of levels that often take an hour to finish. “LP2’s” complicated health math means players can respawn upon dying a limited number of times, but should that math run out, any progress in the level is lost. Players can’t even pause the game — something other co-op games allow even with friends aboard.

These inconveniences turn into deal-breakers once it becomes clear “LP2” has no issue with dishing out some staggeringly cheap action even on its easiest difficulty. One-hit kills, psychic enemy A.I. and unavoidable boss attacks abound, and because Capcom put zero effort into making solo players’ A.I. teammates anything beyond borderline catatonic, what feels cheap with friends assisting is a nightmare alone. Challenge is a wonderful thing, but “LP2” goes about creating it in entirely unfriendly and joyless ways.

The news is better for the subset of players who enjoyed “LP1” for its competitive online multiplayer (16 players). “LP2” borrows some of the single-player game’s health math but otherwise resists the temptation to fix time-tested modes that aren’t broken, and the dreadful A.I. is nowhere to be found. For players who want to experience all the game does right without dealing with all it does wrong, this is the way to do it.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad (separate version for iPad)
From: Sykhronics Entertainment
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $2 (sale pricing; subject to change soon)

Given the number of perfectly good “Bejeweled” clones lurking in the iTunes Store, it’s impressive to find one, like “Smiles,” that goes its own way by changing just one rule. As with its ilk, the object of “Smiles” is to match rows of three or more identical blocks. The difference is that instead of switching two blocks around within the grid,
players must swap in a block from outside the grid to match three and then use the block they just swapped out as the next block to swap in. There’s a loss of strategy in always having to use a particular block, but “Smiles” counters that by encouraging players to think quickly and keep the board constantly in motion while the score multiplier rockets upward. The fast pace of the main game mode is a surprisingly fun departure from “Bejeweled” proper, and a nice level of polish — both in the presentation and the responsiveness of the controls — makes it work. For a change of pace, “Smiles” includes additional variants, including an outstanding Zen mode that changes the game in the complete opposite way by once again hitting just one switch. The lack of online leaderboards is disappointing, particularly in light of how slick the score- and stat-tracking systems are, but an absolutely gargantuan mountain of unlockable achievements gives dedicated players plenty to shoot for regardless.

DVD 5/18/10: 44-Inch Chest, The Messenger, Invictus, Gamera: The Giant Monster, The Disappeared, The Spy Next Door

44-Inch Chest (R, 2009, Image)
Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) may not have the most loving wife (Joanne Whalley as Liz) in the world, but he would be hard-pressed to find better friends than the band of small-time gangsters (Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane) whose company he keeps. When he shares the news of Liz’s unfaithfulness with them, they stalk and kidnap the homewrecker and offer Colin a choice: He can kill the guy who in his mind killed him, or he can spare him so Liz doesn’t hate him forever and maybe, just maybe, takes him back. What follows is a clinic on how to do something with almost nothing. “44-Inch Chest” takes place almost entirely in a single dingy room, and the vast majority of the film is talk rather than action. But from that talk comes an absolutely supreme dissection not only of a guy who barely can comprehend where his mind is at in light of being cheated on, but also one of friends who dance between compassion and machismo in an attempt to comfort their friend while trying to slap some manhood back into him. The cast plays the parts to perfection, and the mood darts between dark drama and dark comedy without showing its seams. All the while, the mystery of Colin’s choice hangs above the proceedings, giving “Chest” a near-overload of sensory satisfaction despite almost never even changing locations. Tallied up, it puts like-minded movies with bigger budgets but bankrupt imaginations to complete shame.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Messenger (R, 2009, Oscilloscope)
No one would blame you for having experienced a bit of Iraq War movie fatigue by now, but that’s more a testament to the multitude of movies harboring the same themes than any sign of a complete fulfillment of storytelling niches the war offers. In that respect, “The Messenger” feels fresh not only because it takes place entirely in America, but also because it zeroes in on a sacred assignment — the act of soldiers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) informing families that their loved ones died in combat — we’ve seen dramatized ad nauseam but rarely utilized as anything more than dressing. Naturally, there’s more here than just a series of encounters with devastated families, and a large portion of “The Messenger” deals with the lives of our two soldiers — who fought, respectively, in the first and second Gulf Wars — and what effect their assignment has on some already messy personal lives. That’s all well and good, and Harrelson and Foster do stellar jobs of giving those messes a serious pulse. But “The Messenger’s” best trick is the way it continually returns the focus to the task at hand and shows, rather than simply uses the soldiers to discuss, the soul-crushingly rote exercise that wreaks personal havoc on the issuer of the news as well as the recipient. Repetition and spinning in circles rarely works in a film’s favor at all, but in this case, it’s the best of a great many good qualities. Samantha Morton also stars.
Extras: A documentary, “Notification,” about U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officers. Also: Director/producer/Harrelson/Foster commentary, cast/crew Q&A, shooting scrip, behind-the-scenes feature.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, Warner Bros.)
The true stories that comprise “Invictus” — Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) return to power, South Africa’s return to the international sports scene, the country’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its team’s unfathomable transformation from zeroes to cup contenders — pretty much are a Hollywood script without Hollywood having to lift a finger. And that’s kind of the problem we have here: Beyond dramatizing the story as only a big-budget Hollywood production can, “Invictus” really doesn’t do a thing. All the ingredients of a good polish are here: Freeman’s a dead ringer for Mandela, and his castmates (Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Matt Stern and Leleti Khumalo, among others) are generally terrific. Key points in the story’s history receive beautiful replication, and the rugby action provides a nice showcase for a sport that, at least in America, rarely gets one. But while most of “Invictus” shines with elegance, almost nothing benefits from of any kind of risk or unique narrative bent. The story flow is biopictography by the numbers, and while we don’t need to see these characters in unflattering light, the script rarely attempts to show them even as fallible beings who speak in anything other than pieces of grand speeches. That may not matter, and perhaps those who are completely uninitiated won’t mind the straightforward history lesson. But those who already know how “Invictus” ends and are hoping for a fresh perspective with some teeth won’t find much fulfillment here.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Gamera: The Giant Monster (NR, 1965, Shout Factory)
The great thing about a fan-minded DVD imprint like Shout Factory is that it doesn’t wait for the movie reboot, toy or video game tie-in to bring an old not-quite classic into the DVD age. Case in point: This 1965 Japanese monster movie, which is to the “Godzilla” films what GoBots were to Transformers. In true mid-20th century monster movie form, “Gamera: The Giant Monster” — which finds the giant monster wreaking havoc in the wake of a Cold War-fueled nuclear accident — isn’t a mark of pristine script detailing or high production budgets. It also lacks any qualms whatsoever about borrowing from the franchise that inspired its creation. But that’s the beautiful thing about cheesy black-and-white movies about gigantic monsters: No one watching really cares. “Gamera” is tremendous fun in its own stupid way, and if the mark of a great film is that it’s fun to watch, then this may as well be a classic after all.
Extras: “Gamera” retrospective, image gallery, liner notes and audio commentary from “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” author August Ragone.

The Disappeared (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
There are moody films, there are brooding films, there are downright dreary films, and then there are films that, like “The Disappeared,” can’t resist touching all three bases en route to a grand slam of bleakness. It’s not entirely unearned: When “Disappeared” begins, Matthew (Harry Treadaway) is heading home from a mental hospital weeks after a lazy attempt at babysitting resulted in his young brother’s apparent kidnapping and possible murder. Matthew hears his brother’s voice calling for his help at odd times, and when he isn’t seeing and communicating with what might be delusions by day, he’s embroiled in nightmares by night. Attempts to find his brother and reclaim his sanity are further clouded by cruel bullies, nosey locals, crumbling relations with his father (Greg Wise) and seemingly only friend (Tom Felton), and a girl (Ros Leeming) who may or may not a whole movie’s worth of trouble of her own. Were the mystery that dangles in front of “Disappeared’s” every minute not so unsettlingly enticing, the film’s oppressively dour mood would be a killer. For those whose buzz can take only so much killing in 97 minutes’ time, it still may be. But the mystery ultimately validates the mood. “Disappeared” teases just enough at just the right rate to prevent dreariness from eating it alive, and the payoff at the end, though a bit over the top, rewards viewers who stick with it.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The Spy Next Door (PG, 2010, Lions Gate)
There’s a reason stars are called stars. There’s also a reason Jackie Chan’s name gets top billing all to itself on “The Spy Next Door,” which stars Chan as a soon-to-be-retired undercover government spy who masquerades as a dorky pen salesmen and is fighting a losing battle to win favor of his could-be wife’s (Amber Valletta) disapproving children. “Spy” is a kids movie, but it’s one of thos
e kids movies even kids can predict inside out, and between the mostly tired humor, downright exhausted character stereotypes and a couple of kids (Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley) who talk like obnoxious adults for two-thirds of the journey, there’s a lot not to like here. The only saving grace, naturally, is Chan, who is charming even when the script leaves him with nothing. He also makes the most of his infrequent chances to put on a great stunt show. That effort isn’t enough to make “Spy” anywhere near great, especially early on when those kids are committing acts of verbal violence against our intelligence, but for parents and siblings who might be stuck watching along, it at least provides something. George Lopez and Alina Foley (as the only likable kid) also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

DVD 5/11/10: Tidal Wave, Pulling John, North Face, Tokyo Sonata, California Dreamin', Play the Game

Tidal Wave (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
You know what makes Asian disaster movies so, so, so much better than their flashier, budget-endowed American counterparts? The first hour or so of “Tidal Wave,” that’s what. As hinted by the title, “Wave” ultimately is about a tidal wave that inevitably wreaks havoc while head-in-sand politicians and other non-leaders fidget about and ignore the warning signs. But “Wave” precedes this eventual massacre with a full half-film’s worth of what might as well be a handful of completely different genres — a little character drama here, some full-blown comic insanity (made even better by a delightfully absurd English dub) there, and liberal mixing of the two moods in between. Occasionally, the storytelling provides a preclude to the disaster. Mostly, though, it’s a bunch of extremely high-energy stories about people doing stuff before some bad stuff crashes through and changes everybody’s plans. That makes “Wave” as fun to watch during its march toward the inevitable as it is when hell breaks loose, and because we have characters with personality and history instead of an assembly line of boring archetypes — take notes, Hollywood — the normally anticlimactic aftermath isn’t so anticlimactic after all. (The actual disaster itself, which leans on raw action movie ingenuity instead of just slathering computer animation indiscriminately, is pretty awesome too, by the way.) In Korean with English subtitles, but the aforementioned dub also is available.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Pulling John (NR, 2009, IdiePix)
It took a while, 22 years if we’re counting, but we finally have another great movie about the celebrated sport of arm wrestling. And if the terms “Over the Top” and “greatness” have no business coexisting in your world, this documentary might be the film that finally allows you to understand the fuss. The John in “Pulling John” is John Brzenk, who for 25 years has been to arm wrestling what Jordan and Gretzky are to basketball and hockey. Age naturally has begun taking its predictable toll, and during the course of the four years in which “John” was filmed, challengers from America and elsewhere have come primed to finally dethrone him. You say you never heard of Brzenk? Well join the club, but it doesn’t matter: “John” is as much a story about fighting mortality and coming to grips with losing that fight as it is about arm wrestling, and Brzenk’s predicament — facing the inevitability of failure despite a quarter-century of perfection — completely transcends his profession. “John” gives viewers access to the competition in similarly personal light, and when everyone meets in the same place and the whole thing comes to a head, the intrigue — over arm wrestling, yes, but that’s how good a job this one does at building it up — is miles better than anything Sly Stallone could have ever imagined.
Extras: Brzenk/director commentary, nearly an hour of additional footage, eight-page liner notes that doubles as a miniature comic book.

North Face (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
Imagine a thriller set on the side of a mountain few could live to ascend and descend, and mental images surface of intense isolation and showdowns between man and unpredictable elements. But “North Face,” which dramatizes the highly politicized 1937 race between multiple teams of climbers to ascend the Eiger in Switzerland’s Bernice Alps, succeeds by going in a whole different direction. The elements are naturally in place, but most of the isolation is eschewed not only in favor of multiple teams of climbers getting in each other’s way, but also a horde of journalists and other onlookers who treat the challenge like they might any other sporting event. The swapping of settings — between fancy dining rooms, spartan ground-level encampments and, eventually, the grueling Eiger mountainside, provides “Face” ample opportunity to flash the full might of its characters’ (climbers and otherwise) personalities. Consequently, when things get dangerous and adversaries have to become allies, the fate of everyone involved — and not just the two climbers (Florian Lukas and Benno Fürmann) positioned as our main characters — actually matters for something. “Face” deftly captures both the thrill and absurd danger that everyone merely hypothesizes about in the early going, and because it’s based on a true story, a neat and tidy ending is by no means promised. Johanna Wokalek and Ulrich Tukur, among others, also star. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Tokyo Sonata (PG-13, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
For all we can guess, the life of businessman and family man Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) has been an enchanted one. But within roughly a minute of “Tokyo Sonata’s” existence, a round of layoffs at Ryûhei’s company strips the businessman part away, and his attempts to find work while shakily hiding his lack of employment from his wife (Megumi Sasaki) and two sons (Takashi Sasaki, Inowaki Kai) means his head of house status is teetering as well. “Sonata” focuses equally on all four characters, and some strange story turns take it down some really odd — and sometimes seemingly random and other times excessively melancholy — avenues. But if Ryûhei’s backbone status is on the brink, his story — and the awesome look it provides at the Japanese unemployment scene (and yes, it really qualifies as a scene) — makes “Sonata” worth sticking with when some weird twists might otherwise undermine it. Kagawa never plays for laughs, and the toll Ryûhei’s tumble takes doesn’t always leave him in a likable light. But there’s a slightly humorous and unmistakably relatable sympathy surrounding his plight, and that glue keeps the film together long enough to make “Sonata’s” final sendoff a satisfying one. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Extras: Cast/director Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature, premiere footage.

California Dreamin’ (NR, 2007, IFC Films)
It feels unfair to criticize a movie that, due to director Cristian Nemescu’s untimely passing after filming had wrapped but ostensibly before production had finished, may not actually be the final draft he had in mind. But this is the version of “California Dreamin'” that we have — a disclaimer describes the cut as “the way it looked at the time” — and so this is the version we must judge. “Dreamin’s” based-on-true-incidents story — a trainload of American soldiers and some valuable military cargo is en route to Kosovo in 1999, only to get mired in red tape by a small Romanian village determined to cash in on the once-in-a-lifetime encounter — sets it up for umpteen sharply funny observations about war, greed, culture clashes and disparate views of hospitality. During its best moments, the film makes good on that potential. Mostly, though, “Dreamin” finds itself neck-deep in details — occasionally about the soldiers, but mostly about the locals — and often, these scenes are good for developing characters and side stories at a painstaking pace while the main story, like the train, sits idle. The attention to detail is skillful, and the cast flourishes in such a way that some might prefer this outcome over a fulfillment of those comedic implications. It’s hard not to wonder how many of those 154 minutes would miss the final cut had Nemescu been able to see “Dreamin'” to completion, but it’s infinitely preferable to have too much of his final effort than nothing at all. In English and (mostly) Romanian with English subtitles. No extras.

Play the Game (PG-13, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
The trajectory of a cute romantic comedy is like that of a bullet train rounding a corner: A little too much gas, and we’re off the track with no hope of getting back on. “Playing the Game,” which
follows the separate-but-connected romantic misadventures of car salesman David Mitchell (Paul Campbell) and his grandfather (Andy Griffith as Joe), would seem to be begging for derailment — if not with its sometimes childish summarizations of dating logic, then certainly with grandpa’s wacky return to the singles scene after decades of marriage and a few years of grieving. Occasionally, “Game” scrapes the edge of reason, and there really isn’t a point where it just nails its subject matter or changes the genre in any meaningful way. The twist at the end, while clever, also takes that oversimplification of dating psychology entirely beyond the cusp of believability. But even with all that said, “Game” never completely succumbs to its shortcomings, and Griffith in particular avoids some early cutesy turbulence en route to a funny and thoughtful (if never necessarily fresh) look at retirement home dating. It isn’t enough to make “Game” the best or even 15th best romantic comedy you can see this year, but it’s more than enough to push it past the pack of also-rans that initially look like its peers. Doris Roberts and Marla Sokoloff also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

Games 5/11/10: Skate 3, Iron Man 2, Tecmo Bowl Throwback

Skate 3
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, mild violence, suggestive themes)

“Skate 3” arrives a mere 16 months after its monstrous predecessor, and there’s no sane point in pretending that doesn’t factor. Everything that was great about the first two games — the awesome control and open-world freedom the first game introduced, the bonanza of features the sequel brought along — is here, and some nice new features and a brand-new city make this one a no-brainer for fans of the series, but the roster of changes isn’t as dramatic this time as it was last time.

That isn’t to say what’s new isn’t welcome, though — particularly if, as “Skate 3” clearly encourages, you plan on enjoying the experience with friends.

Black Box has done a surprisingly thoughtful job of injecting the right amount of storytelling continuity into the “Skate” games, with callbacks and inside jokes for seasoned players that new players starting fresh need not even recognize. This time, the story shifts to team play, both in terms of winning team competitions and developing a profitable new skate brand.

“Skate” has never shied away from making online play a big part of its appeal, and “Skate 3” takes it further by essentially allowing players to engage the entire game online. Antisocial types can enroll computer-controlled teammates during the story mode’s team challenges, but calling on up to five friends to assist and/or antagonize — players can slip between cooperative and competitive play dynamically — is so much more fun with the right crowd. Along with the new city to explore, the dynamic multiplayer also presents the biggest fundamental shift to the story mode, which otherwise leans upon familiar challenges and the same general structure (the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” rule) to move things along.

The socialization extends to “Skate 3’s” creation tools, which function like they did previously but now present themselves within a social networking interface that makes it easier for friends to find each other’s clips, graphics and photos. The bigger addition here is the skate park creator, which functions just as any fan of the old “Tony Hawk” series’ park editors might wish it to. “Skate 3” also increases players’ ability to modify their environment as they wish by allowing them, a la “Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground,” to place common skate park objects in any part of the city at any time with few button clicks.

Elsewhere, it’s a series of little things that some will appreciate and others won’t even notice. A new Skate School feature (starring a very funny Jason Lee, who upholds the series’ terrific voice and character acting standards) helps initiate new players, who might also appreciate an optional new camera angle that’s straight out of classic “Hawk” games. Players who wish to perfect their technique on their own time can employ the optional trick analyzer, which charts joystick movements and breaks down why attempted tricks don’t go as planned. The Hall of Meat, which scores players based on their ability to maim themselves, is a little more flexible and, for those who prefer, able to score all bails automatically without being activated first. The off-board controls are no longer absurdly stiff, and while the trick bag is pretty full by now, a few new ones, including advanced underflips and darkslides, make welcome debuts.


Iron Man 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

If you’re bound and determined to enjoy “Iron Man 2” in video game form, here’s a tip even the most skilled of you may wish to follow: Play the game on its easiest difficulty setting.

That isn’t a testament to the steely challenge “IM2” poses to players so much as — as was the case in the first “Iron Man” game — its aggravating propensity to let some truly sloppy execution get in the way of what otherwise could be an ideal action gaming playground.

Like its predecessor, “IM2” kinda sorta keeps in step with the movie throughout a series a linear missions in which Iron Man (or War Machine; outside of one mission, “IM2” lets players select whichever character and corresponding weapons loadout they prefer) performs some occasional bodyguard duty but mostly just shoots and blows stuff up.

When it’s done well, the results are perfectly, mindlessly fun. Both characters can dash, hover, fly, engage in airborne hand-to-hand combat and fire short-burst and explosive weapons, and “IM2’s” flexible controls allow players to mix and match those abilities as they see fit.

But any time the action enters a tight space or finds our heroes surrounded by a barrage of enemies — which, by the way, is often — things just fall apart.

Nine times out of 10, it’s the fault of a spastic camera and auto-targeting system, which finds the former spinning around wildly while umpteen targets fire liberally from all angles and play tricks on the latter. On the easiest difficulty setting, it isn’t terribly difficult to just dash away and rebuild the deck, but those who engage the higher difficulty settings should expect to die repeatedly and cheaply at the hands of these technical failings.

The headaches come to a head during a final boss fight against an absolutely gargantuan Ultimo. The scope of the showdown is visually fantastic, but it’s entirely beyond the camera’s capabilities, and the hysterical fit that ensues will leave some players dizzy and others just scrambling for the off switch. What should have been “IM2’s” shining moment instead becomes its lowest low.

The co-op applications for “IM2” are pretty obvious given its two-protagonist cast, but in another sign that the game was probably rushed to stores in concert with the movie’s release, the relatively short single-player story is all there is. An interface for upgrading and unlocking customizable weapons and suits is nice (if a bit user-unfriendly), but once the end credits roll, there’s nothing to do beyond replaying old missions.

Hopefully, some developer will one day get a chance to do with Iron Man what Activision is doing this year with Spider-Man: create a proper game that isn’t tied to the creative direction and release date of a film. The ingredients for gaming greatness are there, and a proper development cycle and all it entails (polish, a stable camera, a storyline written specifically for the game and some value on the features side) would probably produce something pretty special.

Beyond “IM2’s” startling inability to improve on the well-publicized failings of the troubled first game, no such significance exists here.


Tecmo Bowl Throwback
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Southend Interactive/Tecmo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

How faithful is “Tecmo Bowl Throwback” to 1991’s “Tecmo Super Bowl?” One button press holds the answer. “Throwback’s” biggest shortcoming — the missing NFL license — is a big one, and while it makes concessions by allowing players to rename the fictional team and player names, the loss still stings. Had Southend Interactive gone a little farther and allowed players not only to customize team colors but also create entire online leagues with friends and their customized teams, “Throwback” might have the legs to be a full-blown
sleeper sensation. As unsensational callbacks go, though, this one’s still got it. The modernized audiovisual presentation is a surprisingly good fit, but it changes nothing about the series’ celebrated two-button gameplay and dead-simple playbook. “Throwback” is so faithful, in fact, that players can switch between the new look and the old 16-bit graphics and sound instantaneously — even mid-play — with one button press. The gameplay has aged just fine despite all that’s happened to football games since its heyday, and those discouraged by the increased complexity of EA’s football simulations might find such pleasurable simplicity to be the chief selling point here. While “Throwback” doesn’t go as far as it should in terms of features, it also isn’t threadbare: Along with local and online multiplayer (two players), there’s a very simple (no general manager tools) but sufficient (if some continuity and stat tracking is enough) season mode for solo players.

Games 5/4/10: Dead to Rights: Retribution, Monster Hunter Tri, Blokzilla

Dead to Rights: Retribution
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Volatile Games/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes, use of drugs)

Six years ago, games like “Dead to Rights: Retribution” — third-person action games determined to do everything under the action game sun — were everywhere. Since then, most developers learned to specialize and substitute polish for versatility.

Volatile Games didn’t get that memo, and “Retribution” mostly carries on as if time never passed, competently doing a number of things (third-person brawling, shooting and stealth action) without knocking any one of them out of the park the way games today typically attempt to do. And here’s the funny thing: Because games like this don’t come along very often anymore, and because “Retribution” is nowhere near as bad as the few games that do typically are, it emerges as a much more enjoyable experience now than it might have been when this style was still in vogue.

Part of that is due to “Retribution” not completely ignoring the present. The shooter component, for instance, incorporates the over-the-shoulder perspective and environmental cover as well as the old-fashioned ability to run around and fire from the hip. The system isn’t perfect — certain objects that should provide cover simply don’t, and the welcome ability to freely switch between brawling and weapons combat also gives way to some awkward controller gymnastics and occasional camera disorientation — but it does work.

That goes as well for the brawling itself, which isn’t always pretty but is pretty enough. “Retribution” doesn’t pull any fancy tricks to make this anything but an old-school 2D brawler in three dimensions, but the control scheme is perfectly responsive and the block/counter/grapple system gives it the extra ounce of depth it needs to avoid being a completely mindless button masher.

Namco has positioned “Retribution” as a narrative reboot for embattled supercop Jack Slate, but regardless of whether such a thing was necessary — the story is fun in a dumb way but hardly special — the important point is that Jack’s canine sidekick remains at his side.

Shadow the attack dog, in fact, provides “Retribution” with its shining moments during some ridiculously improbable but wholly enjoyable stealth challenges in which Shadow must pick apart a room and clear a way for Jack.

A suspension of disbelief clearly is in order for a game that presents a dog with the intelligence and skillset of a special forces soldier, and “Retribution” flashes some additional technological obsolesce with regard to enemy awareness and overall artificial intelligence. But just as the cracks in the brawling and shooting segments’ polish aren’t deep enough to ruin a good time, the stealth segments are versatile enough to shake off their issues and stake a claim as the arguable highlight. Hunting thugs in the dark as a sweet-faced dog is great fun, and “Retribution’s” level designs, though never extraordinary, set the table nicely for some terrific stealth takedowns.

At the very least, when the camera and control schemes fail and Jack’s best-laid plans go to waste, “Retribution” displays a contemporary understanding of how never to let frustration linger for long. It’s forgiving in the field without being a cakewalk — when all else fails, dashing for cover and hiding out should heal wounds quickly — and the generous checkpoint allotment means that even when things go completely south, players don’t have to travel far to recover any lost ground.


Monster Hunter Tri
For: Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood, Use of Alcohol, Violence)

Capcom has tried and failed to persuade America to love “Monster Hunter” the way Japan does, but “Monster Hunter Tri” — imperfect and saturated with old trappings though it still is — might be where that persistence finally pays off.

Should “Tri’s” breakthrough happen, credit likely will go to the surprising support for four-player online co-op and downright shocking support for voice chat via Nintendo’s neglected Wii Speak peripheral.

Glorious absence of friend codes aside, rounding up a party still isn’t as elegant on the Wii as it likely would be on the other consoles. Additionally, the Wii Speak integration — assuming everyone even has the device — doesn’t always produce clear communication. If it’s logistically possible, a nearby PC and Skype account will better suffice.

Beyond these antiquities, though, the actual act of playing “Tri” online is very rewarding — due as much to the kind of game “Tri” is as its capacity for sharing the experience.

Though framed within a storyline, “Tri” structures itself like an MMO more than an adventure game. Players (solo or otherwise) accept quests centered around hunting different monsters for food and sport, and the overwhelming focus of the game centers around the act of conquering different monsters different ways than whatever rewards the story has in store for successfully doing so.

“Tri’s” environments give life to an impressive array of land and sea creatures whose mannerisms and capacities to fight back vary considerably, and after some early handholding, the game provides numerous weapons, items and tactics toward dispatching monsters any number of ways. The gist doesn’t deviate much from beginning to end, but it doesn’t need to: “Tri” zeroes in on the art of the hunt to a degree no other game does, and taming the game’s most impressive beasts is a rewarding endeavor alone and exponentially so when a plan of attack among friends succeeds.

If the concept sounds appealing, “Tri’s” unique bent should overcome some unwelcome callbacks (can’t save anywhere, overlong attack animations, large areas regularly interrupted by load screens) to outdated design. The camera controls are awkward, even when using the dual-sticked Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro, and the control scheme takes additional adjustment when using the button-deficient Wii Remote and Nunchuck. The storyline also comes almost entirely free of voice acting, but that’s less of an issue when it becomes apparent how little a role the narration plays in the game’s enjoyment.

The good news is that all these issues are annoying more than damaging, and most of them are likely to cease mattering long before those who get into “Tri” are done picking it clean. More than 100 hours of gameplay is an easy feasibility for those who embrace all that lies within and challenge themselves to conquer every last creature, and the ability to lose oneself in a world this enormous more than makes up for the shortcomings with which it coexists.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Tomato Interactive
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 (introductory price)

The concept of a Memory tribute providing thrilling, frantic action might sound ridiculous, but “Blokzilla” makes it happen by infusing the timeless card game with a bunch of timeless arcade game tricks. The concept is no more complex than matching two identical squares and clearing them from the screen, and “Blokzilla” would presume to be a cakewalk by leaving each square face up instead of face down. But rather than fight the failings of one’s own memory to succeed, players must sort through some deviously slight differences between squares that at first glance appear identical. Pick a bad pair, and the score multipl
ier resets. But carefully poring over each shape’s intricacies is equally damaging: “Blokzilla’s” score attack modes give players one, two or five minutes to clear as many squares and score as many points as they can, and the score multiplier melts away through inactivity as well as bad activity. The ticking clock, impatient multiplier and a delightfully loud visual and aural presentation combine to make the whole experience a startlingly intense good time. The only bad news about “Blokzilla” is the lack of online leaderboards, which are essential in a game so classically driven by high scores. But Tomato Interactive has indicated a willingness to add the feature in short order to a future update, so that may not be bad news for long.

DVD 5/4/10: Penn Teller: Bull***! S7, Tooth Fairy, Paper Covers Rock, Tetro, Leap Year

Penn Teller: Bull****! The Seventh Season (NR, 2009, Showtime)
You would think it would get old. Penn Jillette can drop an atomic F-bomb only so many ways, Teller’s options as an even-tempered mute are even more limited, and “Penn Teller: Bull****!” would appear to be constricted by sticking to the same formula — pick subject, build subject up, viciously (but intelligently, with facts, data and reasoning as well as violent barrages of words unfit to print) tear subject down — for seven seasons. But 700 seasons wouldn’t be enough time to cover the amount of bullbleep the world has on offer, and the disparately unique ways Penn and Teller tell their subjects to wear it simply do not get old. An episode of “Penn Teller: Bull****!” is a battle of attrition between hysterically funny and brilliantly illuminating, and there’s no point in determining which side wins when both are performing at levels as high as these. Season seven takes on video games, organic food, stress, taxes, the apocalypse, lie detectors, orgasms, astrology and … lawns.
Contents: Nine episodes, no extras. In a curious move acknowledged but not explained on the box, the episode about the Vatican has been left off the DVD.

Tooth Fairy (PG, 2010, Fox)
The sound you hear, just as you heard it when this one hit theaters, is that of millions of fans mourning the seeming passing of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s action hero career. But here’s the thing about “Tooth Fairy,” which stars Johnson as a soon-to-be-washed out hockey star forced to work tooth fairy duty after angering the tooth fairy gods (really): It’s as much a showcase for his real draw — force-of-nature-level charisma — as anything in the action realm. “Fairy” most definitely is a movie for kids first and parents second, and it’s chock full of predictable non-twists, bits that don’t shoot for the moon and jokes that cut as sharply as a wooden butter knife. But even the movie’s most vanilla bits tend to aim higher than the entirety of entirely too many kids movies, and between those moments, “Fairy” flashes some comic brilliance with surprising semi-regularity. Johnson’s talent is uniquely potent enough to work here as well as anywhere — he plays down without dumbing it down — and with an equally surprising and comparably unrestrained supporting cast (Stephen Merchant and Julie Andrews throughout the film, Billy Crystal and Seth MacFarlane pulling first-rate cameo duty), he isn’t working alone.
Extras: Tooth fairy training center feature, “Fairy-oke” singalong.

Paper Covers Rock (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
“Paper Covers Rock” is, like a lot of independent slice-of-life movies, dense with minutes in which completely unremarkable things happen and characters aren’t necessarily doing anything that has a direct effect on the central storyline. But when those minutes make you want to shake some sense into the main character (Jeannine Kaspar as Sam) one minute and telepathically tell her it’s going to be all right the next, they clearly aren’t being spent in vain. Our introduction to Sam takes place with her halfway through a suicide attempt while her kindergarten-aged (Juliet Stills) daughter prepares herself for school, and the vast majority of “Rock” consists of the rambling aftermath of Sam’s hospitalization and her subsequent attempts to piece her life back together. Much of what follows is mundane, and the story occasionally goes in circles. But the meandering and spinning makes sense in the context of Sam’s own missing bearings, and even when nothing really is happening, “Rock” makes sure to leave each scene with just a little more insight into where everything is going. The picture it ultimately paints feels authentic rather than like some trite march toward some hackneyed emotional crescendo, and the ironic result of that unassuming construction is a final trio of scenes that resonates in exactly the right way to just the right degree. Sayra Player also stars.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Tetro (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
It takes a special kind of person with a special level of creative control to make a movie like “Tetro,” Francis Ford Coppola’s coming-of-age story about 17-year-old Bennie’s (Alden Ehrenreich) attempts to reconnect with his estranged older brother (Vincent Gallo as Tetro) and understand what happened to leave his family in pieces. Consequently, it takes a special kind of tolerance to enjoy Coppola’s work on the level it’s designed to be enjoyed. Laid out in bullet point form, “Tetro” delivers on multiple fronts: The sense of setting is terrific, Gallo’s turn makes Tetro as potentially engrossing to us as he is to Bennie, and a loving attention to detail provides warmth and character to a storyline we’ve all seen before on paper. But “Tetro” is a nothing short of a complete validation to all who detest the things that constitute an outsider’s stereotypical picture of arthouse cinema. The monochromatic, high-contrast cinematography and shameless use of a soundtrack that might make film noir connoisseurs roll their eyes is one thing. But with each turn “Tetro” takes, pieces of its initially promising sense of humor fall off. By film’s end, the air is so thick with self-seriousness overreactions to relatively harmless plot developments that this may as well be parody were it not so self-unawarene. “Tetro” never fully loses sight of what made it worth sticking with once some investment is made, but even those who suspend their sense of irony and give this the long leash it needs might find it hard not to chuckle at how completely up its own self-serious derriere the final act is.
Extras: Coppola/Ehrenreich commentary, six behind-the-scenes features.

Leap Year (PG, 2010, Universal)
Only those who have never seen a movie before could find a way to be fooled by “Leap Year,” which attempts to deviate from the basic romantic comedy template about as often as someone born on February 29 celebrates a proper birthday. In the occasional right light, there’s something very slightly pleasant about how completely unadventurous the whole thing is. Amy Adams is sweetly likable (in typical Amy Adams fashion) as Anna, who attempts a surprise trip to Dublin to propose to Jeremy (Adam Scott) — a prototypical male movie lead too occupied with business trips and workaholism to propose first — only to get sidetracked and lost in the quaint middle of nowhere. The natives are a dependable mix of wholesome and politely condescending in their role as hosts to the clueless (but sweet!) American, and Declan (Matthew Goode) fills the niche as the brooding (but handsome!) local whose role in this whole triangle is carved in wood the very second he enters the picture. And there’s the problem with “Year:” Every last moment is telegraphed — not just by the movie itself, but by decades of movies that already beat to death the plot turns down which this one strolls. The charm of predictability works only so often and not for very long, and nothing about “Year” is special nor lovable enough to overcome how completely ordinary everything feels once that charm runs out.
Extra: Deleted scenes.