DVD 7/27/10: Mother, The Job, The Art of the Steal, Ip Man CE, Operation: Endgame, Repo Men, Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show S1, 21 Jump Street/Hunter CS, Kansas City Royals: 1985 World Series CE, Sabrina the Teenage Witch FS

Mother (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Slow-witted and trustful-to-a-fault Do-joon (Won Bin) stands constantly on the precipice of danger and trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd, and there’s only so much even our overbearing titular character (Kim Hye-ja as Mother) can do about that. When Do-joon crosses that threshold and finally finds himself in some seriously hot water, Mother finally is powerless to protect him. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean she won’t scorch the earth and have a go at it anyway. Superficially, “Mother” is (without spoiling the extent of Do-joon’s trouble the way the DVD case and trailers do) a fairly familiar story about an overmatched person trying to bail a loved one out while those with the power to actually do so completely fumble the opportunity. Between the lines, though, “Mother” is an awesome story about a sweet little lady who isn’t as sweet as she seems and has no qualms about getting her hands dirty and playing ball with forces she very obviously isn’t equipped to understand. As it did with the incredible monster movie “The Host,” Bong Joon-Ho’s direction enlivens a pretty standard story framework with surprising levels of dark comedy and sneaky character colorization as well as the expected drama. When those elements work in tandem, and when the twists that pop up are as skillfully produced as these are, it’s as good as the genre gets. In Korean with English subtitles.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

The Job (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
Bubba (Patrick Flueger) has struggled mightily to stay employed, so when a friendly stranger (Ron Perlman as Jim) offers him a job lead, he doesn’t hesitate to take an interview. Nor does he hesitate to take the job despite his interviewer (Joe Pantoliano) not even disclosing what it entails. Naturally, the job isn’t a pleasant one, and unfortunately for Bubba, his new employer isn’t sympathetic to his change of heart. You probably can guess what the job in “The Job” entails, and you’re welcome to do so, because the answer behind that door rates pretty low on the surprise chart. Instead, “The Job” saves its best surprises for the details behind those details, including what happens when (surprise!) things don’t go as smoothly in practice as they do on paper. “The Job” boasts one good character (Taryn Manning as Bubba’s girlfriend), one great character and two absolutely fantastic characters who perfectly toe the line between horrendous overacting and B-movie brilliance, and those personalities help transform a really pedestrian plotline into a startlingly entertaining story. There are plot holes, the allegory at the end will alienate some, and those who don’t love Perlman’s and Pantoliano’s performances might hate them instead. But whether it’s a mess or a machine, “The Job” is tirelessly engaging from bell to bell, and even when you can see a twist coming from three scenes away — which, it could be argued, is no accident — there’s always an accompanying wrinkle to keep you guessing.
Extras: Alternate ending, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Art of the Steal (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
To those casually glancing, the events detailed in “The Art of the Steal” might resemble nothing more than a tacky spat between two parties who have a ton and can’t bear to spare an ounce. Some who actually watch “Steal” might come away with that perception confirmed. But to dismiss the fight over Albert Barnes’ $25 billion art collection as petty is to miss the point of why Barnes fought so fiercely to keep prying hands away. Barnes strove to preserve the collection as a teaching tool for those he felt would appreciate it, and the city of Philadelphia wanted to present the collection to the public and monetize the process of doing so. “Steal” provides a terrific blow-by-blow of the half-century fight that ensued after Barnes died in 1951, and it’s a fascinating look at two bodies of people who fight so stubbornly that the principle that sparked the fight becomes clouded to the point of unrecognizable by the time a victor emerges. Is it a heroic defense of a man’s wishes, a valid argument on behalf of the public, something in between, or a silly waste of time and perspective that mere compromise could have preserved? “Steal” appears to take a side, but not so much that it doesn’t leave viewers free to settle the argument amongst each other once the credits roll. No extras.

Ip Man: Collector’s Edition (R, 2008, Well Go USA Entertainment)
“Ip Man” is a biopic about martial arts master and Wing Chun teacher Ip Man (Donnie Yen), who might be most internationally famous for having mentored Bruce Lee. But that’s a story for another movie — the 2010 sequel, to be more precise. “Ip Man” instead focuses on Ip’s hardships during the Sino-Japanese War, which devastated his village, reduced him to peasant status and found his house repurposed as a headquarters for the occupying Japanese army. What happens next is, let’s put it kindly, a bit simplistic and more than a little factually suspect. Some of our hero’s less angelic attributes go unmentioned, and the angle the story takes would practically have you believe the tide of the war turned on Ip’s ability to instill courage throughout the village and take down a Japanese colonel while the world watched. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, get ready to howl. If not, though, go get the popcorn. Broken objectivity compass or not, “Ip Man” is a stellar martial arts movie, able to present dilapidated wartime environments as picturesque vistas while transforming fundamental, gimmick-free martial arts battles into absolute showpieces. The movie isn’t stingy with fights, either, so while the storytelling is engaging in spite of its sketchiness, those who can’t stand it or don’t care can rest assured that at any point in “Ip Man,” a fight scene of the very highest order never site more than a scene or two away.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, shooting diary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Operation: Endgame (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Ever wonder if some movies aren’t commercial enterprises so much as elaborate excuses for actors to get together, go completely crazy and tape the whole thing for the heck of it? If not, “Operation: Endgame” might change that. Taking place entirely on the morning of President Obama’s inauguration, “Endgame” finds two ultra-top-secret teams of elite government assassins turning on one another after a mole slips in and kills the man (Jeffrey Tambor) charged with running both groups. Why that happened, why it sent the underground facility into self-destruct mode, and why every operative’s solution is to kill everyone else is all sort of explained, but only so much. Instead, “Endgame’s” primary concern is giving its cast (Rob Corddry, Zach Galifianakis, Ellen Barkin and Bob Odenkirk, among numerous others) carte blanche to eviscerate one another by whatever means and with whatever nearby objects necessary. The gore is horror film-worthy, but “Endgame” is so completely off its rocker that there’s no earthly way to reconcile it as anything but a freewheeling comedic excuse for everyone to act like hypercaffeinated 12-year-old serial killers. The story’s inane, the attempts to interweave current events a joke, the stabs at verbal wit never better than hit-or-miss. But ball it all together and cram in violence you generally never see in this space, and it’s an oddly compelling, improbably entertaining mess.
Extras: Alternate opening and ending, behind-the-scenes feature.

Repo Men (R/NR, 2010, Universal)
The practice of organ donation has become untenable in the dystopian (what else?) future, but private companies like The Union have stepped in to offer synthetic organs to anyone willing to take out the biological equivalent of a mortgage on a house. Much as in that scenario, those who default on
their payments have to surrender those organs — even if it kills them — to repo men like Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker). If this idea sounds oddly familiar, it’s because “Repo! The Genetic Opera” floated roughly the same idea a couple years ago. But while “Repo!” embraced its absurdity — and, some might argue, awfulness — by dressing the story in a 10-car pileup of cartoon characters and glam rock show tunes, “Repo Men” plays like so many other action movies about the very obviously lousy future that awaits our society. A legitimately creepy presentation of the awful world of privatized organ manufacturing gives the story legs, but once the inevitable hunter-becomes-the-hunted twist kicks in — and is followed close behind by the obligatory love interest and surprising twist that’s only surprising because it makes zero sense — that early momentum is all but shot. With that said, the cheap thrills “Repo Men” provides are enjoyable if you don’t need them to be anything more than cheap. And if the mannequin love scene in “Team America” wasn’t quite weird enough for you, the one in this movie’s homestretch might finally do it for you.
Extras: Writers/director commentary, deleted scenes, Union commercials, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The First Season” (NR, 1955, CBS/Paramount): Given all the completely pointless and/or terrible shows that get shoved out to DVD almost the instant it becomes logistically possible, it’s a bit startling that it took this long for an arguable classic to get its proper turn. “Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show” previously received a classy 50th anniversary set, but that was three years ago, and while it had a nice selection of extras, it contained only 18 episodes. This complete first season, by comparison, contains 34 all by itself. Extras include commentary, the lost audition show, original openings/commercials and an episode from the fifth season of “The Lucy Show.”
— Complete Cannell sets: Two of Stephen J. Cannell’s shows, available previously in season-only editions, now receive the full-series treatments. “Hunter: The Complete Series” includes 152 episodes, while “21 Jump Street: The Complete Series: Seasons 1-5” contains 103 episodes. Both sets were produced in the name of value more than special features or flashy packaging, so while neither contains any special features, they are about half as expensive and take up far less room on the shelf than your typical complete series set.
— “Kansas City Royals: 1985 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1985, MLB/A&E): Because it might be a while before the Royals win one of these on live television again, here’s a 25th anniversary carrot for all the long-suffering fans of the American League Central’s perennial doormat. Includes all seven uncut games of the 1985 World Series, plus the ’85 Royals highlight film, ALCS highlights, clinching/celebration footage and a few features about the team and star players.
— “Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Final Season” (NR, 2002, CBS): The powers that be took entirely too long to compile this set on DVD, but at long last, those who want all seven seasons now can have them. A complete series set, which adds no new features beyond packaging all seven sets together, also is available.

Games 7/27/10: Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice, DeathSpank

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor
For: Wii
From: Treasure/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

The genius of “Sin and Punishment: Star Successor” is not simply how skillfully it creates order out of what initially looks like sheer insane nonsense, but how easy it continually makes that skill look during the five or so hours it takes to experience it for the first time.

Dismissively, “Successor” can be classified as an on-rails shooter, which has become a term synonymous for all the Wii lacks in terms of traditional control schemes. The tag technically applies, because outside of when it pauses to swarm players with enemies or a boss fight, “Successor” is constantly in some form of forward motion, and it’s the duty of players to clear enemies away and keep up with it. Think of “Successor” as an old-fashioned space shooter that moves forward in three dimensions instead of sideways in two, and you can start to picture what’s going on here.

Like most on-rails shooters on the Wii, “Successor” also employs a cursor-based control scheme for shooting purposes. Aim the Wii remote around the screen to pick targets, press B to fire. No surprises there.

But “Successor” enhances these core elements by mixing in more extensive character control than the genre traditionally allows. Isa Jo and Achi, the game’s playable protagonists, can freely run and jump on the ground as well as hover to any corner of the screen, and outside of the on-rails forward and backward movement, “Successor” leaves all character movements in players’ hands.

Even the cursor controls, which complement the often frantic pace by incorporating a perfect dose of aiming assistance that’s effective but so subtle as to potentially go unnoticed, puts most similar control schemes to surprising shame. (An optional control scheme, supporting both the Classic and Gamecube controllers, allows players to go all the way traditional and control the targeting with the right stick.)

All that freedom is crucial, because “Successor” inspires more thrills from mastering and avoiding enemy attack patterns than from putting on a good offensive show. Like a great sidescrolling shooter, “Successor” swarms players with such a high variety of frantic enemy attacks that at first, it looks nothing short of (a) completely random and (b) impossible to circumvent. But everything in the game has a pattern, and players who put in the time to figure “Successor” out will gradually start to see it in a completely different (and far more appreciative) light once those patterns start to emerge.

The quest to master the insane variety of patterns “Successor” devises gives the game considerably more value than initial impressions might imply. The game has a story, and it’s sufficient if you absolutely need some narrative purpose, but seeing how it ends is nowhere near as interesting as playing and replaying stretches of the game to push your high scores up the online leaderboards.

“Successor” scores players like a classic arcade shooter, rewarding the ability to stay alive while also dangling a score multiplier that’s continually in flux and dependent on players’ ability to shoot quickly and just a little recklessly. The system lends itself perfectly to score chasers and perfectionists, and “Successor’s” complete understanding of that art — along with hours of great game design to back it up — makes this a must-play for anyone who identifies with either demographic.


The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice
For: Wii
From: Alpha Unit/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone

At no point does this review know whether “The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice” is a smart option for would-be baseball stars who, for all baseball science can tell us, might screw up their swing technique by swinging a Wii remote at a television instead of a real baseball bat at a real baseball. Considering the discrepancies in bat weight, among other obvious factors, it’s entirely likely this is more harmful than helpful for serious baseball players.

But taken simply as a video game simulation of a trip to the batting cages — and taking into account the limitations of the Wii even with the MotionPlus attachment in tow — “Cages” does a surprisingly good job at recreating this particular aspect of baseball practice.

With that said, first things first: Though “Cages” is playable without the MotionPlus attachment, the loss of precision that little attachment provides makes this a useless practice tool at best and completely unplayable at worst. If you’re at all serious about enjoying “Cages,” owning or purchasing a MotionPlus attachment should be viewed as mandatory in order for anything that follows to apply to your experience.

“Cages'” primary interface is as spartan as you might imagine: There’s a baseball field, a pitching machine, your bat (which, in the recommended first-person view, you barely even see) and very little else. The machine throws pitches, and players swing the Wii remote like a bat to try and hit the ball.

What makes it work, in addition to a refreshingly unforgiving demand on swing precision, are the options and interface touches the game lays atop the threadbare gameplay. Every pitch is followed by a skippable but very useful swing analyzer that shows players how early, late, high, low, inside or outside their swings are in relation to the ball’s trajectory. Players also can customize and save presets for the pitching machine, selecting what pitches it can throw and the range of speeds at which it can throw them. A stat-tracking feature logs your batting average and other numbers, and a calorie counter provides a morale boost for those days when your swing completely fails you.

“Cages” pads its value with a couple competitive multiplayer modes (one for two players, another for four), but nothing in the game’s feature set will satisfy players looking for anything resembling a game of organized baseball. The game, along its budget price tag, make no bones about its acute focus, and buyers who expect more from it will do so at their own peril.

What it does though — and taking into account the disclaimers from paragraphs one and three above — it does rather satisfactorily. By no stretch of any imagination is “Cages” a better experience than hitting real baseballs with a real bat, and its value as a training tool is pretty dubious. But for those who go to the cages purely for enjoyment’s sake but wouldn’t mind an alternative in a pinch when the time or means isn’t there, this isn’t a bad investment to make.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Hothead Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, mild language, mild sexual themes)
Price: $15

Considering the enduring popularity of the two things — “Diablo”-style dungeon crawling and comedy — “DeathSpank” attempts to merge as one, it’s rather amazing it’s taken this long for the two to come together as naturally as they have here. “DeathSpank” starts off a little slow, and there are a handful of things it does adequately but never expertly. The sensation of combat “Diablo” absolutely nails never feels quite so satisfying here, and between the simplicity of the quest designs and the modest ambitions of the game’s comedic writing and voice acting, this likely will be neither the best-playing dungeon crawler nor the funniest game you play this year. Fortunately, what “DeathSpank” doesn’t do amazingly well, it does more
than well enough — so much so that the experience actually improves rather than degrades once the novelty of comedic dungeon crawling wears off. The quests, while not terribly ambitious in terms of variety or design, are at least numerous, as is the bounty of armor, weapons and items waiting to be discovered. The depth of the combat improves with the ability to cast new spells and even combine special attacks. And the world’s fleeting resemblance to an illustrated pop-up book (without the actual pop-up animation) works in tandem with the amusing overall tone to create a universe that, imperfections or not, is a whole lot of fun to explore.

DVD 7/20/10: Terribly Happy, Look Around You S1, Cop Out, Entre Nos, Being Human S1, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Courage the Cowardly Dog S1

Terribly Happy (NR, 2008, Oscilloscope)
When “Terribly Happy” opens, we don’t know why Copenhagen police officer Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) has been punished with a temporary reassignment to pull marshall duty in a microscopically small town. All we know is that something back home made him snap, and the mysterious disappearance of his new home’s previous marshall made this an ideal landing spot while he serves his penance. Robert’s past is but one of the mysteries permeating through the town, which has its own share of baggage, customs, and at least one person (Lene Maria Christensen as Ingerlise) who is as fascinated with him as the rest appear leery. “Happy” operates under an optimally savvy cloud of moodiness and continual, mutual distrust from almost the moment it begins, and when all those pasts cross paths and a surprising turn of events makes a total mess of that encounter, the tension is perfectly, effortlessly thick. “Happy” reveals its cards gradually rather than hold them all for some big final reveal, and that strategy works completely to its advantage. The more we learn about all this clouded history, the better the story gets going forward — up to and including a finale that, while beautifully understated, is so coldly, mutually dark as to be almost humorous. In Danish with English subtitles, but well worth the easy read if you like stories that speak volumes with only a few words.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, an encounter between Director Henrik Ruben Genz and “Happy” author Erling Jepsen, behind-the-scenes feature, “botched” studio interview with Genz and Jepsen, Foster Hirsch essay.

Look Around You: Season One (NR, 2002, BBC)
The unintentionally funny educational filmstrips of the 1970s and 1980s have seen no shortage of intentionally funny send-ups in the years that have followed, but when a project comes along that’s this dedicated to the cause, it’s merits special mention. “Look Around You’s” mock science filmstrips cover such topics as ghosts, germs, sulphur and “maths,” and between the patronizingly deadpan delivery of the narrator, the ridiculous density of incorrect information passed along and the hilariously dry confirmation of this information via absurd experiments and other treacherous visual aids, it’s a thick wonderland of rapid-fire misinformation. “You” complements its masterful delivery with a visual presentation that perfectly mocks the look, technology and presentational quirks that make these filmstrips so ironically treasured today, and because each episode is less than 10 minutes long, the gag never wears out its welcome. If anything, at 71 total minutes for the main program, it leaves you wanting a whole lot more. Sadly, only six more episodes remain for volume two.
Contents: Eight “modules” (episodes), plus commentary, a bonus double-length module, study materials and bonus music.

Cop Out (R, 2010, Warner Bros.)
You know how people say that the worst movie by certain directors is still better than the best work by the vast majority of their contemporaries? That pretty well sums up “Cop Out,” which finds two suspended NYPD officers (Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan) venturing down a criminal rabbit hole when one of them has a valuable baseball card stolen from him. What follows is largely telegraphed both by decades of police stories as well as comedies, and neither lead is nearly interesting enough to make the movie’s story all that gripping, either. “Cop Out” represents the first movie Kevin Smith has directed by not written, and perhaps not surprisingly, it neither evokes the things he does best as a writer nor takes the trite buddy cop formula anywhere it hasn’t already been. That’s all pretty unfortunate. But with all that said, and while “Cop Out” isn’t anywhere in the vicinity of the year’s best comedies, it also sits nowhere near the likes of “The Bounty Hunter,” “Leap Year” and other comedies that do absolutely nothing for their own tired genres. It isn’t hilarious, but it’s pretty consistently amusing, and there are fleeting moments when it’s very funny. No one’s heart will break if and when Smith gets back to creating his own worlds instead of co-opting those of less talented writers, but in the meantime, “Cop Out” could be a whole lot worse.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Entre Nos (NR, 2009, IndiePix)
You know what’s scarier than moving with your two young kids from Columbia to New York City to appease the whims of your husband? How about finding yourself jobless and forced to fend for yourself and those kids when the husband follows another whim to Miami and leaves without a trail? That, along with no prospects and a minimal grasp of English, is the situation Mariana (Paola Mendoza) finds herself in when “Entre Nos” kicks into gear. What happens next is pretty remarkable — not simply because of what happens or because it’s based on a true story, but also because “Nos” completely sidesteps pretense despite telling a story with starkly obvious connections to one hugely controversial current issue. Even though “Nos” presumably takes place years before the issue became such a political lightning rod, nothing about it feels like a story that couldn’t happen today. And more than lean on its time period or even tell a story about the plight of an immigrant, “Nos” is just a story about the plight of a mom trying to do right by her kids while also trying to just keep it together in light of some rough unforeseen circumstances. Mariana’s particular situation may be more extreme than the monetary and familial issues most face, but “Nos'” ability to present it under completely relatable terms without sugarcoating it is an extremely impressive work of restraint.
Extras: Director commentary, short film “Still Standing,” behind-the-scenes feature, how to make empanadas feature.

Being Human: Season One (NR, 2008, BBC)
Burned out on vampires yet? Don’t even want to hear about another vampire story that also has a werewolf? That’s too bad, because “Being Human” might be the perfect antidote for anyone who likes these mythologies but can’t stomach where popular culture has taken them lately. “Human” finds three not-quite human humans — a vampire (Aidan Turner as Mitchell), a werewolf (Russell Tovey as George) and a woman (Lenora Crichlow as Annie) who died but is stuck in limbo as a ghost — sharing a house in Bristol, and their shared habitat accompanies a shared desire to live as close to plainly human existences as their respective situations will allow. Those modest aspirations, along with a certain degree of success on our characters’ parts, makes “Human” a much more grounded show than the genre’s typical fare as of late, and while the show is measurably more of a drama than a comedy, it isn’t afraid to flash its sense of humor frequently and to great effect. “Human” isn’t as funny as Joss Whedon’s pitch-perfect take on vampires and werewolves, but it most definitely isn’t as agonizingly self-serious as Stephenie Meyer’s brutal interpretations, and for all who long for the former and cannot stand the latter, this absolutely merits a close look.
Contents: Six episodes, plus deleted scenes, creator interview, video diaries, behind-the-scenes features and character profiles.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (NR, 2005, Magnolia)
What’s worse — gravely imperiling a child’s dog because it barks too much, or getting nicked in the head by a speeding train? Why choose when “Barking Dogs Never Bite” has both? “Bite” hits the ground sprinting with a jobless aspiring professor (Sung-jae Lee) committing the former act in the opening minutes, and while the story that follows is a bit too unwieldily to encapsulate in a few sentences, it probably isn’t a stretch to recognize “Bite’s” road-less-traveled decision to both position itself as a black comedy and make its central c
haracter instantly and completely detestable with no sense of irony whatsoever. He isn’t alone, either: His wife treats him horribly, his apartment building’s maintenance guy is psychotic, and his academic peers are dirtbags. Great, huh? But here’s the thing about “Bite:” In spite of how horrible most of its characters and their actions are, and while even the strong of stomach may find this one’s reprehensible points too dark to enjoy, the total package is a stylish treatment of a sharp script. And by going so low so quickly, “Bite” makes it that much more gratifying when one of its few likable characters rises up and tries to take the mood back. How successful that effort is won’t be spoiled here, but it’s a heck of a good fight. In Korean with English subtitles.
Extras: Interview, storyboards, highlight montage.

Worth a Mention
— Courage the Cowardly Dog: Season One” (NR, 1999, Cartoon Network Hall of Fame)
Cartoon Network’s new and long overdue Hall of Fame DVD imprint kicked off on a high note with the release of the first season of “Johnny Bravo.” But outside of the lack of bonus content, this second entrant — which follows the adventures of a terrified but loyal and fiercely (or maybe not fiercely) protective family dog named Courage — does not represent a step down in any sense of the term. Whatever the third entrant is, it has big shoes to fill.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras.

Games 7/20/10: Singularity, N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights, Limbo

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Raven Software/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

There’s something a little bittersweet about the moment “Singularity” transforms, very early on, from a scary fight between your humble pistol and some fierce monsters to a solid but considerably less tense first-person shooter with typical weapons and typical human enemies.

Fortunately, the bland latter scenario doesn’t last. And even the former scenario doesn’t hold a candle to what happens once “Singularity” lifts the veil and shows what it can really do.

Set both in the 1950s as well as 2010, “Singularity” tells the story of how technology in the wrong hands in the past led to a dramatically different global climate in the present. We’ve all heard that one before, but what “Singularity” lacks in originality, it redeems in thoroughness, combining environmental designs, supporting characters, audio recordings, journal entries and even filmstrips to tell one engrossing story.

Most importantly, following those two early segments, it allows players to harness that technology.

“Singularity’s” TMD device will draw comparisons to the plasmids in “Bioshock,” and some of its powers — telekinesis and a devastating force push, to name two — are straight out of “Bioshock’s” playbook.

But the TMD also gives players the power to age and revert objects in the environment. Technology that lies in ruin in 2010 can, for instance, be restored to its 1955 shape without traveling back to 1955. The trick also works in combat: Players can age enemies and quickly undo the aging to mutate them into enemies of their former allies.

Though it occasionally shifts players between time periods — a pretty cool trick when it offers insights into an environment’s past versus its present — “Singularity” mostly reserves the time control for combat and puzzle solving. You might, for instance, age a bridge to grab an unattainable object beneath it before placing the object atop the rubble, restoring the bridge and carrying the object across the bridge.

Unfortunately, the puzzles rarely require this much imagination, and the vast majority are too similar to be mentally taxing at all. Most involve using the same type of crate one of two ways, and after a while, the only head-scratcher comes from evaluating just how much potential has gone to waste as time passes.

The stunted puzzle growth is part of “Singularity’s” unfortunate campaign to undermine itself with brief but bizarre forays into bad design. An early mini-boss encounter drags too long without ever being remotely tense, while a few areas spawn enemies out of nowhere to deliver cheap, unavoidable attacks from behind. There’s a puzzle that’s tricky only because of the poor layout of a window, there’s a very boring swimming segment, and there’s the occasional frustration of not being able to hear dialogue because the music’s too loud and the game lacks optional subtitles.

With all that said, though, “Singularity” remains a perfectly fun shooter, combining excellent combat with a story that goes all out and delivers a great finish. The flaws are annoying and the unrealized potential of the TMD device is enormous, but too much of the game remains too rewarding for “Singularity” to be completely undermined by all it doesn’t do.

“Singularity’s” multiplayer (12 players), by contrast, is rather ordinary. But because it’s there to supplement the lengthy main course, and because the same solid mechanics still apply, it serves its purpose as a summertime diversion before the fall heavyweights appear. If nothing else, it gives players an opportunity to use the game’s unique weapons and technology to punish their friends instead of just the A.I.


N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights
For: Xbox 360
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, partial nudity, violence)

Even bad games generally tend to have some redeeming quality — however faint or fleeting or even ironic — that makes the experience of playing them at least tolerable or understandable, if not fun.

Unfortunately for “N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights,” the only instance of this lies in a rather pretty title screen, which disappears after pressing the start button and gives way to a game that has nothing else going for it on any level.

Like the first “Ninety-Nine Nights” game — and like all those “Dynasty Warriors” games it mimics — “N3II” sounds like a can’t-miss on paper. The story is a dull mishmash of fantasy cliches, but the gist of the game has players singlehandedly taking on hundreds of enemy soldiers at a time and using weapons and spells to thoroughly decimate them at a rate of dozens at a time. Any given mission finds players racking up a kill count in the thousands, and with “N3II” unafraid to show its bloody side, this should add up to a walk through heaven for the truly bloodthirsty.

In actuality, it never comes close. “N3II’s” enemies almost all look the same, and most of them display no artificial intelligence whatsoever. That makes the fights mindlessly dull, and because the game’s battle animations completely fail to convey the impact of a sword swipe capable of knocking 20 soldiers over at once, it lacks any kind of satisfying look or feel even on the “dumb fun” level. You might as well be chopping down stalks of virtual corn instead of enemy armies.

“N3II” injects some challenge in similarly artless fashion by being absurdly stingy with health pickups and giving certain enemies the ability to knock players down repeatedly without giving them any chance to get up or even counter the attack. No one really fights intelligently, but a swarm of enemies and enough cheap hits can be fatal — which, thanks to a lousy checkpoint system, can mean repeating long stretches of the game that weren’t fun the first time.

Nor are they fun the second, fifth, or 300th time. But because “N3II” essentially repeats itself ad nauseam over 20-plus hours, that’s what lies in store. The story goes places — nowhere interesting, but it advances — and that advancement allows players to unlock four additional characters and carry out their concurrent campaigns. But while each character has his or her own weapons, attributes and fighting style, the act of controlling them is identical down the line, and the nature of the fights in hour one is indistinguishable from that of hour 20. “N3II’s” action feels tired before the very first mission is even a fraction of the way finished, and repeating that exercise for the entirety of the game is an exercise in tedium so torturously dull as to turn someone off video games for good.


For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Playdead
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild violence)

With respect to the entirely welcome revival of point-and-click adventure games, none of them come close to realizing the awesome possibilities of merging adventuring and puzzle-solving the way “Limbo” does. Played like a sidescroller and presented via a monochrome visual style straight out of the silent films era, “Limbo” begins almost completely free of storytelling and instruction, and it’s up to players to figure out what to do next. Like most sidescrollers, it assumes players know that the joystick is for running and the A button for jumping. But unlike most games of any kind, “Limbo” also assumes players can
rely solely on their own intuition to solve the succession of riddles that stand in the way of forward progress. And this is where “Limbo” absolutely beams: The puzzles are legitimately challenging, but because everything needed for the solution exists within the environment and in the general vicinity, the solution never lies out of reach no matter how elaborate the problem may be. “Limbo” achieves a perfect difficulty balance — not so difficult as to devolve into a guessing game, but rarely so easy that the solution immediately leaps out. And because it’s a sidescroller instead of a point-and-click game, it can challenge players to move quickly and jump precisely while also deciphering the puzzles that block the progress. The net result is one of the most intellectually gratifying games to surface this year, and players craving a true mental workout (that, as a bonus, looks absolutely magnificent) must check this one out.

DVD 7/13/10: Saint John of Las Vegas, Chloe, Sesame Street 20 Years, Middle of Nowhere, Greenberg, Selling Hitler, The Bounty Hunter, The Super Hero Squad Show V1, MST3K XVIII, Street Hawk CS

Saint John of Las Vegas (R, 2009, Vivendi)
Reformed gambler John (Steve Buscemi) had finally found peace as a desk jockey for an insurance company. But with a promotion to fraud investigation, he’s not only forced to share the road with an unhinged co-worker (Romany Malco as Virgil), but assigned to investigate a case in the old haunt — Las Vegas — he thought he’d abandoned. You know what, though? Most of those details don’t actually matter. “Saint John of Las Vegas” circles its story around John’s and Virgil’s adventures in Vegas, and the investigation dictates those adventures, but the outcome of the case doesn’t actually matter. Nor, really, do the outcomes of several side stories, which superficially seem designed solely to prop up some additional goofball characters. Even the Vegas setting doesn’t necessarily matter. But if “SLOLV” sounds like a scatterbrained mess, it ultimately reveals itself as one with a purpose. The real story here is that of John himself, and while he doesn’t move mountains in character development terms, and while the occasional dream sequence or flash forward doesn’t make sense initially, it comes together with surprising satisfaction during the homestretch. The other good news? Even before it starts to make sense, “SLOLV’s” weird sense of humor is dryly (very dryly, fair warning) funny enough to entertain while the story catches up. That shouldn’t be a major surprise, given the cast, but there’s your confirmation anyway. Peter Dinklage and Sarah Silverman also star.
Extras: Cast interviews.

Chloe (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
The onset of obsession is strong enough to derail even the most normal of people, and when that obsession is over a spouse’s supposed infidelity, just about anything can go. So let’s not blame Catherine (Julianne Moore) for hiring an escort (Amanda Seyfried as Chloe) to seduce her husband (Liam Neeson as David) after his recent behavior triggers a few serious alarms. And on a similar note, it might be prudent not to punish “Chloe” in spite of the extensive ways it chooses to manipulate its characters and, by extension, all who observe them. “Chloe” operates under a excessive cloud of moodiness (exhausting dramatic score most definitely included), and it pushes its characters so far that you wonder why any of them even care enough to do anything beyond lose their minds and let their respective spirals completely take over. It is, by most traditional characterizations, a bad movie. At the same time, though, there’s something darkly enjoyable about just how furiously “Chloe” kicks out the ladder from underneath its cast. So-called better movies operating under similar pretenses might take more careful steps to build up their characters and respect authenticity, and there’s certainly merit in doing so if done right. But if “Chloe” wants to be different and let its insane flag fly by going the complete other way, and if it entertains (ironically or otherwise) the whole way in doing so, how bad can it really be?
Extras: Writer/director/Seyfried commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Sesame Street: 20 Years… and Still Counting! (NR, 1989, Sesame Street/Lions Gate)
Confused by the title? Don’t be: This is the special that originally aired on “Sesame Street’s” actual 20th anniversary in 1989 — which means this is, in fact, the 21st anniversary of this 20th anniversary celebration. It also supersedes the release of the 40th anniversary DVD set by eight months and the 25th anniversary DVD by 12 years. Only a show that provided as much of a service as “Sesame Street” did could get away with a math conundrum like this. Fortunately, because the material is pretty much timeless, all the funny math is for naught. Bill Cosby and Kermit the Frog host. No extras.

Middle of Nowhere (R, 2008, Image Entertainment)
If “Middle of Nowhere’s” early going is any indication, the story of Dorian (Anton Yelchin) and Grace (Eva Amurri) — two water park employees with opposing backgrounds who both are trying to raise money quickly for different reasons — has everything it needs to devolve into an after-school special at any moment. When the two backwardly join forces to raise the cash, “Middle of Nowhere” starts showing some symptoms, and when the movie delves into those respective backgrounds and throws in a few other familial complications on both sides, it would seem only a matter of time before the transformation is complete. Amazingly, though, what bends never breaks. Grace rebounds into a thoroughly likable sympathetic hero instead of just another sob story, Dorian proves too charming and funny to credibly succumb to contrived ham-handedness, and “Nowhere” takes a surprising turn away from the inevitable and grows into a legitimate piece of entertainment. The early symptoms don’t ever go completely away, but the movie also never lets go of its sense of humor, nor does it lose sight of what elevates it beyond the dregs of preachy non-entertainment. And because it takes such surprisingly good care of its characters, the occasional indulgence in those symptoms feels justified and very well-earned. Susan Sarandon, Justin Chatwin and Willa Holland also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Greenberg (R, 2010, Focus/Universal)
The line between a movie that goes everywhere without going anywhere and one that simply runs in circles is pretty thin, and the story of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) — freshly released from a mental institution, a generation removed from the derailment of a promising musical career, and now doing some housesitting while figuring out where to possibly go next — may as well have one foot on each side of that line. “Greenberg” flirts with comedy as well as drama, with fleeting success in both areas, but at no point is it anything but a coarse look at a guy who has lived through plenty but, at least in tangible terms, isn’t doing a whole lot now. The movie doesn’t squander the opportunity to zero in hard, and even during its idle moments, the script puts on a clinic on how to dig into the heart of a character regardless of approach or mood. At the same time? Surprise, Roger isn’t the most effortlessly likable character around. Though that’s for the best — “Greenburg” would be pretty dull if it greeted its audience with kid gloves — it stands to reason that what some will see as complicated and misunderstood will come across to others as nothing more complicated than a thankless pain in the rear. And if that’s the case, a movie about him — and, with respect to the supporting cast (Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh), no one but him — may not be worth the hassle.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

Selling Hitler (NR, 1991, Acorn Media)
“Slow” doesn’t begin to describe the start of “Selling Hitler,” which appears so preoccupied with fully setting the table in its first episode that it can’t even settle on a consistent mood going forward. But then the twist (spoiled by history, because it’s a true story, but it’s a twist anyway) comes into full light at the end of that first episode. And once we meet the real face of this series — Konrad Fischer (Alexei Sayle), who “discovers” Adolph Hitler’s lost diaries by writing them himself and subsequently sets off an international bidding war for the publication rights — the farce is on. “Hitler” is very much a product of its time — specifically, 1991, when television production values still habored the marks of the awful 1980s and dramatic saxophone music was still a thing people did with a straight face. The video quality could be better, and the weird mood shifting — sometimes it feels like a comedy, sometimes it could not be more serious — never goes away. But “Hitler” sells itself on the strength of its true story, and while Konrad’
s act is completely despicable, there’s an immense dark satisfaction in watching him make wealthy publishers in Europe and America salivate over complete garbage. It wouldn’t be bad news to see someone give this story a more contemporary treatment, but what’s here will very much do in the meantime.
Contents: Five episodes, no extras.

The Bounty Hunter (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
There’s something perversely fascinating about a collection of established actors, filmmakers and studio personnel joining forces to produce something that flaunts as much creative apathy as “The Bounty Hunter” does. “Hunter” tells the story of a small-time bounty hunter (Gerard Butler as Milo) who lucks his way into the plush assignment of capturing and escorting his ex-wife (Jennifer Aniston as Nicole) to jail, and the turns the story takes are as formulaic as a bottle of multivitamins. But even if “Hunter” inevitably must fall prone to the tired “we hate each other, but now we love each other” routine, the allegedly comedic journey that postpones the inevitable didn’t have to fall this lackadaisically in line. But it does: Neither Butler nor Aniston are given anything with which to make their characters interesting, to say nothing of likable. The supporting characters are even shallower, the complications designed to spice up the case are nothing more than directionless obligatory padding, and between the scene at the craps table and the scene at the tattoo parlor, too many of “Hunter’s” attempts at comedy feel like torn pages from the book of bad sitcom cliches. Suffocating story predictability can be excused if the movie has anything at all going for it in between the lines, but “Hunter” is completely bankrupt, and no one involved seems to mind very much despite almost certainly knowing better.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, tips for outwitting a bounty hunter.

Worth a Mention: Shout Factory Edition
— “The Super Hero Squad Show: Volume 1: Quest for the Infinity Sword!” (NR, 2009): Picture Marvel Comics’ finest — Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and more — getting the “Muppet Babies” treatment, and you can picture “The Super Hero Squad Show,” which is Marvel’s attempt to provide a cartoon that’s more kid- and family-friendly than its usual fare. The side effect, though, is that between the super-deformed look of the heroes and goofball sense of humor that accompanies the visual style, it might also be appropriate for adults who love the Marvel universe but have grown tired of how formulaic that usual fare can be. Includes seven episodes, plus an interview with Stan Lee.
— “Mystery Science Theater 3000 XVIII” (NR, 1990-97): Shout Factory’s “MST3K” compilation train continues to roll along. Volume XVIII includes “Lost Continent,” “Crash of the Moons,” “The Beast of Yucca Flats” and “Jack Frost.” As per series tradition, a set of mock miniature movie posters comes included. Other extras include new introductions from Frank Conniff and Kevin Murphy, original wrap footage, a “Flats” retrospective and original film trailers.
— “Street Hawk: The Complete Series” (NR, 1985): Imagine if “Knight Rider” was a show about a motorcycle named Street Hawk instead of a car named KITT. Also, imagine if “Knight Rider” was canceled after 13 episodes. That’s “Street Hawk.” Fortunately, for the dedicated few who have waited this long to revisit that short run, this set has the works. Extras include a never-aired version of the pilot, a 41-minute making-of documentary, a photo gallery and an eight-page companion booklet.

Games 7/13/10: Dragon Quest IX, Naughty Bear, Blacklight: Tango Down

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes, mild language)

If you have a soft spot for the founding fathers of turn-based role-playing games but loathed everything “Final Fantasy XIII” stood for when it released in March, there could scarcely be a more different game than “Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies,” which takes a few superficially backward steps but cherishes the things that, in 2010 just as in 1986, ultimately matter most.

The contrasts are immediate. “FFXIII” is eye candy overload, but an arguably toxic appetite for storytelling overloads the game with cutscenes over which players have no effect. “Skies,” meanwhile, takes a visual dive from its predecessor by migrating from the Playstation 2 to the Nintendo DS, and beyond its introduction, the storyline heads down a path that’s practically boilerplate by genre standards.

But that open-ended sparseness allows “Skies” to give players more control from the start than “FFXIII” arguably provides in its lifetime.

“Skies” lets players not only name the characters in their party, but also design them using a surprisingly thorough character editor. The story that follows may be one that RPGs have been telling since their inception, but it stars whomever players want it to star. And while cutscenes that use the DS’ real-time 3D capabilities aren’t in the same league as “FFXIII’s” pre-rendered scenes, they’re innumerably more personalized and, by extension, far more rewarding over the game’s very long haul.

The customization bent also complements “Skies’s” most impressive innovation: co-op play. Up to four players can team up wirelessly (local only, and everyone needs a copy of the game), and the game is surprisingly liberal with regard to what happens from there. Players can adventure separately in the same world, summon one another for immediate help in battle, and basically treat the experience like a small-scale MMO. “Skies” allows players to join and part as they please, regardless of experience levels and in-game progress, and it doesn’t force anyone to choose between leaning on the feature or completely missing out on its benefits.

That’s about the only way it can work, because for most, the 25 (main quest) to 100-plus (everything) hours needed to turn “Skies” inside out would be almost impossible to invest under inflexible conditions. In this respect, the decision to take the game down the portable route looks like genius. A considerable time investment is needed before everything the game offers is freely available, but “Skies'” world opens up relatively quickly, and it’s exponentially more freely explorable than “FFXIII’s” depressing straight line. Being able to continually chip away at it, regardless of time investment or other conditions, more than compensates for whatever fidelity the graphics would have gained on flashier hardware.

With that said, if you don’t love “Dragon Quest” already, “Skies” won’t be the gust of wind that turns that boat around. Impressively large and intelligently innovative though it may be, this ultimately is the same general pattern of turned-based battling gameplay and storytelling that has subsisted for nearly 25 years. Like its predecessors, “Skies” excels at doing those things by balancing challenge, elegance and depth in ways few turned-based RPGs can, but not so much that it changes the game for anyone who doesn’t love it already.


Naughty Bear
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Artificial Mind & Movement/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Every year, a few games surface that belie the prerequisite that a game must be good in order to be any fun.

This year, the leader of that pack has to be “Naughty Bear,” a thoroughly bizarre, poorly-coded and very arguably reprehensible game that might, because of how easy it is to exploit as well as how strange it is in the first place, be something you might wish to see anyway.

“Bear” stars players as the titular Naughty Bear, who, after getting ostracized by the other bears in his village, decides to turn his hurt feelings into a murderous rampage. The bears look and sound like your prototypical stuffed bears, and the village in which they live is similarly saccharine. The only difference is that players can use a range of weaponry and nearby objects — from toilets to grills — to turn the village into a crime scene. The truly skilled can even traumatize the other bears into turning on themselves.

If it sounds kind of terrible, it’s because it is. Killing isn’t exactly a foreign concept in games, but you’ll need some kind of stone heart to wreak havoc on a sweet-sounding stuffed bear and emerge feeling terrible or at least somewhat disturbed. This, obviously, is what “Bear” is going after by blending cuteness and murder to this degree, but it might be a little too good at it to make this playable beyond the morbid curiosity stage.

What “Bear” isn’t good at is most everything else. The game’s missions are variations of the same few things over and over, and the chapters continually take place in the same tiny environments. The camera is jerky to a motion sickness-inducing degree, the animation and controls lack polish, and the lack of mid-mission checkpoints — even though every mission is divided into very clear parts — makes some of the levels with stricter objectives a needless pain (especially when the camera causes a mission failure).

Last but not least, the game crashes in myriad ways — sometimes hanging on a load screen, sometimes freezing completely, and occasionally just suspending all character animation while parts of the game keep chugging away in some bizarre fashion or another.

On the other hand, some of “Bear’s” shortcomings — chiefly, its sorry excuse for A.I. and stealth — accidentally make the game more fun than it might otherwise have been.

For whatever reason, hiding in shallow patches of grass and bushes makes Naughty Bear completely invisible to the other bears. It doesn’t matter if he’s three inches away from two bears and hidden by a single leaf. It doesn’t matter if he just hit a bear in the face, took one step sideways and is screaming “boo” from the bushes. They can’t see him, and players are free to exploit this absurd reality to terrorize the other bears in ways a competent game wouldn’t allow. It basically allows players who are awful at stealth games to see why players who are good at them love them so much.

But once these novelties wear off, nothing remains but an empty game that plays poorly and makes players feel worse. That makes “Bear” a great rental, if only to satisfy any lingering curiosity about one of the year’s strangest games before realizing that any investment beyond a few bucks and a few hours is money and time poorly spent.


Blacklight: Tango Down
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Windows PC, Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (later this summer)
From: Zombie Studios/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Price: $15

Were “Blacklight: Tango Down” a full-priced first-person shooter, its combination of generic atmosphere and tacked-on single-player offerings would make it almost superlatively insignificant. At $15, though, it’s another story. “Blacklight” takes place in environments that look like
areas you’ve seen before, and it’s populated by soldiers engaging in battle for reasons that aren’t necessarily important. The single-player (or, with three friends, online co-op) component explains little, but it’s for the best, because the entirely unrefined A.I. — enemies mindlessly spray bullets like walking turrets — makes it entirely skippable anyway. “Blacklight’s” real purpose is as a multiplayer shooter (16 players), and like last summer’s “Battlefield 1943,” it provides a healthy return on investment without reinventing anything. All the usual multiplayer modes are here, the map count is surprisingly high at 12, and “Blacklight” looks, controls and sounds like a $60 game in a $15 game’s body. Better still, it provides a reason to keep coming back, flaunting an experience system that rewards players a massive unlockable cache of weapons, accessories and character improvements. The climb to the top of the rewards pile is steep, and an unimpressive matchmaking system makes it tough on new players who have to overcome experienced players with better gear, but the stream of perks is so constant that it’s easy to find the motivation to beat those odds. (For those who’d rather just play with friends, no worries: Private match support also is available.)

DVD 7/6/10: A Single Man, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Eyeborgs, Life on Mars CS, Brooklyn's Finest, Touching Evil CS, Squidbillies V3

A Single Man (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
The single man in “A Single Man” is college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who eight months prior lost his lover (Matthew Goode as Jim) in a car crash and has had extreme difficulty just waking up every morning since. But if “Man” sounds like 99 minutes of dreary depression lying in wait, rest assured it’s anything but. George’s story isn’t just a look at loss: It’s a total stare-down at the solitary hell of facing the future alone and — because this is 1962 and George finds himself in no position out himself — mourning almost completely in secret. At the same time, though, “Man” completely understands that life doesn’t stop for those who mourn, and for George that means moments of celebration, introspection, faint hope and even bitterly dark (but legitimately funny) comedy as well as anger and sadness. “Man’s” overlying story — told mostly in the present but aided by the occasional flashback — is one of crushing sadness, but the movie itself handles that sadness through multiple moods and without succumbing to the kind of melodrama lesser movies with considerably easier tasks can’t avoid. The picture it paints certainly won’t fulfill everyone’s idea of love and loss, but it’s a strikingly complete picture in its own particular right.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (NR, 2009, Music Box Films)
Freshly disgraced journalist Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) has a few months of freedom before he has to serve a brief prison stint for allegedly committing libel, but even with that timetable and Mikael’s now-sullied reputation, the patriarch of a powerful family-owned corporation (Sven-Bertil Taube as Henrik) has hired him in hopes of solving a murder that has haunted the family for four decades and left Henrik obsessed with its closure every day since. Fortunately, Mikael has help in the form of a hacker (Noomi Rapace) who, in addition to having some serious back story of her own, has developed her own point of interest in the case. On the surface, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s particulars (152 minutes long, all but a few sentences of it in Swedish with no English language track) make it an imposing assignment for viewers with wandering attention spans. But the mystery at the center of everything is thick and interesting enough to put those minutes to great use, and while “Tattoo” scrambles a bit at the end, it isn’t because it wastes time indulging itself before getting there. (The only arguable point of self-indulgence might, in fact, be the movie’s best scene.) So watch it in two parts and treat it like a miniseries if that’s easier: No-nonsense mystery movies that pay off without resorting to gimmickry or copouts don’t appear very often, and there’s no good reason to let one slip past when it does. In Swedish with English subtitles.
Extras: Vanger family tree, Rapace interview.

Eyeborgs (R, 2009, Image Entertainment)
Have you heard the one about the government that buries its citizens under a mountain of surveillance and suspicion? How about the one where robots designed to help humanity decide one day to turn on it? “Eyeborgs” is what happens when the two ideas become one, and what it lacks in groundbreaking paranoia, it redeems in its respect of the art of the B-movie. The B-movie tag isn’t to suggest a lack of talent or polish, either: To the contrary, while “Eyeborgs” isn’t exactly a masterwork of scriptwriting and logical impregnability, it’s keenly aware of where the line needs be drawn between telling a logistically sound story and just setting the table for some scares, thrills, explosions and validations of whatever tiny spark of paranoia you might have flickering in the back of your mind. Best of all, it throws in a third byproduct of 21st century technology that, in addition to being sorely underutilized by science fiction so far, also opens the door to a brilliant twist during “Eyeborgs'” closing act. (Naturally, what that third byproduct is will not be spoiled here.)
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Life on Mars: The Complete Collection (NR, 2006, Acorn Media)
Some of us can’t imagine living without technology invented in the last six months, so imagine detective Sam Tyler’s (John Simm) surprise when he wakes up as a cop in 1973 after a car knocks him into a coma in 2006. While Sam tries to find his way back to the present, he conducts detective business as usual in the past, and his stubborn adjustment to a world without home computers, to say nothing of smartphones, gives “Life on Mars” plenty of means with which to establish its procedural detective drama niche. “Mars” doesn’t waste the opportunity, either: The cases contained within each episode are intelligently designed around the concept without outright relying on it, and Sam and his fellow cops engage in spirited battles of attrition instead of the same old detached, snappy dialogue so many other procedurals shamelessly employ. The mystery of Sam’s awakening, meanwhile, develops over the entirety of the show. Is he crazy? Dreaming? Or is it all real, and if so, what to do next? “Mars,” with its clever illustrations of Sam’s plight, makes it fun to find out, and if you’ve never heard of this show, grabbing the whole collection at once is the best way to rectify that. Philip Glenister and Liz White, among numerous others, also star.
Contents: 16 episodes, plus commentary, two making-of documentaries, three behind-the-scenes features, set tour, director interview and outtakes.

Brooklyn’s Finest (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Is it enough for a movie to be polished but little else? If not, then the last decade alone contains countless reasons to pass on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” “Finest” is an interweaving story about a few days in the lives of some cops (Don Cheadle, Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke) and some folks (Wesley Snipes, Michael K. Williams) on the other side of the law, and as a savvy viewer might guess or even expect, there’s an entanglement of consciences as personal issues and ties between the sides bubble upward. That’s part of “Finest’s” problem, though: Savvy viewers will have it figured out before the movie even finishes laying down its cards. “Finest” flashes some interesting characters, looks great, gets its hands dirty, and packs a great cast. But from the cynical cop who sits days away from retirement to the case that ties everything together to most every character and story instance in between, there’s an air of familiarity that’s awfully tough to pretend isn’t there. Numerous media have gone everywhere “Finest” goes, and enough of it has done so with more chances taken and more memorable characters created by the end of their time. “Finest” is a perfectly enjoyable story about law enforcement’s dark side, but if you’ve seen the best of what this genre already offers, don’t be surprised to not remember seeing this one even a few months from now.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Touching Evil: The Complete Collection (NR, 1997, Acorn Media)
Before Jeffrey Donovan became the face of “Burn Notice,” he starred in a terrific American remake of “Touching Evil” that, sadly, didn’t survive past its first season. This particular set rounds up the complete three-year run of the original British series, which finds a detective (Robson Green as D.I. Dave Creegan) recovering from a should-be-fatal gunshot wound, only to discover he now can literally sense the criminals he’s trying to stop. The same misunderstandings and clashing of methods that makes “Life on Mars” so much fun — and the same respectful treatment of those clashes — powers “Evil” as well, and the accompanying story of Dave picking up the pieces of his ruined, post-gunshot life is compel
ling enough to stand almost completely on its own without the cases’ help. Nicola Walker also stars.
Contents: Eight episodes, no extras.

Squidbillies: Volume 3 (NR, 2008, Adult Swim)
You wouldn’t think a cartoon about a family of trucker hat-wearing squids with mean streaks and southern accents would even approach an adjective like “polarizing.” But that’s what we have with “Squidbillies.” Some fans of Adult Swim’s formative years look at “Squidbillies” as indicative of everything that’s wrong with a programming block with seemingly no scruples about airing any old cartoon that runs around 11 minutes and compresses as much inanity as it can into that time. On the other hand? Good luck finding another corporately-owned television network with such a freewheeling attitude, and good luck finding another network that allows something like “Squidbillies” — terribly or hilariously crude as you see it — to survive long enough to see half a volume’s worth of content, to say nothing of three and counting. The animation is poor, the writing outlandish, the storylines unpredictable to the point of sheer randomness, the DVD packaging as crazed as the show. But Adult Swim would have it no other way.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus a trucker hat slogan compilation, concept art, promotional bits and pieces, footage from Dragon*Con 2009, and a fifth special feature (called “Funny Pete Stuff”) that just plain defies classification.

Games 7/6/10: Crackdown 2, Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4, Puzzle Quest 2

Crackdown 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Ruffian Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)

Conventional wisdom would suggest that while “Crackdown’s” combination of open-world freedom and superhuman powers made it a deserving cult sensation in 2007, enough has happened since for more of the same to not be enough. “Infamous” and “Prototype” trotted out similar ideas with deeper storylines, “Assassin’s Creed” sped up rooftop bounding with its parkour controls, “Just Cause 2” blew the roof off the limits of verticality, and “Red Faction: Guerrilla” raised the environmental destruction bar considerably.

But in all that time, and with respect to all those games, none of them really went head-on with the little things that made “Crackdown” so uniquely awesome. “Crackdown 2” is more of the same with sprinkles on top, but it so perfectly nails everything the first game — and only that game — did right.

It’d better, too, because a lot of it might as well be the first game. “Crackdown’s” nearly non-existent storyline has been upgraded to threadbare here, but the objective — kill the evildoers — is identical. The last game’s ending carries over, and the mutants that began populating Pacific City in “Crackdown” are now overflowing the geographically-altered city during “Crackdown 2’s” nighttime hours. A single, monstrous gang patrols the streets during the day, and players once again take orders from a bloodthirsty and completely hilarious narrator at The Agency. (Yes, it’s called The Agency. Threadbare, see.)

Just as they did last time, players gradually increase their abilities — from jumping distance to ammo expertise to driving acumen — by utilizing those abilities in the game, and players who max out those abilities will outrun cars, jump (or, new to the sequel, glide via a wingsuit) clean over buildings, equip grenades capable of detonating block-wide chain reactions and gain access to some amazing modes of transportation.

In other words, everything practically is as it was three years ago. The enemy A.I. hasn’t evolved, with the gangs still fighting like meatheads and the freaks just plowing forward in extreme numbers. The upgrade system feels mostly the same. The optional pursuit of collectable orbs (500 perched atop structures, 300 hidden away, and a few that actually run away or only activate during co-op sessions) feels mostly the same. Even the highly imperfect targeting system from “Crackdown” returns with no significant improvements made.

But while the amazing level of disinterest Ruffian Games shows in evolving the “Crackdown” formula almost certainly should reflect poorly on “Crackdown 2,” a typical game session often delivers more than enough arguments in favor of not breaking what no other game since has outdone. “Crackdown 2’s” control schemes for running, jumping and driving feel magnificently responsive, and while the weapon targeting definitely could be better, the system in place offers enough upside to justify its presence. The game offers tremendous freedom almost from the start, and the sum total of all the firepower, horsepower, geography and Agency-given talent adds up to an experience that’s shallow but explosively, tremendously fun.

Like its predecessor, “Crackdown 2” allows players to carry on with or without other players in their world, and the customizable four-player dynamic co-op emphatically improves on “Crackdown’s” barebones two-player support. “Crackdown 2” also offers 16-player competitive multiplayer for maximum chaos, but while it’s fun in small does, the element of open-world teamwork and anything-goes ingenuity falls away when everyone’s sole focus is on killing everyone else.


Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

Anyone who was charmed by 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” and gradually less impressed with the franchise’s takes on Indiana Jones and Batman will likely be downright annoyed to discover “Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4” continues the Lego games’ unfortunate tradition of not evolving in ways they really, really should.

But this wouldn’t really be a problem if “Potter” didn’t continue the series’ other tradition of continually turning out surprises within the constraints of its formula. It does — perhaps to a greater degree than any game since that “Star Wars” game — and so we’re faced yet again with taking the bad in order to take the good as well.

As the name implies, “Potter” covers the first four years of Harry’s seven-year saga, and you either don’t want the plot details spoiled for you or already know them like you know your own last name. As per series tradition, the game reenacts each year’s biggest moments using pantomiming Lego characters and recreating the scenes with a mix of authenticity and genuinely amusing creative license.

But “Potter” also covers a surprising number of lesser moments in each chapter, and the game allows players to take control of practically everyone — Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Dobby, even Scabbers the rat, among more than 150 others — in addition to Harry, Ron and Hermione. The amount of learnable spells is impressively high, and by using two cavernous hub levels (Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade and Hogwarts) instead of one, there’s a ton of fan service to discover off the stories’ main roads.

Per usual, passing a story level opens it up to free play, allowing players even more freedom in terms of the “Potter” characters they wish to control. Between all the possibilities that allows and the aforementioned main and optional content, “Potter” is a massive playground that offers 20-plus hours’ worth of stuff to do.

Unfortunately, those hours are also chock full of the same annoyances that have persisted since “Star Wars.” For a game that features fixed camera angles and lots of running and jumping, the jumping controls are still too squirrelly. Ditto for the targeting system, which occasionally makes casting certain spells with precision a case of trial and error if too many possible targets are clustered together.

The control imperfections are harder to understand because, for the most part and regardless of story scenario or characters used, “Potter” generally plays the same way. Some nice broom controls and the occasional vehicular objective are both welcome, but neither makes enough of an impact to give the game a strong sense of variety. Similarly, while “Potter” is loaded with cause-and-effect puzzles, most of them are too straightforward to count as puzzles so much as steps to take in order to make X happen and clear the path to get to Y.

Finally, while “Potter” supports two-player local co-op play, TT Games inexplicably continues to omit online co-op play. Sharing a couch with the other player is the best way to play, yes, but how hard can it be at this point to throw a bone to players who may not have the luxury of a willing second player nearby?


Puzzle Quest 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Infinite Interactive/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $15

After 2007’s “Puzzle Quest” surprised just about everybody by taking “Bejeweled” and using it as a means of battle in a story-driven role-playing game, a handful
of weird offshoots tried and mostly failed to take the idea to new avenues. So it’s no surprise to finally see “Puzzle Quest 2,” which brings the idea back to its roots and simply gets to tweaking from there. The net worth of those tweaks will certainly vary to players of different disciplines. The story is thin to the point of being boilerplate, and instead of capturing cities and managing armies, players rarely do more than move from fight to fight. But while “PQ2’s” outer shell feels dumbed down, the battles themselves are improved. Standard fights feel considerably more balanced than “PQ1’s” fights, which frequently approached untenably difficult levels, and the new item system aids an increase in gem types to let players win with skilled, creative play instead of waiting for the same old gems to appear. “PQ2” mixes in the occasional mini-game for variety’s sake, but the fight system evolves enough to carry the surprisingly lengthy single-player campaign. Naturally, players who want some human competition can find it via the game’s two-player local and online (360 only) multiplayer, which function exactly as one hopes and expects they would.