DVD 8/31/10: The Lottery, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Thriller: CS, A Quiet Little Marriage, 9th Company, Sons of Anarchy S2, Made For Each Other

The Lottery (NR, 2010, Great Curve Films)
We’re all deathly tired of hearing the many reasons and excuses for why education in America is a fruitless battle. But here’s the kicker with “The Lottery:” The key to winning that fight — charter schools, which live and die by performance alone and aren’t beholden to government-enforced curricula and such albatrosses as zoning laws, unions and underperforming teachers protected by tenure — sits front, center and vindicated by results. The schools are in such heavy demand, in fact, that they’re forced by law to hold public lotteries to decide which kids get in and which will have to settle for their nearest public school instead. The need for such a demoralizing exercise underscores the gist of the film, which argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t necessarily uncaring parents who deserve blame for the awful standards of education in poor neighborhoods. Rather, it’s the politicians (in both parties, lest you make any partisan assumptions), unions and anyone with an interest beyond that of educating the kids that gum up the works and turn a proven winning strategy into something parents and dedicated educators have to scratch and claw to make a possibility. “The Lottery,” which tracks the issue while following four families who have jockeyed for a spot in Harlem Success Academy, would be less aggravating if it was just another movie about a fight with no solution. By showing the solution straight away, backing up the claims and following it all up with galling displays of selfish bureaucrats ruining a good thing for unjustifiable reasons, it becomes absolutely infuriating. For frustrated parents and educators alike, this is as can’t-miss a film as there is.
Extras: Deleted scenes, Tribeca Film Festival panel with Director Madeleine Sackler, press clippings.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio (NR, 2009, Music Box Films)
Would you enjoy an international thriller about a French Intelligence special agent (Jean Dujardin as OSS 117) who treks to Rio de Janeiro to capture a Nazi blackmailer before he publicizes a list of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis during Word War II? You should probably write and direct it yourself then, because while “OSS 117: Lost in Rio’s” storyline is more than adequate with regard to details, twists and beautiful locales, it has no interest in thrilling anybody. Instead, “Rio,” which follows on the heels of 2006’s “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” is the latest attempt to spoof the tropes that came to define movies about spies in the 1960s and 1970s. What makes it especially good at this, though, is the way it makes fun of the era more than the films that come from it. Agent 117 is skilled and suave in spite of himself, but he’s also a shamelessly proud buffoon whose observations about everything from women to hippies to every ethnicity under the sun are hilariously ignorant even in his own time. “Rio” is shot like an old “Bond” film, but the script doesn’t wink at fans of the genre so much as revel in wordplay and political incorrectness in a way that’s extremely intelligently funny and unabashedly silly at the very same time. Movies rarely hit that note at all, much less consistently, but “Rio” holds it almost the whole way through, and while the story is surprisingly solid considering it intentions, you need not even enjoy spy movies to get a kick out of this. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Thriller: The Complete Series Deluxe Box Set (NR, 1960, Image Entertainment)
Old horror movies and shows don’t scare today like they once did, so it’s reasonable to assume the 67 episodes that comprise 1960’s “Thriller” no longer have the stuff of which nightmares are made. Fortunately, they also don’t really need it. “Thriller’s” themes certainly revolve around creeping its audience out, and Boris Karloff didn’t emcee the series just because he was bored. But the show, which tells one self-contained story per episode, carries out this theme with tales of loons and nut jobs more than monsters and haunted houses. The show takes its sweet time drilling into the minds of its normal and abnormal characters to paint a surprisingly thorough picture in 40 minutes’ time, and between the shows’ priorities and its affinity for endings that don’t always feel neat even when they end conclusively, “Thriller” feels more like “The Outer Limits” than “Tales From the Crypt.” People have changed since 1960, but they haven’t changed as much as horror has, and “Thriller,” in spite of regularly showing its age in the acting and production values department, is still entertaining now because of the choices it made then. William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, Rip Torn and Mary Tyler Moore, among others, appear in various episodes.
Contents: 67 episodes (commentary from cast and crew as well as television and horror experts on 27 of them), plus original promotional materials, photo galleries and isolated musical scores from selected episodes.

A Quiet Little Marriage (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
We weren’t there to bear witness, but according to Dax (Cy Carter), he and wife Olive (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) shared an understanding since their very first date that they never would have children together. Be it because of time, marriage or extraneous factors, though, Olive’s mindset has changed. And while numerous ironic and literal reasons abound for the meaning behind “A Quiet Little Marriage’s” name, the sneaky scheming both spouses do to facilitate or prevent a pregnancy is as worthy a culprit as any of them. “Marriage’s” premise — to say nothing of its cast (Jimmi Simpson, Charlie Day) — has every necessary ingredient on hand for a dry, dark comedy, but it opts instead to go the complete other way and give every bleak drama you’ve ever seen a run for their money. Occasionally, particularly in the latter half, it goes overboard with the tear-jerking and crumpling of characters into heaps, and some of those extraneous factors feel like nothing more than piling on. But for as gloomy as “Marriage” sometimes gets, it never completely loses its bead on the balance it strikes before things get messy. The script’s frankness and thoughtfulness outweighs its occasional tendency to go overboard, and as result, the darkness it touches resonates rather than grates. Michael O’Neill also stars.
Extras: Director/Carter/Ellis commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

9th Company (R, 2005, Well Go USA)
Set in late 1987 and culminating with a dramatization of the Battle for Hill 3234 in Afghanistan, “9th Company” is perhaps most interesting for what it represents — a film about a Soviet war from Russia itself — than what it actually is. “Company’s” opening scenes take a cue or two from “Full Metal Jacket” by introducing us to the titular company as fresh-off-the-bus recruits and letting us witness their graduation from wimps and punks into bona fide soldiers. The film’s last act, on the other hand, feels inspired by any number of Hollywood epics, presenting the Battle for Hill 3234 through a hodgepodge of hero shots, slow-motion and dubious allegiance to historical accuracy. In between, “Company” bounces around awkwardly — a beautifully-shot film with lots of bared teeth but not much concrete direction with which to put all the showmanship to full use. That’s a problem in any movie, and it’s especially apparent when, like this one, that movie runs nearly 140 minutes long. “Company” is fascinating for the aforementioned curiosity it fulfills, and it’s a fun watch in spite of its appetite for domestic subjectivity and narrative meandering, but frustration gives fun a much tougher fight than it should have. In Russian with English subtitles.
Extras: “20 Years Later” feature, behind-the-scenes feature, premiere footage.

Sons of Anarchy: Season Two (NR, 2009, Fox)
“Sons of Anarchy’s” first season ended with a tragically botched attempt to kill off a seemingly disloyal member of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, and the fallout from that act sent the growing rift between club President Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and Vice President Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) on the fast track to nuclear eruption. It stands to reason, then, that some will be disappointed with “Anarchy’s” second season, which finds the temperature right where the first season left it but tables the explosive showdown in favor of more slow boiling. But sending Clay and Jax into a full-blown duel this early would be like giving away the Harry Potter-Voldemort showdown in the second book instead of the seventh. We all know it’s coming, and “Anarchy,” which terrifically undermined the glamour of motorcycle gangs in its first season, impresses similarly with its deconstruction of the struggle between hot tempers, obligatory machismo, workplace mundanity, selfishness, teamwork, and the attempt to have a little fun for a change. And if you want some fireworks? Fret not: The Aryans, who played a bit role in season one, are front and center this time, and what happens at the end of the first episode instantly cements them as more loathsome than anything that first season dished out. Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins join the cast.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Made For Each Other (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
It’s fun to watch people we recognize from television make good in movies, and between Christopher Masterson (“Malcolm in the Middle”), Danny Masterson (“That ’70s Show”), Patrick Warburton (“Seinfeld”) and Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”), “Made for Each Other” is loaded with fun possibilities. The film’s plotline also has comic potential: Dan’s (Christopher Masterson) two-month-old marriage to Marci (Bijou Phillips) has yet to even be consummated, and after an ill-conceived affair with his boss (Lauren German), he hatches a plan to trick his wife into having an affair of her own and assuaging his guilt. Problem is, “MFEO” doesn’t know — at all — how to take an amusing concept and stretch it into a 97-minute movie. Instead, it flails madly, filling time with attempted shock humor (old people talking crudely about sex!), subplots that give the joke away immediately and spend multiple scenes going nowhere, and completely random (and, unless a “Waterworld” musical sounds fresh to you, painfully dated) gags that might work in an episode of “Family Guy” but feel like a sorry purging of half-baked notebook scribbles here. “MFEO” tries for sincerity after things inevitably blow up in everyone’s face, but by then, the whole thing is so unlikable that the only people who get any real sympathy are the actors whose careers have been reduced to carrying this script out.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 8/31/10: Metroid: Other M, Mafia II, Shank

Metroid: Other M
For: Wii
From: Team Ninja/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

Nintendo took a risk with “Metroid” in 2002 by turning a sidescrolling, exploration-heavy platformer into a trilogy of first-person shooters, so it’s kind of funny that “Metroid: Other M” feels significantly riskier despite at least partially fulfilling what fans expected a 3D “Metroid” game to look like in the first place.

Generally speaking, “M” is a third-person action game that’s heavy on shooting but presented through a semi-fixed camera perspective typically reserved for “God of War” and other action games that lean on melee combat. The shooting is assisted to the point where it feels like an old “Metroid” game: Samus fires in whatever general direction she’s facing, and instead of testing players’ aiming proficiency, the game challenges by loading areas with enemies and forcing players to dash, jump, dodge and otherwise change direction quickly. It works, and in terms of combat intensity, it’s a huge leap forward.

In another nod to “Metroid’s” formative years, players control “M” solely with the Wii remote, holding it sideways and moving Samus with the D-pad instead of the more natural nunchuck joystick. It’s an odd fit given the game’s 3D disposition, but the controls are responsive enough to make it work when in third-person mode.

Where the nunchuck is missed is during “M’s” most clever trick, which lets players enter first-person shooter mode at any point by turning the remote and pointing it at the screen like a blaster. The additional viewpoint is an ingenious use of the Wii’s capabilities, and “M” capitalizes on it by giving players free reign to mix both viewpoints during exploration as well as combat. Problem is, the lack of joystick support means players are sitting ducks in first-person mode. Switching between the two perspectives is a bit jarring, and when you have to do so quickly and in the company of enemies whose movements are never restricted, cheap attacks are inevitable.

That occasional problem aside, though, the gutsy use of two disparate viewpoints and schemes makes “M” a special game instead of simply what everyone expected “Metroid” to become, and it doesn’t come at the expense of anything for which the series is known. “M’s” lush landscapes are rife with secret passageways, hidden upgrades and non-linear terrain that only becomes traversable once Samus finds some of those upgrades. Classic enemies accompany numerous new faces, and the boss fights that have long been the franchise’s hallmark are consistently inventive and, thanks to “M’s” new ideas, very intense. This is a wonderfully tough and intelligent game.

Perhaps “M’s” biggest risk of all is its outfitting of Samus with a full backstory, that she narrates, after 24 years of games in which she rarely uttered a single word. “M’s” stab at Samus’ origins is drippy and clumsy, and those who have enjoyed her silent stoicism might wish to avert their eyes and ears from her newfound ability to pour her feelings everywhere. But any attempt to color the past of an iconic Nintendo character is a valiant one, and even if “M” doesn’t take the history where some would like it to go, it still beats driving down the same tired avenues we already know by heart.

And if you absolutely hate the story? Sorry, you can’t skip the cutscenes. But they’re brief, and they don’t dictate the mood of the gameplay, which is as perfectly “Metroid” in this incarnation as in any other.


Mafia II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, OnLive
From: 2K Czech/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs and alcohol)

Because “Grand Theft Auto” popularized it and because most other games have simply fallen in line, conventional wisdom suggests that any game with an open world must fill that world with umpteen pointless activities to justify its worth.

“Mafia II” doesn’t do this. Empire Bay, the fictionalized but very recognizable riff on 1940s New York City, is wide open for discovery, and players can steal cars and visit shops between missions until their thumbs are sore. But outside of some collectibles and a small smattering of elective activities, there really isn’t much of anything for players to accomplish off the storyline’s main roads.

But is that really a terrible thing when those main roads include a storyline that spans 12-15 hours and takes players from World War II, through prison and up the ladders of multiple families? “Mafia II” prioritizes its characters and the finer details of their world over obligatory busywork, and the choice pays off at little expense to the game’s value.

It certainly helps that 2K Czech gets the core mechanics right, even if the game falls into the open world mission design trap of having players repeatedly assume the role of virtual errand boy. Story dictation aside, the bulk of “Mafia II’s” missions consist of some combination of driving to a destination, shooting or brawling with enemies, and driving back.

But while the shooting is standard cover-based third-person fare — and is saddled with a radar system that occasionally misleads players about the proximity of enemies — the action is considerably more polished than the sloppy gunplay that was excused in the “Grand Theft Auto” and “Godfather” games as a byproduct of their open-world design. “Mafia II’s” hand-to-hand combat portions lose steam due to how easy it is to dodge punches, but the one-on-one nature of the fistfights far outclasses the meandering brawling found in those other games.

“Mafia II’s” driving controls, while no more exemplary than the norm, are similarly dependable, and the game strikes a nice chord by both increasing and decreasing the realism at the same time. Empire Bay’s cops try to pull players over for speeding and running red lights in addition to the usual violations, and cars flagged as wanted remain that way until they’re modified at a body shop. At the same time, the game doesn’t make it a hassle to lose the police — especially when a mission is in progress — unless the chase is part of the mission’s design.

Small considerations like those continually enhance the experience. Stealing cars means physically picking the lock instead of just tapping a button, and because it’s easier to just keep the car you already have, it’s also easier to form bonds with (and pay to upgrade) certain cars instead of steal any ride in sight. Hiding from cops while wanted is fun because the cover controls double as stealth controls, and while injuries heal themselves and cars always run, players who stop for food and gas will outperform those who don’t.

It’s also easy to develop a true sense of place when the game coats the streets with ice and plays Christmas music during one stretch and presents the same environments later on with the effects of changing seasons and passing years both accounted for. “Mafia II’s” storyline borrows liberally from the big box of Mafia movie tropes, but between the scope, the details and how good everything looks and sounds, the excessive reverence is easily forgiven.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Klei Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, sexual themes, strong language, violence)
Price: $15

Everything about “Shank” has been done before and will be done again, but maybe no game has put it all together
and made it look this easy to do so. Like “Metal Slug,” “Shank” is a cartoony sidescroller that outfits players with some guns, a few grenades and a jump button. But “Shank” also borrows the melee combat of a “Devil May Cry” and, like that game, lets players mix the two styles on the ground, in the air and in whatever combination they please. A handful of hand-to-hand attacks — including the magnificent pounce ability last seen in the “Wolverine” game — further expands the arsenal, and the ability to scale ledges and run along walls lets players perform stunts normally reserved for the Prince of Persia. “Shank” is by no means an easy game, and some of the tougher enemies and bosses have some pretty cheap attacks in their bag. But the game’s rich arsenal of abilities is outclassed only by its ability to tuck everything into a dead-simple control scheme that turns even middling players into supermen, and a generous checkpoint system allows players to play dangerously without worrying excessively about the consequences. “Shank” sports a single-player storyline as well as a separate suite of co-op (local or online) missions, and it bakes both inside an outstanding graphic novel presentation that’s refreshingly minimalist, beautiful to look at and bursting with awesome character designs.

DVD 8/24/10: The Square, City Island, Addicted to Her Love, $5 a Day, Survival of the Dead, The Age of Stupid, History Channel's Instant Expert series, Flight of the Conchords CC, The Simpsons S13

The Square (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Is there anything more morbidly enjoyable in the movies than when a simple plan built on a single lie spirals fully out of control? If your answer to that question is “no,” you’d do wise to skip the rest of this review and just dive blindly in. “The Square’s” baseline premise isn’t exactly complicated: Raymond (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom) are in love with each other, unhappily married to their current spouses, and, because they also happen to be neighbors, struggle mightily to see each other when no one’s around and avoid each other when everyone’s together. To hatch a plan to run away together, all Raymond needs is a little financial assurance that they won’t starve after making their escape. And this is where things completely spin out of control. “The Square” is absolutely a worst-case scenario, and some of the twists that happen just feel like a case of piling on. But even those instances are so, so good at unleashing the full effect of what happens when rash attempts to cover one mistake result in something even worse that leads to even more ill-fated attempted problem-solving. The dread and envy those telling lies have of those liberated by honesty is palpable, and the discomfort is such that you may never wish to tell another fib, no matter how small, ever again. Anthony Hayes, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence and Joel Edgerton also star.
Extras: Short film “Spider,” deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, music video.

City Island (PG-13, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Everybody in the Rizzo family is hiding something. Vince (Andy Garcia), a correctional officer, is attending acting classes behind wife Joyce’s (Julianna Margulies) back, and when he brings one of his prisoners (Steven Strait as Tony) home for a 30-day stay, he neglects to mention the part about him being his son from a prior entanglement. (Even Tony doesn’t know.) That sparks a few new secrets on Joyce’s side, and meanwhile, son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) is hiding a secret fetish while daughter Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido) is secretly stripping to pay for school. Movies about the undoing of familial secrets are nothing new, but “City Island” has a little secret of its own: Instead of devolving into yet another dour mess of confessions and tears, it opts instead to parlay that unraveling into some seriously sharp comedy. “Island” is as much a drama as it is a comedy, and there are numerous scenes that have nothing to do with making audiences laugh. But the comedic edge that permeates throughout — and the ingenious placement of Tony at ground zero of every secret — is as responsible for making those heartfelt moments matter as the moments themselves. We root for the Rizzos because we like them, and we like them because they’re as amusing and idiotic as they are sweet. “Island’s” ability to balance both dispositions is enviably skillful. Emily Mortimer also stars.
Extras: Writer/director/Garcia commentary, deleted scenes, “Dinner with the Rizzos” feature.

Addicted to Her Love (R, 2006, E1 Entertainment)
Given how absolutely laughable most teen dramas fare in their attempts to illustrate the self-induced mental agony that is the need to fit in, it’s a real shame when a movie that completely nails it has to live in total obscurity while waiting four years for a DVD release. “Addicted to Her Love” finds a friendless, socially awkward high school nobody (John Patrick Amedori as Jonah) infiltrating the upper echelon of popularity — a clique that happens to include the girl (Lizzy Caplan as Sara) he’s lusted after for years — once it becomes known he works at a pharmacy and can provide them free drugs. Skeletally speaking, what happens next is by no means a surprise, and anyone with half a brain knows this can’t possibly end well. But between the lines, “Love” is a vicious look at someone playing completely out of his mind in hopes of achieving a status he couldn’t possibly handle if he ever even makes it there. Because it’s a movie, it inevitably provides an extreme instance of social angst and its possible consequences. But “Love’s” acute conveyance of that angst is absolutely dead on, and it’s better to see it go a bit overboard than go where a million other teen dramas have already been. D.J. Cotrona and Daryl Hannah also star.
Extras: Director/Amedori commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

$5 a Day (PG-13, 2008, Image Entertainment)
Strained family relations are always a tricky thing to overcome, and things only get messier when Dad (Christopher Walken as Nat) is a lifelong small-time con and his somewhat estranged son (Alessandro Nivola as Richie) picked up a few of the same tricks en route to losing his wife (Amanda Peet) and job. But Nat isn’t kidding when he discloses his terminal illness to Richie, and the cross-country trip to undergo an experimental treatment that comprises the backbone of “$5 a Day” represents the best possible opportunity for the two to reconcile their differences before they lose the chance. As the circumstances imply, “Day” isn’t your typical raucously funny road trip movie, and some of its heavier moments arrive right on schedule. But “Day” doesn’t let the cloudy skies undermine the fact that it has two con men trying to share some honest feelings with one another, nor does it have any difficulty countering every sobering moment with a funny or at least clever instance of Richie and Nat pulling fast ones together or on each other. “Day’s” energy meanders regularly, and as happens in road trip stories, some scenes and characters (Sharon Stone) feel plucked at random. But there’s a very engaging common thread running throughout, and even during the fleeting moments where “Day” flounders, Nat is too endearing a character to let it flail for very long.
Extras: Director/cast interviews, photo gallery.

Survival of the Dead (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
There’s a reason George A. Romero has made an industry out of what essentially is a single trick, and while “Survival of the Dead” isn’t among his best works, that reason remains on display here. In this particular episode, two families on a remote stretch of coastal Delaware represent a larger conflict with regard to how to treat the walking dead. One faction, led by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), thinks the undead should simply die for good on sight. The other believes the only way to save humanity from a complete zombie apocalypse is to eventually cure the undead and, in the meantime, “train” them to feed on species other than humans. “Dead” is a zombie movie like so many other zombie movies, especially when things inevitably go south halfway through. But Romero’s predictable zombie tricks are acceptable because this, like his other movies, isn’t really about the zombies. “Dead’s” best feature, per series custom, is its characters, who are cleverly conceived, full of wild ideas, and can channel their fear and general saltiness in ways that make them interesting at worst and likable against all odds at best. Romero has a knack for showing the hopeful, congenial side of apocalyptic hopelessness, and when it’s that easy to understand why everyone’s fighting the impossible fights, it’s just as easy, in spite of all that’s predictable here, to be entertained the whole way. Alan Van Sprang, Kathleen Munroe and Devon Bostick also star.
Extras: Romero/crew commentary, Romero introduction, “Walking After Midnight” documentary, “Sarge” short film, 13 behind-the-scenes shorts, three additional behind-the-scenes features, storyboards, how-to on creating your own zombie bite.

The Age of Stupid (NR, 2009, Docurama)
Documentaries waxing alarmist about climate change have flooded the market since “An Inconvenient Truth” cracked the dam in 2006, and the predictable side effect is that the alarms have blared so of
ten that nobody really hears them anymore. The result of that effect is “The Age of Stupid,” which on multiple levels is a climate change documentary desperately in search of some kind of edge. The title and packaging are unmistakable attention grabs, as is the accompanying presumption that “Stupid” eschews the normal pattern of these films in favor of some overdue bluntness or perhaps just something with enough flair to engage those who don’t already care. But “Stupid’s” real gimmick — it takes place in 2055, at the fictitious Global Archive building, with an archivist (played by Pete Postlethwaite) looking back on the building blocks of humanity’s downfall via present-day news footage and your typical documentary vignettes — offers little more than awkward interference. And as the archivist hops from clip to clip, “Stupid” suffers the same affliction so many other like-minded films do: It covers too many topics and is too scattered to offer anything better than pedestrian insight into any of them. The individual stories contained within are interesting in their own respect, but as a tool for inspiring behavioral changes or even just changing perceptions, “Stupid” doesn’t reach for any nerves so many also-rans haven’t already tried and failed to touch.
Extras: Crew commentary, behind-the-scenes documentary, eight short climate films, deleted scenes, extended interviews, Postlethwaite ambushing the UK’s Minister of Climate Change, 10:10 Campaign feature.

Worth a Mention
— History Channel’s “Instant Expert” series (NR, 2010): In case you don’t have the time or willingness to watch a multi-episodic series (or you know, read a book) about various subjects in history, the History Channel is trying to accommodate with a new series of DVDs that are the DVD equivalent of CliffsNotes. The “Instant Expert” DVDs run anywhere from 50 to 140 minutes long, and as the title of the series implies, the goal is to cover as much ground in as little time as needed to bring viewers up to speed on the topic. For good measure, each DVD also includes and interactive quiz and a study guide with activities and talking points. Subjects covered in first wave include Egypt, The Mayflower, Benjamin Franklin, The French Revolution, “Beowulf” and the oil industry.
— “Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Collection” (NR, 2007, HBO): The saddest thing about this release is that it effectively shuts the door on whatever hope fans had for a third (and fourth, and fifth, and twelfth) season of perhaps the funniest show HBO ever aired. This set includes all the contents (22 episodes, Dave’s pawn shop commercials, New Zealand Consulate Meetings with Murray and Greg, deleted scenes, outtakes and a behind-the-scenes feature) of the two individual season sets, and throws in a bonus disc that contains the Conchords’ “One Night Stand” HBO concert special.
— “The Simpsons: The Complete 13th Season” (NR, 2001, Fox): Isn’t it crazy that there are 13 seasons’ worth of “Simpsons” episodes to put on DVD? Isn’t it even crazier that this 13th collection’s episodes originally aired nearly nine years ago, and there are actually 21 seasons worth of episodes, with more to come? Episodes in season 13 include Moe’s temporary transformation into a hipster bar, Bart’s brief stay in a plastic bubble, the return of Artie Ziff and yet another traumatic memory from Homer’s childhood. Includes 22 episodes (commentary on all), plus a Matt Groening introduction, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, alternate animation angles, sketch galleries and Ralph Wiggum-branded packaging.

Games 8/24/10: Ivy the Kiwi?, Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, Monster Dash

Ivy the Kiwi?
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Prope/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you squint hard enough to see through the Wii’s forest of ill-devised motion control tech demos, half-baked mini-game collections and one-trick peripherals, you might be lucky enough to spot a game like “Ivy the Kiwi?,” a completely sublime example of a game that hones in on one thing the Wii does best and takes perfect advantage of it without any unnecessary fuss whatsoever.

“Ivy’s” premise is simple: Ivy, a freshly-hatched chick, is lost and looking for her mother, and players are tasked with making that reunion happen.

“Ivy” presents itself as a sidescrolling platformer, but players have no direct control over Ivy: Instead, they point the Wii remote at the screen and use it to create vines that Ivy can walk on, spring from and use as protection from traps and enemies en route to reaching a level’s goal. Like a lemming, Ivy never stops walking, so a quick, steady hand is needed to create vines quickly and put them to good use.

If you’ve played “Kirby Canvas Curse” on the Nintendo DS, you have a good idea how this works, and it’s no surprise “Ivy” is appearing on that platform as well.

But while creating vines is easier with a stylus, it’s considerably more fun with the remote. “Ivy” lets players “swing” the vines while creating them by swinging the remote in a circular motion, which in turn launches Ivy forward or upward. Players also can treat a created vine like a slingshot and launch Ivy toward enemies and destructible blocks. All of this is elementarily possible with a stylus, but the Wii controls are so natural and intuitive that the sensation of unfurling, swinging and slinging vines feels surprisingly like the real thing.

The bigger screen also allows “Ivy’s” magnificent visual presentation — picture an animated watercolor drawing presented as a living storybook — to dazzle that much more. “Ivy” is a minimalist work in terms of art, sound and storytelling, but it’s a marvelous example of how to do a lot with a little. If little Ivy doesn’t charm you, little else can.

Like many of history’s best 2D platformers, “Ivy’s” adorability belies how challenging its 100-plus levels eventually become. The game is generous with extra lives and endless continues, but in return, it asks players to complete levels without making a single fatal mistake. Simply doing that is a hearty (but very fair) challenge by itself, and the truly bold can test themselves further by trying to collect the 10 feathers scattered around each level and still reach the goal before the clock hits zero. “Ivy” grades players’ performance on each level, and perfectionists can revisit completed levels at their leisure to improve their marks.

Beyond how well it accommodates both novice and skilled players, “Ivy’s” biggest surprise might be its multiplayer (2-4 players, local only).

A co-op mode allows two players to draw vines for a single Ivy, which turns “Ivy” into a terrific game parent and child can play together. Competitive multiplayer, meanwhile, pits four Ivys in a splitscreen race to reach the goal first, which sounds completely ordinary until players realize they can draw vines in other players’ quadrants and sabotage their progress. Instantly, a sweet story about a chick looking for her mama becomes one of the most cutthroat and hilariously fun multiplayer modes to grace the Wii this year.


Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, OnLive
From: IO Interactive/Eidos/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language)

It’s almost reflex to criticize the storyline portion of “Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days” for being too short at around four hours long. But given how dishearteningly the story’s backward steps outnumber its forward steps, four hours might be plenty — especially if you find the more inspired multiplayer offerings more to your liking anyway.

On the positive front, “Days” is a more polished third-person shooter than its 2007 predecessor. Finding cover actually generally works this time, and while the automatic weapons remain frustratingly inaccurate, the pistols and absurdly powerful shotguns are sufficiently precise. In addition to smoothing out the framerate, a clever new visual style presents the action as though it’s being filmed on a handicam — video grain, compression artifacts, color separation, light streaking — and it effectively enhances the ugliness of the game’s violence. (The nauseating shaky cam effect can, mercifully, be disabled.)

But those filters color a storyline that drops players into much duller scenarios and offers exponentially less character insight than the first game did. Kane and Lynch weren’t exactly lovable in their debut, but “Days” renders them downright loathsome, and helping them reach the game’s laughably abrupt ending feels nearly as empty as getting them killed.

And while “Days” is a better shooter than its predecessor, it still sins too often for its own good. Enemies require far too many bullets to defeat — a problem compounded by the aforementioned inaccuracy — and it’s a slog to take them down when their psychic A.I. allows them to pelt away the second players pop out of cover. Occasionally, the cover doesn’t even work, forcing aggravated players to decide between being slowly decimated by endless gunfire or seeking new cover at the risk of being knocked down and cheaply ripped to shreds.

The failure to truly polish the shooting mechanics makes it harder to understand the complete removal of the squad mechanics that allowed players some control over their A.I. partner in the original. “Days” is best played with a friend controlling the second character via splitscreen/online co-op, but that’s little solace to players who have to fly solo and deal with an A.I. partner who isn’t terribly helpful. Between this, the uninspired level designs and the shoddy mechanics, “Days” doesn’t even need the entirety of its short lifespan to wear out its welcome.

Fortunately, while those mechanics carry over to “Days'” online multiplayer (8-12 players), the level playing field and terrific general premise make them significantly more tolerable.

The common thread connecting the multiplayer modes is trust, or lack thereof. Fragile Alliance pits players in a co-op heist against A.I. cops but lets players turn against the group in the name of greed. (The downside is, of course, getting killed by the group and respawning, penniless, as a cop.) Undercover Cop, meanwhile, designates one mystery player as a mole, tasking him with taking the alliance down from within before the other players can out him.

The pinch of paranoia transforms just another shooter into a mind game with guns, and the ability to parlay heist earnings into better weaponry provides “Days” some badly-needed replay value. Other multiplayer shooters do the shooting part better, but until they rip these ideas off, “Days” is just unique enough to merit a look.


Monster Dash
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Halfbrick Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

No one born before yesterday will give “Monster Dash” credit for being original: It’s another derivative of ”
Canabalt,” and outside of giving players a weapon and some monsters to shoot, it doesn’t mess with the formula. For those unfamiliar with “Canabalt,” the gist is simple: The game’s main character is constantly and furiously running from left to right, and players must hit the jump button at the right times so the character leaps from platform to platform without falling to his demise. The longer he runs, the better your score. “Dash” adds its own small twist to the niche by populating the platforms with monsters and giving players a default pistol (and some clever collectible weapons) with which to dispatch them, but that little touch becomes a big touch when it effectively doubles the number of tasks that “Canabalt” asked players to perform. That doesn’t magically transform “Dash” into a supremely deep experience, but between those mechanics, the multiple environments, the random generation of each environment for each play and the innately addictive nature of pursuing personal and online high scores, there’s plenty of enjoyment to justify the bargain-basement asking price. The appealing presentation — colorful cartoony graphics, a catchy soundtrack and a sense of humor in the menu screens — doesn’t hurt, either.

DVD 8/17/10: The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Temple Grandin, Dark and Stormy Night, Cougar Town S1, Burning Bright, Dexter S4, Friday Night Lights S4, Furry Vengeance

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (R, 2008, IFC Films)
If you bemoan the slowed-to-a-trickle production of great American westerns in the 21st century, maybe you’re just looking in the wrong continent. Asia established a fresh foothold in the genre with “Sukiyaki Western Django,” and with “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” it’s in the formative stages of what hopefully will be its own golden age. “TGTBTW’s” story is perfectly classic: There’s buried treasure to be had, there’s only one map marking the spot, and the race is on the grab the map first and head to the X. But one look at the roster of competing parties — a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung), an assassin (Lee Byung-hun), a petty thief (Song Kang-ho), a gang Chinese bandits and the Japanese army — is all one needs to glean just how crazy “TGTBTW” intends to get, and from the train robbery in the opener to a final showdown that somehow manages to be dryly funny and poignant for many of the same reasons, the movie does that assumption proud. “TGTBTW” runs long at 130 minutes, and it isn’t above mixing a little self-indulgence into those minutes. But the movie’s idea of indulgence likely isn’t far removed from that of its intended viewership, and the mishmash of action, comedy, Old West/Steampunk technology and fearless character designing and mingling rarely, if ever, finds “TGTBTW” lacking for moment-to-moment entertainment. Provided you don’t mind subtitles, it doesn’t get much more fun than this. In Korean, Japanese and Mandarian with English subtitles.
Extras: Cast interviews, three behind-the-scenes features, Cannes Film Festival footage.

Temple Grandin (NR, 2010, HBO)
Considering how frequently television and movies try to cash in on autistic characters without providing any insight whatsoever into their condition, the job “Temple Grandin” does of doing exactly that — and, in part, before the opening credits even roll — practically classifies as a public shaming. “Grandin” tells the true story of the titular character (played here by Claire Danes), who parlayed her living with autism into a dual-service career that changed the face of farming, of all things, as well as the lives of those who share her condition. You’ll have to see her story to see how one struggle resulted in two disparate achievements, but as implied earlier, “Grandin” deftly explains everything. More than simply tell Grandin’s story, though, the movie — through some terrifically simple visual effects ingenuity — provides a surprising measure of insight into exactly what this condition is and how those who have it see things in ways the rest of us do not. “Grandin” obviously can convey only so much, but it deserves commendation at least trying to do so, and it deserves some gratitude for succeeding to the degree it does. Catherine O’Hara, Julia Ormond and David Strathairn also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary featuring the real Temple Grandin, behind-the-scenes feature.

Dark and Stormy Night (NR, 2009, Shout Factory)
Though the movie was shot in 2008, “Dark and Stormy Night’s” premise — a collection of shady and stuffy individuals convene at a mansion for the reading of Sinas Cavinder’s will — is straight out of a hack job murder/mystery film from the 1940s. But that, along with the monochromatic cinematography and characters straight out of a low-rent murder/mystery dinner theater troupe, is the point. Fortunately, it’s not the whole point. Writer/director Larry Blamire has carved a niche for himself by making feature-length movies that both make fun of and pay homage to a bygone era of film that’s bygone for a reason, and “Night” demonstrates just how good he is at continually going back to that well without letting the gag get stale. More than simply that, though, the movie is just plain hilarious, complementing its primary gag with a steady mix of sharply funny jokes and completely silly plays on words that are delivered just dryly enough to fall on the right side of the funny/cringeworthy fence. And wouldn’t you know it? All these amusing characters have a way of endearing themselves, and as result, their ties to mysteries behind the Cavinder will actually kind of matter. The story’s never really the point of “Night,” but making it interesting certainly is a nice bonus.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.
— Also out this week from Blamire: “The Lost Skeleton Returns Again” (NR, 2009, Shout Factory): Like everything you read above but prefer it be filtered through a monster movie (which also happens to be a sequel to 2001’s “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”) instead? Wish granted.

Cougar Town: The Complete First Season (NR, 2009, ABC Studios)
The crazed energy that made “Scrubs” tick isn’t a lock to work in any scenario and especially with any actor. Such low-rent wisdom could not be any more apparent during “Cougar Town’s” pilot episode, which finds Courtney Cox playing way out of her element as Jules, a freshly-divorced and fresh-on-the-prowl mother of one (Dan Byrd) who desperately needs to reclaim some of her youth regardless of how much dignity it might cost. “Town” partially comes from the same brain trust behind “Scrubs,” but that isn’t automatically apparent during a first episode that finds most of the cast tripping over itself to simultaneously introduce their characters and establish the same comedic vibe. Fortunately, that first episode makes a slight recovery during the tail end, and subsequent episodes gradually fare better. Eventually, the comfort level is such that “Town” can settle into the business of being its own show instead of the messy “Scrubs” wannabe it originally portended to be. It never hits the heights that its spiritual predecessor reached during its own debut season, but with season two’s debut around the corner, the potential at least is there. Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez and Brian Van Holt also star.
Contents: 24 episodes, plus deleted scenes, one behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, features with Barb and Bobby Cobb (makes more sense once you’ve seen the show), “Jimmy Kimmel Live’s” “Saber-Tooth Tiger Town” parody.

Burning Bright (PG-13, 2010, Lions Gate)
Have you heard the one about the girl (Briana Evigan as Kelly) who, following her mother’s death, is tasked with taking care of her autistic brother (Charlie Tahan as Tom) because her stepfather (Garret Dillahunt) not only is unfit to do so, but is so selfish that he spent her entire college fund on a Bengal tiger for his fledgling safari park? If you have, then you already know that while stepdad is out at a bar, the tiger breaks out of his trailer and slips into Kelly’s house, which is otherwise boarded shut because a pending hurricane. The premise is a bit nuts, and you could institutionalize yourself wondering why Kelly and Tom don’t just escape through the door that isn’t boarded up. But where’s the fun in that, especially when everything else about “Burning Bright” works rather well? Compared to the premise, “Bright’s” second and third acts are refreshingly spartan for a horror film: There isn’t a dull string of secondary characters to kill, nor is there any need to explain the tiger’s motivation, because it’s a tiger. “Bright” pauses here and there to give Kelly and Tom some effective dimension, but for the most part, it’s a straightforward and (hang-ups about logic aside) legitimately tense chase. Given how constrictive the parameters are, “Bright” does more with less to impressive effect.
Extras: Evigan introduction, behind-the-scenes feature.

Dexter: The Fourth Season (NR, 2009, Showtime)
With all due respect to The Trinity Killer (John Lithgow), who succeeds The Skinner as Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) prime arch nemesis, the real splash in “Dexter’s” fourth season comes from the one-two-three punch
that is his fledging marriage to Rita (Julie Benz), the birth of his first son, and a move to the suburbs. Secretly hunting and turning the tables on serial killers is that much more difficult when you have a family constantly in your business, and “Dexter” outdoes itself by taking everything that made its first three seasons great and parlaying it into perhaps the most bizarre family drama in television history. “Dexter’s” week-to-week storylines display no signs of losing their edge four seasons in, and while the move to the suburbs steals the show at first, the thorough mental evisceration of Lithgow’s character represents the series’ best character dress-down since it started picking apart the guy whose name is in the title.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus freebie episodes of Showtime shows “Californication” (season three, episodes one and two), “Lock ‘N Load” (season one, episode one) and “The Tudors” (season four, episode one). Additional content — cast interviews and a second episode of “The Tudors” — is available only via Showtime’s E-Bridge software, which requires an Internet-capable PC to use.

Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season (NR, 2009, NBC Universal)
Every season of “Friday Night Lights” seems to have less actual football in it than the one before it, and season four continues that trend even as it drops a second high school football team inside Dillon, Tex.’s city limits. But that trend works just fine for the show’s purpose. “FNL’s” depiction of football is top-notch, but it’s the way the show handles its cast that really makes it something special. The students aren’t merely vessels for some problem of the week, nor are the adults simply there to play foil and provide some other obligatory glue. Both sides have terrific depth, and now that some players from earlier seasons remain in the cast as fledgling adults, “FNL” even has the gap in the middle somewhat bridged. Football still plays a crucial part, of course, and the tale of two Dillons is the most interesting conceit yet for a “FNL” season. But any given episode might rattle off multiple batches of scenes in which no football takes place, and at no point during these moments does the show feel the least bit lacking.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features and episode introductions by series creator Peter Berg.

Furry Vengeance (PG, 2010, Summit Entertainment)
Here’s a test: Take Brendan Fraser, place him in a kids’ movie about a man (Fraser) who moves his family from Chicago to the woods so he can assist in replacing the surrounding forest with townhouses, and hatch a plot in which the animals in the forest catch wind of the development and hatch a plan to stop him. Can you see where the rest of this story is going without watching one minute of it beforehand? Of course you can. “Furry Vengeance” actually has its share of cute moments, and it scores points for letting its live-action animals chirp and growl like animals instead of crack a bunch of annoying one-liners by way of annoying voice actors. But even without people supplying the voices for the animals, “Vengeance’s” problem still comes down to too much human interference. Fraser and his castmates (Brooke Shields, Matt Prokop and Ken Jeong, among others) are exactly what you hoped they wouldn’t be but still knew they would be — vessels for the same old lame jokes one minute, heartless buffoons the next, vessels for the inevitable change of heart later on. “Vengeance” paints its overt message about environmental preservation with laughably simple strokes, and while it may ultimately mean well, it’s far too unimaginative to entertain and way too uninspired to provide value in any other facet.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Games 8/17/10: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Quake Live

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Coming soon for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence, language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Were “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” simply an awesome stab at capitalizing on a comic book and movie that itself lovingly rides the wave of 1980s video gaming nostalgia, it’d be a perfectly easy game to recommend.

But “Pilgrim” humbles simple nostalgia by taking those old games down avenues that either weren’t imagined or weren’t technologically possible back in their day. And it even does contemporary gaming a few better with a level of stylish abandon few games have the appetite to match.

This isn’t to suggest “Pilgrim” reinvents what it fundamentally is — a sidescrolling beat-em-up in the vein of “Double Dragon,” and especially “River City Ransom” — or that those who couldn’t get into those games 20 years ago will somehow get into this now. The objective remains the same, and while “Pilgrim” uses slightly more of the controller than its forebears could, it inevitably and regularly devolves into pounding the same couple of buttons when things get hairy.

But for those who still love the mindless reactionary action this genre provides, the contributions “Pilgrim” makes are wonderful. The game regularly crowds any given screen with enemies — as in up to a dozen or more — without slowing down even a trickle, and it’s just as generous with the variety and amount of items in the environment that players (and enemies) can use in lieu of fists and feet. A weird but enjoyably generous physics system allows quick-thinking players to use these objects in myriad creative ways — throwing a ball at an enemy, for instance, and then kicking the ball at another enemy after it bounces off the first guy’s face.

“Pilgrim’s” fighting controls are versatile and plenty responsive enough to offset the imposing imbalance of manpower, and a persistent leveling system adds new moves whenever players level up one of the game’s five playable characters. “Pilgrim” measures player and enemy attributes with a points system normally reserved for role-playing games, and acquired attributes carry over to new games, tempting completists to replay the game multiple times to fully max each character out. In a nice concession, acquired experience carries over even when players lose all lives and have to otherwise restart a level. Like its influences, “Pilgrim” is a tough game even on its default setting, but it’s savvy enough to give players some sense of progress even when all else fails.

While “Pilgrim” truly succeeds on the strength of its gameplay, it likely will be best remembered for its audiovisual style, which combines garishly pixelated graphics and high-definition polish to marvelous effect and slaps on a magnificent chiptunes soundtrack that would be iconic today if it had originally debuted 20 years ago. Thematically, “Pilgrim’s” levels run the gamut — a rock concert here, a dojo there — and it mines those themes while piling on numerous callbacks to gaming’s past for a presentation that is nothing short of blissful.

While “Pilgrim” supports four-player local co-op to frantically fun effect, the only place the game feels dated in all the wrong ways is in its failure to deliver an online equivalent. The sheer insanity of the action is miles more fun with three friends in the same room, but for those who lack that option, the omission of any kind of conciliatory prize is a major blemish in what otherwise is a work of art.


Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network, Windows PC
From: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)
Price: $15

Given the lack of “Tomb Raider” in the name, to say nothing of the budget price and downloadable state of the game, one might mistakenly assume “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” is a lark for player and creator alike while everybody waits for the next proper “Raider” game to appear and get Lara back to doing what she does best.

But that isn’t necessarily so — and actually, it may be those who don’t normally take to “Raider” who might enjoy “Light” most of all.

Though “Light’s” storyline and environments very obviously exist in “Raider’s” universe, the actual game generally eschews the epic environmental platforming challenges that are the series’ typical centerpiece. Instead, “Light” takes place from an overheard isometric perspective, and like “Diablo” and other games that share that viewpoint, its primary ingredient is combat.

Lara has never excelled at combat from close range, but from high above, she’s a natural. “Light’s” controls — left stick to move, right stick to aim, trigger to fire — are a natural convergence of twin-stick and traditional third-person shooters, and outside of providing players a nice variety of weapons to discover and use, the game doesn’t muck with time-tested conventions. In a nice touch, “Light” scores players based on their ability to dispatch enemies and discover hidden treasure, and each level has optional score challenges on top of other bonus objectives that, upon completion, reward players with special weapons and upgrades.

The combat and scoring systems make no bones about “Light” being a more arcadey experience than traditional “Raider” games, so it’s all the more pleasantly surprising when it becomes apparent just how much the game still offers to those with a penchant for exploration. Platforming challenges are significantly less ambitious than in the proper games, but they’re here, and “Light’s” control scheme allows Lara to jump, climb, and swing around environments and puzzles that provide a satisfying challenge without overshadowing the combat.

Additionally, while “Light” doesn’t stop players from beelining through the primary objectives, the slew of optional challenges that lie off the beaten path — including self-contained challenge rooms that dangle additional rewards at the end of the puzzle — also provide many of the game’s most gratifying and fun challenges.

As the story explains, “Light” supports two-player co-op throughout the campaign, and a crop of bonus speed-run challenges are clearly designed with two players in mind. At the same time, dueling scores encourage players to get the kills and gems and one-up each other. “Light’s” execution of co-op play is as no-nonsense and functional as one expects it to be, and the loose treatment lets players be as ancillary or antagonizing as they wish.

Unfortunately, until late September, it’s also local only. Crystal Dynamics plans to patch online co-op into the Xbox Live version and include it out of the gate when “Light” comes to Windows and Playstation 3, and the patch will naturally be free. Still, if you’re downloading “Light” specifically for the online co-op experience, you still have six weeks of waiting to do.


Quake Live
For: Various Web browsers (Windows PC/Macintosh/Linux)
From: id Software/Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: Free for basic account, $24/year for premium account, $48/year for pro account

Stunning though today’s games are, there may be no better demonstration of gaming’s rapid technological growth than the ability to open up a browser window and play something that brought computers to their knees barely 10 years ago. But that’s what “Quake Live” does: It takes the underpinnings of “Quake III: Arena,” builds a persistent community and modern interface around it, and, at its base level, gives the thing away to anybody willing to set up an account and download the plug-in needed to make it run. The game looks predictably dated, but it hardly matters given how smoothly and quickly it runs, and the essence that drove “Arena” in 1999 — fast, trigger-happy action and lots of weapons, maps and customizable modes to keep players engaged — still burns bright today. “Live’s” out-of-game particulars all take place via a Web portal that makes it easy to manage friends, build clans, customize characters and keep track of leaderboards, achievements, rewards and character experience. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising, though, is a suite of tutorials and practice arenas that allow nervous newbies to practice against A.I. opponents, making “Live” as inviting to try out as it is easy to set up. “Live’s” release from beta status keeps it free to play on its base level, but for those who plan on digging in, the premium (20 additional maps, one extra mode, additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) and pro (self-hosted server support, limited premium content sharing with friends, yet more additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) subscription plans are available as well.

DVD 8/10/10: The Ghost Writer, La Mission, Max Headroom: TCS, The Joneses, The Diets That Time Forgot, Date Night, Multiple Sarcasms

The Ghost Writer (PG-13, 2010, Summit Entertainment)
Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) was so likably uncontroversial that the guy originally hired to ghostwrite his memoirs died under mysterious circumstances after completing the first draft. Lang’s life is such an open book, in fact, that when a new ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) takes over, he isn’t even allowed to take that first draft outside Lang’s estate or even copy the document, which is saved to a flash drive, by any means other than retyping it into his computer from scratch. The best part? This all happens before Lang receives word that the International Criminal Court, with his own government’s cooperation, plans to try him as a war criminal. You like that setup? You’d better if you want to love “The Ghost Writer,” which divides its time between dryly laying this groundwork and just as dryly (and far more meticulously) pulling it apart. Beyond Brosnan’s underutilized character and a few bit players, most of “Writer’s” characters have oppressively stuffy shirts, and even some of the movie’s more passionate exchanges have all the heat of a job interview. But “Writer” can get away with the monotone presentation when all those dry little details tell a tale as richly extensive as this one. The culmination of the slow dismantling pays off magnificently during “Writer’s” homestretch, and those who pay close attention throughout will reap considerably more reward than those who let the stuffiness alienate them even briefly. Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams also star.
Extras: Director interview, two behind-the-scenes features.

La Mission (R, 2010, Screen Media Films)
Che Rivera’s (Benjamin Bratt) rocky journey through life has found him facing the world as a widower, doing time in prison, battling alcoholism, fighting fiercely to get clean and go legit, and, finally, trying to be the best dad he can be for his teenage son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez). But for all he’s seen, done and overcome during those respective trials, it’s the secret Jesse is holding that, when spilled, has him completely at a loss. “La Mission” sounds a bit like an after-school special on paper, and that perception only intensifies if you know going in what that little secret is. But in the course of occasionally hitting the notes you expect it to hit, the movie far more frequently recognizes and avoids them. Che, in addition to rendering Bratt almost unrecognizable next to his usual suit-and-tie roles, is constructed so thoroughly as to become the story’s unquestionable centerpiece instead of simply device off which to bounce the central plotline. Jesse isn’t quite as engrossing a character, but he doesn’t need to be, because even though the story hinges on him, the movie is really about Che. “La Mission” shows rather than simply tells, and it’s significantly more impressive than its premise as result. Erika Alexander also stars.
Extra: Music feature.

Max Headroom: The Complete Series (NR, 1987, Shout Factory)
Maybe you best remember Max Headroom for his indirect role in a 1987 hijacking of two Chicago television stations, or maybe you know him primarily for his talk show on Cinemax or his somewhat ironic stint as pitchman for New Coke. What many may not remember is the actual television show that first brought him to prominence. “Max Headroom” finds the iconic talking head at his most charming, but the character’s conception — drawn from the neurons of a television reporter (Matt Frewer) who was taken out while trying to uncover a massive conspiracy perpetuated by his own employer — is hardly cute. Nor is “Headroom” as a whole, which is soaked in a world of back room deals and corporations with dangerous amounts of power over the populace. “Headroom’s” illustrations of the future, and especially of computer technology, are humorously dated 23 years later, and numerous ingredients of the show’s presentation can’t escape the era from whence they came. But the actual content of these episodes is another story. In terms of self-awareness and imagination, it was impossibly ahead of the curve, and the crazy concept and wild ideas about the future — some of which regularly make rounds in today’s entertainment — make this as legitimately enthralling now as it was back then. Jeffrey Tambor also stars.
Contents: 14 episodes, plus six behind-the-scenes features and liner notes.

The Joneses (R, 2010, Fox)
Like many families in the movies, the Jones family (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) is looking for a fresh start in a new neighborhood. Also unsurprising: They have secrets that, if uncovered by their new neighbors, almost certainly would tear them apart. Naturally, the contents of those secrets — which are regrettably laid bare in just about every piece of copy where “The Joneses” is marketed — are best left unspoiled for the fortunate few who can seek this out without knowing too much about it beforehand. All you need to know is that, very early on and en route to looking like yet another movie about a family with a dark past, “The Joneses” takes a detour into something else entirely. Moreover, the amusing gust of cynicism that blows in is, on top of simply being novel, as completely and distressingly feasible in real life as it is farcical on film. Fortunately, those who know the family secret before pressing play still can enjoy what happens next. Fun though the big reveal is, it also happens fairly early on, and it’s in the ensuing consequences — an occasional excess of melodrama aside — where the real fun happens.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

The Diets That Time Forgot (NR, 2008, Acorn Media)
If you’ve ever seen “The Biggest Loser,” you already know half of how this works. Like “Loser,” “The Diets That Time Forgot” invites a handful of overweight (and willing) participants to live on a sequestered campus and attempt, with expert supervision, to achieve the weight loss that has long eluded them. The difference here is that instead of using fully-loaded gyms and modern nutritional science to achieve this loss, “Forgot’s” nine participants instead must adhere to the lifestyles that made our forebears — specifically, those hailing from the Victorian era, the Edwardian period and the 1920s — considerably thinner in their respective times. Groups of three dieters subscribe to each method, and rather than devolve into a contrived competition that turns everybody against everybody else (a la “Loser”), “Forget” plays out like a fascinating (and rather amusing) experiment in trying something that might work, might look ridiculous, or both. The omission of all the infighting and other stunts makes “Forgot” much less of a train wreck than “Loser,” but the show’s (and its generally very likable participants’) willingness to try something completely different makes it every bit as fun to watch in its own right.
Contents: Six episodes.

Date Night (PG-13, 2010, Fox)
If you want to find “Date Night” on your nearest calendar, look for the empty block of free time that conveniently coincided in the busy schedules of its surprisingly loaded cast. “Night’s” concept is likably simple enough: Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey) try to enliven their stale marriage with a date night in Manhattan, and after they steal someone else’s reservation at an absurdly trendy restaurant, the mistaken identity that ensues takes them down a rabbit hole of crime, corruption and lots of gags you’ve probably seen before. “Night” tries to fit too many skits into too little time, and it ends up lots of scenes and jokes that are more serviceable than funny. In the hands of a flatter cast, the same shot-for-shot script might be so plain as to be completely pointless. But Carrell brings all the things we like about him to his otherwise plain charac
ter, Fey does the same for hers, and most of the rest of the supporting cast (Mark Wahlberg, Common, Mark Ruffalo, James Franco and William Fichtner, among numerous others) gets by on the strength of being themselves or playing against type to good effect. That’s enough to elevate “Night” from pointless to enjoyable, though greatness remains far out of reach. Don’t be surprised if, while flipping channels a few months from now, you come across this one and have no immediate memory of seeing it the first time around.
Extras: Fake PSAs, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and outtakes.

Multiple Sarcasms (R, 2010, Image Entertainment)
It’s a big world out there. So why is seemingly every comedic drama about a miserable playwright — as “Multiple Sarcasms” is about Gabriel (Timothy Hutton) — set in Manhattan? Gabriel is married (Dana Delany), the father of a pretty cool 12-year-old (India Ennenga), and has friends (Mira Sorvino, Stockard Channing) who can help him migrate from miserable architect to successful playwright in the making. But he’s also socially backward, perennially unfulfilled and trying to parlay that unhappiness into art while his real life suffers even more as a direct result. “Sarcasms” is a fine enough movie insofar that both the script and Gabriel himself have a lot to say. Most of it has substance, and eventually, there’s some forward movement in Gabriel’s story. At the same time, you can see the dour mood coming up 5th Avenue from beyond the Jersey Turnpike. “Sarcasms” has a lot of talent working hard to make it enjoyable, but we’ve already met more than enough unhappy (and, for the most part, unlikable) Manhattanites to find any lasting gratification from meeting one more. Mario Van Peebles also stars in a sorely underutilized role.
Extras: Cast/director interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 8/10/10: Snoopy Flying Ace, Clash of the Titans, Fragger

Snoopy Flying Ace
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Smart Bomb Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)
Price: $10

With respect to the procession of big-ticket downloadable games currently releasing during Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade event, the game that released just in front of that wave might be better than just about all of them.

Fans of the “Peanuts” comic strip should find nothing surprising about “Snoopy Flying Ace’s” single-player campaign, which finds Snoopy living out his dream as a World War I flying ace in pursuit of the devious Red Baron.

What might be surprising is just how deep that campaign goes. “Ace’s” compromise between arcade- and simulation-flavored controls feels perfectly right — not so loose as to make flying the planes a mindless cakewalk, but neither stiff nor needlessly complicated enough to keep casual dogfighting game fans from enjoying themselves just as much. The selection of weapons, both authentic and nowhere near, grows considerably as the campaign progresses, and the variety of mission types is remarkable. “Ace” rarely repeats itself in the mission objectives department, and some of the missions are spacious and ambitious enough that players can land their plane, commandeer a turret and take back to the sky as they please to finish things off. The game even supports local and online co-op (two players).

“Ace” flashes similarly remarkable skill with its capacity to blend “Peanuts” characters and imagery into a world that otherwise resembles ours. Nobody dies here — pilots always parachute to safety before their planes crash — and the allowance of cartoonish special weaponry means this won’t ever be confused with a “Battlefield” game. But the basic weaponry operates and sounds like the real thing, and when a plane crashes, it most certainly looks like the real thing. “Ace’s” presentation wants it both ways, and thanks to some careful compromise on both sides, it actually gets its wish.

The variety and ease of play translate nicely to the online multiplayer arena (16 players), which finds “Ace” boasting the most frantically fun competitive arcade dogfighting since “Crimson Skies” succeeded way back in 2002 by observing the same principles. “Ace’s” six modes cover the usual gamut — from individual/team deathmatch to more objective-based battles — and the aircraft and playable character options complement the weapon variety from the single-player campaign to provide players a generous array of options. “Ace” even includes the ability to play as your Xbox Live avatar.

All that gameplay adds up to perhaps the best console gaming value $10 can buy this summer, and as result, “Ace’s” online community remains deservedly lively a few weeks after it first released. Given how infrequently a game comes along to fill this niche, and given how well this one goes about doing it, “Ace’s” longevity might dwarf that of a typical game in this price range.


Clash of the Titans
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Game Republic/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood and gore, mild suggestive themes, violence)

“Clash of the Titans'” dual multimedia failure began with Warner Bros.’s astounding ability to airball a dunk by failing, despite possessing all the technology money could buy, to remake a movie that actually made complete sense to remake.

With the video game, which fails to hold any candle whatsoever to the “God of War” games that took that original movie’s premise and lifted it wholesale, the failure is now complete.

In fairness to game, it doesn’t appear to have nearly the same budgetary freedom as the film. Most of “Titans'” storytelling takes place through the kind of static dialogue exchanges we expected from games 10 years ago, and most of those exchanges are bland even by those dated standards — more akin to receiving mission instructions in a “World of Warcraft” knockoff than playing out what’s supposed to be mimicking a sweeping epic that “God of War” started retelling five years ago to exponentially more dazzling effect.

But the cheap feel hurts far more during the act of actually playing the game. Dated graphics and absolutely pulseless environmental design team up with a patchy level structure that requires players to constantly backtrack into static hub towns to accept new missions that rarely show any more imagination than the dull lands that host them.

As should be expected from any game built around hack-and-slash swordplay, most of “Titans'” missions boil down to some form of killing lots of enemies.

Unfortunately, on top of everything else, the combat feels entirely insufficient for being the centerpiece of the experience.
“Titans” flashes some nice enemy design variety over the course of the game, but individual missions regularly toss out the same enemies en masse, and most of them sport absurdly simple attack patterns and intelligence. The controls are responsive enough, but there’s no tangible impact at all with even the strongest attacks, which makes hacking away at the same enemies ad nauseam completely unsatisfying. Enemies regularly require far too many hits to defeat, which might be fine if they put up an exciting fight. But they don’t, so it’s just a matter of mashing buttons for entirely too long just to get through battles that endear no gratification whatsoever.

One thing “Titans” attempts with some success is to give players the ability to steal and, unlike most games, actually permanently keep enemy weapons. The number of takable weapons is pretty high at more than 80, and “Titans” lets players upgrade any of them as they progress.

But all these weapons and upgrades have to play nice with all that unsatisfying combat, and all that variety isn’t nearly interesting enough to counter how dull the action overwhelmingly is. “Titans” is, at roughly 12-15 hours in length, at least twice as long as it should be even if it had better mechanics. Even the supremely polished “God of War” gets a bit old after eight hours or so, and “Titans” wears out its welcome roughly 10 times over by operating at such a low level by comparison.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Miniclip SA
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1 (free lite version also available)

While “Fragger” doesn’t match up with the immensely popular “Angry Birds” in terms of depth and destructibility, it comes surprisingly close in terms of personality — no small feat, considering this is a game about throwing grenades at soldiers instead of launching deranged cartoon birds at mischievous pigs. “Fragger’s” gameplay operates on similar principles: Players have a limited amount of projectiles, and they must circumvent angles, obstacles, and the laws of physics to take out all enemy targets before ammo runs dry. The less ammo it takes, the higher the score, and the more medals players receive for their trouble. “Fragger’s” puzzles are a bit more clinical, often challenging players to trigger cause-and-effect puzzles instead of simply letting pure physics and destruction take over like they do in “Birds.” But the general premise is the same, and “Fragger” delivers both quality and quantity with 70 (and rising) levels that grow satisfyingly intricate as players advance. “Fragger” nullifies the obvious brutality of grenade warfare with an amusingly cartoony presentation that, in addition to looking really slick, makes the task considerably more charming than it otherwise would have been. The
look and sound, combined with the brainy nature of the challenges, makes this a war game even people who hate war might have a great time playing.

DVD 8/3/10: Kick-Ass, Artois the Goat, The Dungeon Masters, Open House, Heroes S4, Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets, Roger Corman's Cult Classics, notable Scholastic Storybook Treasures releases

Kick-Ass (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
Socially awkward high schooler Dave (Aaron Johnson) always wondered why normal people didn’t try their hand at acting like superheroes. One severe beating and several metal plate implants later, he had his answer — along with YouTube-induced fame, the attention of his dream girl (Lyndsy Fonseca), and recognition from a father-daughter vigilante team (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz) that had already been carrying out his idea with a much lower profile and significantly greater (and bloodier) success. So really, why stop now and leave well enough alone? There are numerous simple ways to explain why “Kick-Ass” is one of the better things to come out of the comic book movie glut. The consequences for heroism are viciously realized rather than sterile per usual. The characters are better developed despite sparing us the usual need to superfluously explain everything. And in addition to not taking itself too seriously, the script is consistently, intelligently funny. But more than any of that, what makes “Kick-Ass” so good is just how effectively it cuts to the heart of (a) what being a superhero entails and (b) how a costume that might get laughed out of a Halloween party can embolden a gawky kid to take on a mob boss who is armed to the teeth. It’s farfetched even by the norms of comic book movies, but given how innately it understands something so many of its contemporaries either forgot or never understood, maybe that’s a compliment rather than a complaint.
Extras: Director commentary, “Kick-Ass” comic book origins feature, art gallery.

Artois the Goat (NR, 2009, IndiePix)
If you thought movies had told all the possible romantically comedic stories they could possibly tell, there’s a weird but rather endearing story about a little goat named Artois that would like to have a word with you. In “Artois the Goat,” San Franciscan Virgil (Mark Scheibmeir) is trying to find his way back to Angie (Sydney Andrews), who moved to Detroit for a job and was counting on him following her before he shot down a job opportunity that clashed with his obsessive desire to cultivate the world’s most delicious goat cheese. (That — sort of — is where little Artois steps in.) Virgil’s weird obsession opens the door to no shortage of quirky characters and scenarios, and while the boilerplate “boy trying to get girl back” plot outline is in full effect, all that amusing in-between keeps the story engaging even when predictability interferes. Occasionally, the weirdness travels too far past the cuteness line, and occasionally, the overall production feels more amateur than indie. But “Artois” never commits any sin so grievously as to undermine all the little things that make it so easy to like. And the title character, whose full role won’t be spoiled here, has no qualms about stealing the scene whenever the opportunity presents itself. No extras.

The Dungeon Masters (NR, 2008, FilmBuff/MPI)
If the purpose of thoroughly engrossing “The Dungeon Masters” was to provide outsiders a chance to understand the intense, devoted-to-an-arguable-fault culture that exists around the Dungeons & Dragons universe, then “Masters” deserves commendation for attempting a mission at which it had no earthly chance of succeeding. “Masters” follows the real-world lives of three longtime D&D players — Richard, Scott and Elizabeth — who flash different degrees of devotion to their pastime while dealing with different issues in their regular lives. Whether these are typical or extreme cases isn’t made clear, and if the movie has a serious failing, it’s the inability to explore the actual game and explain D&D in any manner that makes it more accessible to the completely uninitiated. Without that assistance, the footage of the games in action simply looks like overgrown children playing a weird game of make-believe, which certainly doesn’t help any attempt to bridge the gap between subject and viewer. As such, the real meat of “Masters” comes from the look at each player’s life — and, more to the point, the morbid fascination it engenders with all that’s gone wrong in that area. It’s not as exploitative as it sounds (all three have ample opportunity to express what drives them to play the game, and each enjoy some fleeting success at doing so), but if you go into “Masters” with pre-conceived notions of what to expect, they’ll only be vindicated by the time the credits roll.
Extras: Outtakes, not-quite outtakes.

Open House (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
It’s completely aggravating when a horror movie makes the killer its main character but never says word one about what drives him or her to kill. It’s obnoxiously commonplace, which makes the likes of “Open House,” far from perfect though it may be, also far more interesting that it would have been in another era. The plot — a woman (Rachel Blanchard as Alice), reeling from divorce and looking to sell her former dream house, instead becomes a prisoner in her basement while her captors turn the house into a trap for all who enter — is pretty basic, and “House” isn’t excessively forthcoming about why this is happening. But what “House” does do, in addition to showing some commendable restraint by letting events dictate the gore instead of just piling it on without reason, is give us little bits of insight into what brought Alice’s captors to their current state. Speculating on the holes left unfilled becomes a fun exercise instead of a necessary byproduct of lazy writing, and as a nice bonus, the details “House” does provide give it a legitimately creepy vibe. The story stumbles in spots, and unfortunately, the ending is one of them. But an enjoyable horror movie with some blemishes is infinitely better than the norm, which usually boasts the exact opposite ratio. Brian Geraghty, Tricia Helfer, Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer also star, but without spoiling too much, “True Blood” fans shouldn’t get too excited about seeing Sookie and Bill in the same frame under different pretenses.
Extras: Director/Geraghty commentary, deleted scenes.

Heroes: Season 4 (NR, 2009, NBC/Universal)
Has any show taken a dive as steep as “Heroes” has from its first season — when it very deservedly was as talked about as any show on television — to its fourth season, which likely will be best remembered for the girl-on-girl kiss most former fans rightly dismissed as a desperate show’s final significant misfire? “Heroes'” governing idea — that certain regular people could possess amazing, weird and cryptic powers — never got old, and even the fourth season produced a few interesting new characters with very clever new powers. But the central conflict that peaked at the close of the first season has since both run awkwardly in circles and repeated itself with diminishing returns. The cast of characters grew and changed too often. And the sense of humor and humility that balanced that first season’s dark overtones has long sapped away. What remains here, outside of those occasional flashes of ingenuity, is a disappointing assemblage of stories that have dragged on too long or never really sparked much excitement in the first place. And because NBC’s decision to cancel caught the show off guard, those who stuck around this long can’t even reward themselves with a final episode that gives the series a proper send-off. A movie or miniseries may still happen, but until further notice, this is all the closure anyone gets.
Contents: 18 episodes, plus commentary, deleted/extended scenes, four behind-the-scenes features and a design gallery.

Worth a Mention
— “Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets” (NR, 1984, Lions Gate): Lions Gate continues its much-appreciated dive into the Jim Henson vault with this short (52 minutes) but sweet look behind the magical scenes made possible by The Jim Henson compa
ny. The DVD also includes a 30-minute perusal, with narration and introduction by Michael Frith, through the 1985-86 Jim Henson Company yearbook.
— New wave of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series: Shout Factory continues to waste little time capitalizing on its acquisition of arguably the best catalog of B-movies known to man. The newest wave of releases includes “Humanoids From the Deep” (R, 1980), “Piranha” (R, 1978), “Forbidden World” (NR, 1982), “Galaxy of Terror” (R, 1981) and a double feature containing “Deathsport” (R, 1978) and “BattleTruck” (PG, 1982). The double feature contains commentary and a still gallery for both movies, but it’s a lightweight compared to the other releases, which each feature commentary but are loaded with additional scenes, behind-the-scenes features, outtakes, original promotional material and more.
— Notable Scholastic Storybook Treasures releases: In addition to a two-DVD set that compiles the works of Rosemary Wells (“Max and Ruby, “Noisy Nora,” “Otto Runs for President”), Scholastic breaks new (and arguably overdue) ground by reissuing two DVDs — “Goodnight Moon” and “A Pocket for Corduroy” — with sign language narration as well as voice and read-along narration. “The Rosemary Wells Collection” contains eight stories, along with a handful of interviews with and features about Wells. The two reissues contain three stories each, along with quizzes, sign language lessons and other supplemental educational features.

Games 8/3/10: Kid Adventures: Sky Captain, Despicable Me: The Game, Dive: The Medes Island Secret

Kid Adventures: Sky Captain
For: Wii
From: Torus Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Though not backed by a popular toy or movie brand — and, sadly, condemned to be overlooked for that very reason — “Kid Adventures: Sky Captain” is exactly the kind of summertime title parents are searching for when trying to find a well-made game that tailors to kids without treating them like idiots.

To wit, after a tutorial that introduces basic flight controls and runs maybe two minutes long, “Captain” hands players the keys to an entire island as well as their first plane. An entry-level crop of missions scatters itself around the island, and players are immediately free to select whichever missions they please or simply fly around the island and explore for as long as they like. For a game so squarely aimed at kids, the complete liberation players so quickly receive is startling and extremely refreshing.

Though an overriding storyline introduces a rival pilot who challenges players to be the island’s sky captain, “Captain’s” world is rather saccharine. Crashing planes bounce on the ground like plastic toys before the game returns players to the air with little consequence, and the game employs water balloons instead of bombs when missions call for some kind of target shooting.

But the cheerful exterior works just fine, and because “Captain” has such harmless substitutes as water balloons in tow, the game is able to devise multiple mission types without resorting to aggression and turning off parents. (An early water bomb mission, for instance, has players firing at a building in hopes of helping extinguish a fire.)

The best news about “Captain’s” controls is that there isn’t really any news at all. The Wii remote is all players need, and controlling the planes is as simple as tilting the remote right and left to steer and back and forth to ascend and descend. Getting used to the tilt sensitivity might require a little acclimation, but the controls perform exactly as they should, and the game makes it very easy to dive, roll and navigate through narrow spaces around the island.

Though there are only 40 total core missions, “Captain” gives them replay value by attaching gold-, silver- and bronze-medal scores to each. The game further sweetens the pot with an experience system that rewards points for completing missions, fulfilling optional achievements, performing dangerous stunts and flying through stunt rings scattered all over the island. Those experience rewards translate into new planes and additional paint jobs for existing planes, giving completists and fashionistas alike plenty more to do than the mission count initially suggests.

Though “Captain’s” two-player splitscreen mode is about as basic as can be — it allows two players to explore the island separately and take on missions competitively — it’s a great choice in practice. Players can freely race each other and dream up their own competitions in addition to playing any of the challenges from the single-player mode, and the freedom to switch between structured and freeform play is a luxury kids’ games rarely receive. The horizontal splitscreen presentation is a bit constricting, particularly with this being a flying instead of driving game, but that’s more a byproduct of logistics than a fault of the game.


Despicable Me: The Game
For: Wii
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

There’s a perfectly valid argument to be made in favor of “Despicable Me’s” opening tutorial level, which holds players’ hands at a pace that can generously be described as agonizing. The primary gameplay — straightforward 2D running and jumping — needs no introduction, but Gru’s weapon (a multifunction raygun whose functions can be combined) and minions (those cute yellow guys, who help Gru solve puzzles and reach previously unreachable areas) justifiably merit some explanation.

By the end of the 20-minute tutorial, though, all the unskippable stopping and explaining is enough to make seasoned players wistful of the days when games had no scruples about dropping kids into a gauntlet and daring them to figure it out themselves.

Don’t worry: Those days make a fierce comeback in level two.

Almost instantly, “Me” transforms into a beast, trotting out a string of platforming challenges that amp up the difficulty so quickly as to be unrecognizable by comparison. The game immediately asks players to demonstrate a mastery of running, jumping and raygun shooting finesse that all work in tandem, and the demands are daunting enough to rightly challenge the seasoned players who scoffed at level one. “Me” is generous with checkpoints — there’s one between every platforming challenge, so players won’t have to repeat something they cleared after failing whatever follows — so it speaks to “Me’s” ruthlessness that it’s a nasty game even with this generosity taken into account.

The same holds true for the minion portions of the game, in which players aim the Wii remote at the screen and “fire” minions into the level in ways that activate switches, form bridges and otherwise allow Gru safe passage to the exit. The demonstrations of this trick in the tutorial are completely banal, but the first real challenge necessitates thinking about the problem in a way the tutorial didn’t even present as necessarily fathomable. “Me” makes yet more concessions by scattering hint cards that reveal the solutions to the truly hopeless, but even these don’t always paint the whole picture for those who can’t think a bit critically.

The shock to the system that is most of “Me’s” post-tutorial content — a few flying segments, while a nice change of pace, feel a bit half-baked by comparison — will likely feel like found gold to players who crave a fierce challenge and never expected to find it here.

But that speaks to “Me’s” problem: It’s a game that has an identity complex and is ultimately catered to people who will never know it’s for them. The subject matter and early handholding make it entirely easy to dismiss as fare for kids, but just about everything else appears designed to send those same kids into the arms of a demoralizing temper tantrum. Even parents who attempt to assist their kids might come away defeated by something that, if presented without the family-friendly license, would almost certainly be embraced by the hardcore crowd.

So while “Me” is the arguable diamond in the summer movie game rough, it’s also completely impossible to recommend to the very specific audience that might seek it out — unless, of course, parents want to give their kids a taste of the way kids’ games were when they grew up.


Dive: The Medes Island Secret
For: Nintendo Wii via Wii Shop Channel
From: Cosmonaut Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $10

Anyone pining for a contemporary equivalent to Sega’s “Ecco the Dolphin” games might want to take a chance on “Dive: The Medes Island Secret,” which, like “Ecco,” is a very pretty sidescrolling action game centered around deep-sea diving instead of running and jumping. “Dive” stars players as a scuba diver instead of a dolphin, and the objective — plunge to the depths of the sea and recover valuable treasure forgotten by time — is pretty pedestrian. The execution, however, is not: “Dive” uses a cursor-based control scheme instead of traditional D-pad or joystick movement, with players “pulling”
the diver around with the cursor. That unusual approach will potentially annoy those who steadfastly prefer time-tested 2D controls, but they allow for some surprisingly fluid swimming motions that perfectly complement the pace of the game and the measured speed of both the diver and the hostile sea creatures he either must tranquilize or evade. “Dive’s” most valuable asset is its emphasis on exploration over high-octane action: Like a good “Metroid”-style game, it offers multiple pathways through which to discover additional secrets, and an upgrades shop allows players to purchase equipment that lets them plunge deeper into the sea. Along with a set of achievements that should appeal to players who like to pick a game clean, there’s much to do beyond simply taking “Dive’s” main roads.