DVD 10/26/10: Skeletons, Winter's Bone, The Infidel, The Girl who Played with Fire, Last Day of Summer, You Don't Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian, Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy, Sex and the City: The Complete Collection

Skeletons (NR, 2010, IndiePix)
Do not be surprised if Hollywood one day remakes “Skeletons” in a way that makes it an entirely palatable Hollywood film. Just be sure, if that happens and the concept intrigues you, to see it in this incarnation first. In “Skeletons,” Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) are paid to literally enter people’s closets and clean out their skeletons, using special technology to see and interact with clients’ secrets like they’re living memories. Most jobs are pretty routine, but when an assignment out in the country finds the skeletons eluding them, our heroes are forced to contend with their own skeletons while their client’s daughter (Tuppence Middleton) appears to run interference with secrets of her own. That adds up to a lot of balls in play, and after teasing initially to be nothing more than a snappy comedy about a cool idea, “Skeletons” goes off the deep end in its illustration of it all. Secrets come alive in the frame while the real world carries on around it, and the film respects viewer intelligence enough to let dimensions and layers come and go without a need to hold hands, show seams or explain in excess. The stark mood swing won’t be a pleasant surprise to those who want something light, and those who sleep on “Skeletons” for even a few moments may find themselves lost quickly. But that’s the price of making a movie about a dense idea and presenting it without compromising vision. If you like movies that make your head spin, it’s a price well worth paying.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes viral videos.

Winter’s Bone (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
Ree Dolly’s deadbeat father, a suspected crystal meth cooker, is missing and wanted. He may have fled, he may be hiding in town, or he may be dead. But Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t know, and if tending to her ill mother and effectively raising her younger brother and sister by herself isn’t making the 17-year-old’s life difficult enough, the prospect of losing her house if her father’s whereabouts aren’t revealed — and the complete refusal by family and neighbors to do anything but undermine her search — most definitely does. An opera of small-town American poverty if ever there was one, “Winter’s Bone” is harsh even in its sweetest moments, one of which finds Ree teaching her siblings how to skin a squirrel so they have food to eat. The search for Ree’s father is the centerpiece, and the dark roads down which she must walk for answers provide “Bone” all the suspense ammo it needs. But without that attention to atmosphere, this would be a completely different movie. The overwhelmingly bleak setting brands “Bones” with a definitive downer tag, but it also provides the basis for a story in which the so-called “good” and “bad” characters share the same lousy boat instead of stand on opposite ends of the line. Shared circumstances lead to blurred lines, and that gives “Bone” some engrossing complexes that wreak havoc on that seemingly simple search and the consequences it presents to all.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, alternate opening, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

The Infidel (NR, 2010, Tribeca Film/New Video)
British Muslim Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) isn’t what you (or he) would call devout: He likes pop music, loves swearing at cab drivers, and is mortified when he discovers his son’s (Amit Shah) would-be father-in-law (Arshad Al-Masri) is a devout and famously outspoken Muslim cleric. But that discovery pales in comparison to the piece of news he uncovers shortly after. That revelation — which won’t be spoiled here in case the box doesn’t make it obvious — hurtles Mahmud into a quest of self-discovery that, to his intense chagrin, also involves a somewhat racist Jewish-American cabbie (Richard Schiff) who lives in the neighborhood. Are you ready for an emotional powder keg? How about a tearjerker? Sorry: While “The Infidel” may have a few things to say about a few things, its primary goal is take viewers who aren’t offended by their own shadows and make them laugh. And that, skillfully and consistently, is what it does. The story wobbles a bit during its attempt to wrap things up in the third act, but even at its worst, “The Infidel” is dryly and brilliantly funny in a way that’s sweet and very politically incorrect at the same time. And even though that third act wobbles a bit, it finds its feet in time to send us to the credits with a terrific (and, true to form, very funny) twist at the end.
Extras: Writer/director/Djalili/Schiff commentary, video blog, two behind-the-scenes features, interviews, behind-the-scenes outtakes.

The Girl who Played with Fire (R, 2009, Music Box Films)
The refreshing thing about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was that, in spite of running 152 minutes and having to pack two characters with enough intrigue to carry a trilogy of films, it kept its eyes trained on the central mystery and limited character-shaping self-indulgences almost strictly to what was necessary. “The Girl who Played with Fire” doesn’t have the same discipline. That’s partly by design: “Fire’s” storytelling catalyst — two people, including a journalist who was set to expose a sex trafficking scandal for Mikael’s (Michael Nyqvist) magazine, are found murdered — strikes a sharp chord with Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), whose past is blighted with sexual abuse and who must still contend with a guardian (Peter Andersson) whose attempted rape of her in “Tattoo” left him with a tattoo of his own. But while “Tattoo” perfectly positioned Lisbeth as a brilliant hacker who doubled as Mikael’s covert guardian angel, “Fire” turns her into Jack Bauer. While Mikael attempts to bring down the killers through believable means, Lisbeth goes straight at them through a ladder of thugs straight out of a cartoon. The mystery at the center of it all remains engaging enough to make “Fire” a good watch, and Lisbeth is still a great character in spite of the shift. But the meticulous, no-nonsense storytelling that made the first film such a surprise is a little bit missed the second time through. In Swedish with English subtitles, but an English dub also is available. No extras.

Last Day of Summer (R, 2009, Entertainment One)
Jobs scarcely get worse than cleaning toilets or working in fast food, so Joe (DJ Qualls) has hit the misery jackpot as a toilet cleaner at a fast food restaurant. Throw in a boss (William Sadler) who delights in mocking and humiliating him, and it’s enough to push Joe into buying a gun and plotting a bloody revenge. But things go awry, Joe flinches, and a few bungles later, he’s turned a random patron of the restaurant (Nikki Reed) into an accidental kidnap victim without his boss even catching wind of any danger. So is “Last Day of Summer” a wacky comedy of errors or a tense thriller? Without giving too much away, not really either. “Summer” has enough bitterly funny moments to just barely qualify as a darkly dry comedy, and there are enough unknowns for it to flirt with the thriller tag. But more than either of those, “Summer” is an extensive, unflattering but intelligently-written undressing of both Joe and all the lousy things that can drive a seemingly nice guy like Joe to do something stupidly dangerous. Given the paths it takes and the different tones it assumes, it’s also a pretty good deconstruction of the many moods — be they comical, dreary or hopeful in that strange way that often accompanies a trip to rock bottom — that surface when even a bad idea doesn’t go as planned.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

You Don’t Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian (NR, 2010, HBO)
You don’t have to be a genius to see right through “You Don’t Know Jack,” which, from the title on down, makes it crystal clear whose side it takes in its dramatization of Dr. Jack Kevo
rkian’s (played here by Al Pacino) career. In short, if you find the concept of assisted suicide to be immoral, all but a few slivers of a few scenes will either turn you off or outright aggravate you. In every other way, “Jack” is a terrific biopic: Pacino is outrageous without stepping out of character, the script is sharp more than sentimental, and interspersing real interview footage of Kevorkian’s patients without breaking the seams of dramatization is a trick that pays off. But there’s no arguing it: Those scenes serve to convey the humanity Kevorkian saw in his mission, and neither those scenes nor numerous others have enough counterparts for “Jack” to make claims of objectivity. “Jack’s” very best scenes — in which Kevorkian and assistant Neal Nicol (John Goodman) butt heads and trip over each other’s feet in their separate pursuits of similar ideals — have nothing to do with the larger debate. But if the goal with those scenes was to mask the film’s feelings, they’re too overmatched to pull it off.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature, which includes an interview with the real Kevorkian.

Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy (PG, 1985, Universal)
Get excited, Cubs fans: If the events of “Back to the Future Part II” are to be believed, we’re only five years away from Wrigley Field’s finest winning a World Series. How time — 25 years in this case— flies. Per anniversary custom, both the DVD and Blu-ray editions of “Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy” include new digital restorations of all three films, as well as all the bonus materials (deleted scenes, a ton of behind-the-scenes features, producers commentary, Q&A commentary with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) that accompanied each movie’s previous DVD release. Along with digital copies of each film, new extras include a six-part cast and crew retrospective, a Q&A with Michael J. Fox, new deleted scenes (including the much-discussed scene starring Eric Stoltz as the original Marty McFly), and a discussion with Dr. Michio Kaku about the feasibility of time travel.

Sex and the City: The Complete Collection (NR, 1998, HBO)
“Sex and the City” fans who indulged in the 2005 complete series box set probably won’t be happy to see this new set, which trumps it slightly in terms of content but considerably in terms of presentation. “Sex and the City: The Complete Collection” comes packaged like a coffee table picture book, with the disc sleeves doubling as thick cardboard photo pages that contain some information about and quotes from the show but, more than anything, just look immensely pretty. The 94 episodes from the show are included, as are the bonus features that accompanied those episodes in the previously-released season sets. “Collection” outdelivers the series collection by also including the two movies, and a bonus 18th disc contains four new roundtables in which the show’s writers discuss making the show and watching it catch fire.

Games 10/26/10: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Fallout: New Vegas, Super Meat Boy

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC and Nintendo DS
From: LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

To a fault, everyone expected “The Force Unleashed” to play incredibly. And while it didn’t live up to the impossible hype, the gifts it gave players to abuse as Darth Vader’s apprentice — better-than-average light saber combat, Force lightning, Force push, the ability to Force grip and fling anything and anyone not bolted to the ground at will, and a combo system that nicely tied these abilities together — made for a flawed but extremely fun game.

“The Force Unleashed II” brings all of that back, adds a few new pieces on top, and filters it through a game that finds a much better balance between challenge and frustration. Starkiller, now Vader’s former apprentice, returns — and if you played the first game and are wondering how, “TFU2” explains it rather well — and most of his powers from the first game are available to players immediately.

The addition of a second light saber to Starkiller’s arsenal doesn’t vastly improve combat, but being able to separately customize each saber’s attributes (and color) with discoverable saber crystals is pretty handy. Starkiller now can turn objects and enemies into lightning grenades by gripping, electrifying and throwing them, and the ability to play Jedi mind tricks on enemies is, in addition to amusing, a huge help when Starkiller is vastly outnumbered. Also useful when outnumbered: Force Fury, which briefly but satisfyingly jacks up all of Starkiller’s abilities to 11.

Like its predecessor, “TFU2” counters Starkiller’s immense power by flooding the screen with enemies, some of whom can resist certain abilities. But the enemy types make more sense this time — grunt enemies can’t magically resist the Force, in other words — and while “TFU2” doesn’t roll over, it generally does avoid dropping players into levels and boss fights that encourage cheap enemy behavior.

It helps, also, that the game’s interface makes it easier for players to see who or what they’re targeting with Force powers before actually deploying them. The number of moving parts and physics in play means things still get nice and chaotic, but “TFU2” does a much better job of maintaining a manageable intensity throughout its campaign.

Where the original “Unleashed” actually exceeded its immense hype was in how polished the storyline was and how shockingly well Starkiller — a character who previously did not even exist — bridges the gap between the two “Star Wars” movie trilogies.

“TFU2” isn’t privy to the same element of surprise, and because the story is more about Starkiller than the events that led up to the first “Star Wars” movie, it cannot compare to the first game in terms of fan service.

But for the second time in two games, the story exceeds expectations — a feat all the more impressive because of how the first game ended and how little wiggle room “TFU2” has to maneuver between that story and the first movie. It already was a shame that the events of the first game weren’t part of the second movie trilogy, and with these new developments, the story of Starkiller’s coming into being has now exceeded that of Anakin Skywalker’s weepy development by several lengths.

Like its predecessor, “TFU2” doesn’t have a multiplayer component. But it does have a series of unlockable challenge arenas, which test different Jedi abilities and award players online leaderboard bragging rights if they score well. The challenges don’t give “TFU2” a ton of additional staying power, but they are fun, and they test Starkiller’s abilities in some clever ways that the campaign does not.


Fallout: New Vegas
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs)

The Vegas strip in “Fallout: New Vegas” is minuscule compared to the vast Nevada wasteland that surrounds it, but because it’s the only place in the whole region that sparkles like nuclear war never happened, it beams in the horizon for miles from any direction.

When you spot it for the first time in your travels, “Vegas” doesn’t break from the action with a cutscene or make any fuss whatsoever. Like everything else in a “Fallout” game, it’s just there, and players will spot it in ways and under circumstances that are organic and unique to the story they’ve spun for themselves up to then.

Such staggering freedom is what made the highly imperfect “Fallout 3” a cherished game in 2008, and while “Vegas” rarely improves on those imperfect things, its reverence for discovery — and the terrific stories it tells to complement that reverence — make it a must-play for “Fallout” fans.

Enjoying the journey isn’t as simple as it should be, because “Vegas” restores nearly every shortcoming from “Fallout 3.” If you didn’t like the menu interfaces then, you won’t like them now. A new iron sights view barely enhances the clumsy first-person shooter controls — players hoping for a transformation on the level of “Mass Effect” to “Mass Effect 2” should stop hoping — and the third-person perspective remains comically useless. Friendly and enemy A.I. is spotty as ever, the graphics that looked old in 2008 look older now, and despite the cross-country scenery shift, everything from lock-picking to computer hacking functions exactly as it previously did.

Also returning: bugs. “Vegas” is a monstrous game that gives players free reign over a ton of variables, so the appearance of bugs isn’t a surprise, but gaming forums are flooded with reports of graphical glitches, malfunctioning quests, escalating load times and crashes that sabotage progress and damage save files. Your mileage may vary — the game didn’t crash once during the course of this review — but if you’re skittish about the prospect of losing progress to crashes, best to wait for the patch Obsidian has stated is forthcoming.

Few games with that many issues would merit recommendation, but when “Vegas” is doing what “Fallout” does best, it’s hard not to love it anyway. The Mojave Wasteland is so big that players can complete the main storyline without experiencing a full three-quarters of the characters, towns and secrets hidden off the main road. Just as was the case in “Fallout 3,” many of “Vegas'” best moments lie here, and the game applies a level of storytelling care to even the most trivial area that surpasses what most games’ main quests receive. More than 100 hours’ worth of discovery lie in wait, and “Vegas” allows players to tick them off with whatever methods — combat, stealth, science, reason — they prefer.

In fairness to Obsidian, “Vegas” doesn’t completely neglect to improve the “Fallout” formula. The ability to create medicine from picked plants nicely recalls Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” games, and “Vegas” allows seasoned shooters to craft ammo and purchase new ammo variants and weapon upgrades. Educational magazines, which offer temporary but significant attribute boosts, allows players of one discipline to briefly reap the benefits of another. And a new Hardcore mode — which, among other factors, introduces hunger and sleep deprivation and limits how much ammo one can carry by applying weight to every bullet — should appeal to players who want the full wasteland wanderer experience.


Super Meat Boy
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Coming soon for: Windows PC, Macintosh, Wii via Nintendo WiiWare Channel
From: Team Meat
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, language)
Price: $10

The 350-level “Super Meat Boy” easily marks its territory as the year’s most difficult platforming game, but its real claim may be the startling gap it opens between challenge and frustration. “SMB’s” levels are extremely short — many of them require fewer than 10 seconds to complete — and the goal is simple: Guide Meat Boy to the goal by running, jumping and using his unusual body composition to slide down walls and make perfectly-timed jumps above, around and through perilous traps. “SMB’s” difficultly escalates quickly, and some insanely tough level await players who push through to the game’s second half. But “SMB” significantly curbs frustration by making it so easy for players who fail to try again. A failed level reloads instantly without prompting, and outside of a few side challenges, players have as many chances as they need to get it right. The reward for finishing a tough level — watching a simultaneous replay of every single attempt — is as amusing as it is gratifying, and “SMB” rewards players who keep at it with an impressive handful of unlockable playable characters (with different attributes) from other independent games. Games this tough rarely bend this far backward without losing their edge, and while “SMB” looks great and controls perfectly, its pitch-perfect understanding of this balance is what makes it one of the year’s very best downloadable titles.

DVD 10/16/10: The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, Oceans, Smash His Camera, The Psycho Legacy, Until the Light Takes Us, Video Games Live: Level 2, Accidentally on Purpose, Holy Rollers

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos (G, 2008, Disneynature)
The nature documentary DVD landscape has been significantly enriched over the last year by the sweeping likes of “Life,” “Earth” and “Oceans” (both the BBC miniseries and the feature-length Disneynature release). But an onslaught of epics has no bearing on the value of a film like “The Crimson Wing,” which hones in on one subject — the life cycle of the flamingo — but inspires as much awe per minute as the genre’s best can conjure. That’s a credit to the film, which follows the cycle from birth through migration to maturation and back to birth and, from the astounding footage it collects, tells a story that at different times is adorable, funny, heartbreaking, triumphant and just plain astonishing. But all that footage wouldn’t be worth a thing if the species being captured on it wasn’t such a staggering model of family and efficiency. Flamingos travel in packs large enough to resemble moving, nomadic landmasses, and watching a stream of chicks march in formation across Tanzania like they’ve been trained to do so is so jaw-dropping as to be humbling. “Wing” devotes a large portion of its time to the journey of one chick in particular, and with respect to all those wonderful epics, his reaction to touching water for the first time might be the moment that outshines them all.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, filmmaker annotations, “Living Planet” interactive learning tool.
— Also available from Disneynature: “Oceans” (G, 2009). Not to be confused with the excellent BBC miniseries, but, thanks to a similar production ethos that powered “Wing,” not to be missed, either. Pierce Brosnan narrates. Extras include bonus footage, a “Disney & Nature” feature, filmmaker annotations and a music video.

Smash His Camera (PG-13, 2010, Magnolia)
Among scum, Ron Galella is royalty — one of the original purveyors of paparazzi photography, a man whose storeroom of old Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando and Andy Warhol photos (among numerous others) could furnish multiple museums. “Smash His Camera” is his story, and it’s a magnificently enjoyable tribute regardless of whether you think the body of work merits celebration or scorn. Galella’s personal story is a predictably important facet of the film, and “Camera” provides him equal opportunity to demonstrate his shameless appetite for charm as well as the intricacies of his photographic technique. But “Camera” doesn’t just dote on its subject, nor does it merely acknowledge its responsibility to join the debate over whether paparazzi are journalists or stalkers. To the contrary, it thrives on the argument and makes it the centerpiece of the whole arrangement. Very few of the film’s interviewees mince words, and neither “Carmera” nor Galella himself shy away from the fact that Onassis, far and away his favorite subject, twice took him to court in hopes of making him disappear. The film does not take sides in the issue, it does not editorialize beyond the views of its subjects, and it does not expect anyone watching to do differently. Instead, it throws the kindle into the ring, arranges it for maximum entertainment effect, and lights one seriously fun fire that burns for the entirely of its runtime.
Extras: Galella/director/producers commentary, deleted/extended scenes, gallery of Galella’s favorite photos.

The Psycho Legacy (NR, 2010, Shout Factory)
The tagline for “The Psycho Legacy” states that it’s the “ultimate retrospective for the most influential horror series of all time,” and there’s a word in there that may surprise some people. That word also may be the best reason to see this no-nonsense documentary, which spends the entirety of its 87 minutes letting those connected with and influenced by the “Psycho” films do all the talking without any narrative intervention beyond visual aids. Naturally, the 1960 original — whose 50th birthday likely dictated the timing of this release — is the anchor, and the stories about the tricks Alfred Hitchock used and the taboos he eradicated run second only to the effect the film had on Anthony Perkins’ prospects as a likable film lead. But even those who have seen “Psycho” may not realize it’s merely the first in a series that also spawned two sequels and a prequel in the 30 years that followed. “Legacy” wouldn’t even exist were it not for that first movie, but its deconstruction of the other three movies — their justifications for being, what they added to the Norman Bates canon, and especially Perkins’ enthusiastic participation in continuing the story — might be the best reason to see this. The film is never flashy, and it really isn’t anything more than a compilation of interview snippets glued together, but those interviews are more than entertaining enough to make this a terrific watch.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, panel discussion with Perkins, reunion panel, two “Psycho II” behind-the-scenes features, feature on “Psycho” memorabilia collector Guy Thorpe, Bates Motel tour, “‘Psycho’ on the Web” feature, serial killer-inspired art gallery.

Until the Light Takes Us (NR, 2008, Factory 25)
“Until the Light Takes Us” pitches itself as an all-encompassing answer to a lot of questions and misconceptions about Norwegian black metal. For a slice of the movie-watching public, it likely fulfills some of that promise. But if you lack even elementary knowledge of Norwegian black metal — and don’t kid yourself, chances are you do — this might leave you asking more questions coming out than you had going in. “Light” devotes a large chunk of its time to select musicians — most notably, Varge Vikernes of Barzum and Fenriz of Darkthrone — and it touches on how the movement grew, captured imaginations, courted controversy, became attached to church burnings and other heinous crimes, and eventually drove some of its stars down bad roads. What “Light” doesn’t do, though, is really share the experience with outside. There’s barely any performance footage in the film, and little attempt is made to paint an accessible picture of what elevated this scene from total obscurity to the fringe of the public consciousness. “Light” staggers erratically with its storytelling, and at its best, it resembles a 90-minute collection of anecdotes and insights that fans already familiar with the big picture will enjoy. But some of those same fans might also bemoan “Light’s” refusal to ask uncomfortable questions about all that controversy. Some subjects — particularly Vikernes, who was convicted of murdering a former bandmate — open up without prompting, but they leave some obvious followup questions unanswered, and “Light” doesn’t act on them.
Extras: Alternate ending, outtakes.

Video Games Live: Level 2 (NR, 2010, Shout Factory)
Video game fans already know what most of rest of the public does not: Some of the best music composition happening today, across a wide swath of genres, is happening in the service of video game background music. Soundtracks for games are an increasingly prevalent commodity, and with the advent of the Video Games Live concert series, they’ve become legit fodder for live performance as well. Though it’s not the same as being there, “Video Games Live: Level 2” is a pretty good representation of what the live show’s all about, mixing in music from different genres and games (everything from “Super Mario Bros.” to “Civilization IV” to “Guitar Hero” and “Mass Effect”) and finding clever ways to incorporate interactivity and other tenets of those games into the production. The feature presentation is a pretty straightforward taping of a live performance, but “Level 2” also insert some brief interviews and behind-the-scenes musics between numbers. The music is the star of the DVD, but these bits, combined with the behind-the-scenes content in the bonus features, offer some enjoyable
insight into the show’s conception, growth and future.
Extras: Creator commentary, “Tetris” 25th anniversary feature (the box calls it a documentary, but it’s three minutes long so don’t get excited), “Dragon’s Lair” making-of feature, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Accidentally on Purpose: The DVD Edition (NR, 2009, CBS/Paramount)
A lot of sitcoms reach cancelation before they reach their second season. Some are unjustly taken before their time; the rest are bad or bland enough to overstay their welcome by week two. So “Accidentally on Purpose” deserves some commendation for being that rare sitcom that gets canceled right on time. “Purpose” centers around Billie (Jenna Elfman), whose one-night stand with a much younger Zack (Jon Foster) gets her pregnant. The good news is that Zack wants to stick around. The bad news is that Zack’s friends (Nicolas Wright, Pooch Hall) also want to stick around, as does the commitment-phobic James (Grant Show), whom Billie just broke up with but who remains her boss. Having that many pieces in acute roles pushes “Purpose” into a bit of a storytelling corner from the start, and it strains not to harp on the same material week in and out en route to the payoff we all know is waiting in episode 18. Elfman is funny and likable, as she always is, and while the show feels a little stale in its allegiance to the laugh track, it’s pretty consistently amusing. At the same time, the characters pretty much run their course by the last episode, which also wraps up the story rather neatly. The cast and crew may mourn the lack of a second season, but it’s probably for the best that it ends this way.
Contents: 18 episodes.

Holy Rollers (R, 2010, Vivendi)
Twenty-year-old Sam (Jesse Eisenberg) has spent his whole life obediently following the strict customs of his Hasidic upbringing, but all the good behavior isn’t doing much good for his bottom (he makes a pittance working for his father) or personal life (even an arranged marriage seems to elude him). When Sam’s brother Yosef (Justin Bartha) fosters an opportunity to make real money delivering so-called “medicine” (wink, wink, it’s ecstasy) for an Israeli smuggler, he reluctantly accepts. And when that job drives him into a wild underground full of nightclubs and vampish women, he’s too frozen to do anything but roll with it. That, unfortunately, is a problem that plagues “Holy Rollers” as well. Sam’s story is based on true events, and there’s an undeniable coming-of-age vibe to the arc it takes. But be it due to biographical accuracy or writing that just falls short, neither Sam nor the company he keeps develop into anything beyond moderately evolve versions of the dramatic archetypes they were when we found them. “Rollers” plods along predictably and ramps up when and how you expect it to, and it hits the customary notes movies like these need to hit not to be bad. Sure enough, this isn’t bad either, but that’s about as spirited as the complimentary language gets.
Extras: Eisenberg/Bartha/director commentary, deleted scenes, interviews.

Games 10/19/10: Kirby's Epic Yarn, Medal of Honor, Dead Space Ignition

Kirby’s Epic Yarn
For: Wii
From: Good-Feel/HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

The smiling pink blob known as Kirby has never not been adorable, but “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” very literally takes video game cuteness to an entirely new plane.

“Yarn” plays like most Kirby games, insofar that it’s a sidescrolling platformer in which Kirby waddles, jumps, smacks enemies and uses his uniquely flexible chemistry to transform into alternate forms that allow access to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Instead of a squishy blob, though, “Yarn” transforms Kirby, his friends and adversaries into outlines constructed entirely from yarn, buttons and bits of fabric. That goes as well for the entire game world, which is constructed almost exclusively from cloth. (The story, narrated with all the sweetness of a children’s bedtime tale, explains everything.)

“Yarn” succeeds on the novelty of this presentation because it looks awesome and doesn’t break the illusion when in motion. Jumping on a felt platform causes it to sag ever so slightly like the real thing would, and Kirby can pull on certain buttons to stretch or contract the cloth backdrop and subsequently alter the game world. Some pathways even allow Kirby to access areas behind the fabric — a trick presented amusingly by showing Kirby as a bulge pushing the backdrop around.

But “Yarn” thrives, like so many other Nintendo platformers previously have, by parlaying the gimmick into a stream of clever ideas that transcend novelty. Kirby can swing from a button’s loose thread, wrap a string around a spool to raise the terrain, and transform into a string himself to thread a maze of corridors. His all-yarn composition allows him to transfer into everything from a firetruck to a rocket-firing mech for various challenges, and the aforementioned stretch/contract effect gets put to great use in levels that emphasize exploration.

The exploration is a pretty big deal for players who like a challenge, because if “Yarn” has a hangup, it’s the doormat difficulty. Players who simply strive to complete the story will face very little resistance in doing so, because Kirby’s inability to even die means a power failure is the only way not to complete a level. The game’s challenge comes from achieving gold medal scores on each level, picking them clean of hidden collectibles, unlocking bonus levels and completing those with similar aptitude. Even doing all that isn’t exactly a mountainous challenge, but it’s the only way to get “Yarn” to show any teeth, and some teeth are better than none if it incentivizes skilled players to experience what otherwise is a gem of a game.

“Yarn” allows two players to team up (one as Kirby, the other as sidekick Prince Fluff, but both with the same abilities) in simultaneous local co-op play, which serves simply to allow two players to enjoy the game together. The composition and difficulty of the levels do not change or scale.

Many of the aforementioned collectables also double as furniture players can use to decorate Kirby’s new apartment and surroundings. (Again, the story explains.) “Yarn’s” decorating module is almost entirely skippable for players who have no interest in such things, but it’s a cute and harmless diversion, and those who play around with it will open up a few additional challenges to complete. The act of decorating is a pretty low-maintenance affair, so those who simply want the extra challenges can rest assured that getting them isn’t much of a hassle.


Medal of Honor
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Danger Close/DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

The new, subtitle-free “Medal of Honor” can signify all it wants that it’s a new beginning, but make no mistake: If you’ve played a warfare game in the last few years — “Battlefield: Bad Company” and “Modern Warfare” most especially — then you’ve seen this before.

Don’t automatically confuse that for a swipe against the game, which has a consistently entertaining (though rarely exemplary) single-player campaign and a strong (if loosely familiar) multiplayer component. The groundings in real-world Afghanistan give it a hook the other games lack, and while “Honor’s” dabbles in fiction with its storyline, it displays a reverence for its soldiers that’s eluded the war shooter genre since it abandoned World War II.

But seriously, you’ve done this before. “Honor” throws players into the usual FUBAR scenarios that pop up in war games with creative liberty at their feet, so expect to be ambushed a few times and pinned down while fighting a Taliban force that has 10 soldiers for your every one. Expect, also, to dodge gunfire on an ATV, man a turret gun in an Apache, call in laser-guided airstrikes, pick snipers off a mountain range and stalk Taliban in pitch blackness with the assistance of night vision goggles.

But while “Honor” doesn’t innovate on what comprises a good war game, it at least imitates capably. It’s mechanically sound and smart about rotating between traditional and diversionary missions, and outside of some segments in which scripted A.I. forces players to play a certain way or die trying, it flashes some smart enemy and ally intelligence. Most segments have a tendency to last a few minutes or enemies longer than they should, but there isn’t a mission in the bunch that stands out as a dud. “Honor” is derivative fun, but it’s solid fun nonetheless from credit roll to credit roll.

“Honor’s” online multiplayer (24 players) is unique insofar that a different developer — DICE, of “Battlefield” fame — built it using a different engine than was used for the campaign. But outside of a few odd discrepancies this creates — the interface and overall design are trivially but noticeably different, and certain single-player commands (sliding into cover, going prone) aren’t available in multiplayer — it follows the template pretty faithfully. The basic controls are the same, and the modes are, while designed around the Afghanistan war theatre, hardly foreign to anyone with fresh memories of any recent war shooter.

That’s not much of a surprise: DICE designed “Honor’s” multiplayer using “Battlefield’s” engine and amid a slew of “Battlefield” projects, so it stands to reason that the tempo of the action and robustness of the graphics, sound and controls are reminiscent of the genre’s best series.

Also, while it’s easy to dismiss “Honor” as “Battlefield’s” weird little half-brother, there’s merit in what’s happened here. “Honor’s” firefights take place on maps that are smaller and tighter than those found in “Battlefield,” but the threshold for survival — a few seconds, one wrong move into the open and a few bullets at moderate range — remains dangerously thin. The premium on tight spaces and cover gives “Honor” plenty in common with “Modern Warfare,” but that thinner threshold will brutalize players who run and gun here like they do in that game. That’s a level of punishment that should have seasoned players in need of a new challenge jumping in head-first. (The rest of you, be warned: If you want to succeed here, you’d best come prepared.)


Dead Space Ignition
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Sumo Digital/Visceral Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $5 standalone, free with “Dead Space 2” pre-order

It’s officially trendy now f
or publishers to precede the release of a big-budget game with an inexpensive, downloadable not-quite prequel. But “Dead Space Ignition” represents the weirdest venture into this territory thus far. Nowhere near a third-person horror shooter like the upcoming “Dead Space 2,” “Ignition” instead is a series of hacking mini-games glued together by a motion comic-powered storyline that partially sets the table for “DS2.” Though gifted with good voice acting, “Ignition’s” animation looks a bit drab even by the loose definition of motion comic animation, and the three mini-game varieties include one that’s enjoyably frantic, one that’s engaging but simple, and one that’s a shoddy tower defense wannabe. That adds up to selection that’s as full of misses as it is hits, which may make “Ignition’s” short length a plus for those who simply want to blow through it and collect the reward (a unlockable suit for main protagonist Isaac to wear in “DS2”). Devoted fans of the “Space” fiction stand to gain the most from “Ignition,” which, in addition to detailing select events from the perspective of new characters, also allows players a small measure of control over the decisions those characters make. That, and the fleeting fun of the two good minigames, makes this a worthy diversion for those who already plan to get “DS2” and consequently get this for free. If you need to pay $5 to play this, you probably have no reason to be playing it.

DVD 10/12/10: How to Train Your Dragon, I Am Love, S&Man, Leaves of Grass, The Killing Machine

How to Train Your Dragon: Dragon Double Pack (PG, 2010, Dreamworks)
Not every teenage viking is dragon hunter material. That’s a truth that Hiccup, despite being the son of Stoick the Vast and a fairly skilled inventor of his own creation, learned the hard way after one of his inventions finally ensnared a young dragon. Rather than kill the beast, Hiccup frees him and names him Toothless. And in the face of a territorial war between humans and dragons that’s as old as time, the two develop a reluctant trust for one another. “How to Train Your Dragon” puts itself at a disadvantage by telling a story that falls outside the usual bounds of computer-animated movies, because there’s really only one way this conflict can work itself out, and anyone with any movie-watching savvy can spot it almost as soon as the table is set. But “Dragon” does so much so well that it really doesn’t need the element of surprise to completely entrance a viewer. The human characters on both sides of the conflict — to say nothing of Hiccup’s crush, Astrid, who represents the lynchpin in the tide — are immensely likable and wonderfully designed. The dragons, meanwhile, are a marvel of great character design and animation, able to express so much without being able to mutter anything beyond a fiery growl. “Dragon” could have taken the easy way out by just letting the beasts talk like people, but it did no such thing, and fruits of choices like that — along with the film’s ability to so artfully execute on those choices — more than make up for whatever big-picture surprises the plot has to surrender along the way.
Extras: Animated short “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, dragon activity center, Dreamworks video jukebox.

I Am Love (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Just about everybody in the Recchi family is in some state or another of flux. Patriarch Eduardo is ready to hand off the family business to son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), but he surprises everyone by giving grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti) a cut as well. Edo, meanwhile, has dreams of opening a restaurant with friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), while Edo’s sister Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) is ready to embark on a significant lifestyle shift. But while “I am Love” has a lot of stories to tell, its centerpiece is the one person — Tancredi’s wife Emma (Tilda Swinton) — who has nothing much going on at all. The movie kind of reflects that, too: Emma’s silently restless, and while so many developments swirl around her and occasionally pull her in, she appears to view them as the dull, meaningless side stories they ultimately become to us. Emma’s story eventually picks up some steam, but what happens amounts to 20 minutes’ worth of storytelling stretched over a two-hour movie and wrapped around many, many minutes of storytelling that just kind of dangles there. “Love” is a beautifully-shot movie, and it’s one that revels in its own self-indulgence to such a degree that some will happily buy what it’s selling and lose themselves in the empty beauty that punctuates all that inconsequence. Be prepared, however, to not only not feel this way, but also to wonder what it is you just spent two hours doing once “Love” ends. It’s a special kind of film for a particular kind of audience, but it isn’t for most.
Extras: Director/Swinton commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

S&Man (R, 2006, Magnet/Magnolia)
Horror filmmaker JT Petty’s attempts to shoot a documentary about a former neighbor who was caught videotaping neighbors — but never convicted for the crime, because neighbors didn’t want the footage shown in court — went south when the neighbor refused to speak. So Petty shifted gears and decided to delve deeper into the world of voyeuristic, exploitative horror. Once there, he found a world of filmmakers who produce movies that, at least psychologically, make the most contemporary horror films look like Saturday Morning Cartoons. “S&Man” (pronounced “Sandman”) is a document of these encounters, but getting any more specific than that about Petty’s shifted intentions, and where those intentions take the film, would constitute a serious spoiler. “S&Man” ventures down familiar documentary roads, but it also doesn’t, and while anyone with an interest in horror’s underground movements will learn something here, those who wait until the end credits to have their burning questions answered will enjoy this more than those who read too much about the film and spoil it for themselves in advance. If that warning sounds uselessly vague, that’s the point. If you see “S&Man,” you’ll understand.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, a complete cut of one of the films featured in the movie, additional film clips/trailers, deleted/extended scenes.

Leaves of Grass (R, 2009, First Look Studios)
They may be twins, but Bill and Brady Kincaid (both played by Edward Norton) could scarcely be different: The latter turned a pot habit into a cottage industry in small-town Oklahoma, while the former bolted his hometown and is so enamored with life as an Ivy League philosophy professor that the only way to get him to come back would be if Brady or their mother (Susan Sarandon) died. So that’s what Brady — who needs his brother’s identical twin powers to assist him in a complicated ploy to escape the drug trade before his wife (Melanie Lynskey) gives birth to their son — pretends to do. That bit about things being complicated cannot be overstated, either. “Leaves of Grass” is pretty messy on paper, and it’s a pig sty in practice. Divergent moods play off one another, and a mountain of quirks dance with numerous crucial and completely useless plot points to create a storm of moving parts. Some of these parts are funny and engaging, and Norton is great in both of his roles. But all that activity nonetheless leaves “Grass” feeling more unwieldy than anything else, and it’ll leave those holding out for some consistency feeling exasperated and exhausted by the credit roll. Keri Russell also stars.
Extras: Director/Norton commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Killing Machine (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Sometimes, the only fair way to critique a movie is with the metrics by which it measures its own self. “The Killing Machine’s” plot design is as nuanced as its name: Eddie Genn (Dolph Lundgren) is a renowned KGB assassin who has managed to keep his profession a secret from his now-ex-wife (Stefanie von Pfetten) and child (Katelyn Mager), but a mission gone wrong causes worlds to collide and everything from secrets to lives to stand in the path of grave peril. Things get messy, things get personal, and “Machine” lays out a minefield of cheesy character designs and dialogue exchanges in hopes of showing both ends of Eddie’s heart. It isn’t Oscar-worthy, Golden Globe-worthy or even worthy of a blue ribbon at a film festival. But “Machine” plays entirely too many B-movie tricks for anyone to mistake it for something wanting to be anything other than what it is. And where’s the harm in that? The shootouts and fights are executed well, the twists are just ridiculous enough to enjoy without totally shredding logic, the kid is cute, and Lundgren’s under-appreciated charisma gets a chance to shine in limited doses. As throwaway popcorn entertainment goes, this one fulfills its objective at leaves it precisely at that.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 10/12/10: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, NBA Jam, Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ninja Theory/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

Gaming’s 2010 holiday season is fueled almost entirely by sequels to and remakes of games you’ve already played, so the mere air of mystery surrounding the brand-new “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West” makes its presence welcome by default.

Fortunately, “Enslaved” wholly earns that welcome by telling a fresh story, telling it well, and backing it up with continuously great third-person action.

“Enslaved” stars players as Monkey, a prisoner who escaped a crashing prison ship only to become subservient to another escapee, Trip, who planted a device on Monkey that forces him to obey orders and help Trip return home alive. (The story, in addition to boasting outstanding voice acting and exceptional character and environmental details, pretty capably makes surprising sense of the details behind Monkey’s predicament.)

In case you’re worried: No, this isn’t one long escort mission that requires players to keep a useless sidekick alive. “Enslaved’s” levels occasionally ask players to help Trip safely navigate difficult terrain, but these instances usually play out via well-designed environmental puzzles or very quick combat challenges. And in addition to capably following a few commands (run, distract, heal) and flashing smart A.I., Trip usually can fend for herself when necessary.

Freed from babysitting duty, Monkey proves quite capable himself. “Enslaved’s” core action is a cross between third-person brawling and platforming in the “Uncharted” vein. Fights in wide-open fields against gun-toting mechs borrow tricks from cover-based shooters, and a hoverboard-like device lets Monkey freely surf around certain levels at high speeds.

What elevates all these familiar elements into something unique is the stuff “Enslaved” does with presentation and momentum. Monkey doesn’t stop on a dime when players stop running: Momentum carries him a half-step further, and the camera takes a few additional steps before snapping back. Though jarring and counterintuitive at first, the loose physics allow for more fluid movements in battle and a more exciting presentation of those movements. It doesn’t sound like much, and it has to be experience to be fully understood, but it’s enough to light a noticeable fire under what otherwise is a familiar stable of gameplay staples.

(Worth noting: These ticks don’t apply to climbing, which uses a “sticky” system, a la “Prince of Persia,” that allows players to dart from platform to platform without slowing down for precision’s sake.)

Everything “Enslaved” tries — brawling, climbing, puzzle solving, infiltration, escorting, even a little shooting and more — it does capably at worst and brilliantly at best, and the game does a nice job of rotating those pieces so as to prevent any of them from overstaying their welcome.

This alone would make this an easy game to recommend, but “Enslaved’s” ability to tell a wholly original story with so much care absolutely clinches it. Monkey and Trip are much stronger characters than their original archetypes first imply, and “Enslaved’s” world — a post-apocalyptic America that trades in the usual grey wasteland for a beautifully mossed version of New York City, among other locales — is a treasure trove of engrossing unknowns as well as a feast for the eyes.


Reviewed for: Wii
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The tenets of “NBA Jam” never completely disappeared, because “NBA Street” and its ilk offered comparable arcade basketball experiences in the meantime.

But “Jam’s” soul — cartoony players, cheat codes, announcer Tim Kitzrow screaming, “He’s on Fire!” — is as essential to the experience as the game itself, and that soul’s complete return to form after 16 years is what makes this comeback so blissfully welcome.

“Jam” plays now as it did then — entirely too shallow to be confused with “NBA 2K11,” but too dizzyingly fast for that shallowness to matter. Dunks still reign over jumpers, turbo-fueled breakaways remain unstoppable, and shoving players to steal the ball is allowable under a ruleset that cries foul only at brazen goaltending.

Experienced “Jam” players should feel comfortable fairly quickly with the available control schemes, though because this is the Wii, there naturally are some caveats.

“Jam’s” default control scheme finds most commands mapped to the Wii remote and nunchuck in predictable ways. But shooting, dunking and blocking all fall to the remote’s gesture controls, with players flicking upward to jump and downward to finish the action. “Jam” recognizes the gestures flawlessly, and “slamming” the remote to dunk is terrific fun, but don’t be surprised if your brain tricks you into flicking and blocking when you intend to press B to steal. The discrepancy fades away with practice, but it’s jarring initially.

“Jam’s” other schemes are similarly dependable and similarly imperfect. The classic controller support feels more natural at first with the right stick handling shooting and blocking duties, but the clumsiness of having to tether the controller to a Wii remote is, while not the game’s fault, awkward nonetheless. Holding the remote sideways like an NES controller allows players to play like it’s 1994 again, but the D-pad lacks the mobility afforded by a joystick. Those aching for a caveat-free control scheme — to say nothing of online play, which this version doesn’t support — might wish to hold out for “Jam’s” upcoming Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 incarnations.

But even accounting for the control oddities, this is like going home again. In addition to playing like it always has, “Jam” also just feels right. The visual presentation certainly benefits from 16 years of advancements, but player faces remain hilariously digitized, creating a look that’s a delightfully weird mix of high- and low-budget presentation values. Kitzrow doesn’t miss a beat in his resumption of announcing duties, and everything from the menu presentation to the hidden surprises (big head mode, playable politicians) is back like it never left.

The best way to experience “Jam” remains a two-on-two game with three other friends in the same room, but the most pleasant surprise about this incarnation is how much it offers (online play excepted) to those playing alone.

The traditional campaign, in which players conquer 36 real and fantasy teams in succession, returns. But “Jam” introduces a terrific new Remix campaign, which has players climbing a more open-ended mountain while playing some very inspired basketball variants that employ power-ups, half-court gameplay and every-player-for-himself mentalities. A game-wide achievements system offers another layer of challenges to complete, and knocking out those achievements unlocks a bounty of classic players and other famous faces. Why wait until 2012 when unlockable Palin and Obama characters can settle their differences right here?


Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Twisted Pixel
ESRB Rating: Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

“Comic Jumper’s” premise — washed-up superhero Captain Smiley must assist other characters in their comic books before he can star in his own
again — is funny, and it allows the game to regularly change its art style and spoof numerous comic book genres throughout Smiley’s quest for redemption. “Jumper” further piles on the humor with some strange live-action cutscenes, a handful of ridiculous theme songs, and a sidekick whose only talent is antagonizing Smiley (and, by extension, you). But funny turns to obnoxious in a hurry when a game plays as poorly as this one does. Most of “Jumper” resembles a bad “Contra” knockoff, with Smiley moving from left to right while shooting the same enemies ad infinitum with some seriously weak firearms. A handful of segments switch the viewpoint to behind Smiley’s back, with players controlling a targeting reticule that precedes the invention of the first-person shooter. A few mercifully short segments focus on absurdly simplistic hand-to-hand combat. Overwhelmingly, “Jumper’s” action feels either painfully rote (the same enemies continually attacking in the same patterns) or cheap and antagonizing (floods of enemies taking advantage of the Smiley’s lousy mobility while the game’s voice acting continually and gratingly reminds you of your declining health). Rarely is it fun, and rarely is the humor — which itself beats the same jokes to death after a while — worth the hassle.

DVD 10/5/10: Caprica S1, The Human Centipede, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, The Cleveland Show S1, The Oxford Murders, Blue Mountain State S1, Beauty and the Beast DE, Roger Corman’s Cult Classics

Caprica: Season 1.0 (NR, 2009, Universal)
You can call “Caprica” a prequel to “Battlestar Galactica,” because that’s what it is, but you’d be reaching to argue it doesn’t work awfully hard to be a beast of its own creation. “Caprica” begins nearly 60 years before the initial events of the “Galactica” reboot, and sure enough, the feature-length premiere episode offers some wild insight into the creation of the very first Cylon. But while fans of “Galactica” stand to benefit the most from timeline connections like these, there’s entirely too much going on here to recommend it solely to them. “Caprica” takes place on soil instead of in space, so the parallels it draws to real-life ways and means are as insightful as “Galactica’s” metaphors but also wholly its own. It also compensates for the grounding with perhaps the most inspired look yet at virtual worlds, avatars, the ability to live second lives, and what happens when technology and tragic happenstance blur the lines between dimensions. There’s plenty of first-rate fan service here, but more than that, this simply is terrific science fiction. Alessandra Torresani, Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Magda Apanowicz, Paula Malcomson and Polly Walker star.
Contents: Nine episodes, plus the unrated cut of the pilot, commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, podcast commentary and a ton of video blogs.

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (R, 2010, IFC Films)
No horror movie has been talked about more this year than this one, so perhaps the most shocking thing about “The Human Centipede: First Sequence” is what it doesn’t do rather than what it does. For the few horror fans who wish to know about “Centipede” but somehow do not, here’s the gist: A renowned surgeon (Dieter Laser) in Germany draws up plans for a surgery that attaches three human beings together as a single, centipede-like organism with a shared digestive tract. The idea is messed up, the film’s marketing continually swears the fiction is rooted in real medical accuracy, and that is more than enough for “Centipede” to creep people out purely during the anticipatory stage. But here’s the shocker: Though it’s a film that centers around a surgery performed on participants held against their will, “Centipede” doesn’t really dabble in exploitation or needless gore at all. The idea is twisted enough, there’s a lot of storytelling the film wishes to do, and Laser does a magnificent job of conveying how scary a person can be when his intelligence, insanity and means all reach their peak at the same time. As bloody horror films go, “Centipede” is very nearly dry. But don’t be surprised if this one sticks with you long after every gore-a-thon you see this year has faded from memory.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, deleted scene, two behind-the-scenes features, casting footage.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (NR, 2010, HBO)
Even non-basketball fans know a thing or two about the rivalry between Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird. And while that might make “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” a little less appealing on paper than a story rooted in a little more obscurity, it’s also sort of the point: This was bigger than basketball, and the NBA as we know it might not exist if Magic and Larry hadn’t joined the league right on time to revive it. Fortunately, and because this is HBO, “Rivals” doesn’t waste time reminding us of things we already know. Instead — and with both Bird and Johnson chiming in — it takes a deeply personal look at how two players with an extreme contempt for one another became dear friends. It also doesn’t tiptoe over the darker points in the timeline, with surprisingly candid discussions about such uncomfortable topics as the race politics that clouded the rivalry and Magic’s contracting of HIV. The movie asks a lot of good questions, neither Bird nor Johnson flinch with their answers, and if you know only a thing or two about these two, “Rivals” is a wonderfully entertaining eye-opener that, like its subjects, has appeal far beyond simple basketball fandom. No extras.

The Cleveland Show: The Complete Season One (NR, 2009, Fox)
It doesn’t get a whole lot more lateral than “The Cleveland Show,” which finds everybody’s favorite “Family Guy” pushover, Cleveland Brownl, packing a suitcase and his son and moving in with his hometown high school crush and her family. Cleveland’s personality stands in stark contrast to Peter Griffin’s, but their roles on their respective shows aren’t terribly different. That list goes on: His son, Cleveland Jr., plays Chris Griffin’s part, long-lost love Donna plays the straight card as well as Lois, wise-cracking baby Rallo is a warmed-over Stewie, and a bear replaces Brian the dog as the token talking animal. “Cleveland’s” humor adopts the exact same style as “Guy,” so if you haven’t had enough of that routine, it’s hard to say no to twice as much of it a year. If you’ve outgrown the schtick, though, “Cleveland” will feel stale straight out of the gate.
Contents: 21 uncensored episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, a live table read with Kanye West and a music video.

The Oxford Murders (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Graduate student Martin (Elijah Wood) had visions of studying with logic professor Arthur Seldom (John Hurt) when he arrived at Oxford. But he didn’t anticipate the study subject being the murder of a mutual friend (Anna Massey), whose body they find in her home at the same time during separate visits for separate reasons. From there, a pattern of premeditated murders develops, with the killer “announcing” his intentions ahead of time through a riddle of mathematical symbols the two scramble to solve together. That’s pretty cool, and some of the turns in “The Oxford Murders” — including the final reveal — are pretty clever as well. So why is it so hard to get past how unbearably stuffy the whole thing is? A few flashes of passion or anger aside, just about every character and dialogue exchange in “Murders” feels rehearsed at best and insufferably stiff otherwise. And while some of those riddles look awfully good on paper, the people in play are so acutely forgettable that there’s no reason to care about the actual consequences of them. The fight in “Murders” ultimately is over people’s lives, but everyone here feels half-day already, so it’s hard to understand what the fuss over saving anyone is really about.
Extras: Nine behind-the-scenes features.

Blue Mountain State: Season One (NR, 2010, Lions Gate)
You’ve heard of the lowest common denominator, but what you might not know is that scientists actually found a rung of intelligence that all this time has been buried beneath it. In the deepest depths of that rung, this show — which isn’t so much about a college football team as it is a collection of brutal gags assembled in the form of a show about college football — is playing on every television screen. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation, because “Blue Mountain State” cannot possibly not realize how low it aims, and there almost certainly is a niche — unsupervised nine-year-olds drunk on Hi-C, perhaps — who will find the incoming cavalcade of sight gags absolutely fall-down hilarious. “State” must realize how starved that market is for shows about adults that are written for children by writers who couldn’t hack it on YouTube, and its ability to nourish that need is nothing short of heroic.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes and two behind-the-scenes features.

Worth a Mention
— “Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition” (G, 1991, Disney): Though this doubles as the Blu-ray debut for “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney’s terrific all-inclusive strategy — packing the Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy edi
tions inside a single, dressed-up box — means everyone can enjoy the benefits of the film’s best transfer to date. Contents (some Blu-ray only) include three cuts (theatrical, extended and with storyboards) of the film, plus commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, DVD games, sing-along feature, music video and an early presentation reel that includes an alternate score and a deleted song.
— New wave of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series: You cannot stop Shout Factory’s barrage of Roger Corman reissues. You can only hope to contain it on your nearest bookshelf. New entrants include the three-film “Slumber Party Massacre” collection (R/NR, 1982-90), “StarCrash” (PG, 1979) and a double feature with “The Evil” (R, 1978) and “Twice Dead” (R, 1988). Every film in each release gets a commentary track, and “Massacre” also includes a three-part making-of documentary. But “StarCrash” is the big winner here: In addition to being able to show off a then-unknown David Hasselhoff, the two-disc set comes with deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes footage with commentary, interviews, a special effects feature, 12 pages of liner notes and a large library of concept art and production photos.
— Blu-ray debuts for “The Maltese Falcon” (NR, 1941, Warner Bros.) and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (NR, 1947, Warner Bros.): The packaging doesn’t look nearly as pretty as last week’s “King Kong” reissue, but the picture does, and that’s what matters. Both films include commentary tracks with Humphrey Bogart biographer Eric Lax, as well as behind-the-scenes features and radio show adaptations of the movies with the films’ stars.

Games 10/5/10: Haunted House, Coin Push Frenzy

Haunted House
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade, Windows PC
From: ImaginEngine/Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, mild blood, mild cartoon violence)

The 1982 Atari 2600 game “Haunted House” is treasured for numerous reasons, but user-friendliness never was one of them. Even by the 2600’s standards, it was intimidatingly cryptic — which, for purposes of exploring a haunted house in complete darkness, is an arguable asset rather than a liability.

The new “House” isn’t nearly so bold, because in this age and in its reincarnated state as a family-friendly game, it cannot afford to be. So there’s a storyline, there are objectives, and the house actually looks like a house instead of a series of barren, indistinguishable rooms. Players still control an avatar that’s nothing but a pair of eyeballs in darkened rooms, but that darkness no longer is pitch black, and using readily available light sources turns the eyes into a full character.

Those who would’ve liked to see Atari buck convention and deliver a game as insanely imposing as the original will doubtlessly be disappointed by just about every word in the above paragraph.

But if the goal is to freshen up an old property for a new audience — and, in the process, deliver that rare Halloween-themed game that isn’t tagged with blood, violence and an M rating from the ESRB — this is a job well done.

Primarily, that’s because “House” preserves the original game’s gameplay style in spite of all it changes. The action still takes place from an overhead perspective, and players still freely explore each stage of the mansion while searching for keys and other items that open new passageways, illuminate darkened areas and ward off ghosts and other enemies. The controls are as straightforward as ever, and motion control gimmickry is kept to a minimum.

The new enhancements aren’t half-bad, either. The cartoony graphical style is appealing and colorful without betraying the mood, and “House” finds a very happy medium by telling much of its story through collectible letters and journals that give players something else to discover (and also keep them playing the game instead of watching needless cutscenes).

“House’s” softer difficulty will be a bone of contention for the 1982 crowd, but while the game doesn’t punish players, it also doesn’t roll over. Skilled older players likely will find much of it too easy, but kids and novices should find the difficulty just right, and “House’s” support for two-player local co-op makes it a terrific game for parents and older siblings to play with younger or less experienced members of the household. It isn’t as spooky with a second character in the room, but taking on the mansion as a team makes for a fun wrinkle to the formula.


Coin Push Frenzy
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse/ngmoco
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

“Coin Push Frenzy” isn’t so much a game as a fiendishly faithful simulation of the coin push game (insert quarter, watch it fall and hope it pushes other quarters off the platform) normally seen at arcades and carnivals. Playing takes no skill beyond tapping to drop a coin in a specific spot, and players lay at the mercy of the same cruel physics that betray them in the real thing. Somehow, the compulsion to try again also carries over, and “Frenzy” goes further by dotting the coin pile with prize boxes that contain powerups and collectables good toward unlocking new machine themes. “Frenzy’s” conduit for compulsion doesn’t require any monetary investment on players’ part, but the truly hooked might pay up anyway: The game’s free, the first 50 coins are free, and “Frenzy” restocks that 50-coin allowance with a free coin either every 30 seconds (when playing) or three minutes (when not). That sounds plentiful, but when you’re tapped out, hooked and reduced to slowly playing one coin at a time for minimal impact, those in-app purchases — $1 for 250 coins, $4 for 1,000 — are a tantalizing shortcut to replenished riches. Why those riches even matter is beyond rationalization, considering this is a non-game with nothing but fake rewards at stake, but the dangerous “one more coin!” sensation is as hard to shake as it is to explain.