DVD 12/28/10: Merantau, Archer S1, The American, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Merantau (R, 2009, Magnolia)
“Merantau’s” title refers to an Indonesian rite of passage in which a young man must temporarily leave his family completely behind and make it on his own without help. In Yuda’s (Iko Uwais) case, that means leaving his rural village for the bright lights and big crime of Jakarta, where he almost immediately finds himself an accidental observer — and consequential saboteur — of an attempt to kidnap an orphaned girl (Sisca Jessica as Astri) and sell her into sexual slavery. Unfortunately for Yuda, the exchange he undermines goes pretty far up an underworld ladder, and before the ink even dries on his arrival, he’s public enemy No. 1. Fortunately — for him as well as us — Yuda seems up to the task. “Merantau’s” story serves a purpose by taking a less-is-more approach to making Yuda, Astri, Astri’s young brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and their primary (Mads Koudal, Alex Abbad) and secondary pursuers far more interesting than their no-frills development would seem capable of providing. More than that, though, it provides the necessary excuse for scene after scene of absolutely top-flight martial arts action. “Merantau’s” choreography is incredibly fast and cleverly organic, its set pieces inspired on large (a nightclub) and small (a locked elevator) scales, and its final fight — a scaling, three-part showdown that uses every inch of a cargo yard — as good as payoffs get. In Indonesian with English subtitles, but an optional English dub is included.
Extras: Deleted scenes, video production diaries, three additional behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Archer: The Complete Season One (NR, 2009, Fox)
Unless a comedy about a spy agency run by people who are great at their jobs but a mess in every other regard is new to you — and if it is, Maxwell Smart and Austin Powers would like to have a word — “Archer’s” concept isn’t exactly fresh. In fact, almost everything about FX Network’s first animated series feels a little borrowed. The rapid rate of dialogue fire is a direct descendent of the wonderful “Home Movies” cartoon, which also lends one of its best voices (H. Jon “Coach McGuirk” Benjamin) to play Sterling Archer, a decorated secret agent with severe mommy issues and a disastrous penchant for dipping pen in company ink. Meanwhile, the animation style — high-quality graphic comic artwork set to a form of movement most commonly associated with Macromedia Flash projects — owes a debt of gratitude to countless Adult Swim cartoons that paved its way to acceptance on television. But all these crucial influences would go to waste if the show’s centerpiece wasn’t such a brilliant breath of its own fresh air. “Archer” packs an hour’s worth of comedy into every half-hour episode, stacking brilliant throwaway lines atop each other and just barreling through its clever storylines at a breathlessly funny pace. Turns out, the “Home Movies” method applies quite perfectly to adult situations and espionage thrillers when the writing is smart enough to keep up. (A special note for “Arrested Development” fans: If you can’t wait for the movie to get a reunion, “Archer” makes another brilliant borrow by pairing Jessica Walter, who stars as Archer’s mother and boss, with Jeffrey Tambor, who shows up over multiple episodes in a guest role.)
Contents: 10 episodes, plus the unaired original pilot, deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features and freebie pilot episodes of fellow FX shows “Louie” and “The League.”

The American (R, 2010, Focus/Universal)
We don’t know much about Jack (George Clooney), but we do know that he’s an American, he’s hiding, and when his hunters find him, he’s paranoid (or is it comprehensive?) enough to kill the woman he’s with as well as the men sent to kill him. When Jack relocates from desolate Sweden to a nondescript Italian village, we discover his incredible gift for weapon construction, a capacity for blending into the scenery despite hopelessly standing out, a love of women, and the ability to occasionally almost crack what might be construed as a smile. What we don’t learn, at least not definitively, is why Jack’s skill has made him a target, why he unconditionally trusts the few people he trusts, or why, despite being so thoroughly calculated, he can’t help but betray his paranoia in favor of self-indulgence. “The American” plays by an unconventional set of rules, and it plays well, meticulously setting up a very intimate cross section of a man and a job before finally tipping over the top domino. But if you swear the film feels like it’s designed to frustrate the reasonable and aggravate the impatient — if not because of the languid tone or refusal to let viewers into Jack’s mind, then perhaps because characters occasionally speak Italian and the subtitle font requires a telescope to read clearly — you might have a point. “The American’s” careful construction perfectly lends itself to discussion and perhaps a second watch, but one viewer’s exhilaration is bound to be another’s alienation or boredom.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (R, 2010, IFC Films)
You know what’s great about the millions of us who never achieve staggering heights of fame? We never have to watch our star slowly sink while age creeps forward and a nation of strangers — sometimes with gleeful derision — follow right along. That’s the present day-to-day life of Joan Rivers, a ground-shattering comic who now is better known for her excessive plastic surgery and unflattering stints interviewing the exponentially more famous as they try to avoid her barbs while walking down red carpets. But rather than play down the desperation and pain of fighting what appears to be a losing battle, Rivers does what she’s always done best and just stares the uncomfortable subject straight in the eye. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” finds Rivers scrambling to kick-start a one-woman play and fill in some dates in her increasingly porous standup calendar, and in case you suspect the documentary itself is another potential comeback avenue in case all else fails, Rivers herself owns up to it without provocation. The frankness of that admission is refreshing, but it’s also to be expected while watching “Work,” which finds Rivers firing self-depreciating arrows at herself while assessing her current situation without any pretense whatsoever. This isn’t a pity play or a plea for sympathy, but simply a terrific display of a talent — unfettered, fearless, all-inclusive honesty — that never deserves to go out of style.
Extras: Rivers/filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, Sundance Q&A.

DVD 12/21/10: Salt, Easy A, Cyrus, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, Futurama V5, Caprica S1.5

Salt: Deluxe Unrated Edition (NR, 2010, Columbia Pictures)
The first rule of enjoying “Salt” is to accept that logic is neither its major nor its minor, nor is it a even field of study or simply a source of fleeting curiosity. That isn’t quite so apparent at the outset, with the movie introducing us to CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) via a tense hostage exchange with North Korea before skipping forward in time and dropping us into a conspiracy involving the visiting president of Russia. Initially, “Salt” seems to mind its details and do so with a straight face, and its first act sets the table for a respectably competent but unspectacular international suspense story. But once “Salt” embarks on its first twist, there’s no looking back. Without spoiling the specifics, covert identities become overt, uncovered secrets start gushing in from everywhere, and “Salt” treats the topic of international diplomacy with all the reverence of two third graders doing battle with army men toys. “Salt” never really breaks its straight face, but it leaves no doubt that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the transformative path it takes from staid international thriller to crazed action bonanza is akin to getting on a teacup ride and getting off the biggest roller coaster in the park. It’s logically broken, but it revels in its maniacal absurdity, and it’s hard not to have fun with a movie that’s having such a blast itself. Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Olbrychski also star.
Extras: Three versions (theatrical, director’s cut and extended cut) of the movie, plus filmmakers’ commentary, director interview and two behind-the-scenes features.

Easy A (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
It would seem to be too good to be true for a teen comedy to load up on a cast (Emma Stone, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Malcolm McDowell, Thomas Haden Church) like this. But as “Easy A” seems really eager to clear up straight away — as in the very first sentence anyone says — it isn’t really a teen comedy, even if the plot is straight out of a very special episode of “Saved by the Bell.” In “Easy A,” teenage wallflower Olive (Stone) tells best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) a phony story about a very hot date she never had in order to get out of a weekend camping trip she didn’t want to experience. The school’s self-elected self-righteous loudmouth (Amanda Bynes) overhears the story, it snowballs, a few male students capitalize on the lie to cover up their own pathetic social lives, and in a manner of days, Olive goes from an invisible nobody to the top of her school’s tramp rankings. But where a typical teen movie would turn to crying, preaching, changes of heart and other insufferable antonyms for “entertaining” to steer things from there, “Easy A” just barrels ahead with its tongue continually in cheek, using a sharp sense of humor to construct a deviously apt fable about the petty things people (and not just teenagers) do to each other to feel better about themselves. The writing is clever to an unrealistic degree — a la “Juno,” nobody really talks like this — but it’s a non-issue when the end so cleverly and amusingly justifies the means.
Extras: Director/Stone commentary, Webcam audition footage (makes more sense after you see the movie), bloopers.

Cyrus (R, 2010, Fox)
You’ve seen this scenario before: Man (John C. Reilly as John) meets woman (Marisa Tomei as Molly), man becomes fixture in woman’s life, and the previous center of that woman’s life (Jonah Hill as Molly’s son Cyrus) starts planting mental land mines in hopes of reclaiming his territory. But “Cyrus” takes what traditionally is an occasion for loud, broad comedy and tries a little something different with it. Subtle mind games sub in for the usual slapstick and escalation of dirty tricks, and the movie’s sense of humor is dry, psychologically uncomfortable and a bit more raw than the norm. It works, too, because Cyrus isn’t the only character with issues. If anything, when you apply an age/wisdom ratio to all three characters, Molly’s attachment issues and John’s kaleidoscope of neediness and aptitude for emotionally vomiting all over everything arguably leave Cyrus as the most normal of the three. “Cyrus” never loses sight of its sense of humor, but it makes a much bigger deal than normal about really diving into the complications of the situation and paying some respect for what makes these characters as messy as they are. The resulting mix of humor and uncomfortable honesty makes for a very rare breed, and it’s a shame more movies don’t make it look this easy to combine the two. Catherine Keener also stars.
Extra: Deleted scenes (with directors introduction).

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (PG-13, 2010, Fox)
It’s insultingly faint praise, but it fits: As long-in-waiting sequels to arguable classics go, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” could have been worse. “Sleeps” doesn’t pretend two decades haven’t passed since its predecessor, and when we reunite with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), we get a glimpse of his sorry 2001 release from prison before jumping forward to 2008. Here, “Sleeps” becomes a product of its time: The markets are melting down, and the sub-prime lending debacle is hurtling investment banks — including the one that employs the man (Shia LaBeouf as Jake) who plans to marry Gordon’s estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan as Winnie) — toward oblivion. The insertion of Gekko into a real-world mess fresh on our minds is much smarter than if “Sleeps” ignored the world around it. But the movie severely gums its own works when Winnie’s estrangement becomes as much a focus of its angst as anything relating to Wall Street, and the script isn’t sure-footed enough to handle both storylines while also giving us the one thing “Wall Street” fans came to see. Amidst all the financial and familial chatter, and in spite of plenty of screen time, Gekko himself feels like an afterthought: His story comes third to those of Winnie and Jake, and his peaks and valleys take too long to arrive and disappear way too quickly to achieve a payoff that should have been a sure thing. As stories about finance go, “Sleeps” is fine. As a 23-years-in-the-making return of an icon, though, it leaves plenty to be desired.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes (with commentary), cast/director interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (NR, 2009, Tribeca Film)
The weird-to-memorable meter isn’t so much a straight line as a bell curve, and it’s entirely possible to go so far overboard on the strange scale that the whole thing just turns into a car crash of white noise. In “The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle,” Dory (Marshall Allman) loses his temper, loses his white collar job, and takes a much lesser job as a janitor at a company that, among other things, has created a prototypical self-heating cookie that warms itself while being eaten. Without spoiling the specifics, the cookies have a pretty unbelievable side effect that leaves Dory and his fellow janitors (Vince Vieluf, Tania Raymonde, Tygh Runyan) completely blindsided. In a calmer movie, that side effect would be more than sufficient enough to carry the story from there. But “Dizzle’s” every notion comes with side effects of their own, and the plot isn’t so much a plot as a vessel for a crazed level of idea-dumping presented with neither a verbal nor audiovisual filter. The level of experimentation and the force of conviction with which it’s delivered makes “Dizzle” fun to watch simply on the strength of spectacle alone. But it’s entirely possible to dismiss “Dizzle” as forgettable self-indulgence while also enjoying it, and with so little to hold onto for any meaningful reason, that’s likely what many will do. Natasha Lyonne also stars.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview.

Worth a Mention
— “Futurama: Volume 5” (NR, 2010, Fox): The big news about “Futurama’s” triumphant, fan-fueled resurrection is that there really isn’t any news at all. The episodes that comprise “Futurama’s” sixth season (and, confusingly, fifth DVD volume) arrive nearly seven years after season five wrapped, but the show doesn’t miss a beat. The characters are the same, the voice cast is the same, and most importantly, the writing and imagination that made the show great for five seasons is back on board for season six. “Futurama’s” penchant for strange intergalactic storylines has always resulted in some jokes that land and others that don’t, but in 2010 as in 2003, even a weak episode of this show is better than most shows’ best. Includes 13 episodes (commentary on all, per tradition), plus deleted/extended scenes, a Bender music video, Fry’s animated comic book, a behind-the-scenes feature, a table read and outtakes.
— “Caprica: Season 1.5” (NR, 2010, Universal): Just in case the completely lousy cancellation of “Caprica” wasn’t enough of a smack to the face, how’s this: You’ll have to pay if you want to legally see the show’s final five episodes when others do. SyFy is airing them as a marathon on January 4, so either pony up or plug your ears if you don’t want to be spoiled before then. To the show’s credit, while it ends far too soon, those last five episodes at least provide closure and send it off on a high note. Includes nine episodes, plus commentary, podcast commentaries, deleted scenes and video blogs.

Games 12/21/10: Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, EA Sports Active 2, Funky Lab Rat

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Game Republic/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

“Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom” is a new game with an old soul — a fresh adventure that, for good, unflattering and arbitrary reasons, is a welcome throwback to 3D gaming’s more experimental formative years.

The premise of “Majin” is a bit too winding to properly summarize in a few sentences, and the game’s cutscenes do a much nicer job than text ever could of making sense of everything. In a nutshell, a kingdom has succumbed to darkness, and the guardian of the kingdom (known henceforth as the Majin) has been hidden in captivity long enough to achieve mythical status. But then along comes Tepeu, a human gifted with the ability to talk to birds and animals. With their (and your) help, he rescues the Majin, and together, they set out to restore the kingdom to its former glory.

Beyond that initial rescue mission, “Majin” plays like an escort game with a twist: Instead of being helpless and in constant need of protection, the Majin — a powerful, monstrously large creature with a sweet disposition and grasp of language that rivals that of Sloth from “The Goonies” — is the one doing much of the protecting. You control Tepeu directly while giving commands to the A.I.-controlled Majin, who can use his strength and other special powers to alter the environment and fight enemies Tepeu is too weak to take on himself.

As total packages go, “Majin” is no stranger to flaws. The world is artistically pretty but a few years behind the curve as far as technical visual polish goes, and while Tepeu is a capable character, his jumping and climbing abilities aren’t as fluid as those of his counterparts in other adventure games. The combat offers some cool opportunities for the two characters to team up, but it’s still overwhelmingly a case of “mash X to swing weapon,” and you’ll spend much of the game fighting the same enemy types in a pretty predictable puzzle-fight-puzzle-fight pattern of events.

A discussion of “Majin’s” modest production values also would be incomplete without mentioning the voice acting, which ranges from kind of silly (the Majin) to unbelievably hokey (most of the animals, who talk in a kaleidoscope of hilarious accents one normally expects from an episode of “Family Guy” instead of a grandiose adventure game).

Whether the crazy voice acting was a product of a low budget or a sly sense of humor is debatable, but so is the effect. Some will find it off-putting. But if the rest of “Majin’s” world charms you (and there’s an excellent chance it could), it’s entirely likely the goofball voices will simply add another feather to that cap. “Majin’s” characters are deeply likable in spite of how weird they generally are, and the reverence they show for their former kingdom — to say nothing of the friendship that develops between Tepeu and the Majin — gives the story the kind of heart most games don’t even comprehend, much less achieve.

And the best news of all? The one area where “Majin” must succeed is where it shines brightest. The expansive overworld is loaded with intricate environmental puzzles that Tepeu and the Majin must team up to overcome, and the game tests that teamwork in some really inspired ways. “Majin’s” puzzles hit a perfect difficulty note — never needlessly opaque, but elaborate and creative enough to make completing them very satisfyingly fun. And while some so-so combat always punctuates these puzzles, the game rarely makes you slog through too many enemies before serving up another challenge — or, during its very best moments, making the enemies part of the puzzle.


EA Sports Active 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Xbox 360 (Kinect required), Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Video games may be the new fitness gimmick battleground, but the old truths remain true: If the equipment is a pain to use, it simply won’t be used.

“EA Sports Active 2” is exhibit A. As fitness interfaces go, it bleeds promise, with a polished arrangement of tools and a suite of online features that completely outclass those of its competitors. But the actual act of working out — both in terms of preparing for it and the diminished returns from that preparation — provide too much aggravation and not enough upside to make the year’s most expensive exercise video game ($100, regardless of system) also the year’s best.

The price tag reflects what’s inside the box, because in addition to the game, “Active” ships with three motion-tracking bands (one for each arm, one for the right leg), a stock-quality resistance band and a USB receiver that reads your motions as well as the heart monitor readings provided by one of the arm bands. Each tracking band requires two AAA batteries, and while the box comes with six freebies, those investing in “Active” might find this as good a time as any to invest in a rechargeable battery system as well. (Note: The Xbox 360 version of “Active” ditches two of the sensors in favor of Kinect compatibility, but includes the heart monitor band.)

In terms of interface, “Active” is awesome. The main menu offers a clear breakdown of calories burned, workout details and other information about your progress, and you can reference your history and graph your progress with a few button presses. The game’s preset workout programs offer up to nine weeks of scheduled workouts and structure it like an actual video game, with goals and progress bars in clear view to touch the same motivational nerves most traditional games tap. Throughout the entirety of the game, the heart rate monitor gives an onscreen readout — not necessarily crucial information while you’re flipping through menus, but enlightening nonetheless.

“Active’s” community features are similarly comprehensive — to a fault if you aren’t interested in them. The game tracks a ton of stats across its entire community, and if you join a workout group with some friends, it provides stats and updates on that front as well. The upside is obvious, but if your interest in “Active” is strictly on a personal level, the constant interruptions while the game connects to its online server become annoying in a hurry.

Unfortunately, everything good and bad about the interface kneels at the mercy of the actual workout, and this is where “Active” stumbles. The three-sensor system is a clear improvement over the original, Wii-only “Active’s” motion recognition capabilities. But it’s still unequipped to discern whether you’re really doing an exercise properly or using form that’s poor but close enough to trick it. Your onscreen character tries his or her best to mimic your movements, but it’s clear the game is guessing to some extent, and when games like “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” and “Your Shape Fitness Evolved” are using the Kinect to demonstrate 1:1 fidelity, “Active’s” educated guesswork feels obsolete out of the gate.

If and when EA Sports applies the same interface to a game that’s otherwise built from the ground up to capitalize on the Kinect and Playstation Move hardware, it’ll have the best fitness game on the market. So keep an eye out for “Active 3,” but put your money elsewhere until then.


Funky Lab Rat
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Hydravision
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

On paper, “Funky Lab Rat” sounds like a who’s who of popular indie game conventions. But the separate presences of 2D puzzle platforming
, real-time level editing and time manipulation wouldn’t amount to anything special if the game didn’t harmonize them as well as it does here. The goal in “Rat” is to help Diego the rat escape the lab by clear each of its 81 levels. The levels are pretty small, and Diego’s limited acrobatic repertoire (running, jumping) leaves little mystery about how he can collect the floating pills (used to unlock later batches of levels) and reach the exit safely. Where things get complicated is in your additional role of creating a path of escape that Diego can navigate. During the tutorial stages, “Rat” introduces a handful of time manipulation tricks that allow you to rewind (to quickly correct a fatal mistake), fast-forward (temporarily skip a level that’s got you stuck) and pause the action. The pause function is by far the most interesting, because “Rat” allows you to arrange parts of a paused level to create a path for Diego. The number of pauses each level provides is limited, and the objective behind the objective is to plan a few steps ahead and set up a perfect plan of escape amid a flurry of hazards and moving parts. “Rat” starts off easy, but the later worlds are wickedly difficult, and the game awards a trophy to anyone who can finish the final level by pausing to rearrange it “only” 22 times or fewer.

DVD 12/14/10: Despicable Me, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Trotsky, Mother and Child, The A-Team, Frenemy, 2010 (and 1960) World Series DVD Roundup

Despicable Me: Blu-ray + DVD Combo edition (PG, 2010, Universal)
Pixar movies have always had that secret ingredient that makes them unapologetically moving without ever relying on on preachiness or ham-handedness to get there. And while Gru’s goal in “Despicable Me” may be to steal the moon and reclaim his status as the world’s most innovative villain, it appears he also managed to swipe Pixar’s recipe during the process. At no point is there any serious doubt about where “Me” plans to go with Gru’s character development, and just in case his status as the beloved leader of hundreds of goofy, giggly alien-like minions didn’t offer a window into his true soul, the unintended consequences of tricking three orphan girls into solidifying his moon-stealing scheme are a dead giveaway. And that’s perfectly perfect, because even at his slimiest, Gru is too dopey and too relatable not to root for. His minions, who spend as much time cracking themselves up and speaking gibberish to each other as they do carrying out those schemes, are absolutely hilarious. And when the girls barrel their way into the thick of everything, this becomes the most lovable consortium of evil that ever existed. When “Me” hits the notes you expect it to hit, it’s too funny and too legitimately likable for the predictability of it all to even register. And when it heads down the homestretch, every trick it tries, even when you see them coming two scenes away, hits a bull’s eye anyway.
Extras (some Blu-ray only): Three new animated shorts starring the minions, director/minions commentary, picture-in-picture making-of feature, four behind-the-scenes features, two DVD games, digital copy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (R, 2010, Oscilloscope)
Life imitates art, art imitates life, and in the might-be-documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the two chase each other’s tails in what either is a magnificent hoax, a stunning indictment of the art world’s fickleness, or perhaps some of column B wrapped inside column A. The footage in “Shop” begins as a product of slightly deranged filmmaker Thierry Guetta capturing the creative process of the internationally famous but ultra-secretive street artist Banksy, who lists himself as “Shop’s” director and, despite disguising his voice and face to maintain his secrecy, speaks frequently on camera. But a couple of significant developments in Banksy’s and Guetta’s relationship sends the collaboration in a stark new direction, and without spoiling anything, what happens next is both completely insane and, best of all, also completely believable. By film’s end, it almost doesn’t even matter if the events of “Shop” are a straight-faced document of what transpired or simply a brilliant vivisection of a movement that desperately conforms in hopes of appearing to push the envelope. The line between the two possibilities is so absurdly thin that “Shop” very easily can be a hoax and a documentary at the same time, and its ability to toe that line, keep its hand hidden and funnel it into two extremely entertaining hours makes it an achievement regardless of classification.
Extras: Deleted scenes, short film “B Movie,” short film “Life Remote Control,” feature on The Cans (not Cannes) Festival.

The Trotsky (NR, 2010, Tribeca Film)
A handful of coincidences, a heightened interest in revolt and one seriously odd collection of personality quirks have created a perfect storm for high schooler Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel), who is convinced beyond recovery that he is the reincarnation of socialist Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. And when he tries and fails to unionize his father’s (Saul Rubinek) employees not even two days after his dad gives him a job, Leon turns his attention instead to a woman he doesn’t know but whom he swears he is destined to marry (Emily Hampshire) and a public high school that apparently needs a voice of revolt for its disenfranchised (or is it apathetic?) student body. A movie about union politics as applied to high school and spearheaded by a nut like Leon can’t possibly go anywhere with a straight face, and “The Trotsky” immediately embraces its silly side and refuses to let go even when most comedies would wind down and shoot for the big heartfelt finish. It doesn’t really need to let go, either. Leon may be crazy, but he’s also deeply likable, and the degree to which he is bent on his convictions allows him to switch between making surprising levels of sense and no sense at all without skipping a beat. A textbook comedy script would inevitably stumble while trying to maintain this pace the whole way, but “The Trotsky’s” medley of thoughtfully-presented ideas and goofy personality quirks makes the achievement look easy.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview, bloopers.

Mother and Child (R, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics)
“Mother and Child” is, as perhaps implied by the name, a story about multiple generations of relationships between moms, their children and what happens when those children become parents themselves. But in 2010, that can mean so many different things based on all kinds of variables, and “Child” certainly counts the ways. Structurally, the movie divides itself into four stories — one about a woman (Annette Bening) who became a pregnant teenager 37 years ago and gave the child up to adoption, one about that child (Naomi Watts) and her repulsion to intimacy, one about a couple (David Ramsey and Kerry Washington) who can’t conceive but are set to adopt, and one about a pregnant 20-year-old (Shareeka Epps) who, with her mother’s (S. Epatha Merkerson) support, must decide if she should give her child up for adoption as well. But where most movies that tell separate stories struggle to ever tie them together in any truly meaningful way, “Child” gets it perfectly right, and not simply because of theme or proximity. The entire movie is a terrific demonstration of how to tell meaningful stories and deal with emotionally heavy matters without resorting to incessantly playing the downer card. But its the way “Child” brings it all together, without sacrificing any of that meaning or slighting any of its characters, that makes its final impression also its best. Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits and Cherry Jones also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

The A-Team (PG-13/NR, 2010, Fox)
Only a wise-cracking computer-animated animal and a spontaneous dance number get left out of what otherwise is a what’s what of everything people tend to hate about Hollywood’s scrupulously bankrupt appetite for rebooting old franchises. Otherwise, “The A-Team” absolutely bashes every note it’s expected to hit. Hannibal (Liam Neeson), Faceman (Bradley Cooper), Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and Baracus (Quinton Jackson) each get the returning hero treatment in their separate entrances, and the movie quickly moves through introductions and the series of events that transforms the A-Team from legit soldiers into hunted mercenaries bent on clearing their names. From there, what happens is a textbook lesson in forgettable action movie tedium: The foursome does its best impersonation of the television cast, the supporting cast fills in wherever a shallow archetype (Patrick Wilson) or predictable subplot (Jessica Biel) is needed, and the movie unleashes a noisy but boring torrent of expository blathering and wisecracks you’ll swear (correctly) you’ve heard in some other fashion in some other half-baked action movie. The occasional good line sneaks through, and there are some nice explosions. But overwhelmingly, “The A-Team” just feels like a dumping of generic ideas on a license that’s seen significantly more exciting, more imaginative and much funnier days.
Extras: Theatrical and extended (15 extra minutes) cuts, director commentary (theatrical cut only), theme mash-up montage.

Frenemy (R, 2009, Lio
ns Gate)
Many lessons have been taught and retaught through the medium of film. “Frenemy” is no exception — though, unless the intention was to demonstrate the art of looking busy doing nothing, it likely didn’t earn the distinction on purpose. Overwhelmingly, “Frenemy” follows Mr. Jack (Matthew Modine) and Sweet Stephan (Callum Blue) as they walk around Los Angeles waxing philosophical about life, death, existence, fate, and the difference between acting evilly and being evil. Interspersed in these conversations are the not-quite stories of a short-tempered cop (Adam Baldwin), a pandering talk show host (Don McManus) and an adult video store clerk (Zach Galifianakis). Their fates intertwine with those of our main characters, but those crossings either amount to nothing or result in more yammering from all involved. “Frenemy’s” idea of abstraction and philosophy is the worst kind — a lot of hollow theories and cleverly-constructed sentences that add up to startlingly little substance and a story that, while fleetingly interesting, is mostly just empty. Lions Gate appears to have shelved this until it had a angle around which to sell it, which is why the suddenly-bankable Galifianakis’ picture dominates the front and back of the case even though his contribution amounts to a few scenes and a completely uneventful exit. The teaser on the back of the case also describes the movie’s premise with bizarre inaccuracy, making it a wonder if whoever wrote it even bothered to watch the film beforehand. The level of ignorance within “Frenemy’s” own marketing is the funniest thing about the whole movie, but if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s to follow the studio’s lead. No extras.

Worth a Mention: Baseball in December Edition
— “San Francisco Giants 2010 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2010, MLB/A&E): As has become an annual custom, A&E’s World Series box set is the easiest gift to get any fan of baseball’s defending world champions — unless, of course, they’ve already pre-ordered it themselves. The 2010 set includes uncut copies of all five World Series games between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, as well as games four and six of the Giants’ National League Championship Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Other extras include additional highlights from the first two playoff rounds, clinching footage, the parade, walk-off wins and other regular season highlights, a feature on Brian Wilson’s beard, and multiple audio tracks that include the national television play-by-play, both local radio play-by-play teams and the international Spanish play-by-play.
— More World Series DVDs: The consolation prize for Rangers fans, “It’s Time” (NR, 2010, MLB/A&E), includes a 65-minute rundown of the team’s march toward its first American League championship. Extras include clinching footage, regular season highlights, ALCS final out and celebration and a Nolan Ryan music video (not what you think, don’t worry). For those uninterested in the full uncut series,”The Magic Inside” (NR, 2010, MLB/A&E) provides the same treatment for Giants fans, with a slightly longer (76 minutes) main feature and a corresponding offering of extras. “2010 World Series: Texas Rangers vs. San Francisco Giants” (NR, 2010, MLB/Shout Factory), meanwhile, focuses its 110 minutes primarily on the Series itself. Extras include parade footage, playoff highlights and celebrations for both teams, a Buster Posey feature and extended features on various key moments in the Series.
— “Baseball’s Greatest Games: 1960 World Series Game 7” (NR, MLB/A&E): Pirates fans haven’t had much to cheer about in a couple decades now, but this — an uncut broadcast of the game that gave baseball its first World Series-ending walk-off home run, available for the first time since it aired 50 years ago and was found in Bing Crosby’s vault last year — will certainly tide a few fans over for a little while. Extras include an audio track of the radio play-by-play, the 1960 World Series film, World Series newsreels, Pirates regular season highlights and interviews with players from both the Pirates and their New York Yankee opponents.

Games 12/14/10: uDraw GameTablet, uDraw Studio, The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, The Moonsters

uDraw GameTablet (includes uDraw Studio)
For: Wii
From: Pipeworks Software/THQ
Price: $70
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It probably goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, the uDraw GameTablet and accompanying “uDraw Studio” software are not optimized to facilitate the creation of serious artwork. The tablet isn’t as pressure-sensitive as a comparably-priced PC tablet, and while you can export your artwork to an SD card, the dimensions of the image (576 pixels wide, 396 pixels long) and the presence of a “uDraw Studio” watermark in the lower left corner aren’t exactly conducive to any kind of presentation beyond sharing with friends.

But just as “Mario Paint” became a sensation in 1992 despite coming nowhere close to playing in Adobe Premiere’s ballpark, “Studio” need not mimic Corel Paint to fulfill its promise as a fun and inexpensive outlet for kids and casual artists to flash some creativity. And because THQ has accompanied the uDraw’s launch with two other games that take advantage of the device in wholly different ways, it has positioned it as perhaps the only Wii peripheral besides the Balance Board to receive meaningful software support going forward.

Quibbles with pressure sensitivity aside, the uDraw is otherwise gifted with smart design choices. It contains a slot in which to pop a Wii remote, which gives the device a familiar array of buttons on the left side and access to the B trigger on the underside. The remote also provides all power to the tablet, which means that in addition to requiring no extra batteries, the tablet is as wireless and easy to pass around as any other controller.

The large stylus contains a useful two-function button (imagine a computer mouse’s two buttons fused into one) on its side, and while it is tethered to the tablet, the cord does not detract from the comfort of holding it. In a nice touch, the tablet includes two spots for storing the stylus — flat on the underside or like a quill in the top right corner — when not in use.

“Studio’s” design isn’t quite so elegant, and parents should make a point to run through the manual in order to help kids get comfortable with what initially is an intimidating and clumsily-arranged menu interface. “Studio’s” range of tools — multiple painting and drawing tools, multiple color pickers, stamps, filters — is impressive, but its interface organization requires some patient acclimation before it feels natural. (Tip: Though you can activate and navigate the tools palettes with the stylus buttons, using the remote is considerably more convenient.)

The good news is that once it feels natural, actually drawing with the uDraw works well. The limited pressure sensitivity provides some roadblocks, but it’s still entirely possible to create some legitimately great art using the tools on hand. The limitations placed on exported files is a real downer, but anyone who simply wants to sketch, save and share their creations can still easily do so if those limitations aren’t a problem.

It’s entirely feasible, anyway, that THQ could follow up “Studio” with a more powerful, more streamlined sequel, because the studio so far has backed up its claims that it will support the uDraw with more software than Nintendo usually produces for its own neglected peripherals. Already, the puzzle adventure game “Dood’s Big Adventure” provides a great showcase of the tablet’s strengths as applied to a traditional video game, while “Pictionary” freshens up a classic party game and demonstrates how much fun it is to pass the tablet around the room. THQ claims it has software tentatively lined up for release through the beginning of 2012, so the tablet’s future appears to be a bright one.


The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Blitz Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The paradoxically great news about “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” is that while it makes an alarmingly unfavorable first impression by botching the easy part, it redeems itself 10 times over by getting the hard part right — and, in doing so, demonstrating how viable Kinect is as a fitness tool.

Before you find that out, though, you must contend with the game’s menu interface, which is an exercise in itself. Very few Kinect games have demonstrated an aptitude for controller-free menu navigation, and “Workout” is especially poor. The buttons are too small, the time needed to hold your hand in place to activate them is too long, and the cursor compounds these issues by having a slight mind of its own and occasionally wandering off the button just before it activates. With practice and some familiarity with the wandering cursor’s ways, the problem becomes surmountable in the main menus. But when the interface calls for more precision — most notably, during the character creation area — you’ll just wish Microsoft would force developers to enable the controller as an optional means for menu navigation.

Fortunately, “Workout” demonstrates a whole different level of savvy when the task of actually working out is at hand.

Though “Workout” lets you take on its exercises as you please, its best offering is the availability of circuit-training sessions designed by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, whose likenesses appear in the game as personal trainers. “Workout” allows you to design your own sessions, but its strength is its ability to tailor routines around basic settings (difficulty, length) and lay them out in a Fitness Program mode that gives you a calendar, goals and a clear picture of forward progress.

In action, the game absolutely shines. During all activities, a solid-colored likeness of your real self appears in the lower right corner, and the color of that likeness — ranging from green (perfect) to yellow (OK) to red (bad) — provides simple, continual feedback on how closely you’re replicating each exercise. Additional details above and below the likeness offer more specific feedback, making it easy to see what you’re doing wrong and what adjustments are necessary to correct it. The trainers repeat their lines a lot, sometimes consecutively, but for exercises that have you facing sideways, the spoken feedback’s value outweighs its repetition. (Thanks to the Kinect’s microphone, you can even talk back when your trainer asks if you need a break or are ready for something tougher.)

All this feedback checks out, too, because “Workout” is surprisingly good at reading and diagnosing the specifics of its exercises. Misinterpretations are inevitable, but the game never completely fouls up even when an exercise seems too complex for Kinect’s eyes, and the constant feedback makes it easy to understand and correct the source of the confusion when it pops up.

“Workout’s” impressive capacity makes it easy to let the Fitness Program take the lead and throw out whatever workout sessions it feels are best for your personal progress, and those willing to let it go further can also utilize the game’s secondary features, which include fitness tips, a calorie tracker, body analysis, extracurricular activities and mini-game challenges inspired by the challenges seen on the show. Those who want the full show experience can even participate in weigh-ins and record video diaries for posterity. You can’t plot against your fellow ranchers like they so often do on the show, but up to four players can play challenges and participate in multiplayer workouts over Xbox Live.


The Moonsters
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ars Thanea
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Though it’s easy and helpful to compare the basic controls of “The Moonsters” to those of “Angry Birds,” the game does too much differently — and does it too well — to simply dismiss it as yet another “Birds” imitation product. Instead of launching birds sideways, you’re launching a trio of silly looking aliens (called Moonsters) upward. The goal is to collect pieces of space tofu sprinkled around the area rather than wreak havoc. The key to a perfectly-placed shot relies more on geometry than physics. And instead of allowing multiple attempts per round, “The Moonsters” wants you to collect all the tofu in one strike. Perfection isn’t mandatory, and so long as you collect enough pieces to meet each level’s quota, the game scores and grades the effort and opens up the next level. But “The Moonsters” is most fun when it comes down to discovering the secret angle that results in a perfect score in each of the 100 levels, and it further encourages chasing perfection with Game Center achievements, high score leaderboards, a completely painless trial-and-error interface, and a story with three unlockable endings. Those secret endings hold more value than is initially apparent, because in addition to playing well, “The Moonsters” is gifted with a charming story, great character design, a sublime graphical style, and some of the most pleasantly catchy music to grace a mobile phone game.

DVD 12/7/10: Inception, Restrepo, Cairo Time, A Dog Year, Hunter Prey, The Year of Getting to Know Us, Gerry Anderson shows, Hoarders S2

Inception (PG-13, 2010, Warner Bros.)
Secondhand accounts may have given you an idea of the playground — lucid dreams, shared dreams, dreams within dreams and the act of stealing ideas and planting new ones in their place — in which “Inception” holds court. If this marks your first trip through the movie, that’s probably as clear a picture as you want beforehand, because excessively explaining “Inception” any further would deny it the chance to do what it does best. The science of “Inception” gets complicated, and when it’s mixed into the kind of set pieces, special effects and scenarios normally reserved for disaster films and espionage thrillers, it has no choice but to skate the edge between exciting and incoherent. But as long as you keep your eye on it, it never crosses that line. “Inception” starts with an idea, uses another idea to explain it, and gradually turns a molehill into a mountain by unveiling the big picture at a steady, perfect pace. More than the special effects or even where all this takes us, it’s that continuous revelation of ideas that make this so much fun to watch — and, with the ability to apply second- and third-act revelations to first-act developments, watch a second time in a whole different light. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard, among others, star.
Extras (most only available in the Blu-ray/DVD combo set): Multi-part “Extraction Mode” behind-the-scenes feature, documentary “Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious,” animated graphic comic “Inception: The Cobol Job,” Project Somnacin feature (makes sense after you see the movie), soundtrack, digital copy.

Restrepo (R, 2010, National Geographic Entertainment/Virgil Films)
The most documented period of war in our planet’s history has yielded another documentary, but before you stop reading, keep reading. “Restrepo” follows a platoon of U.S. soldiers as they enter Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, widely considered among the deadliest regions in play in the war against the Taliban. The film gets its name courtesy of PFC Juan S. Restrepo, a 20-year-old medic who lost his life early in the campaign to take the region. But “Restrepo” also gets its name from something else, and if you don’t already know what that something else is, it may be best to just leave that revelation unspoiled. Describing “Restrepo” on the surface makes it sound like yet another documentary from a few more embedded journalists about a seemingly unending war, and functionally, that’s all the film — which rolls camera and, outside of allowing the soldiers reflect after the fact, lets the footage do all the talking — sets out to be. But the story about that unspecified something else is something that transcends the conflict and the current events that surround it, and without any filmmaker intervention, it magnificently exemplifies the bond that forms between soldiers tasked with carrying out one of the hardest jobs in the world. There have been and will continue to be many great documentaries of this war, but if you’re fatigued enough to see only one more, this probably is the one to see.
Extras: Deleted scenes, updates on the soldiers, extended interviews, montage, PSAs.

Cairo Time (PG, 2008, IFC Films)
New York magazine editor Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) has arrived in Egypt to spend time with Mark, who is both her husband and a United Nations official. But as probably often happens when you work at the UN, the best-laid plans are no match for scheduling conflicts. So Juliette is on her own, with only Mark’s trusted friend and former co-worker Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to keep her company as one delay after another mucks everything up. Can you sort of see where this is going? Maybe, but maybe not. “Cairo Time” is, as prophesied by that setup, a story about finding something you weren’t looking for while waiting for life as planned to resume. But that doesn’t simply apply to Juliette and Tareq, nor does “Time” paint the same old numbers about two people growing close in a potentially disruptive way. Upon watching this, one could even conclude that what Juliette finds has nothing to do with anybody but her, and you just as easily could argue that “Time’s” best scenes are those where Juliette walks alone without a word said. “Time” does a lot of storytelling without holding hands or speaking literally of its intentions, and while the premise may be entirely familiar, the revelations that emerge from it — and the freedom “Time” affords audiences to find them themselves and interpret them on their own terms — are not.
Extras: Director commentary, four short films, alternate ending, Toronto Film Festival Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature.

A Dog Year (NR, 2009, HBO)
For whatever it’s worth, at least “A Dog Year” — the based-on-a-true-story tale of a deeply troubled author (Jeff Bridges as Jon Katz) who adopts an abused and similarly troubled border collie named Devon — has its heart in the right place. “Year” is a love letter to dog lovers and anyone who understands the nobility of turning an animal’s life around even when the animal fights tooth and nail to break your will, and the focus it places on Jon and Devon pays off in the form of two great characters and two great performances. (Yes, two, because it takes an immaculately obedient dog to capture disobedience this skillfully.) But anyone who appreciates those details will also wonder why certain peripheral parts of “Year” either get a lackadaisical explanation (Why, specifically, was Jon deemed a good choice to adopt Devon?), or why insights into Jon’s messy personal life are important enough to wedge into the story but not important enough to meaningfully address and resolve. Those dog lovers, meanwhile, will wonder why a certain other dog just disappears without explanation halfway through. The inconsistencies can’t help but nag, and the pace of the main story — repeating itself sometimes, magically rushing to resolve itself others — takes a consequential hit. If you can will your way into accepting “Year” on its imperfect terms, though, that heart and those performances make it easy to like anyway.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Hunter Prey (NR, 2010, Maya Entertainment)
No genre suffers on a shoestring budget like science fiction, but maybe that’s as much a spark for ingenuity as an excuse for lacking any. A studio with gobs of special effects money might even be incapable of making a movie like “Hunter Prey,” which begins with two not-of-this-world soldiers finding their bearings after crash-landing on a completely barren planet and losing their ship and crew. They’ve also misplaced their prisoner, whose role in a pretty significant interplanetary conflict makes recovering him no trivial matter. This is what we’re told, because “Prey” seemingly lacks the budget to actually show us interplanetary war in a way that would look credible, much less incredible. The movie occasionally does more talking than one might like, and some of that dialogue feels awkwardly wedged in to tell us something the characters likely already know. But “Prey” ultimately makes much of its limited resources, turning a story about a few characters in a desert into some legitimately engaging sci-fi. Its use of character deconstruction in place of computer-generated flash allows it to steadily blur the line between the hunters and the hunted, and its sharp focus on a minuscule but deeply important conflict turns a shortcoming into a opportunity to be different. (For what it’s worth, the few special effects the movie does employ — makeup and costumes, mostly — hold up just fine.)
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Year of Getting to Know Us (R, 2008, Entertainment One)
If you tried to fill a warehouse with every movie about somebody retu
rning to their hometown from the big city because of some familial tragedy, you probably would need a second warehouse. So when writer Christopher Rocket (Jimmy Fallon) makes the familiar trip from New York to Florida to tend to his father, Ron (Tom Arnold), following a stroke, the only real hope we can have for “The Year of Getting to Know Us” is that it’s funnier or more likable than it is original. Initially, it looks good: “Year” illustrates the strain between Christopher and Ron — and, consequently, everything that shaped Christopher’s disposition — by flashing back and forth between his childhood years and present day, and the trick of showing rather than telling spares us from the usual dreary speeches everyone inevitably makes. Or rather, it pushes them up against the film’s end credits — which is fine, because by then, we don’t care enough about Christopher to be disappointed by him. Beyond Christopher’s girlfriend (Lucy Liu), nearly everyone in “Year” is either unpleasant or so thinly developed as to completely telegraph their role. But it’s Christopher himself, both as a child and an adult, who takes top honors as the most forgettably pulseless character in the whole story. If this is Fallon’s way of showing he can do drama, then mission excessively accomplished, because it leaves “Year” with the unenviable task of telling a story about a criminally cheerless guy nobod needs to know.
Extras: Director/cast Sundance Film Festival press conference footage.

Worth a Mention
— Gerry Anderson shows on DVD: There rarely are coincidences in the world of entertainment commerce. But the availability, from two separate studios, of two different shows from sci-fi legend Gerry Anderson appears to be just that. “Space Precinct: The Complete Series” (NR, 1994, Image Entertainment) compiles all 24 episodes (no extras) of the bizarre adventures of detectives Brogan (Ted Shackelford) and Haldane (Rob Youngblood), two New York City cops taking on a new beat on the other end of the galaxy. The first season of “Space: 1999” (NR, 1975, A&E) meanwhile, makes its blu-ray debut with 24 episodes and a ton of extras including text/audio commentaries, interviews, behind-the-scenes features, music-only audio tracks, demo footage and high-definition art galleries.
— “Hoarders: Season Two: Part One” (NR, 2009, A&E): Apparently, the first season DVD set of television’s most unsettling reality show — which explores the trials of people who cannot throw anything away, no matter how useless, broken, expired, moldy or even dead it is — was popular enough for A&E to split the second season in half and charge people twice for the displeasure of seeing it. A&E has a point, though: Given how bad it got in season one, it’s hard not to want to see what the show does for an encore. Includes seven episodes, no extras.

Games 12/7/10: Disney Epic Mickey, The Shoot, Marvel Pinball

Disney Epic Mickey
For: Wii
From: Junction Point Studios/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

The gift of your patience is requested in “Disney Epic Mickey,” which asks you to accept some baffling game design decisions in order to experience what might be the most ingenious merger ever between a studio’s icon and its dormant vault.

“Mickey” begins with a slightly mischievous but very clumsy Mickey Mouse accidentally bringing untold destruction to a world, known as the Wasteland, where forgotten Disney cartoon characters reside in retirement. The Wasteland was something of a utopia in spite of its dispiriting premise, but Mickey’s screwup has reduced it to a grey, monster-drenched mess that finally earns its name.

“Mickey” mostly plays like your typical 3D platformer, with players (as Mickey) running and jumping through non-linear levels to complete various objectives, sometimes a few at a time. The hook here is that, while running and jumping, players also must hold the Wii remote like a pointer and shoot paint and/or paint thinner at enemies and other objects in the environment.

As a tool for restoring and destroying the Wasteland, the paint/thinner idea works great. “Mickey’s” levels are intricate and full of secrets, and Mickey can use paint and thinner to alter those levels on the fly and access areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Most of the rewards are trivial, but the intuition and dexterity needed to find them makes for a fun elective challenge.

The paint/thinner trick also lets “Mickey” take the story down two different paths without basing Mickey’s morality (or lack thereof) around boring good/evil answers. Mickey can complete objectives by using paint to turn enemies (even boss enemies) friendly, rescue allies and restore the environment, and he can use thinner to destroy everybody, ravage the environment and coerce a way to safety. “Mickey’s” opening levels make the means to each end plainly obvious, but the lines between hero and scoundrel increasingly blur as the levels and tasks develop complications.

It’s too bad this isn’t all there is to “Mickey,” which has more than enough core game content to avoid depending on needless filler. But it leans on filler anyway, interrupting stretches of action with story-mandated fetch quests that, beyond the opportunity to meet additional discarded toons, offer nothing in the way of stimulation. The quests never challenge, not even intellectually, and when they ask players to backtrack between areas, they’re as time-consuming as they are dull.

“Mickey’s” other big issue — a camera that regularly needs babysitting — is a bit more predictable given the demands placed on the Wii remote, and its inability to keep up will almost inevitably sabotage your progress in harder levels with heavy combat demands. It’s annoying, but it isn’t a deal-killer, and the quicker you master the auto-center button, the less harmful it is.

The aggravations are worth it because, as stories go, this is the best one Disney’s iconic characters have told in ages. “Mickey” transforms Mickey Mouse back into the morally unpredictable rat he used to be before Disney neutered him, and the respect the game pays to Walt Disney’s past creations — Oswald the Rabbit, Horace Horsecollar, Big Bad Pete and so many more — is surprisingly moving. “Mickey’s” core levels are a similarly stirring mess of discarded theme park rides and toys, and the game connects these levels with short 2D levels that send Mickey running and jumping through scenes from old Disney filmstrips.

The level of care in every drop of this celebration makes “Mickey’s” missteps even more puzzling than they would be in a more careless game. But if those missteps are the price one must pay to witness one of the most imaginative stories told in a game this year, so be it.


The Shoot
For: Playstation 3 (requires Playstation Move)
From: Cohort Studios/Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild language)

Against all odds, the light gun shooter has survived 25 years of gaming advancements that probably should have rendered it obsolete. And thanks to the advent of the Playstation Move, it finally, against even greater odds, gets a chance to ever-so-slightly evolve.

Even before that becomes apparent, “The Shoot” makes a pretty likable first impression. The game is set on a movie studio lot, and each four-pack of scenes takes place in a different genre — western, alien invasion, mob shootout, horror story, deep sea plunge — of movie. Players (either alone or with a friend via local multiplayer) are the star of the film, and a director barks instruction and expresses satisfaction or scorn depending on how the scene is playing out.

The clever premise pays off by letting “The Shoot” throw out a more diverse variety of environments than most rail shooters get, and it also gives the game a degree of levity that, outside of unintentional humor from bad storytelling, rarely shows up in this genre anymore. The graphics are nice and colorful, and while some will scratch their head at the game’s decision to present enemies in prop form — enemy mobsters, for instance, are wooden cutouts rather than actual people — it’s a surprisingly good look in motion.

The appetite for props also lets “The Shoot” better show off how destructible everything is. Levels are full of optional bonus targets that award points, alter the environment and even open pathways to “deleted scenes” that award additional bonus points. But even completely inconsequential backdrop pieces break apart nicely when you miss your target and hit them instead, making the game a lively experience even when played incorrectly.

Clever gimmick notwithstanding, “The Shoot’s” core concepts and objectives remain as pure as those of any other arcade shooter. The primary goal is, as always, to score as many points as possible, minimize mistakes, and hit targets in succession without fail to boost the score multiplier and achieve gold-medal (career mode) and five-star (score attack mode) scores. Blowing through “The Shoot’s” five films won’t take more than a few hours, but nabbing every medal, star and hidden bonus is a legitimately fun challenge that, for the right crowd, gives this game plenty of legs.

Where “The Shoot” moves the needle a little is through an assist from the Move’s ability to do more than just mimic a light gun. Made of wood or not, the enemies regularly fight back, and the game gives players a chance to dodge the projectiles they fire. Sections with more dangerous enemies occasionally call for players to duck behind cover, duels against special enemies play out like quickdraw shootouts, and a special power-up that temporarily slows down the action only activates when players perform a spin move or wave the Move wand overhead like a lasso.

During the most frantic stretches of the game, when all these parts are in play, “The Shoot” becomes a surprisingly active game. Better still, though, it remains a responsive game. Mastering the timing of the dodge takes practice, but the game does a good job of reading dodges once you figure it out, and it’s similarly proficient with ducking, spinning and dueling. (The lasso motion is hit-or-miss, so be prepared to spin instead of trying to take the easier way out.)


Marvel Pinball
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (requires free Pinball FX 2 download)
Also available for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (sta
ndalone game)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 for all four tables (both platforms) or $2.50 per table (Xbox 360 only)

Zen Studios set the table for something special in October when it rolled out “Pinball FX 2” as a free and endlessly extensible Xbox 360 pinball platform instead of a standalone game, and the first batch of add-on tables provides some serious validation for all that excitement. “Marvel Pinball” features four tables, with Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine and Blade each spearheading a machine. The inclusion of Blade in that foursome may raise eyebrows, but “Pinball” seems to have picked its heroes with pinball design instead of popularity in mind, and one playthrough of the Blade table — which features, among several other surprises, a day/night cycle with different opportunities in both phases — overwhelmingly justifies his inclusion here. The pinball version of Stark Industries, meanwhile, becomes a maze of ramps, side rail decoys and upgrades with which to turn a dancing Tony Stark into Iron Man, while the Spider-Man table’s idea of multi-ball comes in the form of bombs lobbed by the Green Goblin. Both the Spider-Man and Wolverine tables feature a satisfying roster of iconic villains, and skilled players who rack up bonuses can watch Wolverine fight on the table while the pinball action continues. The PS3 version of “Pinball” rounds up the tables as a perfectly enjoyable standalone game, but for those with a choice, the tables’ integration into “PFX2’s” overriding achievements, leaderboards and score structure make the Xbox 360 versions the better value for now.