Games 1/25/11: Dead Space 2, Kinect Joy Ride, Spare Parts

Dead Space 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Visceral Games/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Everyone makes third-person shooters now. But nobody has made anything like 2008’s “Dead Space,” which took a suddenly oversaturated genre, doused it in ingredients normally reserved for horror games, and turned that combination into a brutally claustrophobic shooter with a fiction that puts most contemporary science fiction to shame.

“Dead Space 2” expands its playing field from a solitary spaceship under siege to an enclosed space city that’s been left in ruin by the invading mutant Necromorphs (who, depending on your interpretations of the first game’s events, are either evil incarnate or victims of fanaticism gone obscenely wrong). But while the environment is larger and more diverse — a point driven home by portions of the game that take place in wide-open, zero-gravity space — the storytelling is considerably more personal.

Engineer-turned-army of one Isaac Clarke was a silent protagonist in the first game, but “DS2” gives him both human companionship and a voice, and without spoiling anything behind the necessity of those additions, both are for the better. Isaac’s odyssey hits the ground blazing as soon as “DS2” cedes control to you, and the 15 chapters that follow are a clinic on how to give a formerly silent character a voice and a starring role without ever allowing him to overstay his welcome or trivialize the significance of the larger story around him.

Most importantly — and in the spirit of its predecessor — the storytelling sets the table for an exhilarating wave of showdowns against a more powerful Necromorph force on turf that often favors them over you.

All of the first game’s hallmarks — inventive weapons, great controls, a painfully good ability to illustrate the might of attacking Necromorphs who break through Isaac’s defenses — are hallmarks in “DS2” as well. But “DS2” upgrades the shooting controls from great to immaculate, and it provides more opportunities to put the secondary weapons’ unique specialties to invaluable use. Even Isaac’s telekinesis device, previously good for solving puzzles but little else, is a formidable combat tool this time.

Chiefly, though, “DS2” just sets better tables than its predecessor did. A vicious enemy from the first game returns at the worst time imaginable here, and the two-chapter chase that follows should rattle the nerves of even the most stoic players. Elsewhere, a new, exponentially savvier strain of Necromorph engages Isaac in a game of hide-and-seek that turns ordinary corridor crawls into dangerous instances of walking on tiptoes and constantly stopping to look over your shoulder whenever you hear a clank or the lighting plays tricks on you.

These and other moments provide “DS2” with its highlights, but it bears mentioning that, outside of one chapter that goes slightly overboard with cheap scares, there really aren’t any lowlights. The fundamental formula that steered the first game drives this one as well, but every chapter changes the rules just enough to keep the action from ever losing its edge. As story-driven experiences go, this is — by any metric — as good as it gets.

Though it wasn’t really necessary, Visceral decided to incorporate multiplayer (eight players, online only) into “DS2” anyway. What results is pretty much what you’d expect: Familiar shooter conventions and map designs apply, and the more you play (and kill), the more weapons and perks you can unlock.

Compared to the single-player stuff, “DS2’s” multiplayer is pretty pedestrian. But all that gameplay polish carries over, so it plays well. It also provides players their first opportunity to play as four species of Necromorph, whose unique movement and attack methods make a surprisingly smooth migration over to the multiplayer arena.


Kinect Joy Ride
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Big Park/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Everything that’s wonderful and broken about Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral can be found within the confines of “Kinect Joy Ride,” and often within the span of a single event.

As the name and presentation imply, “Ride” is a deeply casual racing game. The tracks are delightfully cartoony, the cars look like toy replicas instead of actual cars, and your Xbox Live avatar fits right into the visual theme as your driver.

But nothing in that exterior can illustrate just how casually “Ride” plays. There are, for instance, no crash physics, because you cannot crash no matter how poorly you drive. You also cannot brake or accelerate, because the game elects to handle that for you.

The inability to brake and accelerate isn’t a case of “Ride” safeguarding players from their own inability to drive safely, but instead an unspoken admission that the Kinect simply isn’t savvy enough to handle a full-featured racing game without a controller’s help. “Ride” elects not to use a controller, so there’s no way for players to subtly control their speed in a way the game can recognize with any satisfactory reliability.

Still, give “Ride” points for trying to put together the best racing game it can for a device that shouldn’t have one at all. Because while it didn’t succeed at that task, it turns out a unique and bizarrely fun game en route to falling short.

“Ride’s” event types run the arcade racing gamut, offering standard and sprint races along with a stunt ramp, trick competitions and a quirky event in which the goal is to smash into as much stuff as possible.

In all these events, the controls are fundamentally the same: You turn an imaginary steering wheel to steer your onscreen car, twist your body in any direction to perform tricks when the car is airborne, and, in the only direct control you have over your car’s speed, do a pull motion to accumulate turbo before pushing forward to boost.

As should be no surprise with a game that can’t handle subtle speed control, “Ride” isn’t immaculate at handling steering, either. It recognizes turns, but a sloppy grasp of precision will regularly cause accidental oversteering and understeering, and while you can’t crash, you most certainly can (and will) drive off the road.

Surprisingly, the boost mechanic is even worse: Even if you pull back violently, there’s an excellent chance the game will ignore you, making it entirely too difficult to time a boost for maximum gain. Get ready to boost too late, steer too hard and fly off the road, negating any benefit of accumulating turbo in the first place.

Fortunately, “Ride” at least seems recognizant of its shortcomings, making it pretty easy to unlock new events and rewards with so-so scores in the single-player portion of the game. And while “Ride” doesn’t remotely register as one of the Xbox 360’s best racers, the contortions needed to perform tricks and get your car to cooperate inspire a level of physical involvement that those otherwise superior games do not. Provided you can enjoy “Ride” on this silly, messy level and not take the need to succeed too seriously, it’s a surprisingly fun time that pretty savvily underscores the Kinect’s gifts as well as its shortcomings.

That’s especially true if you play with like-minded people. “Ride” supports offline (two players) and online (eight) multiplayer, and the shortcomings are that much easier to endure when everyone is in t
he same boat.


Spare Parts
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

It’s only fair that a $10 game be held to a looser standard than a $60 or even $20 game, but “Spare Parts” occasionally pushes that generosity threshold to the edge. Mostly, “Parts” is a harmless case of “Ratchet and Clank” lite: You’re a robot named Mar-T, and while your default abilities consist solely of running, jumping, punching and firing flimsy projectiles, a handful of found parts gradually allows you to walk on magnetic walls, hover like a rocket and hack electronics. At its best — which, fortunately, is the rule and not the exception — “Parts” is a charming, visually vibrant game that uses these abilities to create some clever puzzles and platforming challenges. Occasionally, though, “Part” leans excessively on combat, which, due to sloppy combat controls that remain sloppy even when Mar-T upgrades its abilities, never really feel good. That comes to a head during the first half of the final boss fight, which drags unnecessarily and, due to a nearly non-existent penalty for death, isn’t challenging so much as monotonous. The second half of that fight, which funnels Mar-T’s abilities into a dispiritingly rote trial-and-error exercise, falls even flatter. The bad taste that lingers isn’t the deal-killer it would be in a more expensive game, but if you consider your time more valuable than your money, it’s still something to think about because you lock in your purchase.

DVD 1/25/11: Red Hill, Adventures of Power, Red, White Wedding, Client 9, Stone, Saw: The Final Chapter, Santa Sangre, Zorro (1990)

Red Hill (R, 2010, Sony Pictures)
Old Bill (Steve Bisley) has two guesses as to why Shane (Ryan Kwanten) left the big city behind to police the dusty roads of Red Hill: Either he’s looking for a cushier job, or he thinks it’s a shortcut to a promotion. Neither, it turns out, is true. Unfortunately, an escaped convicted murderer (Tommy Lewis as Jimmy) has chosen this moment to break out and enact bloody revenge against all who put him away, so the explanations and introductions will have to wait. The good news about this turn of events is that it transforms the majority of “Red Hill” into a wonderfully tense and refreshingly lean chase between a frightened small-town police department and a silent killer with no remorse and nothing to lose. The better news is that the revelations of Shane’s motives and those of his superiors are merely delayed rather than canceled. And without spoiling how or why, those little answers play no small part in a terrific last act that magnificently pays off all that happens before it. Jimmy utters a grand total of seven words from credit roll to credit roll, but all seven of them count, and in terms of character development, it’s a brilliant lesson on how to do more with less. No extras.

Adventures of Power (PG-13, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
Mine worker Power (Ari Gold) isn’t exactly killing it at the game of life. He hates his job in the mine, his co-workers want to strike, his father (Michael McKean) doesn’t take him seriously, and the one thing he excels at and is passionate about — air drumming — is the same thing that makes him the town joke. But one day, a flier for a mysterious air drumming competition lands on his face, and from there begins a two-country, coast-to-coast quest for redemption that combines “Rocky,” “Billy Elliot” and air drumming in as spectacularly epic a fashion as could be hoped for. “Power” makes no pretense about being anything but a total farce, and if the continual barrage of dryly funny humor isn’t a giveaway, just about everything else — Power’s wardrobe, the mentor with two hooks for arms (Steven Williams), the ultrafamous superstar (Adrian Grenier) who can’t shake his preference for air drumming over real drumming — is. But while comedy may be the primary goal, “Power” takes on its namesake’s journey with such fierce, boundless abandon that it’s hard not to get into the whole thing on a completely serious level. Power never doesn’t look ridiculous when in his element, but between how likable he is and how wildly he gets lost in the moment, it’s easy — and a whole lot of fun — to forget how stupid the whole thing is and root him on.
Extras: Three short films by Gold (who also wrote and directed “Power”), deleted scenes, three music videos, interview and Power drum-off with Rush drummer Neil Peart, four-part “Power to the Power” behind-the-scenes feature.

Red (PG-13, 2010, Summit Entertainment)
Former CIA assassin Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) was perfectly happy to leave his old life behind, settle quietly into retirement, and maybe strike up a romance with a customer service representative (Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah) he had yet to meet in person. But unknown forces in high places decided he knew too much to stay alive, and their attempts to end his life just so happen to coincide with Frank’s attempt to meet Sarah in person. So she’s along for the ride, along with a rogue’s gallery of other former agents and weirdos (John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox) who get roped in. If the reasoning behind the spectacle that follows sounds a little vague, that’s not completely an accident. “Red” has a story to tell, and Frank receives gradual doses of character development throughout the movie, but the plot is mostly there to kick over the first domino in a series of escapades that lets this cast goof off and look cool doing so. “Red” isn’t powered by twists and revelations so much as pure grain charisma, and beyond Frank, its characters are as shallow as they are colorful. Provided you can get behind or at least accept these parameters, though, it’s a consistently good time — a light, amusing, action-packed espionage movie that doesn’t make you think too hard but also doesn’t insult whatever desire you might have to do so.
Extras: Commentary with former CIA officer Robert Baer, deleted/extended scenes, trivia track, 14-part “Cast Insights” feature, five-part “CIA Insights” feature.

White Wedding (PG-13, 2009, Image Entertainment)
The good news for Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi): He’s getting married at the end of the week to a woman (Zandile Msutwana as Ayanda) who is arguably a few conferences out of his league. The bad news: Take your pick. He’s in Johannesburg, but the wedding is in Cape Town, and he’s counting on his very unreliable best man (Rapulana Seiphemo as Tumi) to get him there. Meanwhile, Ayanda’s charming ex-boyfriend Tony (Mbulelo Grootboom) has coincidentally returned and not-so-coincidentally resumed charming Ayanda’s mother, and while Tumi fulfills every last concern Elvis had about getting him to his wedding on time, an English doctor named Rose (Jodie Whittaker) appears out of nowhere to complicate things further. As you might have guessed, “White Wedding” fits very comfortably into the road trip movie mold — perhaps, on paper, a little too comfortably. But “Wedding’s” real charm lies in the details. It’s in the little things that make Elvis extremely likable, the little things that make Rose’s intrusion a welcome one, and all the ticks and personality quirks that make Elvis’ and Tumi’s escapades more amusing and unique than their predictable arrivals might imply. Even Tony, who by all accounts should be the closest thing “Wedding” has to a villain, is kind of pleasant. In English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa (it switches liberally) with English subtitles. No extras.

Client 9 (R, 2010, Magnolia)
Regardless of what it looks like, “Client 9” isn’t a two-hour recap of the call girl dabblings that sent the career of political superstar and surefire future presidential candidate Eliot Spitzer into a tailspin barely a year into his first term as New York’s governor. That story is here, yes, but it’s merely a course in a two-hour meal that reduces high-level politics and finance into the petty junior high school playground we all suspect it is. Spitzer appears frequently as an interviewee in “Client 9,” and if one wanted to do so, one could easily lob accusatory grenades at what they see as a movie designed mostly to excuse Spitzer’s mistake amid all the good he did prior to it. But while the movie does seem to favor Spitzer over the adversaries who went down, took him down and hold onto their hatred as if the whole thing happened yesterday, it also doesn’t punt the opportunity to make the former governor stammer uncomfortably through some of his non-answers. And as long as everybody gets a chance to say their piece, it’s hard to be bothered too much about the filmmakers’ stance, which isn’t strong enough to flatter Spitzer beyond what he deserves. Nobody minces words, and while the vitriol is a depressing reminder of the hands that hold our policy and money, it’s also supremely entertaining.
Extras: Director commentary, extended interviews, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, director interview.

Stone (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Corrections officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) sits days away from retirement (isn’t that always the way?) when a new case — that of Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), convicted of arson but eligible for early release — lands in his lap. Their first face-to-face meeting goes awkwardly, but Stone builds the encounter into a plan to endear Jack and get that release, and he recruits his wife (Milla Jovovich as Lucetta) to help pull out the stops. What happens next is a chain of events and a freigh
t train of words that feels creepy for the wrong as well as right reasons. “Stone” is a cool picture of two strong but fragile personalities sitting at crossroads — the cynical Jack is on the ride side of the law but on the wrong side of youth, while Stone is a prisoner whose entire life may still be ahead of him — that challenge and threaten to break each other. But it’s also a needlessly wordy film, cramming Jack’s and Stone’s encounters with verbose overload, pelting the quiet moments with needless spoken and unspoken imagery, and outfitting Norton with a wannabe Casey Affleck voice that’s nails-on-chalkboard grating by film’s end. The sum total of the good creepiness and the bad creepiness is hard to quantify, and that might be a good thing if “Stone’s” unique mood gets under your skin as it intends to do. If it simply annoys you for 100 minutes, though, you’ve sort of been warned.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Saw: The Final Chapter (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
“Saw: The Final Chapter,” the seventh and allegedly final film in the series, brings the story to a perfectly fitting close. Problem is, it’s not the fit anyone really wanted. “Chapter” gets off to a rousing start by flashing back to the very first (and best) movie in the “Saw” timeline before raising the stakes with a Jigsaw trap that takes place outside, in public and in broad daylight. After that, though, it’s just more of the same. The callbacks to the beginning amount to almost nothing, the only meaningful closure is provided to completely uninteresting characters from the more recent movies, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) makes his now-customary flashback cameo, and the story overwhelmingly orbits around yet another character with no history in any of the previous movies. “Chapter” is gory and certainly creepy, but it’s simply a remix of the same old tricks, and as big finishes go, it’s surprisingly flat even by the dampened standards of a series that’s been in steady decline for years. A twist at the end tries to stir some excitement, and it’s certainly a cute bit of fan service, but it’s too silly and too late to the party to raise the film’s pulse beyond a flatline.
Extras: Producers commentary, writers commentary, deleted/extended scenes, music videos.

Worth a Mention
— “Santa Sangre” (NR, 1989, Severin Films/MPI): You could debate endlessly as to whether Alejandro Jodorowsky’s epic about murder, faith, coming of age, the circus, death-mute lovers and armless mothers is profound cinema, two hours of pretentious insanity, a fun feast for the eyes or just a mess, and there may be no wrong answer. Far less arguable is how one-of-a-kind “Santa Sangre” is — perhaps different for the sake of being different more than any meaningful reason, but unique nonetheless — or that this DVD issue isn’t massively overdue. Severin Films, for its part, at least makes the moment count: In addition to the film, this two-disc set includes a feature-length making-of documentary, Jodorowsky commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), the 1990 documentary “For One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky,” a documentary on Goyo Cárdenas (whose life inspired the film’s creation), Jodorowsky interviews, two Jodorowsky-centric short films and a music video.
— “Zorro” (NR, 1990, A&E): This underrated reboot of “Zorro” got a little lost in time between the original series and the feature film reboot that happened eight years later, but it finally gets its DVD due this week. All four seasons are available in separate volumes, but the best bet is the complete series box, which rounds up those four volumes and adds a fifth with extras that include the original 1920 “The Mark of Zorro” silent film, the first chapter of the 1939 serial “Zorro’s Fighting Legion,” an unaired pilot for yet another “Zorro” reboot and a photo gallery.
— “Webster: Season One” (NR, 1983, Shout Factory/CBS): Hard to believe it’s taken this long for this show to reach DVD, but if you’ve been waiting, your wait is over. Includes all 22 episodes of the first season, but the lack of extras beyond a trivia game is disappointing.

DVD 1/18/11: Paper Man, Justified S1, Buried, Down Terrace, Sheeba, Freakonomics: The Movie, BBC roundup, Dallas S14

Paper Man (R, 2009, MPI)
Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) isn’t a real superhero. He isn’t a real anything. But try telling that to Richard (Jeff Daniels), a struggling author and struggling husband whose inability to relate to real people has sent him running into his imaginary friend’s arms for more than 40 years. But while marriage, moving to Long Island and the threat of a dying career can’t snap him out of his old habit, coming face to face with his emotional doppelganger — a lonely, quirky teenage neighbor named Abby (Emma Stone) — practically leaves him no choice. Richard’s surprise is ours as well, because while “Paper Man” begins and initially appears poised to remain a funny but very modest comedy about quirky people acting on personality hiccups most of us simply try to stifle, it graduates into something else completely by the time it reaches the credits. That isn’t unheard of, as comedies routinely lose their sense of humor en route to fumbling for some late-game meaning. But “Man’s” awesome dissection of loneliness and the mind’s need to fight it with or without reality’s help is entirely too dead on to constitute a fumbling. Nor can it be called a compromise, because the movie manages to keep its sense of humor completely intact during the entirety of the transition. That the resulting mix of sharp humor and deep despair never feel out of place amongst each other is a striking testament to “Man’s” ability to touch exactly the right nerves in exactly the right ways. Lisa Kudrow and Kieran Culkin also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Justified: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, Sony Pictures)
We’re living in a golden age of crime dramas that not only are willing to tell stories beyond the bounds of the tired procedural format, but are similarly fearless about giving voice and sympathy to the crooks as well as the cops (who, sometimes, are one and the same). Whether “Justified” does this better than any other show is debatable, but even if another show outdoes it, it likely doesn’t have as much fun doing so as this one does. “Justified” finds recently-demoted U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) taking a post in his old Kentucky hometown, which continues to crawl with friends, adversaries and in-betweens connected to his past. The small-town scope allows Givens to dole out justice like an Old West sheriff living in the present day, which naturally confuses some and rubs others the complete wrong way. But the odd juxtaposition gives “Justified” a completely new cop show playground in which to play, and the show takes marvelous advantage of its surroundings. Givens himself is an engaging character from his very first scene. But it’s the combination of his methods and his environment that really make this fun, and “Justified” affords the same care to its bit characters as it does its main cast. It’s that much more entertaining to watch a cop and crook square off when the line between friendship and rivalry is as blurry as it gets here, and the interplay between the two sides is civilized contempt at its finest.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, a peak at season two and a music video.

Buried (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
“Buried” isn’t kidding around with its title, nor is it terribly interested in the slow open. From the moment “Buried” begins, American truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is indeed buried — trapped inside a wooden coffin, in some unknown underground corner of Iraq, with only a lighter and a cell phone of mysterious origin to keep him company. And that’s where we stay, too. “Buried” doesn’t take us outside the coffin for any kind of flashback duty or even to show us anyone who appears on the other end of that phone. As Paul stays underground, so do we, and the movie does a skin-crawlingly wonderful job of continually reminding us just how dark, hot and cramped Paul’s potentially permanent home is. “Buried” is similarly gifted in its ability to take a story about one setting, one visible character and one problem and stretch it out over 95 minutes without leaking tension or overstaying its welcome. It occasionally plays politics to do so, and there are a couple instances where it plays that card to distraction. But it’s never long before “Buried” gets back to the business of plainly and simply creeping out anybody with even the slightest issue with tight spaces, and it caps that continual creepiness with an ending that’s awfully hard to shake off.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Down Terrace (R, 2009, Magnolia)
They can’t all be the Corleones or even the Sopranos. But don’t waste your breath telling that to Bill (Robert Hill) and son Karl (Robin Hill), who return home after ducking separate 10-year prison terms to resume the business of running what is, at least by their own math, as legitimate a crime family as any other. “Down Terrace” doesn’t delve into the gritty details of the Bill and Karl empire, and for a little while, it appears destined to settle down as a silly, playfully foul-mouthed comedy about a father, a son, a mother (Julia Deakin) and a handful of supporting players who are too dysfunctional to operate a family dinner, much less a criminal dynasty. But if Bill and Karl see eye to eye on anything, their shared delusion of grandeur is it. And once it becomes clear how deep this delusion goes, it’s a matter of time before “Terrace” loses control of its humble beginnings and gives into one serious downward spiral. Fortunately, this also is where the fun really begins. “Terrace” is a pretty consistently amusing movie, and it shows an eye for distinctive character design from the start. But it’s the willingness to spiral so thoroughly out of control — and not in some cute or madcap way, either — that makes it memorable.
Extras: Director/Robin Hill commentary, deleted/extended scenes, short film “Rob Loves Kerry,” screen/camera tests, behind-the-scenes feature.

Sheeba (NR, 2005, Questar)
Professional eye-rollers beware: This one isn’t for you. As “Sheeba” begins, Clay (Dylan Patton) and his mother (Ruby Handler) are headed away from New York (and Clay’s father, played by Judge Reinhold) and are moving in with Clay’s grandfather (Ed Asner), who lives in the middle of nowhere. And while the film gets its name from a dog who enters the picture later, this is Clay’s story: He’s unhappy to be here, he misses his dad, he doesn’t understand what’s wrong with his parents, and his troubles at home are complemented by troubles at school, troubles with an older bully and, when Sheeba arrives, some deeply mixed feelings about having a dog around. “Sheeba” further compounds Clay’s issues by including a side story about his uncle, a firefighter who died on September 11, and it touches on the effects that loss has had on each family member. So much for this being a dog movie, right? But while subtlety or even selectivity isn’t “Sheeba’s” strong suit, the movie’s handling of all these issues isn’t reckless, and it isn’t nearly as clumsy as it could have been. “Sheeba” has a good heart, and while it would have benefited from more Sheeba and less of everybody else, the dog ultimately does get the last laugh. Adults will be able to poke holes into every angle of “Sheeba’s” logic and presentation, but this clearly is for kids, and the good intentions go much further under their watch. No extras.

Freakonomics: The Movie (PG-13, 2010, Magnolia)
The primary objective behind the deservedly popular “Freakonomics” books is to discover the hidden underside of statistics, human behavior and other phenomena. So insert joke here about the “Freakonomics” movie being nothing more than a cleverly-packaged plant through which to publicize and sell more “Freakonomics” books. But here’s the not-so-funny part: Whether intended or not, that’s basically all this really is. “Freakonomics” gets off to a terrific start, with book authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner very efficiently deconstructing (with slick visual aids) the surprising divergence in interests between real estate agents and the people entrusting them to sell their homes. But after that cool example, the movie puts on a time-mismanagement clinic, devoting the vast majority of its runtime to independently-produced shorts from a variety of well-known documentary filmmakers. At best, the segments run too long and say too little to justify the minutes they eat. At worst, they say nothing at all or contradict themselves while moving from point A to B. At no point, sadly, do any of them match the fascination of that first, very brief segment. “Freakonomics” does a nice job of teasing what Freakonomics is all about, but if you want more than just a tease, you’d be wise to skip this and head to the bookstore instead.
Extras: Directors commentary, producers commentary, bonus Levitt/Dubner interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— New seasons of BBC shows: If the very arguably unnecessary Americanization of “Skins” gets you all riled up, perhaps the DVD-ification of the British original’s fourth season will make things right. “Skins: Volume 4” (NR, 2010) includes eight episodes, commentary, a behind-the-scenes feature and nine “Skins” shorts. Also available this week: The second season of “The Adventures of Merlin” (NR, 2009), which includes 13 episodes, commentary, a cast/crew season introduction, two behind-the-scenes features and photo/wallpaper galleries. Available next week: “MI-5: Volume 8” (NR, 2009), which includes eight episodes, commentary and two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Dallas: The Complete Final Season” (NR, 1990, Warner Bros.): It’s been a long ride, but if you’ve been collecting the entirety of “Dallas” on DVD, your journey’s finally over … until, of course, Warner Bros. re-releases the whole thing in a much prettier gift box with a handful of extras not found in any of your 14 suddenly-unattractive boxes. (Surely you know how this works by now.) Includes 22 episodes, but no extras.

Games 1/18/11: DC Universe Online, Mass Effect 2, A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!

DC Universe Online
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, mild suggesting themes, violence)
Subscription Fee Required: 30 days free, $15/month thereafter

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games remain a mostly unknown commodity in console gaming circles, and “DC Universe Online” greets the uninitiated with one seriously creaky welcome wagon. Before you do anything, you’ll have to download one patch, enter an activation code and stare at a single, static screen while two more patches (totaling roughly 17 GB in data; what’s the point of the disc, anyway?) glacially download. All this, just so you can play a game that cost you $60 already and, after 30 “free” days, will require another $15 a month thereafter.

The good news is that while “Universe’s” business model will engender culture shock for a lot of Playstation 3 owners, the game itself at least makes more sense on a console than many of its peers would. The controller-friendly action is fundamentally identical to a game like “God of War” and “Bayonetta.” It isn’t nearly as fluid as in those games, which enjoy the advantage of a much more controlled system that isn’t under attack by multiple players with multiple agendas. But it’s good enough after you upgrade your superhero (or villain) a little, and it gets continually better as better powers and more diverse attacks become available.

“Universe” benefits similarly by moving like an action game. Characters bound, hover and climb pretty freely through some impressively large and open levels, and while you might see other characters skip around a little due to network hiccups, your movement always feels pretty smooth.

The controller-friendliness even extends to the menu system. “Universe” uses the same exact menu layout for its console and PC iterations, but it arranges everything in a way that’s pretty easy to navigate once you’re familiar with the layout.

So fundamentally, this marks a good start, and while “Universe” has fallen prone to the same outages, overages and hiccups that apparently every MMO must experience at launch, it’s been far more smooth sailing than not so far.

What remains to be seen is whether Sony Online Entertainment can sustain player interest beyond “Universe’s” first wave of content, which isn’t nearly as inspiring in terms of design as it is in terms of technical proficiency.

“Universe’s” overriding story — you’re an up-and-coming superhero (or villain) training under the guise of an iconic DC hero or villain — is clever, and the game gives players lots of creative freedom in the character design tool. But opportunities to develop a real connection to your created character, or anyone else for that matter, are infrequent so far.

The quests are simplistically designed — beat up 10 of these, collect 15 of that — and while players can team up freely with others in the world, the scene rarely resembles anything remotely epic. Players used to enjoying comparably-sized battles for free in other console games are going to wonder what the $15 tax is getting them if SOE doesn’t wow them soon.

Time will tell, but the pieces appear to be there to make it happen.


Mass Effect 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

Ports don’t arrive much later to the party than “Mass Effect 2,” which makes its Playstation 3 debut a week shy of a year after it appeared on the Xbox 360.

But it’s nowhere near too late to get acclimated with a game as good as “ME2,” which deservedly won a museum’s worth of year-end awards from critics and fans alike. And like any good party guest, it compensates for its tardiness by bearing gifts.

For starters, because the first “Mass Effect” remains non-existent on the Playstation platform, Bioware has given the uninitiated a significantly better means of catching up to the story than it did for players on other platforms. An in-game interactive comic book details the important events of that first game, and through a handful of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style moments, readers can shape the comic’s story in much the same way players charted their narrative course through the game. The Xbox/PC versions of “ME2” allowed players to use save files from the first game to affect how the second game’s story began, and this comic has the same effect.

The PS3 version of “ME2” also comes with three downloadable bonus mission packs — “Kasumi: Stolen Memories,” “Overlord” and the brilliantly revelatory “Lair of the Shadow Broker” — integrated into the disc. Getting $24 worth of content for free is nice, of course. But having the packs available from day one is nice at any price, because it allows players to engage in those missions as they appear in the timeline instead of retroactively because they completed the game’s main storyline months prior.

As for the main course, it’s as spectacular as ever. “ME2” found Bioware taking its extensive gift for storytelling, universe construction and role-playing and wrapping it around a third-person shooter that’s every bit as good as the genre’s best. The game is leaner and more efficient than its predecessor, but it’s every bit as loaded in terms of storytelling and optional content — missions to undertake, entire species to meet, unexplored star systems for crying out loud — for intrepid travels to discover.

Though “ME2” had little that was in need of patching, the PS3 version accounts for the tidying up Bioware did after the Xbox/PC version’s release. Namely, if you’ve heard about and are wary of the mining mini-game that provides resources with which to construct new weapons and upgrades, you’ll be happy to know the process is considerably more efficient now than it was a year ago.

Bioware also claims that this version of “ME2” is running on the engine that will power “Mass Effect 3” when it releases later this year for all three platforms. The visual difference isn’t too dramatic unless you’re actively looking for it, but that’s due more to how good “ME2” already looked than any graphical shortcoming on the “ME3” engine’s behalf.


A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable (both via Playstation Network)
From: Frima Studio
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $2

Though funny and certainly honest, the title of “A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!” also potentially misleads, because it paints a picture of a simple overhead space shooter trying to get by on a dirt-cheap price and catchy name. The truth couldn’t be more different. “Bucks” breaks its surprisingly funny storyline into a series of star systems — some hostile and ruled by some pretty colorful villains, others shrouded in mystery. The levels can be played and replayed almost in any order you please, and in a terrific, “Mega Man”-esque touch, a villain’s superweapon becomes yours to use freely once you conquer his or her system. “Bucks” features a pretty extensive (and flexible) upgrade path for the rest of your ship as well, and while the game’s four difficulty levels make it accessible to shooter fans of every discipline, the harder villains demand that you upgrade wisely regardless of who you are. All this and an in-game achievements
system add up to a immense quantity of gameplay for two little bucks, and “Bucks” makes good use of that quantity with polished, classically frantic arcade action and some genuinely good laughs in between levels. Have you ever played a $2 game with first-rate voice acting throughout the entire experience? If you play this, you can say you have.

DVD 1/11/11: The Social Network, Hot in Cleveland S1, The Freebie, Funny or Die Presents S1, Alpha and Omega, Love Hurts

The Social Network (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
Between the obsessive press coverage of Facebook and its founder that preceded this movie’s release and the equally obsessive coverage that accompanied and succeeded it, “The Social Network” gives Civil War dramas a run for their money in terms of arriving pre-spoiled. Anyone with any remote interest in the odyssey of Mark Zuckerberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) already knows the allegations — that Zuckerberg stole the idea behind Facebook right from underneath the people who invited him to help create it, that he was driven by the need to shame and show others up, and that he kicked his only real friend (Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin) to the curb around the same time his fortunes began to explode. “Network” operates on two interweaving chronological tracks — both during Facebook’s formation and in the post-explosion hearings in which all this laundry airs out — doesn’t dissuade any of these murmurs, and Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is as expertly unpleasant as can be hoped for. Whether the events depicted within actually happened as they’re depicted will never really be clarified — a point the film itself makes via great exchange during “Network’s” closing moments. But the issue of authenticity, while never trivial, arguably runs second to the film’s ability to translate the launch of an institution into a legitimately engrossing human drama with a terrific cast of heroes, villains and bystanders. “Network” is wordy, dense and loaded with unlikable people, but a moment rarely passes in which it isn’t supremely entertaining as well.
Extras: Director commentary, cast/writer commentary, four-part making-of feature, four-part music feature, two additional behind-the-scenes features.

Hot in Cleveland: Season One (NR, 2010, TV Land/Paramount)
An emergency landing forces disenchanted Los Angelenos Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli), Joy ( Jane Leeves) and Victoria (Wendie Malick) to make a pit stop in Cleveland en route to Paris. But when they like what they see — namely, attention from men on levels they haven’t enjoyed for years in Los Angeles — they decide to rent a house (complete with a caretaker, played by Betty White) and stick around. The premise is straight out of the playbook of wacky sitcom premises, and it speaks to “Hot in Cleveland’s” desire to have it both ways. Along with the premise, “Cleveland’s” laugh track and slightly dated, gag-heavy sitcom structure allow the show to play it a little safe as TV Land’s first original sitcom. But “Cleveland” avoids playing it too safe by flirting with (if not outright jumping into) storylines and material that’s considerably more at home on cable than on network television. The contrast is palpable, and it creates some awkwardness while “Cleveland” finds its footing early on. But once everybody steadies themselves, the show — and particularly White, whose deadpan delivery is as good as they come — is too consistently funny (and not nearly hackneyed enough) for the split personality to be a real issue.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus the uncut pilot, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, an uncut copy of Victoria’s Japanese television commercial (makes sense after you’ve seen the show) and the pilot episode of TV Land’s second sitcom, “Retired at 35.”

The Freebie (R, 2009, Phase 4 Films)
Annie (Katie Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) were a perfectly happy married couple who, in the course of a dinner conversation with friends, grew a little too curious about all the one-night stands they may have surrendered after settling down with each other. So they devise a plan to have a “freebie” night where, for one night only, both are free to act as if they’re single and follow the charade down whatever path it takes them. The only catch: They’re prohibited from telling each other where that leads once the night ends. This can’t not go well, right? For obvious reasons, “The Freebie’s” premise lends itself equally to screwball and dark comedy. But in an interesting trick, the movie instead shoots for authenticity, coloring its story with credibly awkward dialogue and, once the night passes, some very awkward silences. Execution like that predictably makes for a downbeat movie — arguably to excess once the inevitable leaks spring through the plan. But what the movie lacks in laughs, it redeems everywhere else. “The Freebie” is a dramatization of something countless committed couples have thought about but wouldn’t dare act on with mutual approval, and the wrinkles it develops leading into and out of the big night are much more interesting that yet another batch of the same old gags and wacky scenarios.
Extras: Commentary with Shepard and Aselton (who also directed), National Freebie Day PSAs, photo gallery.

Funny or Die Presents: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
It’s wholly fitting that “Funny or Die Presents” is the television incarnation of a Web site, because watching a typical half-hour of “Presents” feels a whole lot like randomly browsing the Web for the same amount of time. Like the site that spawned it, “Presents” is a collection of skits — some of which run for 30 seconds, some of which carry on for 15 minutes. Occasionally, there’s a skit that consists of nothing but a celebrity sleeping. Sometimes the skits continue over multiple episodes. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they exist to justify, at any cost, a single joke that may not even be all that funny. Mostly, though, what results in any given episode is an anything-goes dumping of ideas with a funny-to-awful range that’s extreme even by the metrics of sketch comedy. As if still a Web show — and likely with HBO’s blessing — “Presents” works completely without a leash, producing hyperactive, short attention span sketch comedy that makes Tom Green’s “Saturday Night Live” hosting turn look like an episode of “60 Minutes.” Whether it’s magical or dreadful will come down to personal taste, but don’t be surprised if not five minutes go by where you don’t feel like it’s both at once.
Contents: 12 episodes, no extras.

Alpha and Omega (PG, 2010, Lions Gate)
First, a disclaimer: There’s nothing outrageously wrong with “Alpha and Omega,” a computer-animated story about two mismatched wolves who get separated from their respective packs and have to traverse the country together to get back home. But here’s another disclaimer: There’s nothing outrageously right about it, either. The talking animals and birds in “Omega” are a pleasant enough lot, and while the visual fidelity falls a few noticeable notches short of Pixar’s bar, it’s a nice enough looking film. But if there’s a checklist of talking-animal-movie requisites floating around somewhere, “Omega” found it. The story’s flow is as boilerplate as they come and, pleasant or not, so are the personalities and roles of the main and supporting characters. That doesn’t make “Omega” a bad kids movie at all, but it does forfeit any chance the movie had to stand apart from the many other “not bad” kids movies already out there. Justin Long, Dennis Hopper, Hayden Panettiere and Danny Glover, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Deleted scene, four behind-the-scenes features, personality test, trivia, DVD game.

Love Hurts (PG-13, 2009, Entertainment One)
There’s some unintentional irony in the title of “Love Hurts,” which explores the searing pain of unrequited love in much the same way an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants” explores the complex nature of marine species. “Hurts” begins with a trail of hurt feelings — first with disenchanted wife Amanda (Carrie-Anne Moss), who quickly relays her pain to suddenly-clued-in husband Ben (Richard E. Grant) by leaving him. From there, a predictable picture emerges of a husband clawing to get his wife to fall back in love with him
before it’s too late. But instead of taking this tired road somewhere new, “Hurts” spins the cute wheel until the axle falls off. Ben becomes instantly irresistible to every woman he meets, a series of wacky dates ensues, and when his son (Johnny Pacar) isn’t busy coaching him to both get his mom back and plow forward into the dating game, he’s engaged in a similar predicament of dating every girl except the one he wants. “Hurts” isn’t completely unpleasant, but it is impossibly shallow, and despite a lot of verbal hand-wringing, the whole elongated march toward the inevitable feels empty even by the dampened standards of cutesy romantic comedies. The movie puts a nice bow on things with a sweet batch of scenes at the end, but the impact is terminally dulled by how insignificant everything feels by then.
Extras: Cast/crew interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 1/11/11: LittleBigPlanet 2, TouchMaster: Connect, ilomilo

LittleBigPlanet 2
For: Playstation 3
From: Media Molecule/Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

It’s may be thanks to a technicality, but it’s still true: “LittleBigPlanet 2” is the first game in history to launch with 3.5 million levels ready to play out of the gate.

And besides, it’s no small technicality. The first “LittleBigPlanet” broke considerable ground by making it easy for players to create full-featured 2D platforming levels using nothing but a Playstation controller, and players responded by designing lavishly personalized worlds and using the game’s immense flexibility and boundless physics engine to mimic genres the game was never even designed to emulate.

Those levels all carry over to “LBP2,” which delivers on Media Molecule’s promise to nurture the “LittleBigPlanet” universe as a self-standing platform. The lessons learned and implemented during the first game’s lifespan — interface streamlining, community feedback, tools for finding the best of those millions of levels — carry over as well.

As in the original, “LBP2’s” core content includes a traditional 2D sidescrolling adventure that, in addition to continuing the story of series star Sackboy, provides a comprehensive overview of the game’s tone, its physics engine and what’s possible on the creation side of things.

If you didn’t like the way Sackboy controlled in the original “LBP,” the return of these controls — floaty jumping, excessive slipperiness when standing on unstable ground — is likely the worst news about “LBP2,” which probably had no choice but to leave the physics alone in order to maintain full backward compatibility.

But flags of progress fly just about everywhere else. In addition to running, jumping and grabbing, Sackboy now can lift, throw, fire projectiles, swing around with a grappling hook and commandeer a more diverse array of vehicles (some living). A storyline twist also introduces us to the Sackbots, which creators can configure to give their levels programmable artificial intelligence.

But the unarguable (and literal) game-changer is “LBP2’s” now-ingrained ability to create gaming experiences — twin-stick shooters, puzzle games, a makeshift game of basketball — that have nothing to do with 2D platforming.

“LBP2’s” game creation engine has benefitted immensely from two years of experience and polish, emerging as a significantly more streamlined interface that better uses the controller without sacrificing any of the tool’s power.

To the contrary, the introduction of the Controllinator — which allows creators to map objects and functions to controller buttons in whatever configuration they please — takes the original “LBP’s” high ceiling and kicks it over the moon. Being able to map anything to anything else means creators can design foundations for just about any type of game genre, and the process of doing so is remarkably simple.

“LBP2” provides would-be creators with roughly an hour’s worth of surprisingly entertaining tutorials, and while it’s impossible to demonstrate on paper how versatile and user-friendly these tools are, a little hands-on time in conjunction with the tutorials does wonders. Testers were able to design everything from racing games to first-person shooters during “LBP2’s” brief beta period, and it’ll be exciting to see what emerges with the full toolset in hand and no time limit in place. The game’s persistent co-op (four players, locally or online) now applies to the creation tool as well, so players can collaborate on a masterpiece if they can manage to work through their creative differences.

And if you’re hopelessly intimidated or just don’t care about creating your own games? Those 3.5 million (and counting) levels remain yours to download and play for free. Enjoy.


TouchMaster: Connect
For: Nintendo DS
From: DoubleTap Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

The strangely successful “TouchMaster” series lives in its own contradictory little universe, capably emulating those cheap touchscreen arcades you see in bars and successfully porting the experience of playing them to a system that’s as responsible as any for killing most of the novelty those machines once had.

“TouchMaster: Connect” (which, for those scoring at home, is the fourth “TouchMaster” game to surface in three and a half years) takes the contradiction even further with its sideways approach to online bragging rights. This time, though, the blame for what results lies as much with the system’s limitations as it does with the game.

Similar to previous “TouchMaster” games, “Connect’s” 20 mini-games mark a prioritization of quantity over quality. The games fall into four categories — strategy, action, puzzle and card — and generally give players a single objective to fulfill. Tricky Fish, for instance, asks players to “juggle” a fish by swiping upward with the stylus, while Quik Match is a simple Mahjong clone with numbers instead of symbols.

“Connect” doesn’t completely skimp on presentation. Each game has a high score table and a lengthy roster of achievements to unlock. Nine of them support two-player wireless multiplayer with one game card. And “Connect’s” attempts to fulfill the “Connect” part of its name — more on that momentarily — are interesting, if not terribly successful.

But the chief problem with “Connect” is the same problem the previous three “TouchMaster” games had: The games themselves feel unmistakably cheap. The touchscreen controls are stiff, the graphics look like relics from the CD-ROM era, and when “Connect” tries to emulate a game that’s already prospered on the DS — Coco Loco, a “Bejeweled” clone, for example — the results are unflatteringly stiff and clunky by comparison. Authenticity of emulation is an admirable goal, but the “TouchMaster” games would be a whole lot more fun if they left that behind and created facsimiles that felt like they were developed for the DS instead of some cheap arcade box.

“Connect” gets its surname from its headlining new feature, which allows players to link to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and post their accomplishments to each respective service. Superficially, the idea makes sense, but in practice, all it really feels like is advertising. At least when friends annoy you about their Facebook game pursuits, you can jump in and play them if you feel so inclined. “Connect,” by contrast, feels like a one-way street, and while the social networking name-dropping is very 2011, the online leaderboards that became cool in 2002 remain a superior system in this arena.

Fortunately, “Connect” has those as well. Unfortunately, the Nintendo DS has no way to stay persistently connected to the Internet. So while you can compare your scores with others around the world, you have to manually connect to the Internet and submit your score whenever you want to see updated leaderboards in a separate menu. “Connect” only downloads leaderboards from that one game, too, so if you want all 20 leaderboards, get ready to navigate a lot of menus. Considering the other failings of the setup — there’s no support for friends lists, much less a friends-only leaderboard, nor is there any way to challenge other players from within the game — the hassle just isn’t worth it.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: SouthEnd Interactive/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

“ilomilo” didn’t need to be charming to an almost illegal degree in order to be a good game, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The object of each of “ilomilo’s” 49 levels is to reunite best friends ilo and milo, who have been separated by a labyrinth constructed entirely of plush cubes. Reuniting them involves teamwork, with players controlling both characters either alternately by themselves or simultaneously with a friend via local co-op. But things really get interesting when the game introduces advanced tactics — from creating bridges and elevators out of portable cubes to rotating the entire level and defying gravity — and produces level designs that ask players to use the tricks in tandem in order to reunite the friends and find the other secrets hidden within. On the difficulty scale, “ilomilo” hits the sweet spot: The harder levels are cerebrally exhausting, but the game lets you take as much time as you want to figure them out, penalizing slow players only on the completely ignorable Xbox Live leaderboards. The relaxed pace provides a perfect complement to all that aforementioned charm. “ilomilo’s” graphical style — everything, from characters to world, looks like a living plush toy — is arrestingly beautiful, and the game’s personality and sense of humor strike a perfect balance between lovably endearing and slyly clever.

DVD 1/4/11: Catfish, Bitter Feast, Howl, Machete, And Soon the Darkness, Dinner for Schmucks

Catfish (PG-13, 2010, Rogue/Universal)
The ability to create and compose a film is no small gift, but sometimes the best documentaries are the ones that happen because someone was fortunate enough to be in the right place and time with a camera rolling. “Catfish” began life with filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost documenting the rising fortunes of Ariel’s photographer brother Nev, who had a photo published in The New York Sun and, a few months later, received a painting of that photo from an admiring stranger. That mailing led to a relationship with the sender over Facebook, which eventually moved to the phone and quickly spread to include multiple members of the sender’s family. Saying any more would constitute spoiling what happens next, and spoiling what happens next would be a crime against what might be the most arresting documentary you see all year. “Catfish’s” theatrical release was accompanied shortly after by news reports expounding on the film’s developments, but if you haven’t seen those reports and don’t know what happens, know this: What you assume about the authenticity of this relationship is probably somewhat on target, but the ensuing details behind that revelation almost certainly are not. The fun of watching “Catfish” is seeing just how strange Nev’s story gets, but the real genius of the film is its effortless ability to separate effect from intent. You’ll have to watch to see exactly what that means, but given how thoroughly entertaining that task is, it isn’t so much a task as an urging. If you like human drama at all, don’t skip this one.
Extra: Lengthy (25 min.) Q&A with the Schulmans and Joost.

Bitter Feast (NR, 2009, Dark Sky Films)
It’s nothing new for a horror movie to give us protagonists who are every bit as unlikable as the villains, but generally it’s due to lazy writing, stereotyping or some other unfortunate reason. But while “Bitter Feast” doesn’t do everything brilliantly, it absolutely reigns supreme at giving us a predator (James LeGros as disgraced restauranteur and television host Peter Gray) and prey (Joshua Leonard as vitriolic food critic and blogger JT Franks, who kicked the first domino of Peter’s eventual downfall) who are completely detestable for all the right reasons. The predicaments and motivations remove all mystery as to why Peter attempts to abduct JT, and on its most superficial level, “Feast” is the culmination of a revenge fantasy — the artist getting even with the critic — that needs no explanation. But what really makes this one special is the diabolically loving care with which “Feast” form both Peter and JT into complete egomaniacal messes. The movie paints two uniquely elaborate pictures of self-loathing and contempt for others, and it makes for some deliriously entertaining scenes before the two even share a scene. The ugliness grows exponentially when the two finally butt heads, and eventually, the concentration of mental instability clouding the air is thick enough to make even those no-brainer motivations completely crumble. “Feast” drags a slight bit when trying to parlay all this darkness into a satisfying conclusion, but it eventually gets there, and while the payoff isn’t quite as fun as the buildup, it’s plenty satisfying enough.
Extras: Crew commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, interview with chef Mario Batali (who pulls cameo duty in the film), portraits of the cast and crew set to music (more entertaining than it sounds).

Howl (NR, 2010, Oscilloscope)
“Howl,” which for good reason takes its title from the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name, is an example of how to combine the acts of taking and leaving creative liberty into something that’s both fresh and respectful without being contradictory. The entirety of “Howl’s” dialogue comes from published interviews with Ginsberg (played here by James Franco), courtroom transcripts from the trial to determine if the poem is obscene, and the poem itself. Each source provides a different piece of the film’s identity: The interviews take on a documentary-style effect (complete with inspired mock supplementary footage featuring Franco in Ginsberg’s shoes), while the trial feels like an elongated scene from a more traditional film. But it’s the poem itself that fittingly steals the show. “Howl” continually switches from testimony to interview to maintain the relevance of each side’s contribution, and it regularly transitions between the two by reciting a portion of the poem while some terrific and stylistically diverse animated shorts bring Ginsberg’s words to life. “Howl’s” shifting styles provide only limited insight into what drove Ginsberg to write what he wrote, and those with no connection whatsoever to the poem will likely feel no closer to it coming out than they were going in. But as a fresh looks at classics go, “Howl’s” treatment is unique and loving, and those who already embrace the poem shouldn’t miss a chance to see it in a brand-new light. Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker also star.
Extras: Franco/directors commentary, research tape audio, Ginsberg (from 1995) and Franco readings of “Howl,” behind-the-scenes feature, directors Q&A, Ginsberg readings of “Sunflower Sutra” and “Pull My Daisy.”

Machete (R, 2010, Fox)
Take a good look at “Machete,” because this might be the only time in history a movie this gruesome comes to us through what, by any other name, is focus testing. “Machete” debuted in 2007 as a mock trailer for the “Grindhouse” double feature, and the two-minute odyssey of former Federale Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) caught enough fire to spawn its own film. So here we are, and here’s Machete — betrayed by his employer, emotionally gutted by the kingpin (Steven Seagal) who killed his family, and scorching the earth in a payback rampage that, depending on your perspective, is either wondrously insane or ridiculously incoherent. “Machete” attempts some timeliness by dropping the rampage smack in the middle of the illegal immigration conflict, and again, you can interpret the message as farce or a laughable reach for credibility. It’s probably the former, but who knows? And really, who cares? People ate up the trailer because it had guns, knives, Trejo and a shotgun-waving priest (Cheech Marin). The movie, which follows the trailer to the letter, has all that and more, along with a loaded cast (Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan) and the most disgustingly clever demonstration of improvised rope climbing you’ll ever see. “Machete” doesn’t buy all the way into the “Grindhouse” gimmick like its forebears did, but the same sensibility is there, and as long as you don’t penalize it for being what it wants to be, it’s a legitimately good time.
Extras: Audience reaction audio track (brilliant), deleted scenes.

And Soon the Darkness (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Movies about abductions have so tackily tried to outgross and out-deprave one another that when something comes along that doesn’t play along, it’s a whole lot more interesting than it probably deserves to be. The flash-forward tease that opens “And Soon the Darkness” — pretty American girl (Odette Yustman as Ellie) in captivity after wondering carelessly around a desolate Argentinian village like it’s New York City — should ring familiar to anyone who has seen any of the many movies that have tread the same ground over the last few years. But after that tease, “Darkness” tries something a little different. Ellie’s friend Stephanie (Amber Heard) accompanies her on the trip, but rather than lump them both into the same predicament, “Darkness” gives Stephanie a chance to be the hero and hunt down her friend’s captors. As a consequence, the movie itself passes on the tired horror devices in favor of being a lean, legitimately tense mystery that allows viewers to hypothe
size about different characters’ intentions instead of wince at the same old acts of horror committed by the same old boring archetypes. “Darkness” can’t completely escape familiarity with regard to its twists and developments, but it builds things up and tears them down in a way that allows even the predictable stuff to make a modest, if unspectacular, splash. Karl Urban, César Vianco and Adriana Barraza also star.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes, director video diary.

Dinner for Schmucks (NR, 2010, Paramount)
There are two ways to approach “Dinner for Schmucks,” which finds Tim (Paul Rudd) watching dim-witted stranger Barry (Steve Carell) accidentally capsize his life mere hours after recruiting him for a cruel dinner contest in which everyone brings a guest to secretly mock. The first includes a viewing of “The Dinner Game,” the 1998 French film on which “Schmucks” is based. “Game” took place almost entirely in one apartment, merely alluded to the dinner and relied almost exclusively on sharp wit to communicate this destruction. “Schmucks,” by contrast, is a series of hijinks that devotes a fifth of its existence to the dinner, which features a cornucopia of cartoon characters and lunatics. “Game’s” subtlety is nearly excised in favor of spectacle, and for those who rail against the Americanization of perfectly great foreign films, “Schmucks” gets its own page in the pamphlet. But for those who can enjoy each film on its own terms, there’s still something to like here. Mostly, that’s because Carrell plays his part brilliantly, establishing Barry as an undeniable doofus but doing so with a continuous stream of very funny throwaway lines instead of broad comedy and gags. His construction makes him extremely likable, and his likability does wonders to offset the high concentration of contrivance permeating everything else. “Schmucks'” predictably schmaltzy ending asks audiences to do as it preaches rather than as it does, but the delivery of that message is cute enough to forgive (if not forget) its hypocrisy.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Games 1/4/11: MicroBot, Splatterhouse, Zombie Smash HD

For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Naked Sky Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“MicroBot’s” decision to take the rapidly staling twin-stick shooter genre into a fresh new setting — the human body, a la “Fantastic Voyage” — pays immediate dividends in the audiovisual department. Provided you can get behind some other new ideas that are so different as to arguably run contrary to the genre’s typical principles, it compounds that reward as you delve deeper into that setting.

Like “Geometry Wars,” “Super Stardust HD” and any number of other twin-stick shooters, “MicroBot’s” control scheme — left stick to move your vessel, right stick to aim and fire — couldn’t be simpler. You’re controlling a nanorobot instead of a spaceship, and invading aliens and zombies have been replaced by invading bacteria and other catalysts for illness, but the primary objective — shoot everything and stay alive — is as pure as it’s ever been.

But “MicroBot’s” setting almost immediately allows it to set a different pace than its peers typically establish. Steering the nanorobot through an advancing school of cells or against an opposing current of blood adds a palpable degree of resistance (and, when riding with the current, assistance) to basic movement, and the setting takes on its own life as a neutral third character in the battle between bot and disease. The body can be both a lifesaver and a hazard depending on how you approach its moving parts, and it looks awfully good regardless of its utility. (Word of warning to the excessively squeamish: Clinical or not, “MicroBot’s” depiction of video game blood may be a little too authentic for your stomach’s liking.)

The setting also provides occasion for “MicroBot” to dote on exploration more than a twin-stick shooter typically does. Arguably, it’s to a fault.

Rather than take place in a single screen or arena, “MicroBot’s” levels are large, winding and rife with alternate passageways and other secrets. Levels are dotted with hidden items and atoms that go toward upgrading the bot’s capabilities, and while picking levels clean is totally optional, uncovering the trickier secrets is easily as satisfying an endeavor as any of the mandatory challenges.

The debatable downside is that the exploration comes at the expense of intensity. “MicroBot” provides a ton of stuff to shoot, but it also punctuates its frantic shootouts with slower moments designed around exploration. Anyone expecting a continuous, “Geometry Wars”-style assault should adjust their expectations, because this isn’t that kind of game. Beyond a secondary challenge mode, the game doesn’t even use a scoreboard.

The upside to that arguable downside is that “MicroBot” embraces its adventure-game ambitions. In addition to roomy, the levels are more diverse than the setting might imply. The boss fights that cap each area provide satisfying closure to each area. Local co-op support lets two players complete the journey together.

Finally, the upgrade tree is absolutely stellar. Collecting atoms and unlocking abilities allows you to upgrade the nanorobot with a surprising abundance of parts, and the game’s flexibility with regard to parts distribution — and the effects different distributions have on play — is striking. Players who want a faster game can upgrade their way to one by loading their bot with navigation parts, while struggling players can fortify their bot with defensive parts to ease the difficulty. “MicroBot” naturally allows players to upgrade their weaponry as well, and the nice array of firepower has something for everyone to like.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

“Splatterhouse’s” legacy undoubtably will be the new heights to which it elevates video game gore. True to the name, it’s swimming in blood, with the most minor of attacks spraying the screen with blotches of red while the more advanced moves practically coat the entire level in the stuff. Throw in some special kills that trigger some very painful-looking interactive cutscenes, and the award for the goriest game in existence is now handily in this game’s possession. A subtle reliance on cel shading slightly mutes the effect, but only slightly.

But Namco justifies the whole disgusting display by applying some real weight — figuratively as well as literally — to all those attacks. “Splatterhouse’s” storyline encompasses a good eight to 10 hours of play time, and the novelty of all that blood would dissipate awfully quickly if the storytelling and gameplay propping it up weren’t so surprisingly strong.

“Splatterhouse’s” core action plays out like any number of recent action games in the “God of War” and “Dante’s Inferno” vein. One button handles light attacks, the other heavy attacks, and using the attack buttons in different combinations allows Rick (that’s you) to escalate the impact of his arsenal. A handful of limited-use weapons — planks, cleavers, chainsaws and a couple more that will be detailed later — provide a temporary uptick in offense when available.

As the story explains, though, Rick is no ordinary protagonist. In fact, he’s kind of a geek — albeit one fused with a mask that (again, as “Splatterhouse” explains) transforms him into an inhumanly strong hulk. Along with the aforementioned blood-coating attacks, the extra strength allows him to, for instance, pick up an enemy, pull his arm off and use that arm as a bat. Well-timed special attacks fill the battleground with usable “weapons” of this magnitude, adding a nice level of risk/reward and effectively discouraging the exercise of banal button mashing. Combined with the game’s nice control balance — there’s a noticeable and beneficial heft to Rick’s attacks, but not at the expense of his agility — the combat system is much more thoughtful than the bloodlust might initially imply.

Doubly surprising is “Splatterhouse’s” story, which begins ambiguously but makes a gradual, continual transformation into something surprisingly artful. The story of Rick, his talking mask (again, story explains), his girlfriend and the maniacal Dr. West doesn’t quite add up logically, and the mask has more than a few annoying things to say (and say again) while harassing Rick. But “Splatterhouse’s” first two-thirds construct a legitimately wicked horror story, and when the narrative focus shifts from Rick to West in the final third, the game handles it with a surprising level of care and spirit.

All the same, the usual trappings of the genre are accounted for. While “Splatterhouse’s” storyline ramps up well, the action can stagnate, and nearly every enemy configuration in the game’s back half consists of remixed arrangements of the same enemies from the first half. Some new boss enemies appear, the locales change up nicely, and Rick’s upgradable repertoire opens up the combat variety at a good pace, but the creeping repetition still leaves a mark.

Much worse, though, is when “Splatterhouse” tries its hand as a platforming game despite having a character and camera that aren’t remotely up to the task. These segments are cheaply difficult and, because of how often you’ll die because the game fails you, annoyingly unfun. Fortunately, they’re also pretty brief and very infrequent.


Zombie Smash HD
For: iPad
From: Gamedoctors
nes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild profanity or crude humor, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)

To look at a screenshot of “Zombie Smash HD” might be to presume it’s yet another tower defense game in which you must defend your house against yet another onslaught of zombies. But “Smash” spares itself from the rehash tag by letting you go very literally hands on with that defense. As zombies encroach on the house, you can use your fingers to pick them up, lob them backward, fling them across the screen and, true to the title, smash them into the ground. Various weapons and pickups — construction wrecking balls, meteor showers, a coach’s whistle that stops everyone in their tracks — are available for a temporary assist, but to succeed at “Smash” is to be quick with the hands and master the art of using multiple fingers to fling multiple zombies simultaneously. In the later stages, it’s far more an action than strategy game. “Smash” includes a 31-day campaign mode, a shorter bonus campaign with remixed rules, an endless mode and a sandbox mode, and it dangles Game Center leaderboards and achievements for extra motivation. But it’s the colorful cartoony presentation that really makes the whole thing sing. Gamedoctors itself describes “Smash” as a survival comedy game, and between the goofy zombie designs and the slapstick that erupts when pickups and your fingers work in tandem, it’s an apt description.