DVD 2/22/11: Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Weeds S6, Nurse Jackie S2, Killshot, Huge, The Last Unicorn, Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo Trilogy

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (R, 2008, Music Box Films)
“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is the first of a two-film odyssey about the adventures of real-life French soldier-turned-gangster Jacques Mesrine (played here by Vincent Cassel), and if you aren’t familiar with him, it’s time to make acquaintance. Structurally, “Instinct” doesn’t burst with surprise as it relates to Mesrine’s career transformation. Following an introductory flash forward, there’s a peek into his military service, glimpses into attempts to go legit, and a more detailed look at the moments that transformed him from a desperate, petty criminal to a subject worthy of two biopics. But where many of these burgeoning-criminal movies sleepwalk through these motions as much as the motions imply they do, “Instinct” roars through everything. Mesrine’s spirited development — along with that of “Instinct’s” supporting cast (Cécile De France, Roy Dupuis, Gérard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche and Elena Anaya, among others) — effortlessly carry the story when the timeline is predictable, and the script returns the favor by stylishly and thrillingly dropping giant exclamation marks on the moments you might not see coming. For a story with familiar overtones, it sure is exciting. Though “Instinct” leaves the story only half-finished, it leaves it on a sky-high note, and many of its best moments wouldn’t be possible if it had to cram everything into two hours. So circle March 29 on your calendar: That’s when “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” which brings us fully up to speed with that flash forward, releases. If you see “Instinct,” it’s practically a given you’ll want to see “Enemy” as well. In French with English subtitles, though an English dub is available as an option. No extras.

Weeds: Season Six (NR, 2010, Showtime/Lions Gate)
“Weeds” began humbly as a show about small-time suburban drug dealing, and after three seasons of characters solving problems by creating new ones, the show reinvented itself for the worse (a flat season four) before rebuilding the deck again en route to a terrific comeback (season five). So it’s poetically fitting that the theme of season six, which reinvents the show yet again, is reinvention. Without spoiling the whys for those who haven’t caught up, the Botwin family (Mary-Louise Parker, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Justin Kirk) not only has to skip town yet again, but new identities are in order as well. And without spoiling where that takes this season, let’s just be vague and say that it’s a more exhaustive journey than many shows take in their lifetime, with the Botwins pulling roots in the middle of a filler episode that other television families couldn’t pull in a season finale. Given the show’s taste for risk-taking, it’s an impressive tribute. That it’s also the arguable best season yet is, while impressive, not a great surprise. Kevin Nealon also stars.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.
— Also available from Showtime: “Nurse Jackie: Season Two” (NR, 2010, Showtime/Lions Gate): The first season of “Nurse Jackie” was a slow-motion car crash, with drug-addled nurse Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) transforming from capable mess into the architect of her pending professional and personal demise. Season two slows the bleeding down just a little, but the walls keep on closing in, and the second chapter of this disaster-in-waiting does a much better job of giving Falco’s terrific supporting cast (Dominic Fumusa, Paul Schulze, Merritt Wever, Eve Best, Peter Facinelli) some drains of their own to circle. It may take place in a hospital, but do not mistake “Jackie” for just another show about medicine, because it’s so much better than that. Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, music montage and bloopers.

Killshot (R, 2008, The Weinstein Company)
Armand ‘Blackbird’ Degas (Mickey Rourke) isn’t a perfect hitman, as his first scene in “Killshot” makes clear, but he at least is diligent at the art of leaving no living witness behind. Or at least that used to be the case until he tripped, fell into a bizarre partnership with Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and participated in a disastrous hit job that left no one dead and two witnesses (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane as Carmen and Wayne, respectively) alive and talking. This, obviously, cannot stand. “Killshot” doesn’t make a huge production of its premise: The killers are chasing the innocents, and while there’s the extracurricular matter of our witnesses heading into the last chapter of a marriage gone wrong, even that isn’t used to excess. Blackbird’s a well-written heavy whom you almost can root for, Richie’s a psychotically hammy nutjob who is fun to root against, and while nothing “Killshot” does breaks any narrative or stylistic ground, it’s a dependably engaging thriller that builds up nicely, pays off handsomely, and, with one impulsive move during the homestretch, delivers that rare twist that’s both extremely surprising but perfectly sensible. Rosario Dawson also stars.
Extras: A short film, “Sparks” by Gordon-Levitt.

Huge: The Complete Series (NR, 2010, ABC Family/Shout Factory)
You’ll have to forgive some of the campers who might take umbrage at Camp Victory’s name, because there’s nothing victorious about being sent to a fat camp. No one seems bent on expressing that quite as vocally as Willamena (Nikki Blonsky), who, more than merely expressing her dissatisfaction with being forced to attend, has announced an intention to gain rather than lose weight before her time there is up. As perhaps you can guess, the negativity isn’t bound to last: Though not without a sense of humor, “Huge” doesn’t list “irony” among its top priorities. If anything, a little more self-awareness would have been welcome. Willamena has her share of coming-of-age revelations, but she’s hardly alone, and “Huge” unnecessarily piles on by giving even the camp’s chief counselor (Gina Torres) her own bucket of complexes. Occasionally, it’s all a bit much. Fortunately, “Huge” reigns it in more than it doesn’t, maintaining a balance that’s a bit hokey but never very far out of touch with its silly, dryly amusing or refreshingly candid side. You can’t take on this subject matter if you plan to treat it with kid gloves, and “Huge,” thankfully, understands this.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, outtakes and two music videos.

Worth a Mention
— “The Last Unicorn” (G, 1982, Lions Gate): It might be a cliche, but it’s right: They don’t make movies like this very often anymore. “The Last Unicorn” is a thoughtfully-written animated adventure for kids that doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence or feel obligated to distract it with needless diversions or wackiness for wackiness’ sake. It has a sense of humor, but its funniest character is dryly funny instead of the stock over-caffeinated goofball, and its silliest character is a skeleton whose silliness is more creepy than cute. Even the way “Unicorn” casually breaks into and out of song speaks to a respect for audience sophistication that most kids’ movies lack today. Too bad. This new combo edition marks the movie’s Blu-ray debut, and many of the extras — writer/publisher commentary, three behind-the-scenes documentaries, two art galleries (one fan-fueled) — are relegated to that disc. But the set also includes a DVD, which itself includes a DVD game, an audio feature on “Unicorn” creator Peter S. Beagle and one each of the galleries and behind-the-scenes features.
— “Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy” (R, 2009-10, Music Box Films): If you still haven’t seen “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or its two followups and would still prefer to see the trilogy in its original form before Hollywood does with it what Hollywood tends to do, here’s the n
ew best way to dive in. “Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy” includes all three films and, in contrast to the individual film releases, finally gives fans some substantial extras via a bonus fourth disc. Those extras include a 53-minute documentary about Larsson and his creation, as well as lengthy cast interviews and a behind-the-scenes feature regarding a memorable fight scene from “The Girl who Played with Fire.”

Games 2/22/11: de Blob 2, Stacking, Battleheart

de Blob 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Tongue/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Any conversation about criminally overlooked Wii games should have “de Blob” in the first paragraph, if not the lead, so THQ deserves commendation for giving the series a second chance on more (and better) hardware.

Fundamentally, “de Blob 2” doesn’t break significant ground so much as make a more ambitious and more diverse return to form. You still play as Blob, a hyper-absorbent and deeply charming ball of goo whose primary abilities include rolling, jumping, smashing and absorbing different colors of paint, which he can use to turn the colorless buildings and citizens of Prisma City into their happy former selves.

To that end, the story remains the same: Free everyone and everything from the INKT Corporation’s monochromatic rule, in what almost certainly will be the cutest allegory you’ll ever see for regime takeover and democratic revolution. Like the first game, it’s charm run amok, with adorable character design, genuinely funny dialogue and a soundtrack that brilliantly bends to your actions in the game.

Primarily, the revolution comes via Blob painting every last square inch of “dB2’s” 11 levels, which also include missions centered around liberating citizens, sabotaging INKT technology and other objectives related to level design and story events.

The levels — which include a cola plant, a prison zoo and the Inktron Collider, to name three examples — are large enough to qualify as open worlds, and as long as time remains on the clock, Blob is free to tackle secondary objectives as well as main story missions in whatever fashion suits him. The clock is meant to keep players constantly moving, and it succeeds in just the right way: The time limits are generous on both difficulty settings, there are umpteen ways to add time, and once the main objectives are complete, the clock disappears and “dB2” lets you complete the rest of the level at your leisure.

All of this was true of “dB1,” too. But the series’ extremely unique underpinnings make the initial familiarity more forgivable than it might otherwise be, and the changes “dB2” does introduce are almost always welcome ones.

Most notable are the new sabotage missions that take Blob underground and play like a sidescrolling game instead of the traditional 3D action you see above ground. The new perspective lets “dB2” design a whole new flavor of challenges that still capitalize on the core concepts, and when these mini-levels bump up their difficulty later on, they occasionally outshine the bigger levels.

“dB2” also offers a limited offline co-op feature that allows a second player (as Blob’s friend Pinky) to shoot paint at environments, enemies and Blob himself using a targeting reticule. It isn’t nearly as involved as controlling Blob himself, but it adds a fun social element to the game, and if you’re playing the PS3 version, it’s an ideal use of the Playstation Move wand, which “dB2” supports throughout all its modes.

Elsewhere, the changes are customary but appreciated. The mission objectives are more diverse than last time, and “dB2” gradually introduces new powerups and gadgets that increase both Blob’s arsenal and the kind of missions he can encounter. It’s unquestionably more of the same basic gameplay, but the little surprises “dB2” reveals (three words: wrecking ball Blob) over its surprisingly lengthy adventure are enough to keep a great concept blessed with great execution going strong.

Provided you aren’t restricted to playing “dB2” on the Wii, the better hardware also helps. “dB2” looks terrific in high definition, and it benefits from a more traditional controller’s ability to control the camera without the kind of fuss that unfortunately comes standard on the Wii.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Double Fine Productions/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

This is what happens when a developer with big-budget talent and an independent spirit flourishes on a platform that allows it to flex both characteristics at once: You get a game in which you play as a Russian nesting doll.

(In case the term isn’t ringing a bell, Russian nesting dolls are those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other. You open one, and a smaller one is inside. Open that one, and an even smaller one is inside.)

“Stacking” brings those dolls to life, starring you as a tiny stacking doll named Charlie and tasking you with rescuing your family from an evil baron who has kidnapped and sentenced them to involuntary servitude.

By himself, Charlie is overmatched. But he has the ability to “stack” into any doll who is one degree larger than him and assume control of that character. That character, in turn, can stack into an even larger doll, and the process continues until you achieve control over the game’s largest (and, usually, most influential) dolls.

“Stacking” arranges its story by putting each imperiled family member in a different environment — a cruise ship, a zeppelin, a triple-decker train — and connecting everything with a similarly spacious hub level set inside a train station. Charlie is free to roam the environments as he likes, and you can inhabit any character, major or minor, who is roaming about.

Every character has a special maneuver he or she can perform — some of them crucial to the story (a widow seducing a guard into leaving his post), some useful (a woman with a spyglass can quickly discern which characters qualify as significant), some silly (dancing, playing paddleball, or performing various acts of mischief, which the game rewards through a suite of optional challenges).

The trick to saving Charlie’s family is to use the right dolls in the right ways to solve various cause-and-effect riddles, which generally involve getting around, influencing or assuming control of powerful dolls who won’t let Charlie get by them in his default form.

At its most linear, this isn’t terribly difficult, nor is “Stacking” particularly lengthly (a few hours, maybe) if you rush through the storyline and ignore the optional content.

But “Stacking” makes a terrific decision to give every challenge multiple solutions, and the players who will truly enjoy this game are the ones who come back to figure out every solution to every problem. Every challenge has an easy solution that’s made somewhat obvious by the presence of certain dolls in the vicinity, but the more obscure solutions require some inventiveness and often involve using dolls the game hasn’t labeled as significant. Other optional objectives, including the aforementioned mischief-making and a great challenge that involves reuniting other families by finding and stacking them together, give “Stacking” a lot more activity than initially meets the eye.

It also gives players an excuse to spend more time in the absolutely delightful world Double Fine has designed. “Stacking’s” dolls really look like living nesting dolls, from the expressions on their faces to the polished wooden sheen they give off to the wobbly, stop-motion-esque animation of their every movement. The rest of the world, which feels like a collection of early 20th century miniatures come alive, provides a beautiful complement. Even the cutscenes play along by mimicking a
silent film reel — piano soundtrack, written dialogue frames, film artifacts and all. The storytelling runs a bit heavy in “Stacking’s” early going, but its presentation is so novel that the excess is easily forgiven.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Mika Mobile
iTunes Store rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

As games that blend genres and take advantage of platform strengths go, it rarely gets better than this. On paper, “Battleheart” reads like a role-playing game: You assemble a party of characters with different strengths, upgrade those strengths by accruing experience and gold in battle, and use that gold to buy, sell and upgrade weapons, armor and other items with special attributes. But where most RPGs lean heavily on story, “Battleheart” all but skips it. Instead, the battles — which the game distributes across selectable levels almost like an arcade game — are the end as well as the means. That’s fine, too, because where most RPGs use a battle system that’s turn-based and menu-driven, “Battleheart” opts instead for a frantic, hands-on system that plays like a real-time strategy game on caffeine. Players control up to four characters at once, and commanding them is as simple as drawing a path for them, pointing them at specific enemies to attack, and occasionally tapping an icon to activate a spell. The simple controls — which nicely complement the game’s clean, ultra-cartoony look — prove a perfect fit once “Battleheart’s” introductory levels quickly give way to some seriously chaotic skirmishes. Things get crowded to a fault sometimes, especially on the smaller iPhone screen, but it’s an acceptable side effect of “Battleheart’s” refusal to compromise its thirst for chaos.

DVD 2/15/11: The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, For Colored Girls, Stag Night

The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (NR, 2009, Dark Sky Films)
Don’t look now, but Cthulhu, the tentacled god who ruled over horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s creations, is real and making a comeback. Worse, if Cthulhu’s minions can commandeer an ancient relic before it’s delivered to Lovecraft’s only living relative (Kyle Davis as Jeff), mankind is doomed. And worse than that? Jeff is a lowly cube rat who can’t muster up the courage to accept a date with a cute co-worker, much less save humanity. Isn’t that always the case? No matter. The road to making a great nerd-saves-the-world movie is littered with failed attempts that are too cute, too trite or victims of some other imbalance on the dork/hero scale. But “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu” uses some excellent character design to avoid the usual traps. Jeff’s a coward, but his disgruntled cynicism never lets the meekness get too far. His best friend and eventual cohort (Devin McGinn as Charlie) provides a nice complement by balancing a loud mouth with a child-like willingness to believe in Cthulhu’s rise the instant a mysterious stranger presents it to them. “Lovecraft’s” supporting characters provide similarly pleasant surprises, and if you believe in the art of characters endearing themselves by unleashing a torrent of expletives while under extreme duress, prepare to be charmed. “Lovecraft’s” special effects definitely fall on the low-budget side of the fence, but the action is fun, and the script is too smart and funny for something like effects to even matter.
Extras: David/McGinn/director commentary, extended scene, pencil test (with commentary), photo gallery.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (R, 2010, Sony Pictures Classics)
People love to give present-day Woody Allen an extraordinary amount of flak for sticking to what kindly can be called a formula and not-so-kindly dismissed as a hollow imitation of the movies he made when the formula was new. “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” won’t soften the criticism one bit: It’s yet another movie, narrated by Allen, in which various people (Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas and others) display various degrees of life- and love-related dissatisfaction and use those feelings to admirably, passionately but mostly rather foolishly dig their feet into a whole new proverbial ditch. The thing about “Stranger,” though, is that while it isn’t revolutionary in any remotely imaginable way, it most certainly is pleasant. Allen breaks no ground and changes not a hair on film convention’s head, but in taking unhappy people with unseemly solutions to unpleasant problems and making them likable, their situations amusing and their actions backwardly uplifting, he demonstrates why sticking to what he does best isn’t such a bad thing at all. “Stranger” is light but intelligently, genuinely fun the whole way through, and there’s something to be said for a writer in his element telling these kind of stories with this much confidence. No extras.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (NR, 2010, Oscilloscope)
There’s no way — nor is there any need — to know for sure, but one gets the impression that the late William S. Burroughs was a little less interested in talking about himself than everybody else was. “A Man Within” takes accessible, traditional measures to detail and discuss the life Burroughs lived, the work he did as a voice of his generation, and the doors his work allowed him to kick down even when his own discomfort may have given him pause. As biographies go, it’s satisfyingly informative and achieves that rare documentary air of telling a straight story while also chasing tangents and whims in clever ways when the opportunity presents itself. But the most interesting thing about “Within” may be the story it shows rather than tells. “Within” features glowing interviews with a number of people — Patti Smith, John Waters, Jello Biafra and numerous others, famous or otherwise — who either enjoyed personal relationships with Burroughs, shared his stage as contemporaries, or walk in the shadow of his influence. But it also features a number of interviews in which Burroughs himself recounts the same history like a man who, if inflection means anything, has either remained humble or simply grown bored with telling the same stories. Meaningful or not, intentional or not, the contrast paints an amusing picture of the difference between admiring someone and having to be that someone every day of your life, and it’s simply one more layer of insight atop of a movie that has insight spilling out of every side.
Extras: Deleted scenes, home movies and other additional footage with Burroughs, music video, Patti Smith reading of “Psalm 23 Revisited,” director Q&A, liner notes by David Byrne and Richard Hell.

For Colored Girls (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
If you take your movies personally — and, in particular, if you’re an image-conscious man who takes portrayals of your gender personally — a viewing of “For Colored Girls” will certainly make you cringe if it doesn’t make you howl. “For Colored Girls” is based on the 1975 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which itself was structured around 20 poems about the obstacles African-American women face in life, love, work and elsewhere. “Girls” the movie tells stories about a number of women (Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine and numerous others), and the script liberally mixes in creative liberty with verses from the poems. The execution on the concept is clever. But it isn’t very graceful, and if anything that happens in the first 50 minutes doesn’t convince you that “Girls” isn’t even going to try to portray the other gender objectively, one character’s impossibly bizarre personality transformation at around the hour mark — followed by something even worse 10 minutes later — leaves the notion completely in ruin. “Girls” never sits at a loss for energy despite a runtime that breaks the 130-minute mark, but the spirited energy of its early going gives way to a tearjerker paradise as the minutes tick by. You may be entertained, but full-blown alienation, for any number of reasons, is just as likely a prospect.
Extras: Interactive behind-the-scenes documentary, two additional behind-the-scenes features, image gallery.

Stag Night (R, 2008, Ghost House Underground/Lions Gate)
Bachelor parties have a knack for going south, and after groom-to-be Mike (Kip Pardue) and friends (Breckin Meyer, Scott Adkins, Karl Geary) get kicked out of a club, jump a subway turnstile and then hassle two women (Vinessa Shaw and Sarah Barrand) on the train until a series of events leaves them all stranded under a subway tunnel, this is a pretty shining example. Problem is, when this almost universally unflattering introduction ends, it takes most of “Stag Night’s” storytelling motivation with it. As expected, there’s more trouble in this subway tunnel than a lack of exits — namely, a group of bandits who kill people for some reason. We don’t really find out the reason, nor do we find out why there’s a whole society of people living underground who fear what appear to be disfigured but human monsters. “Night” takes us on a chase as our heroes, who range from generically unlikable to painfully vanilla, try to search for an out and evade these villains who chase and try to kill them for some reason. If you think that sentence sounds plain, you now know what the movie looks like. “Night” has a couple of creepy parts, but it’s mostly a horror-by-numbers waste of an interesting setting, and when it gets back to coloring in its story with nine minutes to go, the twist is so unfortunate that you might wish it just stuck to fizzling out of memory instead.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/15/11: Killzone 3, Body and Brain Connection, Hard Corps: Uprising

Killzone 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Guerrilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

“Killzone 3” cannot possibly surprise people like its 2009 predecessor did, so there’s no honest way to write about it that achieves the level of awe those lavishly complimentary “Killzone 2” reviews achieved.

But that isn’t to imply “KZ3” underwhelms at all. It tops “KZ2” in almost every respect, and while the story continues to fall short of its potential, the game’s handling of moment-to-moment action — seeking cover without changing perspective, a noticeable weight and impact to every action taken, a vicious depiction of warfare — still sets it apart from any other first-person shooter.

Additionally, while “KZ3’s” story doesn’t explore themes a truckload of other war games haven’t already mined, it provides the necessary means to visit more environments and give players access to more toys than “KZ2” did. As happened in the last game, you’ll get to witness and eventually harness some devastating, not-of-this-world weaponry designed by the opposing Helghan army. The battlegrounds are more diverse — planetary ruins here, a fascinatingly detailed Helghan laboratory there, a wildly colorful planet with predatory plant life in between. And in a nod to “Call of Duty’s” zest for variety, the game mixes up the objectives, complementing standard shootouts with a terrific stealth mission, some sniper duty and tours aboard gunships, ice saws and a vehicle that’s best left unspoiled.

But it bears repeating that a me-too storyline and me-too mission objectives don’t make “KZ3” a me-too shooter. The cover mechanic — a real mechanic for seeking cover, not a plain duck button — adds a tactical layer most first-person shooters lack. The minute dip in speed caused by the aforementioned weightiness provides a perfect complement: It’s subtle enough to never impede movement, but noticeable enough to engender deliberate actions instead of impulsive reactions.

The speed dip doesn’t come at the expense of intensity, either. To the contrary, “KZ3’s” shootouts are spectacularly lively — a combination of great level design, continuous foreground and background activity, and artificially intelligent enemies democratically and relentlessly flanking and descending on your allies as well as you.

The only other notable downer about the campaign? It supports two-player co-op, but only locally.

“KZ2” inventively broke convention from other multiplayer shooters with a shuffle-style mode that changed the match type — deathmatch, assassination, territory and so on — on the fly without ever pausing the action. Because no other shooter has successfully cribbed the formula, it remains fresh in “KZ3” (24 players, down from 32), which also includes a standard team deathmatch mode and a new Operations mode that further emphases the value of teamwork in these skirmishes.

The prioritization of teamwork is no trivial point. The core reward for multiplayer success remains in the form of individual perk and gear unlocks for each class, but you’ll garner more experience points from completing objectives than by simply killing enemies. The eight maps are intelligently designed to force teams to fight in hot zones while also completing objectives in hostile corners, and teams that diversity their classes and work together will rule these battlefields.

Though the controller suffices per usual, “KZ3” marks the first instance of a big-ticket game flashing full Playstation Move compatibility out of the box. The big news here is that there is no big news: The Move controller is as precise as advertised, and with a Navigation or regular controller in the other hand, no part of “KZ3’s” integral gameplay is sacrificed in exchange for playing this way. The tech was mostly validated already, but this seals it.


Body and Brain Connection
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

When Nintendo scored a surprise hit with “Brain Age,” the torrent of imitation products was surprisingly furious and unsurprisingly mundane.

But the latest me-too product gets an arguable pass. For starters, it stars and features the consultation of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who also starred in and consulted on development of the Nintendo games that started this whole phenomenon.

More importantly, it goes places even “Age” couldn’t go by utilizing the Kinect and replacing styli and buttons with arms and legs.

Structurally and conceptually, “Connection” borrows liberally from “Age.” It features 20 exercises across five categories (math, reflex, logic, memory, physical), and each exercise has its own scoring table, progress chart and series of unlockable difficulty levels.

Similarly, while you can play exercises whenever and at whatever pace you please, the real meat of “Connection” is the daily test, which chooses three exercises for you, grades you on your aptitude in those tests, and distills your performance into an age. The lower your mental and physical age, the better.

“Connection” allows you to take this test only once per day, but that’s the point: You visit daily, take the test, chart your progress, perhaps do some additional exercises for fun or practice, and you’re done in 15 minutes or so. You likely won’t experience any cathartic awakening in terms of brainpower, nor will the light physical demands turn you into an adonis. But it certainly can’t hurt, and “Connection,” like “Age,” has a way of growing on you if you enjoy the exercises and the sense of accomplishment that comes from excelling at them and whittling that age down.

“Connection’s” exercises are simple, but they’re also challenging fun, and despite the presence of categories, every exercise features some mixture of mental and physical taxation. One test has you simultaneously controlling two separate Namco characters with both hands to help them evade “Pac-Man” ghosts. Another tasks you with forming highways with your arms and safely guiding vehicles to their color-coded destination. A low-concept test simply has you popping numbered balloons from the lowest number to the highest, which is pretty easy until negative numbers show up to mess with your perception.

For the most part — at least while playing alone — the Kinect controls work as they should, though you’ll inevitably pop the wrong balloon or touch the wrong button by accident simply because your hand falls in the way. The menu navigation is pretty unwieldy, but it’s tamable with practice, and better for these problems to surface outside the game than during it.

Less sterling is “Connection’s” multiplayer component, which allows up to four players to compete locally for the best score in each exercise. As with most Kinect games at present, “Connection” sometimes loses track of who’s who when a new player jumps in for a turn, and it struggles further during exercises that allow two players to play at once. Things work more than they don’t, and there’s fun to be had this way if you take it for the slightly chaotic experience it has the potential to be.

But it’s harder to accept problems with local multiplayer when “Connection,” like too many Kinect games, completely omits online multiplayer over Xbox Live. You can’t even compare exercise scores online. It’s blasphemy for a non-Kinect Xbox 360 game to release multiplayer that’s local only, and Kinect games should aspire to meet the same standard.


Hard Corps: Uprising
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Arc System Works/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, use of tobacco, violence)
Price: $15

You may live to see the end of “Hard Corps: Uprising’s” eighth and final level, but it may take you a lot longer than you expect. And for a game that, appearances aside, is a direct heir to the “Contra” throne, there’s no higher compliment. “Uprising” comes courtesy of a developer that’s primarily known for its lavishly-animated 2D fighting games, and its influence results in a visual direction — meticulously animated, anime-style characters set in front of hand-painted backdrops — that’s a jarring but wildly enjoyable step in a new direction for “Contra.” In terms of gameplay, though, “Uprising” is classic “Contra.” Enemies attack in droves, each stage has multiple boss encounters, and seemingly impossible firefights become merely punishingly difficult once you decipher each enemy’s attack pattern. At its most basic, “Uprising” is unforgiving, and beating the game’s arcade mode — three lives, five continues — will be impossible for many. Fortunately, the Rising mode plays exactly the same but allows players to trade in points they score for some seriously useful unlockables — extra lives, extra health, better default weapons and more — that, once purchased, remain unlocked. Keep playing and scoring, and eventually you might unlock enough assists to see level eight. Or maybe just level two. (If all else fails, there’s two-player local/online co-op.) It isn’t easy, but it’s ridiculously fun, and if the satisfaction of conquering a hard-fought level isn’t enough, seeing what bizarre setting and enemies waits on deck most certainly is.

DVD 2/8/11: Wild Target, It's Kind of a Funny Story, America America, See You in September, My Soul to Take, Paranormal Activity 2

Wild Target (PG-13, 2010, Fox)
It’s something of a long story, but a scam to the tune of nearly $1 million has resulted in a job for decorated assassin Victor Maynard (Bill Nighy), whose next task is to put the scammer (Emily Blunt as Rose) to rest. But what happens next is an even longer story, and without spoiling the specifics, Victor transforms from Rose’s assassin into her employee while a frightened innocent bystander (Rupert Grint as Tony) joins up because he accidentally changed everything and doesn’t know what else to do. You can probably sort of guess how this is going to go forward, and “Wild Target” doesn’t shy away from predictability in terms of its big picture. But the ability to guess “Target’s” big twists isn’t a big deal when it becomes apparent that the plot is mostly just a vehicle in which our three heroes can bicker, fumble over each other and demonstrate three uniquely flawed approaches to escaping considerable danger. For every turn “Target’s” script telegraphs, there exist a dozen or two lines that are funnier than most comedies’ top five. And while Victor, Rose and Tony gel about as naturally as three dogs in a room with one food bowl, the actors playing them are a whole other story. Eileen Atkins also stars, without spoiling the specifics, as Victor’s mom.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (PG-13, 2010, Focus/Universal)
Stressed teenager Craig (Keir Gilchrist) had one suicidal dream too many, and after impulsively checking into a mental hospital in hopes of getting a quick prescription, he’s a bit flustered to discover he can’t check out for at least five days. Unfortunately, his wish for his parents (Jim Gaffigan and Lauren Graham) to find out, freak out and break him out simply backfires when they offer him their full support. So it’s time to make the most of a five-day vacation and perhaps tell a little coming-of-age story in the process. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” earns its name, because quite frankly, it is kind of funny. Neither Craig’s problems nor those of the people he meets (Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts and Jeremy Davies, among others) become a platform for cheap laughs, nor does “Story” stack the baggage deck for some tear-jerking monologue in act three. Even the absolute weirdest of “Story’s” characters have some twinkle of accessibility to them, and while Craig and his new friends may be unable to sort themselves out without professional intervention, the stuff they’re sorting out is the same stuff we all have to endure. “Story” maintains an ideal energy throughout — thoughtful without over-thinking, amusing on a relatable level, just dryly funny enough to laugh with and at itself simultaneously — and the mix allows it to be strangely life-affirming without cloying its way to that level.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, premiere footage.

America America (NR, 1963, Warner Bros.)
You likely saw your share of commercials this past Sunday for movies that almost certainly will creep well north of the two-hour runtime mark, but it’s a safe bet that none of them will look remotely like this. “America America” is the 168-minute voyage of Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), who dreams of leaving Turkey and bypassing his family’s plans for him in favor of making a run for the United States. It’s a journey that drops him into isolation, alongside schemers and wanderers, through the grasping arms of opportunists, and even into the lap of another family with plans for him. It’s also a journey that treats us to some hammy acting, the occasional character who feels like a prop or means to an end, and some late-game scenes that feel like remixes of earlier scenes. Give “America” to armchair editors, and they could effortlessly cut an hour-plus out of what one could just as easily argue is a lot of self-indulgent sizzle and not much steak. But that’s only one perspective. The other is to enjoy “America” for what it is — an unapologetic, massively grandiose epic devoted to a human being’s turn of age instead of the same old aliens, Na’vi, wizards and other computer-animated phenomena. “America” is shamelessly proud and wholly deficient in terms of time management. But it’s a flavor of unabashed entertainment that we almost never witness anymore, so the overindulgence is entirely forgiven.
Extra: Commentary with historian Foster Hirsch.

See You in September (NR, 2010, Maya Entertainment)
“See You in September” is a reasonably enjoyable comedy — and yes, that’s high praise, because on premise and characters alone, it should be a grating mess. “September” begins with Lindsay (Estella Warren) dumping her perfectly good boyfriend because his marriage proposal activated her commitment-phobia alarm, and it continues with her panicking after her therapist (Whoopi Goldberg pulling cameo duty) dumps her for a monthlong vacation. Lindsay takes to the Internet, discovers numerous Manhattanites who share her plight, and a few scenes later, we’re at a meet-up that’s not only spearheaded by a character who up to now is pretty annoying, but whose guest list includes eight more of her. That’s entirely too strong a current for “September” to swim against in the name of greatness or lovability. But with all that said, the movie makes an admirable effort, and the more we get to know these people, the more bearable they become. A few even break out as likable, and the notion of strangers becoming friends by supporting each other without an hourly rate is certainly an idea the anti-therapist crowd can champion. “September” never really soars beyond being amusing (instead of outright funny) and enjoyable (instead of cathartic), and the way Lindsay wraps her story is polarizing enough to make some despise her all over again by film’s end. But given the parameters, this could have been so, so much worse. No extras.

My Soul to Take (R, 2010, Rogue/Universal)
There’s a terrifically entertaining scene in “My Soul to Take” involving a class bully, a tormented victim, a condor costume, fake vomit and public humiliation that’s impossible to explain or fully justify without context. But the scene bears mentioning anyway, because it so significantly outclasses the rest of “Take” that one might wonder if writer/director Wes Craven thought of it first and scrambled to slap together any kind of movie he could around it. Delivered the right way, “Take’s” outlandish premise — a dead serial killer remains a local obsession 16 years after his death because legend holds that his soul lives on in the seven teens born the day he died — could go somewhere. But when the script isn’t under siege by a hailstorm of abysmal dialogue and characters ranging from unlikable to comically archetypical, it’s tripping all over itself in an absolutely woeful attempt to make sense and still maintain some sliver of suspense — an impossible proposition after it all but spills the ending halfway through. Even if “Take” were remotely scary and didn’t completely telegraph its twists, the story is a cataclysmic mess, and when it reveals its visual and aural representation of evil, the gut reaction is to smirk instead of gasp.
Extras: Cast/Craven commentary, alternate opening/endings, deleted/extended scenes.

Paranormal Activity 2: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2010, Paramount)
“Paranormal Activity” received far more horror movie cachet than it deserved, and it was nowhere near the year’s scariest movie. But it told a strong story, and the complete reliance on cameras installed by the characters themselves was a clever angle for an otherwise pedestrian ghost story. Problem is, a gimmick can only be clever once. And of the many problems “PA2” has, its inability to recognize this is the primary offender. “PA2” gives us a new family (Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephrai
m) and throws in a dog and baby to bump up the helplessness factor that was high enough when only adults were in play. But beyond that, it doesn’t even try to outdo its predecessor. The gimmick that made the original unique is asked to do it again here, but it’s powerless to do so when there’s far less storytelling going on and a mostly unlikable family tasked with fixing that. The plot arcs the same way, the surveillance cameras cycle the same angles ad nauseam, and “PA2’s” only scare factor comes from a neatly-arranged collection of the kind of jump scares the first movie avoided in favor of something more genuinely creepy. A couple of them work, but the vast majority of them don’t, and the whole thing amounts to nothing but a lousy and deliberate cash-in on a first film that railed against everything this sequel does.
Extras: Theatrical and extended versions of the film, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/8/11: Test Drive Unlimited 2, Mario Sports Mix, We Bowl

Test Drive Unlimited 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Eden Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, simulated gambling, mild suggestive themes)

In 2006, “Test Drive Unlimited” gave console racing game fans something — an open world swimming with other players driving and racing freely — they’d never had before.

Then four-plus years passed with no one else even trying it again.

So to call “Test Drive Unlimited 2’s” arrival welcome is to understate a bit, especially when the sequel produces two freely-explorable islands (Ibiza and Hawaii) instead of one, adds storytelling and structural enhancements to the single-player side, increases event diversity, and fixes just about everything — from vehicle handling to interface design — that had room for improvement.

Like its predecessor, “TDU2” blurs the line between single- and multiplayer to create a single, fluid experience. The islands are teeming with A.I. traffic regardless of player count, and those who prefer to drive offline will still encounter A.I.-controlled “players” who behave and can be challenged to instant races like a real human opponent.

Regardless of how you play, there’s plenty to do without the company of others. “TDU2” offers three tiers of driving — two street class, one off-road — and each has a ladder of license tests and competitions to win. These events run the gamut, including traditional/elimination-style races, time trials, speed trap competitions and other usual suspects. The out-of-event challenges are a bit less traditional, testing your ability to drive safely, maintain a dangerous speed and even tail another car without raising suspicion.

Like an MMO, “TDU2” rewards you cash and experience points for just about everything you do, be it competition points for winning events, social points for engaging other players or discovery points for finding car dealerships, mechanics and even clothing stores, salons and plastic surgeons (really) for your customizable avatar. “TDU2” allows you to control your avatar out of the car when at home or in places — shops, social clubs — where other players’ avatars may also visit, and you’re as free to challenge and socialize in these instances as you are on the road.

Keeping track of events, stats, shops and other players would be dicey without an interface to keep it together, but “TDU2’s” menu system is about as polished as controller-friendly console interfaces get. It’s pretty, it’s meticulously organized, you can use filters to reduce map icon clutter, and the in-game GPS works perfectly — even allowing you to fast-travel to events if you visited the road previously.

The best news about “TDU2’s” multiplayer? It just works. When you enter the world, players just appear. And while that wonderful interface gives you numerous ways to invite friends and create lobbies, clubs and multiplayer variations of just about every challenge (including cop chases) from the single-player experience, the ability to just cut off another human driver, engage in some impromptu street racing, and set up (and gamble on) a race with a tap of the high beams is immensely gratifying.

But the best news about “TDU2,” period, is how much fun it is to just drive these vehicles. The lower-tier cars are easy to control without feeling pokey, while the high-end models reward skillful pedal management with a fantastic sense of weight dueling with speed.

But it’s the availability off-road vehicles — and, new to the series, the freedom to drive absolutely anywhere on the islands, road or not — that will doubtlessly steal the show for some. “TDU2” nails the joy of taking hairpin turns in the mud and grassy roads, and the off-road competitions are responsible for every bit as much excitement as highest level of the high-end races.


Mario Sports Mix
For: Wii
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

With respect to the “Wii Sports” titles and the clever ways they introduced motion gaming to the masses, they’re nowhere near the best sports games to release under Nintendo’s watch. That distinction instead goes to the Mario Sports games, and while it stagnates in some areas, “Mario Sports Mix” very capably reminds us why.

Unlike most Mario sports games, “Mix” takes on four sports — hockey, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball — instead of one.

But while stretching it thin does come at a price — there’s no career mode like the baseball-centric “Mario Super Sluggers” had three years ago, for instance — it doesn’t result in “Mix” diluting its sports and reducing them to glorified mini-games the way “Wii Sports” does. They’re casual representations, and hockey and basketball support three-on-three and two-on-two play instead of five-on-five. But the games control traditionally (either with a remote-and-nunchuck configuration or just the remote held sideways) rather than as motion control demonstrations, so there’s no need to strip away entire facets of the sport the way “Wii Sports” had to do.

The emphasis on traditional controls is a welcome show of restraint for a series that could have gone the complete other way. “Mix” keeps the basics of each sport super simple while creating a second layer of slightly advanced techniques — dekes, fakes, special shots — for skilled players who endeavor to use them. Some controls involve shaking the remote, but none involves any kind of gesture recognition, which allows “Mix” to maintain the high tempo that’s synonymous with these games. The Mario sports games have always compensated for their simplicity with an insatiable taste for speed and controlled chaos, and “Mix” keeps up beautifully.

“Mix” upholds additional series conventions by going appropriately nuts with the Mario iconography. The game’s cast of playable characters remains disappointingly thin — there are no new additions unless you count your Mii avatar — but each sport has a healthy selection of themed stadiums and courts that bring with them unique rules, conditions and sometimes obstructions. A manageable influx of “Mario Kart”-style special items allows for the temporary disruption of opposing game plans, and each character has super moves that are awfully tough to stop (but, in an ever-welcome touch, are not unstoppable if you’re quick enough).

“Mix’s” tepid single-player depth is disappointing: The usual Mushroom/Flower/Star Cup tournaments are accounted for, but also per usual, the difficulty is too tame to challenge even moderately talented players. Solo players can always play online, and the game’s interface and stat tracking (as well as its performance) are satisfactory. But the lack of voice chat support puts a damper on that experience as well. (Has Nintendo forgetten about its own voice chat peripheral? Seems so.)

But as has always been the case with these games, “Mix” is exponentially at its best when you’re playing with others in the same room. The combination of speed, chaos and simple but polished controls makes this a terrific party game that strikes an enviable balance between accessibility and excitement, and the four sports represented here are natural fits for the formula. “Mix,” to its credit, supports local multiplayer just about everywhere, including tournament play (three players), online co-op (two) and traditional competitive play (four).


We Bowl
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: It’s complicated

Freeverse has demonstrated a mastery of dangling carrots with its outstanding “Skee-Ball” and improbably addictive “Coin Push Frenzy” iOS games. But it errs miserably with “We Bowl,” which validates every concern ever expressed regarding the “freemium” game model. On the surface, “Bowl” is a pleasant — albeit unspectacular, thanks to stiff controls — bowling game. Like “Skee-Ball,” it rewards good performance with tickets that, once accumulated, can unlock pins, props and clothes for your customized bowling alley and bowler. Problem is, “Bowl” is only playable when you have golden balls, which is its form of in-game currency. You start with 20, each throw costs one, and when you run out — even mid-game — you either have to wait 30 seconds to bowl again (and then wait again) or pay real money to purchase a “bag” instantly. “Bowl” clearly wants to you exercise option B if the blanketing of “Buy this!” reminders is any indication, and the net result of waiting and being pelted with ads for balls (along with other ads that are easy to accidentally tap) is so much worse than if “Bowl” had just asked for a few bucks up front and left you alone to play the game. The bowling isn’t good enough for this hassle to be worthwhile, and the only thing “Bowl” nails is how to alienate customers before they can even drop a dime.

DVD 2/1/11: Let Me In, My Last Five Girlfriends, Skin, Never Let Me Go, Inspector Bellamy, Hatchet II DC

Let Me In (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
You can howl until your jaw falls off about how 2008’s “Let the Right One In” didn’t need an Americanized remake, and you can point out that while the film was in Swedish and people hate subtitles, there was a perfectly good English dub on the DVD. But it doesn’t matter, because “Let Me In” exists. And while those who see it after seeing the original have countless reasons to dismiss it as a gutless imitation with 1980s Americana piled on, those who go into it without prior knowledge of or prejudices induced by that first film are in for a treat regardless. “LMI” is a vampire story, but the vampire in question is a 12-year-old named Abby (Chloe Moretz) who befriends another 12-year-old, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who up to then is a friendless loner and relentless bully target. Like the original, the remake is more about the unsettling friendship between two emotionally damaged children than it is a traditional horror movie, and like the original, it’s bound to alienate those in search of something that burns faster than this does. But “LMI” affords a quality of character development that’s practically unheard of for two 12-year-olds, and while it burns slowly, it pays off handsomely in the third act. “LMI’s” highs and lows are measurably dulled when compared to the bolder original, which remains the recommended destination for anyone who only wants to experience this story once. But if this is the path you take, it’s a significantly more fulfilling road than the naysayers might lead you to believe it is.
Extras: “Let Me In: Crossroads” comic book insert, director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, poster gallery.

My Last Five Girlfriends (NR, 2009, Tribeca Film)
Duncan (Brendan Patricks) has mentally checked out of life, and as “My Last Five Girlfriends” kicks off, he’s about to physically do the same. The cause of his fatal agony? It’s women, and before Duncan leaves us, he wishes to regale us with stories about the five women who transformed him from a perfectly content man into a hopeless mess. Happily, this doesn’t translate into 87 minutes of vapid whining. To the contrary, “Girlfriends” is genuinely funny for all the right reasons — full of little details that make Duncan’s experiences acutely relatable but never tired nor cliched. At the same time, “Girlfriends” isn’t afraid to be completely silly, occasionally interrupting the story for an impromptu skit one moment and a completely goofy illustration of Duncan’s mind another moment. The diversions are inventive as well as funny, and again, they manage to touch nerves without saying the same thing a million other romantic comedies already said. We may not have it as bad as Duncan feels he has it, but we’ve all been through some facet of his story, and “Girlfriends” demonstrates an awareness of this with every impressive move it makes. Michael Sheen, Naomie Harris and Kelly Adams also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, cast/director interview, behind-the-scenes feature, special effects compilation.

Skin (PG-13, 2008, Entertainment One)
Movies about racism — and in this particular case, Apartheid — aren’t exactly uncommon. But “Skin” earns a special distinction, because the true story of Sandra Laing (played as a child by Ella Ramangwane and as an adult by Sophie Okonedo) takes the blue ribbon in the competition to illustrate just how absurdly backward Apartheid truly was. Sandra was born to two white Afrikaner parents (Alice Krige and Sam Neill) but is, by any eye test you can conjure, a black woman. But through science, testing and reasoning only a frightened politician could love, she was classified as a white woman anyway — free to enjoy the perks other whites simply because an ID card said she was above prejudices that were artificial enough without this development’s help. Further piling on this ridiculousness is Sandra’s father, who forbids her black daughter, as a white woman, to explore a relationship with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), who is a black man by every metric. “Skin” is a dependably good biopic that’s lifted by good performances and the usual ingredients of an award darling, if not an entirely inventive storyteller. But that’s plenty good enough, because the laughable circumstances don’t need little creative intervention to leave their intended mark. If this was fiction, it’d be a farce.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature, script development workshop.

Never Let Me Go (R, 2010, Fox)
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively) knew as young students at Hailsham Boarding School that they were special. But they had no clue what “special” meant until a rogue teacher spilled the big secret — that they’re cloned from other people and raised solely for purposes of providing healthy organs for donation before passing away in the prime of their lives. That’s a horror movie premise — or at least a creepy “Outer Limits” episode — if ever there was one, but “Never Let Me Go” takes a wholly different tack with its premise. Instead of terrifying, it’s melancholy, and instead of watching our three leads plot a means to escape their fates and live out longer lives as regular people, we’re watching them bargain with their fate, address regret, define love and grasp what their lives ultimately mean while the notion of full-on escape don’t even receive acknowledgement. That last point will drive some nuts, but it’s clear this, or even the details behind the advancements and ethics that brought us to this point, aren’t the point. That’s “Go’s” choice to make, and it justifies it by delving so deeply into normal human nature through a fresh perspective that its clever premise makes possible.
Extras: Half-hour behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery, two art galleries featuring artwork used in the film (makes more sense once you’ve seen its place in the movie).

Inspector Bellamy (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Famed police inspector Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) is supposed to be on holiday with his wife Françoise (Marie Bunel). But when a mysterious stranger (Jacques Gamblin as Noël) seeks him out in the wake of a crime, his interest is piqued, and by the time Noël explains that the crime in question is a murder he committed but didn’t exactly really commit, Paul’s already halfway down the rabbit hole. Don’t assume, though, that you have this one figured out, because “Bellamy” isn’t yet another movie where an affable detective loses himself in a case while his marriage, mental composure and ability to do his job fall into ruin. To the complete contrary, “Bellamy” is almost startlingly pleasant, its arguable best scenes consisting of Paul lazing around the house between clues while Françoise lovingly pokes at him for dirt on the case. Noël is nearly a sympathetic figure in spite of his contemptible story, and a persistent conflict between Paul and his brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) handily outpaces the case as the primary source of tension. The unusual pace will doubtlessly aggravate some who came to see a completely different kind of movie, and “Bellamy” errs by developing a sudden sense of urgency and cramming a handful of pretty significant twists into the last batch of scenes. But the unique pace at least makes those twists a little harder to guess than if “Bellamy” had stuck to the same old templates, so award one point to trying something different. In French with English subtitles.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Hatchet II: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2010, Dark Sky Films)
Isn’t it funny what completely flattened expectations will do? Witness “Hatchet II,” yet another movie about a crazed killer who brutalizes all who cross his path and who appeared
to have been effectively thwarted by the first movie’s primary would-be victim (Danielle Harris, taking over for Tamara Feldman, as Marybeth). But “Hatchet II” isn’t just another movie, because it actually has a believable (if not intelligent) reason for Marybeth to return to Honey Island Swamp and confront the psychotic Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) a second time. More impressively, the movie actually makes an effort to color in the details of Victor’s life and offer an understandable (if not wildly original) reason for his murderous leanings. “Hatchet II” even achieves the surpasses-dampened-expectations trifecta by outfitting Marybeth with a supporting cast (Tony Todd, AJ Bowen, Parry Shen) of likely victims who are more interesting than the usual crop of stand-ins. They’re even, in some cases, likable. The movie follows the slasher template pretty faithfully in terms of essentials, and nothing it does can hide the fact that its primary reason for being is to show us some pretty savage murders we can see coming from a mile away. There’s nothing wrong with that, because we don’t watch horror movies for the enlightenment. But the extra effort does wonders for making “Hatchet II” enjoyable rather than simply bearable when the action slows down.
Extras: Crew commentary, cast/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/1/11: Dead Space Extraction, Breach, Fluidity

Dead Space Extraction
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Visceral Games/Eurocom/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $15 standalone, free with purchase of Playstation 3 version of “Dead Space 2”

Few games deserve a second chance as much as “Dead Space Extraction,” which sold miserably on the Wii despite continuing one of the generation’s best new fictions and outclassing just about every on-rails shooter that ever came before it.

Though it also works (and with surprisingly decent results) with a regular Playstation 3 controller, “Extraction’s” chemistry with the Wii’s remote makes it a perfect fit for the Playstation Move controller as well, and its flawless (and, on some levels, enhanced) migration immediately positions it as perhaps the best Move-enabled game out there until “Killzone 3” arrives later this month.

It also gives PS3 owners a chance to experience a slice of “Dead Space” lore that easily earns its place in the franchise canon. In contrast to the two mainline “Space” games, “Extraction” almost always surrounds you with a crew and even drops you into multiple characters’ shoes when the story — which begins before and runs somewhat parallel to the events of the first “Space” while answering a bunch of questions raised by that game — dictates.

“Extraction” also departs from franchise norms by presenting everything through a spectacularly energetic first-person presentation.

That, along with the decision to go on-rails, was a byproduct of “Extraction’s” understanding of the Wii remote’s control limitations. But it ceases to feel like a concession once it becomes clear how little it loses and how much it adds. The Necromorphs from “Space” return, and nothing about the encounters — from their attack intelligence to the spot-damage approach needed to neutralize them — feels dumbed down or scripted just because the camerawork is out of your hands.

The series’ inventive weaponry also returns, alternate fire modes and all, and some of the guns (the disc ripper in particular) are more fun to use in “Extraction” because of the added immersion the motion controls provide. Kinetic and stasis powers lay freely at your disposal, and opportunities to use them are rarely more contrived here than they are in the other “Space” games. The only real puzzle contrivance is an occasional hacking mini-game, but even that’s exhilarating when the mechanisms grow more complex and you have to hack them and fight off encroaching Necromorphs at the exact same time.

About the only place “Extraction” feels compromised is in the upgrades department. Instead of allowing you to upgrade your character and weaponry according to your combat preferences, the game assigns upgrades automatically based on mission scores and the items you pick up (if you’re quick enough) with your kinetic beam while the action rages on. The reflex test is terrific fun in its own right, and it’s a very satisfying trade-off given the style of the game, but the lost flexibility merits mentioning all the same.

“Extraction’s” main campaign is lengthy enough to easily justify the $15 price tag, and it tops that off with local co-op support and a challenge mode that strips the story missions down to points-based arcade levels. The PS3 version receives enhancements via trophy support and graphics that look nice in HD, though it lacks any kind of online functionality.

The best way to get the game is as a free bonus with initial printings of “Dead Space 2” for PS3, but schemers beware: You can’t play that version of “Extraction” without the “DS2” disc, so attempts to get “Extraction” for keeps without buying it or buying “DS2” will be thwarted.


Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Atomic Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)
Price: $15

“Breach” had no choice but to be pretty special — or at least different — if it was going to successfully command $15 from the same military shooter crowd that’s already invested in “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” “Medal of Honor” and the rest of a rapidly crowding sub-genre.

Unfortunately, “special” is just about the last word that describes this one, because while “Breach” strives to hang with its big-budget competition, it doesn’t do anything to meaningfully set itself apart from it.

The lack of originality is apparent almost instantly. “Breach” is a multiplayer-only first-person modern warfare shooter, but the lack of a single-player storyline doesn’t excuse the game’s complete disinterest in divulging anything about why these two armies are fighting or who they even are. Those details aren’t paramount, but they also aren’t meaningless, and it’s weird to engage in a war that’s completely free of context.

Unfortunately, the visual presentation, while perfectly technically competent for a $15 downloadable game, offers few clues for those who wish to guess. “Breach’s” character models lack any significant distinction, almost to the point where soldiers from one army are interchangeable with their enemies. The five maps are similarly plain: There’s a silo that’s probably important, and the game’s best map takes place amid snow-capped mountains, but mostly, you might as well be fighting anywhere in the world.

It’s unfortunate, because while “Breach” has some fundamental hangups as well, it functions competently enough that, if it took players to a fresh war or corner of the world, it’d be easy enough to recommend.

The essentials are, imperfections aside, there. “Breach” offers four playable classes — rifleman, gunner, small-arms support and sniper — with a fifth, reconnaissance, that unlocks with experience. Each class has its own lengthly roster of weapons, add-ons and perks for players to unlock after accumulating experience points, so there’s no shortage of replay value if unlocking everything is of interest to you.

Spotty online performance leads to some issues with enemy players skipping around maps or magically popping into view, but only very infrequently, and the action mostly functions as expected. The guns feel powerful, the control satisfactorily tight. The ability to take cover (switching the perspective from first- to third-person) also is handy, though the run-and-gun leanings of enemy players will inevitably limit its utility.

“Breach’s” map design is hit-and-miss — some maps feel too corridor-laden and too often turn players into easy targets for snipers — but the game’s penchant for destructible environments offers some nice options for rearranging the furniture. Of all the ways to put down an enemy, none beats blowing a hole into the ground on which they’re standing and watching them tumble into oblivion.

In terms of modes, “Breach” again suffices. Matches support up to 16 players, and the mode offerings — territory, team deathmatch, single-life deathmatch, retrieval and a convoy mode that tasks one team with protecting the convoy while the other attacks it — run the gamut.

When the net code cooperates, getting into a game — either quickly or by browsing the available match types — works effortlessly as well. Unfortunately, while demo downloaders flood the servers, connection errors are frequent. The connection issues should soon pass if the game’s pre-release performance is any indication, though, and even at the height of the problem, attempts to get into a game eventually
paid off.


For: Wii (via Wii Shop Channel)
From: Curve Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $12

Attractive lower price aside, it’s unfortunate that Nintendo took the most unique Wii game it’s published in nearly a year and effectively hid it where most Wii owners are bound never to find it. “Fluidity’s” concept is simple: You star as a small body of water tasked with purging a magical book of an ink-fueled infection. The control scheme — tilt the Wii remote to tilt the levels (which resemble pages from a book) and dictate the flow of water — is similarly straightforward. But “Fluidity’s” handling of that water is at once predictable and delightfully frantic: Like a real body of water, it’s fragile, dynamic and extremely prone to splitting into smaller bodies and droplets that, if left too small for too long, will evaporate. As you might guess, losing all the water means losing a life. But keeping the water together is more than a survival tactic, thanks to the game’s wonderful level and puzzle design. “Fluidity” doesn’t resemble a Super Mario or Kirby game in any visual respect, but it displays the same level of invention, relentlessly creating new obstacles, gadgets and scenarios to put that straightforward premise, control scheme and physics to continuous brilliant use. Though things get a little excessively difficult toward the end, the game mostly toes a perfect line in terms of difficulty: The main challenges are tricky but fair, while a ton of optional challenges are perfectly skippable but both mentally and physically gratifying to complete at your own pace.