DVD 3/29/11: Tangled, Treme S1, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, Who's the Caboose?, Fair Game, Arthur and the Invisibles 2 and 3: The New Minimoy Adventures, Dennis the Menace S1, Upstairs Downstairs CS 40th AE, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection

Tangled (PG, 2010, Disney)
Disney made a fuss a few months back by exclaiming that “Tangled” might be the last animated princess movie it ever makes. But whether it was a legitimate declaration or simply a ploy to sell more tickets, the announcement is just about the only connection “Tangled” has with anything resembling faulty judgement. “Tangled” doesn’t reinvent the princess fairytale wheel: To the contrary, this is just a computer-animated re-imagining of Rapunzel’s story, and while the healing powers of Rapunzel’s hair provide a new twist, most everything else — evil not-quite mother keeping her in captivity, handsome but slightly bumbling prince stumbling to her not-quite rescue, cute animals doing as cute animals do — is classic Disney. But this stuff isn’t classic by accident, and while “Tangled’s” outline may be more of the same on paper, some extremely sharp tricks of animation and some equally shrewd humor join forces to make it feel brand-new all over again. The animation is wonderful, the soundtrack is first-rate, the twist at the end is genuinely clever, and Pascal the chameleon ranks among the finest of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks despite never saying a word. (Maximus the horse deserves an honorary mention as well.) Between this and 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s princesses are at the top of their game, and with respect to old cliches, there’s no good reason to quit while you’re ahead when the lead is this large.
Extras: Alternate storybook openings, deleted scenes, extended songs, behind-the-scenes feature, a compilation of tongue-in-cheek promotional materials.

Treme: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
An HBO drama set three months after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward sounds like a downer. But so does five years in the life of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods and most crooked offices, which “The Wire” portrayed with wryly dark comedy every bit as much as it did with solemn attention to authenticity. “Treme” comes courtesy of some of the same brain trust, and if the presence of two “Wire” stars (Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters) in standout roles isn’t a giveaway, the obsessive attention to character design and brilliant mix of so many moods — anger, affection, pride, stubbornness, resignation, reflection and yes, dark comedy — sure feels like one. If anything, the setting and cast gives “Treme” an extra spring in its step: Instead of cops, politicians and drug dealers, we’re treated to musicians, entrepreneurs and ordinary residents whose only agenda is pulling their lives, family and community back together. The spark is palpable even in the show’s darkest hours, and when all else fails, the soundtrack — courtesy of those same characters we’re rooting for — is second to none. Khandi Alexander, John Goodman, Steve Zahn, Melissa Leo, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens and numerous others also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus cast/crew commentary, music commentary on select performances from Josh Jackson and Patrick Jarenwattananon and three behind-the-scenes features.

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (R, 2008, Music Box Films)
When we last saw French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), in “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” he had completed a spectacular rise from desperate nobody to France’s most wanted criminal and capped it off with a prison break for the ages. “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1” represents the second half of a two-film biopic based on true events, and while it begins with Mesrine back in handcuffs, the captivity doesn’t last very long before he’s back on the run and his profile back on the rise. That leaves “Enemy” with two-plus hours to both detail Mesrine’s time at the top and finally reveal the full details of the misstep that the first film’s very first scene teases. But life as France’s most wanted means continually being painted into corners, and whether on purpose or by accident, the film reflects that. Compared to “Instinct’s” meticulous depiction of Mesrine’s ascent, “Enemy” feels disjointed as it whisks its namesake from one chase, escape and escapade to the next, and the supreme character growth that defined the first movie is mostly traded in for a lot of action punctuated by the occasional meltdown or moment of reflection. But while “Enemy” isn’t the pristine film its predecessor was, it’s still a darkly fantastic ride that roars, disjointed or not, through the back half of Mesrine’s life. Just make sure to see the first film first: “Enemy” is loaded with entertaining moments either way, but the context and buildup “Instinct” provides is immeasurably beneficial. In French with English subtitles, though an English dub is available as an option. No extras.

Who’s the Caboose? (NR, 1997, Flatiron Film Co.)
To watch “Who’s the Caboose?” with no working knowledge of the film might be to dismiss it as yet another product of its time. It’s a mockumentary, its primary source of humor is a self-aware skewering of Hollywood, and its primary means of humor is the same bone-dry comedy that’s permeated everything from a thousand Christopher Guest homages to half of NBC’s primetime schedule. But “Caboose’s” sendup of pilot season — the annual 100-day period in which television networks cast for new shows and desperate actors flock like ants to a picnic for a piece of the action — is now 14 years old, and its most remarkable achievement is that it’s aged so incrementally that you could very easily dismiss it as a product of this rather than that time. No doubt, “Caboose” will be funnier to those who have been there: The aforementioned skewering is no joke, and the undercurrent of contempt for the entertainment machine — and the obnoxious agents, managers and actors it churns out — is bitter enough to turn neutral viewers against these characters and, subsequently, the movie. But there’s something to be said for a mockumentary that inspires feelings like that instead of just a few laughs. Maybe, even in 2011, “Caboose” is ahead of its time after all. Sarah Silverman (in her first movie role), Sam Seder, Andy Dick, Kathy Griffin and David Cross star. No extras.

Fair Game (PG-13, 2010, Summit Entertainment)
It is potentially fruitless to bother reviewing “Fair Game” — which dramatizes the Valerie Plame autobiography that itself detailed her viewpoint of the events that led to both the Iraq War and her outing as a covert CIA spy — on traditional movie review terms. “Game” arrives long on the heels of preconceptions about who’s telling what truths with regard to both the war’s justification and the dangerously petty tactics that sabotaged Plame’s (Naomi Watts) career in the wake of husband Joe Wilson’s (Sean Penn) widely-read questioning of that justification. And if you’ve already picked a side in this fight, this stands almost no chance of changing your mind or meaningfully enhancing your existing stance. But providing the last word in a story already responsible for millions of them isn’t the job of a Hollywood movie, no matter the source. So “Game” is better off judged as a side of the story and purely that, and it’s on that level — and simply as a relatable drama about how pettiness can potentially corrupt the most powerful among us — that it works.
Extra: Commentary with Plame and Wilson.

Arthur and the Invisibles 2 and 3: The New Minimoy Adventures (PG, 2009/2010, Fox)
Critics disliked it and moviegoers were lukewarm, but enough people cared about 2006’s half-animated, half-live action “Arthur and the Invisibles” to not only give it a sequel, but knock out a third movie to make it a nice, neat trilogy. For better and worse, the two films (“The Revenge of Maltazard” and “The War of the Two Worlds”) that comprise “The New Minimoy Adventures” certainly feel like sequels to the movie that preceded them. Freddie Highmore resurrects his ro
le as Arthur, most of the human cast (Mia Farrow, Ron Crawford, Penny Balfour) returns intact, and while most of the voice cast has changed, Snoop Dogg at least is back to voice Max, one of the microscopic Minimoys Arthur vows to protect a second time. But just like the original movie felt a bit crammed, so, too, do these. Stories in Arthur’s world compete for time with stories in the Minimoy world, and some unintentionally funny bits of self-seriousness clash with your typical serving of computer-animated-character wackiness to create an odd disjoint in mood. Ultimately, though — and, again, like the original — “Adventures” as a sum is better than its issues and inconsistencies would suggest. The design of the animated world is unique, the characters in both worlds are likable and (mostly) funny when actually trying to be, and the two-movie arc allows “Adventures” to have its “Empire Strikes Back” moment and achieve closure that movies of this renown rarely receive. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Dennis the Menace: Season One” (NR, 1959, Shout Factory): The comic strip may have come first and the animated series and movie may have come since, but the “Dennis the Menace” brand name never thrived more than when Jay North (as Dennis) and Joseph Kearns (as perennially tormented neighbor Mr. Wilson) were at the controls. In addition to finally bringing the show’s first 32 episodes to DVD, “Season One” includes a new interview with Gloria Henry (who played Dennis’ mom) and Jeannie Russell (who, as Margaret, was able to torment Dennis in a way Mr. Wilson never could). Also included: original promotional spots, and a crossover episode of “The Donna Reed Show” in which North and Kearns appear.
— “Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1971, Acorn Media): The title is a debatable misnomer, because the BBC resurrected “Upstairs, Downstairs” — which chronicles the lives of a wealthy family who lives a floor above their less well-to-do (but arguably more well-off) servants — for a sixth season last year after a 35-year-hiatus. But if you can get over the temptation to nitpick and can appreciate the five seasons that constitute one of Britain’s most celebrated dramas, this makes for a nice 40th birthday party favor. In addition to all 68 episodes, this 21-disc set includes 24 episode commentaries, an alternate pilot episode, the 25th-anniversary retrospective “‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ Remembered,” cast and crew interviews and an essay by Jean Marsh, who co-created and starred in this series and resumed both roles for the 2010 resurrection.
— “The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection” (NR, 1939-46 MPI Home Video): Basil Rathbone’s eight-year tour of duty as Sherlock Holmes makes its Blu-ray debut in this set, which compiles 14 films on five discs and stuffs it inside a package that’s no thicker than a standard DVD case. You’ve come a long way, packaging technology.

Games 3/29/11: Crysis 2, Playstation Move Heroes, Swarm, Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime

Crysis 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Crytek/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

At least nowadays, “Crysis 2” is a rare breed of first-person shooter. It tells a thoroughly epic story over 12 hours instead of four and within a single game instead of across a cliffhanger-riddled trilogy. Rather than start furiously and plateau, it also continually gets better as those hours pass.

Good thing, too, because the first two hours? Not so great.

The alien invasion of New York City eventually enters full bloom, but before you face it firsthand, you’ll have to contend with a private military that will kill you for your nanotechnological armor, which affords you superhuman physical abilities and the limited ability to cloak yourself and become nearly invincible.

“Crysis 2” flashes some of its gifts — particularly, the jaw-dropping transformation of Manhattan into a battlefield that’s crumbling all around you — during these skirmishes. But the human enemy A.I. is impossibly binary, with soldiers almost psychically pelting you with bullets one moment and completely losing track of your position the next. Your armor’s abilities come into play, but not nearly to their potential, and during the game’s flattest moments, you’re forced to mindlessly react rather than strategize.

But “Crysis 2” makes a furious rally once the corporation steps back and the aliens take over. Our invaders flash a much larger range of intelligence, which both makes them a more formidable enemy and frees you to use your setting, abilities and firearms to fight your way — stealthily, from a distance or violently barreling forward.

Without spoiling the details, things only improve going forward. Your armor’s abilities grow more durable, the alien forces respond in higher numbers, and “Crysis 2” drops you into one set piece after another and asks you to fend off enemies descending from all 360 degrees. The chaos increases, but the balance issues from earlier never return.

The relentless depiction of the invasion’s progress is similarly terrific. The “Crysis” brand is synonymous with graphical fidelity, and “Crysis 2” certainly delivers on that renown. But more than polygons or textures, it’s the real-time depiction of New York’s pending demise — buckling streets, crashing buildings, iconic architecture transformed to resemble the Death Star from “Return of the Jedi” — that will stick with you.

The devastation works in concert with a story that, even if it doesn’t make those early shootouts fun, most certainly justifies the private military’s inclusion in the fray. Again, no spoilers here. But the story starts with a bang, develops at a terrific pace throughout the campaign, and goes wonderfully (but sensibly) crazy during the homestretch. Ties to “Crysis” and the inevitable “Crysis 3” lie within, but overwhelmingly, this story soars without any dependency on prior or pending events.

Beyond the inability to play as the aliens — you’re fighting either as Marines or privatized military — “Crysis 2’s” online multiplayer (12 players) is similarly fulfilling. “Crysis”-themed variants on the usual match types make appearances, highlighted by a clever Crash Site mode in which teams race to extract energy from alien pods that crash-land in random locations. The maps are diverse, a full experience points system gradually unlocks new perks across a multitude of classes, and the flexibility with regard to private matches, options and matchmaking (including an area open strictly to inexperienced players) makes it very accessible.

Impressively, the multiplayer includes suit powers at no expense to its balance. Everybody starts off with basic cloaking and weapon resistance powers, but the powers hold a limited charge before needing a recharge. So you can use them as an impromptu crutch or a strategic catalyst, but not both at once. Choose carefully.


Playstation Move Heroes
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Nihilistic Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

Let’s be clear: Even though the six characters who share the “Playstation Move Heroes” marquee originate from some of the best platforming games of the last decade, they’re strictly here as friendly faces on loan from that genre. The premise and structure allow “Heroes” to sometimes feel like more than a collection of not-quite-mini-games that use the Playstation Move controller in various ways, but broken down to its essentials, that’s what this is.

“Heroes” kicks off with a cute cutscene that brings our heroes (Jak, Daxter, Ratchet, Clank, Sly Cooper and Bentley) together, allows them to make their awkward acquaintance, and gives us a skeletal storyline that explains why they’re trapped in this alternate dimension. It doesn’t really make sense — picture a game show, hokey narrator and all, in which our heroes must rescue “fans” from peril in order to save themselves — but as excuses go, it’s well-made and good for some fun fan service.

The challenges that comprise “Heroes” mix and match different objectives (free fans, protect fans, survive an enemy onslaught) with five different play styles that utilize the Move controller in various ways. Basic melee combat works predictably — swing the Move wand to swing your character’s corresponding weapon — and a variant replaces that weapon with a whip that’s pretty fun to crack. Events designed around shooting enemies and targets with a blaster also function like you’d expect, with the wand becoming a makeshift blaster you point at the screen and fire.

“Heroes” shines brightest during the remaining two play styles, which center around bowling and disc throwing. In both cases, the motions you make are reflected in the strength and angle with which your character throws the disc or rolls the ball, and in both cases, you can continue steering the ball or disc after they’ve left your hand. You even can make the ball jump with a quick flick of the wand.

Trimmings like that, along with levels designed to take advantage of them, are what elevate “Heroes” from a vanilla mini-game collection to something a little more ambitious. Rolling a bowling ball at a target is one thing; rolling and steering it around a corner, over a blockade, up a ramp and into some pinball-style bumpers before manually detonating it is another.

“Heroes'” environments are large and elaborate — so much so that you need a Navigation or standard PS3 controller to freely move through them while the wand simultaneously handles other duties. Unlockables and score multiplayers are scattered everywhere, and netting gold medal-worthy scores requires a level of creativity and exploration that’s foreign to your typical mini-game collection.

But “Heroes” isn’t impervious to what ails its peers. Even with the extra coat of ambition, the events mix up only so much from instance to instance, and if you don’t enjoy revisiting old challenges in an attempt to attain gold medal scores across the entirety of the game, you might see all you want to see within a casual weekend of play.

Primarily, that’s due to the game’s unfortunate inability to parlay its events into any kind of competitive multiplayer format. “Heroes” supports two-player co-op, but the second player merely assists via a targeting reticule instead of as a second character. It’s fun, but it lacks the longevity a competitive format would have even with stripped-down versions of the various challenges.
Mini-game collections may be shallow, but they remain popular because they’re an easy choice for party game play, and “Heroes” cripples its long-term value by ignoring that point.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Hothead Games/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Imagine a re-imagined “Lemmings” in which you control the Lemmings directly instead of simply guide them, and you have an inkling of an idea about “Swarm,” a sidescrolling platformer which tasks you with controlling 50 characters at once instead of one. The goal in “Swarm” is classically simple — get as many swarmites to the exit as possible, and rack up an impressive score by keeping your score multiplier high while also keeping swarmite casualties to a minimum. But that’s easier said than done. The adorable swarmites — bug-eyed blue aliens who demonstrate no free will and no desire to change that — are as stupid as they look, and they’re magnets for danger. Occasionally, when you need a few to sacrifice themselves to protect the rest, their stupidity is beneficial. Mostly, though, it’s just trouble, and when “Swarm’s” trickier levels ask you to perform maneuvers that would require finesse with one character, never mind 50, don’t be surprised to limp to the exit after witnessing the deaths of 500 Swarmites in a few minutes’ time. Level checkpoints frequently resupply your Swarmite army, but you’ll want to keep as many of your original 50 alive as possible in order to access certain level secrets and finish with a score high enough to unlock the next level. “Swarm’s” odd controls — lots of basic functions mapped to the triggers — take some practice, but mostly, the challenge it presents is the good kind. If you love your sidescrolling platformers, like being challenged, and crave something different, don’t skip this.


Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Windows PC
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Back when downloadable games cost $5, missteps and cut corners similar to those found in “Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime” were easily accepted. But with a higher price comes a higher bar, and “Slime” — which attempts to apply the dual-stick shooter formula to a license seemingly fit for it — comes nowhere close to reaching it. The structure — enter room, doors lock, kill ghosts, doors unlock, leave room, repeat — grows monotonous in a hurry, in part because the actual act of busting ghosts is hampered by imprecise controls and a proton stream that lacks impact. But it only gets worse, not better, when “Slime” provides new weapons to use, because whatever variety they introduce gets kneecapped by an intrusive contrivance that makes certain ghosts completely impervious to certain weapons. Once the difficulty spikes and the screen crowds with multiple varieties of ghosts, you’re constantly switching weapons according to the game’s demands instead of your own preferences. The resulting chaos is a nightmare when playing alone with three A.I.-controlled partners: Their poor battlefield awareness makes them sitting ducks during boss fights, which, along with the levels themselves, start to repeat during “Slime’s” back half. So if you must play “Slime,” you’d best find friends to assist you via co-op play (four players, online/offline). Just don’t bother if it’s fan service you’re after: Between the flat story presentation (blurry comic panels with way too much text considering the context) and the replacing of the Ghostbusters you know with a cast of unknowns, “Slime” falls short in this regard as well.

Games 3/27/11: Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
Price: $250

If you’ve been left confused by the timeline of system releases with “DS” in the name, the arrival of the Nintendo 3DS probably doesn’t clear things up. Unlike the DS Lite, DSi and DSi XL, the 3DS isn’t a variant of the original Nintendo DS, but a whole new system with new games that will not play on any previous DS system.

That has nothing to do with the system’s marquee feature, either (more on that in a moment). Rather, the 3DS is a considerably more powerful system than its predecessors, rivaling and arguably exceeding Sony’s Playstation Portable in terms of graphical fidelity. The library’s current showpiece title, “Street Fighter IV,” looks nearly as good on the 3DS’ smaller screens as it does on the larger displays the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 use, and it moves every bit as crisply in doing so.

The 3DS also marks the introduction of glasses-free 3D to the mass market, and while the tech is rife for nitpicking, it’s still extremely impressive. The graphics don’t pop out in front of the system’s top screen, but rather utilize a depth of field trick to give the illusion of multiple layers inside the screen. In the flying game “Pilotwings Resort,” for instance, your aircraft very palpably floats on a layer separate from its environment, which itself layers trees and mountains in front of its skyline. Interface elements, meanwhile, overlay everything like stickers on a window.

As has to be expected, the implementation isn’t infallible. You have to look at the screen straight on to remain locked into the 3D, which makes it potentially untenable in games utilizing the gyroscope that allows the 3DS to support tilt controls. Naturally, some games are just better at utilizing and implementing the 3D than others. Nintendo smartly included a 3D slider on the side of the top screen, allowing you to adjust the level of depth and even deactivate it when it’s doing more harm than good. Because the games don’t need to rely on stereoscopic tricks to create the 3D, the games are every bit as playable when the 3D is off as they are when it’s on.

The visual presentation and gyroscope are, along with the new (and very sturdy) analog thumbpad, the most obvious advancements the 3DS enjoys over its predecessor.

But there’s a lot going on one floor below. The system-wide interface — which provides constant access to notifications (system updates, usability tips and more), your friends list and even an area for scribbling game notes — is a considerable step up from Nintendo’s past attempts. You’ll still need to contend with a friend code exchange to add a friend to your list, but once that’s done, that person is available to play in any game that has online functionality.

In terms of hardware, the 3DS feels sturdier than its predecessor ever did in any of its forms, and while the touchscreen is still designed for stylus input, it’s far more responsive to human touch when you don’t want to pull the stylus out. The directional pad’s placement underneath the thumbpad is a bit awkward, and the now-retractable stylus is stored in a cumbersome spot on the back of the system, but neither placement is awkward to a degree that some time with the system won’t minimize.

It’s almost a shame to detail the rest, because it’s such a random assortment of features that it’s almost best left unspoiled. The system doubles as a pedometer, for instance, counting your steps when the lid is shut and rewarding your walking with play coins that will double as in-game currency for games that support them. (Currently, you can spend them in a bizarre little role-playing game that’s tucked inside the system software and stars your and your friends’ Mii avatars.)

Though still laughably low-res, the cameras — one inside the unit, one on the outer shell that can snap 3D photos — also get put to better use than they ever were on the DSi. Nintendo includes a pack of augmented reality cards that, when scanned by the camera, come to life and create little games that animate inside your camera’s lens as if taking place right on your table. The 3DS also ships with a game, “Face Raiders,” that allows you to fire tennis balls at little faces (created with your camera) that fly around your actual room. Other games, including “Nintendogs + Cats,” support the cards in their own ways, and it’ll be great fun to see how Nintendo and other publishers utilize this tech. The experiments in augmented reality may eventually prove more interesting than the foray into glasses-free 3D.

All this tech comes at a price — namely, the battery life, which should net you roughly three hours of normal usage with a full charge. (Nintendo’s bundling of the 3DS with an ultra-convenient charging dock is no coincidence.)

A three-hour charge is by no means a deal-changer. But it is a steep drop from the DS, and along with the demands brought forth by 3D and tilt controls, there’s a lot going on here that makes the 3DS more ideal to play at home than like a traditional portable. So bear that in mind if you plan to replace the DS on your daily commute with this.

Games 3/22/11: Top Spin 4, Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Eat Them!

Top Spin 4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: 2K Czech/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

There may be no harder needle to thread than the one that forces you to take a great but steeply difficult tennis simulation (“Top Spin 3”) and scale back in a way that makes it more accessible without leaving the devoted feeling alienated.

Fortunately in this case, “Top Spin 4” could teach a class on how to do it right.

In essence, all “TS4” does is level out the mountain without making it a shorter climb to the top. Anyone who wants to simply press the face buttons to return standard-issue shots may do so — and if you’re quick on your feet and smart about your shot selection, you can win this way as well.

But avenues for excellence abound. Holding down those same buttons can result in a more powerful version of the shot — provided you time it right. A well-timed shot in conjunction with the stick allows you to better place your shot, while a couple of modifiers allow for advanced maneuvers like reversing orientation and performing drop shots.

“TS4” ties it all together under a currency — timing — that’s tricky to master but always makes sense. The harder the shot, the more timing matters, and a perfectly-timed standard shot will take you farther than a power slice that’s sabotaged by late contact.

(A brief sidebar about “TS4’s” Playstation Move integration: It’s as tacked-on as tacked-on gets, and doesn’t work well at all.)

“TS4” lays this out across an extensive Tennis Academy mode, and while it’s never mandatory — the game boots into a free-form practice court for those who prefer to experiment without interference — it’s highly recommended you pay a visit. “TS4” sports a terrifically user-friendly interface throughout the game, and the efficiency with which the Academy introduces the spectrum of available techniques is nearly as impressive as the spectrum itself.

The sum of all this accessibility and shot science — along with the series’ customary attention to animation, weight and momentum with regard to player movement — makes “TS4” an enviably faithful representation of the energy and strategy that comprises a professional tennis match. A great sports sim has to understand the “easy to play, difficult to master” credo better than most other genres, and this one nails it.

In terms of features, “TS4” mostly goes where past games have been. The career mode once again is the highlight: You design your own tennis pro via a satisfyingly deep player editor, are presented with a calendar of events, and are free each month to engage in one practice event and one tournament for which you qualify.

Predictably, your success in your career — and subsequent ability to enter prime events (US Open and Roland Garros, among others, though Wimbledon is omitted due to licensing reasons) against the 25 licensed stars (Nadal, Federer, Serena Williams and a few legends like Agassi and Borg) — is dependent on your popularity and tour ranking. But “TS4” dangles additional carrots by giving you coaches who each have their own challenges to complete, and there are additional objectives within the practice events that reward bonus experience points that boost your player’s attributes.

The best news about the experience system is that it’s game-wide: Win matches online with your created player, and points funnel into your career progress (and vice versa). “TS4” cleverly adds cachet to online play by inviting all comers to participate in an online World Tour, an accelerated season mode that each week crowns its top-rated player as champion for all to see. For the less ambitious, standalone exhibition matches (singles and four-player doubles, online or offline) are still available as well.


Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC, PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
From: TT Games/LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

If you’re hoping “Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars” signals the long-overdue revamping of the Lego games — which, despite remaining fun since the original “Lego Star Wars” surprised everybody, have evolved in the last six years about as much as a Sequoia does in the same period of time — keep on hoping.

If, however, you haven’t tired of the formula and want to see it applied to gigantic battlefields crawling with enemies from end to end, “Wars” has your number.

Just be prepared to not like everything you see. Combat has always been a Lego game weakness, and blasting the scope wide open merely leaves that weakness in its least flattering light yet.

As the title infers, “Wars” takes place during the Clone Wars, kicking off at the end of “Attack of the Clones” and continuing through the “Clone Wars” television show’s first two seasons. As always, the storytelling is a huge strength, with Lego characters recreating iconic moments via pantomiming and slapstick that is legitimately funny.

“Wars” features a share of typical Lego game levels, with one or two players controlling multiple characters as they fight some enemies and solve some puzzles. But the game’s centerpiece levels expand the field of play considerably in an attempt to replicate the large-scale battles that are the hallmark of the Clone Wars era.

During these levels, “Wars” blurs the lines between play styles and even genres. Unlike the typical levels, which tend to take place either exclusively on foot or exclusively in a vehicle, the battles are large enough to let you switch freely between foot and vehicular travel. You even can hijack enemy vehicles.

But “Wars” really shoots for the moon by layering some light real-time strategy atop the action. The battlefields are divided into bases, and completely clearing an enemy base of its cannons, barracks and communications devices frees you to build your own structures in their place. Certain clone troopers can even command battalions of troopers to take out barriers and enemy structures, though the game’s controls and A.I. are too unwieldily to make this preferable to just doing it yourself.

In fact, unless you play cooperatively with a friend, get ready to do everything yourself. “Wars” constantly has you in a party of two to four characters (not counting battalions), and while the game assumes control of the other characters, their A.I. is so dreadful that they regularly stand still doing nothing while dozens of enemies pelt you to pieces. The penalty for death remains minuscule — you lose some points and respawn like nothing happened — but it’s still annoying to constantly die while trying to fight the whole Separatist Army yourself and also do everything else necessary to advance through the level. This has always been an issue, but with the exponential enemy increase, it’s now a full-blown aggravation. The camera, which inexplicably remains fixed and at an angle that hides entirely too much enemy activity from your view, doesn’t help either.

For those who lack the luxury of a couch companion, more bad news: Online co-op in “Wars” continues to elude a series whose pitiful friendly A.I. is crying out for it. The continued omission of this feature heads the list of grievances — an archaic overall game structure, some pitifully threadbare “explanations” of how the new strategy elements work — that imply the developers are just phoning it in.

Too bad,
too, because “Wars'” competitive multiplayer — a simple but enjoyable two-player version of the battlefield levels — would have worked far better online than via splitscreen.


Eat Them!
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: FluffyLogic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $10

The “them” in “Eat Them!” is people, but don’t worry: You’re a gigantic monster rampaging through a city, and the soldiers and cops trying to hurt you are your only source of health, so your conscience is clear. “Them” attempts to spice up the potential monotony of destroying cities by mixing up the objectives — a timed checkpoint race here, a mission that has you escorting tiny escaped convicts there. But outside of a few scenarios, the game incorporates city-wide destruction into pretty much every facet of its action, and the act of punching, kicking, shooting and even jumping on top of crumbling buildings is as darkly satisfying here as it was in “Rampage!” 25 years ago. “Them” tell a particularly deep story, but the little storytelling it does looks great thanks to a comic book-themed presentation and bright, cel-shaded graphics. Every mission has medal-worthy scores to achieve, and attaining silver and gold medals rewards you with new monster parts, which you can use to create your own Frankenmonster in the monster lab. The game’s difficulty spikes somewhat after the first batch of missions, but if you have a friend with a similar appetite for mischief, you can take on the missions together in a nicely chaotic local co-op mode. (Online co-op, unfortunately, didn’t make the cut.)

DVD 3/22/11: No one Knows About Persian Cats, Teenage Paparazzo, Meskada, The People I've Slept With, Firebreather, Venture Bros S4, Skyline,

No one Knows About Persian Cats (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Life imitates art, art imitates life, and occasionally, the two chase each other’s tails so furiously that it’s hard to tell who’s inspiring whom. In “No one Knows About Persian Cats,” Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) have barely left prison when they make a beeline back to their criminal ways. Don’t forgo your sympathies just yet, though, because the “crime” they committed was the act of making and performing original music without a permit while under the thumb of the Iranian government. Now, with the help of a boastful but deeply likable music promoter (Hamed Behdad), they’re making a mad dash through Iran’s underground music scene to play one last big show in Tehran before bolting for Europe’s creatively welcoming arms. Taken strictly at face value, “Cats” is a energizing adventure that engenders renewed appreciation for the creative freedom we have while simultaneously battering any preconceived notions one might have about the disconnect between our music scene and the one that burns beneath Tehran’s surface. But “Cats” becomes a whole different kind of special when you learn how it was made — traveling through Iran’s real music underground as secretly as its characters, and incorporating real-life rogue musicians from the country’s 2,000-plus-strong underground band scene. “Cats” never feels like a documentary instead of fiction, but it’s telling a true story while it spins fiction, and the wide swath of musical styles it represents is both inspiring (because a lot of it is great) and infuriating (because we’ll never get to hear the vast majority of it here). In Persian with English subtitles.
Extra: A 53-minute making-of feature that’s highly recommended.

Teenage Paparazzo (NR, 2010, HBO)
When “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier stumbles into a throng of paparazzi that includes a self-made 13-year-old shooter named Austin Visschedyk, a documentary is born. And when Visschedyk flips the script and uses Grenier’s curiosity about him to forge a semi-friendship to raise his profile, Grenier finds himself not only on the wrong end of his potential exploitation, but suddenly at the harness of a potential monster. Fortunately, a willingness to be versatile allows “Teenage Paparazzo” to glean some great insight from every weird turn down which the story takes us. Initially, it satisfies Grenier’s fascination with the kid, his racket, and how he manages to thrive in spite of the unique rules (and parental interventions) that apply to him. Once Grenier finds himself waist-deep in the profession, “Paparazzo” also takes a hard but surprisingly balanced look at the profession as a whole and even the compulsions that drive people to value fame over accomplishment. But the movie’s best story remains that of Austin and Adrian. Their relationship is understandably contentious given both the maturity gap and the eternal conflict between celebrities and shooters, and the way it swells, twists and causes the movie to fold on itself — and not just once in the example provided above — is enjoyably, and sometimes aggravatingly, entertaining.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Meskada (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
A robbery in a posh neighborhood has gone tragically sideways, resulting in the death of a child who was home alone at the time of the break-in. “Meskada” introduces us to the culprits before we even know the full gravity of their crime, so we’re not left to guess who’s responsible. But detective Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) doesn’t have the same luxury, and after a clue sends him from the so-dubbed nice neighborhood to the not-so-nice town from whence the killers (and, once upon a time, Noah himself) came, the walls don’t get any lower. “Meskada’s” first-scene revelation makes it an impossible sell as a caper, and a distinct lack of the usual thriller ingredients makes it a tough sell in that arena as well. But while it drags in some spots and doesn’t bat a thousand with its characters, its extreme focus on those characters sets it apart from the pack of murder-mystery also-rans that easily could have swallowed it up. “Meskada’s” prime conflict pits a drowning town reflexively protecting its own versus a grieving mother (Laura Benati) who wants answers, has connections and couldn’t care less what damage the truth incurs on a community already on the brink. if the storytelling possibilities brought forth by that conflict interest you, “Meskada’s” thoughtful execution on them capably compensates for its lack of flash. No extras.

The People I’ve Slept With (NR, 2009, Maya Entertainment)
The title doesn’t lie. Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) has slept with a lot of people, her best friend Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) has slept with a lot of people, and with the 30s coming down the pike for both of them, it’s time to reassess the damage and face the lack of fulfillment head-on. For Angela, at least, there’s no other option: She’s pregnant, and while she has a list of candidates who could be the father, she can’t be sure until she tracks them down and faces her recent, reckless past. If that sounds like drama country, never fear: “The People I’ve Slept With” has a sense of humor, and it isn’t afraid to show it forcefully and consistently. But if you’re concerned that “TPISW” funnels these life-changing matters through glib, unlikable characters, you’re still in the clear. “TPISW” wants to be substantially thoughtful and lightly funny at the same time, and that occasionally results in some whiplash mood swings and jokes that are more cutesy than funny. But mostly, it makes for an enjoyable movie that ultimately has it both ways, even if it doesn’t blow the doors off in either respect.
Extras: Alternate openings, alternate ending, behind—the-scenes feature.

Firebreather (NR, 2010, Cartoon Network)
For the most part, Duncan is just like any other new kid at any other high school. And just like every other teenager whose story begins with those words, Duncan has one odd wrinkle: He’s half dragon. It stands to reason, then, that as soon as Duncan’s human mother sends him to school in pursuit of a normal life, his monstrous dragon father returns after a lifelong absence and plunges him smack in the middle of a reignited conflict between humans and Kaiju monsters. Your role in this conflict? Suspend all the disbelief you can. The computer-animated “Firebreather’s” primary objective is to look good while the action rages, and its secondary objective is to build Duncan into a likable sympathetic hero with normal 16-year-old problems. That leaves room for very little else in “Firebreather’s” brief 69-minute life, so we get a threadbare recap of the origins of the conflict, a glossing over of where Duncan’s dad has been and why he chose now to return, and lots of questions left ignored. How does a human being have a dragon’s baby? Do mom and dad stay in touch? “Firebreather’s” action-first-and-last approach leaves no doubt that it’s aimed at younger audiences, and it certainly delivers in terms of looking good and making noise. But only those living under a rock are going to come out of this one with their questions answered, so resist the urge to ask too many of them.
Extras: Deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature, 2D animation test, animatics.
— Also available from Cartoon Network/Adult Swim: “The Venture Bros.: Season 4, Vol. 2” (NR, 2010): In case you’re wondering how Henchman 21 and the dog with Hitler’s soul are doing after the events of the season’s first half, these eight episodes that aired last fall hold the answers. Extras include commentary and deleted scenes.

Skyline (PG-13, 2010, Universal)
There’s a good reason critics and moviegoers alike torched “Skyline,” and it’s sprawled out on full display during the 18 regrettable minutes that kick it off. As with most
alien invasion stories, the humans through which we witness this invasion are of secondary importance. But that doesn’t excuse how cosmically empty this group is, and it certainly won’t galvanize the audience into rooting for humanity if saving these narcissists is a stipulation in the deal. When “Skyline” finally gives us a good look at the invaders, it briefly makes sense that everything centers around these folks, who simply are a microcosm of a badly overmatched human population that’s being vacuumed into motherships a thousand at a time. For a time, “Skyline” also flashes all kinds of potential: Humanity is getting routed by a genuinely creepy invading force, and the images the slaughter leaves us with are legitimately unsettling. Unfortunately, they’re also fleeting, and those first 18 minutes are a harbinger for the many more wasted minutes to come instead of a temporary necessary evil. As result, “Skyline” is the most frustrating kind of movie — one with good ideas, great effects and an obnoxious human cast (Donald Faison, Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson, among others) that relentlessly keeps the good stuff at arm’s length.
Extras: Directors commentary, writers commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

DVD 3/15/11: The Fighter, Waste Land, Who Do You Think You Are? S1, Spooner, The Switch, Hemingway's Garden of Eden, Peanuts Double Feature, Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas: Writers, Bill Moyers: In Search of the Constitution

The Fighter (R, 2010, Paramount)
Once upon a time, boxer Dicky Eklund’s (Christian Bale) claim to fame was that he “knocked down” Sugar Ray Leonard (or, at least, was trading blows with him when Leonard tripped and fell). But that was then, and in the now, it’s his younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who has title shot dreams while Dicky makes his fame as a sorry subject of an HBO special about the effects of crack on the body. From here, you probably can successfully stab at the themes — brothers in each other’s shadows, familial infighting, a drug-induced roller coaster, outside influences pulling Micky in different directions — circling around “The Fighter,” which is based on a true story that sprung out of Lowell, Mass., in the mid-1990s. But where so many dramas swim in so much angst that they forget to come up for air before drowning in their own despair, “The Fighter” scores by continually keeping its head above water. Even at his most pathetic, Dicky flashes a fire that’s as easy for us as it is for Mickey to rally around, and for every moment of despair that befalls the family, there’s just enough hopeful glimmers (or righteous anger) to keep both the family and the film barreling ahead. “The Fighter’s” fights, and its charting of Micky’s career, are exhilarating fun in the “Rocky” mold. But it’s the way the movie culls those other scenes for the same energy — instead of simply for dreary background material like a lesser movie might do — that makes it special. Amy Adams, Jack McGee, Melissa Leo and Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself) also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Waste Land (NR, 2010, Arthouse Films)
Despite attempts on behalf of the box, the film and even artist Vik Muniz’s own words, “Waste Land” struggles mightily to convey what Muniz hopes to accomplish when he embarks on a two-year project amongst the catadores (waste pickers) at Rio de Janeiro’s gargantuan Jardim Gramacho landfill. But if the struggle was an accident, it’s a happy one. Though framed around Muniz — whose aim is to photograph the catadores in their element and turn those photos into portraits constructed from discarded materials from the landfill — the vast majority of “Land” is about the catadores themselves. The nature of the job is eye-popping, with scores of catadores descending on the landfill to compete for the 200 daily tons of salvageable trash for which recycling companies will pay. The same holds true for the landfill itself, which is large enough to spawn a makeshift town of “apartments” for catadores who work far from their real homes. Naturally, “Land” also provides a glimpse at the lives behind the life though some pretty intimate introductions to some of Muniz’s subjects. This alone provides more than enough material for a good documentary. But once the descriptions stop and “Land” just shows us Muniz’s work — and, particularly, how deeply it involves and benefits the subjects who appear in these portraits — it’s a whole other level of amazing. The full specifics won’t be spoiled here, but if you believe or wish to believe that art can produce major tangible benefits beyond the bounds of assumption, don’t miss this one. In English and Portuguese with English subtitles where necessary.
Extras: Two companion segments, “Beyond Gramacho” and “Untold Story,” totaling 28 minutes.

Who Do You Think You Are? Season 1 (NR, 2010, Acorn Media)
It sounds a bit self-indulgent, and maybe it is. But seeing “Who Do You Think You Are?” — in which celebrities discover their familial roots with the help of experts and the resources they wield — is believing. Like the British, Canadian and Australian versions that preceded it, the American incarnation of “WDYTYA” doesn’t lean on flashiness or gimmickry in its presentation of these stories. Our subjects use one clue to uncover another, and outside of a few graphics to illustrate the family tree, the stories of their past, and their attempts to reconcile that past with trips to where it began and reunions with lost family connections, power the entirety of each episode. That’s enough, too, because what “WDYTA” lacks in flash, it more than compensates in terms of raw storytelling. The celebrities — Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee, Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon are this season’s subjects — naturally stand to benefit more than the viewers, and the significance of the discoveries cannot possibly resonate with us on the level they do with them. But the roots regularly harken back to rich periods in the country’s history, and the show’s appetite for putting faces on that history — and appreciably humbling its subjects in the process of doing so — makes the significance of the moment plain to see.
Contents: Seven episodes, no extras.

Spooner (R, 2009, Maya Entertainment)
Herman Spooner’s (Matthew Lillard) 30th birthday is fast approaching, and despite his pleas for an extension, his parents (Kate Burton, Christopher McDonald) have very politely held firm that he must move out of the house by the time that day comes. Couple that with the fact that (a) he’s the worst car salesman at his dealership and (b) his mom is better at asking girls out for him than he is for himself, and it’s pretty clear Herman isn’t conquering the world as once planned. Fortunately, neither is Rose (Nora Zehetner), whom Herman serendipitously meets by the side of the road after her car breaks down en route to her latest attempted life change. Distressingly, this buys him only a day or so to use what little suaveness he has to charm her. Were “Spooner” not a movie, Herman’s ideas of courtship would be misguided at best and kind of creepy at worst. But “Spooner” is a movie, and while Herman definitely is a weirdo — picture a cross between a socially pleasant Napoleon Dynamite, Chris Farley in “The Chris Farley Show” and Otto from “The Simpsons” — he leaves little doubt that he’s a well-meaning one. His (and Rose’s) effortless likability make it easy to play along with “Spooner’s” skewed view of romance. Its authenticity is pretty suspect, but the sweet, amusing story that emerges is an inspiring argument for taking the complications out of two complicated people finding each other. No extras.

The Switch (PG-13, 2010, Lions Gate)
Perennially, neurotically single Wally (Jason Bateman) is in love with his best friend (Jennifer Aniston as Kassie), who herself is so perennially single that she’s resorted (against Wally’s wishes, of course) to paying a donor to impregnate her. Her best friend (Juliette Lewis) throws a bizarre insemination party, and everyone from Wally to the donor (Patrick Wilson) is invited. The donor does his job in the off-limits bathroom, Wally gets drunk and later stumbles into the same bathroom, and you have one guess as to what the “The Switch” — which subsequently jumps seven years into the future — is inferring with its title. Years of formulaic romantic comedies have trained us to know what likely will eventually happen, and even with the unique hook that provides the basis of its name, “The Switch” very comfortably runs into the arms of formula and mostly safe storytelling. But before it gets there, we get to know the six-year-old outcome of that party (Thomas Robinson as Sebastian). Sebastian is believably neurotic, Robinson perfectly embodies the spirit of a middle-aged Wally in a first grader’s body, and while the scenes between Wally and Sebastian may ultimately be a means to a safe end, they’re genuinely funny, believably sweet and smartly written. Sebastian’s presence alone can’t turn “The Switch” into a standout film, but it’s enough to make this a likable and enjoyable example of how to treat formula right.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Hemingway’s Garden of Eden (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
With respect to horror movies, nothing is scarier than a straight-faced drama in which a cast of absolutely insufferable characters makes you wonder if the real world really includes people who walk and talk like this. Set in early 20th century Paris, “Hemingway’s Garden of Eden” is the story of freshly-married David (Jack Huston) and Catherine Bourne (Mena Suvari) — the former a burgeoning writer, the latter a restless wife whose constant need to change her hair underscores her perpetual boredom with anything remotely flirting with normalcy. Eventually, that restlessness results in the relationship inviting a third party (Caterina Murino as Marita), who naturally extends her welcome with one, consequently overstays it with the other, and inevitably sends the marriage down a predictably slippery slope. Perhaps the complete predictability is a product of Ernest Hemingway never finishing the source novel, which was published 25 years after he died with substantial edits (200,000 words cut down to 70,000) he never blessed. But it’s pointless to wonder, because predictability is the least of “Eden’s” problems. That honor instead goes to the oppressively stuffy disconnect that percolates from nearly every word that passes from one lover’s mouth to another’s ears. Blame the mistreated manuscript or the common ills that afflict a novel’s translation to film. It doesn’t matter: Too much goes awry for any one thing to save “Eden,” and dramas rarely feel more arid than this. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Peanuts Double Feature” (G, 1969/1972, CBS/Paramount): Not every “Peanuts” animated movie is as famous as the original Christmas special, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t every bit as fun to treasure. This double feature includes “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” which chronicles Charlie’s trip from the baseball field to the spelling bee and marked the debut of “Peanuts” on the big screen. Also included: “Snoopy, Come Home,” which broke ground (relatively speaking, anyway) by introducing us to Snoopy’s original owner, Lila. Neither movie includes any extras, but they’re both feature-length presentations, so there’s still plenty of “Peanuts” to enjoy inside.
— “Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas: Writers” and “Bill Moyers: In Search of the Constitution” (NR, Athena/Acorn Media): Acorn continues its excellent themed Bill Moyers compilations, which compile episodes and interviews from both “Bill Moyers’ Journal” and “Now with Bill Moyers.” (The former premiered in 1972, the latter in 2002, and both still run today.) The 16-episode “A World of Ideas: Writers” includes two-part interviews with Tom Wolfe, Isaac Asimov and Toni Morrison, as well as single-episode interviews with August Wilson, Joseph Heller and others. The 11-episode “In Search of the Constitution” includes interviews with four Supreme Court justices (Sandra Day O”Connor, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Lewis Powell) and episodes devoted to their decisions, the Constitutional Convention and more. Each set includes a 16-page viewer’s guide and a handful of bonus interviews. “Constitution” includes updates on its subjects, while “Writers” includes book lists and biographies for its featured authors.

Games 3/15/11: Homefront, Rango, Torchlight

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Kaos Studios/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

As detailed below, “Homefront” isn’t perfect. But in a world that’s unhealthily saturated with me-too military first-person shooters, it at least has the good sense to drop us in a battleground — the suburban streets of our own country — that stands in stark, fresh contrast to the deserts, mountains, jungles and Middle Eastern cities everybody else uses.

“Homefront’s” storyline, set in 2027, begins magnificently by blitzing through images of the events that transformed the United States as we know it into the New Korean Federation of Occupied America. Once it cedes control to you, you initially stand in the shoes of a prisoner of war, and the atrocities you witness while riding down a suburban Colorado street are — while neither gory nor sensational — powerfully brutal.

By the time you get a gun, it’s hard not to be galvanized to take the country back. “Homefront’s” fiction comes courtesy of John Milius, who wrote “Red Dawn” and co-wrote “Apocalypse Now,” and while game-mandated conventions limit his narrative freedom, the picture he paints is potent but never manipulative.

It also, once business picks up, affords “Homefront” some of the best set pieces ever to grace a war shooter. Fighting the occupying Korean army isn’t exactly dull given their ruthlessness, but watching battles unfold on a high school football field and inside a White Castle (not a generic burger joint, but a meticulously recreated White Castle) is surreal. The game’s ability to turn everyday buildings into ravaged battlegrounds is exceptional.

“Homefront’s” brand of gunplay isn’t quite as unique. Like most contemporary war shooters, it takes “Call of Duty’s” cues in terms of control, how the guns feel, how health works and the overall pace and tone of the shootouts. A few customary side missions have you manning turrets and remotely controlling missile strikes, with the arguable highlight forcing you to both fly and fight — occasionally at uncomfortably low altitudes — in the cockpit of a helicopter racing a convoy toward California.

For the most part, the action is excellent. But the sooner you accept that your cohorts aren’t very helpful — even when explicitly telling you they’ll help you — the less disappointed you’ll be. Your comrades are crucial to the story, but their artificial intelligence leaves much to be desired. “Homefront” also occasionally designs levels like it’s a cover shooter without a cover mechanic, and there are times when you’ll be the victim of a cheap (and scripted) one-hit kill you couldn’t possibly anticipate. But “Homefront’s” checkpoints are fair, and as long as you fight patiently and don’t let the same cheap strike fool you twice, fun considerably outweighs frustration.

Superficially, “Homefront’s” multiplayer (16 players LAN, 32 online) plays in “Battlefield’s” yard, with large maps, team-centric match types and a full complement of ridable vehicles and drones in addition to multiple classes of ground troops. It plays as crisply as its single-player counterpart, and the maps benefit similarly from the story’s setting.

Where multiplayer breaks away, to terrific effect, is with its rewards system. “Homefront” has a customary experience points system, but players who kill enemies and complete objectives also receive battle points. Upon dying and respawning, players can spend any points they have immediately on minor rewards (flak jackets, explosives) or keep saving and spend more later to spawn straight into a vehicle or call an airstrike. Higher payouts for harder objectives encourage skilled players to aim high. But it doesn’t take a ton of points to access even the good stuff, so even middling players can quickly enjoy some great perks instead of constantly watching others have all the fun.


Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Behaviour Interactive/Paramount/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, mild language)

The last couple of years have brought an unthinkable transformation to the racket of making awful, rushed games based on kids’ movies.

In short, they’re no longer awful. Many of them are even great. And “Rango,” based on the computer-animated movie of the same name, keeps this trend moving in the right direction.

Like most of these transformative games, “Rango” is, at its core, a platformer. You play as the titular character, who enjoys the rare distinction of being a pet chameleon in our world and a fearless sheriff in his, and the game’s levels generally consist of a lot of running, jumping and climbing around all manner of obstacles.

But also like many of these games, “Rango” builds atop those basics in a number of natural and creatively unnatural ways. Rango has a basic melee attack like most platform game heroes, but because he’s a sheriff, he also can neutralize enemies with his trusty pistol. “Rango’s” controls allow players to zoom down their sights and pick off targets, but it smartly also includes an auto-targeting mechanism that lets players jam on the trigger without interrupting all that running, jumping, climbing and punching.

“Rango” also features a handful of on-rails levels in which Rango rides a roadrunner, flies aboard a bat and commandeers two other modes of transport that are best left unspoiled. These moments — along with the occasional moment that finds Rango grinding rails and riding zip lines while dodging umpteen sources of potentially serious danger — offer a nice, frantic change of pace from the majority of the game, and “Rango” very capably mixes the styles up so that nothing outstays its welcome.

A clever stealth mission in the middle, in which Rango must sneak around a comparatively gigantic human’s room without being spotted, offers yet another change of speed, and it looks pretty awesome as well. “Rango” doesn’t beat players over the head with the fact that this showdown between reptiles, rats, bugs and other creatures is taking place in our human world, so when it does remind us, it’s usually to excellent effect.

But “Rango’s” arguable best moments occur when it just tries something totally offbeat — a clever implementation of Rango’s dead-eye aim here, a completely wild level that turns the playing field into a pixelated fever dream there. In the game’s arguable highlight, Rango fends off a horde of enemies by hitting projectiles at them with a golf club. The mechanic, which makes a few fleeting appearances, plays like a microcosm of a golf game, and it’s so much fun that it’s lamentable “Rango” doesn’t make it available as a separate mini-game outside of the story.

That, in fact, is “Rango’s” only serious misgiving: The story’s fun enough to engage older players once and younger players multiple times, but it’s still on the short side as video game stories go. And outside of viewing some unlockable concept art and playing the game using one of the alternative costumes you unlock the first time through, that’s all there is to see — no multiplayer support, no golfing or other mini-games, nothing.

In every other facet, though, “Rango” is a treat. The story is a bit confusing without the extra context the movie provides, but it makes enough sense not to be a detriment, and it provides a terrific showcase for some supremely likable and very funny characters. (To that effect, initial shipments of the game include a free “Rango”
movie ticket, which certainly dulls some of the reservations you might have about the game’s asking price versus its value.)


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Runic Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Price: $15

The fun of playing a no-nonsense dungeon crawler like “Diablo” is as much about mining for rare weapons and armor as it is actually using that gear. That’s a notion that won’t appeal to everyone, especially when working in tandem with a top-down camera perspective that drills the hack-and-slash combat down to much simpler levels than more traditional action games do. But “Torchlight,” which comes from some of the same folks who created the original “Diablo” in 1996, understands these ups and downs better than most. The look is cartoonier than “Diablo,” but the combat — along with the storytelling (thin, and serving only to prop up the combat and loot discovery), gameplay structure (you’re continually descending deeper into randomly-generated dungeons with increasingly powerful enemies) and nature of the quests (see “storytelling” above) — come straight out of the same playbook. “Torchlight” breaks little ground, it lacks any kind of multiplayer component, and the extremely gentle difficulty will merely embolden those who already wrote this genre off. But if you love your loot hunts, this isn’t a bad stopgap until “Diablo III” arrives. If nothing else, “Torchlight” proves that the genre works with a controller as well as with a mouse and keyboard. The menus are both simpler and messier than in “Torchlight’s” PC incarnation, but they get the job done, and outside of a generous targeting system for ranged weapons, the actual combat controls no differently than a typical (albeit simpler) hack-and-slash action game.

DVD 3/8/11: Four Lions, The Walking Dead S1, A Film Unfinished, The Man From Nowhere, Every Day, The Next Three Days, Fresh Fields S1, New MST3K, Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides: Working with Time

Four Lions (R, 2010, Magnet/Magnolia)
A great many filmmakers have tried to make the best of a wretched thing by turning the cult of terrorism into an unflattering farce. But nobody has done it nearly as masterfully as “Four Lions” does from its first scene through its last scene and even while the credits roll. “Lions” finds four small-time wannabe terrorists (Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar) attempting to kick-start the holy war to end all holy wars. They (try to) record their message to tape. They plot what technically is an attack. They “practice” and “train.” Most importantly, though, they bicker, whine, screw up and remind us that in the thick of every movement, there are imbeciles, pretenders and supremely confident manchildren who have no earthly clue what they’re doing or even why. “Lions” is viciously, dryly hilarious, and its portrayal of clueless wannabe somebodies doing things they aren’t even confident they’re supposed to be doing is significantly more relatable than its subject matter gives it any right to be. At the same time, “Lions” somehow manages to not completely trivialize the gravity of this subject matter. It never loses its sense of humor and never loses the capacity to deliver throwaway gems like “It must have been God’s plan for him to be blown up on a sheep” with a perfect deadpan. But there’s an unmistakable darkness that encroaches on the film as talk turns to possible action. Pitch-black farce and genuine introspection seem like impossible bedfellows, but “Lions” proves that, in the hands of the right writers, nothing is impossible.
Extras: Deleted scenes, cast/crew interviews at the Bradford International Film Festival, five behind-the-scenes features, footage from interviews used for background research, storyboards.

The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, Anchor Bay/AMC)
There have been more movies about zombies than anyone needs to count, and even the ones that dare to be different inevitably tend, in the interest of time, to walk down many of the same old roads. So it’s about time television gave us a zombie story that, simply by way of being able to stretch its legs out, feels considerably fresher than its outline would imply. At least in its shortened first season, “The Walking Dead” doesn’t rewrite any rules about zombies or what happens when the comforts of modern society fall away and ordinary citizens turn into survivalists. But instead of the usual archetypes, we get a cast of fully-realized characters, and instead of just another post-apocalyptic wasteland, we get a fleshed-out world — in this case, Atlanta and its outskirts — that’s as teeming with secret pockets of humanity as it is throngs of undead. Zombie-fighting action isn’t promised to every episode, and occasionally, “Dead” zooms so closely into its characters’ lives that the zombies need not even make an appearance. The pace won’t be to everybody’s liking, but the slow marches regularly end in heavy payoffs, and when “Dead” gets down to the business of fighting zombies, the gory result reaches a level rarely seen on television.
Contents: Six episodes, plus a half-hour making-of feature, the six-episode “Inside the Walking Dead” series, Comic-con panel footage and six additional behind-the-scenes features.

A Film Unfinished (NR, 2010, Oscilloscope)
At the center of “A Film Unfinished” lies exactly what the title implies — long-lost footage of an unfinished Nazi propaganda film, “Das Ghetto,” that tried to paint a utopian picture of the existence Jewish inhabitants experienced in the Warsaw Ghetto while under the thumb of the Third Reich. We know the real story, of course, and we also know what happened next to many of the people falsely depicted in the footage. But that doesn’t make “Unfinished” any less striking when we see the lengths the shot-callers went to try, often with extreme futility, to show the world a different picture of what was going on. Naturally, the footage is the film’s centerpiece. But “Unfinished’s” most memorable moments come when we watch others — a survivor looking for people she knew, a cameraman offering candid insight into how little he knew about what he was shooting — watch and occasionally comment on the footage. Their words, or sometimes lack thereof, say more than a thousand narrators, historians and interpreters ever possibly could. In English, German, Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish with English subtitles.
Extras: 1945 short film “Death Mills,” interview with film researcher Adiran Wood, behind-the-scenes feature, essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf, study guide.

The Man From Nowhere (R, 2010, Well Go USA)
If the opening moments of “The Man From Nowhere” leave you confused, don’t worry — it isn’t your fault. For all you could know, Tae-Sik Cha (Bin Won) is simply a shady burnout instead of a former special agent. He also appears to be a secondary character when his neighbor (Hyo-seo Kim as Hyo-Jeong) comes home with a package that isn’t hers and has authorities and gangsters alike fuming and looking for her. The details surrounding this heist — along with the odd semi-friendship Tae-shik has with his neighbor’s daughter (Sae-ron Kim as So-Mi) — come together cloudily early on, and the many motives of every party never fully clear up even after we dig into Tae-shik’s past and the worlds of those aforementioned groups. All that really matters is that when the gangsters catch up with Hyo-Jeong, they take her kid as well, and it’s enough for Tae-shik to get his Jack Bauer on and raise whatever hell needs raising until the kid, if not her mom, is safe again. Even if it doesn’t always make complete sense, “Nowhere” tells a brisk, entertaining story that brings to life a lot of characters whose development very easily could have cut corners. More importantly, it delivers multiple levels of action — gunplay, martial arts and some of the best knife fighting a movie has produced in a while — that Asia simply does better than everybody else. In Korean with English subtitles, though an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, film highlights compilation.

Every Day (R, 2010, Image Entertainment)
As lives go, Ned’s (Liev Schreiber) could be worse. He’s a struggling television writer, but at least he’s employed. His older teenage son Jonah’s (Ezra Miller) homosexuality is giving him a parenting complex, but at least he’s the father of two pretty well-adjusted kids. And while his marriage has lost its spark and he’s stuck helping care for his toxically cranky father-in-law (Brian Dennehy), at least he has a wife (Helen Hunt). So it could be worse. But it could be better, provided Ned figures out how. That, unfortunately, is the problem — not just for Ned, but for his movie as well. “Every Day” starts off on a pretty funny note, and it holds that note while we meet the family and the co-stars (Carla Gugino, Eddie Izzard, David Harbour). But the truly great dark comedies make sure their sense of humor keeps shining no matter how bleak the story gets, and “Day” tends to forget this for some lengthy stretches of time. It also occasionally struggles with where, exactly, it wants this whole story to go, which results in some stalling and circular running before a semi-hasty ending takes us to the credits. “Day” never completely abandons its sense of humor or insight, Ned’s bleakness never becomes ours, and what the ending loses in terms of conviction, it redeems in terms of plausibility. So this, too, could be worse. (But it could have been better.)
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews.

The Next Three Days (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
A testy dinner conversation doesn’t exactly allow the story of John and Lara Brennan (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks, respectively) to kick off in fairy-tale fashion, but wh
en the cops come to arrest Lara the following morning, it sure looks nice compared to what lies ahead. “The Next Three Days” soon skips ahead three years, following a series of legal setbacks to Lara’s plea of innocence, and by the time we’re really underway, it’s clear John has decided to just break her out of prison himself. A lot of things about “Days,” in fact, are clear — often to the point of being detrimentally transparent. The film’s tone and rhythm feel like verbatim pages of the stock thriller playbook — so much so that when the second part of a two-part twist unveils itself halfway through, its red herring is hopelessly showing. That, along with a completely implausible scramble at the end, hurt “Days” too much to allow it any measure of impact. The cast is good, the spurts of action are good, the storytelling is generally competent, and the movie as a whole never errs so much to be bad. But greatness continually sits far out of reach. Olivia Wilde and Brian Dennehy also star, while Liam Neeson does the best he can in cameo duty.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, deleted/extended scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Worth a Mention
— “Fresh Fields: Set 1” (NR, 1984, Acorn Media): The 1980s gave us safe, pleasantly amusing sitcoms at a rate never seen before or (so far) since, and as “Fresh Fields” demonstrates, it wasn’t just an American thing. “Fields” tells the story of a restless wife (Julia McKenzie) and her boring but willing husband (Anton Rodgers) of 20 years, who continually obliges his wife’s need for adventure despite frequently making it clear he should know better. “Fields” breaks zero ground whatsoever and only resides on the margin of Britain’s all-time beloved sitcoms, but if you miss the era but also wish to see a show you haven’t seen before, here’s a rare opportunity to do so. Includes 12 episodes, no extras.
— New MST3K on DVD: Volume XX of Shout Factory’s terrific four-volume “Mystery Science Theater 3000” box sets is now available everywhere, and it includes “Project Moonbase,” “Master Ninja I,” “Master Ninja II,” “The Magic Voyage of Sinbad” and the usual complement of extras (wrap footage, a new Trace Beaulieu introduction, a “Master Ninja” interview, Tom Servo’s 2010 Dragon*Con appearance and one mini-poster of each film). Shout also has released standalone DVDs for “Beginning of the End” and “The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies,” though these are available only online at ShoutFactoryStore.com. Neither includes extras beyond the original episodes.
— “Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides: Working with Time” (NR, 2004, Docurama): The amazing ways Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy uses nature as a gigantic canvas makes “Rivers and Tides” an inarguable must-see for anyone who even remotely appreciates art or nature. This latest edition doesn’t build on the extras — eight bonus short films, a 45-minute Goldsworthy interview and a photo gallery — that previously appeared on the 2006 special edition. But it does bring the film to Blu-ray for the first time, and while Blu-ray debuts no longer are remotely newsworthy, any excuse to return “Tides” to the conversation is a good one.

Games 3/8/11: MLB 11 The Show, Fight Night Champion, Pixeljunk Shooter 2

MLB 11: The Show
For: Playstation 3
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It took “MLB 11: The Show” three years longer than it took “MLB 2K” to map pitching, hitting and fielding controls to the right analog stick.

At least with regard to pitching, though, it took the series only one attempt to do what 2K Sports can’t and get it right.

At bat and in the field, “MLB The Show 11’s” controls are pretty standard issue — pull back and push the stick to swing, flick or hold the stick in the direction of a base to make a soft or hard (respectively) throw. Both work fine, neither breaks major ground, and even though the new fielding metrics leave committing errors up to you instead of up to chance, the game’s endless array of options allow you to revert to the button-based controls if you prefer them.

Pitching, however, is another story. In contrast to 2K’s convoluted gestures system, “MLB11” opts for a deceptively simple, golf game-style system that has you pulling back on the stick to determine power and pushing forward for location.

What makes it special is how magnificently this little pitching meter can split the difference between good strikes and bad ones. Pulling and pushing a straight line to throw a pitch straight down the middle is easy. But if you want to throw Major League strikes (hitting the corners, locating breaking pitches so they just scrape the zone), you need to curve the stick ever so gracefully — enough to move the pitch, but not so much to miss the strike zone entirely. The pitch meter lets you know exactly how you need to curve it, so there’s no confusion when a pitch misses the mark. But consistently putting the soft touch on a paralyzing strike takes legitimate skill that rewards you far beyond merely throwing hittable strikes, and this is the first analog control scheme that understands and embraces that difference.

The successful analog control implementation easily is “MLB11’s” finest addition to what already was the industry’s best baseball game, and it’s arguably the only change that alters the gameplay on a fundamental level.

But that, naturally, depends on how deep your fandom goes. Because while casual fans may not realize “MLB11” includes 30 camera presets to match all 30 teams’ local broadcast perspectives, fans who religiously watch their team’s broadcasts certainly will. “MLB11” allows players to customize the cameras in whatever weird way they please, but the presets are as apt a reflection on the game’s attention to detail as anything else. As usual, the game looks marvelous in action, and as usual, there’s a new crop of animations and other visual touches — some obvious, like dynamic weather, but most not — for attentive baseball fans to discover.

A number of preexisting features make nice strides as well. Two players can team up for local/online co-op, and “MLB11” lets you divvy up positions so each player controls half the lineup. The Road to the Show career mode returns with a significantly deeper player creator and position-specific minor league depth charts that affect your advancement through the farm. Online league tweaks include support for A.I.-controlled teams in the event you can’t round up 29 friends. The Home Run Derby mode, meanwhile, supports Playstation Move, a smart decision that leaves “MLB11’s” core control where it belongs but lets players do the one baseball-related thing — swing a bat really hard — that definitely benefits from Move support.

“MLB11’s” wild card is the Challenge of the Week, an online skills competition that hadn’t yet premiered as of press time. Entering once weekly is free, while subsequent entries will cost you 25 real cents. But Sony is justifying that fee by awarding real prizes to competition winners, so if you’re good enough, that price might be a bargain.


Fight Night Champion
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, strong language, violence)

Sports games have gone down the storyline route before, but typically it’s in the form of a branching career mode that tells its story through boilerplate text. “Fight Night” has done that for years, and with the Legacy mode, “Fight Night Champion” does it again.

This time, though, the Legacy mode plays second fiddle to a new Champion mode that, while short and linear, goes all-in in terms of storytelling. Instead of text, “Champion” offers up full-blown cutscenes, complete with plot twists, crooked refs, villainous promoters and, waiting at the end, the scariest bad-guy boxer since Ivan Drago.

For the most part, Champion mode delivers, even if what it delivers is a torrent of boxing movie tropes on caffeine. The story’s predictable, but it’s absorbing, and its best moments apply story-mandated conditions to bouts that you must overcome — often at the expense of your traditional instincts.

Unfortunately, the only time the idea backfires is during the final bout, when contrivance — during the first two rounds, your opponent is invincible and can end you with a single punch — badly undercuts the moment. This isn’t “Punch-Out,” and while the title fight certainly tests your ability to defend yourself, it still undermines what should have been a terrific demonstration of a polished boxing system during what arguably is the game’s most important bout.

Fortunately, while Champion Mode ends on a down note, it’s only part of “Champion’s” package, which otherwise brings back traditional “Fight Night” features — the Legacy mode, a 50-plus-strong roster of licensed fighters, local/online multiplayer, an absolutely limitless tool for designing and sharing customized boxers — in their best light yet.

Most impressive is the boxing itself, which feels like a culmination of all the reinventing that took place during the previous two “Fight Night” games.

Like “Fight Night Round 4,” the action is fast, but not dumb. “Champion” heavily rewards players who learn to dodge, block and land counterpunches, which look terrifically painful thanks to the camera angles and swift camera pans the game uses.

Also per “Round 4,” punching is handled through different movements on the right joystick. But “Champion” makes some nice concessions by replacing the needlessly complicated gestures with simpler motions that better accommodate the fast pace. “Champion” also brings back “Round 3’s” button controls, and players can freely switch between the two schemes and even use them simultaneously without visiting the options menu.

The only in-ring stumble comes from the addition of referees to the action. They look good, but they regularly get in between you and your boxer, which can be aggravating when you’re going for a knockdown and your opponent clenches you while the ref’s shirt blocks your view.

In terms of core features, the Legacy mode returns mostly as it was in “Round 4,” albeit with some new training/business opportunities and minor tweaks in terms of overall level progression. Ditto for the custom boxer editor, which was massively versatile already and only benefits from the extra coat of graphical polish applied across the whole game.

Online, though, “Champion” makes some nice new strides. Players can form up by creating and joining each other’s gyms — basically the boxing game equivalent to clan support found in online shooters. Your online boxer’s abilities improve as you fight and accrue experience, and you can enter tournaments and even compete for community-wide titl
e belts. It’s basically the Legacy mode, but with more freedom, human competition, and the potential for glory on a much larger scale for your created boxer. If you’re good enough to hang in this company, it’s far more rewarding than its single-player counterpart.


Pixeljunk Shooter 2
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“Pixeljunk Shooter 2” doesn’t mess too heavily with the mechanics that powered its terrific 2009 predecessor, which took the twin-stick arcade shooter down a more heroic road by tasking players with shooting away cave walls and using chemistry and physics to rescue miners trapped inside. Instead, it builds on it. As inferred by the first game’s great endgame twist, “PJS2” begins not inside a cave, but in the belly of a giant beast. And in addition to contending with (and utilizing) lava, water and other elements to alter the environment for safe passage, you must now do the same with biological compounds whose chemic properties are a little less obvious. Similarly, while enemies were present in “PJS1,” they’re a much more formidable force this time, and “PJS2” divides its time between thoughtful exploration and intense arcade combat. Some won’t appreciate the more frantic direction, but Q-Games plays fair by making “PJS2” a longer game with levels large enough to accommodate both speeds without putting them in each other’s way. The higher overall difficulty makes “PJS2’s” offline co-op support even more valuable than it was last time, though the omission of an online counterpart is that much more unfortunate as well. Perhaps as compensation, “PJS2” at least introduces competitive online support via a fun one-on-one duel in which players scramble to rescue and return more miners to their respective bases. Q-Games even gives the mode legs with a surprising array of rewards that unlock as players accrue experience points in ranked competition.

DVD 3/1/11: Waiting for Hockney, 127 Hours, 4192: The Crowning of the Hit King, Faster, Love & Other Drugs, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, ReBoot S1&2, The Guild S4

Waiting for Hockney (NR, 2008, Docurama)
Some people struggle to invest nearly eight-and-a-half years into a doctorate or even a marriage. So how does spending that much time on a single drawing sound to you? Ask Billy Pappas, who, between 1994 and 2003, invested hours a day into a single drawing based on a head-and-shoulders photograph of Marilyn Monroe. By the time “Waiting for Hockney” begins filming, Pappas has an endgame: Finish the drawing, show it to renowned artist David Hockey, and hope that he views the piece — and the effort invested into its creation — as a landmark artistic achievement. “Hockney” is that rare engrossing documentary that is able to celebrate a person’s drive and question his sanity simply by letting the subjects do the talking. Pappas’ parents are, while extremely pleasant and very supportive, understandably puzzled by the endeavor, and even Pappas himself (who comes off as well-adjusted and well-spoken, in case you’re wondering) recognizes how nuts the whole thing is. But the level of detail in the drawing really is stunning, and “Hockey” provides the all the means needed to appreciate the magnitude of skill and devotion Pappas has put on display. Once we reach the film’s culmination and Pappas is ready to present his completed piece, the attachment forged to the artist, his work, the stakes and what those stakes mean to these people is so strong that “Hockney” can build intrigue without breaking a sweat. If you know the terror of taking a risk that can change everything, you absolutely will be able to relate.
Extra: Filmmaker bio.

127 Hours (R, 2010, Fox)
So here’s a conundrum: How do you sell a movie that probably wouldn’t be a movie if it wasn’t for the big twist everybody already knows is coming? “127 Hours” is the story of mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), who became pinned to a wall deep in Utah’s Blue John Canyon and whose methods for escaping — 127 hours later — made him world famous. If you somehow still don’t know what those methods entailed, congratulations: You can enjoy this on a whole separate level the rest of us cannot quite experience. But it’s important to note that “Hours” is as much about accepting the odds as it is about defying them to survive. A movie about a guy trapped by a boulder has to pass the time somehow, and “Hours” uses some clever tricks to illustrate the memories and regrets that cross Ralston’s mind while he waits to die and hopes for a break. Some will dismiss these illustrations as pretentious and narratively excessive, and they have an argument, but it’s hard to fault a movie that takes presentational risks and still very clearly gets its point across. And if all you care about is that thing you heard about? You’ll have to wait through half of “Hours” to get to it, but it absolutely delivers. Even if you know what’s coming, prepare for a shock.
Extras: Writers/director commentary, deleted scenes.

4192: The Crowning of the Hit King (NR, 2010, Rivercoast Films)
Unless you’re really new to baseball, your opinion of Pete Rose — good guy, bad guy, Hall of Famer or not — likely formed and settled some time ago, and the baggage is bound to color your perception of “4192: The Crowning of the Hit King” as well. Rather than chime in on the activities that ultimately banned Rose from baseball, “4192” avoids it entirely, focusing entirely on Rose the player and charting his career from the low minors to the day he stood on first base with the all-time hits record in his possession. Call it gutless and incomplete if you want, but in actuality, “4192” is a refreshing show of restraint — a celebration of the game instead of a rehash of a story that’s been beaten dead nine lives over. A number of Rose’s contemporaries — Tony Perez, Mike Schmidt, Marty Brennaman — make frequent appearances. Mostly, though, it’s Rose himself doing the talking, and in stark contrast to the defeated man we’ve watched answer the same tired questions for 21 years, we get a strikingly intimate Rose reveling in some very personal memories. “4192” sees Rose flashing a sharp sense of humor, laughing out loud, speaking with startling candor and even singing to the camera. A thousand other documentaries can tell the rest of the story, but if you love baseball — the game, not the politics — this is a must-see. No extras.

Faster (R, 2010, Sony Pictures)
True to its name, “Faster” gets off to a brisk start: Mere minutes after we see Driver (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) leave what appears to be a brutal stint in prison, he’s planting a bullet in a man’s head right in the middle of a crowded office. The lack of any kind of disguise seems like a dubious decision until “Faster” reveals the intention: This is payback, and Driver (not his name, but the closest thing we get to one) wants his face to be the last thing his victims see. “Faster” finds Johnson as stone-faced as he’s ever been, and it’s initially jarring to see a movie not capitalize on the planet’s most charismatic action star’s most bankable talent. But the stark change of mood inadvertently helps Driver’s character development: Another action star would just look archetypically stone-faced, but when The Rock does it, you tend to notice. The stoicism also allows Driver’s revenge — and the dark corners down which it takes him against his true wishes — to be the film’s real star. That’s a good thing, because subplots involving a cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and hitman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) tasked with stopping him are sloppy and only worsen once the final twist reveals itself. Those pieces drag “Faster” down, but not fatally so, and between Driver’s odyssey and the no-nonsense action that ties the story together, there’s still more to like than not. Carla Gugino and Maggie Grace also star.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes, two behnd-the-scenes features, animatics.

Love & Other Drugs (R, 2010, Fox)
Here’s a sign that times have changed: They’re making period pieces about the mid-’90s now. “Love & Other Drugs” finds an aimless slacker (Jake Gyllenhaal as Jamie) semi-lucking his way into a job at Pfizer as a pharmaceutical sales rep. It also begins in 1996, which puts Jamie in prime position to capitalize on the meteoric rise of a certain blue pill that, at that time, was merely an experiment hidden behind closed doors. But while some of its most enjoyable scenes (thanks considerably to Oliver Platt as Jamie’s sales mentor) revolve around the onset of a phenomenon before it became a phenomenon, “Drugs” isn’t really about Viagra. Rather, it’s about Maggie (Anne Hathaway), whom Jamie meets under dubious circumstances while on a sales call, and it’s about what happens when she tells Jamie she’s suffering from early onset Parkinson’s disease. That’s a lot of stuff happening at once, and “Drugs” tries to have it all ways as a romantic comedy, romantic drama and any number of statement pieces about medicine, sacrifice, the business of pharmaceuticals, and how much has changed and not changed in 15 years. It doesn’t achieve every goal, nor does it resist the comforts of formula when all is said and done. At times, it makes you pine for a “Social Network”-esque movie about the period and the drug more than a story about Jamie and Maggie. But “Drugs” is reasonably funny and sweetly harmless when adhering to formula, and when it hits the mark in terms of the other stuff, it hits it pretty effectively.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (NR, 2008, Severin)
We can assume “Birdemic: Shock and Terror” is an intentionally awful movie about a legion of deadly birds descending on (and literally exploding around) Rod (Alan Bagh) and his new girlfriend Nathalie (Whitney Moore). Severin certainly is marketing it as a farce, and everyone associated with the movie is playing along for good reason. On so very many levels, “Birdemic” is a 10-car pileup. The actors have worse timing the people you see on public access commercials. The sound design is ridiculously out of tune. The dialogue is hilariously rich with gems like, “Hey look, there’s an old guy on the bridge!” and “Sir, don’t you know these birds are attacking people?” The special effects are horrifyingly bad, which only enhances the complete ineptitude of the cast’s attempts to pull off something resembling action. The tie-in to climate change is laughably sorry, and the ending (if you can call it one) is so amazingly lazy that it easily (in spite of so much competition) takes top honors as the movie’s low point. “Birdemic” dishes out the awful in large amounts, but many of its funniest moments happen in such throwaway fashion that you have to assume it’s sly genius at work. But is it, or is it just a product of our time, in which any hack can buy a nice camera and make a spectacularly bad movie? The truth may never come out, but the debate rages on, and picking a side is merely one more fun accidental side effect of a movie that has to be seen to be believed.
Extras: Director commentary, cast commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Worth a Mention
— “ReBoot: Seasons 1 & 2” (NR, 1994, Shout Factory): By today’s standards, “ReBoot” looks like a student project that you’d more likely find on YouTube than on television. But back in 1994, when big-budget video games were still designed with pixels and “Toy Story” was still mostly a secret, this computer-animated Saturday morning show was the absolute bleeding edge. This two-season set should scratch a lot of nostalgic itches for anyone whose jaw dropped 17 years ago, but you might be surprised to discover how well everything else has aged. “ReBoot” was narratively as well as visually ahead of its time, and the smart (and funny) storytelling about life inside a computer game continues to outclass many of today’s attempts to tackle the same subjects. This set includes 23 episodes, plus producer/designer/animator commentary.
— “The Guild: Season Four” (NR, 2010, Flatiron Film Company): Wil Wheaton reprises his role as Codex’s (Felicia Day) rival guild leader, and Codex faces the terrifying prospect of having to hold down a job in the real world. Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, bloopers, a new music video featuring the cast, a behind-the-scenes feature about the video, a table read, bloopers and outtakes.