DVD 4/19/11: The King’s Speech, Rabbit Hole, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, Lucky, Year of the Carnivore, Somewhere

The King’s Speech (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Maybe the best thing about “The King’s Speech” is the way some of its best scenes — despite never taking the film too far beyond the normal genre bounds — feel like scenes from a bizarro-world buddy comedy instead of a coming-of-age historical drama. “Speech” is, for those unfamiliar, the story of King George VI (Colin Firth), whose tenure was remarkable not only because he assumed the throne in the age of Hitler and succeeded his alive-and-well brother (Guy Pearce) instead of his late father (Michael Gambon), but because of a crippling stammer that left any aspirations of public galvanization seemingly in ruin. The events of his tenure — events that likely would have made him a notable figurehead even without the stammer — are never marginalized here. But “Speech” ultimately is about the odd relationship that forms between a stubborn, self-doubting man being forced into the public limelight and the speech therapist and arguable quack (Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue) who has zero qualms about cutting him down to size while rebuilding him for his date with greatness. History has long since spoiled how the story ends, but that doesn’t make the bitter, contentious, spirited and, yes, very funny journey this relationship takes any less awesome to witness. Without spoiling the specifics, there’s a good reason people who saw “Speech” howled when it was announced that a PG-13 retooling was in the works. With respect to the fragile and easily offended, make sure the version you see has a nice big “R” on the back of the box, because it’s integral to some of the movie’s best moments. Helena Bonham Carter also stars.
Extras: Director commentary, two speeches (one with video, one audio only) from the real King George VI, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

Rabbit Hole (PG-13, 2010, Lions Gate)
Grief and guilt are reckless, winding roads, and while “Rabbit Hole” gets no originality points for its plot — two parents (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie) grieving the loss of a child and trying to find some way to embrace normalcy again — it gets sky-high marks for matching its overriding theme blow for blow. “Hole” doesn’t show its cards right away, going so far as to initially tiptoe around the fact that any loss has even occurred. When the realization slowly settles in that something is deeply wrong with this picture, the movie validates it with stark, frozen denial and repression instead of bouts of yelling and crying. The tears and anger will come later, but so will that odd darkly funny moment where a character has an uncontrollable case of the giggles at the absolute worst time. “Hole” picks its moods carefully without appearing cautious, and it returns to them without feeling like it’s stalling for time or repeating itself. It also compounds its portrayal of grief with a punch-to-the-gut amazing illustration of guilt — from Becca to Howie to numerous important supporting characters (Miles Teller, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard) and even the family dog. By the time it’s over, “Hole” and everything it contains feels absolutely spent. If you can relate on any remote level to anybody here, you’ll likely be right there with them.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes.

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (R, 2010, Well Go USA)
“Ip Man” dramatized the humble beginnings of martial arts master and Wing Chun teacher Ip Man (Donnie Yen), who arguably is most famous for having mentored Bruce Lee. And when we say “dramatized,” that’s what we mean, unless you believe the tide of the Sino-Japanese War turned on Master Ip’s ability to take down a Japanese colonel and galvanize his decimated village into fending off the occupying army. “Ip Man 2” finds Ip bringing his teachings to British-ruled Hong Kong — a move that invites resistance from street thugs, a fellow master (Sammo Hung) and a British boxer (Darren Shahlavi) who snarlingly dismisses all Chinese martial arts as “dancing.” If you’re hoping for a stronger devotion to historical accuracy, it’s time to give up or give in. Though more intimate in scale, “Ip Man 2” is even more fantastical than its predecessor, and the only historical nerve it really touches is that time Rocky Balboa sought vengeance against Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV.” But if you’re here to be entertained, it doesn’t remotely matter. “Ip Man 2” is one seriously pretty movie — able to turn barren alleys and dingy boxing gyms into jaw-dropping set pieces just as its predecessor did with Ip’s dilapidated village — and it’s extremely generous in terms of action. The fights are absolutely magnificent, too — completely unbelievable, maybe, and hokey as can be during the climactic fight, but an total ballet of skill, speed and creative use of surrounding resources. In Cantonese with English subtitles, though an English dub is included.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, shooting diary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Lucky (NR, 2010, Docurama)
The odds of winning a typical Powerball jackpot are roughly 200 million to one, but don’t tell that to the millions of people who poured a record $62 billion into lottery tickets in 2008 while the economy collapsed around them. Chances are, they either already know and don’t care or won’t believe you anyway. “Lucky” occasionally pops in with a staggering fact about the business of winning the lottery, but its real meat is the range of stories it tells about a handful of winners — a Vietnamese immigrant who won a share of an obscene $390 million jackpot, a homeless Illinois man who spent his last buck on a $5 million winner, and a family that got more than $100 million all to itself, among other accounts. In terms of diversity, the stories have just about every outcome covered, and “Lucky” gives just as much time to the winners whose lives changed for the better as those whose lives either went south or went down detours that weren’t necessarily welcome. There isn’t a consensus regarding whether lottery millions are an outright blessing or curse, so those who come in with their preconceived fantasies or suspicions likely will remain wishful or weary. Given the wide range of candid accounts “Lucky” presents and the many shades of gray in which those accounts delve, there really could be no other conclusion.
Extras: Deleted scenes, filmmaker bio.

Year of the Carnivore (NR, 2009, Maya Entertainment)
Twentysomething undercover grocery store thief-catcher Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti) is, by the stick most of us use to measure normalcy, a bit of a oddball. Fortunately, so is the movie in which she stars. “Year of the Carnivore” finds Sammy discovering, a little later than most, that she has some serious self-educating to do in the realm of relationships, intimacy and physical affection. The sudden realization, and the violent rush of desperation that follows, sends her down a slippery slope of ill-devised ideas and disastrous results. But in the process of Sammy’s socially backward thrashing and flailing, “Carnivore” manages to make a pretty grounded point about how nobody — old, young, single, married, dork or not —really ever has all the answers to all of Sammy’s questions. Though centered around Sammy’s confusion about acting on a possible relationship with her best friend (Mark Rendall), “Carnivore” is prone to some serious flailing of its own — dopily funny one scene, sweet the next, aggressively heartfelt the next, and willing to suddenly clamp down on a starkly serious nerve before pulling back just as quickly. It’s somewhat all over the place, and in the process of jumping between the main characters and some supporting characters who live on some pretty faraway tangents, it certainly isn’t the tidiest thing you’ll ever see. But while Sammy is a weirdo, she’s an extremely likable weirdo. And because “Carnivore” never stops orbiting around her no matter how distracted it gets, the calamity that ensues is unique and fun instead of frustrating.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Somewhere (R, 2010, Focus/Universal)
During the nearly wordless 15 minutes that open “Somewhere,” we’re treated to a vague idea of who Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is — rich, single, bored, something of a loner even in the company of friends, a little listless in general. A few more clues trickle in shortly after: He’s apparently a pretty big deal in Hollywood, and he has a daughter (Elle Fanning) who is a very big deal to him. But if you’re wishing “Somewhere” bends the arm’s length at which it’s kept you thus far, all you’re doing is wasting a wish. As established by that early going, “Somewhere” values images over words and character-building over what typically constitutes storytelling. It’s also pretty gifted in those respects, unafraid to sit still on a nearly static screen long enough to make audiences squirm with moderate impatience. But because Johnny is someone we observe more than actually get to know, all these meticulous observations never rise above the shallow pool from which they came, and if “Somewhere” was a grab at sympathy for the lost or scorn for the rich and self-pitying, it’s too detached to succeed either way. Johnny is neither lovable nor detestable: Outside of a few nice fatherly moments and a last-minute declaration of all we assumed, he just sits around looking listless, bored and polite while pretty things flutter around in front of him. Perhaps you can relate, because if you watch “Somewhere,” you’re likely to assume the same position and expression.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 4/19/11: Portal 2, Monster Tale, Section 8: Prejudice

Portal 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows, Macintosh
From: Valve Corporation
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language)

Though a rousingly successful experiment, “Portal” was still an experiment — so much so that Valve snuck it into players’ hands as the wild card in a five-game suite that also included “Team Fortress 2” and “Half-Life 2” and its two expansions.

As such, while it was a wonderfully original game, it also felt like a project with nothing to lose — short, a little barren in the user-friendliness department, and flashing a hilariously, dryly insulting sense of humor that made the user-unfriendliness its soulmate.

Now as the headliner on its own box, “Portal 2” is obligated to step it up in some respects. The new game’s single-player component is a little more than twice as long as the entirety of the original game, and a second, separate co-op adventure (two players, splitscreen or online) makes this four times the game “Portal” was. The game’s objective and basic functions are more clearly explained, and the loose not-quite narrative of that first game funnels into a much fuller storyline — with some affectionate callbacks to its predecessor — this time around.

But at no point does “Portal 2” lose sight of the eccentricities that made “Portal” a surprising classic. That same sense of humor is back, and a slight expansion of the cast (no spoilers) makes it even funnier this time around. When the game is forced to change its ways — the extra dose of user-friendliness, for instance — it fully acknowledges the obligation with some of the funniest instances of overcompensation you’ll ever experience in a video game.

The amusing storytelling helps move along an early stretch that, for “Portal” graduates, will play a little slow while it helps the uninitiated get comfortable.

It’s a necessary evil, because if you’ve never played “Portal,” then you’ve never played anything like this. “Portal 2” looks and controls like a first person shooter, and the right and left triggers eventually will be used for firing. But instead of shooting enemies, you’re firing at walls to create portals. Your two portal guns can create one active portal per gun at a time, and walking into one portal takes you out the other. The goal is to use these portals to manipulate the scenery and make your way to an exit that would otherwise be unreachable.

If that sounds mind-bending, wait until you see it. “Portal 2’s” early challenges are simple and involve only one or two steps to get from A to B. But as time passes and the areas expand, you’ll have to create chains of events, take uncomfortable leaps of semi-faith, manipulate objects’ physical properties, and hone your geometry and timing skills — sometimes simultaneously. The riddles are beautifully designed so as never to be unreasonably arcane, but they can most certainly be devious. Gradually overcoming a level that initially seemed impossible is a wonderfully rewarding challenge that no other first-person game can remotely match.

That holds exponentially true for the co-op campaign, which tells a new story, introduces two terrific new characters (Atlas and P-body, who are the most adorably likable robots this side of Wall-E), and takes the deviousness to a new plane by forcing players to work together with four portals instead of two.

Once again, the difficulty ramps up perfectly. Early challenges have you operating separate halves of the same area to eventually reach the goal together. But once things open up, you’ll need to master all the things described earlier while trading steps with your partner and sometimes harmonizing your moves to make everything click. Prepare to communicate, and prepare to celebrate if you take the campaign down together.


Monster Tale
For: Nintendo DS
From: DreamRift/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Arguably no game validated the Nintendo DS’ dual screens more perfectly than “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure,” which put entirely different genres on each screen — platforming on top, a “Bejeweled”-style puzzle game on the bottom — and meshed them together for one brilliantly cohesive good time.

“Monster Tale” comes courtesy of the some of the same developers who made “Hatsworth.” So while it should be a surprise that we have two even more ambitious genres working in similarly perfect harmony, it really isn’t.

This time, the top screen is home to an open-ended platformer in the vein of “Metroid” or “Castlevania.” Ellie (that’s you) begins her adventure with little more than the ability to run, jump and fire a puny blaster. You’re free to maneuver through the game world in whatever direction you want, but certain areas are inaccessible to Ellie until she finds and acquires the abilities — rolling, a melee attack, high-jumping, a better blaster — that allow her to reach them.

Like the games that influenced it, “Tale” intelligently spreads the rewards around, allowing you to acquire new abilities and access new areas at a steady pace that feels just right. Exploring the world is great fun, too: “Tale’s” controls are as polished and responsive here as “Hatworth’s” were, and the rate at which you meet new enemies, boss characters and obstacles keeps things fresh even when you need to backtrack through areas you’ve already visited. The game’s visual design is a treat as well, with vibrant colors and imaginative level and enemy designs that distinguish themselves nicely from area to area.

Where “Tale” transforms from homage to a beast of its own creation is with the introduction of Chomp, an enigmatic little monster who follows Ellie around like a loyal puppy after she rescues him very early in the game.

You don’t control Chomp directly, but in the virtual pet simulator that occupies “Tale’s” bottom screen, you are charged with keeping him healthy, educated and dangerous to all who threaten your progress.

If the words “virtual pet simulator” make you cringe, fear not, because there isn’t much work involved in keeping Chomp healthy. A button press brings him into Ellie’s world in the top screen, where he will automatically fight nearby enemies without your having to do anything, and another button press sends him back to his sanctuary, where he can heal and use books and food you find in battle to get stronger and smarter. A few other items — a catapult and a soccer ball, among other amusing choices — will also drop into the sanctuary, and Chomp can use them from the bottom screen to temporarily wreak havoc on the top screen.

All the learning and growing makes Chomp a better fighter, but it also allows him to learn new abilities and even assume whole new forms whose specialized abilities give Ellie access to areas she wouldn’t be able to reach alone.

“Tale” doesn’t hold back, either: Chomp has a staggering 30 forms waiting to be discovered, and when you pile those atop all those other abilities and lay that sum atop a game that ramps up the challenge at a similarly ideal pace, the surprises never stop filing in.


Section 8: Prejudice
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows
From: TimeGate Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $15

Were “Section 8: Prejudice” a full-priced first-person shooter, it’d be recommendable as a flawed but endearing breath of fresh
air. At $15, though, it’s simply a no-brainer. From the visual presentation (good, but a couple years behind its big-budget counterparts) to the enemy A.I. (also good, but occasionally prone to significant lapses in judgment), “Prejudice’s” campaign doesn’t completely mask its smaller budget. At the same time, though, its warzones are wider and higher than the constrictive corridors that dominate most shooters, and it gives you the necessary tools — jet packs, mechs, vehicles that are wildly fun to operate — to take advantage of all that space. “Prejudice’s” campaign is comparable in length to a $60 shooter, and its 32-player competitive multiplayer includes unlockable perks, bot support and even some light real-time strategy mechanics. It also takes a page from “Killzone’s” book by dynamically mixing multiple team-based objectives into a single match. (Another nice strategic touch: Because you “spawn” by dropping in from the sky, you can pick exactly where you want to land each time you regenerate.) “Prejudice” also includes four-player co-op via the Swarm mode, in which waves of enemies descend on your foursome until you’re inevitably overrun. Warts or not, everything about “Prejudice” operates with a great mix of competence and chaos, and the total package is a total steal at this price.

DVD 4/12/11: Ricky, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers S1&2, Country Strong, Summer in Genoa, The Last Continent, Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series, Car 54, Where Are You? S1, The Bob Hope Collection V2

Ricky (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
For 40 minutes, “Ricky” is a thoughtfully conceived story about a single mother (Alexandra Lamy), her young daughter (Mélusine Mayance), the man she meets at her factory job (Sergi López), the baby they have together (that’s Ricky), and the turmoil she endures when he bails and she’s left to pick up the pieces while raising a newborn and her daughter. It’s considerably more nuanced than the plain description implies, but once “Ricky” kicks into its next gear and pulls a wonderfully, crazily fantastic rabbit from its hat, it has no choice but to look plain by comparison. Delving too much further would be a disservice, because the surprise that ultimately defines what “Ricky” is — funny, a little magical and anything but plain — is best enjoyed as a surprise. But if you bemoan the fact that cutting-edge special effects exist only to prop up bloated action movies and give noisy, empty blockbusters something to do, this will leave that notion completely in ruin. The best part? As completely out there as “Ricky” gets (and the ending may be a little too out there even for those who enjoy the journey that takes us there), the movie never loses sight of the tone it sets leading up to the surprise. Ricky may be the top attraction, but everything that happens around him is so perfectly reflected off his mother and sister that this is just as much their movie as his. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (PG-13, 2010, Warner Bros.)
There has always been a divide between those who only see the “Harry Potter” movies and those who also read the books, but “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I” expands that gap into a chasm. Neither group is naive enough to believe Warner Bros. split the seventh book into two movies for any purpose other than creating two cash cows from one. But motives notwithstanding and with a full movie’s worth of time to tell half the story, “Hallows” is free to stretch its legs in ways the preceding six movies could not. That extra breathing room, in turn, allows it to delve into details — including a brilliant animated explanation of what, exactly, the Deathly Hallows are — those other movies had no choice but to leave out. For those immersed in the books, this is nothing but good news, because “Hallows” is easily the best representation yet of how thick the books are with storytelling, mythology and even throwaway humor. As for the rest of you? Good luck. All that meticulousness makes “Hallows” a slower movie that relies less on action and effects than its rushed-along predecessors. Additionally, many of the details this movie recalls aren’t necessarily details that made it into previous movies. If you see the book crowd lighting up at a throwaway reference that makes zero sense to you, that likely is why.
Extras (some Blu-ray only): Maximum Movie behind-the-scenes companion track, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, sneak peak at part two.

The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers: Seasons 1 & 2 (NR, 2010-11, Paramount)
Imagine Hogwarts or the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, only with the fighting power of dance replacing wizardry or your favorite X-Men’s superpowers, and you have a formative idea of how “The LXD” works. The next question, of course, is how a show can possibly make sense of a premise that’s crazy even by the standards of adolescent wizards and mutants. The answer: It sort of doesn’t, and that’s just fine. “LXD,” to its great credit, at least tries to apply some science toward its justification of dance as the ultimate weapon in the war between good and evil. Mostly, though, it just uses the storylines as playgrounds for some ingeniously clever duels and performances that expertly utilize their surroundings, the dancers’ personalities, multiple disciplines and even multiple time periods. Ever wonder how well silent film plays with breakdancing? Watch this and you’ll find out. A cast of dancers means “LXD” is more about movement than acting or dialogue, and the overwhelming focus on dance over everything else means this is more for fans of dance than fans of science fiction. At the same time, “LXD’s” extreme willingness to throw so many ideas at the wall and make so many of them stick is skillful, clever and just plain fun in a way that’s hard to ignore on pretense alone. Even if you don’t care one bit for dance, beware: This could be the thing that changes that.
Contents: Each season combines its episodes into a single, feature-length presentation. Also: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Country Strong (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
“Country Strong” could have been a thoroughly banal story about a world-famous country singer (Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly) who rose, fell and hopes to rise again after a stint in rehab. But from its second scene on, “Strong” demonstrates the wisdom of making us guess just a little bit. It’s during that scene that we meet Kelly, but “Strong” makes us wait a few more before letting us know just who she is. And because that second scene follows a stage performance by the guy (Garrett Hedlund as Beau) who turns out to be her sponsor and merely moonlights as a singer himself, one might have guessed this was his story if Paltrow’s name wasn’t at the top of the bill. “Strong” is gifted with good performances and an ability to take on some pretty familiar themes without feeling stale, and if you have any affection at all for the genre of music it represents, it’s also loaded with enough great music to make it potentially recommendable even if it didn’t do those other things well. But “Strong’s” best asset is the way it continually peels back just a little bit at a time about Kelly, Beau and eventually — thanks to some equal-opportunity character development — Kelly’s husband James (Tim McGraw) and the beauty queen-turned-singer (Leighton Meester) whose role is a little too messy to efficiently explain here. The revelations aren’t so stark that you can’t guess the gist ahead of time, but they’re complicated enough to leave some surprises waiting between the lines.
Extras: Original opening, deleted scenes, extended Paltrow singing performance, two music videos.

Summer in Genoa (R, 2008, Entertainment One)
For a somewhat freewheeling movie about a Chicago family (Colin Firth as Joe, Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine as his daughters) taking a summer holiday in Italy, “Summer in Genoa” gets off to one seriously brutal start. But there likely wouldn’t be any such holiday were it not an attempt by Joe to take his family away from the scene of a tragic accident that not only killed his wife and their mother (Hope Davis), but also was unmistakably the younger daughter’s fault. Though heavy with storytelling early on, “Genoa” mostly is one of those movies that isn’t so much about what happens next as how what happened first affects its characters going forward. So if you don’t like movies that don’t stick to the usual verse, chorus and verse, there’s your warning. But “Genoa” packs such a punch to the gut in those early scenes that there really is nowhere to go next that would satisfy such a formula. Things do happen in the scenes that follow, but they mostly exist to assist the multitude of complicated (though never cloying) ways “Genova” visualizes grief — and, in the case of the younger daughter, some seriously awful guilt. Given how squarely the movie nails those emotions, it’s a purpose well served. Catherine Keener also stars.
Extras: Cast/crew interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Last Continent (NR, 2007, Entertainment One)
Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series (NR, 2007, Entertainment One)
Both “The Last Continent” and “Antarctic Mission” come courtesy of the crew of the Sedna IV, which traveled to Antarctica to explore the effect
s of climate change on the both the area’s inhabitants and the continent itself. And whether by design or by circumstance, the two projects compliment each other perfectly. “Continent” overwhelmingly puts the spotlight on the crew itself, documenting its objectives, its execution of those objectives, and the emotional havoc a 430-day voyage can have on people with lives and family waiting for them back home (most likely in sunnier climates, to pile on). Though it stands alone as a great look at the sacrifices scientists make to explore these faraway worlds — and, during one terrific sequence, the attachment they inevitably form with some of those worlds’ inhabitants — it’s especially enjoyable as an elongated behind-the-scenes feature for “Mission,” which takes the more traditional route of spotlighting the continent and the seals, penguins, birds and other wildlife who call it home. “Mission” is rich with extraordinarily up-close-and-candid footage of these inhabitants. But it also features appearances by the crew you meet in “Continent,” and unlike most documentaries, it doesn’t pretend the presence of humans has no effect on the non-human population. (To the contrary, the interactions between both sides provide “Mission” with some of its best and most unique scenes.)
“Continent” extra: An hour’s worth of deleted scenes.
“Mission” contents: Three episodes, plus a “Take Action” PSA.

Worth a Mention
— “Car 54, Where Are You? The Complete First Season” (NR, 1961, Shanachie): Given the amount of ignored, forgotten or just plain rotten shows that trick some studio into packaging them and selling them on DVD, it’s sort of insane that it took this long for this indisputably classic (and, 50 years later, still sharply funny) cop sitcom to have its day. At least this first season set, which remasters all 30 episodes from their original print, makes the wait worthwhile. Also included: A 30-minute roundtable, hosted by Robert Klein and featuring cast members Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett.
— “The Bob Hope Collection: Volume Two” (NR, 1951-72, Shout Factory): Six more of Hope’s lesser-known — but by no means lesser — films (“The Great Lover,” “Cancel my Reservation,” “Paris Holiday,” “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell,” “Son of Paleface” and “How to Commit Marriage”) come together in this affordable and space-friendly package. No extras.

Games 4/12/11: The 3rd Birthday, Mayhem, StarDrone

The 3rd Birthday
For: Playstation Portable
From: HexaDrive/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

It’s been a long time — 10 years — since we last saw Aya Brea in “Parasite Eve II,” and for those who cared about the games she was in rather than Aya herself, this likely isn’t the homecoming you had in mind.

Officially, “The 3rd Birthday” marks the continuation of the “Eve” storyline, an opera of mutated monkeys, genetic engineering and spontaneous combustion that’s entirely too bizarre to explain succinctly. Unofficially, it doesn’t much matter: Only a few other characters make the crossover from “Eve” to “Birthday,” and while there are definite ties to the past — Manhattan and Christmas Eve really do not mix in Aya’s world — the new storyline feels more like a fresh crisis for a familiar face than something reliant on events whose explanations exist in a decade-old game.

More to the point, though, “Birthday” doesn’t play anything like the “Eve” games, which creatively layered role-playing game elements atop horror gameplay from the “Resident Evil” playbook.

“Birthday,” by contrast, is a third-person shooter, and even by the classifications of that genre, it falls heavily on the arcadey side. A heavy infusion of storytelling directs the action, but most of the time, you enter an area, the music swells, you clear the area of monsters, move to the next area and repeat. The game compensates for the PSP’s lack of a second stick by using the left trigger to lock onto enemies and making aiming mostly unnecessary, which in turn transforms “Birthday” into a run-and-gun shooter that rarely stops running and gunning.

If it sounds repetitive — especially stretched across the 12 or so hours “Birthday” needs to weave yet another enjoyably labyrinthine story — that’s because it is. But the general fast pace of the action means it also stays fresher than if “Birthday” moved at the speed of a traditional third-person shooter.

“Birthday” also helps itself by throwing in some oddball mechanics that, while often confusingly explained, do serve their purpose.

Because Aya is more a spiritual presence in these shootouts instead of there in the flesh (crazy story explains, don’t worry), you’re free to “jump” into the bodies of your human allies, control their movements, and jump at will from body to body. As long as the body Aya assumes doesn’t die, neither does she, and being able to leap around the environment so quickly allows her to flank enemies and use cover in some creative ways.

Other tricks aren’t quite as significant but do come in handy. Aya can use the same trick to temporarily jump into the bodies of weakened enemies and destroy them from within, and a limited-use trick called Liberation temporarily makes her an invincible force of nature. “Birthday” doesn’t give you much in the way of tactical controls over your allies, but it is possible to duck behind cover, direct crossfire on a specific enemy, and either evade the enemy or finish it off while your allies concentrate their fire that way.

If you like “Birthday’s” brand of shooting enough at its outset, the flavor these mechanics provide — along with an elaborate weapons/armor upgrade system and a completely convoluted (but, once you get it, pretty cool) means of upgrading Aya’s DNA — should keep it in your favor while the story does what it does. “Eve’s” unique gameplay remains missed, but “Birthday” carries on the series’ quirky storytelling disposition, and that may be the more important of the two legacies here.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Left Field Productions/Rombax Games/Evolved Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

From the numerous mentions of 3D in the marketing to the two pairs of 3D glasses bundled inside, “Mayhem” makes a pretty big deal about its stereoscopic 3D capabilities. Unfortunately, it’s much ado about nothing: The glasses are the old-fashioned red and blue variety, and the results of using them — so-so results for some, headaches for most — is the same it’s always been with that kind of 3D technology.

Fortunately, the 3D is optional and disabled by default. Twice as fortunately, “Mayhem” doesn’t even need the gimmick, because it’s an entirely great time on its own merits.

In large part, that’s because “Mayhem” is the first game since 2007’s “FlatOut: Head On” to successfully attack a genre — destruction derby racing — that’s a no-brainer for gaming possibilities but also a magnet for lousy budget titles that don’t even try to do it right.

Like “FlatOut,” “Mayhem” splits its time between racing events (traditional race and longer elimination-style events) and car combat (a last-vehicle-standing destruction derby and an event where you must knock the opposing vehicles off the track and into pits before they do the same to you).

But speed and destruction are never mutually exclusive. “Mayhem’s” races — often set on figure eights and other tracks where you’ll run into cross- and opposing traffic — are wonderfully perilous, and taking first place is as much about knocking your opponents off the track as it is about boosting past them down a straightaway. Conversely, because the combat arenas are nice and large, you’re afforded plenty of room to attack with purpose, finesse and speed instead of merely bump and react.

“Mayhem’s” driving physics, which vary nicely across 120 delightfully clunky sedans, wagons, trucks and even monster trucks, play their part perfectly. They’re a little squirrelly, which can lead to your getting turned completely around in a race where you trade paint and lose the fight, but they’re more than sufficiently responsive in terms of steering and cornering. The action is fast without feeling needlessly unwieldy, and there’s an unmistakable weight to the vehicles that does not come at the expense of their handling. Everything feels just right.

Though the 3D experiment isn’t a rousing success, “Mayhem’s” graphic novel-style presentation gives the game a striking visual personality anyway. Nearly the entirety of the game — vehicles, tracks, arenas — appears in stark black and white, with the only sources of color being a blood red skyline and the occasional bright yellow “BAM!” that pops in after a particularly vicious collision. The unique look is a jaw-dropper at first, and it surprisingly doesn’t get stale or even get in the way once you grow accustomed to it. Credit the level of detail in the cars and tracks, which squeeze as much out of that minimal color palette as could possibly be expected.

If “Mayhem” hobbles anywhere, it’s in the longevity department, but the budget asking price goes a long way toward mitigating even this concern. The game’s career mode can be finished off in four hours or so, and outside of unlocking all the vehicles, there’s little else in the way of dangling carrots. But the racing is fun, fast and distinct enough to make “Mayhem” replayable simply on the merits of replaying it for fun, and if you have friends whose taste in racing games runs parallel to yours, the simple but sufficient multiplayer support (two players split-screen, eight online) has your back.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: TastyPlay/Beatshapers
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

To really understand “StarDrone” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, be
cause while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a little bit of pinball, a little bit of “Breakout” and a little bit of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), describing exactly how it comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the general goal in “StarDrone” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 53 levels and clears the area of collectible stars (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. But you don’t control the ship directly — enter slinging physics — and the levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some fatal, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, “StarDrone” may even be too unwieldy to truly enjoy. But for the player who loves nothing more than to replay levels in hopes of shaving a second off that finishing time and shoot for each level’s gold medal score, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “StarDrone’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Just keep a DualShock handy if you want to do your best: “StarDrone’s” lauded Playstation Move support delivers as advertised, but it supports traditional controllers equally well, and the added precision they afford will come in handy come high score pursuit time.

DVD 4/5/11: Tron: Legacy, Tron: The Original Classic, I Love You Phillip Morris, Casino Jack, Life Unexpected S1&2, Black Swan, Little Fockers, Friday Night Lights S5, Gregory Peck reissues

Tron: Legacy (PG, 2010, Disney)
Nearly 30 years on, there’s something to be said for “Tron,” which explored the notions of virtual worlds before most people even considered the concept and did so with a B-movie sensibility and visual style that had never been achieved before and, obsolete or not, remains distinctive to this day. Had “Tron: Legacy” decided to resurrect that spirit in full and embrace its cult-classic status, the result might have been more special than what we instead received, which is an extremely pretty movie that, ultimately, plays it pretty safe on paper. But with that said, file “Legacy” under the “could have been better, but could have been so much worse” banner. And be thankful that the script plays it safe instead of stupid. Like its predecessor, “Legacy” gets a little lost in its impossibly ambitious allegory for sentient machines and virtual utopias, and it primarily just uses the metaphors to set up another helping of the light cycle racing and disc combat for which “Tron” is best recognized. But while those scenes aren’t as visually distinctive now as “Tron’s” were back in 1982, they most definitely look as awesome by today’s standards as its predecessor did back then. And while “Legacy” is a bit stiffer in the storytelling department, it’s just as willing to take a serious shot at making all this minutiae make sense, and it stays true to the ambitions laid down by the movie that paved its way. That respect alone sets it far apart from the many, many awful reboots and long-in-wait sequels that have no such clue.
Extras: A short mockumentary, “The Next Day: Flynn Lives Revealed,” that touches on what happens after the events of “Legacy.” Also: Sneak peak at the animated series “Tron: Uprising,” three behind-the-scenes features, Comic-Con footage, computer/iPad companion feature, music video.
— Also available: “Tron: The Original Classic” (PG, 1982, Disney): It’s a bit staggering that it took this long, but the original “Tron” is finally back in print and available for purchase on something other than the black market. Extras include director/producer commentary, a making-of documentary, a feature about “Tron’s” popularity, deleted scenes and a new conversation with Director Steven Lisberger and his son. For those who want it all in one package, a five-disc set with both movies and all extras is available as well.

I Love You Phillip Morris (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
Once upon a time, Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) was a happily-married cop. But near-death experiences have a funny way of jarring loose the person you want to be from the person you are, and after Steven finally musters the courage to admit to all involved that he’s actually gay, he sets out to create the extravagant life he’s always wanted — even if he has to lie, con and steal to get it. The avenue “I Love You Phillip Morris” barrels down next is better off unspoiled — and, consequently, so are the details of how Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) enters Steven’s life. But just as the box proclaims, it’s a story so incredible that you wouldn’t buy it if it wasn’t a true story. Even with “true story” tag applied, “Morris” still seems a little too perfect not to be embellished at least somewhat. But who knows, and who cares? Partially or totally true, “Morris” is a terrific fable about what it means to chase destiny and embrace fate at the same time. It’s also a clinic on how to hit these heartfelt notes flush in the face while plowing ahead with some first-rate dark comedy at the same time. There’s a major twist waiting for you in act three if you aren’t already familiar with Steven’s story, and the way “Morris” achieves both maximum sweetness and nuclear depravity at the very same time is masterful.
Extras: Writers/directors/producers/crew commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Casino Jack (R, 2010, Fox)
“Casino Jack” is the dramatized story of Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), the mega-lobbyist whose wholesale scamming of Native American casinos (among other misdeeds) backfired with enough fury to send him to prison and destroy careers (most famously, then-House Speaker Tom DeLay) with the splash damage it left behind. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also as much a dark cartoon as it is a biopic — designed seemingly to entertain its audience rather than create a platform for public enlightenment or any sort of meaningful call for reform. Those looking to vent some righteous anger toward Abramoff might turn instead on the movie, which arguably cashes in on the glamour of Abramoff’s crimes without minding the interests of his victims. But the lack of pretense — and the understanding that anyone who really cares about post-Abramoff reform has had five years to do something about it already — is refreshing. Consequently, as entertainment for entertainment’s sake goes, this is about as enjoyable as bleak looks at the political status quo can get. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, anyway: Abramoff left prison this past December, and if the screed that sends “Jack” to the credits holds any water at all, the real-life sequel might be more entertaining and reformative than a mere movie could handle. Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston and a scene-stealing Jon Lovitz also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director photo diary, bloopers.

Life Unexpected: The Complete First & Second Seasons (NR, 2010, Warner Bros.)
Technically, “Life Unexpected” could be categorized as a teen drama, because there is a teen (Brittany Robertson as Lux) in it. But here’s the twist: As a 15-year-old whose life has consisted of one shoddy foster parent after another, Lux has had to cobble together a level of maturity (some might say cynicism) that’s beyond her years. And when she tracks down her thirtysomething biological parents (Shiri Appleby, Kristoffer Polaha) solely for purposes of helping her achieve emancipation from adults everywhere, she discovers she’s the offspring of two people who have more lingering teenage angst than she ever had. But the reverse imbalance works quickly in “Life Unexpected’s” favor by giving us characters who feel more authentic than the usual teen drama parents and teens we get. Of course grown-ups act like children, and of course teenagers (especially in this case) are smarter than they typically get credit for being. “Unexpected” throws a predictable wrench into Lux’s emancipation plans exactly as you knew it would, and it certainly isn’t above dabbling in formulaic storytelling here and there. But it also recognizes the unique situation it’s in, and the intelligent and amusing scripts that build on the opening premise take excellent advantage. Kerr Smith and Austin Basis also star.
Contents: 26 episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Black Swan (R, 2010, Fox)
“Black Swan,” the ballad of ballerina and would-be swan queen Nina Sayers, isn’t simply a movie. It’s a complete playset, and it includes every part and accessory one needs to convincingly and thoughtfully loathe it as well as love it. Nina is already well past the point of uncomfortably fragile by the time we meet her, and while the speed with which “Swan” whisks her from fragile to troubled and back gives the movie a very unique energy, it also provides no serious opportunity to invest in her character, much less her fate. The extreme fragility is tiresome, and allegory or not, the bath of hallucinations and breakdowns that comprise her transformation are pretty artless. Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is an unhinged cartoon character, her director’s (Vincent Cassel) motivations are both aimless and indiscriminate, and the conniving rival dancers who challenge to take her spot (Mila Kunis, Ksenia Solo) or once had it (Winona Ryder) rival her in terms of slipshot development as well. “Swan” is crazy, risky and chock full of dramatic musical swells that feel like the work of ei
ther a madman or an art film snob with no self-awareness. The performances are terrifically intense, and the continuous weaving between calm and storm is breakneck enough to make “Swan” wildly enjoyable simply as a ride. But while “Swan” is very easy to follow, it most definitely is not coherent, and if you get off this ride wondering if what you saw is all there is to one of 2010’s most talked-about movies, take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone.
Extras: Making-of documentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Little Fockers (PG-13, 2010, Universal)
“Little Fockers” must have caught a lot of critics in a very bad mood when it hit theaters last year, because the spectacular thrashing it received was, perhaps, a bit excessive. This isn’t to suggest “Fockers” — which finds Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) butting heads for the third and final [unless it turns a profit] time — is a great comedy, a good comedy, a decent comedy or even necessary in any way that benefits the people who had to see it instead of make it. Between the same old misunderstandings, the we’re-wacky-just-because-we-are existence of Greg’s parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand), Owen Wilson playing the same exact role for the same exact laughs, an entire subplot created for purposes of making Viagra jokes 12 years after they stopped being funny, and other telltale signs of a trilogy that left all of its best material in the first film… between all that, “Fockers” has its fleeting moments of successfully attempted amusement. Two or three lines in the movie are even legitimately funny. It’s a shell of “Meet the Parents” and even “Meet the Fockers,” which is saying something if you saw that one. But at least it’s never so completely awful that you pity this loaded cast for falling so far from grace instead of simply resent them for getting paid more to sleepwalk through this than most of us will make our entire lives. Enjoy.
Extras: Alternate opening/ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes, bloopers.

Worth a Mention
— Friday Night Lights: The Fifth and Final Season (NR, 2010, Universal): You’d think a well-written show about contemporary teenage angst, adults who talk like adults and high school football would have found a bigger audience than it did, no? Oh well. At least “Friday Night Lights” gets a chance to close the door somewhat on its own terms. The final season takes full and respectful advantage, trotting out the first leg of its long goodbye in the very first episode. Includes 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes retrospective and a photo gallery.
— Happy birthday, Gregory Peck: Universal celebrates Peck’s 95th birthday with reissues of “The World in His Arms” (NR, 1952), “Captain Newman, M.D.” (NR, 1963), “Mirage” (NR, 1965) and “Arabesque” (NR, 1966). No extras on any of the DVDs.

Games 4/5/11: Yakuza 4, Shift 2: Unleashed, Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime

Yakuza 4
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)

For all the things we wish Sega would do differently with its iconic brands, it has been glorious in ensuring the “Yakuza” series — arguably its best active franchise — makes the journey from Japan to the hands of a modest but devoted American following.

And if you’re not part of that following yet? Don’t worry: You’re still warmly invited.

“Yakuza 4” continues the events as we left them in “Yakuza 3,” and the respect it pays to storyline continuity is another jewel in the crown of one of gaming’s best storytellers. For the uninitiated, Sega includes a nice “Reminisce” feature that recaps the previous games’ key milestones.

At the same time, “Yakuza 4” feels self-contained enough to allow fresh starters to jump in and quickly make acquaintance with the colorful residents of Japan’s fictitious Kamurocho district. That’s a credit to the game’s gift of character design, which shines even brighter than usual by dropping you into the shoes of four characters (including series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu) instead of just Kiryu himself. “Yakuza 4” pumps all four characters (and numerous supporting characters) with more personality than most games provide for their lead, and the effortlessness with which it changes moods — from pensive to sweet to darkly violent to wonderfully silly — is magnificent.

The same spirit infects the gameplay, which finds Sega tossing out mandatory and optional activities with abandon. Kamurocho is thick with diversions ranging from bowling to arcades to a humorously cheeky mini-game based around a massage parlor. You can gamble, play a karaoke rhythm game, be a good samaritan, chase criminals and even manage a hostess club — employee training, dress-up mini-game and all. Not everything works, but most of it does, and even when something falls short, it flounders with a degree of magnetism and humor that’s extremely unique. Seeing what bizarre surprise comes next is nearly as fun as taking the main story down its course.

As usual, “Yakuza 4’s” primary gameplay centers around hand-to-hand brawling that pits you against random street gangs and, eventually, crime family henchmen and lieutenants. Also predictably, it’s the highlight among highlights. Most brawls fall on the easier side, but they’re so fast and loose that it hardly matters. An experience points system gives you new moves to use as you progress, and the creative ways you can chain these moves — along with the ability to use whatever’s laying around as a weapon — makes for a brilliant 3D reinvention of the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the mid-1990s.

With all that said, it’s important to know going in that “Yakuza 4” does all the same things — whether you call them charms or annoyances — that have kept the series a cult favorite in America instead of a mass-market sensation. The visual presentation is loaded with great details, but in most facets — from graphical fidelity to menu design to the weird way random citizens pop in from nowhere as you tour the district — it shows its age. That goes as well for various little conveniences — designated save spots instead of autosave, for instance — that may or may not bother you.

Additionally, the storytelling (some of it voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, most of it using text only) is a big deal — to the tune of the occasional 30-minute block in which you do little more than press X to advance the dialogue. The story is so good that those who get into it won’t care, but if you’re allergic to stories in your games, you’ve been warned. (For whatever it’s worth, the spoken cutscenes are skippable.)


Shift 2: Unleashed
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Slightly Mad Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Like its predecessor, “Shift 2: Unleashed” attempts to marry the intensity of arcade racing with the demands of simulation track racing, and like its predecessor, it superficially nails it.

The track and circuit designs are racing sim mainstays, and “Unleashed” includes an attention to physics, weight, tuning and driving interfaces that is part and parcel with that genre. But “Forza’s” fastest cars don’t scream down the track as furiously as “Unleashed’s” class D vehicles do in the career mode’s opening circuit, and even “Burnout” — a game known for its crashing first and racing second — can’t inspire the kind of dread you’ll feel when you oversteer a corner and are resigned to feel the full might of the genre’s most jarring crash sensation.

Unfortunately, it appears “Unleashed” took to heart the flak the original “Shift” got from sim aficionados who dismissed it as being too arcadey and easy. “Unleashed” takes a harder stab at its simulation side, but it’s a pretty blind stab, and the result is a multitude of problems far more significant than anything that ailed its predecessor.

The difference in “Unleashed’s” handling is immediately apparent if you spent any significant time with “Shift,” which understood the limitations of realism in a game where speed remained priority one.

“Unleashed” misses that point, and even on the easiest setting with assists on, the cars are overly prone to spinouts and vicious cycles in which you can’t stop oversteering to achieve stability unless you just brake entirely. Some cars, for some reason, struggle simply to drive straight from a stop. Practice (and, more importantly, a delicate steering touch) makes stable driving possible, but the sim/arcade compromise that powered “Shift” struggles in “Unleashed,” which punishes high-speed cornering far more than a thrill-hungry game, sim leanings or not, ever should.

But this wouldn’t be so troubling if it wasn’t compounded by A.I.-controlled drivers who apparently know something about driving these cars that you don’t. Accidentally tap an A.I. car from behind, and you’ll likely spin out while your opponent carries on — which would be fine if you didn’t consistently spin out when they tap you. Trading paint with opponents overwhelmingly ends in a lopsided defeat, and one costly mistake can prove too much to overcome when your opponents are so unlikely to make a mistake (much less pay for one). Just don’t expect the same courtesy when the situation’s reversed: Opponents can make your quarter-lap lead disappear in seconds, even on the easiest setting.

There’s nothing wrong with a challenging game, but the cliff wall “Unleashed” throws you into is aggravating because it so clearly contradicts the game’s pursuit of realism. Even if the serious crowd looked down on it, “Shift” successfully carved out a distinctive balance between two discordant racing styles. “Unleashed’s” careless tinkering with that balance, meanwhile, makes it a hard sell for both camps.

Too bad, too, because everything else — the visual presentation (including a new helmet camera view), the sense of speed, the car selection and how the good the action feels during those fleeting moments where it stays out of its own way — remains awesome.

“Unleashed” also includes a great feature set. The single-player career mode is deep, and both your solo and online efforts are tied under a single experience points system that constantly awards you points toward unlocking new cars and parts. EA’s Autolog social networking system, which made a terrific debut in last year’s “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit,” returns here, and it remains a great (and never intrusive) way to share your “Unleashed” experience with friends who also are playing.


Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: 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 acceptable. But with higher prices 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 touching it. The structure — enter room, doors lock, kill ghosts, doors unlock, leave room, repeat — grows monotonous quickly, 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.