DVD 5/24/11: Transcendent Man, Gn The Kids in the Hall CS/Death Comes to Town

Transcendent Man (NR, 2009, Docurama)
Yes, in light of recent events, we’re all feeling a little bit amused by the notion of one man predicting significant future events. But Ray Kurzweil isn’t screaming about Doomsday, and many of his predictions — based primarily around technological advancements and their effects on societal change — have either partially or completely checked out so far. As an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur, he also has a history of doing instead of just exclaiming. But with all that said, the contents of “Transcendent Man” — in which Kurzweil confidently illustrates a technological singularity that fuses man and machine in ways that could immortalize humans who inhabit multiple bodies like backup flash drives — is absolutely, fascinatingly crazy. “Man” provides a forum to Kurzweil’s detractors as well, and it even gives a voice to those who believe in the possibilities but see them manifesting in different (and, possibly, terrible) ways. It’s insane, it’s kind of scary, but it’s also wildly entertaining to see so many bright minds trading ideas on the future’s ground floor. None of it may come true — and some of you will deeply prefer that be the case after hearing the full extent of “Man’s” projections. But even as a glimpse inside some accomplished and repeatedly proven imaginations, it’s absolutely engrossing.
Extras: Deleted scenes, extended interviews, Tribeca Film Festival Q&A with Kurzweil and director Barry Ptolemy.

Gnomeo & Juliet (G, 2011, Disney)
In case the play on words in the title doesn’t make it clear, “Gnomeo & Juliet” is indeed another go-round aboard the Shakespeare carousel. This time, the conflict between the Capulets and Montagues rests in the hands of lawn gnomes, who exist in our world but spring completely to life whenever nobody is watching. Gnomeo hails from the blue-capped gnomes, Juliet from the red-capped gnomes, and really, do you need any more information about where this story goes? But while “G&J” heads down the most well-worn path this side of “A Christmas Carol,” it at least does so to its own beat. The movie hits all the typical computer-animated movie milestones — comically inept side characters, an anthropomorphic animal companion (cleverly, a plastic flamingo), jokes that try to amuse kids and parents simultaneously (and sometimes do and sometimes don’t). But the humor isn’t obnoxious even when it misses, and the little gnomes (to say nothing of Featherstone the flamingo) are considerably endearing. “G&J’s” visual design is remarkable as well: The characters really look like they’re made from porcelain instead of the same old computer-animated textures. Even when “G&J” doesn’t shoot for the moon with its writing, the little details that comprise its design are top-notch. James McAvoy, Emily Blunt and Michael Caine, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Alternate endings, deleted/alternate scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, storyboards, music video.

Childrens Hospital: The Complete First and Second Seasons (NR, 2008, Warner Bros.)
If you could have a hospital show that mocks other hospital shows, would you prefer it made fun of the likes of “General Hospital” or took on “Grey’s Anatomy” instead? To that question, “Childrens Hospital” says, “Why choose?” Though it’s a live-action show, “Hospital” takes cues from its Adult Swim schedule-mates: The episodes are super short (roughly six minutes each in length), the “Previously on” segment occasionally references events that never happened on any previous episode, and while there’s a surprisingly high degree of storyline continuity and what technically qualifies as character development, everything that happens serves at the mercy of the irreverent laugh. Good thing, then, that “Hospital” delivers — first by spoofing hospital soaps, but eventually by spreading its wings in season two and simultaneously making fun of soaps, Meredith Grey and the many hospital show tropes we’ve been fed over the years. It’s sharply funny as a parody, but just as funny as its own creation once the characters come into their own, and it has more than enough talent (Rob Corddry, Megan Mullally, Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Erinn Hayes, Lake Bell and eventually Henry Winkler and Michael Cera, among numerous others) to keep the joke going long after it should have gone stale.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes feature, a Q&A with Dr. Owen Maestro (Huebel), outtakes, Adult Swim wraparounds, an extended music video and bloopers.

Melissa & Joey: Season One, Part One (NR, 2010, ABC Family/Shout Factory)
Remember that episode pitch in “Seinfeld” in which a guy pays a car accident-fueled debt to Jerry by becoming his butler? “Melissa & Joey” doesn’t quite go that crazy, but as premises go, this one — a politician (Melissa Joan Hart), left to raise her kids alone due to a scandal involving her husband, hires a homeless former commodities trader (Joseph Lawrence) to be her kids’ nanny after learning her husband bilked him out of his fortune — nonetheless exists in the same atmosphere. The silly premise is a callback to the weird sitcom setups of the 1980s, and even the show’s format — laugh track, gags and wacky episodes to complement the wacky premise — feels like something of a throwback. But “M&J’s” two stars know how to tread those waters, and the charisma they (and especially Hart) brought to their previous respective sitcoms is back on full display here. “M&J” isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s consistently amusing, and it’s an affirmation that there’s plenty of life in the old way of doing things if the right people are tasked with doing it.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus six behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and a sneak peak at the first season’s second half.

Seconds Apart (R, 2011, After Dark Originals/Lions Gate)
Like many twins, Jonah and Seth (Edmund and Gary Entin, respectively) have a unique bond. Unlike most twins, though, that bond works on a wholly tangible level in the form of telekinesis, which the brothers use to make their tormentors and various objects of dislike do absolutely gruesome things to themselves or one another. This much we know very shortly into “Seconds Apart,” and if you’re wondering where things can possibly go from here, don’t think about it too hard. “Apart” opts for mood over narrative, so you can expect some dabbling into sibling rivalry, romantic confusion, and a detective (Orlando Jones) with (of course) a past of his own that ties into the larger story. Fortunately, the decision to prioritize mood above all pays off. “Apart” is at times derivative and at other times a little too scrambled for its own good, but it’s legitimately, consistently creepy no matter what direction the plot takes. When the last act feeds into an ending that you may need to see twice to even understand, the level of creepiness is such that “Apart’s” working flaws are pretty easy to forgive. Even if you don’t get it, it’ll probably leave you skeeved out, and that, for any self-respecting horror movie, is job one.
Extra: Director/Entins commentary.

The Big Bang (NR, 2011, Anchor Bay)
On more than one occasion, private detective Ned Cruz (Antonio Banderas) questions what it is, exactly, that keeps him going in his current profession. As “The Big Bang” gradually surrenders to wave after wave of complete inanity, you have to wonder if Banderas didn’t have some of the same thoughts. “Bang’s” premise is simple: Cruz is tasked with finding the kidnapped girlfriend (Sienna Guillory) of a paroled Russian boxer (Robert Maillet), and if it isn’t too much trouble and he’s able to find the $30 million worth of diamonds she’s hidden, that’d be great too. But from its first scattered thought on, “Bang” is nothing but trouble — a carnival of characters who
are weird for weird’s sake, talk in Tarantino-isms (for lack of a more efficient term), or just straight up babble until Cruz moves on or (more likely) someone kills them. Throw all those words on top of similarly rambling acts of exposition — most of “Bang’s” story comes via interrogation flashbacks, in case there weren’t enough layers — and it’s a car crash of incomprehensibility. But there’s something to be said for “Bang,” which, despite being all kinds of bad, is rarely boring — even if the source of interest is seeing what ridiculous wreck comes next. If you stick with it, you’ll get an experience like few you’ve had with a movie. And “Bang” at least appreciates the gesture, if the ending — which is as visually fantastic as it is cosmically stupid — is any indication. Sam Elliott and Snoop Dogg also star.
Extras: Director/producers commentary, extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “The Unknown War: WWII and the Epic Battles of the Russian Front” (NR, 1978, Shout Factory): Of the many stories we hear about World War II, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union is one that doesn’t get a lot of traction on this side of the shore. But if that aspect of the war intrigues you, this 1978 series — produced collaboratively by Soviet and American crews, narrated by Burt Lancaster and absolutely crammed with some amazing firsthand footage documenting the events of the 1941 invasion and the eventual pushback that took Russian forces into Hitler’s backyard — will more than satisfy your curiosity. Includes 20 episodes, plus an interview with composer Rod McKuen and analysis by Russian history professor Willard Sunderland.
— “The Kids in the Hall: The Complete Series” (NR, 1988-2010, A&E): If you swear you’ve seen a “Kids in the Hall” complete series box set before, don’t worry; you have. But with the advent of last year’s “Death Comes to Town” miniseries, those older sets are just a little bit incomplete now, whereas this set includes all five seasons of the original show, all eight episodes of the miniseries, and the bounty of extras (interviews, commentary, best-of compilations, live performance footage, unaired show footage, image galleries and more) A&E assembled for the original set. If you’re a big “Kids” fan and you already have the original set, though, A&E hasn’t burned you: “Town” is available separately as its own release, and includes commentary, deleted/extended scenes and bloopers to accommodate the eight episodes.

Games 5/24/11: L.A. Noire, Dream Trigger 3D, Pinball FX2: MARS, Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four

L.A. Noire
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Team Bondi/Rockstar
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $60

Fans of Rockstar-published games might look at “L.A. Noire’s” marketing, see the usual Rockstar game symptoms, and very understandably assume that, just as “Red Dead Redemption” was “Grand Theft Auto” in the Old West, this is “GTA” in 1940s Los Angeles.

But while “Noire” looks and sounds like a “GTA” game, it plays almost nothing like one. In fact, it plays quite like no other game out there, and if you can give it a chance to grow on you, this police detective simulator achieves its objective skillfully and with exceptional confidence.

First, a word on what “Noire” is not. Though you’re free to explore this massive, meticulously replicated chunk of Los Angeles however you like, this isn’t your typical open-world game. There are random street crimes scattered outside the game’s main storyline, but the overwhelming majority of “Noire’s” activity lies along the main road.

Additionally, you cannot run around, Niko Bellic-style, and raise random hell. Outside of specific instances in which you’re trading bullets with criminals, you can’t even draw your weapon. You’re police detective Cole Phelps, and this is the story of his ascent through the ranks, not of the time he lost his mind and murdered half the city.

Perhaps more jarring is that, third-person shootouts and car chases aside, “Noire” is primarily an adventure game. Some criminals will die from your gun, but most of your play time will consist of carefully scouring crime scenes for evidence and using your findings — combined with smart witness questioning and suspect interrogation — to successfully close a case.

Games have covered this ground before, but “Noire” does it better by venturing beyond the usual adventure game limitations.

Crime scenes, for instance, aren’t restrictive, cause-and-effect pixel hunts; they’re wide-open areas you freely explore like you would in any other open-ended third-person game. Some wonderfully subtle (and, if you’re feeling confident, optional) musical clues tell you if you’re near clues or have found all there is to find, but if you proceed to interrogation before fully turning a scene inside out, “Noire” does not intervene.

That goes as well for interviews. “Noire” compiles questions from clues you find, and you’re tasked with believing, challenging or (if you have evidence to back it up) outright accusing interviewees of deceit. “Noire” leaves it up to you to read people’s faces for signs of dishonesty, and it provides the means for doing so with some frighteningly advanced facial animation technology.

Occasionally, you can request help — most cleverly, via an “Ask the Community” feature that polls other players’ responses in the same situation. But “Noire” mostly lets you sink or swim here as well. If you fudge a line of questioning that undermines a case, the game doesn’t ask you to try again. The story barrels ahead, with the consequences of your misdeeds funneling into the overarching storyline.

(Don’t worry, completionists: You can replay completed cases as you please.)

The only place you’ll see a retry button is if you die in a shootout or get caught while stealthily tailing a suspect, but “Noire” keeps the difficulty of these portions pretty tepid.

Compared to “Noire’s” creative, lavishly detailed crime scene searches and its polished interrogation interfaces, the actual action is more sufficient than exemplary. The cars handle well and the cover-based shooting works perfectly fine, but both function more as dessert than the main course. Given how perfectly Team Bondi prepared that main course, that’ll more than do.


Dream Trigger 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Art Co. Ltd./D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $40

At first glance, “Dream Trigger 3D” looks like the fresh and totally bananas game some of us have been waiting for since the Nintendo 3DS launched with a lineup full of safe sequels and retreads.

At first play, the game seems absolutely impossible — a ridiculous mix of old-school shooter, “Lumines” and “Rez” that appears punishingly hard even on its very first level.

Upon subsequent playthroughs, though, the pieces that comprise the madness reveal their intricacies, and “Trigger” turns into a manageably frantic game with some unique ideas.

Unfortunately, that quickly leads to a whole new and wholly surprising problem: Is “Trigger,” which initially felt fresh and brutally imposing, really just shallow and way too easy instead?

It’s hard to translate “Trigger’s” methods into words that do it justice, but let’s try.

On “Trigger’s” top screen is your spaceship, which you control with either the joystick or D-pad. Surrounding you, along with the occasional power-up, are blips of light that are enemies who can attack you but are, in that incarnation, invincible.

To make them vulnerable, you have to use the touch screen, which functions like a radar screen and illustrates your invisible enemies as dots on a map. Drawing over those dots, and letting the “Lumines”-like sonar bar run over your scribbles, makes them visible on the top screen, where your ship is now free to blast them into oblivion.

Here’s the catch: Your ship only shoots forward, so you have to come into direct contact with each enemy to destroy it. The counter-catch, is that while your ship is firing, it’s invincible. The counter to that is that your ship can fire for only so long until it’s vulnerable again, and the best way to recharge your firepower is to continually expose new enemies with sonar.

Throw all those catches and conditions into one pot, turn the speed up, set the whole thing to a complementary musical beat and place it in front of various scrolling backgrounds that take terrific advantage of the 3DS’ 3D capabilities, and “Trigger” is an exciting exercise in managing two planes of activity at once.

Problem is, once you figure out the science behind it all, “Trigger” doesn’t throw any curveballs or do anything to meaningfully enhance it. There’s the appearance of a lot of content inside the box — a 55-level quest mode, free play, time attack, in-game achievements, two-player local wireless co-op and competitive multiplayer. But outside of aesthetics, little about the game changes from one level to another, and if you can beat the first level, you almost certainly can beat the last.

Perhaps most troubling is “Trigger’s” tendency to crash the 3DS entirely when the 3D slider is on — a rather significant issue, considering this is one of the better visual implementations thus far of the new system’s most prominent new feature.

Is this the game’s fault or the system’s firmware’s fault? Is this fixable with a patch? Are patches even possible on the 3DS? And if they are, does this mean the 3DS has joined the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in the unfortunate age of the patch? Time will tell, but there’s nothing comforting about these early findings, and it’s impossible to recommend purchase of a game that, at least for now, is prone to these breakdowns.


Pinball FX2: MARS
Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (requires free Pinball FX 2 dow
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Comic Mischief)
Price: $3 each

The tables keep rolling in for the endlessly expandable “Pinball FX 2,” and the latest additions keep the bar as high as it’s been since launch. The “Fantastic Four” table complements the Marvel four-pack Zen released last December, and like those tables, it makes excellent use of the comic’s heroes and villains by bringing them to life right on the table. In fact, its utilization of the The Thing, who guards the top of the table and can literally pick the ball up and swat it back at you like a volleyball, may be the most amusing application yet of a Marvel character in “PFX2.” The Mars table — a revamped version of a previously-released “Zen Pinball” table — appears less flashy at first glance. But once a Space Station soars in for a landing over your head or you make acquaintance with patrolling scanner bots or a spider bot who saves your ball, it’s clear that first impression was deceiving. The Mars table also features one of the better ramp layouts in a “PFX2” table thus far. Like its predecessors, both tables look terrific, handle authentically and hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. Both tables also integrate seamlessly into “PFX2?s” overriding achievements, leaderboards and score structure, making the best video game pinball platform around that much better.

DVD 5/17/11: The Other Woman, Brotherhood, Red White & Blue, Vanishing on 7th Street, The Mechanic, Araya, The Wild Thornberrys S1, Search for the Great Sharks, The Greatest Places

The Other Woman (R, 2009, IFC Films)
Were “The Other Woman” simply about the other woman — in this case, Emilia (Natalie Portman), who charms her way into finishing off what remained of her boss’ (Scott Cohen as Jack) crumbling marriage to Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow) — it would be an impressively thorough look at the ramifications of one person’s idea of an emotionally dormant marriage and another’s idea of homewrecking. But “Woman” decides to double its workload by bringing us into the story shortly after Emilia has lost the child she had with Jack at the outset of their marriage. Throw in the complications of a child (Charlie Tahan) from the first marriage who doesn’t quite know how to process either side of this story, and “Woman” so easily could have been a dreary disaster. Miraculously, while large stretches of “Woman” most assuredly qualify it as a downer, the movie never loses itself in a swirl of misery. There are heartbreaking and depressing parts for sure. But you’re just as likely to find “Woman” in a contemplative, peacefully numb or (thanks mostly to Kudrow playing cold out of her mind) justifiably, cathartically angry mood. Occasionally, and with no sacrifice to credibility, “Woman” even finds a way to be hopeful, amusing or just plain content. Every major face in this story gets a significant voice, and rather than crumble under the weight of doing too much, “Woman” finds balance in letting everyone — and not just the other woman — have their say. No extras.

Brotherhood (R, 2010, Phase 4 Films)
As fraternity initiations go, asking pledges to grab a gun, don a mask and rob a convenience store seems just a bit extreme. But it’s all a show: After the pledge commits to performing the act (and passes the test), a fraternity brother (unseen to the other pledges) stops him from entering, gives him a bag of money and sends him back to the van. Or rather, that’s what should happen if the brother isn’t waiting at the wrong store, thereby allowing one unlucky pledge (Lou Taylor Pucci) to follow through on the robbery and kick up one serious storm of trouble. “Brotherhood” takes place over the span of a single evening, and once things initially go awry, they just keep going that way. The tailspin is a bit extreme, but it doesn’t matter: Movies about simple plans collapsing are a riot if done right, and if there’s a group of people who can believably solve one problem by creating a wholly worse problem, it’s a pack of nervous frat boys and pledges. Absurd or not, “Brotherhood” does the important things right: It gives us a conflicted character (Trevor Morgan) on which to pin a conscience, and it surrounds him with a group of credibly freaked-out idiots who don’t completely reveal whether they acting out because of greed or stone-cold terror. The tension is legit, the twists just buyable enough not to kill the suspension of disbelief, and just when everything appears figured out, a great little callback at the end busts it right back open.
Extras: The original “Brotherhood” short film, filmmakers commentary, cast/crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, mock pledge interviews, photo gallery.

Red White & Blue (NR, 2010, IFC Films)
It wouldn’t be honest to describe “Red White & Blue” as a movie with a coherent eye for storytelling, and for a lot of perfectly reasonable movie watchers, that’s enough of a red flag to make this a non-starter. But “Blue” — which, in a horribly understated nutshell, tells the interconnected stories of Erica (Amanda Fuller), Nate (Noah Taylor) and Franki (Marc Senter) — thrives too much on its ability to get completely scattered to make any other method make more sense. There’s too much going on here to cut the plot down to a pitch, but the gist is that our three main characters are at or near their respective rock bottoms and have — due to dependency, circumstance or an honest-to-goodness want to do so — become entrenched in each other’s lives. But it goes a little deeper than that, and when “Blue’s” focus goes off the rails, it does so in a fashion that perfectly mirrors the explosive amount of anger, dissatisfaction and metric tons of baggage that all come to a feverishly ugly head. If you sense a total lack of rhythm in the eventual bloody mess that ensues — and “bloody mess” is wholly literal as well as figurative, in case you have a weak stomach — then congratulations: If only temporarily and on a minuscule scale, “Blue” has succeeded in making you feel as unsettled as the characters that are unraveling before you. If that was an accident on the movie’s part, it was a brilliantly lucky one.
Extras: Writer/director/producers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Vanishing on 7th Street (R, 2010, Magnet/Magnolia)
Ever get the feeling that a movie would make a better television pilot than a standalone feature? You might get it again once “Vanishing on 7th Street” reveals its ending to you. Shortly after “Street” touches down in Detroit, the entire city loses power, and anyone caught in complete darkness vanishes immediately — a pile of their clothes being the only trace they leave behind. From there, we meet four survivors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore) who were lucky enough to be near light when the blackout happened and have since learned to keep doing so as the sun rises later and sets earlier each day. Unfortunately, this is where “Street” stops introducing ideas and starts bowing to time and formulaic restraints. By obligation, the movie is a thoughtfully-paced thriller about four people fighting to possibly live through whatever (The Rapture?) is happening, and in this regard, it’s sufficient and hits the usual important marks. But the number of stones “Street” leaves unturned is large enough to fill a quarry, and the ending — call it intriguing, call it vague, call it a cop-out by writers who couldn’t get out of the corner in which they painted themselves — only emphasizes this point. Were “Street” a prelude to a larger story that lets these ideas and questions play out, it’d be superb. As a standalone piece, though, it’s a polished means to an unfulfilling end.
Extras: Director commentary, alternate endings, four behind-the-scenes features, interviews.

The Mechanic (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
In Arthur Bishop’s (Jason Statham) world, being a mechanic doesn’t entail working on cars. Rather, it’s another word for hit man — in this instance, one trained to carry out super-secret executions that are designed either to send a clear-as-crystal message or make it look like suicide, an accident or anything but a hit. “The Mechanic” drops us into the middle of one of Arthur’s assignments, but the story only kicks in once, upon being forced to kill his mentor (Donald Sutherland as Harry), Arthur guiltily takes in Harry’s revenge-minded son (Ben Foster) as his protege while simultaneously keeping the truth behind his father’s death from him. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it all happened before in the 1972 original of the same name. But outside of the shared synopsis, little else about this “Mechanic” will ring familiar to fans of the original. To the contrary, it would be easier to interchange this with any number of Statham’s other movies, because it hits most of the same checkpoints — stoic anti-emotions, music montages, pointless romantic interest that feels comically inauthentic, gratuitous (but clever) violence on top of more violence — that most of his other movies dutifully hit. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: If you want a fast, loud, bloody good time, “The Mechanic” has one all wrapped in a bow and ready. But if you want something that either feels fresh or pays proper respect to the original, you’re asking for too much.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Araya” (NR, 1959, Milestone): It would be excessive to call “Araya’s” half-century disappearance from the public conscience a good thing. But the reemergence of this documentary is an eye-opener — and not simply for its meticulous document of 24 hours in the life of three families tirelessly mining salt for peanuts in the otherwise barren Venezuelan peninsula of Araya. Rather, “Araya” — which won the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics Prize before it faded away — accidentally provides as much insight into the evolution of documentary filmmaking and the audience’s ability to ingest it as it does about its depicted families. Can contemporary audiences handle a movie that embraces long shots of mundane work and isn’t afraid to keep its narrator quiet or keep the information overload faucet mostly shut? Here’s a chance to find out, because you rarely see documentaries paced quite like this anymore. (And that’s a shame.) In French or Spanish with English subtitles. Extras include another Margot Benacerraf-directed film — 1953’s “Reveron” — as well as 2007’s “The Film of Her Life: Araya.” Also included: Benacerraf commentaries for “Reveron” as well as “Araya,” two Benacerraf interviews and DVD-ROM content.
— “The Wild Thornberrys: Season 1” (NR, 1998, Nickelodeon/Shout Factory): The beloved Nickelodeon cartoon — about Eliza Thornberry’s gift for (a) speaking to animals (b) having cool parents who host a nature show and (c) using those first two gifts to go on wild adventures all across the globe — finally gets its DVD due. Includes 20 episodes, no extras.
— “Search for the Great Sharks” (NR, 1995, Inception Media Group) and “The Greatest Places” (NR, 1998, Inception Media Group): Before 3D became the hot new thing again, IMAX theaters provided the easiest means to pay extra money to see a movie in a more exciting light, and these two nature specials — the former needing no explanation, the latter being an exploration of the world’s most breathtaking natural creations — were filmed to take specific advantage of that. Though you likely cannot replicate the original IMAX experience with your Blu-ray player and home entertainment system, the images remain stunning. The only downside: “Shark” is only 46 minutes long, “Places” only 40, and neither disc comes with extra content beyond a trailer reel.

Games 5/17/11: MX vs. ATV Alive, Brink, Gatling Gears

MX vs. ATV Alive
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $40

Just in case the current economy of video games wasn’t in enough confusing flux for you, along comes the newest and strangest chapter in the long-running “MX vs. ATV” series to confuse it just a little bit more.

(You didn’t think the lower retail price — $40, down from the usual $60 — was because THQ loves you, did you?)

It isn’t. Rather, it’s the basis of a new pricing plan that, if successful, may become a new normal.

For that lower price, “Alive” arrives with the best iteration yet of its unique brand of off-road racing. It also comes standard with a smattering of tracks and single- and multiplayer (two players splitscreen, 12 online) modes. Initially, most of the tracks and events are locked, though every mode has a few that are available to play straight away.

Instead of the usual career mode, “Alive” outfits you with a single experience points bar that accrues experience across every mode of play. Upgrade to a new experience level, and new parts avail themselves to your rider and his motorbikes and ATVs. Achieve certain level milestones — level 10, for instance — and you get faster vehicles to ride, new tracks on which to ride them, and new events (online and offline) that are available only to players of certain level classes.

Beyond that? Open up your wallet. “Alive” prominently features an online store in its main menu, and THQ plans to gradually stock it with new events, vehicles and tracks you can purchase piecemeal, eventually turning your $40 investment into whatever price you’re willing to pay.

Cynicism about the “have it your way” messaging aside, “Alive’s” handling of this idea could be worse. If you never drop a dime into the store, there’s still a respectable amount of content to unlock simply by playing the game and leveling up. (New copies of the game also include a voucher for a free download that includes what are, until you reach level 10, the best tracks and events in the core game.)

But for being a game that’s all about the art of the continuous reward, “Alive” errs by unlocking that core content at an aggravatingly slow pace. Until you reach that 10th level, for instance, you’re stuck riding the same four long tracks, two short tracks and three free ride environments (voucher content included) ad nauseam. A trickle of new events becomes available then, at which point you repeat the process with a little more variety until you hit level 25.

The idea, of course, is for you to alleviate the tedium by buying new stuff online. (Predictably, you can even pay to unlock all core content straight away.) But when all the math is done, that isn’t a terribly great trade-off when you consider this so-called flexibility comes at the expense of the more full-featured career modes from previous games.

But if you have to ride these tracks over and over, at least it’s fun to do so. “Alive” continues the heavy infusion of physics that really came into focus in the last game, asking players to control their rider’s body and position while simultaneously controlling the vehicle. The dueling weight factors (along with the effects of heavy track deformation) add a subtle but unmistakable layer of strategy to the art of cornering and fighting for position — in the air, post-ramp, as well as on the dirt. But none of these factors work at the expense of the speed, danger and general freneticism that’s made the games so accessible all these years.


Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Splash Damage/Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

In a perfect world, “Brink” would be a compelling first-person shooter. One day, if a patient community has formed around it after some patches arrive, it may still be.

Right now, though, it’s a fiasco — a mess of too many mishandled good ideas relentlessly undercutting one another.

On paper, it sounds like the zenith of dynamic, squad-based combat. “Brink’s” crumbling post-apocalyptic utopia has two warring factions — those interested in preserving the floating city known as The Ark, and those bent on leaving it for a new life — and the game offers a separate playable campaign for each faction.

Beneath that lies a healthy collection of classes (soldier, engineer, medic, operative), weapons, body types (big guys tolerate more damage, while smaller guys are faster and able to wall-run to ledges the big guys can’t reach) and perks that unlock as players accumulate experience points. The perks range from an enormous suite of weapon attachments to stackable special abilities, and if you know what kind of attack strategy you want to adopt, you almost certainly can find a combination that supports it.

In action, though, it’s a race to see which tantalizing piece of “Brink’s” puzzle can disappoint you first.

Take, for instance, the campaigns. “Brink” sells itself as a game that can be seamlessly enjoyed as a single- or 16-player online experience, but in reality the campaigns are glorified multiplayer matches that support A.I. bots if human competition isn’t available.

Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose situation. “Brink’s” net code is prone to lag that’s impossible to ignore even with just a few human players, and it’s a mess when eight players fill each side. But playing alone is even worse, thanks to some unbelievably stupid ally and enemy artificial intelligence. The value of teamwork is no trivial matter here: If your teammates cannot complete an objective themselves, they most certainly need to protect you while you do so. But your teammates repeatedly fall asleep at the wheel, and because enemies storm objective points or spawn endlessly right near them, you’re climbing an impossibly steep hill without their assistance.

And for what? “Brink’s” story barely says. Outside of a few audio logs and some laughably half-hearted cutscenes at the top of each stage — which you can play out of order for all the game cares — the game’s fiction barely colors in the details of this conflict. Instead, you get roughly six hours’ worth of missions whose objectives rarely make much sense.

Even if you can somehow assemble 15 friends to play the game the right way (a heady proposition for any online multiplayer game in which breaking rank has little consequence), and even if you manage to avoid all that lag, “Brink’s” fundamentals are too shoddy to keep it satisfying. The guns feel week and unwieldy, even when staring down the sights. The grenades explode with all the fury of a balloon flying too close to a ceiling fan. The environments have a unique look, but the objectives — in addition to too often being incredibly boring instances of “stand here and guard X for X minutes” — almost always take place in congested corridors that degenerate into artless shootouts at point-blank range. “Brink” makes a big deal about characters’ ability to free run, but it doesn’t integrate these abilities into the objectives nearly enough.

Splash Damage has already gone on the offensive with promises to fix its game, and maybe it’ll deliver. But it hasn’t yet, and until that changes, your money should stay where it is.


Gatling Gears
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), Windows PC
From: Vanguard Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)
Price: $15

The age-old game design truth remains true: If something you do isn’t original, you’ll be forgiven as long as you do it well. “Gatling Gears” is the umpteenth twin-stick shooter (left joystick to move, right stick to aim and shoot) to appear in the last few years, and while the tutorial teases a technically (and visually) polished game with large levels and lots of firepower — gatling guns, rockets and grenades are all available immediately and in nearly infinite capacity — it also inspires no confidence that it does the same old formula better than the numerous games that preceded it. Fortunately, after a few decent but slow levels, things change considerably for the better. “Gears” doesn’t rewrite the script, but it fills it with some terrifically frantic action that’s imposing without being cheaply difficult. An upgrade path allows you to significantly improve the oomph of all three weapons, and “Gears” counters by crowding its pretty outdoor environments with increasingly tougher enemy soldiers, vehicles and robotic contraptions — topped on each level by some terrific multi-stage encounters with bosses that sometimes command half the screen. “Gears'” campaign is lengthy and polished enough to command the $15 tag, and it complements it with an arcade-style Survival Mode and two-player offline/online co-op support across all modes. The proliferation of twin-stick shooters has dampened the excitement whenever yet another one arrives, but if you like the genre, this is one of the good ones.

DVD 5/10/11: Blue Valentine, Cougars, Inc., No Strings Attached, Dahmer vs. Gacy

Blue Valentine (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
“Blue Valentine” may be a movie and not a prescription drug, but it should come with a warning: Do not ingest this if you’re down on romance or with someone who is. If you do, the side effects could be catastrophic. “Valentine” is the story of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), and the liberal way it jumps back and forth in time means it’s a story about their meeting, courtship, romance and marriage all at once. You can probably predict the degrees of happiness in each stage, and because the movie opens on a pretty dour note before flashing back for the first time, there really isn’t any attempt on “Valentine’s” part to flip the script or keep anybody in suspense. But in lieu of suspense comes 112 minutes’ worth of some of the rawest dissecting of a relationship that a movie has ever presented. “Valentine” never degenerates into shouting monologues, nor does it ever take the flashy or sensationalistic way out. If anything, its scale approaches claustrophobic. But few movies pick their words, outbursts, expressions and reactions with as much uncomfortably high skill as this one does. As moviemaking goes, it’s magnificent. As entertainment? Your mileage will vary, and you’d be wise to heed the warning at the top of this paragraph.
Extras: Director/co-editor commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, on-set home movie.

Cougars, Inc. (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Sometimes, movies make valiant attempts to take a premise reserved for a straight-to-video National Lampoon disaster and build something with substance around it. Take, for instance, “Cougars, Inc.,” which finds a private high school student with a checkered past (Kyle Gallner as Sam) turning a chance encounter with a spurned older woman (Kathryn Morris as Alison) into a relationship in which he trades sex for tuition money. His friends catch wind of the deal, her friends do the same, and suddenly, there’s a small network of older women (Denise Richards, Rebecca Mader, Catalina Rodriguez) and younger men making similar transactions. “Cougars, Inc.” looks a little lost as it moves into the second stage of this story, and it leans on a few too many music montages in the middle to inspire much confidence that it has anything at all to say. But all of this follows a promising opening that establishes Sam as more than some snarky kid with all the answers, and it does similar character-development favors for Alison (if not her friends). A few obligatory twists involve a younger possible love interest (Sarah Hyland) and the school’s headmaster (James Belushi), but the latter also gives the movie its best character and a strong enough conscience to counter most of the damage done by those empty music montages. None of this is enough to make “Cougars” a spectacularly rich film or anything remotely approaching authentic. But given the premise, it’s a pleasant surprise that it even tries to approach these heights — and, to a degree, succeeds at doing so.
Extras: Writer/director/cast commentary, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature.

No Strings Attached (R, 2011, Paramount)
You might be surprised to hear this, but it’s true: You’ve already seen “No Strings Attached.” The characters in the version you saw may not have been named Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher), and the cast may have been completely different altogether. But surely by now, you’ve seen what happens when two adults engage in a no-strings-attached relationship in which both parties agree to forgo feelings in favor of a good time. You probably already know that while the plan works for a while, the cracks inevitably show. And if you know that, you surely know that one party inevitably reveals some feelings, only to get thwarted and disappear until the other party finally gets it and makes a mad dash to nab that romance right before the credits roll. Nothing about “Attached” is grating, insulting or even unlikable. It’s thoughtfully written, occasionally funny, and in terms of intentions, its heart absolutely is in the right place. But the degree to which “Attached” refuses to take chances is striking even by the standards of formulaic romantic comedies. It’s not nice to spoil a movie this much in a review, but “Strings” so thoroughly telegraphs its every move that the element of surprise never stood a chance anyway. Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig and Kevin Kline also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Dahmer vs. Gacy (NR, 2011, Walking Shadows/Virgil Films)
If someone were to tell you there’s a horror movie walking the earth with the name “Dahmer vs. Gacy,” would you need to hear another word to know it’s bad? No, you wouldn’t, and to the credit of everyone involved with this project, they at least demonstrate that they know you wouldn’t. “Gacy’s” premise is absolutely amazing: A team of high-level scientists use DNA from history’s worst serial killers to create a new breed of supersoldier, and when things go predictably awry, reborn (and inhumanly powerful) clones of Jeffrey Dahmer (Ford Austin) and John Wayne Gacy (Randal Malone) are set loose on the world. What happens next is an explosively, deliberately terrible collision of low-budget gore and viciously acute campiness, complete with starstruck witnesses, ninjas, a holy warrior and the inevitable showdown teased in the title. There is no synonym for “bad” that quite does justice to the acting chops on display, and you could argue that “Gacy” tries so hard to be awful that it succeeds beyond even the generous bounds of irony. But if the likes of “The Human Centipede” and “Birdemic” are your idea of essential group movie night viewing, you almost certainly need to add this to the list. No extras.

Games 5/10/11: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, DanceDanceRevolution, Outland

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, PSP and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30-$50

If you’re at all familiar by now with the Lego games, you know precisely how “Lego Pirates of the Caribbean” goes.

Whether that’s a good thing or not is, of course, up to you.

Even by the standards of recent Lego games, “Pirates” feels married to a formula that charmed everyone in 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” but has evolved at a glacial pace ever since. The game divides itself into four mini-campaigns based on the four “Pirates” movies — including the upcoming “On Stranger Tides” — and the extreme majority of these levels finds players controlling Lego-fied versions of the films’ most popular characters as they reenact the most memorable scenes from each movie.

This has been the case with every console “Lego” game. But the Lego-fied heroes and villains of “Lego Batman” at least had cool gadgets to play with, while “Star Wars” and “Lego Harry Potter” had a wide complement of vehicles and spells, respectively, to diversify the action a little bit.

“Pirates” trots out a few new tricks. You can occasionally fire a cannon in first-person mode, solve puzzles using Jack Sparrow’s versatile compass, and sometimes control a whole party of characters instead of the usual twosome. “Pirates” also is the prettiest Lego game yet, with levels that take place both above and below sea level and in front of the kind of picturesque vistas rarely seen in these worlds.

But the vast majority of “Pirates” is the same gameplay — light platforming, light combat and cause-and-effect puzzles that are a weird mix of illogical and overly easy — that has defined these games for six years now. Things that could’ve used improvement in 2005 — the awkward fixed camera, imprecise jumping controls, combat undermined by loose collision detection, the lack of online co-op support — remain in need of improvement, and the aforementioned additions are neither significant nor pervasive enough to mix things up the way “Batman’s” and “Potter’s” diversions did. If you came here hoping for anything beyond more of the same, you’re even more out of luck than usual.

At least the cutscenes remain funny. In fact, if you like the idea of the “Pirates” movies more the drawn-out, rambling movies themselves, this might be the gateway you’ve been waiting for.

The Lego games, for all the routines they follow, are consistently brilliant in the art of converting its source material into funny cutscenes powered completely by body language, pantomiming and genuinely amusing slapstick. “Pirates” has less iconic material to work with than previous Lego games did, and because the “Pirates” movies are already campier than the likes of “Potter” and “Star Wars,” there’s less of an opportunity to take a completely serious scene and find a way to mine it for laughs. But the more restrictive parameters don’t keep TT Games from working its storytelling magic, and the result — funny, easy to follow and rarely bogged down in directionless blather the way the movies are — is entirely palatable whether you love the movies or have never even seen them.


For: Xbox 360
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, suggestive themes)
Price: $40 for game and mat bundle

The subtitle-free name may scream “reboot” — as if Konami recognizes it released a few too many “DanceDanceRevolution” games (including three others on the Xbox 360 alone) over the years and wants to start over.

But in the post-Kinect age, “relic” feels like a more appropriate term. Fresh start or no fresh start, entirely too little has changed to make “DDR” feel like anything but a slightly different version of the slightly different games that preceded it — and too much has changed elsewhere to make that acceptable anymore.

This isn’t to suggest what worked before cannot work now. The “DDR” formula — step on the bundled dance mat’s giant buttons in accordance with the visual prompts and beats of the music — is recognizable to the point of iconic now, and it remains as simple as ever to play and difficult as ever to master. If there’s an advantage to releasing slight variations of the same game so many times over the years, it’s that Konami has the difficulty curve locked down. Between the multiple difficulty settings and room for tweaking in the options screens, “DDR” has the range to accommodate just about everybody.

All those passing years have also allowed Konami to pack a lot of modes and features into these games. “DDR” isn’t as ambitious as the “DDR Universe” series, which sent a horde of features orbiting around elaborate single-player quest modes, but the usual arcade modes are accounted for. The new Club Mode slightly mimics the “Universe” quests by stringing songs together and asking players to complete challenges beyond just hitting the right buttons. A four-player Dance Off mode lets players take turns racking up the best score on a song, though it — along with all of “DDR’s” modes — lacks online multiplayer support.

Of course, when “DDR” trumpets an offline-only multiplayer mode as one of its big new features, it says volumes about the series’ age and inability to grow with the times. It’s a bit shortsighted to omit online multiplayer from any Xbox 360 game that has the means to support it, and it looks downright lazy when that game marks the series’ fourth iteration on the system.

But Konami’s bigger problem by far is its complete ignorance of Kinect. “DDR” arrives nearly six months after “Dance Central” made waves as the Kinect’s best launch title, and that game’s range of motion — utilizing a player’s upper as well as lower body and doing so without any need for a dance mat — makes this game’s range look positively ancient.

It doesn’t help that the mat remains a wired accessory. The wire is pretty long, but if you’ve arranged your setup to accommodate either the Kinect or a wireless setup in general, there’s still a chance you can’t even plug this thing in and place it at a comfortable distance from your setup.

Konami has, to its credit, priced “DDR” to move. Even with the mat bundled inside, the $40 price is cheaper than the “Universe” games cost all by themselves.

But the low price reads like an admission that “DDR” isn’t the revamp its name implies it should have been. The room for growth is more spacious now than its ever been, and if there’s a fifth “DDR” game for this system, it’d be wise to evolve if it wants to be looked at as more than a budget game for old fans.

For those curious, a complete list of songs included in “DDR” is available at konami.com/ddr. Additionally, if you’ve purchased downloadable tracks over Xbox Live for the “Universe” games, they will work in this game as well.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Housemarque/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Like many contemporary 2D platformers, “Outland” takes a page from “Metroid’s” playbook, sprawling its adventure across a large, open-ended landscape dotted with collectable abilities that gradually increase your ability to access the world’s most far-reaching corners. But “Outland” sets itse
lf apart by taking a page from a whole other genre — overhead space shooters, and “Ikaruga” in particular — and integrating it in a way that never once feels forced or awkward. As the story explains, “Outland” pretty quickly gives you the ability to change your energy from light (blue) to dark (red). Red projectiles can hurt you only when you’re blue (and vice versa), and while you can hurt enemies of the same color, you’ll do more damage when you switch energies. The formula allows “Outland” to assume the traits of a bullet hell space shooter, flooding levels with red and blue projectiles and asking you to run, jump and slide through mazes of bullets while quickly swapping between energies to stay alive. It’s an extremely clever concept, and because the game’s controls and animation are as perfectly fluid as they are, it works unbelievably well in practice. “Outland’s” visual style — half silhouette, half moving painting — is terrifically unique, and between the retail-sized campaign and support for two-player online co-op, it earns its $10 asking price without breaking a sweat.

DVD 5/3/11: Bunny and the Bull, Human Planet, The Wrestling Road Diaries, The Dilemma, Penn Teller: Bull****! S8, The Green Hornet

Bunny and the Bull (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
“Bunny and the Bull” is a road trip movie about a guy named Stephen (Edward Hogg). The twist? Stephen hasn’t left his apartment in a year, and this isn’t the story of the moment in which that changes. Instead, “Bull” is a road trip through Stephen’s memories of a year ago — which, conveniently, include a road trip around Europe with best friend Bunny (Simon Farnaby). Rather than define itself as a series of marks on a map, “Bull” regularly shifts between Stephen’s memories, the delusions he’s created in place of a proper social life, and a weird amalgamation of the two that finds otherwise normal scenes taking place amid painted backdrops, inside collages and on sets made of cardboard cutouts and other crafts. Ask “Bull” to be coherent, and you’ll be disappointed. But in place of “Bull’s” coherence is an insatiable appetite to do whatever it wants regardless of how it looks, how it meshes with what precedes and follows it, and whatever havoc it wreaks on the balance the film strikes between funny, silly, heartfelt and melancholy. Through it all, an extremely rich picture of Stephen emerges, and never has a journey of a few steps felt quite so epic as this one does.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

Human Planet (NR, 2011, BBC)
Traditionally, the role of a human being in a nature documentary is to hold a camera and stay out of nature’s way. So simply by virtue of challenging that notion, “Human Planet” stands out as something special. “Planet” divides its episodes into settings — the ocean, the arctic, the jungle, the desert and so on — and each episode tells different stories about the ways humanity has learned to survive, thrive and even depend on living conditions that (the episode about cities perhaps notwithstanding) are completely foreign to most of us. As often happens in a nature documentary with more material to cover than time to cover it, one story doesn’t necessarily have a strong connection with the next, and episodes aren’t so much comprehensive documents of each terrain as they are insightful anecdotes. But like the best of its breed, “Planet” knows how to pick its stories, using nearly every minute it has to deliver one amazing account after another — complete with magnificently candid and intimate footage — about people whose abilities and rituals might as well be from another world. In a nice touch, each episode ends with a behind-the-scenes feature, allowing us to see what the filmmakers did, learned and felt while keeping them from interfering with the stories as they take shape.
Contents: Eight episodes. The aforementioned behind-the-scenes features are new, so they count as extras despite being included as part of the main program. Additionally, there are two behind-the-scenes features not attached to any of the episodes.

The Wrestling Road Diaries (NR, 2011, wrestlingroaddiaries.com)
Some people enjoy the behind-the-scenes drama of professional wrestling more than (or even instead of) the actual wrestling itself, and with “The Wrestling Road Diaries” being the latest example, it’s easy to see why. “Diaries” follows three independent wrestlers (Colt Cabana, Bryan Danielson and Sal Rinuaro) as they drive themselves to matches they often must also book themselves — essentially living the life of a self-sustaining touring musician, only with serious bodily harm being the reward for finding steady work. Clocking in at nearly three hours long, “Diaries” has its share of scenes that are mundane, nonsensical and meandering. But every good, bad or strange scene “Diaries” gives us is merely a reflection of the hand dealt to our three heroes. They work tirelessly for peanuts, are in different stages of their lives and careers, and have varying hopes of landing a lucrative job in WWE or another major federation. If “Diaries” is anything first and foremost, it’s transparent, giving us a pretty unfiltered look at the hardships of the indie wrestling scene while also offering plenty of insight into why so many wrestlers endure and even embrace that hardship. “Diaries” is for fans of these wrestlers first and fans of wrestling second, but anybody who appreciates the pursuit of a dream — regardless of whether they can relate to this specific pursuit or not — can find much to admire in the journey that unfolds here. No extras, though a second disc with deleted scenes is available for order on the DVD’s website.

The Dilemma (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
If you find out your best friend’s wife is cheating on him, would you tell him? Actually, let’s clarify: If you found out she was cheating on him while he was neck-deep in the final stage of a project that could sink or save the small business you operate with him, would you tell him or wait? That’s the titular dilemma facing Ronny (Vince Vaughn) when he spots Geneva (Winona Ryder) kissing a man who most definitely is not his best friend and business partner Nick (Kevin James). Ronny investigates, confronts Geneva, discovers complications on both sides of the marriage, and quickly finds himself in a perilously messy situation while his own girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) develops her own suspicions. Sounds like yet another hilariously wacky comedy of errors, no? Well it’s not — and surprisingly, that neither feels accidental nor is a bad thing. Though never humorless, “The Dilemma” plays more like a movie hungry to take apart a relatable quandary, make a mess of the parts, and see what happens when it tries to put them back together. The result isn’t very laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s an interesting execution on an experiment that doesn’t bog itself down in dramatic dreariness. The weird middle ground is bound to leave “The Dilemma” as a misunderstood movie remembered primarily for not being terribly funny — see “The Breakup” as a precedent. But if you can warm up to the notion of a comedy that doesn’t necessarily need to be a comedy, you might be able to warm up to this as well.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Penn Teller: Bull****! The Complete Eighth Season (NR, 2010, Showtime)
Shockingly little has changed between “Penn Teller: Bull****!’s” first season and its eighth. The formula — pick subject, build subject up, viciously (but intelligently, with facts and reasoning as well as violent barrages of words unfit to print) tear subject down — is exactly as it’s always been. Penn Jillette screams and calls everybody the same old names, Teller offers the same silent support he always has, and almost from the moment an episode reveals its subject, you pretty much know which side of the debate the duo is going to take. But predictability and routine can hurt only so much as long as “Bull****!” keeps coming up with subjects to rip apart as skillfully and hilariously as these two do, and even if you don’t always agree with the arguments or reasoning, the fire Jillette breathes while giving it to his detractors is pricelessly raw. “Bull****!” is neither wholly educational nor wholly comedic, but rather a spectacularly vulgar mashup of the two that’s relentlessly entertaining no matter what stripes it wears. Season eight takes on fast food, cheerleaders, martial arts, Area 51, get-rich-quick schemes, teenage sex, criminal justice, the elderly, self-esteem and vaccinations. How’s that for diversity?
Contents: 10 episodes, plus the first two episodes of the new Showtime show “Episodes.”

The Green Hornet (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
On the superhero scale, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) — a.k.a. the Green Hornet — is basically the slacker’s answer to Batman. He’s a bit directionless, a bit socially brash and burdened by some baggage related to his now-late father (Tom Wilkinson). But he’s also obscenely rich and, thanks to the ingenuity of his father
‘s most prized employee (Jay Chou as Kato), has access to some amazingly powerful toys. But where Batman’s genesis comes assembled atop a foundation of torment and vengeance, Reid is mostly just bored and lucky. And while Batman can level entire criminal networks just fine without any help, the Green Hornet would be dog food if Kato wasn’t around to save his hide. Who’s the real superhero here? Who knows. “The Green Hornet” positions itself as being more lighthearted than the glut of me-too superhero origins movies that preceded it, but most of the time, it feels every bit as aimless and confused as its namesake. There are some so-so gags, some reasonably good action, a few cool gadgets and a little bit of character development to justify the whole thing. But “Hornet” struggles mightily to compile all these ingredients into anything more than a barrage of the same rotating scenes presented different ways. Unfortunately, given how tightly it hugs formula when it leaves that rotation, it’s probably better off that way.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Games 5/3/11: MotorStorm: Apocalypse, Lego Battles: Ninjago, The Fancy Pants Adventures

MotorStorm: Apocalypse
For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, violence)

It seems a bit odd to commend an arcade racing game set amongst a crumbling city for its subtlety. But when the obscene amount of destruction taking place sneaks up and grows on you like it sometimes does here, that’s the only word that works.

Like its fellow “MotorStorm” games, “MotorStorm Apocalypse” is an off-road racing game with a taste for physics that is unquenchable. Dune buggies, rally cars, motorcycles, sports cars, monster trucks, ATVs and big rigs all share the same track, and the game just slightly exaggerates the properties you’d expect from each vehicle to create some seriously chaotic races.

The controlled chaos that ensues isn’t for everyone now any more than it has been since the first “MotorStorm” game debuted in 2006. But for those who can get into it, there isn’t anything else out there quite like it. “Apocalypse’s” vehicles are squirrelly and very prone to subtle but unmistakable overreactions to jumps, bumps, boosts and anything else that forces a sudden change in speed or orientation.

What makes these brief losses of control perfectly acceptable is the terrific way “Apocalypse” compensates with an equally generous allowance for recovery. Provided you understand the properties of the vehicle you’re driving — bikes are fast and super responsive but extremely fragile, for instance, while trucks cannot change course nearly as quickly but are durable enough to use smaller vehicles to couch a spinout — “Apocalypse’s” responsiveness overcomes its lust for weighty physics just enough to never leave you feeling totally out of control for very long. The line it toes between control and bedlam is razor-thin, but it toes it beautifully.

The “MotorStorm” method looks ever more impressive with “Apocalypse” changing the setting from jungles and beaches to cities and suburbs — and doing so at no expense to the series’ off-road roots.

A goofy (in a good way, complete with cheesy motion-comic presentation) story explains all, but the gist of “Apocalypse” is this: A major city is about to get pummeled by a rogue’s gallery of natural disasters, and while all but a few stubborn citizens flee for safety, a gang of daredevil racers decide to use the city — and the ensuing disaster — as grounds for a competition.

It may not be a smart idea, but it’s a visually spectacular one. Best of all, it regularly sneaks up on you. During the course of a three-lap race, an earthquake might hit early and turn cracking roads into buckling waves and ramps, which you can hit to catch air and land atop a building the moment after it topples. Tidal waves and tornados change the routes you can take from lap to lap, and during the game’s best moments, it transforms from a street racer into an off-road racer right before your eyes. “Apocalypse’s” weather and other effects look awesome, and the game as a whole animates beautifully, but its that gradual transformation over the course of a race that’s most impressive.

Structurally, “Apocalypse” pretty closely resembles its predecessors, complementing a satisfying single-player mode with splitscreen (four players, with the option to fill the remaining slots with A.I. racers) and online (16 players) multiplayer. A persistent milestone track awards you with unlockable perks, medals and new parts, which you can use to design and share customized vehicles with friends.

Unfortunately, the current Playstation Network outage means there’s no way to test the online functionality yet. If “Apocalypse’s” multiplayer fidelity is a make-or-break factor in your decision to purchase or pass, you’ll need to wait a little longer to make a choice.


Lego Battles: Ninjago
For: Nintendo DS
From: Hellbent Games/TT Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Inevitably, somebody was going to wise up and design a real-time strategy game that would allow kids and absolute novices to cut their teeth on the genre without getting completely demoralized in the process.

Arguably, “Lego Battles: Ninjago” succeeds at doing exactly that. Just as arguably, though, it goes overboard in its attempt to do so.

Conceptually and structurally, “Ninjago” has its head in the right place. The Lego license, and TT Games’ impressive aptitude for mining it for comedic storytelling, gets the storytelling off to an entertaining start before passing the baton to the tutorial.

From here, “Ninjago” demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how to create a strategy game that feels like its bigger-budget contemporaries without overwhelming new players the way those games would. Controls work as you expect via the touch screen, and while the smaller screen sometimes makes it tricky to select specific units precisely, it works pretty well with practice. That holds true as well for the overlying interface, which lays out a host of management tools — a mini-map, resource tallies, build queues, objectives and more — in a way that’s easy to manage and rarely intrusive.

Unfortunately, where “Ninjago” goes a bit too far in the user-friendliness department is in the action itself, which rarely provides players with any serious adversity to overcome.

Too many missions force players to seek and attack rather than defend, which tends to limit the amount of creativity you can apply to your battle plan. That’d be unfortunate even if “Ninjago” provided you with fair fights to win, but there is almost never an instance in which your troops do not outnumber and overpower the enemy battalion by several degrees.

Short of malicious neglect of your troops, it’s awfully hard to lose a fight, and even kids who are completely green in the art of troop management should back their way into conquests with little trouble. Contemporary kids’ games are generally bad about underestimating the abilities of their audience, and while “Ninjago’s” lack of credit is no more offensive than that of other kids’ games, it’s harder for a slower-paced game like this to hide it.

The sum total is a game that’s impressive and underwhelming all at once. Ultimately, until a better challenger comes along, it’s still easy to recommend to parents with kids who want to graduate to “StarCraft” someday but have nothing to play with in the meantime. Even with the disappointing lack of difficulty, “Ninjago” succeeds in providing a pretty spot-on introduction to real-time strategy games, and between the story mode and a secondary skirmish mode that includes a handful of popular match types (tower defense, capture the flag, king of the hill and more), it’s definitely comprehensive.

Provided you have a friend with a second copy of the game, “Ninjago’s” two-player local wireless multiplayer is the best news of all. All the single-player skirmish matches make the move over to this area, and even the most unseasoned human opponent should provide a more unpredictable resistance than the A.I. does. It’s in this department where “Ninjago” most closely reaches its potential as a strategy game that doesn’t play down to its audience. Unfortunately, because you need one copy of the game per system, it’s also the one area players are most likely to never experience.


The Fancy Pants Adventures
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Borne Games/Over The Top Games/EA2D
Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $10

“The Fancy Pants Adventures” began life as a Flash game, but don’t dismiss it because of its origins. The Flash-esque graphics — flat and hand-drawn — are simple, but they perfectly complement some seriously fluid animation. That animation, in turn, allows “Adventures” to be a slightly different flavor of 2D platformer — one that depends heavily on wall jumps, slides and momentum as well as the usual running and jumping to fly through levels from bottom to top as well as left to right. All of this translates seamlessly from the keyboard to the gamepad, and “Adventures” considerably builds around the original game with a story mode and a large handful of mini-games and bonus levels that test players’ speed and ability to chain together acrobatic maneuvers. For the truly compulsive, it goes deeper than that: “Adventures” scatters collectibles and hidden challenge rooms all over each level, and maneuvering through the levels to find those rooms is just as fun as entering them and completing the challenge. You can blow through the story in a couple hours or so, but players bent on seeing and completing everything the game offers will be at it for many hours longer than that. If you need help, “Adventures” offers co-op support (four players, locally or online), but be warned: Like “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” the game includes the means and motivations for players to toss their good intentions aside and gleefully antagonize each other instead.