DVD 7/26/11: Source Code, Trust, The Matrimony, Park Benches, The Task

Source Code (PG-13, 2011, Summit Entertainment)
There’s no saving the passengers of a train that exploded en route to Chicago’s Union Station. But thanks to the vaguely-but-sufficiently-explained Source Code technology, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is able to freely and repeatedly explore and manipulate a lifelike simulation of the train’s and its passengers’ final eight minutes. His task is simple: Piece together enough clues to prevent an imminent dirty bomb attack in Chicago’s downtown. But until he does, he’s stuck in the virtual body of one passenger and forced to relive the explosion more times than can be good for the psyche. It’s like a futuristic, wholly nightmarish sequel to “Groundhog Day.”  And for Colter, what you know is actually the good part. “Source Code” initially seems poised to be one of those movies that simply repeats itself ad nauseam until Colter cracks the riddle. But in the first of a handful of seriously pleasant surprises, that isn’t the case at all. Getting specific would spoil the mystery of where “Code” eventually goes, but the destination transcends the conventions of the thriller genre and even the genre itself. The last act is, to put it kindly, absolutely preposterous and impossible to believe regardless of your belief-suspension abilities. But given how crazy the premise is in the first place, and given how much fun that absurdity creates in the last act, who cares? Michelle Monaghan, Michelle Monaghan and Jeffrey Wright also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Gyllenhaal commentary, trivia track, two behind-the-scenes features.

Trust (R, 2010, Millennium Entertainment)
Fourteen-year-old Annie (Liana Liberato) thinks she’s found someone special after meeting Charlie online. But Charlie has a confession to make: He isn’t really 16 like he originally said. No, he’s 20. Actually, that’s not true — he’s 25. And when he cops to being 25 before finally asking Annie to meet in person, you already know that’s a low number, too. You also know that what happens next can’t be anything short of awful. Here, however, is where “Trust” steps away from the glut of other movies that have broached the same subject. Rather than turn a very serious and very real parental nightmare into an absurd thriller that sells authenticity down the river in favor of entertainment, “Trust” confronts the nightmare head on and saves its best work for what, in more careless movies, would be considered the aftermath. He might be the catalyst, but this isn’t a movie about Charlie. Rather, it’s about Annie, her mother (Catherine Keener) and especially her father (Clive Owen), whose emotions understandably cover the spectrum, back over it, and run it over again. The fate of Charlie won’t be spoiled here, but it’s almost inconsequential: “Trust” is the rare movie that recognizes the gulf between catching a criminal and healing the damage caused by his crime, and it demonstrates that understanding with incredible skill and three performances you won’t soon forget. No extras.

The Matrimony (NR, 2007, Palisades Tartan)
When Junchu (Leon Lai) lost the love of his life (Bingbing Fan as Manli) to a freak accident, it created a void even Sansan (Rene Liu) — whom he ultimately married out of obligation to his mother rather than love — couldn’t fill. It doesn’t help matters that Junchu has a secret room devoted to Manli that he keeps locked and off-limits to his wife. It doubly doesn’t help when Manli returns as a ghost — and, with Sansan’s blessing, hatches a plan to assume Sansan’s body in hopes of being with Junchu again. Believe it or not, it’s just crazy enough to work — and not just for the first and second wheels. “The Matrimony” is a ghost story like so many other ghost stories, which means it often goes sideways when and as you expect it to. But between the first and second shoe dropping, we’re treated to a story of three lives and the torment all three endure for loving someone they can’t have. Junchu’s madness and Manli’s selfish plan start making just a little sense when the movie illustrates their respective losses as well as it does. But the surprising star of the show is Sansan, whose outsider status in her own home and marriage is so insurmountable that she’s willing to consider being possessed just to get an inkling of what it’s like to be lover. The conditions and results of her wish won’t be spoiled here, but “The Matrimony” has no trouble with the payoff after working so carefully on the buildup. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Extra: Cast/crew interviews.

Park Benches (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
“Park Benches” begins with a story about a man — a lonely man, if the “Lonely Man” banner hanging from his apartment window is to be believed. We don’t actually know, because we don’t actually see him — only his banner, and only from the viewpoint of office workers speculating about his fate from the building across the street. It’s 20-plus-minutes of scenes devoted to someone who, for all we know, is no one, and it’s a fitting way to kick off a movie that you might say is about nothing. “Park Benches” brings an absolutely loaded French cast (Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Candelier, Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni, among numerous others) along for the ride, and it’s busting at the seams with thoughtful, funny, clever, cute, vitriolic and every other kind of exchange between one person and another. As a picture of a neighborhood come alive and a validation of the face-to-face communication some fear is endangered, it’s never, regardless of mood, wanting for energy. At the same time, “Benches” meanders — really, really meanders. Even for a movie designed in the short-story mold, it wanders. Sometimes that means meeting characters once and never again. Sometimes that means an odd block of scenes set in a hardware store. Mostly, it means the exchanges outlive the characters, who are well-conceived but rarely built to endure. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you value storytelling over idea sharing, your patience might be tested. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, international tour footage, uncut Brico-Dream videos (makes sense after you see the movie).

The Task (R, 2010, After Dark Originals/Lions Gate)
You can call it horror, but at this point, it’s safe to classify “reality TV show that goes sideways and threatens to kill all the contestants” as its own genre. The premise has grown so tired so quickly that it’ll take something absolutely, crazily brilliant to make it interesting again. For a moment, “The Task” flirts with doing just that, funneling its premise into a twist (no spoilers) with all kinds of fresh potential. Instead, the story quickly plateaus, and while the movie uses a good scare tactic (having contestants complete tasks by facing their worst fears) to keep it from dragging too badly, it still stalls. But any disappointment that lies there pales in comparison to “The Task’s” final bow, which finds it achieving that moment of brilliance before losing its nerve, sending it back and settling for an ending that’s both supremely derivative and too much of a curveball to deliver a satisfying payoff. The squandered potential would be unfortunate under any circumstance, but it’s that much worse when a movie sees it, grabs it and elects to let it go.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 7/26/11: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, Wii Play Motion, Puzzle Agent 2

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Before it was cool to love “Deadly Premonition,” “Earth Defense Force 2017” was everyone’s ironically adored game of choice — a low-budget, sloppily-assembled but wholly lovable Japanese third-person shooter that took bad graphics, terrifying voice acting, comically stiff controls, jerky animation and mixed in a too-ambitious-for-its-own-good scope and some dead simple but absolutely chaotic shootouts to create one inexplicably great time.

With “Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon,” we have the third-person shooter equivalent of a cherished unsigned band putting out its major-label debut. An American developer has wrestled away the reigns, and it’s clear a bigger budget was in play during development. “Armageddon’s” control tweaks — both on foot and in vehicles — are a night-and-day improvement over “2017,” and while the visual presentation remains behind the curve, it’s considerably more stable and much better equipped to handle the action when everything is collapsing and exploding.

“Armageddon” has similarly matured in terms of content. Four soldier classes — trooper, jetpack, tactical and battle — each have a separate experience points system that unlocks new weapons as you play, and with more than 300 weapon variants on offer, you’ll have to play through the campaign multiple times to unlock everything.

For its part, the game includes remixed versions of finished missions and co-op support (four players online, two players offline) to make that prospect more enticing. Per genre custom, an arcade-style survival mode also is available for six players to shoot through together.

All of those frills are well and good, and they make “Armageddon” a technically better game than “2017” even as they take away some of the ricketiness that made that game so lovable.

Fortunately, if you can get over that, what remains is a game that, more polished and Americanized or not, still embraces what ultimately made “2017” a blast to play.

As the subtitle makes perfectly clear, “Armageddon” has not replaced giant insects with soldiers or stuffed the action into claustrophobic corridors. This isn’t a cover-based shooter against moderately large bugs: It’s an all-out bonanza against absolutely monstrous bugs, robots and spaceships on massive battlefields that are every bit as destructible as the balsa wood buildings from “2017.”

That, in this age of every third-person shooter running for cover, is what’s most important to preserve, and “Armageddon” hangs on for dear life.

The downside to all this is that, for all the chaos “Armageddon” unleashes, that chaos doesn’t change much from mission to mission. New enemy types appear, the remixed levels are a nice touch and the class and weapon variations certainly provide some additional flavor, but the core action — shoot lots of enemies, and then shoot lots more — doesn’t change much from the first mission to the last.

“Armageddon” isn’t much for storytelling, and that’s easily forgiven when your orders are to kill everything that moves and the act of doing so is mostly great fun. But when you don’t have much storytelling to do, you also don’t tend to mind your rhythm and tempo very closely. In “Armageddon’s” case, that leads to missions that start loud, stay loud, end loud and sometimes outstay their welcome.

This, of course, is nothing taking an occasional break won’t fix. But it’s something to bear in mind if your plan is to blitz through “Armageddon” during a quick rental rather than buy it and play it at a more measured pace.


Wii Play Motion
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50 (includes Wii Remote Plus controller)

The Wii remote has been granted a new lease on life with the news that it will play an integral role in Nintendo’s Wii successor. So if you were on the fence about investing in a new remote — in particular, the Wii Remote Plus, which combines the original remote and Wii MotionPlus attachment into one device the size of that original remote — you can invest with a little more confidence.

And if you’re going to do that, you may as well repeat history and throw in an extra $10 for another “Wii Play” minigames collection that’s much better than its throwaway price suggests.

Similar to its predecessor, “Wii Play Motion” offers 12 minigames whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the versatility of the controller inside the box. This time, with MotionPlus capabilities baked into the included remote, that means games with significantly better motion control fidelity than the much simpler games in the original “Play.”

(As a side note, know that while “Motion” scatters two-to-four-player multiplayer support across most of its minigames, any additional controllers you use either must be Wii Remote Plus controllers or have the MotionPlus attachment.)

With increased controller versatility comes an increase in minigame versatility, and while “Motion” never feels like an active game in the “Wii Sports” mold — you very easily can play all 12 games sitting down — it certainly encourages players to do some surprising exercises with the remote.

The most clever example, Spooky Search, even has you pointing the remote anywhere but at the screen, brilliantly using the built-in speaker to clue you into the location of ghosts so you can grab them and struggle, Ghostbusters-style, to pull them into a ghost trap.

Star Shuttle, on the other hand, turns the remote into a virtual space shuttle, using all the buttons as thrusters and tasking you with carefully docking onto a space station. If you ever played the infamous refueling minigame in “Top Gun” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, this will ring familiar. (Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as difficult.)

In a nod to the remote’s ability to recognize subtle motions, Treasure Twirl has you raising and lowering a deep sea diver by carefully rotating the remote like a throttle while tilting it to control the diver’s lateral movements.

The arguable gem in the package, Teeter Targets, requires an even softer touch: The remote becomes a teeter totter, which must contend with real-world physics to not only keep a ball in air, but guide it into different targets to clear a level.

Other games — an ice cream scoop balancing challenge, an elaborate version of whack-a-mole, a target-shooting game with multiple level themes, a virtual stone-skipping simulation — utilize the remote in less surprising ways. But while some games are deeper and more engaging than others, “Motion” doesn’t have any that feel like duds or even filler. All 12 work as expected, and all 12 are blessed with Nintendo’s unique brand of personality and presentation.

“Motion” isn’t hurting for replayability, either. Teeter Targets, for instance, features 30 levels and three additional endless modes, and each level and mode includes its own high score table. This isn’t the exception, either: Every minigame in “Motion” features its own handful of bonus levels and solo/multiplayer modes beyond the original mode, and every level of every mode has a leaderboard that records your and your friends’ best scores and times.


Puzzle Agent 2
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Macintosh
From: Telltale Games
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $7

Though not wholly original, “Puzzle Agent” nonetheless felt like a breath of fresh air for adventure games. Instead of more of the same point-and-click cause and effect, “Agent” unfurled its mystery through an intelligent assortment of brainteasers in the same vein of Nintendo’s terrific Professor Layton games. The storyline opted for a surprisingly low-key sense of humor rarely seen in video games, and the visual presentation — a mix of color pencils and charcoals, occasionally deliberately zoomed in to give everything an odd blur — remains one of a kind. If you played “Agent” and liked it, the long and short of “Puzzle Agent 2” is that it has more of it on offer. Loose ends from the first game’s cliffhanger ending are tied up somewhat, but new loose ends emerge in their place. The tone and visual style confidently migrate to the sequel untouched, and while “PA2” introduces some welcome new brainteaser types and cuts down on a few that were overexposed the first time through, most of what you see — from riddle types to how they’re presented — will be at least somewhat familiar (and, unfortunately, mostly easier). Still, for most fans of unsung FBI agent Nelson Tethers’ first adventure, this will suffice. The first game made a splash because it was a surprise, but it was the design, polish and variety of puzzles that ultimately made it endure. That, difficulty quibbles or not, applies the second time around as well.

DVD 7/19/11: Zonad, Take Me Home Tonight, Potiche, Peep World, The Kids Grow Up, Limitless, Doctor Who S6P1, Torchwood Complete UK Series, Top Gear US S1, Hey Dude S1

Zonad (NR, 2010, FilmBuff)
During its first 10 minutes, “Zonad” could scarcely be cuter. Frankly, if it was, this straight-out-of-the-1950s story of a precious Irish family that finds and takes in a charming, chubby space alien named Zonad (Simon Delaney) would border on saccharine. Fortunately, during minute 11, we’re introduced to the real Zonad — and, consequently, the real “Zonad.” Our alien friend? As you’ll immediately suspect at first glance, he’s no alien. Rather, he’s a rehab escapee with a cool costume whose sole purpose is to get drunk and get girls. And the movie? It’s still cute, but it’s also perverse and darkly, bitterly funny. The charming facade is a front, but it’s a brilliant front, because “Zonad” plays the two dispositions off each other with a hilarious level of seamlessness that should probably be impossible. The only arguable sacrifice is logic, given how easy it should be for someone, anyone, in this Irish village to stand up and cry foul. But if you’re watching “Zonad” in the hope that this ever happens, you’re watching it completely wrong.
Extra: Director commentary.

Take Me Home Tonight (R, 2011, Fox)
Five or so years after high school, the class of 1984 has moved onward and upward. Unfortunately, when the bus left the station, it left behind the smartest kid in class (Topher Grace as Matt), who parlayed his MIT education into a job at the mall video store. When his high school obsession (Teresa Palmer) walks back into his life through the video store’s entrance, one thing leads to another, and without getting too specific, Matt has both her ill-gotten attention and a chance to change everything at the (say each word with an exclamation point at the end!) social event of the season. If you think “Take Me Home Tonight” sounds like the best movie John Hughes didn’t make, you’ve got the right idea. From the outfits to the hair to the music and everything else in between, the late 1980s are all over this thing. But more than just shallow callbacks, “Tonight” just perfectly nails the “one night only” vibe that makes these movies as magical as they often are ridiculous. It’s implausible and goes so far overboard that it laps the board twice, but who cares? It’s the movies. And thanks to a funny script that makes likable characters out of just about everybody, it’s a blast. Anna Faris, Dan Fogler and Chris Pratt also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, music boombox, music video.

Potiche (R, 2010, Music Box Films)
A factory on the brink of a crippling strike. The factory’s owner (Fabrice Luchini as Robert Pujol) in failing health, his wife (Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne) struggling with a life on the shelf as a neglected trophy wife. An affair — check that, two affairs. Actually, three affairs, two of which could rip apart the fabric of Suzanne’s family. You can probably imagine a movie with all these things swirling around it. But did you ever think that movie would be as sweetly cute as this one is? Laid out on paper, “Potiche” (which, translated to English in this context, means “trophy wife”) reads like a dramatic mess, and that’s without even accounting for the setting (1977, France, in the swell of a women’s liberation movement and rumblings of political turnover). But from the opening scene, in which Suzanne sings to a gaggle of animals who eyeball her like she’s insane, “Potiche” has a knack for taking everything that’s terrible about this scenario and squeezing from it the sweet, heartfelt and often funny compulsions that have landed these mostly likable characters in such a mess. The progression of events is epic, perhaps unbelievably so, but when a movie keeps its smile beaming the way this one does from start to finish, a little implausibility is hardly a problem. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, costume test footage, 1970s-style trailer.

Peep World (NR, 2010, IFC Films)
Henry Meyerwitz (Ron Rifkin) isn’t terribly thrilled with what his children (Rainn Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Michael C. Hall and Ben Schwartz) have become. Fortunately, his kids are as equally disappointed in him, so while the feelings passed around the dinner table on Henry’s birthday aren’t warm, they’re at least mutual. The difference on this particular miserable birthday is that it follows the publication of “Peep World,” a hugely successful novel from Nathan (Schwartz) that’s much more a family tell-all book than a work of fiction. “Peep World” the movie starts and ends at the dinner table, but in between, it’s a mishmash of stories about the kids as they prep for a party no one wants to attend and go about lives on terms that are often similarly unwelcome. And that’s pretty much it. Were this one of those dramas about bitterly unhappy families, the bad feelings and general aimlessness of the plot would form one toxically unlikable union. Fortunately, it’s a comedy. And while “Peep” remains scattered, miserable and (in terms of characters) mostly unlikable, it’s consistently funny enough that it doesn’t matter. You won’t remember seeing it in a year, but if you like the cast, you’ll probably enjoy it while it’s on.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

The Kids Grow Up (NR, 2009, Docurama)
In “51 Birch Street,” documentary filmmaker Doug Block chronicled his parents’ 54-year marriage just as it decided to collapse. In “The Kids Grow Up,” he documents his relationship with only child Lucy just as she finishes high school and sets her sights on a college across the country. In both cases, Block demonstrates considerable skill as both an archivist and a storyteller. And in both cases, you might leave the film liking him a whole lot less than the sentiment behind these movies implies you should. “Kids” explores the notion of letting go while also introducing us to Lucy through a collage of footage that jumps back and forth in time. But the real picture that emerges is not of Lucy, but — for the second straight time — her dad. “Street’s” exploitative quotient was arguable. But in “Kids,” Block hijacks a moment that belongs to his daughter and essentially commercializes what feels like a feature-length guilt trip laid on a kid whose only crime is growing up. “Kids” finds its conscience in time to ultimately carry out its original sentiment, and it’s a credit to Block as a storyteller to even arrive in that neighborhood. But for all the talking Block does throughout the movie, it’s telling that the two best lines in “Kids” — one courtesy of Lucy, the other from wife Marjorie — are basically clever ways of telling him to shut up a little more and live behind the lens a little less.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes retrospective, family reaction footage, outtakes, Mike Block (Doug’s father) tribute.

Limitless: Unrated Extended Cut (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
The unfortunate thing about “Limitless” is that if there’s one word in the world that fails more than any other to describe it, it’s the one in the title. And that’s a bummer, because the little pill at the center of the movie’s plot — a top-secret drug that, upon intake, transforms its user into a living machine with a boundless memory, an insatiable work ethic and the ability to inhale knowledge in bulk — has all kinds of storytelling potential. Perhaps recognizing that, “Limitless” jumps all over the place after Eddie (Bradley Cooper) takes his first dose and hurtles into an exaggerated wonderland of wonderful and terrible side effects. At first, it’s an eye-popping and terrifically fun “what if” story. But when all the ideas mature into separate plotlines, things both slow down and quickly get messy. Dealings with a business tycoon (Robert De Niro) pull Eddie one way. Side effects pull him another, a dead woman pulls him another, his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) another, some murderous thugs another and wait, there’s more. “Limitless” never loses the energy it flashed in its promising early going, so it remains fun to watch even when you suspect it’s buckling under the weight of its own curiosity. But when the collapse is complete and “Limitless” finds itself so entangled that the central idea gets buried and a wholly ordinary climax saps its remaining time before kicking it to the credits, it’s hard not to walk away disappointed by what could have been and what ultimately was.
Extras: Director commentary, alternate ending, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Doctor Who: Series Six, Part 1” (NR, 2011, BBC): Now that we’ve made peace with Matt Smith as the new Doctor, it’s only fitting that we send him to 1960s America to kick off the new season. Only problem: This version of that reality includes a collective of beings, The Silence, that’s far scarier than hippies (and, more importantly, pretty much any other villain this show has given us in the past). Includes seven episodes, plus a dossier on the Doctor’s most challenging adversaries. Part two releases in November, but if you’re patient and only want the best, the whole season will be available shortly after in gift set form.
— “Torchwood: The Complete Original UK Series” (NR, 2006, BBC): Speaking of Dr. Who — and (plug alert) speaking the American “Torchwood” revitalization that’s freshly underway on Starz and the Web — the UK portion of this “Who” spin-off is now available in its full, uneven (two great seasons, one deeply polarizing miniseries) glory. Includes 31 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes and a ton of behind-the-scenes features (including the “Torchwood Declassified” behind-the-scenes series).
— “Top Gear US: Season 1” (NR, 2010, BBC): And speaking of the BBC, localization and polarization, the first season of the Americanization of what is perhaps the best car show ever made is now available. It’s unfair to assume every Americanized imitation of a British show is automatically dumb down, but in this case —  and despite the fact that the same studio produces both shows — it’s somewhat true.
— “Hey Dude: Season 1” (NR, 1989, Nickelodeon/Shout Factory): And unrelated to everything above, here’s yet another shrewd move in Shout Factory’s campaign to give every last Nickelodeon classic the DVD treatment they deserve. Includes 18 episodes, plus a new interview with series star Christine Taylor.

Games 7/19/11: Wipeout: In the Zone, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, Bastion

Wipeout: In the Zone
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Behaviour Interactive/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Lest there be any confusion at all, let’s put this right here: “Wipeout: In the Zone” is not, by the standards of such things as technical prowess, controller responsiveness and depth, a great game.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be awesome.

“Zone” is the home version of the ABC game show “Wipeout,” which isn’t so much a game show as a collection of absurd obstacle courses that pummel, trip up and otherwise knock the show’s contestants into a playful form of oblivion (usually water or mud).

The Xbox 360 already has a game, “Doritos Crash Course,” that mimics the “Wipeout” experience, and like “Zone,” it allows you to run through its courses as your Xbox Live avatar. It’s also, at a cost of free, a significantly better value than “Zone.”

But “Course” is played using a controller, while “Zone” is solely a Kinect-fueled experience. And while that means this is the less precise and more potentially aggravating of the two games, it also brings the absurdity of the onscreen activity to life in a way a controller simply cannot.

Provided you crack the manual ahead of time, “Zone’s” controls are mostly intuitive. To make your character walk, run, jump or crouch on the course, you do the same in place in front of the Kinect. Leaning left or right allows for a modicum of balance control when airborne or on a balance beam, and a stopping gesture halts your character’s movement entirely (because stopping to avoid an obstacle sometimes makes more sense than outrunning it).

“Mostly intuitive,” of course, isn’t the same as “intuitive.” Sometimes the game lags for just a moment when registering a new motion, and sometimes, that moment makes all the difference between success and failure.

Be prepared, also, to have some serious trouble aiming your landing when jumping between three or four consecutive targets. The lean controls work well on balance beams, but the sensitivity never feels quite right when you’re airborne.

More troubling than any issues with control, though, are the weird camera angles “Zone” sometimes uses to frame certain obstacles. Though the action mostly plays out like a sidescrolling platforming game, the camera occasionally tilts to odd angles when an obstacle’s size mandates zooming out. Gauging your timing is tricky enough as is, and during some of these sections, it just feels like guesswork.

The good news is that if you don’t take your course time too seriously, a fall or 10 isn’t a big deal — and not just because the instant replays are often hilarious. “Zone” is generous with checkpoints on the course, and the only penalty for falling is that your finish time won’t look as pretty as it would following a perfect run. (You can even skip portions of the course if they’re driving you crazy, though this will penalize your time.)

Similarly, while “Zone’s” issues should be inexcusable for a game centered around getting the best time and improving on it, it’s hard not to have fun if you play with the right mindset and especially the right crowd. “Zone” supports four-player local multiplayer — no online, unfortunately — and your failures are that much easier to forgive when you can revel in the wipeouts of others shortly after.

On a side note, if your ulterior goal with Kinect is to burn a few calories while playing games, this one’s a must-play. A typical event in “Zone” entails two to four minutes of continuous running, jumping, balancing and ducking, and stringing a handful of events together makes for a surprisingly good workout.


Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40 for standalone disc, $15 as downloadable add-on for Super Street Fighter IV

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

It’s only fitting to dedicate half-reviews to Capcom’s latest releases, because neither feels like a wholly new game.

In the case of “Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition,” though, that’s not a slam. This is, for those keeping score, the third “SFIV” release in three years, but Capcom’s handling it the right way by offering it as a $15 add-on to “Super Street Fighter IV” owners in addition to selling it in stores as a budget-priced standalone game.

Those who choose the $15 route will be able to switch freely between “SSFIV” and “AE” — a good thing, because “AE” isn’t another giant leap forward so much as a means for dedicated players to have access to the same version of the game that appears in arcades. Four new characters bring the roster to 39, but “AE’s” bigger selling point is a barrage of balancing tweaks that casual players may not even notice.

In other words, “AE” is primarily for the fanbase, who will break every last tweak down to the granule. But with that said, everything “SSFIV” added last year is in this year’s edition as well. If the standalone version marks your first foray into this franchise, this is the version to get — and, at $40, a great value for all it holds inside.

The same cannot be said of “Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D,” which turns a throwaway bonus mode from previous “Resident Evil” games into its own game and tries to sell a very empty package for the exact same price.

The idea itself isn’t inherently bad, because those Mercenaries modes, which turned previous “RE” levels and encounters into arcade-style, score-based survival arenas, were great fun.

The fundamental gameplay carries over, too. “Mercenaries'” characters and settings, all lifted from those other “RE” games, look good on the little 3DS screen, and the game offers two control schemes — one that lets you run and shoot simultaneously with a combination of the stick and face buttons, and one in which you use the same stick to alternately run and aim — that nicely compensate for the system’s lack of a second stick.

But Mercenaries mode has always been good for the occasional quick playthrough and not much more. Building a whole game around it doesn’t change that, especially when nothing has been done to meaningfully expand on the premise.

“Mercenaries” attempts to justify its asking price by providing a healthy amount of different characters (and, by extension, different weapons) and special skills to unlock. A scoring and grading system, in addition to tying into those rewards, also adds some arcade-style replay value to the missions.

Problem is, the underlying gameplay, all by itself, is too shallow and too repetitive for either of these perks and even local/online co-op support (two players) to carry it very far. Not much changes from one mission to another, so you’ll essentially do the same thing ad nauseam to get a few rewards that make it minimally and briefly more enjoyable to do it some more until you collect another meager return.

A controversy has erupted over Capcom’s use of a save system that doesn’t allow players to reset their progress and start over once they’ve unlocked everything. It’s a shortsighted move that, were “Mercenaries” worth purchasing and playing, would rob players of the ability to replay the game or let others play through it and unlock the rewards themselves. Fortunately, it’s not, so here’s hoping Capcom learned its lesson and doesn’t apply such practices to a game in which doing so will actually matter.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Supergiant Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence, use of alcohol and tobacco)
Price: $15

You have to do something a little bit special if you want to be a dungeon crawler that isn’t just another dungeon crawler. Fortunately, magnificently and on multiple levels, “Bastion” rises to the challenge. The basic tenants of a dungeon crawler are here — the isometric perspective, the mix of upgradable character attributes, skills and weapons (ranged and melee, of course), and the fundamental gameplay foundation for which the genre is known. But between the lines, “Bastion” is a whole different animal. The collectible skills — which range from grenades and mines to what by any other name are spells — are diverse enough to accommodate whatever combat approach you prefer. That’s no small thing, either, because “Bastion’s” action is considerably faster and more involved than that of most dungeon crawlers. (Get to know your shield and evasive roll maneuvers, because in a pleasantly surprising development, you’ll need both.) But while the prioritization of action over mindless grinding is “Bastion’s” most welcome development, the game’s presentation remains its calling card. Vibrant floating worlds literally assemble around you as you advance through them, and “Bastion’s” storytelling comes courtesy of a narrator who dynamically tells your story based around how you play the game. Imagine a sports game’s play-by-play, but applied to a wholly different genre and delivered with a level of polish and wit that puts many $60 games to shame, and you have an inkling of how good “Bastion” sounds. The idea makes so much sense, it’s amazing no one’s delivered on it until now.

DVD 7/12/11: Rango, Damages S3, The Third Wave, The Lincoln Lawyer, Insidious, Brother's Justice, Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III, ThunderCats: Original Series S1 P1

Rango (PG, 2011, Nickelodeon/Paramount)
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the best computer-animated movies are the ones that dance along that fine line between entertaining kids and adults. So what of “Rango,” which frequently ignores this line in favor of its own storytelling interests and stands poised to be the year’s best animated movie as result? “Rango” tells the story of the titular character, a pet chameleon who daydreams about being a hero before a turn of fate absolves him of his pet status and drops him into a town, Dirt, that’s crawling with rodents, reptiles and other odd creatures. Rango’s runaway imagination compels him to turn his daydreams into legends, the townspeople immediately appoint him as their sheriff, and now he must become a real hero by replenishing the town’s water supply. Nothing about that plot is terribly complicated, nor does “Rango” completely shun the notion of being cute and silly for silly’s sake. (Rango’s voice, courtesy of Johnny Depp, is particularly hilarious.) But when things inevitably go sideways, it isn’t a case of narrative obligation. Rather, “Rango” siezes the moment and barrels ahead, fearlessly deconstructing our chameleon’s psyche through metaphor, speech, mirage and other methods that, while visually awesome, almost certainly will fly way over kids’ heads. You can probably guess that redemption lies at the end of this road, because it always does in these kinds of movies. This time, though, getting there is far more than simply a matter of course.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, interactive tour of Dirt, picture-in-picture storyboards.

Damages: The Complete Third Season (NR, 2010, Sony Pictures)
Once was impressive, twice was amazing. Now, for the third time, “Damages” manages to spoil significant portions of its season finale while playing out its season premiere, and the skill with which it does it again — and tops itself — is just unfair to other shows at this point. Revealing pieces of the future is the trick that elevates “Damages” beyond the tag of being just another show about lawyers and people in over their heads, and season three once again toes the line between giving its twists away and driving you nut trying to figure out how A becomes Z. Season three takes place a year after the confrontation between Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) and Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) that lorded over season two, and it continues that storyline while introducing a new, season-long case that dramatizes the Bernie Madoff scandal. Yes, it’s ripped from the headlines. But the difference with “Damages” is that while it’s a show about law, it doesn’t take place in a courtroom. And while it’s a story based on true events, it’s a deeply, fatally personal dramatization that completely makes the story its own monster. Nearly everyone who remains alive is back in some capacity, while Campbell Scott, Lily Tomlin and a snarling, vengeful, cross-eyed Martin Short (yes, that Martin Short) join the cast.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, episode introductions, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and a very quick recap of the first two seasons.

The Third Wave (NR, 2007, Virgil Films)
Ragtag groups that band together in the wake of disaster are rarely known for being up to any good, but every rule has its shining exception. “The Third Wave” is the story of a couple of people who, en route to traveling to a place they’d never been (Peraliya Village, Sri Lanka) to do something they had no experience doing (help rebuild following the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people), expanded into a foursome. The foursome quickly became a few, a few soon became a group, and suddenly, a classroom’s worth of volunteers were working without regulators, government guidelines and other provisions that inevitably would only get in the way. The lack of both experience and structure — to say nothing of the language gap and the enormous task inherently facing anyone who picks up a hammer — makes “Wave” a fascinating look into the wonders and perils of volunteering by the seat of your pants half a world away. But what makes “Wave” especially great is its refusal to handle the tsunami’s victims with kid gloves. For all the good we see, there are unfiltered depictions of bitterness, infighting and even entitlement, and even the cameraman isn’t immune from accusations and name-calling. The premise doubtlessly makes for an uplifting story, but it’s the candor from all sides that takes “Wave” where few similar films have the courage to go.
Extras: Updates on the volunteers, Football without Boundaries feature, photo galleries.

The Lincoln Lawyer (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
When flashy, ultrasuccessful Los Angeles defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) meets would-be client Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) for the first time, what he sees is a terrified rich kid wrongly accused of badly assaulting a call girl. But this wouldn’t be much of a movie if that’s all there was to it, now would it? Without spoiling anything that happens next: Of course not. It’s hard to comprehensively write about what “The Lincoln Lawyer” does right without spoiling the reasons it’s worth seeing, so accept this painfully generic play-by-play that gives away nothing of real significance for what it’s worth. As thrillers go, “Lawyer” flirts with implausibility at times and ends on a somewhat abrupt, anti-climactic note after producing a pretty good turn of events in the courtroom. It also spends a little too much time on a subplot — Mick’s fallen marriage to Maggie (Marisa Tomei) — that gives too little for all the time it gets. But while Mick feels like a slightly upgraded archetype, he’s a fun character, and without revealing Louis’ ultimate role, he becomes much more interesting than first impressions imply. As go the characters, so does the case, and while “Lawyer” is a little derivative and more than a little imperfect, none of those imperfections get in the way of a good time. William H. Macy, Laurence Mason, Michael Peña and John Leguizamo also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Insidious (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
It’s hard these days to be a scary ghost story, because in this genre more than most, all the ghost stories have seemingly been told, retold and beaten into the ground. So good on “Insidious” for at least aiming for something different by plunging young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) into an overnight coma that sidesteps the tired side effects of the same old hauntings and possessions. Parents Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) scramble for answers, and again, “Insidious” gets points for offering up a reveal that’s more elaborate than the usual ghost story. It even reaches for logic and provides a little comic relief via two quibbling ghost hunters (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson). But even these strides can take “Insidious” only so far when the ultimate goal remains to scare people. And when the movie gets down to the business of doing that, it’s business as usual, with the same old jump scares and musical swells taking shifts en route to a finish that’s left in a precarious position by logic that doesn’t add up and scares that don’t really scare. The effort, along with a decent last-scene wrinkle, elevates “Insidious” beyond the pack of absolutely bland haunting movies that have saturated an already saturated genre over the last few years, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Extra: Three-behind-the-scenes features.

Brother’s Justice (NR, 2010, Well Go USA)
Dax Shepard (Dax Shepard, playing “himself”) has had it with the meager returns that come with being a second-tier comedic actor. So he’s formulated an idea, reeled in his go-to producer (Nate Tuck) and is embarking on a plan to make a mov
ie, “Brother’s Justice,” that will instantly transform him into an A-list martial arts superstar. As you might guess, it’s easier said than done, and as you might also have guessed, “Justice” is a mockumentary about the soul-draining favor trading, campaigning and friendship extinguishing that accompanies the creation of a movie that sounds better in Shepard’s mind than pretty much anywhere else. As perhaps you also predicted, “Justice” is almost certainly funnier if you’ve worked in that world than if you haven’t. Most Hollywood movies about Hollywood are. Still, even accounting for the glut of jokes that feel somewhat like inside jokes even when they’re not, “Justice” is pretty consistently amusing and tells a pretty entertaining story that doesn’t suffer from being too inside baseball. None of that praise should be confused with “hilarious” and “something we all can relate to,” but many have done much worse with the same scenario. Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper and David Koechner also star.
Extras: Shepard/Tuck/Koechner commentary, deleted scenes, an uncut version of “Drillin’ Deep,” which will make sense after you see the movie.

Worth a Mention
— “Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III” (NR, 2010, Adult Swim): If you like “Star Wars” in any remote capacity whatsoever and haven’t seen the “Robot Chicken” send-ups, you are missing out like a kid without money for the ice cream truck on a 100-degree day. Volume three wraps up the trilogy with an episode that, at 45 minutes, is as long as the first two episodes put together. It also reveals, among other things, how Boba Fett spent his time in the Sarlacc pit and the meanings behind orders one through 65. As always, animated “Star Wars” toys provide the visual presentation, while an outstanding voice cast (including numerous “Star Wars” cast members) lend their voices. Extras include seven behind-the-scenes features (including one with George Lucas, who has enthusiastically blessed the whole series), deleted scenes, four commentary tracks, panel/bus tour/premiere footage and bloopers.
— “ThunderCats: The Original Series: Season 1, Part 1” (NR, 1985, Warner Bros.): With the Cartoon Network reboot all booted up and ready to go, it only makes sense that the parent company reaches back and freshens up the original series for a new round of DVD releases that aren’t as absurdly overpriced as their original incarnations. Of course, if you already have those, nothing here is significantly new enough to engender another purchase. Includes 12 episodes, plus a retrospective.

Games 7/12/11: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Dead Block

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Other versions available for: Wii, Windows PC, Nintendo DS
From: EA Bright Light/EA/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)
Price: $50

Do you love Harry Potter — like really, really love him? Because you’ll have to if you want to enjoy the opening levels of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” which rocket from banal to passable if your undying love of the film compels you to experience it through the eyes of one seriously basic third-person cover shooter with some alarmingly flimsy weaponry.

Like the first “Deathly Hallows” game, the new “Hallows” takes on the characteristics of a third-person shooter — a reflection on the book and movie’s action-heavy focus, but a stark departure nonetheless from previous “Potter” games, which were non-linear and focused more on spells and discovery than blasting hundreds — no, seriously, literally hundreds — of Death Eaters into oblivion.

That, almost exclusively, is what you do in “Hallows'” brief campaign, which drops the preceding game’s sloppy stealth portions in favor of wall-to-wall carnage. The game softens its language to imply you’re not actually killing any of these wizards, but it’s hard not to be amused with (or, perhaps, turned off by) how wildly exaggerated the book’s violence is in this incarnation.

Though the stealth portions certainly aren’t missed, the straight line the new “Hallows” walks makes it harder to ignore how elementary it is as a shooter. A few diversions break up the action, and the game is good about dropping you into the shoes of a surprising array of characters. But regardless of whom you’re controlling, the overwhelming majority of the action — enter area, find cover, defeat scores of Death Eaters, repeat, repeat, repeat — is as basic as this genre gets.

Initially, it’s depressingly so. “Hallows” begins by putting you in Harry’s shoes with a single spell — Stupefy — that’s essentially the wizarding world’s equivalent to a basic pistol. Unfortunately, it’s so flimsy that comparing it to a pea shooter is an insult to pea shooters. Using it is boring, and considering the second and third spells you receive are designed solely to cast and destroy Protego shields, little about the combat is exciting early on.

But “Hallows” rallies from there by subsequently outfitting players with magic wand answers for a machine gun, grenade launcher, sniper rifle and even a heat-seeking rocket launcher. It’s hard not to smirk at how absurdly crazy the bloodbath gets when these spells are in play, but they’re so much more fun than the flimsy Stupefy spell that the complete abandonment of authenticity is completely welcome.

With that said, even high-powered wizard weaponry can’t elevate “Hallows” to anything beyond basic. It’s never bad beyond the early going, and that, along with the character diversity and chance to reenact the Battle for Hogwarts beyond anything the book conceived, is enough to make this recommendable to “Potter” fans. For everyone else, though, it’s a much harder sell. Third-person shooters are everywhere right now, and there is no shortage of better options if you’re more a fan of the genre than “Potter.”

“Hallows'” value proposition doesn’t help matters. You can put a bow on the campaign in a single dedicated afternoon of play, and the unlockable challenge missions — which are just story levels with par times and online leaderboards — aren’t a very enticing postgame reward. There’s no multiplayer content of any kind, and while the Kinect support in the Xbox 360 version of the first “Hallows” game wasn’t very good, this game shelves the novelty entirely rather than improve on it. (The PS3 version, to its credit, does add optional Playstation Move support.)


Dead Block
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Candygun Games/Digital Reality
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence, blood, crude humor)
Price: $10

If you’ve grown tired of the tower defense status quo, “Dead Block” might interest you. Because while this, too, is a tower defense game at heart, it’s also a third-person action game in which you directly control multiple survivors (either solo or via four-player splitscreen co-op) under attack from zombies. “Block’s” mechanics are simple: You have to destroy furniture to gather wood for boarding up windows, scour through other objects to find keys and parts with which to make traps, and manually attack zombies who break through your defenses. For whatever reason, music kills zombies dead, so the ultimate goal of each level is to assemble a guitar rig, play a very short rhythm game to rock out and wipe out all remaining undead. “Block’s” merging of third-person action and tower defense goes smoothly, and its overall style — cartoony characters straight out of a “Team Fortress 2” tribute game, 1950s iconography, levels presented as episodes of a campy television show — is terrific. But the downside of merging those two genres is that they compromise rather than thrive. The combat is clunky, your strategic options are little more limited than in a typical tower defense game (only so many windows and traps to configure), and while new characters, environments, items and traps show up on a regular basis, “Block’s” later levels aren’t drastically deeper than its early ones. But that’s why it costs $10 instead of $50. “Block” provides a good return on investment for that price, and what those later levels lack in surprises, they redeem in terms of challenge.

DVD 7/5/11: Deliver us From Evil, The Cape, Arthur, Wake Wood, Best of Sesame Street Spoofs! V1&2, Transformers: The Japanese Collection: Headmasters, Trailers From Hell! V2

Deliver us From Evil (NR, 2009, Entertainment One)
You’ll never misconstrue “Deliver us From Evil” as a low-key character study, but for a little while — and in spite of one character’s killing and the overt suggestion of trouble ahead — “character study” is the best classification there is. “Evil” begins as the story of two brothers — one successful (Lasse Rimmer as Johannes), one a troubled disaster (Jens Andersen as Lars), but both considerably imperfect and both with strong ties in a rural town that is knit entirely too tight for its own good. If that sounds dull, fear not: Even during the introductory phase, “Evil” marinates everything in a level of bubbling angst that matches the desaturated, high-contrast visual presentation and stands ready to blow with the right catalyst. Sure enough, when that early killing comes back to roost, the whole place explodes. A not-so-quiet character study engulfs into a chaotic, cathartic revenge story, and everything we’ve learned about Lars, Johannes and their loved ones and neighbors roars to life in a fiery, bloody, ugly and strangely life-affirming tale of assumptions and misunderstandings gone crazily, terribly, wonderfully awry. Lene Nystrøm, Mogens Pedersen and Bojan Navojec also star. In Danish with English subtitles.
Extra: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The Cape: The Complete Series (NR, 2011, Universal)
A lot of really good shows start off as slightly confused shows, and while there’s no way to know if “The Cape” was destined for excellence, the possibility certainly was there. “The Cape” gets its name from the titular lead character (David Lyons) whose police career (to say nothing of his life as a husband and father) get upended when he’s mistaken for Chess (James Frain), a masked supervillain whose alter ego happens to be the most powerful man in Palm City. A group of carnies and magicians (led by Keith David as Max Malini) help him capitalize on his new identity by giving him powers, a mysterious technofile (Summer Glau) gives him access to the city’s underground, and just like that, The Cape is taking on a rogue’s gallery of villains while aiming for the top of the ladder and a return to his former life. That’s a lot to make sense of with only nine episodes in which to make sense of it, and perhaps sensing the grasp of premature cancellation, “The Cape” feels rushed in some spots and a bit confused in others. But even at its messiest, there’s fun to be had in the lines the show draws between comedy and drama as well as between fantasy and reality. The rivalry between Chess and The Cape grows in fits and starts and occasionally runs in circles, but it goes places, and it’s a bummer that the impatient nature of network television never gave us a chance to see where the whole thing was headed.
Contents: Nine episodes, no extras.

Arthur (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
We had some fun and had some laughs, but it’s time to drive Russell Brand’s leading-man status out to the forest preserve and leave it there. Without even seeing it, many will dismiss “Arthur” — the story of a reckless, drunk playboy (Brand) who must marry a girl (Jennifer Garner) he doesn’t love to keep his inheritance — as another needless remake of a movie that holds up just fine. But while they’re absolutely right, “Arthur” at least doesn’t set out to completely alienate anyone with fond memories of Dudley Moore’s most famous character. The new “Arthur” doesn’t mess with the old “Arthur’s” storyline, and it generally stays on point rather than make the awful mistake of indulging its star’s (for lack of a better word) talents. It even flirts with total likability, thanks to a loving nanny (Helen Mirren) who steals a few scenes and a more authentic love interest (Greta Gerwig) who practically steals the whole movie. Predictability runs wild, but it’s predictability of the comforting sort — the kind expected of a remake concerned more with respecting the original instead of trampling on its memory. Even Brand gets in on the act with his most restrained performance yet. Unfortunately, even a measured Brand is a grating Brand when our eyes and ears are stuck with him for a movie’s complete duration. Inoffensive though “Arthur” is, it’s never truly great or even consistently pleasant, which it so easily could have been with a more endearing comic touch in the lead role.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Wake Wood (NR, 2009, Dark Sky Films)
Like many movie parents who lose a child, Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) have decided a change of scenery is in order after their daughter (Ella Connolly as Alice) is killed in a dog attack. Additionally, like most heavily rural areas that grieving movie characters move to, Wake Wood has some strange inhabitants and rituals — in particular, a ritual that would allow Patrick and Louise to resurrect Alice for three days and achieve some closure. As you doubtlessly need not be told by now, this ritual, like all movie rituals in wooded movie villages, is bound to go awry. And that’s the problem, among others, with “Wake Wood:” The premise has potential, but you’ve seen this movie already. Worse still, you’ve probably seen it done better. “Wood” has little clue what to do between its key plot turns, and it seems ill-equipped to explore the unbelievable angst that must accompany such a bittersweet opportunity. So it fills an awful lot of time with empty mumbling that’s supposed to pass as grieving and endless cycles of foreboding that nobody, given how predictable the plot is, needs to hear.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Worth a Mention
— “Best of Sesame Street Spoofs! Volumes 1 and 2” (NR, Sesame Street/Warner Bros.): “Sesame Street has always been good about throwing a few winks parents’ way while kids obliviously get their education, and this collection of parodies stands as proof. The first volume covers the earlier days, with “Casablanca,” “Dragnet” and “Twin Peaks” among the targets of parody. The second volume focuses on more recent spoofs, including send-ups of “24,” “30 Rock” and “Mad Men.” Extras on the two-hour set include an unaired “Jon and Kate Count to 8” spoof, the Internet-famous “Smell Like a Monster” Old Spice spoof, and three clips from the Guy Smiley-hosted “Beat the Time” game show.
— “Transformers: The Japanese Collection: Headmasters” (NR, 1987, Shout Factory): For the second straight time, Shout Factory comes to the rescue just as another abysmal “Transformers” movie threatens to tear childhood memories asunder. This time, though, the heroic act goes beyond mere nostalgia by importing a series most fans probably haven’t even seen. Though it picks up where the original American “Transformers” cartoon left off, “Headmasters” had never made it to America in any polished, official capacity. So this set — featuring the original Japanese audio and a proper set of English subtitles instead of some poor homemade dub — is beyond overdue. Includes all 35 episodes, plus art galleries.
— “Trailers From Hell! Volume Two” (NR, Shout Factory): If you’re unfamiliar with trailersfromhell.com, don’t let the name fool you: It’s a celebration, rather than a condemnation, of the two-minute trailer and its ability to make any film look amazing. Each trailer collected on the site comes accompanied by commentary from actors, writers, directors and more, turning a promo into an illuminating and sometimes exciting Cliff’s Notes edition of a film. The DVD rounds up 20 new trailers not available on the site, and includes a bonus — a full-length, anamorphic widescreen cut of Roger Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” — that’s as welcome as it is ironic. If you’ve ever wanted to own a DVD where a film is dessert and the trailers are the main course, no one can stop you anymore.

Games 7/5/11: F.E.A.R. 3, Cars 2, Backbreaker Vengeance

F.E.A.R. 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Day 1 Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language)
Price: $60

Is it possible to be both a mostly excellent game and a big letdown? It sure is, and “F.E.A.R. 3” — the arguably-misnamed fruits of a game in development since before “F.E.A.R. 2” released — stands as enjoyable, aggravating proof.

First things first: the story. Because of “F3’s” unusual development experience — look it up if you’re curious about the reasons and means — it feels more like a continuation of the original “F.E.A.R.” than its sequel. The game opens a big window into the tormented origins of the first game’s chief protagonist and antagonist, but if you’re hoping for a payoff on the second game’s cliffhanger, you’ll mostly be stifled until the very end.

Far more jarring than any of this, though, are the changes new developer Day 1 Studios has made to the core “F.E.A.R.” gameplay, which is known as much for its pristine enemy intelligence and creepy atmosphere as its unique storyline.

That atmosphere returns, though this time, it’s competing with a persistent scoring system that frequently (and prominently) awards you points for killing stylishly and using various weapons and techniques multiple times. The system, which feeds into a game-wide XP system that awards you perks with each new rank you attain, is a fun new wrinkle that, along with the ability to play completed levels as the first game’s antagonist, encourages replaying the campaign different ways. But the continual flashing of scores and mini-achievements definitely clashes with the moody atmosphere “F3” wants to present, and it’d have been nice if players who wanted to could at least hide the notifications and just see a post-mission score roundup (which the game already displays).

The beloved artificial intelligence also returns. But in a troubling development, it also leaves, and not just once.

“F3’s” early levels are mostly terrific, and the additional focus on cover — “Take Cover” button and all — doesn’t transform enemy soldiers into robots who repeatedly pop in and out of cover. They still behave intelligently, calling out your position, changing theirs and double-teaming you when a level’s layout allows for flanking.

But storyline developments also pit you against what, by any other name, are zombies. They stupidly rush at you, and “F3” immediately transforms into a twitch shooter that’s all reflex and no intelligence. An even stupider enemy type appears later to put up an even less interesting fight. A third enemy type is more formidable, but only because it requires more firepower to destroy and not because it does anything more advanced than rush you.

During “F3’s” back half, flat encounters like these outnumber the great shootouts that dominate the first half. The levels reflect it, too: Elaborate battlefields give way to stifling corridors, and some encounters may as well be from a light gun game. The highlights still outnumber the lowlights, but the margin is dispiritingly slim.

Fortunately, the rest of what makes “F.E.A.R.” great — excellent firepower and great control — is back, and it applies to an inspired online multiplayer suite (four players) as well as the campaign (which supports two-player local/online co-op).

“F3’s” splits its multiplayer between competitive play and variations on the survival mode that’s creeped into every shooter of late. But the touches it applies to each mode — an encroaching wall of death in one survival mode, the ability for players to possess and use A.I. soldiers as leverage in competitive play — add a layer of teamwork and strategy that works in perfect tandem with the low player limit. Additionally, the XP perks you earn in the campaign carry over here (and vice versa). 


Cars 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS, PC, Mac, Linux
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Critics have caustically dismissed the “Cars 2” movie as a soulless vehicle for endless merchandise tie-ins. And perhaps critics have a point, because while the “Cars 2” video game gets few points for imagination, it’s the first Pixar-branded game that’s better than the movie on which it’s based.

Like previous “Cars”-branded games, “Cars 2” is, at its purest, a racing game. Playable versions of a ton of vehicles — from the obvious picks like Lightning McQueen, Mater and Finn McMissile to more obscure choices like Daisu Tsashimi and Tomber — are on hand, and the game’s most basic event is a three-lap, eight-vehicle race to the finish line.

But while the movie’s identity crisis results in a messy story about racing, villains, world travel and surprising amounts of gunplay, the game just parlays that mess into something that’s a little bit “Burnout” and a little bit “Mario Kart.” You can use the right stick to sideswipe opponents immediately in your vicinity, and most tracks are teeming with weapons that may not look like turtle shells and banana peels but often function in a way that will ring immediately familiar to “Kart” fans.

As with most arcade racing games, you can accumulate a turbo boost by driving stylishly or dangerously. The difference in this case is that, because these cars are alive, they can jump on cue and perform various arial tricks without a need for ramps. A few ground tricks (including the amusing ability to drive backward) also help fill the boost meter, but jumping is the most useful: Along with setting up arial tricks, you can hop certain gaps and rails to reach shortcuts off (and sometimes above) a track’s main road.

Though the actual act of driving in “Cars 2” is a little unremarkable — the slow default speed of the vehicles will remind precisely no one of “Burnout” — it’s sufficiently responsive. When you throw in the combat and tricks, it adds up to a level of chaos that’s frantic but wholly manageable — accessible to players of all ages, but never so easy as to bore the experienced among us.

It’s only too bad the game doesn’t use all these bits and pieces to flesh out a few more event types than it has. “Cars 2” has a decent-sized single-player campaign, but the decent size means you’ll see the same handful of events over and over. Sometimes, in the case of races or events where you have to take out as many grunt “lemon” cars as you can before time runs out, the events are exciting enough to endure repeat performances. But other events that impair the formula — lonely endurance events in which you’re riding on a nearly empty track, for instance, or events that take place in open-ended but small arenas instead of on tracks — overstay their welcome rather quickly. The game misses opportunities to surprise players with new mission types and chooses instead to throw out more challenging favors of the same modes as the campaign continues.

Things diversify a little more on the multiplayer (four players) side: Some campaign events add a co-op angle, a few new modes (a destruction derby-style competition and a base defense mode) join the fray, and a free play mode allows you to design your own mission parameters (for solo play as well).

The only downside? “Cars 2” supports local multiplayer only. As too often happens with games aimed at kids, online play drew the short stick and sits this one out. 


Backbreaker Vengeance
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon to: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: NaturalMotion/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $15

“Backbreaker’s” full-priced 2010 debut consisted of a fun minigame that propped up a full-fledged game of football that was too broken to recommend. As such, “Backbreaker Vengeance” — which cuts the price, strips out the traditional football and trains all its focus on a suite of minigames — makes all the sense in the world. Like its predecessor, “Vengeance” kicks off with Tackle Alley, in which you’re the ballcarrier and you need to obey the laws of physics and momentum while using jukes, spins, hurdles and other evasive tactics to dodge tacklers and string together a stylish touchdown. But the new Vengeance mode flips the script by making you a tackler who has to dodge blockers and catch the ballcarrier, while Supremacy mode is a five-round, four-man race to the end zone in which the worst rusher becomes the tackler in each subsequent round. “Vengeance” doesn’t get a whole lot more intricate than that, but it complements each mode with five tiers of increasingly elaborate configurations of obstacles and opponents. It also smartly focuses on high scores and online leaderboards, using a risk-versus-reward scoring system to encourage total, creative mastery of each tier. The competition extends beyond scores, too: Each mode supports two-player local/online multiplayer, though the Supremacy mode’s inability to accommodate four human players is disappointing.