DVD/Blu-ray 11/29/11: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Art of Getting By, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Future, Another Earth, The Smurfs, One Day, Smallville CS, WWII in HD CE

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (R, 2010, Magnolia)
Picture it: A group of attractive college kids head to the remote woods for a retreat. In a dilapidated cabin nearby live a couple hillbillies who spot them on the road, run into them at the general store, and spy on them after the sun goes down. You know what happens next: A pretty girl (Katrina Bowden) disappears and her pretty friends start dying off as they try to rescue her. But what if the whole thing was just a crazy misunderstanding? And why has it taken so long for a movie to spin this scenario around as cleverly as this one does? The Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) in “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” are, in fact, those hillbillies, and while they don’t make the most comforting first impression, they could not be more delightful when you get to know them. It isn’t worthwhile to spoil where the misunderstanding goes from there (or where the “Evil” in that title actually originates). But as parables about the perils of judging a book by its cover, “TDvE” is hilarious in an almost poignant way. And as a send-up of a horror movie trope that went out of style long before Dale’s overalls did, it’s a knight in denim armor.
Extras: Director/Labine/Tudyk commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, outtakes, storyboards and a feature arguing that Tucker and Dale are, in fact, evil.

The Art of Getting By (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
If we’re born alone, die alone and waste too much time in between working toward things that ultimately don’t matter, who is to say high school senior George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) doesn’t have a point by blowing off homework, dismissing the folly of popularity and openly labeling himself a misanthrope before he’s even old enough to curse life from behind the walls of a cubicle? Certainly not “The Art of Getting By,” which gets off to a roaringly droll start with a declaration of ideals that swiftly elevates George well above the realm of the garden-variety me-against-the-world teenager. This being a movie, complications naturally crop up, and without spoiling any specifics, a girl (Emma Roberts) lies at the root of that complication. Again, though, “TAOGB” shuns the conventional and trite. There’s a coming-of-age story in here somewhere, but it’s not that drippily sentimental one you’ve seen many times too many, nor is it the obnoxiously neat one that changes George into someone far more ordinary than the guy we meet in act one. Instead, what we get is amusing, messy, thoughtful and willing to admit it doesn’t know everything without backing down from the belief system that makes it special. That’s a lot to accomplish for a story about a guy not concerned with accomplishing anything, but “TAOGB” pulls it off exceptionally well.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (G, 2010, Sundance Selects)
To appreciate “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” you must first appreciate southern France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave — a cavern preserved in time and a rare natural museum that hasn’t been fussed with by modern hands or even seen by public eyes. It also helps to appreciate the effort Werner Herzog undertook to gain access to something so staunchly protected by legislators and forces of nature far more powerful than he. Herzog was allowed only a skeleton crew and battery-powered equipment that didn’t emit excess heat, and his shooting time was limited to a few hours a day for six days. Got all that? Good. “Dreams” does itself an immense service by telling this story behind the story, because the context makes what the crew finds inside (no spoilers!) immeasurably more exciting. The movie leaves no doubt it’s a Herzog production: His dreamy narration frequently goes off the heart-on-sleeve deep end, and as documentaries about undiscovered territory go, this one’s more emotional than empirical. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The effort to successfully gain entry to the Chauvet is endemic of a labor of love, and “Dreams” derives its magic from passing that love onto the viewer. Hard, cold science will have its day, but this adventure belongs to plain old wonder.
Extra: Short film “Ode to the Dawn of Man.”

The Future (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
It’s not as of Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are slacking in the present. They both have jobs (they hate) and they pay their rent for their apartment (that’s too small) on time. But with their decision to adopt a rescue cat who will be able to come home in 30 days, it’s time to start really living life before parenthood begins. Cute, right? You bet. “The Future” has a cute premise, and everything that immediately greets us at the front door — from the way Sophie talks kind of like Phyllis from “The Office” despite being roughly half her age to the oh-my-God adorable voice that narrates the story from the cat’s point of view — comes off as just precious. “The Future” gets off to such an adorable start, in fact, that it’s almost wrong to mention what an Ivan Drago-esque punch to the gut it ultimately becomes. That isn’t a knock on the film, because the way it parlays that early quirkiness into a startlingly, almost cruelly profound screed about the perils of wasting time is pretty magnificent. “The Future” maintains its charm and manages to flirt with a potentially cloying twist without letting it become cloying, and that gradual but significant shift leaves a much more powerful impression than more conventional techniques ever could. But if you see “The Future’s” quirky exterior and have designs on it being a idiosyncratic comedy that gently tip-toes to the credits, here’s your disclaimer: It isn’t, and it doesn’t.
Extras: July commentary (she also wrote and directed), deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature.

Another Earth (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
If someone told you a movie called “Another Earth” featured a storyline about a second Earth appearing, visible to the naked eye, in our sky, would you do anything but assume this development was the driving force of what certainly must be a work of science fiction? You probably would — which is why “Earth’s” emergence as a character study about a girl (Brit Marling as Rhoda) coming to grips with a car accident that ended three lives and derailed her own is just a little bit surprising. Science fiction permeates throughout “Earth,” but the events surrounding the second Earth’s discovery and potential for housing intelligent life play out almost as dressing for Rhoda’s attempt to apologize to the one person (William Mapother as John) who survived the accident she caused. It all ties together, but if you’re dreaming of a movie that dials up the special effects and trains its sights on this mysterious new planet, this is not that movie. Nor does it need to be. “Earth” is an engrossing character drama that’s extremely accomplished in the art of showing where telling need not apply, and its use of the sci-fi backdrop is at worst a completely fresh use of setting colorization and at best a terrific device that plays quite perfectly (and logically) into the story’s resolution. Some hard work and luck will be necessary for “Earth” to find its way to the audience that will embrace it on its terms, but such is life for movies that dare to take chances. No extras.

The Smurfs (PG, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Almost as soon as the first teaser trailer appeared, children of the 1980s were shooting daggers at “The Smurfs” movie, which drops computer-animated versions of The Smurfs in front of a live-action New York City while a live-action Gargamel (Hank Azaria) gives chase. But even if you’re a devotee of the Church of Giving Things a Chance, it’s hard to keep the faith when the finished product so acutely embodies every last fear “Smurfs” fans had about it. Where to start? How about when Gutsy Smurf refers to his groin area as his enchanted forest, or when Grouchy Smurf does that beloved children’s bit where he lays on a shrink’s couch and spills his feelings about building emotional walls? Do you remember the episode of “The Smurfs” that centered its story around a human character’s (Neil Patrick Harris) pursuit of a promotion at his marketing firm? You will if you see this — but only if that sticks out more than the shameless “Guitar Hero” ad that’s the eye of a completely crazy storm of brazen product placement. “The Smurfs” could have made this Smurf-out-of-water story work without betraying its characters, but with riffs on bluetooth headsets, prescription meds and kids who kick complete strangers in the shins in toy stores (because that’s how kids act, right?), the whole thing is far too cynical to dare poke fun at cynicism itself. It’s fitting that there’s a joke about focus groups in “The Smurfs,” because the sum total of all this talent, money and technology is something only a focus group coordinator could possibly love.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, animated short “The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol,” deleted/extended scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, music montage, bloopers, second screen Smurf-O-Vision (requires an iOS device), two game.

One Day (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Twenty three years is a long time, but the same can’t be said of the 108 minutes that comprise “One Day’s” runtime. And that’s a problem when the movie — which tells the story of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) — wants to feature nearly every one of those years in that short span of time. “Day’s” premise is clever, insofar that it’s always set on July 15th — the day Emma and Dexter met for what at the time looked like a one-night stand in 1988 — regardless of the year. But “Day” never truly embraces that notion of a single date’s significance until late into the story, which also happens to be where the movie only truly finds its heart. In between, and for us as well as them, too much time is frittered away on career-related storylines and themes of post-college disillusionment that plateau and repeat themselves. Rarely, until too late, is there simply a moment shared between the two that isn’t also shared by other characters, scenarios or outside causes of stress. “Day” tells us how significant Emma and Dexter’s relationship is, but it only fleetingly really lets us see and recognize it without any prodding on its behalf. That, along with an arguably needless twist near the end, makes for a story that’s more deflating and frustrating than enchanting.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Worth Mentioning
— “Smallville: The Complete Series” (NR, 2001, Warner Bros.): You may not realize it if you weren’t following it, but “Smallville” endured for 10 seasons. Whether your interest also endured for 10 years is another story, but either way, that’s quite an accomplishment for a show — centered around the origins and adolescence of the eventual Man of Steel — that very easily could have run out of ideas and novelty after a season or two. This 62-disc gift set, fashioned like a two-volume hardcover book library, includes all 218 episodes, along with a replica copy of “The Daily Planet,” a 32-page illustrated episode guide, a series retrospective, the documentary “Secret Origin: The American Story of DC Comics,” a Comic-Con retrospective, pilot episodes of other DC Comics television series and all the extras that originally appeared in the show’s individual season sets.
— “WWII in HD: Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2010, History): New footage of World War II seems to emerge from vaults on an annual basis, so what makes History’s “WWII in HD” so special? The answer lies in the wholly utilitarian name: The footage is in color, and because it was shot on film and since has been restored, it’s presented here in true high definition. If images of the war fascinate you on any level whatsoever, this seven-hour document is not to be missed. This new collector’s edition includes two new specials, “The Air War” and “The Battle for Iwo Jima,” as well as the extras (two behind-the-scenes features and profiles of the people featured in the footage) from the original edition.

Games 11/29/11: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Disney Universe, Where is my Heart?

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
For: Xbox 360
From: 343 Industries/Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

Though “Halo: Combat Evolved’s” impact has been exhaustingly documented, there may be no finer point than the realization that the 2011 holiday season’s best new first-person shooter may very well be a 10-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint.

At least on the solo (or two-player co-op) side, that’s what “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” is — a pretty carbon copy of the game that launched with the original Xbox in 2001 and subsequently formed the foundation of a video game juggernaut.

Arguably, “Anniversary’s” faithfulness is to a fault if you’re accustomed to the advancements the series has made — from enemy A.I. to the ability to sprint, hijack enemy vehicles and dual-wield weapons — since that first game. Even visually, and regardless of a graphical revamp that brings everything up to par with the recent “Halo” games, there are allusions to yesteryear in the jerky way other characters animate and the odd turns enemies sometimes make when flanking and backpedaling.

The upside to staying so faithful? A cool trick that lets you swap between the old and new graphics at any time with a single button press. The transition is a little awkward insofar that the screen briefly fades to black without without stopping the action. But as a fulfillment of curiosity and a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far graphics have come in a decade, it’s a wonderful little touch. (Just be sure to use it when the coast is clear.)

As it happens, the rest of the game remains pretty wonderful as well. “Halo’s” sequels and prequels have outdone it in terms of scope, design variety and level arrangements, but the tenets of those great games — wide-open battlefields, branching paths even indoors, enemies that swarm and flank as well as rush in packs, numerous opportunities for devising your own unique plan of attack — are fully intact here. It was groundbreaking in 2001, and in 2011, following on the heels of oppressively linear military shooters that routinely punish creativity in their campaigns, it still puts many of its newer, flashier contemporaries to shame.

For those who never played it on the original Xbox, the full-circle timing of this anniversary release could not be better. Last year’s “Halo: Reach” allowed players to play out the story that fed into the events of the original game, so if “Anniversary” is new to you, it may as well be a sequel to “Reach” in the same way a “Star Wars” movie from 1977 is a sequel to one released in 2005.

For the returning players, each mission hides a terminal that unlocks new insights — courtesy of perennial series antagonist 343 Guilty Spark — about where the series is headed when the next “Halo” trilogy kicks off next year. The terminals are sometimes harder to find than they should be, but for the diehards, they’re absolutely worth seeking out.

“Anniversary’s” faithfulness isn’t quite as hardcore on the multiplayer side (16 players). The game includes remastered versions of six classic maps and some match configurations that allow players to reenact the original game’s four-player multiplayer, but it uses “Reach’s” multiplayer engine to power it.

At no point does “Anniversary” pretend otherwise: The game uses the “Reach” branding, includes all of its features (from Forge mode to jetpacks), and allows you to play with “Reach” players who purchase the six maps as a $15 download. The maps that shipped with “Reach” aren’t included on “Anniversary,” but in a generous touch, “Anniversary” includes a code that lets you download the maps for free and use them in “Reach” if you have a copy.


Disney Universe
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)
Price: $50

Though “Disney Universe’s” name isn’t exactly untruthful, it might be a little misleading. This is neither a simulation nor an expansive online multiplayer game (as games with the word “Universe” generally tend to be), and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the “Kinect Disneyland Adventures” game that lets you explore a virtual Disneyland.

If anything, the “Disney” in the name is more garnish than dish — a decorative exterior for a platforming game that has more in common with “LittleBigPlanet” and the Lego games than anything the “Universe” tag might imply.

Unless you had grandiose ideas for “Universe,” though, that little surprise is — particularly for younger and unseasoned players — a pleasant one.

“Universe’s” levels are modestly sized and pretty self-contained, framed by a fixed-camera perspective that functions similarly to what you get in those Lego games. Also like those games, completing a level in “Universe” typically entails complete a handful of simple mandatory objectives (which clear the way, cause-and-effect style, to the exit) and some trickier optional objectives that are good for collectibles, achievements/trophies and pride in a challenge comprehensively completed.

At no point does this become strenuously difficult: Even flat-out dying in “Universe” provides no punishment beyond simply losing a few hundred coins, which are abundantly available and function as currency toward unlocking new levels and other bonus content. But “Universe” isn’t so easy as to be insulting or boring even to players who are experienced enough to cruise through it.

In large part, that’s because “Universe” does the little things better than those Lego games do. Enemies storm levels at regular intervals, but while the combat is simple and loose, it’s far more refined (and, consequently, miles more fun) than the Lego games’ shoddy excuse for brawling. “Universe” also handles locomotion with considerably less guesswork: The characters don’t run and jump like they’re wearing soggy clothes, which makes it more fun to get around and easier to (among other things) correct a bad jump while airborne. Given a fixed camera’s occasional tendency to betray the laws of perspective and distance, even a little extra polish in this arena goes a long way toward alleviating aggravation.

Predictably, everything the game does is more fun when in the company of others. “Universe” supports four-player offline co-op, and it fulfills the mission of giving players numerous reasons and means to antagonize each other as well as work together.

If, at this point, you’re wondering how Disney fits into this, the answer is “loosely.” “Universe’s” levels are themed according to Disney properties, but the themes feel like themes more than the actual worlds from whence these brands came.

That’s doubly so for the characters you play as and face off against: Instead of literal Disney characters, they’re vinyl dolls wearing costumes with Disney character themes. If you played “LittleBigPlanet” — and particularly if you purchased any of the Disney-branded outfits for that game — the characters in “Universe” will almost certainly look just a little familiar.

The significant upside to that loose interpretation is that it allows “Universe” to cram a whole ton o’ Disney — Mickey and friends, Winnie the Pooh, the Muppets, the Disney Princesses, Pixar’s most wanted, Jack Sparrow, “Tron” and more — into the game without having to explain why Lilo and Peter Pan might be joining forces on a pirate ship. The story it comes up with instead is amusing, the characters look adorable in their Disney Halloween costumes, and the costume abilities and level intricacies shout out to their respective themes in clever ways that set this apart from just another Disney game.


Where is my Heart?
For: Playstation 3/Playstation Portable (universal, via Playstation Network Minis)
From: Die Gute Fabrik
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

A traumatic family hiking trip inspired Bernie Schulenburg to design “Where is my Heart?,” and what results is a wonderful case of turning a negative into a positive. “Heart” follows the adventures of three monsters lost in the woods and searching for a way home, and at its most basic (on the first level), it’s a simple case of running and jumping through a level that fits entirely within the constraints of a single screen. From there, though, the levels break apart into disconnected panes that form a coherent level but do so out of order. A pane in the top left of the screen might depict scenery that’s adjacent to a square on the bottom right instead of right next to it, and you’ll need to dance along the edges and use the level design’s context clues to decipher how to reach the exit. “Heart” goes from easy to ingenious extremely quickly, and once it gives you the ability to rotate those panels and navigate parallel dimensions in search of shortcuts on the other side, the puzzles become downright devious. Fortunately, everything else about the game — the adorable 8-bit graphics, the sweet demeanor of the monsters, a sound palette that’s minimalist in a way that evokes Apple II-era games — makes “Heart” too impossibly charming to even frown at while its puzzles cerebrally kick you in the face. An understated gem like this stands in complete contrast to the tornado of big budget games that are bigger and badder iterations of the same old thing, and if you’re dying simply the play something you’ve never played before, this one is essential.

DVD/Blu-ray 11/22/11: Super 8, Sarah's Key, Flypaper, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, The Family Tree, Doctor Who S6, It Takes a Thief CS, The Adventures of Tintin S1, The Office Collection SE

Super 8 (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
Four months after losing his mother in a factory accident that’s more complicated than can be elaborated on here, Joe (Joel Courtney) is searching for a semblance of normal by playing a part in his friend’s (Riley Griffiths) homemade zombie movie. But when a train violently derails during filming and the crash sends the kids down a rabbit hole that leads to a long-captive monster breaking free, who’s to say what normal is anymore? “Super 8” received kudos for its efforts to be a throwback to the early 1980s, and if you’re looking for on-the-nose indicators, the depiction of the cars, clothes, small-town real estate and camera technology indeed hits it flush on the nose. But where “Super 8” truly gets the era is in its dually respectful depiction of kids and their adult overlords. When the likes of “The Goonies” reigned supreme, PG movies weren’t afraid to let kids act like real kids — even if it meant letting them swear like sailors now and then. They also recognized the thick line that separates the detestable brats no one likes from the kids who mean well but can’t ignore the mischievous voices in their head that tell them to seek adventure and wreak havoc along the way. “Super 8” is a love letter to that voice, and at that, it’s pure poetry. Everything else — explosions, a monster’s arguable humanity, a terrifically measured reconciliation of that original story point, the stoner (David Gallagher) in touch with his inner child — is a simply a fun bonus. Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard also star.
Extras: Director/filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, nine behind-the-scenes features.

Sarah’s Key (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
When Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) locked her little brother in a hideaway and took the key with her, it was neither punishment nor kids being kids. Rather, it was an attempt to keep him hidden and spare his life while French authorities took Sarah, her parents and more than 13,000 other Jewish fugitives away from their homes on two days in July 1942. Forty years later, an American journalist living in France (Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia) discovers her husband’s family apartment is the home of this hideaway, and with that revelation, “Sarah’s Key” embarks on a stunningly unnerving course that unlocks and mashes together four decades of secrets spread across multiple generations of multiple families. The sheer volume of stories told about the Holocaust has created a scenario where it’s dangerously easy to go numb and assume everything that can be said has been said. But with that occupation alone, 13,000 stories are left untold, and while “Key” is a work of fiction, it very truthfully underscores just how absolutely seismic an effect any single one of these stories can have on generations of lives. “Key” shifts between timelines, and it’s as much a story about Julia as it is about Sarah. That creates a little confusion early on, particularly when a side plot about Julia wanting another child just seems to stick out against the backdrop of the Holocaust. But “Key” gracefully and carefully ties it all together, and the payoff it leaves behind as it walks away is absolutely perfect.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Flypaper (NR, 2011, IFC Films)
It must be some kind of bummer to plan every detail of a perfect bank robbery, only to kick the robbery off and find another group of bank robbers descending on the same bank at the same time. But such is the fate of two factions — one polished and armed to the teeth, the other cheerfully bumbling and almost happy for what they see as assistance more than an intrusion — who drop in on a busy bank at the exact same moment. That can’t be a coincidence, right? Happily, it isn’t. “Flypaper” is a funny story about bad people with tiny glints of decency doing a bad thing at a terrible time, and it probably could have coasted on the strength of the robbers, bankers and customers it continually tosses into each other’s way. But beneath “Flypaper’s” amusing exterior is a rather devious little heist story that twists on itself with increasing dexterity as the real story behind this dual robbery spills out. You might see a couple surprises coming, and you might dismiss a couple others as contributing to twist overload, but the elaborate lengths “Flypaper” is willing to go to tell a crazy story about just another day at the bank is kind of awesome in light of how little it had to do in this department. That it never stops being funny is merely a bonus. Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Octavia Spencer, Jeffrey Tambor and Mekhi Phifer comprise a mere portion of a great ensemble cast.
Extra: Interviews.

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (PG, 2011, Anchor Bay)
There really isn’t a word to describe the special level of incomprehensible that powers the “Spy Kids” movies, and when you take that bonanza of weirdness and toss in a villain whose nefarious plans include time travel and all the logistical havoc that wreaks, this one never had a chance to make sense. “All the Time in the World” is the fourth movie in the series, and while it’s set seven years later and features new kids (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) and parents (Jessica Alba and Joel McHale), the two original Spy Kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) return to give the new heroes a little fan service disguised as assistance. But no return is as pronounced as that of the “Spy Kids” flavor of madness — story threads fraying in all directions, spectacular and spectacularly cheesy special effects dueling to the death, and gadgets so weird that entire swaths of the movie appear written solely to fit them in somehow. “Time” isn’t the all-out mess its immediate predecessor was, but it’s certainly messy even by the standards of a haphazard kids movie. If you’ve avoided these up until now, stay the course. And if you like the series’ unique style, even when it results in movie that are hard to classify as good, there’s bound to be some part of this massacre that will evoke those feelings one more time.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview, behind-the-scenes feature, spy gadgets feature.

The Family Tree (R, 2011, Entertainment One)
It might hit you after a few scenes, a quarter of the way through or even toward the end of the opening scene conversation at a family therapist’s office. But if you watch “The Family Tree,” there’s bound to be some point where you ask yourself what in the world is going on here. After some deduction, it could be argued that “Tree’s” main plotline involves an unhappy wife and mother (Hope Davis as Bunnie) who, during a bout of amnesia, forgets she fell out of love with her husband (Dermot Mulroney) or that she even had two kids (Britt Robertson and Max Thieriot) who have grown into unlikable weirdos. But the faint flicker of that storyline must contend with a completely ridiculous tidal wave of characters and storylines that are so underdeveloped as to often not deserve those classifications. More than a collection of stories — to say nothing of a single, cohesive story — “Tree” feels like a slew of bits that must have seemed funny enough on paper to dump into a movie at any cost. Unfortunately, they aren’t, and the occasional play for something more heartfelt falls totally flat when caught in a storm this violent. “Tree’s” only genuine source of amusement is the horror Bunnie experiences when she begins to reacquaint herself with her miserable family and friends, and it’s only funny because we as viewers can completely relate. Chi McBride, Selma Blair and Christina Hendricks, among way too many others, also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Worth mentioning
— “Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series” (NR, 2011, BBC): If there was one inarguable reason to pass on the “Doctor Who: Series Six, Part 1” set that released in July, it’s because the BBC already had announced the November availability of a complete season set. If you waited, here’s the reward for your patience. Includes 13 episodes, plus commentary, the 2010 holiday special, four “Monster Files” webisodes, five prequel webisodes, deleted scenes and 15 behind-the-scenes “Doctor Who Confidential” features. (For those who couldn’t wait, don’t worry: Part 2 is available on its own as well.)
— “It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series” (NR, 1968, Entertainment One): It’s amazing it’s taken this long, but the Robert Wagner-fronted drama that does for cat burglars what 007 does for secret agents is finally given the 18-disc treatment it deserves. Includes 66 episodes, plus the extended pilot, interviews, a four-piece coaster set, a liner notes booklet and a replica 35mm film frame.
— “The Adventures of Tintin: Season One” (NR, 1991, Shout Factory): As “The Adventures of Tintin” completes its journey from 1929 comic strip to 2011 motion picture, the merchandising express is running at full speed. “Tintin’s” hand-animated incarnation — which lacks the movie’s spectacular budget but arguably has it beat in terms of presentational charm — ran for three seasons, and this first season features the two episodes that inspired the movie’s plot. Includes 13 episodes, no extras.
— “The Office Collection Special Edition” (NR, 2001, BBC): Some of us are still grieving the loss of Michael Scott, but if you miss David Brent (Ricky Gervais) even more, perhaps this collection can cheer you up. Includes all 12 episodes and the holiday special, plus the original pilot, the behind-the-scenes documentary “Comedy Connections: The Office,” season one episode introductions from Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and interviews with cast members and famous fans of the show.

Games 11/22/11: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Saints Row: The Third, Jurassic Park: The Game

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $50

No matter which door you walked through to get here, “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” likely is the game you want or do not want it to be. If you think the series is staler than moldy croutons, so is this game. If you think it’s picked up too many bad habits that have sent it from the cutting edge to behind the curve, this one validates your position.

Conversely, if you think “Zelda” games do what they do boldly, peerlessly and just plain better than other games do, “Sword” could be the game of your dreams. And if you believe in motion controls like Nintendo does, this is the validation you’ve been waiting five years to play.

It is in the area of combat — a weak spot in every “Zelda” game released in three dimensions — where “Sword” unquestionably wants to and does leave its mark. In contrast to the Wii’s first “Zelda” game, where simply shaking the Wii remote any old way produced one of a handful of proportionally generic sword strikes, “Sword” accurately matches your remote (MotionPlus attachment or Wii Remote Plus required) to the sword. Hold the remote awkwardly over your head and Link does the very same, leaving him vulnerable to attack from enemies who not only take advantage of your openings but also punish you for telegraphing and repeating attacks. Enemies naturally exhibit weaknesses and tells of their own, and it’s on you to exploit them while keeping them guessing and keeping your shield up.

(The shield, mapped to the considerably less capable nunchuck attachment, doesn’t control as flexibly, but it handles basic blocking perfectly fine.)

In typical Nintendo style, “Sword” devises myriad ways to capitalize on its enhanced range of motion, and not merely with regard to swordplay.

Per series custom, “Sword” provides bombs for purposes of environmental manipulation as well as combat, but now you can bowl as well as throw them simply by doing so with the remote. Items you take for granted like the boomerang, meanwhile, are outright replaced by (unspoiled) new gadgets that function similarly but better take advantage of motion controls. That, in turn, feeds into puzzles and dungeons that accommodate motion without sacrificing the scope and intricacies for which “Zelda” dungeons are revered. Better late than never, “Sword” seals Nintendo’s case for motion controls as a way to significantly enhance a traditional game at no cost to tradition.

At the same time, “Sword” is swimming in idiosyncrasies that very, very arguably have overstayed their welcome. This is the most ambitious and moving story the series has ever told, but it’s one that undergoes nearly five hours of exposition, hand-holding and fetch questing before it starts getting interesting, and it’ll be a few dungeons after that before it really gets good. If you don’t like that early going, you won’t love the collect-a-thons and fetch quests that needlessly pad the time between dungeons, either. (Fortunately, the unfortunate lack of a passable interface for tracking optional quests makes it easy to just forget about them and plow forward.)

“Sword’s” orchestral score and watercolor-esque visual style are series high-water marks in both respects, but the continued omission of voice acting — whether you find that charming or archaic — sticks out more awkwardly than ever.

Link’s platforming abilities, meanwhile, are that much clumsier thanks to an awkward dash mechanic that gets more use than it deserves. And that obnoxiously binary brand of “Zelda” stealth, where simply getting spotted means immediately starting a segment over? It’s back in its brief but recurring role.

Stuff like this — and sometimes hours of it — are the price paid for the stuff in between, which finds “Zelda” in as fine a form as it’s ever been in the 3D age. This is the most ambitious game Nintendo has ever made, but it’s a stubborn strain of ambition, and if you come into “Sword” already baring strong feelings — favorable or otherwise — this one likely will cement them.


Saints Row: The Third
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows
From: Volition/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $60

Three chapters into a series that began as a straight-faced “Grand Theft Auto” wannabe, “Saints Row: The Third” commences by almost immediately giving you a reaper drone as your first weapon upgrade and letting you call in (and control) missile airstrikes at will from that moment forward.

And with that — and following an opening sequence in which you lead a bank robbery that somehow culminates in an airborne shootout that includes skydiving into and through the windshield of a crashing airplane — we are off to the races.

Before we get carried away with how out of control this fable gets, it’s worth stopping and emphasizing how solid “SR3’s” underpinnings are. The game’s third-person shooting controls are far more versatile than what “Grand Theft Auto IV” produced, and the driving (and, eventually, biking and flying) controls are what you expect — loose and arcadey, but with enough weight that driving a sports car, street sweeper and tank (yes, there are tanks) are markedly different experiences. The graphics aren’t always easy on the eyes, but they certainly suffice considering how big, busy and free of load times the open world is.

Perhaps more surprising is how much care goes into the coherence of a story and world in which anything and everything goes. “SR3’s” humor is juvenile, but it’s cleverly, sharply and even endearingly juvenile — more silly than obscene, though exceptions certainly apply when one mission involves rescuing a friend from a brothel via a rickshaw chase. The main character’s gender, voice and appearance are your calls to make thanks to “SR3’s” terrifically flexible character editor, but nothing you do changes the lengths the game goes to develop our hero and his/her friends, enemies and random weirdo acquaintances into legitimately good characters.

With that groundwork thoughtfully laid out, “SR3” is free to go completely bananas en route to creating the most shamelessly bombastic open-world game you can play today.

Where to start? How about the multi-factional war that pits the Saints against cops, Luchadores, supernatural beings, an armed-to-the-teeth private military and zombies all at once? Because every faction brings its own playable toys to the fray, you can (among numerous examples) jack and joyride a tank, wield a weapon that’s basically the Gravity Hammer from “Halo,” or steal a gunship and rain hellfire down on gang strongholds that fall under your control once cleared out.

And that’s just the first few hours. Without spoiling any specifics, “SR3’s” toy chest only gets crazier as you progress through its story and wrap your arms around the ridiculous cache of upgrades, properties, (very) customizable vehicles and not-of-this-world weapons that recurrently avail themselves to you.

Your default pistol, for instance? Outfit it with upgrades, and it shoots exploding projectiles that launch enemies airborne. Should you launch an enemy from a high altitude, “SR3” will measure how far he flies and reward you in the form of experience points.

In fact, pretty much everything you do — from balancing a handstand on a moving jet to driving on two wheels to flying through your windshield after a nasty crash — is tracked in some way for high score purposes and cashed in for experience that unlocks more surprises. “SR3” wants you to use this playground to goof off as creatively as you like, and it lets you know by rewarding you in some way for every single thing you do.

The only place “SR3” dials it back is with multiplayer, with “SR2’s” 12-player competitive multiplayer omitted completely. The two-player survival mode that replaces it is amusing, but considerably more limited in its novelty. Fortunately, two-player anything-goes co-op — which was the absolute best way to maximize “SR2’s” burgeoning goofiness — returns intact.


Jurassic Park: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox Live (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows, Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)
Price: $30

“Jurassic Park: The Game” might be the year’s most insulting game — but only if you even consider it a game at all. In truth, most of “Park’s” most would-be exciting moments — pitting you on the run from dinosaurs — are nothing more than interactive cutscenes. Press the button prompts when they appear, and you live to experience to the next cutscene; miss too many prompts, and you just do it over until you get it right. Not exactly immersive, and unfortunately, the stuff that takes place in between falls even flatter. Telltale cited “Heavy Rain” as its inspiration for “Park’s” methods of locomotion and interaction, but even that game gave you direct control over your characters in a 3D space. This one doesn’t, often reducing mundane motions like climbing stairs and cutting shrubs to dead-simple and repetitive button prompt exercises. Worst of all are the sections that task you with investigating a scene and deciding how to proceed: “Park” somewhat resembles a point-and-click adventure game here, but with all the points of interest highlighted for you via yet more button prompts, your brain need not even apply. Between this and dialogue trees that all seem to lead to the same place, the whole thing feels more like a VCR board game from 1988 than a video game from 2011. “Park” had potential to take the movies’ mythology down some fun new roads — it’s set directly after the first film’s conclusion — but it’s impossible to get immersed in a game that often appears to be playing itself while you press a button here and there to prod it along.

DVD 11/15/11: Beginners, Larry Crowne, Superheroes, What Women Want, When Strangers Click: Five Stories From the Internet, Rio Sex Comedy

Beginners (R, 2010, Universal)
“Meandering” isn’t typically a word that flatters a movie. Neither are “jumpy” or “distracted.” But we’ve been making a lot of movies for a long time now, and if there is any constant to the art of doing so, it’s that the rules of common sense apply only to those incapable of breaking them. “Beginners” tells a tale of three Olivers — as a young boy (Keegan Boos) struggling to understand his loose cannon of a mom (Mary Page Keller), as an older son (Ewan McGregor) coming to grips with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) coming out following his mother’s passing, and as a guy falling awkwardly in love with a comparably awkward girl (Mélanie Laurent) after his father passes away. It jumps liberally between timelines, works in multiple narrative styles without reservation, and devotes a wonderfully disproportionate amount of time to a small dog named Arthur who understands 150 words but speaks none himself. And yes, “Beginners” distracts itself and meanders enough to work up a sweat. But in painting a picture of Oliver and the many relatable influences that make him who he is, it assembles a funny, clumsy, sad, sweet and everything-in-between ode to living life that could scarcely be more on point. We all know people like these, if we aren’t them ourselves, and it stands perfectly to reason that this — neat and rule-abiding it is not — is how best to tell their story.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, one behind-the-scenes feature (presented as a short film), a promotional spot that’s a lot more endearing than your typical promotional spot.

Larry Crowne (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Big-box supermarket grunt worker Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) walked into his boss’ office expecting an employee of the month award, and he walked out unemployed. Without a college degree, he’d reached his personal ceiling in the company’s fast track, and with nowhere to go but nowhere, he had to go. So Larry — single, unemployed, a bit out of step with life, and watching his home barrel toward a date with foreclosure — is going back to community college. And as goes Larry to college, so returns Hanks to what feels like indie filmmaking. Good thing? Bad thing? Could be either. “Larry Crowne” is an extremely pleasant movie that completely belies its star power, rolling out a level playing field that has as much room for its many supporting characters as it does for Larry and Mercedes (Julia Roberts), the bitterly unfulfilled woman who becomes his public speaking teacher. On the other hand, Larry’s other teacher (George Takei) and some of his classmates occasionally just feel like they’re there, getting lots of screen time that doesn’t necessarily feed into what very obviously is Larry and Mercedes’ mid-life coming-of-age story. That’s a trick indie movies regularly play, and it’s one they get away with by fortifying it with strong, funny writing and characters whose intrusions are welcome. “Crowne” does the same, and if you can enjoy Larry’s new friends on the account that you won’t necessarily take anything away from meeting them, it’s pretty easy to enjoy Larry’s story as well.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, on-set hijinks.

Superheroes (NR, 2011, Docurama)
Between “Super,” “Kick-Ass” and others, the whole notion of regular people moonlighting as superheroes clearly strikes a nerve. If it strikes yours, how would you like to meet Master Legend, Dark Guardian, Mr. Xtreme and a few more of the more than 300(!) registered(!!) superheroes who do this in real life? The men and women profiled in “Superheroes” are indeed the real thing, taking on criminals with little (if any) training, weapons ranging from homemade to rudimentary and costumes running the gamut from pathetic to spectacular. They elaborate on their means and motivations, and in the other corner, psychologists and law enforcement officials dance around the legality of vigilantism and rifle through the reasons anyone would put themselves at risk for ridicule as well as violence. If that sounds dry, fret not: “Superheroes” also shows our heroes in action — on the street fighting crime, at the bar kicking back, and in the community performing some indisputable good in service of the needy. The real-life superhero movement is a much bigger deal than you might ever have guessed, and it’s a shame “Superheroes” isn’t a series that could devote entire episodes to one or two heroes at a time. There’s a lot of ground covered here, but there’s also far more to this movement than a single movie has time to explore.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

What Women Want (NR, 2011, China Lion)
Does the name ring any bells? If you faintly recall a movie in which a then-beloved Mel Gibson could suddenly hear women’s thoughts after electrocuting himself in his own bathroom, you’re remembering correctly. Little has changed in this Chinese adaptation: Sun Zi (Andy Lau) is a womanizing ad exec who, on top of having his promotion go to a woman (Gong Li) he hit on only moments prior, discovers the hard way that women don’t think as highly of him as he once thought. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the new “What Women Want” may be that more drastic changes come from the cultural impact of smartphones and the economy than the cultural shift from America to China. “Want” marginally goes its own way with regard to its characters and their mannerisms. But on a fundamental level, it retains everything that made the American original so easy to enjoy despite how helplessly predictable it was. We’re normally treated to Americanizations of other countries’ films instead of the other way around, so this is a treat to witness. In Mandarin with English subtitles. No extras.

When Strangers Click: Five Stories From the Internet (NR, 2011, Disinformation Company)
People meet online every day in real life, and it seems safe at this point to assume the vast majority of them aren’t murdered or kidnapped like their fictional counterparts almost always are. So credit is due to “When Strangers Click,” which tells five different but consistently grounded stories about people who turned to the Internet in search of a human connection. “Click” mixes it up with regard to how people met, how those meetings took shape, and the origins and motivations of those making the connections. But it’s the differences in how those stories end that ultimately carry the movie. No one ends up kidnapped or jailed (or anything close to it), but even as “Click” picks away at preconceived notions about meeting people online, it doesn’t necessarily arrive at storybook endings. Meeting people is complicated and disruptive regardless of medium, and that’s especially so when one person lives in New Jersey and the other lives in Prague (to touch on one story). “Click” runs short at only 56 minutes long, and there’s certainly room to go further in depth with any one of these stories, but the movie makes compelling use of the time it has.
Extras: Director interview (set in the “Second Life” video game), filmmakers Q&A, deleted scene.

Rio Sex Comedy (NR, 2010, FilmBuff)
Plumb the depths all you like, but you would be hard-pressed to find a plainer name for a movie that isn’t a parody of other movies. For better or worse, though, “Rio Sex Comedy’s” title fits pretty comfortably. It’s a comedy, it dabbles in (more through telling than showing) sex. Most prominently, it’s set in Rio de Janeiro, which more than any character is the star attraction. “Comedy’s” storytelling, comprised of multiple storylines that accommodate a huge, international roster of characters whose paths don’t necessary cross, is well-written and easy enough to enjoy. But the movie’s early going suggests it has a desire to say something at least a little bit profound, and between all the characters and storylines pulling it in every direction, that never comes close to happening. Call it an enjoyably light movie about escaping to paradise, or call it a vapid commercial for an idealized version of Rio that isn’t quite in step with the real thing. Depending on your personal slant, “Comedy” provides copious ammo for either argument. In a multitude of languages with English subtitles where necessary. Bill Pullman, Charlotte Rampling, Irène Jacob and Fisher Stevens, among others, star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Games 11/15/11: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Super Mario 3D Land, Slam Dunk King

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

Bethesda’s massive open-world role-playing games have forever been an endearing battle between vision and technology, with the limitations of the latter always causing bugs and weird production value hiccups that keep the former in check.

Quirks like those still make appearances in “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” but a sparkling new engine makes these occurrences feel like occurrences instead of the norm. Technology finally appears ready to ride along with vision, and “Skyrim” takes it to the ends of its earth in what almost inarguably is the biggest game anyone has ever made.

Improvements make subtle introductions during an opener that spotlights two elements — voice acting and character design — that ranked among previous games’ biggest reality checks. They remain weak links here, but the days of faces even a mother wouldn’t love and one voice actor seemingly voicing half the cast appear to be over.

From there, ambition takes over. “Skyrim” quickly introduces you to your first dragon — the game’s star attraction, and the lynchpin in a big first-act reveal that won’t be spoiled here. The scope and individual pieces of that encounter — dragon artificial intelligence in particular — are immediately stunning.

Shortly thereafter, you’re fully loosed into Skyrim — with a quest and a burgeoning storyline, but with the freedom to ignore them indefinitely and explore the land’s 16 square miles as you please.

And what a world it is. That “Skyrim” is gargantuan isn’t a surprise, because these games always are. But when you experience the enormity and variety of terrain — mountains crawling with everything from blizzards to bears to wooly mammoths, elaborate caverns and towns that exist far off the storyline’s main road, lush forests and fields that house bandits, dragons, giants and more — that exists between two locations that appear so close to each other as dots on your map, it’s just staggering.

Best of all, everything is fair game. Dragon chasing you? Lead him into a giants den and watch giants, dragons and who knows who else duke it out (and come for you next if you make a play for the post-fight spoils). In an era of games growing obnoxiously reliant on cutscenes, “Skyrim’s” most memorable encounters just happen — organically, dynamically and differently for every player who plays it their own slightly unique way.

That stands to reason, because you can sink 100 hours into “Skyrim’s” optional quests, guilds and storylines before even setting another foot on the main road, which should be good for another 50 or so hours. If you want to get technical, “Skyrim” never completely ends, thanks to a system that generates random secondary quests into perpetuity. There’s a limit to the variety of those quests, of course, but that’s the price paid for endless adventure.

“Skyrim’s” first-person melee combat still feels clumsy and artless, though ranged and magic attacks work well, especially with the ability to map different spells to each hand. Happily, Bethesda has finally figured out how to make the third-person perspective something more than useless curiosity fulfillment. It looks good, and it feels good for melee combat. A button press swaps perspectives at will, so you can enjoy the benefits of both in tandem.

Much more roundly improved is “Skyrim’s” overall interface, which organizes your quests, maps, inventory and development with considerably more polish than in the past. Leveling up is exponentially more dynamic: As you flex certain skills — be it combat and defense or persuasion and lock-picking — those skills improve and contribute to your overall development, which you can augment with special perks that are neatly arranged across all 18 skill categories. The interface still presents a learning curve, but it’s Bethesda’s most accessible system by several orders of magnitude.


Super Mario 3D Land
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

It’s hard to believe there’s a dimension that has eluded the plumber who took platforming mainstream in two dimensions, reinvented it in three, and spent entire chunks of two recent adventures running upside down like it was a morning jog.

But “Super Mario 3D Land” takes place in a dimension that is neither exclusively two nor three dimensions, and the game’s willingness to present itself from semi-fixed angles that change from level to level makes it hard to pin this down with mere numbers or names.

Lest you worry, “SM3DL” plays at its core like any other Mario game. Mario can run, jump, punch blocks and kick turtle shells as naturally as ever, and the goal — reach the flagpole before time runs out — is a callback to the very first “Super Mario Bros.” A hall of fame’s worth of classic enemies (Goombas, Bullet Bills, Boos, Bowser and his kids) returns alongside some new enemies, and Mario complements some new power-ups (the boomerang suit being the most prominent addition) with a handful of perennial and returning favorites (fire flower, Tanooki suit, propeller box).

“SM3DL” moves at a very slightly slower speed than most contemporary Mario games do, particularly with regard to how quickly Mario can transition from a run to the kind of sprint needed to make longer jumps. But the difference is nearly negligible, and if you’re familiar with Mario’s repertoire, you need not even crack the manual to become almost instantly acclimated with “SM3DL’s” controls.

Rather, where “SM3DL” deviates is by filtering that time-tested action through a new perspective that borrows equally (and simultaneously) from Mario’s 2D and 3D adventures.

Though levels frequently look like 3D Mario levels, they’re presented from a fixed angle that prioritizes running through them linearly instead of exploring them from all angles. Every level hides three special coins off the main road, and collecting them often comprises the most satisfying and challenging aspects of “SM3DL’s” main quest, but that’s the extent of exploration.

Initially, and thanks to a crop of early levels that are fun but too short and entirely too easy to complete, the perspective shift feels like a compromise.

But once it gets comfortable, Nintendo does what it does best and mines the new angles for as much unique gold as it can. Some levels pull the camera sideway to start as old-fashioned 2D levels before rotating and zooming way out to reveal a massively vertical environment that still moves with the urgency of an old-fashioned sidescroller. Occasionally, the game shifts slightly diagonally to add layers behind layers (think “LittleBigPlanet,” only more intuitive). Sometimes it opts for a strict overhead view with scrolling rooms — essentially paying tribute to the original “Legend of Zelda’s” level design while infusing it with the full might of Mario’s athletic arsenal.

“SM3DL’s” original eight-world quest never becomes terribly difficult, but when these and numerous other ideas start flowing and Nintendo goes a little crazy with the level designs, the continual promise of surprises lurking around corners makes the tepid difficulty relatively easy to forgive.

Should you disagree, the revelation of a second quest (which avails itself upon completion of the first) should soothe your concerns. Nintendo has been protective of the knowledge that a second quest even exists in “SM3DL,” so without spoiling too much of what lies within, let’s just say this: It’s much tougher than the first quest, and its fearlessness with regard to difficulty lets it go that much crazier with the designs and special conditions it tosses around. If the “SM3DL” Nintendo advertises on the box isn’t doing it for you, the one hiding behind it almost certainly will.


Slam Dunk King
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: PikPok
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: Free

With respect to the big-budget masterpieces and sprawling epics crashing onto store shelves this fall, sometimes all you want to do is dunk a basketball. On that, the polished-in-its-own-right “Slam Dunk King” has the last word. In “King,” basketballs fly into the air as if fired by a clay shooter, and your objective is to grab them with your finger and dunk them with a powerful swiping motion. Where “Dunk” makes this fun is in its allowance for creativity. A no-nonsense dunk will get you a couple points, but mimicking a windmill, corkscrew, alley oop or double pump (among numerous others) will award you considerably more. (You even get bonus points for pulling down the rim post-dunk.) If you want to net a truly inspired score, a combo system lets you chain a massive score by juggling one basketball in the air and dunking others without letting that first ball drop, which kills the combo and could potentially end the game. “King’s” embrace of style and risk/reward makes it a ton of fun to play, and a leveling system and suite of unlockable power-ups and courts gives it surprising legs for such a simple idea. It’s responsive to your swipes, pretty to look at, and supports Game Center and OpenFeint (complete with cloud saves, so you can resume progress across different devices) as well.

Games 11/8/11: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Viewed under a critical microscope, “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” is by no means a perfect game.

Viewed on a television and from within the throes of immersion, however, it’s awfully good at feeling like one. And that’s plenty good enough.

You already know this if you played “Uncharted 2,” which took its predecessor’s mix of shooting and large-scale platforming and funneled it into one insane set piece after another.

“Deception” works similarly, and like its predecessors, it isn’t the best in class at any one thing it does. The platforming is exhilarating when set aboard a sinking cruise liner or as part of a rooftop chase through a bustling city, but it lacks the go-anywhere freedom something like “Assassin’s Creed” has in spades. Hand-to-hand combat attempts a system similar to that of recent Batman games, but relies too much on onscreen prompts instead of pure rhythm to match it. The batch of puzzles you must solve along the way are the series’ best, but recent “Tomb Raider” games have better toed the line between challenge, scope and accessibility.

“Deception” shows the most warts as a third-person shooter. Nathan Drake’s aiming acumen remains shaky, enemies still require too many bullets to put down, and certain firefights make it impossible to establish a thoughtful strategy — especially when a fistfight breaks out during a gunfight.

But that’s the beauty of “Deception.” A fistfight can break out amid a gunfight, and it’s often your call to make it so.

Even though “Deception’s” pieces are separately outclassed in other games, no other game does this many things this well and looks this incredible doing them. Shootouts become brawls, which become chases that involve simultaneous shooting and climbing, and the game transitions from element to element with no seams showing. “Deception” is a linear experience that continually pushes you forward, but in blurring the line between gameplay and summer blockbuster cutscene, it never takes control away.

Often — for instance, during a wild horseback chase in the desert — “Deception” lays the tools at your feet and lets you pick. In this scenario, you control your horse, you’re free to leap from the horse onto an enemy’s truck (or vice versa), and you choose how to dispatch your enemies (at range from the horse, up close with your fists, or something in between). Most games would distill your actions down to interactive cutscenes in order to convey the cinematic look “Deception” achieves, but this one lets you play out this and numerous other equally spectacular scenes on your terms.

The absence of seams trickles down to “Deception’s” storyline, which cements Drake as a deeply likable adventurer with a lucky streak that puts Indiana Jones to shame. “Deception’s” story is a treat for those curious about Drake’s lineage and origins, but it’s the little things — throwaway lines, idle ticks, panic at a bad idea backfiring — that underscore just how immaculate the game’s audiovisual presentation is.

“UC2’s” addition of a full-featured multiplayer suite took many by pleasant surprise, and “Deception” (16 players) reemphasizes what made it great. It’s flexible — you can play alone, on two eight-player teams or with a friend on teams of two via local/online co-op — and the extensive experience points system allows for considerable character upgrades and redesigns. A new system of perks and special objectives provides instant rewards and wrinkles that take immediate effect within a match in progress.

But multiplayer’s best facet remains the ability to seamlessly mix all that platforming, shooting and fighting on multiplayer maps that are far more open-ended than “Deception’s” single-player set pieces. Whether you crave theater or freedom, this one has the best of both worlds at the ready.


The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Snowblind Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $60

Snowblind Studios gets kudos for telling a new “Lord of the Rings” story — set chronologically parallel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story and featuring his iconic characters, but starring a new set of characters created expressly for the game — instead of retreating to yet more recreations of the same old battles.

The flip side, of course, is that Tolkien’s most ardent fans will be first in line to pick apart “War in the North’s” fiction. Andriel the Elven Loremaster wields magic that’s pretty out of step with Gandalf’s arsenal. A giant talking eagle, while a very well-developed character who is great fun to summon in battle, will nonetheless remind some of Sean Connery voicing a dragon in “Dragonheart” more than anything from the “LOTR” universe. Finally, while the fellowship occasionally checks in with your party, the result of those check-ins often leaves you feeling like a second-string hero. “North” tells a comprehensive side story with branching quests and numerous mandatory and elective dialogue paths, but it’s one that will strike some as a dungeon crawler with Tolkien trimmings instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, if trimmings are enough and you like dungeon crawlers, the rest of the news is pretty good.

For starters, while “North” prioritizes action over role-playing, it offers a satisfying array of role-playing elements. Each of the three playable characters — Andriel, Eradan the Ranger, Farin the Dwarf — has a separate level cap of 40. The primary attributes stick to the basics, but combine those with the branching trees of acquirable special abilities and there’s a satisfying sense of growth throughout the adventure. (In case you’re curious: Yes, you can switch between characters during a single campaign. And yes, your characters’ stats carry over if you replay the campaign, which returns the favor by offering a harder difficulty setting.)

“North” also dishes out loot, and plenty of it. Every piece of your characters’ clothing is separately interchangeable, and weapons and clothing alike can be modded with stones that grant special offensive or defensive characteristics. Your weapon and clothing choices are visually reflected on your character, and finding a rare sword that looks awesome and flaunts special bonuses is almost as fun as wielding it. “North’s” system of rare loot isn’t as extensive as, say, “Diablo,” but it’s pretty satisfying.

Ultimately and overwhelmingly, though, “North” is about bloody, vicious combat. This is the first “LOTR” to get a Mature ESRB rating, and that rating is earned: You’ll carve through armies of orcs, trolls, skeletons, spiders and more, and the game’s insatiable appetite for combos and critical attacks results in carnage that lives up to Tolkien’s depictions of war.

“North’s” combat does have a variety problem, often pushing out successive waves of the same enemies instead of mixing them up across shorter battles. The satisfying impact of the combat does much to offset the encroaching feeling that killing one troll will probably just result in two more appearing, but it’s impossible to completely ignore. If you play solo, the combat A.I. of your allies also leaves something to be desired, though they’re exceptionally adept at healing you when you’re down.

For the optimum experience, though, co-op (two players splitscreen, three online) is the way to go. Having three competent fighters instead of one is obviously helpful, and the downside — that you’ll have to work together to stay alive instead of count on the A.I. to bail you out — simply makes the combat more exciting. Fortunately, “North” is flexible enough to let you play solo or with different configurations of friends within the same campaign, so you’ll always be able to push forward whether friends are available or not.

DVD 11/8/11: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Boy Wonder, Life in a Day, The Change-Up, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, 13, The Perfect Age of Rock 'N' Roll, Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection 1960-1977, Band of Brothers/The Pacific box set, LeapFrog: Scout & Friends: Phonics Farm

Boy Wonder (R, 2010, Inception Media)
As a kid, Sean (Caleb Steinmeyer) watched from the backseat while a carjacker killed his mother. And as you might guess, there’s more to the story than a simple carjacking gone awry. Now 17, Sean has parlayed his obsessive search for that killer into an accidental career as a vigilante whose violent methods of restoring order would make Batman recoil. Naturally, there’s more to the story than that as well. Believing in the promise of more is imperative to watching “Boy Wonder,” which deliberately and confidently withholds revelations similar movies might spill as quickly as possible. Along with a foreboding tone and the introduction of two detectives (Zulay Henao and Daniel Stewart Sherman) who initially give the movie a heavy police procedural air, “Wonder” initially holds its cards so close that it’s hard to discern what it’s even trying to do. But once the movie starts pulling the curtain back, it doesn’t really stop, and every little revelation about this seemingly random crime — some immediately impactful, some buried inside small clues that ignite scenes later — is better than the one before it. “Wonder” never stops feeling narratively erratic, but the shakiness works as a reflection of Sean’s similar ability to shake off his hinges at a moment’s notice. And when the final scene pays off the way it does here, all the bumps in the road leading to it are immediately and easily forgiven.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Life in a Day (PG-13, 2011, Virgil Films)
Kevin Macdonald and his seven co-directors didn’t film “Life in a Day.” Instead, some 80,000 people from 192 countries handled the filmmaking duties, while Macdonald’s crew had the less glamorous task of distilling 4,500 hours of footage — all of it shot on a single day, July 24, 2010 — into a 90-minute film. The result of that impressive editing job is a story that comes together both thematically as well as chronologically, with vignettes illustrating things both mundane (waking up, eating, daily routines) and profound (love, fear, violence sometimes to a graphic degree). Within those themes, the pendulum swings wildly between self-depreciating, narcissistic, moving and many things in between, and because “Day” is continually at the mercy of amateur auteurs filming within a strict timeline, the merits of one scene versus another will vary as much to you as those moments did to the filmmakers who shot them. But that’s the beauty of the experiment. This is July 24, this is what happened, and for better or worse, this is what makes that single day unlike any that preceded it or has followed since.
Extras: Three batches of deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

The Change-Up (R/NR, 2011, Universal)
Did you think it was over for the 1980s wacky body switcheroo comedy? Nope! It’s back, and in keeping with the times, it’s stupidly lewd enough to make its predecessors run for cover. In this case, our body-switchers are best friends Dave (Jason Bateman) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) — the former a stereotypical husband/father/overworked lawyer, the latter a stereotypical playboy/wannabe actor/slacker. A night of drinking leads to them flippantly making simultaneous wishes to trade lives while urinating in a magical public fountain, which naturally goes missing right around the time Mitch and Dave discover they’re in the wrong bodies. Have you seen this movie before? You probably have, because “The Change-Up” follows the playbook right down to the dual music montages it unleashes when our two heroes inevitably decide to take ownership of their new lives while waiting for the fountain to reappear. The wrinkle, as the unrated tag implies, is that this movie has no issue reveling in nudity, toilet humor, diaper humor and numerous other things that weren’t allowed within 10,000 feet of these movies in the ’80s. But while that makes for a novel shock in the first scene, that’s pretty much where it ends. “The Change-Up” offers an amusing chance to see Bateman and Reynolds play against type after switching bodies. But you’ve seen this premise and these gags many times already, and seeing them mingle in the same movie doesn’t make them funnier or fresher.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Atlas Shrugged: Part I (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
It must be supremely aggravating to make a movie based on one-third of Ayn Rand’s massive literary classic. If you want to feel that frustration for yourself, just see the movie. “Atlas Shrugged” is a sprawling, philosophically polarizing story about what happens after a country’s brightest minds willingly take themselves off the radar when their flagging country — mired by financial meltdowns, resource scarcities and a government’s abuse of power — needs their ingenuity more than ever. The film adaptation, set in 2016, makes the smart call not to cram the entire opus into two hours. But the drawback there is that the overwhelming majority of “Shrugged’s” most interesting storytelling sits two whole movies away — a discouraging prospect considering “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” spent roughly four decades in development limbo. “Part I,” by contrast, is bone dry, overly expository and carried by unlikable characters who merely name-drop the man, John Galt, who eventually emerges as this story’s lynchpin. If you already knew that, the movie’s a lukewarm and (for now) incomplete adaptation that does nothing to enhance a book that’s endured just fine without it. And if you don’t know who Galt is, the periodic drops of his name — often in the company of characters whose impact also goes tabled until next time — will perplex and probably annoy you. Or rather, that’ll be the case until the closing scene, which plainly reveals Galt’s purpose before laughing at you and kicking you right into the credits. Meanwhile, “Shrugged” the book has had the payoff in hand for half a century. Even if the sequels ever get made, why wait several years simply to settle for less?
Extras: Writers/producer commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, “The John Galt Theme” slideshow.

13 (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Our first glimpse at “13” — Vince (Sam Riley) with a gun to the head of a man who has a gun pointed right back at him while both wait for a referee to give them clearance to fire — is brief. But it’s also telling, and even if you haven’t seen the Swedish film (“13 Tzameti”) on which “13” is based, you pretty much get the gist of what faces Vince when we flash back four days and find him in need of very fast cash. Vince’s needs are noble, family-related and understandably desperate, and “13” wisely attempts to give us some attachment to him before he stumbles into a bizarre game of Russian Roulette in which he either scores a massive payday or dies trying. But the movie’s efforts are half-hearted, with its strongest push coming during a last-act turn that arguably undoes it with how unnecessary it is. The in between fares little better, too. “Tzameti” at least surprised us by keeping the game a secret for nearly half the movie. “13” spills that secret in minute one, and with that surprise off the table, all that remains is a sloppy competition featuring contestants we barely meet, spectators and gamblers whose motivations make little sense, and a story that manages to be illogical and predictable at the same time. The original ultimately fell apart, too, but it’s sturdier than this needless remake, so see that one if you must see one. Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, 50 Cent and Alexander Skarsgård also star. No extras.

The Perfect Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll (R, 2009, Entertainment One)
As “The Perfect Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll” begins, Spyder (Kevin Zegers) has finally granted an interview to discuss a rocky career that made him a superstar after his first album, a has-been after his second and a recluse in the 20 years that followed. And with the flashback that takes us to 1991, “Age” engages in the first of an absolutely relentless string of rock star movie cliches. “Age’s” most potentially interesting storyline — that Spyder more or less stole that first album from a childhood friend (Jason Ritter as Eric) who had all the real talent but lacked the guts to put it out there himself — unloads its potential on a flat friends-fighting-in-the-rain scene that’s as unsatisfying as it sounds. From there, it plays second fiddle to an honor roll of tropes — drugs, the girl (Taryn Manning) they both want, the shadow of Eric’s famous musician dad (Peter Fonda), music montages that remind everyone it’s about the music, man — that go exactly where you expect them to go. Movies about tumultuous careers in music have multiple gold mines’ worth of untapped story and character ideas just aching for someone to do them justice, but “Age” either shares Eric’s lack of courage or simply isn’t interested in taking Spyder’s story down roads a ton of other movies and VH1 specials haven’t already worn out.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, music outtakes, music video.

Worth mentioning
— “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.): Though the day really belongs to veterans, it was all but prophesied in the Book of Marketing that some DVD/Blu-ray release would take advantage of the 11/11/11 date. Few releases this year are bigger than the final movie in the eight-film “Harry Potter” saga, so the Friday release is no more surprising to Potter fans than how the movie ends. Deleted scenes comprise the only extra. An eight film box set also releases the same day, so if you bought the seven-film box set that came out earlier this year… wait, why did you do that?
— “Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection 1960-1977” (NR, Shout Factory): Shout Factory’s year of incredible cartoon fan service restorations continues with this set, which compiles Magoo’s illustrious television career — “The Mr. Magoo Show,” “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo,” “What’s New Mr. Magoo?” and the “Uncle Sam Magoo!” prime time special — into one festive 11-disc collection. Extras include commentary, a behind-the-scenes feature, a storyboard/drawing gallery and a 19-page liner notes booklet.
— “Band of Brothers/The Pacific” box set (NR, 2001/2010, HBO): In a move more befittingly tied to Veteran’s Day, HBO has combined two of the best things Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have ever made into a single giftset. The set includes a new documentary, “He Has Seen War,” that chronicles the postwar lives of the real veterans whose stories were told in these miniseries. The extras from each series’ standalone release — the documentaries “We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company” and “Anatomy of the Pacific War,” 30-minute making-of features for both series, profiles of actual marines portrayed in “The Pacific,” footage from the “Brothers” premiere in Normandy — are here as well.
— “LeapFrog: Scout & Friends: Phonics Farm” (NR, 2011, Lions Gate): If you aren’t the parent of a child who enjoys LeapFrog’s toys, books and other media, you may not realize Scout the little green puppy has become a breakout star in that universe. And if you do know that, here’s your warning: The Scout revolution is in full swing. “Phonics Farm” marks his debut DVD starring role, and it accompanies a line of toys, books and more bearing his likeness. (Here’s hoping the frogs are OK with sharing the spotlight.) Extras on the disc include curriculum commentary for parents, a music video for The Scout Song, a storybook and sing-along songs.

Games 11/1/11: Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Battlefield 3, Ben 10 Galactic Racing, Dungeon Defenders

Kirby’s Return to Dream Land
For: Wii
From: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Kirby might not even know it, but the way he walks in “Kirby’s Return to Dream Land” — with a proud strut and a carefree expression that completely belies it — is amusing without even meaning to be. That goes as well whenever Kirby enters a body of water: He sports a stylish innertube at the surface, and instantly swaps it for goggles whenever he plunges into the depths.

There are a thousand other similarly effortless details to spot in “Land” — some of them silly like those mentioned above, others crucial to the game’s design, but all adding up to a prototypically spotless Nintendo game that exemplifies the difference between a good sidescrolling platformer and one devised by the company that created the mold.

This isn’t to suggest “Land” has broken said mold. As the title itself implies, this is a return to Kirby’s roots much in the same way “New Super Mario Bros.” brought Mario and Luigi back to their basics. “Return’s” primary objective — move from left to right and reach the exit — is as pure as video game objectives get, and Kirby’s techniques — strutting, jumping, floating, swimming and the always-wonderful ability to open his mouth, ingest enemies like a vacuum and briefly acquire their powers — are just as they were during his first visit to Dream Land.

Of course, Dream Land itself isn’t the same as Kirby left it. The levels and worlds are all new, and they’re naturally more elaborate in their construction than in past “Kirby” games. Simply cruising from entrance to exit isn’t terribly challenging, but completely mastering a level — finding every secret area and using certain powers to acquire every last collectible piece of the spaceship you’re helping Kirby’s friend rebuild — is pretty tricky.

You can, of course, return to levels multiple times to find the pieces you missed, and because these levels are so cleverly but intuitively designed and the game so polished in every respect, replaying old levels new ways is a ton of fun. New and old enemies afford Kirby more powers than ever to mimic — including some spectacularly destructive super powers that engulf the entire screen — and every facet of his many control schemes is on par with his every last visual quirk in terms of attention paid to detail. In every crucial respect, “Land” is immaculate.

Though the game doesn’t bend over backward to specially accommodate it, “Land” features four-player local drop-in co-op in a slightly similar vein to “New Super Bros. Wii.” This time, though, only player 1’s peril is of any consequence. The other three players — playing as Waddle Dee, Dedede, Meta Knight or a Kirby clone — can incur all kinds of disaster in a supporting role, which allows someone with skill to lead the game while young kids or other novices play along and assist without impeding the game’s progress. That makes it a less chaotic party game than “NSMBW,” but a far more ideal experience for families who play together.

As has become tradition, “Land” complements the primary game with a surprisingly filling selection of bonus content, including challenge rooms, practice rooms and minigames. “Land’s” core gameplay uses only the Wii remote, turning it sideway to mimic a traditional controller, but some of the minigames allow you to use the remote’s motion capabilities. None of them are wildly original in light of the billion or so minigames that have graced the Wii over the last five years, but they’re fun, well-made, and suffice very nicely as free sides for an extraordinary main course.


Battlefield 3
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

No use wasting time being cordial: “Battlefield 3’s” single-player campaign is a bummer. Military first-person shooters have increasingly valued flash over substance since “Call of Duty” dumbed it down and became the market leader, and the less said about “BF3’s” me-too attempt — too many restrictive corridors, quick-time events, gimmicky diversionary missions that imitate instead of innovate, and stiflingly controlled scenarios that allow the psychic enemy A.I. to absolutely brutalize you if you dare attempt to ignore the continuous interface prompts and flex some creativity — the better. It’s technically polished but imaginatively bankrupt, and DICE — which proved it could construct good single-player campaigns with the “Battlefield: Bad Company” offshoots — should know better.

Fortunately, buying a “Battlefield” game for the campaign is like watching the Super Bowl to see the Black Eyed Peas. The multiplayer is the reason we’re here, and all the things the campaign condemns — the freedom to roam, to strategize, to fly that jet instead of simply sit in the gunner seat — are the things multiplayer lays at your feet.

First things first, a caveat: “BF3’s” console multiplayer suffers a steep drop from its PC counterpart. It’s limited to 24 players (two teams of up to 12 or four squads of up to four) instead of 64, and out of necessity, the larger maps have been pulled in a touch to prevent the slimmed-down armies from feeling too spread out.

Additionally, while the game remains plenty nice to look at when installed to the console hard drive, it doesn’t look nearly as sharp as those jaw-dropping demos you may have seen of the PC edition. Xbox and PS3 hardware simply isn’t capable. Combine that with player counts and match types (team deathmatch, territorial control, attack versus defend) you’ve seen before, and “BF3” isn’t the game-changer all the pre-release hype suggested it would be — especially with this being the third full-featured console “Battlefield” game to appear since 2008.

Demoralized yet? Don’t be: In spite of all the unfortunate news you just read — and assuming EA works out the server connection issues that continue to creep up as of this publication — there remains much to like about “BF3’s” online skirmishes.

In short, the ingredients with which “Battlefield” made its name remain intact. Even in scaled-back form, “BF3’s” maps are large enough to accommodate numerous attack strategies. If you want to commandeer a plane, tank or chopper, you can. If you want to ride shotgun and man the cannons, you can. And if you’d prefer to just hoof it on the ground, you obviously can. The usual classes (Assault, Recon, Support, Engineer) apply, and if close-quarters combat isn’t your specialty, the maps (and all-inclusive experience points system) allow you to contribute by providing cover fire, medical support or assistance with completing territorial objectives while allies cover you. All is for naught if you and your teammates fend for yourselves instead of strategize, but it isn’t the game’s fault if you don’t use its tools to their fullest capacity.

As is “Battlefield” custom by now, “BF3” is polished in every technical regard. Control is terrifically responsive, the sound is incredible, and — provided you accept the hardware’s limitations — its representations of New York, Paris, Sarajevo and places in between strike an impressive balance between scope and detail.

Assuming those server issues dissipate, “BF3’s” interface is similarly satisfactory. Everything’s where you want it to be, and the addition of Battlelog — a variant of EA’s Autolog social network adapted to “Battlefield” — is good news if you regularly play with people on your friends list.


Ben 10 Galactic Racing
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
From: Monkey Bar Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

You need not have a degree in video game history to realize “Ben 10 Galactic Racing” — a kart racer featuring the cast of the “Ben 10” cartoon doing battle on fantastical tracks inspired by the cartoon — is a callback to “Mario Kart” at first blush.

Unfortunately, “Racing’s” aim is a bit off. Instead of harkening back to Nintendo’s iconic racing game, it ushers in memories of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when cash-thirsty developers turned every kid-friendly property within reach into a me-too kart racer. Like nearly all of those games, “Racing” falls well short in its bid to conjure the greatness of the real thing.

It isn’t for lack of enthusiasm on the game’s part. From the description of modes to the voice-acted banter that supplies on-track commentary and track overviews, there’s a lot of fan service setting the table. The tracks also vary considerably in terms of design, with numerous climates, themes, on-track hazards, shortcuts and other random curveballs and visual touches on display.

Once the actual race begins, though, “Racing” succumbs to a significant lack of refinement. The steering is tenable but not nearly as sensitive as you’d like with tracks that twist, narrow and reveal as many pitfalls as these do. Opposing racers sometimes appear more concerned with banging into you than winning the race, and they’re particularly good at nailing you with whatever items they have as you close in on the finish line. Some of the items draw obvious inspiration from “Mario Kart,” but others seem designed simply to cloud your vision on tracks that are tricky enough as is to navigate, and when opponents spam you with these items in the last lap — whether you lead the race or not — it’s aggravation on top of aggravation.

Rarely, between these issues and some blatant rubberband A.I., does actual racing skill feel integral to winning in “Racing,” which is unreasonably difficult on its Easy setting and just obscene on Hard. Be prepared, regularly, to take a lead into the third lap and find yourself somehow in last place half a lap later.

If your love of “Ben 10” is such that you’ll suffer through “Racing’s” shortcomings anyway, its multiplayer (four players, offline only) very likely will be its saving grace. Many of the aggravations are either non-existent or marginalized (and, if you don’t take them too seriously, pretty funny) when there’s a level playing field, and while “Racing’s” A.I. is unforgivably cheap, its handling and track design are sufficient enough to get the job done on the multiplayer side. There are more refined and more feature-loaded kart racers on every platform — if not “Mario Kart,” then surely “Blur” or “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing” — but if the license matters more than the game, racing with friends is the best way to enjoy it.


Dungeon Defenders
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Trendy Entertainment/D3Publisher Of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Don’t let the downloadable size or cheerful presentation fool you. “Dungeon Defenders” is a fiendishly deep blend of dungeon crawling, role playing and tower defense, and if you engage this journey of potentially hundreds of hours, you’d best begin with the tutorial. Superficially, “Defenders” follows the action-meets-tower defense blueprint: At the start of a level, you (and up to three friends via drop-in/drop-out online/offline co-op) strategically decorate your elaborate surroundings with traps, and when you give the green light and enemies rush in from all sides, you’re free to run around and get your hands and weapons dirty fighting anybody who dodges the reach of those traps. Simple, right? Sure — until you realize straight away how different “Defenders'” four playable classes are. Each comes with separate weapons, traps, attribute stats, pets and abilities — all upgradable and customizable — and the inventory and role-playing interfaces more closely match that of a $60 “Elder Scrolls” game than a $15 downloadable equivalent. Consequently, while “Defenders” holds up as a single-player game, it absolutely sings as a multiplayer experience. With four people coordinating an attack while each controls a different class (not required, just recommended) and solves unique problems with unique abilities, “Defenders” resembles a real-time strategy game in which players control every unit directly. The configuration is up to you, and between the story campaign, challenge room variants, player-versus-player arena and a level cap of 70(!) for each character class to achieve, there’s a mountain of incredible content on which to try every idea that comes to you.

DVD 11/1/11: Crazy, Stupid, Love, Nine Nation Animation, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, An Invisible Sign, Cars 2, Water for Elephants, Tabloid

Crazy, Stupid, Love (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
Emily’s (Julianne Moore) request for a divorce from Cal (Steve Carell) serves as the opening ceremony for “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which then pans away in what initially resembles the beginning of an attempt to tell us multiple, slightly interconnected stories about love gone right or wrong. But everything that happens in “Love” — a playboy’s (Ryan Gosling) pickup technique, a law grad (Emma Stone) settling for less than she deserves, a 13-year-old (Jonah Bobo) in love with the babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) who loves his dad — has some second- or third-degree tie to Emily and Cal. Without spoiling too much, those ties only grow tighter as the minutes tick by, and when one character’s appearance pulls the knot shut, it results in one of recent comedic history’s better utterances of the age-old “Is this a bad time?” question. “Love’s” plotline is too perfectly sit-comedic to feel authentic, but many of the things its characters say and feel between the lines are dead-on terrific and come at no price to a script that’s funny even at its most contrived. Give credit to Cal: He pulls double duty as both the sympathetic hero and funniest character, and his durability rubs off on the rest of the cast. Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Nine Nation Animation (NR, 2011, The World According to Shorts/New Yorker Video)
Yes, there exists no shortage whatsoever of unusual and often brilliant animated shorts freely at your disposal on the Internet. But there also remains plenty of room for a hand-picked collection of shorts that sometimes have a better chance of finding you than you do them. To that end, “Nine Nation Animation” — a properly-named compilation that collects award-winning shorts from the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Croatia, South Africa, Ireland, Turkey, Belgium and Sweden — is an extraordinary validation of both the unifying power of animation and the limitless variety of storytelling methods at its disposal. No two shorts look alike. Some speak another language, some let sound and music speak in place of words. Some are hand-drawn while others use rendering, stop-motion or even photography in ways you may never have seen before. The different cultural representations are plain to see, but the most striking thing about “Animation” is the way all of these shorts from all these corners of the world are instantly, universally relatable — sometimes poignantly, sometimes hilariously — regardless of the language they speak or the country from whence they came. If you love the art form, you’ll adore this.
Extra: Additional animation short “The Runt” (which, coming from Germany, bumps the nation count to 10 and invalidates the DVD title in a wholly welcome way.)

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (R, 2010, Oscilloscope)
It’s Christmas Eve, and for young Pietari (Onni Tommila) that means one thing: He gets to assist his reindeer-herding father (Jorma Tommila) in the field for the first time. That’s Christmas in isolated Korvatunturi for you. Or at least, that’s how it would play out were it not for a suspicious cadre of English-speaking scientists guarding an excavation site one of them regards as a bigger discovery than the Pyramids of Egypt. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” doesn’t immediately come right out and say what that discovery is, but it doesn’t need to: Pietari is convinced it’s related to Santa Claus, whose birthplace is right beneath their feet according to legend, and the movie makes no attempt to discourage us from buying what he’s selling. Magical, yes? Actually, once you get past the rifles, dynamite, mysteriously disappearing children, dead reindeer, and blood of a man who nearly has his ear bit off… once you get past that, it really kind of is. “Exports” is a dark, sometimes bleak film about a pitch-black interpretation of Christmas legend, but it’s a terrible mistake to dismiss it as horror or yet another case of holiday movie irony. The twisted picture it paints is far from fun for the whole family, but the extraordinary payoff it delivers is as rich with its own off-kilter holiday spirit as any other Christmas movie. Provided you’re of age and open mind, this almost certainly will be the most unique new holiday film you see this season. In English and Finnish with English subtitles.
Extras: Two shorts, “Rare Exports Inc.” and “Rare Exports Inc.: The Official Safety Instructions,” that led to the creation of this film. Also: Three-behind-the-scenes features, production photo gallery and an entire second feature film, 1964’s “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

An Invisible Sign (PG-13, 2010, MPI Home Video)
When her mathematician father (John Shea) suddenly took ill, Mona (played by Bailee Madison and eventually Jessica Alba) found comfort in the numbers he taught her to love. She certainly didn’t find it in people, which is how she stumbled clumsily into adulthood and similarly tripped and fell into an elementary school math teacher job she had no desire to take and almost certainly no business taking. The terrifyingly rowdy children who greet her on day one certainly don’t ease these concerns. If you’re wondering whether we’re headed for “Stand and Deliver” or “Beautiful Mind” country next, just put the map away, because where “An Invisible Sign” heads next is weirder and more easily misunderstood than either of those destinations. One could even argue, following a scene that sees blood drawn for reasons that won’t be spoiled here, that the movie is a bit of a mess. But beneath the human calamity on the surface is a very clear and perfectly relatable story about people — Mona, her students, her dad and her own former math teacher (J.K. Simmons) — whose desire to connect with other people isn’t nearly as hard to understand as the occasionally awkward path they take toward doing so. “Sign” doesn’t always make it easy to get to the heart of what it’s saying, but it means awfully well, and if you’ve ever been charmed by someone whose intentions belie their methods, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find a soft spot for the odd bunch you meet here. No extras.

Cars 2 (G, 2011, Disney)
Even the Globetrotters lose to the Generals now and then, and Michael Jordan eventually clanged a dunk off the rim. So if you’re a realist, you knew it was a mere matter of time before Pixar took a shot and air-balled it. Fortunately, that blunder happens in a sequel to what previously was its weakest effort and not a new story with fresh potential. On one level, “Cars 2” is exactly what you expect — another challenge for Lightning McQueen, more racing, and a whole lot more (too much, really) of Mater, the tow truck who is Pixar’s answer to Jar Jar Binks but also the closest thing the “Cars” movies have to a real character. But the other half of “Cars 2” — a spy story, machine guns and explosions aplenty (how did this get a G rating?), the sabotage of an alternative fuel company (kids love that stuff, right?) — is pretty out of left field, and not in a pleasant way at all. “Cars 2” upholds Pixar’s standard of visual brilliance, and all that racing and shooting at least looks awesome. But the script and everything inside it is devoid of ingenuity. Kids who can deal with the gunfire might enjoy it simply for how good it looks, but adults expecting to laugh and be moved will find surprisingly few opportunities to do so.
Extras: Animated shorts “Air Mater” and “Hawaiian Vacation,” director commentary and a World Tour feature that collects deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes features, image galleries and more and themes them by country.

Water for Elephants (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
In case today’s your first day on Earth, you should probably know that some books remain best experienced as books than movies. And while “Water for Elephants” holds up reasonably well as a movie, you need not even glimpse at the book to realize the story of Jacob (Robert Pattinson) — a veterinary student who serendipitously ends up working at a traveling circus when the Great Depression and a familial tragedy join forces to drop-kick his best-laid plans off a cliff — is best told on paper. “Elephant” is visually vibrant, and on top of being crucial to the story, Rosie the elephant is a real treat to watch. Furthermore, the forbidden romance between Jacob and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) — who pulls additional duty as star of the show and wife of mercurial ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) — is classically Hollywood. But “classic” sometimes is just a nicer word for “predictable,” and “Elephant” has a tendency to drag when it’s obvious where the story is slowly headed. In book form, these bits of downtime give “Elephants” a golden opportunity to lose itself in details and perspective that are more the domain of that medium. But on film, with those details often impossible to translate efficiently, the stall often feels simply like a stall, leaving “Elephants” as something best enjoyed as a companion piece than the definitive presentation.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Tabloid (R, 2010, Sundance Selects)
Your respective thirst or intolerance for the current tabloid golden (or dark) age will likely dictate whether Errol Morris’ latest documentary is enthralling entertainment or worth barely a shrug. “Tabloid” revisits the life of Joyce McKinney, a former pageant queen whose fame arises from her (alleged) kidnapping of the Mormon missionary she loved and the (alleged) sexual coercion that took place in a remote cottage shortly after. Joyce deemed it a rescue from religious brainwashing; the British tabloid press called it criminal sexual enslavement and painted her as a prostitute of the most prolific order. “Tabloid,” for its part, lets Joyce and her adversaries each tell their sides of the story more than 30 years after it happened. The result is entertaining — in part because of how bizarre the story (allegedly) is, in part because of how crazy and devoted everyone remains to their respective versions of the truth. For that same reason, “Tabloid” also frustrates, because it ultimately goes nowhere past entertainment. The man at the center of the story has refused to tell his side of it, and without him to help set the record straight, what are we doing here if not using rusty bows to sling bent arrows? The entertainment factor is high enough to carry “Tabloid,” which catches a fun second wind with a wholly different story in the last act, but if you have a history with Joyce’s story and are hungry for answers, the fridge is as bare as it has been for decades. No extras — which is a shame, because it’d be fun to hear some fallout from Joyce’s very public dissatisfaction with how the film turned out.