DVD/Blu-ray 12/27/11: The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret S1, The First Grader, Apollo 18, Brighton Rock, Final Destination 5, Pete Smalls is Dead, Archer S2, The Life & Times of Tim S2

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Season One (NR, 2009, IFC)
Todd Margaret (David Cross) made an accidental detour into a gold mine when his clueless new boss (Will Arnett) badly misinterpreted a phone call and rewarded him with a ridiculous promotion and a chance to sit at the head of the company table in its new London office. But as “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” demonstrates right there in the title, it’s a downhill slide from here — such a slide, if the flash-forward at the top of every episode is to be believed, that Todd has somehow committed every crime imaginable two weeks later. Subtlety has no place in “TIPDTM’s” storytelling, which takes the socially detestable stylings of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and wraps it around a lead who makes Larry David look almost pleasant by comparison. It may be the most aggressive campaign a sitcom has ever embarked on to make viewers completely despise its main character. Fortunately, a lack of subtlety need not be synonymous with a lack of wit. “TIPDTM’s” storylines are as brazenly dumb and crude as most of the imbeciles it tasks with carrying them out, but the writing that brings these stories to life is consistently legitimately amusing, with more sharply hilarious hits than detestable misses. The easily offended need not apply, but fans of the Cross-Arnett connection almost certainly should. Blake Harrison and Sharon Horgan also star.
Contents: Six episodes (one extended, all with commentary), plus deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features and bloopers. Also, in what may be an industry first, the special features have a special feature that contains outtakes from the special features.

The First Grader (PG-13, 2010, National Geographic)
While the Mau Mau’s efforts to overthrow Britain’s colonization of Kenya ultimately were successful, the cost of success was incalculably high. For Mau Mau veteran Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), the cost included witnessing the horrors of war firsthand, but it also meant never having access to even a rudimentary education. Now 84, Maruge wants another chance to learn to read — even if it means learning in an overcrowded classroom stuffed with children who are entirely (and delightfully) amused to have him there. Though a dramatization, “The First Grader” is based on a true story, and you can debate whether its allegiance to telling Maruge’s whole story is to its benefit or detriment. Flashbacks to Maruge’s past illustrate the horrors he witnessed with considerably more resonance than simply describing them could, but the images of murder and torture make “Grader” a much tougher sell for teachers and parents who want to share the story with children. Elsewhere, simplistic supporting characters undermine the movie’s ability to connect with older audiences: Those in charge of either welcoming Maruge to the school or turning him away come off either as complete angels or soulless stonehearts, with little grey in between. But “Grader’s” failings are easily forgiven whenever it shines a light on Maruge, his fellow students, and the moments he and the kids share in between flashbacks, bureaucratic spats and other adult intrusions. There aren’t enough of them, but the ones we do get put Maruge’s pursuit — and the pursuit of education in general — in inspiring perspective.
Extras: Short documentary about the real Maruge, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, Global Campaign for Education PSA.

Apollo 18 (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Like the tag line says, there’s a reason we stopped going to the moon after Apollo 17, and it had nothing to do with the national budget. As it turns out, there was a top-secret 18th Apollo mission — so secret, the astronauts’ families were told it was a training mission and the astronauts themselves (Warren Christie, Ryan Robbins) had no idea what the Dept. of Defense knew was waiting for them on the moon. “Apollo 18” represents the faux-public unveiling of the faux-mission footage that mysteriously resurfaced decades later. And like the (too) many other recent movies that are assembled completely from mock found footage, it’s bound to a rhythm that makes it elementarily predictable for most of the way. Mockumentary-style introductions give way to mundanity designed as character development, which steps aside for a false alarm or two and some poorly-filmed teases before the bus finally hits the highway. Fortunately, “Apollo 18’s” premise is more novel than yet another zombie or ghost invasion, and the predictable cycle gets more mileage simoly by setting itself on the moon. Consequently, when things really get going, the cause of the bedlam (without spoiling with specifics) is pretty legit in its bedlam-causing prowess. That, and the ensuing concerns about returning home, give “18’s” second half a level of tension and creep factor that runs counter to the steam-seeping boredom most found-footage movies undertake at around the same period. Given the genre’s oversaturation and suffocating limitations, that’s good enough.
Extras: Director/editor commentary, alternate endings, deleted/alternate scenes.

Brighton Rock (R, 2010, IFC Films)
Pinkie (Sam Riley) wants to expedite his ascent through the organized crime power rankings, and if that means getting his hands red with a revenge killing right beneath a busy boardwalk pier, so be it. It might have worked, too, had a waitress (Andrea Riseborough as Rose) not unwittingly stumbled into possession of evidence linking his cohorts to the murder. Luckily for Pinkie, she’s cute, so seducing her won’t be a total nightmare even though he furiously resents her role in forking his seemingly smooth road up the ladder. “Brighton Rock” has some ambitions of its own, and they, too, might have been achieved if attempts at film noir in the 21st century didn’t always carry at least some unflattering scent of second-grade contrivance. There’s nothing outright offensive about that scent, mind you: As mood pieces go, “Rock” is enjoyably cold and, through Rose’s fragile eyes, consistently uncomfortable. Riley carries the movie beautifully, and his supporting cast (Helen Mirren, Jon Hurt, Andy Serkis) isn’t exactly lightweight. It is, in every respect, a good, serviceable story. But when the mood loses its rhythm and descends into melodrama, and when different strains of the same melodrama resurface regularly in a fashion that feels more like an homage to the voices of other movies than a declaration of its own, it’s enough to keep greatness at bay. These instances aren’t pervasive enough to sink “Rock,” but they appear too often to ignore outright.
Extras: Interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.

Final Destination 5 (R, 2011, Warner Bros.)
It’s hard not to smirk when a detective asks Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) how his premonition of an extremely deadly bridge collapse provided him a chance to pull his friends off the bridge and save their lives mere moments before it collapsed for real. All Sam had to do was show him any of the preceding “Final Destination” movies, all four of which kicked off with variations of the same exact sequence of events. So here we go again: They cheated death, and you can’t cheat death, so death catches up to them, one by one, in the most ridiculously grisly fashion it can conjure. “FD5” adds a few wrinkles about how to dodge fate a second time, but mostly, it goes through the same motions again as yet another doomed cast runs scared all the way into the closing credit roll. This declaration of creative bankruptcy aside, though, it must be acknowledged that the formula still works as intended — perhaps more so when you already know every absurd sequence of events will end miserably for some poor sitting duck. Few movies can thrive on predictability like that, so give credit to “FD5” — which steps up its game after its leaden predecessor phoned it in — for recognizing that and having some disgusting fun toying with its audience’s sense of dread. (If you’re considering Lasik surgery anytime soon, you should first reconsider any plans you have to watch this beforehand.)
Extras: Alternate death scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Pete Smalls is Dead (NR, 2010, Image Entertainment)
Film director Pete Smalls is indeed dead, but K.C. (Peter Dinklage) has bigger problems — most prominently, a $10,000 debt he must repay to get his dog back — than the passing of an estranged friend. If you’re wondering how a kidnapped dog plays into the repayment of a debt that large, and if you’re also wondering how the dead guy in the title factors in despite being dead and on the other side of the country, you aren’t asking unreasonable questions. Unfortunately, “Pete Smalls is Dead” doesn’t have very many reasonable answers. It starts a little weird, gets progressively weirder with just about every scene that materializes, and by the time we get back to the matter of K.C. tracking down his dog, the story has gotten so thickly, unintelligibly tangled that it’s more fun to just forget the story and just let “Dead” fire off its remaining weirdness before stumbling into the credits. That kind of fun might suffice if you like your movies unpredictable at any cost: “Dead” most certainly is that, and within all those weeds are some funny scenes and a very likable central character in K.C.. But the zaniness carries a cost regardless of your tolerance for it, and if you find yourself waiting for “Dead” to draw you in, the arm’s length at which it keeps viewers while it commences entertaining itself goes from cute to confusing to off-putting to headache-inducing in a hurry. Mark Boone Junior, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, among others, also star. No extras.

Worth mentioning
— Archer: Season 2 (NR, 2011, Fox): It’s a new verse, but one similar to the first. The International Secret Intelligence Service continues to suffer from the effects of the recession, but mostly, it ails from being run by a team of agents whose ability to outwit terrorists is nearly miraculous in light of their complete inability to function like adults. Also unchanged: “Archer’s” penchant for packing an hour’s worth of comedy into every 22-minute episode, tossing out brilliant throwaway lines by the dozen and barreling though clever storylines with breathlessly funny speed. Season two improves on its predecessor by digging deeper into Sterling Archer’s psyche while also delegating more of the storytelling to his cohorts. At no point whatsoever, though, does the depth come at the expense of comedy. Includes 13 episodes, plus a Comic-con panel, an interview with Archer (not the actor who voices him, but Archer himself) and two other similarly random mini-features.
— “The Life & Times of Tim: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2010, HBO): On the other end of the animation-for-adults spectrum, there’s “The Life & Times of Tim.” Where “Archer” looks slick, talks fast and hides sharply funny adult themes inside cutely juvenile behavior, “Tim” looks crude, opts for humor so dry it itches, and uses the freedom afforded by being on HBO to hide its adult themes behind no guise whatsoever. The result of that approach doesn’t isn’t as relentlessly funny, but it is consistently amusing, and the complete lack of scruples is novel even by the fearless standards of the modern cartoon. Includes 20 half-episodes over 10 shows, plus a behind-the-scenes feature.

DVD/Blu-ray 12/20/11: Midnight in Paris, Blackthorn, Margin Call, Burke & Hare, Catch .44, Warrior

Midnight in Paris (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter-turned-struggling novelist. He’s in Paris with his future wife (Rachel McAdams), who is so-so, and future in-laws (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy), who tolerate but openly wonder to his face what is wrong with him. (He just sort of stands there and takes it.) The protagonist in Gil’s not-quite novel is a guy who romanticizes the past while just sort of existing in the present, and you need not be a doctor to realize Gil is stumbling over his unfinished novel because he may be writing a dramatized autobiography instead. If this sounds too mundane for even Woody Allen’s pen to bring to soul-searching, life-affirming life, here’s what you need to know: One evening, when Gil is left to his own devices and the clock strikes midnight, something happens. And if you have even a passing interest in “Midnight in Paris,” even dropping a name or glossing over a spare detail pertaining to that something would just be wrong. That “Paris” is Allen’s doing becomes immediately apparent from the first instant Gil opens his mouth to purge a psychiatrist’s sofa’s worth of insecurity over what should just be lunch. But the confident and impossibly smooth way “Paris” takes that tide, turns it sideways and rides it into a wholly extraordinary second act is so awesome that it’s best to just let it steer and ask questions later. In this era of remakes, reboots, hand-holdings and suffocating needs to explain every glance toward left field, magic like this is too rare to invoke concerns about how it’s made.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Blackthorn (R, 2011, Magnolia)
It long has been suggested that Butch Cassidy didn’t actually die at the hands of the Bolivian Army in 1908, but in fact lived quietly and peacefully for many years past his supposed death. We likely never will know if we don’t know by now, but if you’d like to play the “what if” game, the year’s arguable best Western would like to play with you. “Blackthorn” takes us to 1927, where Cassidy (Sam Shepard) — peacefully ducking the radar under the pseudonym James Blackthorn — finally succumbs to his desire to leave Bolivia and see home one last time. Early during the trek back, he gets tangled with a troubled robber (Eduardo Noriega), and while the friendship isn’t near so warm as the one “Blackthorn” details via flashbacks of a younger Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), the imposing twosome they form is enough to evoke comparisons. “Blackthorn” certainly gives the relationship all the time it needs to ferment: Though bullets do fly and blood is shed, the story of where Blackthorn came from and is headed next is a heavy character study that derives more from a sideways glance than a gunshot to the chest. The raw tone of that character development works in concert with well-paced timeline shifts to wring “Blackthorn” wholly dry of dull moments, and even when the action sleeps, tension never stops lurking. Crafting even spiritual sequels to a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is no endeavor for the faint of heart, but even if not a frame of “Blackthorn” is factually accurate, Butch would be hard-pressed to ask for a better second act than this one.
Extras: Short films “Breaking And Entering” and “Say Me,” two behind-the-scenes features.

Margin Call (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
There is no way the 2008 financial meltdown happened as simply as presented in “Margin Call,” which distills it down to one long day, one longer night, one company and one executive (Jeremy Irons) whose desire to throw a torn bandage on everything and bolt for the exit runs counter to the low-level (Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley) and high-level (Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci) employees who must shoulder the emotional burden of causing untold damage on their way out the door. But as the preceding run-on sentence implies, it isn’t quite so simple as you might expect a two-hour dramatization of a frightfully complex issue to be. “Call” doesn’t ask us to feel bad for those hamstrung employees, nor does it position anybody as a pure-hearted angel who wasn’t in this job for the money. But in place of sympathetic heroes (there weren’t any) and surprise twists (because reducing this to a bloody thriller or changing the ending would be insulting), “Call” simply humanizes its characters and lets the story play out. Some are trapped inside a situation they can’t change, some are voiceless grunts, and some (particularly Spacey’s Sam Rogers, the best-realized of a great lot) are facing other forces that put into perspective what a sham their day-to-day lives are. The larger financial picture inevitably gets pared down for easy consumption, but “Call’s” message about its effect — transmitted verbally, non-verbally, in the heat of conflict and occasionally straight from a guilty conscience springing a leak — is resonant all the same.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

Burke & Hare (NR, 2010, IFC Films)
“Burke & Hare’s” first refreshing moment comes almost straight away, when our friendly narrator describes the setting — 1828, Scotland, a self-described age of enlightenment — and immediately jabs a pin into the enlightenment balloon by saying what you’re probably thinking as the camera swings around the public. Somewhere in this crowd are William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), two poor, talent-deficient friends in search of any hustle that nets them enough pounds to make it to the next hustle. Elsewhere, two doctors (Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson) scramble to acquire cadavers for use as teaching tools for an exploding medical scene. Burke and Hare stumble into a fresh cadaver, deliver it to one of the docs, net a handsome payday, and decide they need to keep this racket going. Now there’s just the matter of what to do when demand for dead bodies outstrips supply. “Hare” establishes a jovially dark comic tone with that opening-scene jab, and it holds that note as it amusingly dresses down everyone — be they doctors, scoundrels, police, love interests (Isla Fisher) or anyone in between — in town. Once we arrive at the matter of Burke’s and Hare’s financial sustainability, the vocal range between cheerful and dark is so wide that pretty much anything goes. “Hare” is funny, first and foremost. But its best gift is how guiltlessly easy it makes it to root for the dregs of humanity as they forcibly earn the scumbag tag. It may not be a picture of enlightenment by any stretch, but that doesn’t “Hare” doesn’t have a few surprises.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, outtakes.

Catch .44 (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
“Catch .44” is a fun little movie about an attempted major drug deal, an attempt to hijack that deal, and an attempt to clean up the inevitable mess that ensues when plans go sideways. And if “fun” is prerequisite enough, perhaps it’s all we need to look past all the things this one isn’t. “44’s” eventual quagmire includes a lot of good characters and a great cast (Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll) bringing them to life. The presentation is lively, the dialogue vibrant, the progression of events a nice mix of things said and unsaid. But the thing about “44” is that all this lively buildup doesn’t really build into much of anything. For all its talking, posturing and (eventual) bloodletting, the prize at stake never seems remotely worth the struggle. The background exposition of some of “44’s” key players (especially Willis’ underutilized character, who lynchpins the whole thing) promises the moon but rarely delivers it, and when everything settles, you might find yourself wondering why what happened just happened. Then again, maybe you won’t. “44’s” disposition and flair for the dramatic are enthusastic enough to marginalize its shortcomings if you don’t take it too seriously. The story’s silly, but everyone seems to be having a blast telling it, and the fun they’re having is infectious enough to leave well enough alone.
Extras: Writer/director/editor commentary.

Warrior (PG-13, 2011, Lions Gate)
“Warrior” proves you can indeed have it all — if all you want is as many Oscar movie tropes as can reasonably coexist inside of 140 minutes. Ostensibly, “Warrior” is the story of Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), two brothers both entering a prestigious mixed martial arts tournament as heavy underdogs. But it’s also about Paddy (Nick Nolte), the recovering alcoholic father who attempts to mend fences with his estranged sons by training them. The brothers are estranged with one another as well, and each faces a separate cocktail of financial, professional and/or personal issues that feed into or arise from their MMA ambitions. There’s baggage all over “Warrior’s” emotional conveyor belt, and just in case the domestic issues aren’t enough, a handful of war flashbacks are on hand to play into one fighter’s character makeup. What results from this mashup is a polished, well-spoken, well-acted movie that on appearance alone does for MMA what “Raging Bull” or “Rocky” did for boxing. But coursing beneath all the polish is a nagging sensation that you’ve seen every piece of this story elsewhere. “Warrior’s” characters feel like walking means to Oscar-scene ends more than original creations, and what unfolds around them — from how the tournament progresses to how all that baggage spills off the side between bouts — is similarly hackneyed. It wears it heart up and down its sleeve, but it’s a heart that beats to the rhythm of all the movies that paved its way and did it better. (Never mind that the cover art spoils everything.)
Extras: Edgerton/filmmakers commentary, half-hour making-of documentary, selected-scene commentary with Nolte, deleted scene (with commentary), MMA strategy feature, Charles “Mask” Lewis, Jr. tribute, bloopers.

Games 12/20/11: Striiv, Playstation 3D Display, Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue

From: Striiv
Price: $100

Yes, it’s awfully nice to carry around a single, compact device that replaces your telephone, calendar, netbook, camcorder, GPS, MP3 player, Game Boy, alarm clock and who knows what else.

But while attempts have been made to conquer the humble pedometer, they have thus far failed. Step-counting apps have flashed promise by doing more than simply counting steps, but they’re non-starters when you always need the app active and gulping down battery life. Never mind that pedometers are one of the few gadgets that actually make smartphones feel bulky by comparison.

In that respect, the arrival of Striiv — a device that combines the physical makeup of a pedometer, the digital sensibilities of a tiny iPod touch and the achievement-dangling compulsion of a contemporary video game — is as welcome as it probably was inevitable.

At its absolute core, Striiv is just a fancy pedometer. It’s light and small, and the full-color backlit touchscreen delivers an interface that’s prettier and considerably more intuitive than that of a typical pedometer. The device counts steps whether it’s on or off, you can drop it in your pocket and forget about it, and it discerns between walking, running and stair-climbing steps with impressive accuracy. The built-in battery lasts roughly a week between charges under normal use, and the package includes the necessary cables to charge it via USB or a wall outlet.

For those who like to gauge their progress, Striiv’s software is similarly impressive. A charts application lets you compare steps, miles and calories burned over the past week or month, and a separate stats program breaks down your step types and lets you view all-time totals, personal bests and daily averages.

But it’s the trophies and challenges that push Striiv beyond classification and blur the line between fitness aid and living video game.

Trophies function like achievements, awarding you for everything from beating your daily average to walking the equivalent of Peru’s Inca Trail (70,000 steps) in a week. There are daily, weekly and all-time trophies, and Striiv tracks how many times you earn trophies in the first two categories. Every trophy awards you with energy points, which are to Striiv what Gamerscore is to Xbox Live — mostly just a number, but a carrot that makes earning them irrationally (but healthily!) fun.

Challenges, meanwhile, are toggled manually but are more urgent once activated. Striiv scatters randomly-generated challenges across three difficulty levels (walk half a mile in a half hour on Easy, run 500 steps in 10 minutes on Medium) and tackling a handful of them and doing whatever it says makes for a great impromptu mini-workout. Like trophies, successful challenges pay out in energy, though you’ll also earn trophies if you complete enough of them in one day.

Striiv dangles a seemingly endless steam of attainable rewards, and the gamut they run in terms of size and time investment makes it easy to feel an immediately sense of progress while still eyeing a larger goal way down the road.

Additionally, while all that collected energy isn’t a very tangible reward, it does feed into some of the device’s more unusual extracurricular activities.

Most prominent is the quirky Myland minigame, in which you can populate and decorate an enchanted island by exchanging collected energy for plant life and manmade structures. As simulations go, Myland’s simplicity more closely resembles “Farmville” than “SimCity.” But grinding for rewards by walking and running is considerably more satisfying than nagging your Facebook friends until they unfriend you, and a lively island of fantastical creatures is a pretty clever way to view an abstract picture of your progress.

But the coolest use of your energy is as a conduit for acts of charity. Via GlobalGiving, Striiv lets you participate in virtual walkathons and convert bundles of energy into donations toward clean drinking water, polio vaccinations and/or rainforest conservation. (As with everything else, the device tracks how many contributions you make.)

Striiv sends the donations whenever you connect it to a Mac or PC via the USB charge cable, and it also uses this occasion to do another thing — check for and automatically apply firmware updates — pedometers typically never do.

Since release, the device has received a few minor firmware updates that have brought no major feature enhancements. But Striiv has made known its intentions to supply new programs and games through future updates. Little else is known at this point, but the company seems actively engaged with its community via Facebook, Twitter and its own blog. If you keep up, you’ll likely know what’s coming next as soon as it’s announced.


PlayStation 3D display
From: Sony
Price: $500

Your appreciation of Sony’s PlayStation 3D display will be at least partially dependent on how far on board you are with the entertainment industry’s umpteenth attempt to make 3D technology stick past the fad stage.

But while the display’s embrace of 3D — and Sony’s subsequent positioning of it as the rare 3D television with a three-figure asking price — are significant factors, they aren’t the only ones in play.

It’s worth clarifying up front that while the display sports Playstation branding, it doesn’t use any proprietary technology that only a Playstation 3 can understand. The range of inputs is a little limited, and you’ll need to get an adapter if you want to connect a VGA or DVI cable, but the input ports it does offer — two HDMI, one component — aren’t exactly unique to the PS3. If you can connect a device to the display, either natively or with the help of an adapter, it will look just fine (though if all you want is a top-end PC monitor, you can get displays with better refresh rates and native driver support for less money.)

It will look better than fine, in fact. Though the display isn’t designed with maximum flexibility and intuitiveness in mind — the glossy screen is pretty reflective in harsh light, the inputs are on the display’s left side instead of in a neutral spot at the bottom, and the buttons are placed awkwardly behind the display instead of on the side — it looks absolutely lovely once properly set up. It’s thin and sleek but also feels sturdy, and if the 24-inch screen is a good size for your setup and viewing range, the picture doesn’t disappoint.

While your success will vary if you use it with unsupported devices, the display’s 3D support in conjunction with games and Blu-ray discs worked as good as advertised when tested on a PS3. You’ll need to keep the included 3D glasses charged via the included micro-USB cable — in case you’ve lost track of where we are with 3D technology, the glasses are now battery-powered — but enabling 3D is as easy as selecting it in the game or Blu-ray’s menu interface.

(Your mileage will, of course, vary with regard to your tolerance of 3D and the potential eyestrain it incurs over extended sittings.)

For games that support it, the display’s SimulView technology arguably is the more exciting result of the 3D technology than 3D itself. With SimulView enabled, a two-player game no longer need be splitscreen: Instead, each player receives a unique (and complete) view of the action via his or her glasses. It’s like playing via LAN using one display, and while it sounds like voodoo, it actually works. Because the images passed to the glasses are 2D, the aforementioned concerns about viewing fatigue also don’t factor.

The downside? You’ll need a second pair of glasses, which retail for $70 each — which means the display isn’t quite as affordable as you thought if you wish to take advantage of its best feature.

There’s also a matter of games actually supporting SimulView. The bundled “MotorStorm: Apocalypse” supports it, as do a handful of other games published by Sony, but it’s anyone’s guess whether third parties will climb on board with their own support. Presently, there’s also no easy place to track which games are receiving or have received support. The display’s page on Playstation.com lists the initial batch above a “Coming soon” message, but there’s no telling if new information will appear there or elsewhere.


Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade; requires free Pinball FX 2 download) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network; requires Marvel Pinball)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

2011 wasn’t a great year for video games bearing the Marvel name — unless you prefer pinball to other genres, in which case it was the best year ever. “Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue” adds four more tables to the roster, and they fit in perfectly in terms of personality and use of their respective licenses. The Thor table will appeal to those who love high-scoring tables, and in true “Marvel Pinball” fashion, Thor himself appears on the table to do battle with Loki (among other enemies) as you indirectly guide the action via pinball. The Ghost Rider table is the noisiest and most festive of the bunch, and the dual-layer table design is overshadowed only by an incredible second ball launcher that resembles a giant waving shotgun. The X-Men table presents the stiffest challenge via devious ramp designs that are harder to hit and unapologetically shift the ball’s speed when you do hit them. But Moon Knight’s table may be the most novel: It looks extremely simple at first glance, but it uses tricks of light and deceptive rail patterns to set a tempo that’s unlike any of the other tables (Marvel-branded or otherwise) on Zen’s roster. Like the tables that preceded it, “Vengeance’s” selections are extremely visually lively and reasonably authentic with regard to pinball physics. They also hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. As per custom, the tables integrate seamlessly into their respective games, adding new achievements/trophies and adopting existing leaderboard and score structures, making the best pinball platforms on the console block that much better.

DVD/Blu-ray 12/13/11: Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Circumstance, Fright Night

Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG, 2011, Dreamworks)
The original “Kung Fu Panda’s” emergence as a funny and visually impressive movie was a surprise to few, because that was all most people expected it to be. But the way “Panda” took a story about a clumsy Kung Fu-mastering panda bear and turned it into an epic “Star Wars” allegory with enough mythology and action to dazzle adults as well as kids? Yeah, that was kind of unexpected. Guess what? “Kung Fu Panda 2” does it again. Po the Panda is back, as are his friends and enemies, and the stakes are predictably higher now that the obscenely likable panda has become the Dragon Warrior and a new enemy threatens to do away with Kung Fu completely. But “KFP2’s” best trick is the way it neatly (but never cheaply) ties Po’s origin story into that main storyline. The sweet story of how Po became the son of a goose is treated with considerable care — so much so that it’s animated in a completely different (and strikingly pretty) style from rest of the story. Lest this sound a little too heavy, worry not: “KFP2” takes on many moods, but it never loses its sense of humor or taste for adventure. The action is ridiculously cool to look at, and Po and friends are as capable of a genuinely funny line in their darkest as well as finest hour.
Extras: New animated short “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, trivia track, “Learn to Speak Chinese” feature, “Kung Fu Shuffle” game, two complimentary memberships for the “Kung Fu Panda World” online game.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
You’d have been hard-pressed to find a sweeter toddler and child than Caesar, but the onset of adolescence has made him ornery, sulky and a bit stir-crazy. The wrinkle, of course, is that Caesar’s a chimpanzee. The wrinkle within that wrinkle is that he’s rebelling against a human parent, Will (James Franco), who brought him home after a drug experiment gone violently sideways killed Caesar’s real parents but left Caesar with an intelligence level exceeding that of most humans. That’s a dangerous combination of brains and brawn, and when the human characters in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” respond to that combination in their predictably impulsive way, the result of that shortsightedness lives up to the name on the marquee. On paper, “Apes” isn’t exemplary: Past Will, it paints most of the humans with broad strokes, and the causes leading into the ape outbreak are so customary as to practically be tropes at this point. But “Apes” strikes a great balance between telling and showing — just talky enough to flash some intriguing ideas, but not so gabby as to get in the way of letting everything play out in glorious, schadenfreudian detail. It doesn’t hurt, either, that “Apes” just looks awesome. Its bombastic delivery on the revolution provides a handsome payoff on all the buildup, and the design of the apes — unarguably and unsettlingly human in their expression, but still a generation away from even approaching anthropomorphic status — is a testament to the thoughtful side of big-budget computer graphics. No small thanks go out to Andy Serkis, whose behind-the-scenes acting brings Caesar to amazing life.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Circumstance (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) loves Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), and Shireen loves Atafeh. But there’s nothing simple about two women loving each other when that love is processed through society’s crossed eyes, and when it takes place under the oppressive nose of Iranian rule, it becomes outright dangerous. In Atafeh’s case, the presence of her brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) — whose sudden strong embrace of conservative values aligns with his desire to take Shireen as his wife — makes it mentally torturous as well. “Circumstance” doesn’t attempt to light an ideological match and emerge as the be-all, end-all dialogue about Sharia law’s disconnect with the underground youth movement that quietly thrives beneath its surface. And that’s fine, because in concentrating its story around this small corner of those clashing movements, it doesn’t need to. The view “Circumstance” provides of Atafeh and Shireen’s world comes squarely through their eyes — subjective, acute, a little naive in its generalizations, but accessible, exciting and full of untold possibility squarely due to its intimacy. Down that nerve, the message is delivered, and “Circumstance’s” preach- and speech-free delivery of it makes it stick and fester in ways that regularly elude movies with more grandiose ambitions. In Farsi with English subtitles.
Extras: Safai/filmmakers commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Fright Night (R, 2011, Touchstone/Dreamworks)
It’s perfectly understandable to grow concerned when fellow students suddenly stop showing up for class. But when formerly-nerdy Charley’s (Anton Yelchin) still-nerdy former friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) pins the disappearances on a neighbor (Colin Farrell) he’s convinced is a vampire, Charley is similarly within his rights to dismiss Ed as crazy. Or rather, he would be if Ed wasn’t threatening to blackmail him by broadcasting his dorky past to his popular girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and friends. So begins the “Fright Night” tug of war — a horror movie on one side, a snarky teen comedy on the other, and a fun cross between send-up of and tribute to both genres in between. No one involved with this movie’s production can take full credit: “Night” cribs liberally from the 1985 original of the same name, and those who love that cult classic certainly have grounds (namely, the second act disappearing act of Ed, the original’s arguable best character) on which to take umbrage with the remake. But given the nightmarish wringer Hollywood typically puts cherished films through to make their inedible remake sausage, the new “Night” emerges in surprisingly palatable shape. It’s funny, creepy, bloody and intelligently written, and while arguments against its need to exist have their place, arguments for it being one of the year’s better horror movies have theirs as well. David Tennant and Toni Collette also star.
Extras: The complete “Squid Man” short (makes sense once you see the movie), deleted scenes (with introduction), two behind-the-scenes features (one tongue-in-cheek), bloopers, music video, trivia.

Games 12/13/11: Kung-Fu High Impact, Zombie Gunship

Kung-Fu High Impact
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Virtual Air Guitar Company/UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, use of tobacco)
Price: $40

There’s plenty to like about “Kung-Fu High Impact.” It is, in fact, one of the year’s better Kinect games, and one of the few that reaches past the realm of fitness tools and minigame collections to produce an actual game that tangibly benefits from Microsoft’s motion control device.

Just don’t be surprised if some of the most fun you have with it is when you have a controller in hand.

“Impact” is a 2D brawler somewhat in the vein of “Double Dragon,” “Final Fight” and any number of other games that propagated during the genre’s heyday. The stages are small but open-ended instead of large but constantly scrolling from left to right, but the gist — punch and kick the bad guys into submission before they do it to you first — remains the same.

In this case, though, you very literally are the character. The Kinect’s camera uses its motion-detecting magic to superimpose a direct feed of yourself onto the level, and once you’re there, “Impact’s” hit detection leaves you free to punch and kick as efficiently or sloppily as your ability allows. Backflips and a handful of special powers are triggered via poses or half-move gestures (because asking players to actually backflip is asking for trouble). But as far as your elementary punches, kicks, elbows, blocks, dodges, jumps and lateral motion go, successful execution is entirely dependent on your willingness to fight with conviction.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because “Impact” first tried this, with dodgy results, on the Playstation 3 as “Kung-Fu Live.” Fortunately, the Kinect’s significantly better ability to discern player from background makes “Impact” effortless to set up and exponentially less likely to betray you in the heat of battle. You’ll ideally want to play with good lighting to make it easier to see your onscreen likeness, but it isn’t mandatory to do so — only more difficult if you don’t.

On that note, it’s bears mentioning that even on its base difficulty, “Impact’s” single-player storyline can punish you. More than not, it’s punishing in a good way, with furious enemy rushes and an expectation that you paid attention to the tutorials about dodging and blocking as well as punching and kicking.

Sometimes, though, “Impact” simply betrays you — confusing forward jumps with backflips, for instance, or just plain not recognizing a crucial evasive maneuver. “Impact” is tough with regard to mid-level checkpoints and health pickups, and one bungled move at the wrong time can bring your life to an aggravating end. It doesn’t happen too much if you accentuate your motions, but it will happen.

Of course, when a game is as physically intense as “Impact” is, accentuation gradually becomes easier said than done. If you like the Kinect for its fitness possibilities but still want actual games to play on it, this arguably is the best combination of both ideals in the system’s library.

Occasional aggravation aside, “Impact’s” story mode is a treat, with diverse environments, some surprising special powers, and a clever means of putting you in the motion comic cutscenes. The game asks you to assume a fews poses for pictures that later are superimposed atop the comic panels, and it’s hard to say whether cooperating or flagrantly disobeying the instructions produces funnier results.

Local multiplayer (five players), however, is “Impact’s” crown jewel. Player one’s role remains unchanged in this mode, but instead of A.I.-controlled enemies, you’re taking on your friends, who control the enemies with standard controllers. It’s a brilliant way to make a multiplayer Kinect game without cramming everyone into a small space and confusing the camera, and the lengths players can comfortably go to torment an out-of-breath friend makes this a must-play party game.


Zombie Gunship
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Limbic Software
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild realistic violence, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $1

It’s hard to be mystified by the explosive popularity of mobile gaming when games like “Zombie Gunship” — which takes one of the most popular mission styles from a $60 “Call of Duty” game and practically gives it away — keep springing up. “Gunship” puts you at the controls of an AC-130 gunship, and if the aircraft needs no introduction, the game’s presentation — a semi-blurry, night vision-esque visual filter, presented from an altitude that makes zombies and fleeing humans look like ants — won’t need one, either. The customary weapons (a 25mm Gatling gun for precision’s sake, a 40mm Bofors auto-cannon for more explosive strikes and a 105mm Howitzer cannon for clearing out zombies by the dozen) are at your disposal, and the object is simple: Help as many humans reach the bunker safely before zombies overwhelm the perimeter and lockdown takes effect. “Gunship” doesn’t aim much higher than that: You’re playing essentially for high score, and the game’s two maps aren’t tied into any kind of narrative. But given its faithfulness to the mission style and its consequential ability to satiate the itch to rain down destruction from high above, that’s plenty good enough for the price. “Gunship” carves out some replay value via a currency system that lets you upgrade the weapons and unlock some other perks, and Game Center support means you can compete with friends for leaderboard bragging rights. (Achievement-collecting junkies are, for the time being, out of luck.)

DVD/Blu-ray 12/6/11: The Help, Mr. Popper's Penguins, 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, Our Idiot Brother, The Hangover Part II, Cowboys & Aliens, 2011 World Series releases, Dragon Tattoo Trilogy Extended, Big Love

The Help (PG-13, 2011, Disney)
Aspiring author Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) has never been on a date, and while the housekeeping advice column she inherited at the local paper won’t light her career on fire, it certainly beats such distractions as marriage or children. Skeeter’s plight sounds like a familiar story about a woman trying to make it her own way in 2011 — except in this case, it’s the 1960s, it’s the deep South, and it’s practically a social faux pas to let anything come in the way of wifehood and motherhood. But “The Help” isn’t merely Skeeter’s story, because the worst of the era’s backward social customs aren’t reserved for her. That injustice instead belongs to Aibileen (Viola Davis), Minny (Octavia Spencer) and the other black women who comprise the dismissively-named “help” — underpaid maids and nannies by day, strangers by night, and 24/7 second-class social pariahs in the eyes of all but the children who see them as mothers and are too unpretentious to recognize such absurd social customs. Skeeter was one of those children, and when she sets out to write a book that tells the maids’ stories from their unfiltered point of view, her complete lack of pompousness is so nerve-rattlingly groundbreaking that no one on either side knows what to do with it. Fittingly, what happens next runs the gamut — dark, heartbreaking and infuriating, yes, but also life-affirming, exciting, inspiring and occasionally very funny. “The Help” never doles on one emotion so long as to abandon the others (as a stunning last scene puts into brilliant perspective), and it’s a terrific example of a large ensemble cast and numerous storylines working perfectly in the service of a story that feels considerably more epic than its 137-minute runtime would imply.
Extras: Deleted scenes (with introduction), music video.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins (PG, 2011, Fox)
If you’ve been on this planet for a couple decades and have a brain that fires on at least a few cylinders, you can pick “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” apart almost from the instant Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) is introduced as an obsessive businessman and absentee parent. He’s forgotten what it means to truly be alive, his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) have about as much faith in him as he deserves, and when a live penguin unexpectedly makes herself at home in his Manhattan apartment, we all know where this story is headed. With that said — and with the caveat that unmitigated predictability is never ideal even in movies made for kids — “Penguins” is proof that even complete predictability can be forgiven when nearly everything else comes together rather well. Carrey makes Popper extremely easy to like despite being a walking cliche, and his kids relay their disappointment in him in startlingly non-bratty fashion. The storyline is trite, yes, but it’s harmlessly amusing at its worst and funny and genuinely sweet more often than not. Most importantly, the penguins are, in spite of their limited range and wisdom, a riot. Beyond the occasional computer-generated moment of anthropomorphic lucidity, they do little more than waddle, swim, topple over and honk their approval or disapproval. But “Penguins” could have gone the train wreck route by letting them talk or act completely, annoyingly human, and the less-is-more approach that lets penguins just be penguins is so much more enjoyable.
Extras: Animated short “Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, sampler of the children’s book on which the movie is based.

24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic (NR, 2011, HBO)
The NHL’s annual Winter Classic is no more valuable in the standings than any other regular season game. But when 1,229 regular season games take place indoors and this one plays in prime time, on New Year’s Day and at the mercy of the elements in a packed outdoor stadium — in this case, Heinz Field, home of football’s Pittsburgh Steelers — the hype and pageantry match that of a winner-take-all championship game. (It doesn’t hurt, either, when the combatants loathe each other as much as the host Penguins and rival Washington Capitals do.) HBO’s exquisite “24/7” documentaries should need no introduction to sports fans who love looking behind the scenes, and this four-hour, four-part documentary is yet another stellar reason why. “Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” follows both teams for four weeks that culminate in the 2011 Classic, and the conditions in which it finds each team — one riding a potentially historic winning streak, the other facing a painful tumble from first place — give it a dramatic edge straight out the gate. “Classic” naturally bites right down on that angle, and the fearless omnipresence of HBO’s cameras — which follow players and personnel on the ice, into the locker room, and out of the arena into their personal lives — examines this microcosm of hockey history in incredibly personal detail. This goes as well for the story behind the Classic’s preparation. “Classic” covers this facet with similar enthusiasm, and when the prospect of rain adds a dramatic layer to those proceedings, the crew once again stands ready to take full advantage. No extras.

Our Idiot Brother (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
As insinuated by the title, Ned (Paul Rudd) — whose accomplishments include selling pot to a uniformed police officer in broad, busy daylight — is something of an idiot. But while his brain doesn’t always function as it should, his ears are as sharp as any in the business. And when his dysfunctional family (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer and Steve Coogan, among others) passes him around after his jail stint ends, Ned becomes a conduit through which their secret dysfunctions — from infidelity to hidden feelings to shady work practices to more infidelity — pass. Ned’s well-meaning mouth spills information before his kindly brain can realize the consequences, and as you probably can guess as soon as the first secret leaves its first pair of lips, Ned’s family is about to raise its dysfunctional game. As movies go, “Our Idiot Brother” is as visibly imperfect as the people telling its story — a bit meandering in its character design and more unsure than versatile with regard to its mood swings. Sometimes that adds up to characters who are underutilized or just unappealing. The good news? Ned — along with a scene-stealing canine best friend named Willie Nelson — isn’t one of them. He’s deeply likable and more funny than not, and when the movie sees itself through his eyes, it takes on the same traits.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Hangover Part II (R, 2011, Warner Bros.)
A lot of people loved “The Hangover” — none, apparently, more so than the people who made it. The setting’s shifted to Thailand, and now it’s Stu (Ed Helms) getting married instead of Doug (Justin Bartha). Past that, though, the people who made “The Hangover” have kind of just made it again, and that’s kind of a problem when “The Hangover Part II” can’t lean on shock and novelty the way that first movie so repeatedly did. If anything, part two feels like its being leaned on, because the hoops it has to clear to mark off its checklist of obligations — a deformity for Stu, roles for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and Mike Tyson, an animal somehow winding up in the hotel room — leave it looking a little strained from having to explain itself too much. If you’re happy simply with a character reunion, “Part II” suffices well enough: It’s amusing, if not often legitimately funny, and it’s easy enough to enjoy in the moment even if you won’t remember much about it a week from now. Frankly, that’s probably the best we could hope for. “The Hangover” caught lightning in a bottle with its inventive premise, but there’s no possible way it could take people by surprise twice. Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
If you take a car with no engine and accessorize it with high-performance aftermarket parts and feed it the most magnificently pure blends of gasoline and motor oil available on Earth, guess what? It still won’t go anywhere until you drop an engine in there. “Cowboys & Aliens” looks really good, particularly when the aliens descend on the Old West and raise hell for the first time. It has an expensive cast (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Abigail Spencer), and it lets that cast (Ford in particular) play up their typecast personalities. There’s some cool tech, some blood and some stuff blowing up. But only fleetingly — and mostly thanks to side characters who eventually fall into the background — does “Aliens” flash any kind of real heartbeat. Considering this is a story about cowboys firing six-shooters at aliens, the gaping hole where the movie’s sense of humor should have gone looms unflatteringly large, and the obligatory set pieces and story turns that compensate for the dour mood lack any real sense of bombast or surprise. “Aliens” didn’t need to go totally off the rails to deliver on this dream matchup, but the lack of any kind of fortitude to do anything beyond the absolute big-budget bare minimum feels like an opportunity totally squandered.
Extras: Director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.

Worth mentioning
— “St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2011, MLB/A&E) and “World Series 2011: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals” (NR, 2011, MLB/A&E): If you spent October under a rock and missed the most exciting World Series in years — and the first since 2002 to go seven games — here’s the bad news: “St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition’s” packaging spoils who won. If you’re Cardinals fan, though, the rest of the news is good. The eight-disc set includes uncut copies of all seven games between the Cardinals and Rangers. The eighth, bonus disc includes NLDS/NLCS highlights, clinching/trophy presentation/parade footage, a feature on walk-off winners and multiple audio tracks that include the national television play-by-play, both local radio play-by-play teams and the international Spanish play-by-play. If you’re more a fan of baseball history than the Cardinals specifically, the latest entrant in MLB’s terrific World Series film collection is an easy sell. “World Series 2011: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals” also bundles a bonus disc that includes the uncut fifth game of the NLDS, a “This Week in Baseball” feature on Lance Berkman, a feature on Tony LaRussa and clinching/highlights/parade footage.
— “Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition” (NR, 2009/11, Music Box Films): “Dragon Tattoo” fever continues to grip America, and in advance of the Americanized first film’s theatrical debut, this set presents the first (legal) way on these shores to see the extended, nine-hour cut of the original trilogy. All three films have optional English dubs if you don’t enjoy reading subtitles for three hours at a time, and the set’s bonus disc includes interviews and the behind-the-scenes documentary “Millennium: The Story.”
— “Big Love: The Complete Collection” (NR, 2006, HBO). Beyond the first stretch of the first season, “Big Love” never seemed to garner the same obsessive media attention many of its fellow HBO dramas get. But that’s the great thing about cable: You can fly under the radar and still get the five seasons you need to tell your story on your terms. This set includes all 63 episodes, plus all the extras from the individual season sets. In other words, if you bought the first four seasons’ sets, you’re not missing anything by just getting the fifth season set, which also releases this week.

Games 12/6/11: Mario Kart 7, Carnival Island, Medieval Moves: Deadmund's Quest, Need for Speed: The Run, Age of Zombies: Anniversary

Mario Kart 7
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

“Mario Kart” is the only racing franchise in existence where the worst experience a player has is when he or she leads a race. That misery persists in “Mario Kart 7’s” single-player cups, where opposing racers routinely will pelt you with blue shells and other unavoidably cheap weapons any time you dare control the lead before the finish line comes into view.

Fortunately, “MK7” is — like each of its six predecessors — exponentially best enjoyed when playing against friends (eight players, local wireless or online). That same horror persists, and it’s doubly pronounced with friends whose need to terrorize one another is as paramount as any need to win a race. But when everyone’s tormenting everyone and having a laugh in the process, any pretense about “MK7’s” shortcomings as a pure racing game fall away.

In other words, the seventh “Mario Kart” game isn’t too fundamentally far removed from the first. If you’ve grown tired of the act and wish Nintendo would at least do away with items that require no skill to deploy effectively, you’ll have a bone to pick with this one before you even turn it on. And if you still love the formula, “MK7” finds the series at its prettiest, most versatile and — thanks to 16 new tracks that are all kinds of inspired in their design — most elaborate.

Though they range from cosmetic to curious, there are still changes to the formula worth noting. “MK7’s” courses — the new ones as well as the 16 remastered tracks Nintendo hand-picked from just about every previous game — include stretches set underwater and in the air. In terms of locomotion, neither is a game-changer: You glide in the air and drive with some drag underwater. But the extra surfaces add vertical alternate paths to courses that already have horizontal shortcuts to seek out. A single track can have racers simultaneously racing beneath the surface, atop it and high above on a rooftop.

Nintendo also takes a nudge in the right direction with a couple new items, the tanooki tail and fireball, that allow you some measure of defense against shells and other weapons. The blue shell and lightning bolt remain invincible as ever, but hey, baby steps. The truly lucky will get the new Lucky 7 item, which grants a seven-piece variety pack of items to deploy as needed.

In the “funny but probably useless” column, you can toggle a new first-person view that lets you steer by turning the 3DS like a steering wheel. The viewpoint puts you at a competitive disadvantage and negates “MK7’s” 3D effects, which are the most eye-pleasing of any 3DS game thus far. But it’s amusing, a little exciting and, in a multiplayer session where everyone agrees to drive that way, potentially riotous.

In terms of features, “MK7” delivers what’s expected of it. The Grand Prix has eight cups of four races each, and completing each difficulty tier unlocks new characters, including your Mii. Collecting coins across all modes unlocks new kart parts, which you can mix and match to create the kart of your speedy, weighty and stylish dreams. Time Trials and Balloon/Coin battle modes return, though the excellent Mission mode from “Mario Kart DS” does not.

“MK7’s” online component also comes through with lag-free racing and a polished interface that makes it easy to race against friends, recent opponents or random strangers. The Community mode is particularly nice, as it allows you to set up an always-open lobby for friends to access as they please, though you’ll have to create separate communities different race and battle modes.


Carnival Island
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Magic Pixel Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Zindagi Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Every motion control system needs its own collection of carnival-themed minigames, and “Carnival Island” would appear to be the Playstation 3’s me-too equivalent. But the hand-drawn animation that opens the game’s story mode suggests there’s more to this collection than simple imitation, and while that isn’t all the way true, it bears out to an encouraging degree.

“Island” features seven carnival standbys — frog bog, skeeball, hoops, coin/ring/baseball toss and shooting gallery — in its base offerings, and because the Move controller is just plain more precise than the Wii remote or Kinect, the games work exactly as you’d expect and respond to your motions precisely as they should.

The responsive controls are, naturally, “Island’s” most important virtue. But the game’s best asset lies in the way it breaks from convention in designing 28 additional games simply by rearranging those seven base games.

While some of these variants are simple tweaks to the rules or the way the playing field is arranged, others — replacing the baseball with a swingable wrecking ball, turning the skeeball lane into a slot machine, providing frogs you can steer in the air after launching them with the frog bog — are considerably more clever. Many of them exercise enough creativity to feel like different games entirely instead of mere offshoots.

“Island’s” four-player multiplayer (offline only, sadly) very obviously positions it as a party game, but it bears repeating that the story campaign — about a dormant carnival you gradually return to life — is legitimately charming as a solo endeavor. If you like a challenge, all 35 games include a checklist of bonus objectives to complete, and many of them are certifiably tough. Naturally, because this is a carnival, you’ll win tickets from games that let you collect prizes for your character and unlock a few exhibits (a magic mirror, for instance) that are just for fun.

At first blush, “Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest” appears to have nothing in common with “Island” past its controller. But like “Island,” its best asset is the way it adopts a genre (light gun shooter) that’s part and parcel with motion controls and takes it down a novel new road.

In “Quest,” Deadmund (a friendly skeleton fighting unfriendly skeletons, and the story explains all) handles the walking while you handle the rest — swordplay, arrows, throwing stars, dynamite, a grappling hook and a periodic jump, duck or gear turn. You can choose which path Deadmund should take when he reaches a fork in the road, but otherwise, he moves forward automatically.

The resemblance there to light gun shooters is unmistakable, as are “Quest’s” enemy formations and the way it scatters bonus items you can pick up if you’re quick enough to do so before Deadmund runs past them.

But Deadmund’s arsenal makes “Quest” a much more versatile and lively experience than your typical shooter, particularly because you can mix attacks as freely as you like. Swordplay is ideal for close-quarters combat, and how you wield the Move controller is how Deadmund will wield his sword and shield. Imitating a quill-pulling motion allows Deadmund to shoot arrows at faraway enemies, while a quick sideways fling of the controller lets him throw stars at advancing enemies.

“Quest” intuitively maps all these tasks to one controller, but if you have two, it’s best enjoyed that way. The sword and shield are assigned to separate wands, alleviating the need to hold a button to use the shield, and shooting arrows is more fun when you imitate the bow motion with two controllers instead of point the one at the screen like a gun.

Either way, though, “Quest” is terrific fun — more an arcade game than what typically constitutes a quest in video game terms, but a fast, active adventure that is too nimble and seamless to feel gimmicky.

“Quest’s” storyline is a solo endeavor, but a separate Battle mode — designed primarily around surviving formations of enemies in an arena you can zip through using the grappling hook — offers competitive and cooperative play for one or two players (online or splitscreen). It’s simple, but it’s fun for the same reasons the story is fun, and a persistent leveling system gives it legs by letting you upgrade weapons and unlock new characters as you accrue experience.


Need for Speed: The Run
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Windows
From: EA Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

If “Need for Speed: The Run” was a sitcom plot device instead of a game, it’d be that one where a character makes a list of pros and cons and fills out both sides of the paper doing so. Great mechanics and a cool premise — a coast-to-coast, “Cannonball Run”-esque race — do battle with some regrettable design choices, and while “The Run” ultimately comes out ahead, the final score is closer than it should’ve been.

The benefits of driving cross-country are obvious, even if the story that creates the opportunity is drab. (Happily, the much-maligned on-foot chase sequences — interactive cutscenes that look flashy and push the story but aren’t fun to play — are so short and infrequent as to not even factor.)

“The Run” takes place in the United States as we know them, and while it’s doled out in stages instead of as a single, uninterrupted cruise, the recreations of numerous locales are extremely visually impressive. The premise also provides some considerable terrain variety, with San Francisco’s hilly streets and Colorado’s slippery mountains demanding different disciplines than South Dakota’s straightaways, downtown Chicago’s sharp corners and New Jersey’s perilously tight alleys.

“The Run’s” breadth of vehicles and tuning options is narrower than the norm, but it offers a satisfactory array of cars built to handle different surfaces and weather. The tug of war that ensues between responsive handling and the perennial sense of being one twitch away from disaster will strike some simply as less-than-optimum handling controls, but it does make for an exciting (and visually impressive) time on the road. The opposing driver A.I. is similarly polarizing: It brazenly rubberbands at points where a close finish makes for good drama, but you may not appreciate driving a spotless race that still finds an opposing driver cutting a 10-second lead down to nothing in seemingly no time.

“The Run’s” boldest idea comes with its attempt to treating a racing game like an action game. You get a limited number of resets (lives, basically) per event, and each event has a handful of checkpoints that you’ll revert to if you wipe out. Considering every event is pass/fail — if you don’t outright win that stretch of the race or complete the event’s objective, you have to redo it — it’s a novel, sensible approach.

Occasionally, though, you’ll get pegged for a reset simply by driving a little bit too off-road at the wrong time. Other times, the same offense doesn’t trigger a reset. “The Run’s” definition of out of bounds is frustratingly arbitrary, especially considering most tracks have approved shortcuts that reward you for going off the track.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the reset process wasn’t so obnoxious. “The Run” has deflatingly long load times between events, but it also frequently takes forever to load your last checkpoint in the middle of a race. Couple that with a supremely annoying reset loading graphic that flashes like a strobe while you wait seemingly ages for a chance to try again, and the mechanic’s intentions of maintaining momentum completely backfire.

That seemingly innocuous issue is the spark that ignites the fire that will polarize those who find “The Run” exhilarating and those who find it antagonizing and frustrating.

“The Run’s” story is fairly brief, but the game complements it with a lot of challenge events that reward medals instead of impose pass/fail restrictions. Online multiplayer (eight players) is pretty straightforward, but the inclusion of the Autolog social network — a persistent interface that makes chasing friends’ times in single-player events as much fun as racing them directly online — gives the game plenty of legs for those who like its methods and wish to master them.


Age of Zombies: Anniversary
For: iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (universal app)
From: Halfbrick Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $3

With respect to the angry birds and that cute “Cut the Rope” monster, no character’s ascension through the App Store has been as fun to witness as that of the Bruce Campbell-esque Barry Steakfries. His personality, and the sense of humor that drives it, are what transformed “Age of Zombies” into something more than just another twin-stick shooter with zombies in it. If you played that game, you should know “Age of Zombies: Anniversary” isn’t a sequel, but rather a graphical remaster of the original game that’s designed to take advantage of iPad and Retina Display-equipped iPhone screens. You can decide yourself whether a pretty new wrapper is worth a second purchase. If, however, the whole experience is new to you, “Anniversary” is worth a look. As a (virtual) dual-stick shooter, it’s fundamentally faithful to genre conventions. But those other games don’t necessarily have this game’s personality, and “Anniversary’s” storyline — which finds Barry traveling to different time periods to conquer cowboy zombies, gangster zombies, future zombies and more — is pretty funny. The weapon variety is high, as is the opportunity to chain together considerable chaos for high scores, and the game’s polish — from control responsiveness to graphics to support for iCloud save data syncing — belies the price tag.