DVD/Blu-ray 1/31/12: The Big Year, Drive, Thunder Soul, Limelight, In Time, The Double, Dream House, To Kill a Mockingbird 50th Anniversary, The Comic Strip Presents…

The Big Year (PG, 2011, Fox)
As one passerby in “The Big Year” remarks, only Americans could turn birding — the inside-baseball term for bird-watching — into a competition. But every January, a cadre of birders trek around North America in a madcap, yearlong quest to photograph as many species of birds as nature, outside obligations and sheer determination allow. It’s called The Big Year, its only prize is pride, and this particular year, it will intertwine the lives of two rookies — bumbling programmer Brad (Jack Black) and self-made business maven Stu (Steve Martin) — and a veteran (Owen Wilson as Kenny) who fears his world record could be endangered. “Year” comes based on a novel that itself is an infectiously enjoyable open love letter to compulsive birding. Impressively, the movie is as well — so much so that it arguably defies precise classification. “Year” is neither darkly nor fall-down funny, nor is it even built around gags or slapstick. The object of the movie may not even be to make people laugh. But before you dismiss that notion as a gross misuse of the word “comedy,” it’s important to draw a distinction between a movie designed to make you laugh and one capable of commanding and holding a smile nearly without pause for 100 minutes. In lieu of repackaged laughs that could fit into umpteen other comedies, “Year” offers a uplifting, deeply likable and contagiously fun look at a pursuit you may not even know exists. Be glad the birding class of 2012 has built an insurmountable lead by the time you see this. Had it not, and if “Year’s” portrayal is at all faithful, you might be tempted to escape the daily doldrums and ride with them.
Extra: Extended and theatrical versions.

Drive (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Say this for “Drive:” In the long, winding vein of movies about drivers for hire (Ryan Gosling) trying to save an innocent heroine (Carey Mulligan as Irene) caught inside a bad mob deal over which she had no control and barely any ties, it inarguably marches to its own beat — debatably, to a fault. To delve further into “Drive’s” story wouldn’t be to spoil it — because what you read above is, details aside, all there fundamentally is to it. Stuff happens — quite violently, in fact — and between the bloodshed, “Drive” looks awfully pretty and speaks with great care while that stuff happens. But at no point does Gosling’s unnamed character come into meaningful focus. It doesn’t make much sense why he goes to such grisly lengths to protect Irene, and when “Driver” wraps its business, it’s hard to discern what all the thousand-yard stares and contemplative moments (to say nothing of the mournful Brian Eno song that plays three separate times) were trying to say. Maybe they aren’t saying anything, and maybe “Drive” is just that rare action movie that hangs out at the intersection between pretentious art film and narratively empty violence run wild. It’s ability to hang at that intersection makes it novel, and that novelty makes it a more interesting movie than the same story would have been under conventional circumstances. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hate it as much as others loved it, and it certainly doesn’t mean this rare combination need ever become the norm. Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks also star.
Extras: Director interview, four behind-the-scenes features.

Thunder Soul (PG, 2011, Lions Gate)
It’s a plot straight out of a feel-good summer movie: A music teacher assembles a band of unseasoned, occasionally undisciplined high school musicians and turns them into a force of funk nature that transcends high school competitions and sends tremors though the musical landscape at large. But thanks to the efforts of Conrad “Prof” Johnson, there’s nothing fictitious about the Kashmere Stage Band, which changed the face of stage music and put a charge in music that resonates to this day. “Thunder Soul” brings the band back together to play one more time for Prof on his birthday, and if you’re wondering why, how does “just because” sound? Part history lesson, part retrospective, part can-they-still-play mystery (some haven’t touched an instrument in 30 years, after all) and all kinds of heartfelt, “Soul” ultimately is a wondrous celebration of how the work of one person can set in motion a ripple that shapes impressionable lives and creates bonds durable enough to pick up right where they left off decades earlier. That this incredible teaching moment also changed the face of music? That’s simply a bonus — a thrilling one, as “Soul’s” relentlessly infectious soundtrack makes crystal clear, but a bonus just the same.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, new footage from the 1974 documentary “Prof & The Band.”

Limelight (NR, 2011, Magnolia)
You know how sometimes, when something goes completely sideways, no one wants to talk about it? “Limelight” does not have this problem. At all. “Limelight” begins in earnest as a portrait of Peter Gatien’s relentless ascent to the top of New York’s nightclub scene, where he managed four clubs and 15,000 nightly customers at his peak in the 1990s. But then Rudy Giuliani happened, and when a crackdown on ecstasy allegedly turned back the curtain on a system of organized, club-sponsored drug trafficking that made “The Wire’s” corners look like Sesame Street, all hell broke loose. Had “Limelight” been saddled with telling the story all by itself, it might be a pedestrian case of just another downfall of a club kingpin who felt a little too invincible for his own good. Fortunately, the movie has help, and from everywhere. Gatien speaks, former patrons speak, former partners and employers speak, and his adversaries — in business and government — speak as well. The flurry of dirt and accusations is documentary crossfire at its finest, and when you combine that bitterness with a wistfulness of an era gone by — the credits reveal what The Limelight nightclub has turned into today, and it’s alternately gutting and hilarious — it’s a mess of personal feelings unleashed for the camera. Who’s lying? Who isn’t? Who knows. “Limelight’s” closing moments include a considerable roundup of people who declined to talk, and the message here is too muddled to pass for damning insight. As entertainment, though, it passes with flying colors.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

In Time (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
Time literally is money in “In Time.” Turn 25, and you have a year to live, but because time is now a currency, you can add to that balance or spend it foolishly. If you can do it with money in our world, you can do it with time in theirs — especially if, like Will (Justin Timberlake), you receive a century’s worth simply for helping a stranger whose fatigue with being nearly immortal (and living a sheltered, risk-free life to stay that way) compels him to give his time away. The stranger wants Will to use his time well, and with that table-setter, “Time” has a staggering cluster of allegorical roads down which to take this idea. Unfortunately, it chooses the one — a scramble amongst criminals, authorities and the rich to take from Will what he was given — most probably expect it to take. “Time” runs pretty wild with the implications of its concept and its upheaval of the notions of wealth, aging and what it means to truly live. But while it’s loaded with clever little ideas, it spends too much time on a flat big idea that devolves into just another good guy/bad guy chase across town. Replace time with money, and the general storyline could be any old movie about the corrupt and powerful chasing a guy who found a fortune they feel is theirs. You can’t say that about the smaller details, which makes “Time” fun to watch anyway. Given the number of horizons that lay at it feet, though, it’s disappointing you can say it at all.
Extra: Deleted/extended scenes.

The Double (PG-13, 2011, Image Entertainment)
A U.S. senator is murdered almost in cold blood, and all signs point to it being the work of a familiar killer. Problem is, the assassin — a Soviet code-named Cassius — is supposed to be dead. The retired federal agent who declared him dead (Richard Gere) is pulled back in and teamed with a rising star (Topher Grace) whose thesis about Cassius got him in the door. There’s more to the story than that, but delving any further would constitute a spoiler, and this is not a movie that can really afford to take that kind of hit. “The Double” has two excellent surprises in store, and it surrounds those surprises with fallout and buildup that’s pretty good but only pretty good. Specifically, it lets surprise No. 1 out a little too early and builds on it in a way that’s conventional and almost functions as stalling toward the inevitable result of that surprise. Surprise No. 2 provides a nice twist on that inevitability, but by the time it arrives, we’re halfway past the climax and out of good uses for it. Ultimately, though it looks good and plays all the right thriller notes, “The Double” probably feels like a movie you’ve seen before — even if the concept brought forth by those surprises is new to you.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, interviews.

Dream House (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Will (Daniel Craig) has a loving wife (Rachel Weisz), two loving children, and what should be a lovely future in a beautiful new house. But what’s up with the creepy teenagers Will caught throwing a morbid party in his basement one night? And what’s all this talk about a murder taking place in this house five years prior? Will sets out to investigate, and when “Dream House” reaches its halfway point, it gives him a surprising answer that considerably alters the meaning of everything that transpired during those first 45 minutes. That’s great, because “House” starts slow and kind of lumbers forward until it reaches that fork. Problem is, it ends slowly as well. While “House” rebuilds its deck in a memorable way, the excitement needle gradually reverts back to its original position while Will makes sense of these revelations. The back half, like the front half, lumbers along conventional lines for the most part, but this time, there’s no shocker waiting to rewrite all that preceded it. A few glances into Will’s well-being aside, it’s a thriller-by-numbers with a good idea but limited ability to take it places. Naomi Watts also stars.
Extra: Four behind-the-scenes features.

Worth Mentioning
— “To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Collection” (NR, 1962, Universal): The year’s first significant anniversary celebration goes to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which doubles up on celebrations as part of Universal’s 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series. In addition to digitally-restored DVD, Blu-ray and digital copy editions of the film, this set — packaged inside a 44-page booklet containing storyboards, production notes, photos, posters and more — includes commentary with the film’s director and producer, a feature-length conversation with star Gregory Peck, the feature-length making-of documentary “Fearful Symmetry,” a retrospective with star Mary Badham, footage of Peck’s Best Actor and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speeches and more.
— “The Comic Strip Presents…: The Complete Collection” (NR, 1982, Entertainment One): Chances are, unless you really know your sketch comedy history, Britain’s “The Comic Strip Presents…” has eluded you. At long last, it’s no longer a hassle or legally dubious to see what shook up British TV in the early 1980s — and launched the careers of Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders and Robbie “Rubeus Hagrid” Coltrane. The nine-disc set includes all 39 episodes, plus live performance footage, a retrospective and the two-part “First Laugh on Four” documentary.

Games 1/31/12: Resident Evil: Revelations, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Quarrel

Resident Evil: Revelations
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Price: $40

After Capcom insulted 3DS owners last year with the laughably shallow and overpriced “Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D,” you’d be forgiven for dismissing “Resident Evil: Revelations” as yet another thoughtless cash-in.

You’d be wrong, but you’d be forgiven.

To the contrary, and staggeringly so, “Revelations” is the real deal — a console-quality “Resident Evil” game that arguably surpasses the series’ excellent recent console efforts, and a showcase piece for a system that may be more powerful than you’d figured.

“Revelations” illuminates the murky timeline leading into the events of 2009’s “Resident Evil 5,” and the approach it takes — pieced into episodes like a television show, and fronted by multiple playable protagonists at different points in the timeline — is a novel venture for the series.

The obvious benefits apply, with the episodic approach (and complementary save/checkpoint system) giving “Revelations” some welcome portable-friendly breaks in the action. The structure also keeps the story on point: Every episode, even when ending on a cliffhanger, contains its own satisfying story arc, and the multiple characters and timelines keep developments cropping up at an engrossing pace.

In a more surprising benefit, the episodic structure also lets “Revelations” be all things “Resident Evil” at once.

Jill Valentine returns to carry the bulk of “Revelations'” playable character weight, and her scenes — set almost exclusively aboard a gargantuan cruise liner crawling with secrets — are a callback to the original “Resident Evil’s” sprawling mansion. The enemy count is sparse, but so is Jill’s ammo, and the threat of significant peril around any given corner — even when tracing old steps to access previously inaccessible corridors — provides the best blend yet of the franchise’s contemporary gameplay and original ethos.

By contrast — and without spoiling the who or where — the segments starring other characters unfold in a variety of environments that favor heavier action and a more linear progression.

Impressively, “Revelations” can handle both styles even if you pass on the $20 Circle Pad Pro attachment, which gives the 3DS a second analog pad. The attachment wasn’t available for testing with “Revelations,” but it wasn’t needed.

Hypothetically, “Revelations” — which adopts “RE5’s” third-person perspective but offers an optional first-person view when guns are drawn — is better without it. With only one pad, combat becomes a tense compromise between positioning and firing instead of mindless running and gunning, and during those moments where big trouble breaks loose in small spaces and death can come quick, being just a little purposefully hamstrung by the controls adds to the excitement. The controls are responsive, the touchscreen adds a second layer of intuitive access, and it’s almost fun to fight the game when it’s by design and the design is this sharp.

“Revelations” adds a weird new wrinkle with a scanning device that lets Jill and others analyze the environment for hidden items and enemy data. Initially, its implementation feels clumsy, because you have to stash your weapon to use the scanner. But that, of course, is the point: If you want the rewards, you have holster your gun and assume the risks of doing so. Yet again, “Revelations” mixes intuitive design with deliberate inconvenience to turn a quirky mechanic into a tense gamble.

Presentationally, “Revelations” is a testament to the 3DS’ surprising power, with console-quality graphics that pop beautifully with the 3D maxed out. The sound design is stellar, and you’d do very well to play this one with headphones on.

Amusingly, “Revelations” also includes a mode — playable solo or wirelessly/online with another player — that basically mimics the sole mode that comprised “Mercenaries.” It might be the first time a $40 game has included a $50 game as a bonus feature, but regardless, it’s a welcome (and fitting) concession from a studio that got it all the way right this time.


Final Fantasy XIII-2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, simulated gambling, violence)
Price: $60

Did you play “Final Fantasy XIII?” Because if you didn’t, this welcome mat is not for you.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2” easily is the most direct sequel Square-Enix has ever made for a “Final Fantasy” game. Neither a spinoff nor a quirky offshoot (like “Final Fantasy X-2” famously was), “XIII-2” directly follows the events of its predecessor’s story and keeps that game’s battle system — a cool mix of turn-based gameplay set to real-time rules in which you devise multiple roles for your characters and set them in furious motion — pretty much intact. The primary cast has changed, with story-mandated events putting “XIII’s” Serah at the forefront of a search for her sister (and “XIII” protagonist) Lightning, but skeletally, “XIII-2” has far more in common than not with “XIII.”

More than anything, “XIII-2” feels like a second draft that might not even exist if “XIII” didn’t attract the harsh criticism it got.

For that crowd, the changes are welcome. Where “XIII” was shockingly linear for a role-playing game, “XIII” offers towns, dungeons with branching paths and side quests to complement the main storyline. Even that main storyline fractures, hinging on an incorporation of time travel that (while narratively uninspired) often lets you jump tracks when you’re ready instead of when the story dictates. (As a welcome — albeit almost certainly unintentional — result, many of “XIII-2’s” most tedious fetch quests and mini-games can be skipped entirely if you wish to ignore them.)

“XIII-2’s” most inspired new twist comes from its unusual party arrangement, which gives you two human characters and “Pokemon”-esque monster to complement them in battle. The game is crawling with monsters to capture, customize and upgrade, and while the exercise is mostly optional, it’s where most of “XIII-2’s” most enjoyable character customization lies.

But “XIII-2’s” inarguable blessing is its willingness to let you commandeer its battle system quickly. “XIII” held players’ hands for nearly 20 hours — that’s 20, not a typo — before completely relinquishing control. “XIII-2” offers a comprehensive tutorial for new and rusty players, but you can skip it if you wish, and without spoiling the narrative hows or whens, you’re off and running in pretty short order.

Along with the battle tutorial, “XIII-2” also offers a chapter-by-chapter story primer for those who wish to understand the events of “XIII” but skip straight to playing “XIII-2.”

But as many who played it will attest, “XIII’s” story was a needless and often incomprehensibly dense climb up a shallow hill, and there’s only so much the primer can do to clean it up. Even if you read the whole thing, jumping straight into “XIII-2” is like skipping the first three seasons of “Lost” and expecting to enjoy the remaining three as much as those who have been watching all along.

Storytelling, sadly, remains the one place where “XIII-2” stumbles as much as (if not more than) “XIII.” It’s opaque almost from the start. The main characters are bland, the supporting characters often obnoxious. And once again, a simple story gets weighed down by its mythology and character dialogue instead of enriched by them. (Given what a kick to the face the primary ending is, though, that may be blessing in disguise.)


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Indiagames Limited/Denki/UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $5

The conceptually brilliant and rambunctiously cheerful “Quarrel” is what happens when Boggle and RISK join forces. Up to four armies share adjacent territories with one another, and dominating a “Quarrel” match comes down to wiping out opposing armies before they decimate yours. This time, though, a battle comes down to eight random letters and one chance to build a better word than your enemy. The more troops you have occupying the conflicted square, the more letters you can use to build your word, and the winning army can (depending on circumstance) take the square completely, whittle it down to one opposing troop, or turn enemies into turncoats. “Quarrel’s” cheerful presentation is dangerously caffeinated, but the actual game takes a great idea and gets it absolutely right. All of this was already the case with “Quarrel’s” iOS iteration, which included lots of well-tuned single-player content (campaign, customizable match play, daily challenges) but no multiplayer of any kind. With the move to Xbox Live, “Quarrel” finally fixes that: There’s no local multiplayer (which makes sense given the game’s setup), but you can play online with up to three others. This, along with all the iOS version’s single-player content and some new scenario wrinkles for those playing alone, makes this the best version available (and makes the exclusion of multiplayer on iOS even more annoying than it already was). The only downside: Playing “Quarrel” with a controller isn’t as graceful as it is on a touch screen. Fortunately, it’s a slight rather than significant inconvenience, and if you have a Chat Pad, you’ll be happy to know it’s supported.

DVD/Blu-ray 1/24/12: 50/50, Hell and Back Again, Real Steel, The Confession, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, Memphis, Happy Happy, Paranormal Activity 3

50/50 (R, 2011, Summit)
If what happens to 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ever happens to you, drop to your knees and pray you have a friend as good as Kyle (Seth Rogen). Some back pain and a doctor’s appointment turns into a cancer diagnosis for Adam, whose rudimentary Internet research gives him a 50/50 chance at beating it. From here, “50/50” has three conventional choices — be a dreary slow burn, go for dark comedy in the face of death, or strive for uncomfortable authenticity and see where it takes you. But why choose if you can do all three? When “50/50” wants to be funny, it is — often hilariously, frequently childishly or crudely. And when the mood subsides and the dark side of Adam’s diagnosis encroaches, the movie responds with furious, howling anger as much as it does resigned sadness. Ultimately, while running the gamut before backing over it and running it again, “50/50” strikes hardest at the notion of support and undying loyalty — from strangers and unlikely places as well as family, but especially from an overgrown manchild who hooks himself to Adam’s side when he easily could have drifted away. Gordon-Levitt’s fiery performance gives “50/50” all the energy it needs to burn through its 100 minutes way too quickly, but it’s the presence of Kyle — loud, lovable but obscenely heartfelt and ready to bare teeth like a bulldog at anyone who lets his best friend down — that makes this one of 2011’s most inspired movies. Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Rogen commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features (including a four-parter that compares scenes from the movie to the true story that inspired it).

Hell and Back Again (NR, 2011, Docurama)
When Sergeant Nathan Harris’ Marine unit launched an assault from behind the lines of a Taliban stronghold in 2009, the ensuing fight left Harris with a debilitating injury that knocked him out of the war. “Hell and Back Again” rolls camera on both sides of the world — with Harris’ unit in Afghanistan as it withstands a Taliban ambush and presses forward in hopes of bringing peace to a village of people who do not trust them, and with Harris himself as he struggles mightily to walk, heal and otherwise live a normal life in North Carolina. Yes, you’ve probably heard this narrative before and (cold as it is to say) can probably guess the general particulars of what happens next. But if you’ve taken the time to pay attention to these stories before, you likely know — as “Again” confirms — that generalizations have nothing on details. “Again” eschews narration and, outside of some place-setting text, doesn’t frame its footage in any way the footage itself doesn’t. Even if you think you’ve seen it all already, the scenes where soldiers and villagers try to figure each other out are completely fascinating, and all the discourse about homecoming soldiers feeling like aliens in their own country has nothing on watching the mundane processes of that private hell play out. In between, a memorial for those lost provides “Again’s” centerpiece, and if ever a single scene from any of these documentaries can stick more than all the others, the speech Marine Chaplain Terry Roberts delivers to his fellow soldiers may be it.
Extras: Director/editor commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, slide show.

Real Steel (PG-13, 2011, Disney)
With all due respect to Hugh Jackman’s presence, “Real Steel’s” commercials made it look like an absolutely ridiculous techno jock rock B-movie about Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots come nightmarishly alive. But it’s funny what a little good writing can accomplish, isn’t it? In line with those ads, “Steel” most definitely is nuts — packed tight with people who behave like cartoon characters while crowding arenas to cheer on household-name boxing robots who fight in a league with an alarming level of ambivalence about level playing fields. But “Steel” also is about a former human boxer and general deadbeat (Jackman as Charlie) connecting with his estranged 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo as Max) over a shared passion for these boxing robots. And if you’re expecting it to do the bare, nauseating minimum with that drippy-on-paper subplot, what actually happens instead may just floor you. While by no means poetry, “Steel’s” maturation of this storyline — and most importantly, the subplot’s integration into the craziness surrounding it — is miles better than was probably expected of it. Charlie, in spite of and sometimes in direct response to being a deadbeat, makes a terrific story anchor. Max, meanwhile, avoids the annoying kid-with-baggage archetypes every bit as deftly as his dad sidesteps the regretful-parent-who-finally-gets-it routine. And even if you don’t care, the advent of Atom, the scrappy little robot that could, is completely enthralling. Logic holes abound, and at no point is it anything short of spectacularly apparent how silly the whole thing is, but good luck not rooting Atom on when “Steel” puts its “Rocky” shoes on and dances up a storm in them.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

The Confession (NR, 2011, Flatiron Film Company)
A hit man (Kiefer Sutherland) has entered a priest’s (John Hurt) confessional on Christmas Eve, and he isn’t one for small talk: He killed a man, this is his confession, and if the priest doesn’t listen, he will kill again that night. How’s that for a holiday conversation starter? It gets better — considerably so, in fact. “The Confession” originally aired as a 10-part web series on Hulu, and this release sews the pieces together to form a seamless film. At 62 minutes, the entirety of the series is short even by feature film metrics. But good luck finding a movie that takes advantage of its time as magnificently as this one does. A few flashbacks aside, the vast majority of “The Confession” takes place between two people inside one confessional, and the degree to which their separate and shared stories develop and swerve is just awesome. Specifics of any kind beyond the aforementioned details would spoil too much, but that’s merely a testament to how far the story goes in such a short amount of time.
Extras: Four (very short) backstory episodes about supporting characters, 14 behind-the-scenes features.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
In 1987, friends Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch Deprey moved into an embarrassingly shoddy San Francisco apartment building, and very shortly after that, they got to know their neighbors — Peter and Raymond — by way of a nasty shouting match that transmitted quite clearly through their thin walls. A few arguments and a frightening confrontation later, the guys decided to record the shouting matches, and once they realized how hilariously sardonic they were, they shared them with friends as parts of mix tapes. Those friends did the same, and long before the Internet made “going viral” an obnoxious thing obnoxious marketers say, Pete and Raymond were going viral all over San Francisco. Had “Shut Up Little Man!” been nothing more than the sum of its bookends — Eddie and Mitch’s early fascination with their terrifying neighbors on one side, the complicated relationship between Pete and Raymond on the other — it very likely would have been a funny, crazy and fascinating documentary. But when you take the middle and cram it with an absolutely bananas story about people clamoring to share, dramatize and eventually blur ethical lines and stab each other in the back to (of course) monetize it, it’s suddenly enough to wish “Man” were twice as long as its 90 minutes. There’s simply too much gold to be uncovered in this saga — though that may be as much a testament to “Man’s” versatile delivery as the story itself.
Extras: Extended interview, uncut reenactments, two behind-the-scenes features.

Memphis (NR, 2011, Shout Factory)
Something invariably is lost when you have to watch a Broadway musical play out on a screen instead of right in front of you. On the other hand? It sure is cheaper, and if done right, it need not be a total compromise. Based loosely on the life of Dewey Phillips, “Memphis” tells the story of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), a goofy, illiterate and white radio DJ who strives to bring the music of Beale Street to Memphis’ white population at a time when severe racial divides made the notion of sharing music — never mind friendship or romance — completely taboo. And that’s what it is — a story about Huey, the black singer (Montego Glover as Felicia Farrell) who ensnares his heart, and the families and employers who nervously gnash their teeth while Huey’s heart fearlessly barrels forward. What “Memphis” is not is a cutting dissection of the era and the complicated effects of Huey’s taboo violation. That isn’t a criticism, mind you — just a clarification that while “Memphis” hones in on some uncomfortable subject matter, it doesn’t so much wrestle it to the ground as dance around it. Fortunately, it’s really good at dancing. What “Memphis” lacks in storytelling grit, it redeems with a roundly likable cast and a relentless wall of musical numbers that does the era’s sound and energy very proud. The DVD provides a nice visual capture of the Broadway show, but more importantly, it sounds great. Run it through a good sound system, and it’s easy to live with not actually being in the crowd.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, video greetings from the cast, DVD-ROM content.

Happy Happy (R, 2010, Magnolia)
It’s funny what a mess four fully-grown adults can make, isn’t it? In one house, we have the chipper Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), whose husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) routinely feeds her subtle hints regarding how uninteresting and unattractive she is. Moving into the guest house next door are Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), the latter (for reasons not totally clear) having agreed to move to the country as penance for cheating on Sigve. When one messy couple joins forces with the other and both find the grass greener on the other side, things will naturally just work out all around, right? Right. Of course. Contrary to the puzzling implications on the box, “Happy, Happy” pretty decisively is not the fall-down-funny comedy it implies it is. Fortunately, it just as decisively isn’t a downer either — just a kind-hearted, mean-spirited, hopeful, rueful, sweet, disturbed, confused and bullheaded story about four people who probably will remind you of a few people you know. (To its credit, when it goes for comedy, it usually hits the mark pretty pointedly. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it happens often enough.) In Norwegian with English subtitles. No extras.

Paranormal Activity 3: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2011, Paramount)
“Paranormal Activity” — which told a ghost story exclusively though cameras set up by the film’s own characters — was more novel curiosity than genuinely scary horror movie, but it at least had a creep factor that was legitimate. Its sequel, unfortunately, shamelessly rode its coattails en route to building a jump scare-laden imitation product around the exact same gimmick. For the third act, “Paranormal Activity 3” goes back to before the beginning, giving us a prequel in which we see the sisters from the first two movies as children (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown). Guess what? Everything that happens later in their lives happened already — down, unfortunately, to the letter. Pretense about origins and mythology aside, “PA3” is more of the same — more surveillance cameras cycling ad nauseam, more doors slamming themselves, more cases of the characters fake-scaring each other for fun before getting spooked for real by invisible forces later. The story arcs the same way, and it’s once again ruled by the kind of cheap scares the original movie pointedly avoided. It isn’t fresh anymore, it isn’t scary, and when you take novelty and tension away from what otherwise is a collection of some other family’s home movies, it most definitely isn’t entertaining.
Extras: Theatrical and extended versions of the film, lost tapes.

Games 1/24/12: Scarygirl, Amy, Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII

For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: TikGames/Square-Enx
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

Don’t let the name fool you: Even though its namesake and star has the arms of an octopus and the face of a skeleton vinyl doll, Scarygirl — and the game bearing her name — is more cute than scary.

In fact, for those attuned to “LittleBigPlanet’s” style, “Scarygirl’s” presentation will be familiarly cute. Like “LBP,” it’s a 2D platformer modeled with 3D graphics that look like a diorama come to life — more papercraft and watercolor than “LBP’s” burlap, cardboard and vinyl, but unmistakably riding the same visual wavelength. Throw in the narrator, who introduces each level as if a page from a slightly twisted bedtime storybook, and it’s very obvious from whence at least some of “Scarygirl’s” stylistic influence came.

With that said, don’t let the kindly exterior fool you either. “Scarygirl” gets off to a pretty gentle start, and the levels that comprise the first two of its seven chapters aren’t terribly imposing if your only goal is to clear them.

But then “Scarygirl” drops you into the Hairclump Spider Cave with the cave’s namesake enemy almost immediately on your tail, and just like that, the kid gloves are off.

In part, the challenge spikes for unintended reasons. Though she’s pretty spry, Scarygirl’s repertoire (running, jumping, gliding, swinging, melee combat, and a limited-use forcefield for blocking and counterattacking) sometimes feels almost too responsive, resulting in a slight jerkiness that makes it easy to slip when combining moves or trying to stick a precise jump.

An overly generous hit detection works against as well as for Scarygirl, and there are occasions where enemies spawn right on top of her and cause damage before you even have a chance to react.

Finally, while “Scarygirl’s” level design is generally pretty great — diverse locations, branching paths, gobs of color and style — it also features occasional instances where a jump of faith feels necessary. Sometimes, a jump that looks doable just isn’t because it’s part of a another path on a different perspective plane. “Scarygirl” rarely depends on trial and error, but the few times it does are pretty unflattering. (Fortunately, checkpoints are frequent enough that they aren’t very aggravating.)

Fortunately, the aforementioned points are exceptions to the rule, and “Scarygirl’s” challenge mostly comes from the right places.

The branching, vertical level designs — set in deserts, mountains, aboard airships, in a nightclub and elsewhere — make excellent use of Scarygirl’s arsenal, particularly if you’re bold enough to pull off the tricky acrobatic maneuvers needed to get a perfect level score (no deaths, all collectibles found). You need not perfect a level to pass it, but “Scarygirl” keeps track and provides an leaderboard to motivate the best of the best.

Similarly, while its combat is simple — strong attack, weak attack, forcefield — “Scarygirl” tests it with enemies (and especially bosses) whose attack patterns make it crucial to balance defense, offense and positioning to manage multiple enemies. At its best and most imposing, it’s a perfect ode to the classic sidescrollers of the NES era — modern in its production values and polish, but timeless in the desire it creates to play, replay and master its levels.

If you aren’t quite that dedicated, “Scarygirl’s” two-player drop-in co-op support will take the edge off a bit. It works as painlessly as one hopes it would, with the lack of online support being the only potential downside.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Vector Cell/Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (use of drugs, blood, intense violence, language)
Price: $10

In the thin strip of land separating challenge and undying aggravation, the checkpoint is king. As it goes, so often goes a game’s fate, especially when it’s a horror game crawling with elements seemingly designed to purposefully work against you.

The Amy in “Amy” is a young girl who, for reasons not really clarified, cannot speak and wants zero to do with a place known casually as The Center. When things go awry, she’s in the care of Lana (that’s you), who shares her sentiments.

The upshot of the not-really-explained story is that “Amy” overwhelmingly is an escort game. You indirectly control Amy by pressing a button to hold her hand and pull her around, but she’s also capable (when the A.I. cooperates) of following, waiting, hiding and accessing places you can’t reach to create access for you.

Arguably, when not wandering into mission-ending peril, Amy gives more than she receives. When nearby, she automatically heals Lana, and over time, she’s able to (clumsily) wield telekinetic powers and create temporary safe zones that distort enemies’ senses. In “Amy’s” best trick, you also can hear (and feel, via the controller’s vibration) her heartbeat when monsters, infected people and other enemies are near. The closer you are to peril, the more forceful it beats.

The tension that heartbeat creates is palpable, because “Amy” subscribes to much — good or bad — of what made horror games so scary during their mid-1990s advent. Lana isn’t as clumsy to control as those early “Resident Evil” game characters, but her awkward turning skills and the controller gymnastics needed to make her break into a sprint (especially when holding Amy’s hand) means she’s working in the same neighborhood.

Sadly, her melee combat acumen fares even worse — a point you’ll suspect in “Amy’s” easy first chapter and confirm when things get exponentially hairier in chapter two. The weapons she uses break way too easily, and her swing wouldn’t pass muster in a slow-pitch softball game. Though “Amy” offers a dodge mechanic and encourages you to use it, its sloppy camera and hit detection almost certainly will betray (and, if one bad break leads to another, kill) you.

This, by the way, is where “Amy” goes from endearingly antiquated to hellaciously frustrating.

There are checkpoints scattered across during “Amy’s” six chapters, but they are cruelly sparse. Once again, you’ll likely realize this in chapter two, where you’ll do some exploring, find some story clues, find Amy (who fled following chapter one’s closing twist), see a cutscene and almost immediately get killed in one whack by the star of that cutscene.

If that happens, you have to repeat all that mundane exploring and hope to device an escape plan so the quick demise doesn’t repeat. But even if you escape, learn about Amy’s special abilities, solve a couple key card puzzles and then die at the hands of another enemy you meet 20 minutes later, you have to start the entire chapter over. Because where most games would have dotted this half-hour stretch with two, maybe three checkpoints, “Amy” offers zero.

What a shame, too, because with even a reasonable checkpoint system, all of “Amy’s” miscues — stiff controls, clumsy combat, A.I. lapses, some elaborately annoying trial-and-error processes, a stealth section that would feel ancient 14 years ago — could be written off as forgivable callbacks to a punishing niche genre that still has its fans. When “Amy” is tense, it is exceptionally so, and a reasonable scattering of checkpoints would have enhanced rather than ruined that. When immersive tension gives way to the dread of having to replay 30 minutes that weren’t necessarily fun the first time around, there’s no reason to keep playing.


Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC (requires Saints Row the Third)
From: Volition/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $7 (also included as part of the $20 season pass)

After the complete spectacle that was “Saints Row the Third’s” main storyline, hopes were high that the first downloadable expansion would go even crazier. On one hand, “GenkiBowl VII” — a series of violently fantastical events emceed by the diabolical game show host/living cartoon character Professor Genki — delivers on that hope. Sexy Kitten Yarngasm, for instance, tasks you with causing as much property destruction as possible with a massive, steerable, shockwave-blasting yarn ball, while Sad Panda Skyblazing combines the timeless sports of free-falling through the air in a panda suit and waging war on people in bunny and hot dog suits. Along with some funny play-by-play, it certainly qualifies as a spectacle. But Yarngasm essentially is a modified version of the main game’s Tank Mayhem missions, and the events where you escort Genki around and venture through a deadly game show-style maze have similar counterparts. Only Skyblazing feels completely new, and with only two missions per event to complete, the entire expansion is over before you know it. You can keep the spoils — the yarn ball, Genki’s car, some characters and outfits — and use them throughout the rest of the game, and the fun of wreaking havoc with a gigantic cat toy cannot be overstated. But even with that said, a few more missions per event would have done wonders for better justifying “GB7’s” price tag.

DVD/Blu-ray 1/17/12: The Ides of March, Thurgood, Delocated! S1&2, Dirty Girl, Cold Sweat, Bombay Beach

The Ides of March (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
The 2012 election circus-o-rama has begun whether you like it or not, and if you run with the crowd that (a) likes it despite also (b) assuming the very worst of the candidates and staffers who scheme, snipe and overpromise their way into your voting heart, this movie is for you. No, really — here. Take it and keep it. “The Ides of March” drops in on the campaign of Mike Morris (George Clooney), who is attempting to trade his residency at the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion for one in the White House. By his side: Idealistic junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), grizzled senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a staff that includes an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who catches Stephen’s eye. What happens next, in the thick of the Ohio Democratic Primary, is at once intriguing, presentationally polished and absolutely, depressingly predictable. “March” is a thriller about the rotten things people do in the name of getting elected to idealized public service jobs they have no business accepting, and because this is Hollywood, it’s even slimier than the slime we read about in real life. But for what? “March” looks good, but it’s a good-looking march down a deathly tired road, and the little bit of ironic preaching it shoves in at the end serves no purpose other than to cement just how hopeless and foolish it is to believe in the people we elect and the system that gets them elected. We already knew that, and we’ve been down this road before, so what — especially in the name of entertainment — are we doing here again? Paul Giamatti also stars.
Extras: Writer/producer/Clooney commentary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Thurgood (NR, 2011, HBO)
Thurgood Marshall crashed through racial barriers like a Civil Rights battering ram, leaving an incredible trail of accomplishments that culminated in his becoming the United States Supreme Court’s first black justice. So if someone told you a fearless one-man play based on his life and the struggles he endured was riotously funny, would you believe them? If not, absolutely do not hesitate to see for yourself. “Thurgood” puts Laurence Fishburne on stage all by himself and fully in character as Marshall, and while Fishburne’s document of Marshall’s life includes the good times, it has no qualms whatsoever about taking on the bad and absolutely bear-hugging it. If the N-word makes you uncomfortable in any context, the bellow in which Fishburne sometimes delivers it to a live audience might startle you. And if that startles you, it just might blow your mind when the bellowing of that word is part of the punchline of a story that makes the audience roll in the aisle. There’s nothing jokey about Marshall’s accomplishments, but that need not mean the man who achieved them can’t flash a lively sense of humor when recalling them. “Thurgood” is frequently poignant and always thoughtful, but its relentless tendency to be sharply, brilliantly funny is almost unreal given the subject nature. Fishburne’s delivery — inside and outside the script, as a hilarious impromptu bit with late-arriving audience members demonstrates — is spectacularly alive, and it paints a picture of a man who loved life too much not to fight to make it better for himself and countless others. Why can’t all history lessons be this gratifying? No extras.
— More Fishburne: In tandem with “Thurgood’s” release, HBO is releasing a new Blu-ray edition of 1995’s “The Tuskegee Airmen,” in which Fishburne (along with Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mekhi Phifer and John Lithgow, among others) starred. The new release includes a 32-page color book with behind-the-scenes photos, liner notes and photos of the real Tuskegee Airmen.

Delocated! Seasons 1&2 (NR, 2009, Adult Swim)
Meet Jon (Jon Glaser), whose real name isn’t Jon. He, his wife (Nadia Dajani) and son (Jacob Kogan) have been pulled out of their old lives and dropped into New York City as part of the Witness Protection Program, and as an extra precaution, they’re instructed to wear ski masks and have their voices permanently altered via surgery. As a complete antithesis to that caution, they’re also the stars of the hottest new reality show on television, making them stand out more than ever. And in a move that’s just rotten, the man trying to kill them (Eugene Mirman) is also part of the show — and proves so popular with viewers that there’s talk of a spin-off. All this and a separation, too — and that’s just “Delocated’s” pilot episode. Reality shows have become so passé that even making fun of them is slightly passé, so it’s worth pointing out that while “Delocated’s” completely farcical premise does a wonderful job of putting reality television in its miserable place, it’s equally capable at making fun of pretty every other genre on which it sets its sights. Arguably, once you get to know Mike (Kevin Dorff), the sweetly oversensitive federal agent assigned to protect Jon, “Delocated” ventures down a wavelength that has it zinging sitcoms, dramas, Lifetime movies and reality television in one hilarious simultaneous burst. The premise probably should get old after a few episodes, but once “Delocated” settles in and runs wild with every ridiculous storyline it can dream up, it’s too relentlessly funny to even break a sweat.
Contents: 19 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, flip books and demo footage.

Dirty Girl (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Sometimes it’s better to be lovable than perfect. Titled and packaged like a cheap scandalous black comedy, “Dirty Girl” initially earns its name as a story about Danielle (Juno Temple), a loud and proud class tramp who is disgusted to have to “marry” the chunky, unpopular and gay Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) for a 30-day sex ed assignment. As we get to know Danielle, “Girl” shows its stripes as a nostalgia-soaked period piece set in 1987, and as Danielle and Clarke get acclimated, it turns into an over-caffeinated live-action cartoon that no longer seems concerned with looking scandalous. Two unspoiled plot developments turn it into a road trip comedy, and the road trip sends “Girl” careening hard into after school special territory. The schizophrenia is impossible not to notice. Pleasantly, though, it’s surprisingly easy to forgive. That Danielle and Clarke learn to get along is predictable, but the degree to and manner by which they forge their strange bond is endearing in a contagiously feel-good way. Their friendship elevates them from archetypes to completely appealing characters, and that makes “Girl” easy to love even when it delivers one case of emotional whiplash after another. Have you ever been moved by a sack of flour with a smiley face on it? Once you get to know Joan — Clarke and Danielle’s “baby” during their assignment — your answer may change. Milla Jovovich, William H. Macy and Dwight Yoakam also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/extended scenes.

Cold Sweat (NR, 2010, Dark Sky Films)
Ali (Marina Glezer) has a thing for Roman (Facundo Espinosa), so you can’t totally blame her for riding along while he investigates why his now-ex-girlfriend decided to suddenly cut off contact and run away with someone she met online. But volunteering to venture, alone, into the dilapidated house where she supposedly is shacking up? Not her brightest idea — especially when she discovers it’s a trap devised by two elderly former political radicals (Omar Musa and Omar Gioiosa) who have a cache of explosive chemicals and some dementedly vile ideas on how to experiment with them. Why, you ask? As always, who knows: “Cold Sweat” ties our madmen’s motives into snippets of 1970s Argentinian political history, but it isn’t abundantly clear why or how the procurement of dynamite brought them to this unhinged state 35 years later. Cloudy intentions seems to be something we just accept in horror movies. Fortunately, if it’s something you can accept, the payoff is pretty great. “Sweat” passes on needless gore in favor of a leaner, more acutely intense story that focuses squarely on these five characters the whole time. Murky motives aside, the two seniors make a wonderfully crazy duo — bickering old stooges one moment, terrifying evil geniuses the next. The victims, meanwhile, are likable enough to make their peril worth your concern, and without the usual cadre of disposable supporting characters to kill off, their survival takes hold early and keeps that grip throughout. The classically pure tension scares in ways needless bloodshed never can. (With that said, the one time “Sweat” truly indulges its gratuitous side, the payoff is pretty awesome — and arguably slightly poetic.) In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, digital comic book, collection of promotional spots and galleries.

Bombay Beach (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
Once upon a time — specifically, 1950s California — the Salton Sea’s Bombay Beach was a bustling embodiment of the American dream’s limitless power. Now? It’s just another place time forgot — a poor, run-down community where few live and even fewer visit. So what happened? “Bombay Beach,” unfortunately, doesn’t really say, so you’ll have to look that up elsewhere if the premise has you curious. Instead, “Bay” is a wandering look at those who live there now. At that, it’s engaging and inviting — a reminder both of how much we all have in common and how different day-to-day life can look in one part of the country versus another. If you want more than that, though, “Bay” isn’t selling. Dependent entirely on the narrative these residents offer it, the movie itself isn’t interested in grand dissections of the 60 years that upended Bombay Beach’s fortunes. Frankly, outside of one of the DVD special features, it has no inclination to explore anything that happened before or after the camera began rolling. Everything that concerns “Bay” happens during its lifespan, making for an engaging look at life in the moment that will delight some while leaving others completely unfulfilled.
Extras: Selected-scene commentary, updates on the people we meet in the movie, deleted scenes, music videos.

Games 1/17/12: Run Roo Run, Rayman Origins, Wooords

Run Roo Run
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: 5th Cell
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 (iPhone/iPod Touch), $2 (iPad)

iOS gamers, are you tired yet of running games? You must be. While the genre — wherein your onscreen character runs automatically and you handle jumping and other forms of evasion by tapping the screen — is a perfect fit for a device with no tactile buttons, it’s grown so saturated as to become an indictment of the platform’s limitations.

With that said, can you maybe handle one more? It’s charming and very well made, and even if you’re sick of the same old thing, it adds a couple wrinkles that very effectively set it apart.

In “Run Roo Run,” you star as an adorable but vengeful cartoon kangaroo who treks across Australia to rescue her offspring. As you might guess, your job is to keep Roo hopping safely over obstacles while she automatically handles all the forward motion. Not exactly a trailblazing idea.

But “Roo” breaks away by presenting itself as a series of levels instead of one endless run where the only goal is to stay alive and accumulate as high a score as your skills allow. Each level is short, too — really short, in fact, with the entire thing fitting on a single screen. The earliest stages present maybe two obstacles to leap over, and you can clear most of the opening levels in three seconds or fewer.

Fortunately, there are 420 stages to complete, and with each 21-level chapter you unlock, “Roo” sprinkles in a new wrinkle beyond simple hopping. In chapter two, for instance, Roo acquires a limited-use double jump, while chapter four introduces fans that blow her upward. Later chapters bring forth tire swings, moving platforms, oil slicks, cannons, level-altering switches and more.

Once an ability or apparatus makes its entrance, “Roo” doesn’t isolate it to the chapter that introduces it. After Roo learns to double-jump and long jump off a bouncy tire, those abilities can come into play in later levels while she gets acclimated with another new ability. Gradually, those insultingly simple early levels blossom into intricate cause-and-effect obstacle courses that put multiple tricks to use in rapid fashion. Everything still takes place within the constraints of a single screen, but Roo might have to trek to the end of the screen and back before reaching the goal becomes a possibility.

The task grows increasingly devious in “Roo’s” later chapters, and it’s downright frightening in each chapter’s optional six-pack of Extreme levels, which rival “Super Meat Boy’s” harder levels in terms of testing players’ ability to navigate a small, trap-laden space with Jedi-like quickness.

And yet — and in a nod to another page from “Super Meat Boy’s” playbook — “Roo” never aggravates even at its most dastardly. Whenever you fail a level, there’s no reset screen to wait though: Roo immediately returns to the start of the level, which marks the spots where you jumped in your most recent unsuccessful attempt. Fail again, and it instantly resets again, and you’re free to keep trying — without even a slight interruption — until you get it right. You’ll get gold medal scores for clearing levels quickly and in one attempt, but you can experience “Roo’s” every level regardless of how much time you need to do so.

Good thing, too, because in another nice twist, 5th Cell plans to release free weekly 10-packs of new levels to complement the 420 that come included straight away. There’s no telling how many weeks they plan to do this or whether these packs will introduce new gimmicks beyond those already in the game, but with a price tag like that, it’s hard to go wrong.


Rayman Origins
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: Varies

Every post-holiday afterglow, when the gaming industry briefly but emphatically hibernates in advance of livelier spring release schedules, there inevitably emerges a game that demands another look after getting unjustly buried in the sea of sequels and blockbusters that released all around it in November.

In a year as stacked as 2011, there is no shortage of candidates. But even on those grounds, “Rayman Origins” belongs at the top of the list, and it really isn’t even close.

Though not framed as an origins story — or concerned with storytelling in general, really — “Origins” earns its name by taking Rayman back to his two-dimensional roots. Like the 1995 original, “Origins” eschews three dimensions in favor of 2D platforming in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” vein.

But to leave it at that, even with the stipulation that “Origins” does its roots extremely proud, would be to spectacularly undersell how far games have come during Rayman’s 16-year lifetime — a point made apparent the instant “Origins” drops you into the first leg of its first level.

In contrast to the colorful but kinetically-limited sprites of yesteryear, everything that animates in “Origins” does so with the visual fidelity of a Disney cartoon — ridiculously detailed, silkily animated and very overtly expressive. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Rayman, his friends, his enemies or random objects with no inherent pulse: If it’s capable of being manipulated, “Origins” illustrates that manipulation in beautiful, incredible detail.

Presentationally, “Origins” is the total package, bringing all that line art to life in front of immaculate hand-painted backdrops and setting everything to a diverse soundtrack that’s in tune with the action and unabashedly cheerful without ever approaching grating. Treat it to good speakers and a high-definition display, and it’s a rare case where hyperbole applies. Two-dimensional gaming has never spoiled the eyes and ears quite like this.

With all that said, though, the real shock with “Origins” may be with the way its gameplay evolutions gratify every bit as much as — maybe even more than — its audiovisual advancements.

Partially, it’s a case of one feeding the other. All that pretty animation works in the service of “Origins'” controls, which feel as good as the animation looks. Rayman has an occasional tendency to over-animate and take a perilous step too far, but mostly, his movements are spot on. Even the underwater levels, typically the bane of any platforming game’s existence, are a treat: If you ever played “Ecco the Dolphin” and know how fun it is to dynamically change direction in that game, you’ll be pleased to know “Origins” does it even better.

“Origins” also provides an ample playground in which to put all this beauty to good use. The occasional special stage aside, every level has one goal in plain sight and two more hiding off the main road. Additional secrets abound, and while simply clearing a level isn’t extremely difficult, perfecting one — finding every goal and performing the acrobatics necessary to uncover other secrets — very well can be. The truly accomplished can even replay cleared levels with a speed run option, which requires you to beat the level in one go and under the posted par time to collect a reward.

Tallied up, and fortified with four-player offline co-op that lets friends jump into and out of your game as they please, “Origins” is a surprisingly lengthy game on its first playthrough and a wondrously fun time sink for those bent on replaying and acing it. Perceptions about 2D games aside, it was as deserving of its original $60 tag as nearly any other $60 game. With rapid price drops now in effect, what was easy to recommend before is now a task of cakewalkian proportions.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Stray Robot Games
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

If you spent part of your childhood forming words from those colorful letter magnets that are ubiquitous in every preschool and kindergarten, get ready to put those magnet-moving skills to good use. “Wooords” drops a handful of letters and tasks you with forming as many words from them as you can, and the interface is a transparent ode to those little plastic magnets. Dragging letters into other letters causes them to stick, and whenever you form a word that (a) contains at least four letters and (b) includes the circled letter that has to be used, it automatically registers and scores the word. Not having to register words manually leaves you free to add and remove letters rapidly to form new words, and as result, “Wooords” is simultaneously relaxing and frantic — relaxing because there’s no overlying time limit to worry about, but frantic because forming strings of words rapidly is worth more points than taking your time. “Wooords” includes a 60-level Classic mode in which the goal is to reach a score threshold to advance, and an arcade-style Word Jam adds a timer that you must keep at bay by hitting score thresholds. But the best mode — especially if your Game Center friends play as well — is the Daily Words challenge, which gives players 24 hours to compile the highest score from the same nine letters everyone else gets. The global leaderboard likely is tainted by cheaters, but the presence of friends-only leaderboards — in this as well as the other modes — makes that less an issue if you pull friends in to challenge you.

DVD/Blu-ray 1/10/12: Boardwalk Empire S1, Moneyball, An Idiot Abroad, What's Your Number?, Answer This!, Killer Elite

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
It’s all too easy to just figure “Boardwalk Empire” must be great, because all HBO ever does with television shows set around specific times and places is make them great. But to simply shrug at “Empire’s” greatness is to dismiss its ability to exhilarate in spite of the oppressively predictable overtones that accompany its premise. Anyone with any historical comprehension already knows how well the United States’ flirtation with Prohibition went, and anyone with any clue whatsoever could scarcely even feign surprise when the legislators responsible for pressing the big red Prohibition button are the same folks cutting secret deals to keep the booze flowing for themselves and their friends in business, leadership and organized crime. These and some of “Empire’s” other themes — women’s suffrage, post-war trauma, every -ism in the discrimination playbook — are so rigidly set in their thematic ways as to materialize without help, and the show’s attention to historical accuracy would appear only to stifle it further. But in mixing the dramatizations of real people with characters of the show’s own creation, “Empire” perfectly threads the needle, tipping its hat to history with a gorgeous recreation of the era but overwhelmingly keeping its focus on the detailed development of a massive roster of terrific characters from the largest and most acute corners of the era. With an eye for detail this good, “Empire” is free to let the themes play out like you know they will, because the real story lies between the lines. With an ensemble cast (Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams and so many more) like this, it’s also in supremely good hands.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, one feature each on Atlantic City and Prohibition speakeasies, and a (very helpful) character dossier.

Moneyball (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
As often happens as result of baseball’s wealth imbalance, the Oakland Athletics — fresh off a 2001 playoff run, but anchored by a shoestring budget that forces them to part ways with several marquee players in their prime — are in danger of crashing to Earth. But General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has different ideas, and when an ordinary meeting introduces him to a low-level Cleveland Indians employee (Jonah Hill as Peter Brand) with even wilder ideas about how to win baseball games, he hires him away. Together, the two form a team around a system of formulas they call Moneyball, and with a ragtag band of players no one else wanted, they defy the odds and win the 2002 World Series. Actually, they don’t — and that’s no spoiler if you follow baseball religiously enough to enjoy “Moneyball” as it’s intended to be enjoyed. Though “Moneyball” takes some odd creative liberties (Peter Brand is a fictional composite based on Paul DePodesta and other Beane employees), its narrative keystones — the deals Beane struck, the near-career suicide he committed while striking them, and the on-field result of those risk — are the real thing. And that’s good, because if a screenwriter plotted the 2002 A’s the way Beane did, no long-suffering baseball fan would buy it. Beane’s ability to disrupt baseball economics is debatable, because once he threw a lifeline to small-market teams, big-market teams adopted it and promptly swallowed the advantage in one bite. But the system’s ability to rewrite the way fans and executives view a game more than a century old is no small feat, and “Moneyball” — with scenes in back rooms that are as exciting as those on the field — makes its advent an absolute thrill to witness. Philip Seymour Hoffman also stars.
Extras: Deleted scenes, Beane feature, three-behind-the-scenes features, blooper.

An Idiot Abroad (NR, 2011, BBC)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have, through their numerous collaborations and creative endeavors, visited some extraordinary corners of the world. Karl Pilkington, on the other hand, has not, nor does he particularly wish to do so. Fortunately, Gervais and Merchant are as resourceful and persuasive as they are funny. And in an endeavor Gervais describes as the “funniest, most expensive practical joke” he’s ever pulled, they’re sending their good friend away to see the wonders of the world under the guise of enlightenment and educational television. In truth, it’s an elaborate form of torment from thousands of miles away: Pilkington gets to see the wonders — not that he cares for them most of the time — but he has to deal with any number of carefully-arranged travel nightmares and cultural shocks en route to doing so. The degree to which Gervais and Merchant amuse themselves is contagiously hilarious, as are the various shades of abject horror that pale Pilkington’s face when he’s faced with a situation from which there is no comfortable escape. With that said, “An Idiot Abroad’s” title is something of a misnomer. Pilkington doubtlessly isn’t the most refined world traveler around, but his constant verbal monologues — sometimes little throwaway lines, other times meandering impromptu speeches — are way too funny and sharply honest to dismiss simply as the musings of an idiot. Occasionally they’re even a little bit profound — if only for a fleeting second or two before his senses return to him.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus the original preview show, deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

What’s Your Number? (R, 2011, Fox)
Ally (Anna Faris) has slept with 19, or perhaps 20, guys, and the gravity of that number never bothered her until a friend mentioned a study that declares women unmarriable if they exceed that completely arbitrary number. In an effort to avoid bumping that number to 21, Ally hatches a plan to reunite with (and ideally marry) an ex-boyfriend, and she enlists the people-finding skills of neighbor Colin (Chris Evans) in exchange for letting him hide in her apartment until his one-night stands go home. A cute, if contrived, idea for a harmless romantic comedy? Sure. But if you don’t know exactly how “What’s Your Number?” will end the minute Colin makes the first impression he makes, you’ve probably never seen a movie before. “Number” has plenty going for it, and not simply because Faris straps a mediocre script to her unbelievably charismatic back and makes it several orders of magnitude more entertaining than it otherwise had any right to be. Some of Faris’ castmates are likable in their own way, some scenes are genuinely funny, and “Number” at its very worst still has a enjoyably sweet disposition. It’s merely a shame all that’s good about it couldn’t apply to a story that isn’t laughably predictable at every turn. Faris fans will enjoy it simply for her presence alone, but the boldest thing “Number” does is further validate all who believe she deserves better roles than she gets.
Extras: Extended cut, deleted scenes.

Answer This! (PG-13, 2012, Lions Gate)
It’s hard not to wonder what happened to “Answer This!,” which must have had different plans than being shelved, shuttled straight to video and branded by some marketer with a horrendously lazy title and cover art that evokes comparisons to those awful straight-to-video National Lampoon movies. If anything, “This” — which centers around Paul (Christopher Gorham), a professional student who has procrastinated for years on his dissertation, and James (Nelson Franklin), the best friend who enters them in a pub trivia tournament to escape the doldrums of their fruitless academic pursuits — swings too forcefully in the other direction. It’s juvenile, but in a depressing, starving-academic way instead of anything as wacky as the beer can pile on the cover implies. The trivia competition provides some excitement, but its participants deride it as meaningless so often that you start believing them. In between, there’s Paul’s story, which feels too insular and semi-autobiographical to resonate like it should. Who feels sorry for somebody riding his professor father’s (Ralph Williams) coattails while receiving endless funding to write a dissertation no one could possibly want to read? Don’t all raise your hands at once. In fairness to “This,” it’s thoughtfully written and occasionally oddly inspiring between (and sometimes during) moments of self-loathing. Every now and then, it’s also funny, and at no point is it nearly as crummy as its horrid first impression would imply. Too much goes awry for it to garner more acclaim than that, but it’s worth noting all the same.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Killer Elite (R, 2011, Universal)
Though it flirts along the edge, “Killer Elite” isn’t quite as generic as a superficial glance at its storyline — a retired contract killer (Jason Statham) getting back into the game to save his mentor (Robert De Niro) and help him bring down a shadowy private military’s mastermind (Clive Owen) — initially suggests. But what’s that about this being based on a true story? “Elite” declares as much in its opening title card, and the 1991 novel on which it’s based — Ranulph Fiennes’ “The Feather Men” — made the same proclamation. Problem is, “Men’s” credibility as a true story has come under more fire than the sum of its characters, and Fiennes hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with his return fire. So “Elite’s” insistence on the claim — followed by a closing-credits acknowledgment of the controversy that plays the government conspiracy card — is sort of baffling and arguably reckless. Then again, without that claim to lean on, “Elite’s” course of events make an unflattering lateral demotion from pretty unbelievable to merely illogical and kind of bland. It looks good, has some mildly interesting characters and develops at a reasonably satisfying pace, and as action movies that don’t degenerate into complete idiocy go, it suffices. But “Elite” never really aspires to do more than suffice, and that reasonably satisfying pace is too heavy on predictable, stock turns of events to make its stakes very compelling.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Games 1/10/12: Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012, Invizimals: Shadow Zone, NFL Blitz

Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, violent references)
Price: $50

That hissing sound you hear? That’s your resolution to get in shape slowly seeping out of the room as the new year starts feeling familiar and the excitement of 2012’s first week gets pushed out of the way by life as usual. Gym memberships are expensive, finding time to go to the gym is a hassle, making a plan is hard, sticking to it harder. Seeing progress requires saintly patience, and on top of all that, exercise for exercise’s sake is often really boring.

Thank goodness for, of all things, video games — and particularly this one. After a year of good-but-not-great fitness games releasing for Microsoft’s Kinect, “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012” gets pretty much everything right en route to knocking every aforementioned excuse off the table.

The polish is immediately apparent, too. In addition to not being a complete pain to navigate using Kinect (voice control would have been nice, but it proves unnecessary), “Evolved’s” main menu very cleanly lays out a staggering array of workout programs, games, virtual classes and other tools. Inside each of those menus lies a large array of programs organized by intensity and the goals they help fulfill. The offerings — targeted strength training, yoga and dance classes, training programs for specific sports and numerous others — are terrifically comprehensive, and “Evolved’s” uncluttered and intuitive presentation of all these options is extraordinary.

“Evolved’s” My Zone section allows the game to build workout plans for you based on your needs and availability, but they aren’t binding: A game-wide stat tracker gauges your progress against your goals, and it does so regardless of which programs you engage or ignore. Additionally, most programs are on the short side, making it easy to jump around and diversify your workout as wildly and impulsively as you please.

Though “Evolved” can only do so much to make its straightforward workout programs fun, it at least does a good job of keeping hassles at bay. A trainer demonstrates each exercise as he or she calls them out, and while the game’s grading of your form isn’t always accurate, it’s close enough to keep you minding your form without growing needlessly frustrated doing so. Kinect calibration happens quickly and automatically, and “Evolved” works well regardless of lighting and whether you have a surplus of room or just enough.

The ability to jump between programs is additionally welcome in light of “Evolved’s” suite of games and special events, which provide a fun means of breaking up straight-faced workout routines. A block-punching game provides a physically intense way to unleash some aggression, while a rhythmic stepping game evokes the spirit of “DanceDanceRevolution” without the need for a dance mat. An amusing jogging game lets you run through VR recreations of storied cities, while a block-balancing game lets you employ your newfound yoga skills in pursuit of a high score.

“Evolved” provides multiple difficulty settings and a scoring system for each of these and its other games, but it offers the same courtesy to its traditional workouts as well. The periodic tendency to misread your form will dock your scores unfairly now and then, but past that inconvenience, the constant presence of scores to beat and other meters of progress — along with in-game badges and Xbox 360 achievements — allows “Evolved” to continually dangle and dish rewards beyond the simple promise of fitter days ahead.

Should you not wish to do it alone, “Evolved” also includes in-game tools — and a companion website, yourshapecenter.com — that let you stack your progress against that of your friends and the world at large. The games also support four-player multiplayer, though only offline.


Invizimals: Shadow Zone
For: Playstation Portable
From: Novarama/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40 (includes PSP camera accessory)

Augmented reality is neat, and Sony’s PSP camera accessory — an adjustable camera that pops into the top of the PSP and can be adjusted to be a front- or rear-facing camera — is pretty nice as well. “Invizimals: Shadow Zone” uses the latter to create a game based around the former, and as a demonstration of all that cool tech, it’s certainly a proof of concept.

Whether it amounts to more than that will come down to your interest in monster-collecting games and your patience with a story that has you watching the game as much as you play it.

“Zone” arrives a year after the original “Invizimals,” and most of the essentials remain the same. It’s a “Pokemon”-style game, and when you drill that story down to its bare bones, the object — collect Invizimals and pit them in battle against other Invizimals — is the same.

The difference, of course, comes with how you discover and track those Invizimals. Instead of exploring an expansive game world, you’re walking around your own world and panning the camera around until you spot an augmented-reality Invizimal frolicking around your furniture or other surroundings. (They favor bright colors, so if your surroundings lack any, it may be wise to correct that before hunting in vain.)

Upon spotting one, you have to lay down your trap card (bundled with the game), and once you do that, one of a handful of rather simple minigames commences. Complete that, and the Invizimal is yours to customize (name and color scheme), upgrade and employ in battle.

“Zone’s” fighting portion also differs from “Pokemon’s” in that it’s more real-time combat than not. Attacks are mapped to buttons instead of menus, but a need to recover stamina between moves lends an air of turn-based strategy to the fight.

Problem is, there isn’t much more to the fighting than the threadbare description implies. Because the Invizimals appear in augmented reality and in relation to the trap card, you can’t move them around the space with the analog stick. Outside of basic and strong attacks and a block button, there’s little nuance to the fighting, and that doesn’t change as you advance through “Zone’s” storyline.

Nor, for that matter, does the act of trapping Invizimals, which is neat until the tech’s novelty wears off. Though “Zone” offers incentive for those who absolutely must collect every single Invizimal for no other reason than sheer compulsion, it never builds on its mechanics in any substantial way, nor does it introduce new concepts as things progress.

That’s a problem when you spend as much time watching as you do playing.

“Zone,” like its predecessor, tells its story through first-person live-action cutscenes, and if you got into the first game’s story, you’ll be happy to know it delves even deeper into Invizimal mythology this time around.

If, however, you didn’t like that story, “Zone’s” incremental advancements over its predecessor are bound to disappoint. The AR tech works better this time around, but the game’s inability to take that tech and expand on it is hard to defend in light of how simple those mechanics are.

“Zone’s” competitive multiplayer portion (two players, local wireless or online) consists of a pretty straightforward versus mode and a tournament option, while a co-op mode (local only) allows two players to team up and complete select quests together. None of the modes eludes the aforementioned problems that bring down the story mode, but it’s still nice to have the option to put your custom Invizimals up against those of a friend.


NFL Blitz
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $15

Though Midway’s “Blitz: The League” games were head-and-shoulders deeper than “NFL Blitz” ever was, the one thing it couldn’t provide — the NFL license — was the one players wanted the most. With both the franchise and license now in EA Sports’ hands, that no longer poses a problem. And while this “Blitz” lacks some elements — roster management, injuries, story-driven seasons and giggle-inducing illegal late hits — of those other games, the arcadey spirit of those original “NFL Blitz” games returns in immaculate condition. The old rules (seven on seven, 30-yard first downs, two-minute quarters and no penalties) still apply, and a game of “Blitz” plays so fast and loose with football conventions that you need not even like football to get a kick out of this. Also per usual, it’s a game best enjoyed with others (four players, online or offline). In addition to basic pick-up games, the new “Blitz” includes some clever and surprisingly deep modes for collecting star players, assembling dream teams and pitting those teams against other players’ rosters. For solo players, “Blitz’s” A.I. offers a good (if not always situationally sharp) challenge. And while it isn’t as robust as the multiplayer modes, the Gauntlet Mode — a ladder-style season complete with “boss fights” against teams of fantastical characters — is fun in its own right (especially when you beat those mascots and recruit them to your team).

DVD/Blu-ray 1/3/12: The Guard, Contagion, Justified S2, Dispatch, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Mildred Pierce, I Don't Know How She Does It, Greatest Super Bowl Moments, Transformers: The Japanese Collection

The Guard (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
It isn’t every day FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) makes a new friend, and there would seemingly never be a day in which the opening line of that new friendship is, “I thought only black lads were drug dealers.” But such is the mindset of Irish police Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), whose follow-up proclamation that his Irish heritage makes him biologically racist by design comes off more sweetly naive than defiant. Everett and Boyle are unlikely teammates in an investigation of a string of murders and a monstrous, potentially-related drug deal set to unfold in sleepy Galway. The fish-out-of-water implications of a black American FBI agent working at the mercy of an insular Irish village and a cop who temporarily halts the investigation because it’s his scheduled day off are immense. Happily, “The Guard” takes wondrous advantage, crafting a bitterly funny reluctant buddy comedy that, rather shockingly, may also be the sweetest movie you ever see about racist cops and assault rifle-wielding federal agents. “The Guard” doesn’t trivialize the crime at the center of everything, but rather than make the case the story, it mines it and assembles an unbelievably fun cast of heroes, villains, innocent bystanders and bit players. More than merely the best buddy comedy of 2011, “The Guard” also is a clinic on the art of creating throwaway characters whose presence feels every bit as essential as that of the leads.
Extras: Director/Gleeson/Cheadle commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Contagion (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
We’ve all already seen a movie or five about a worldwide pandemic, so what makes yet another one so interesting? It isn’t the loaded cast. Nor is it the chance to tell a new strain of an old story in the era of Twitter, bloggers scooping old media and bird and swine flu scares that morphed from terror to punchline awfully quickly. Those things absolutely play a part, sure. But what ultimately makes “Contagion” special is the unbelievable level of calm that permeates throughout. It isn’t detached, nor is it dull, nor is “Contagion” a story about officials and scientists at work while an underrepresented public loses its mind far away from the picture. All sides are portrayed, and it’s an ordinary guy (Matt Damon) and his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) who emerge from a heavy field of candidates as the story’s strongest catalysts. There’s no way to vet “Contagion’s” authenticity unless something like this ever really happens, but it’s avoidance of easy sensationalism in favor of considerable substance — the microcosmic theme of loved ones looking out for one another, the macrocosmic conundrum of a few qualified minds struggling to placate an impatient global population as distributing a cure becomes a more daunting problem than even creating it — is pretty extraordinary. The character count is high, the crisis is massive and the setting covers the whole planet, but “Contagion” never stops minding the little details en route to becoming the class of its genre. Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jude Law, among others, also star.
Extra: Three behind-the-scenes features.

Justified: The Complete Second Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Thank goodness U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is a work of fiction. Were he a real U.S. marshal, he almost certainly would take his old post back in Miami when the powers that be offer it to him in the first episode of “Justified’s” second season. Fortunately, he declines, and so commence the further adventures of an old-fashioned federal agent trying to make sense of the absolutely (and wonderfully) sprawling crime scene that is his Kentucky hometown. “Justified” takes advantage of that small-town setting to give us a cop-versus-crook standoff that only a small town can provide, blurring the lines between friends, enemies, polite contempt and brazen (albeit strangely cordial) disrespect to an unbelievably fun degree. Season two improves on its predecessor by fully embracing the storytelling style that the first season eventually settled on after some light early struggles. And don’t mistake the downfall of the Crowder crime family as a sign that Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is following them out the door. Goggins, once slotted to be a guest star for a couple first season episodes, is now on board as a starring cast member, and the continued development of Boyd and his relationship with Raylan is one of the better storylines on any television show right now. Joelle Carter, Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel and Natalie Zea round out a great ensemble cast, and Margo Martindale, Brad William Henke and Jeremy Davies magnificently fill the Crowder void as the big, bad Bennett clan.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes, a roundtable discussion and two behind-the-scenes features.

Dispatch (NR, 2011, Monarch Home Entertainment)
Once a promising screenwriter with a big-studio deal, Nick (Michael Bershad) has since tumbled into obscurity as a Hollywood limousine company’s dispatch operator. And on the night of a big movie premiere that will tax his company’s resources all by itself, everything festering in the pit of Nick’s stomach — the last leg of a crumbling marriage he badly wants to save, the disappointment stemming from that tumble into obscurity, the need (and opportunity) to take a major gamble in hopes of escaping the doldrums and having better days in front of him — comes to a head. As can be deduced by anyone capable of putting two and two together, the symbolism of working a red carpet event as a dispatcher instead of walking down that carpet as a screenwriter is screaming to be noticed. But while “Dispatch” acknowledges that on-the-nose dichotomy, it does so with a nod rather than a needlessly long and weepy embrace. Then, admirably and successfully, it moves on to something more complicated than the easy story device. A brief moment or two aside, “Dispatch” takes place entirely inside the company walls and within the span of that single evening, and while it amounts to one heck of a day at the office for Nick, the illustration of his mounting discontent is a terrific testament to the less-is-more school of storytelling. If uncomfortably long and descriptive silences was an Oscar category, the one that pierces this movie’s last act would win without a fight. No extras.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (NR, 2011, Docurama)
Anyone with any interest in the amazing rise and completely crazy fall of chess legend Bobby Fischer may very well know all of “Bobby Fischer Against the World’s” secrets before it reveals them. Through books, dramatizations and other documentaries, the story already has been told and retold. But there’s a difference between bearing witness to accounts and recreations of Fischer’s madness and bearing witness to the madness itself. “World” culls footage from Fischer’s teenage and professional years to tell a dense account of his initial ascent and descent, and its retelling of Fischer’s 1972 World Chess Championship showdown against Boris Spassky — complete with footage of the match, its near-collapse between games and a worldwide audience watching every move — is so wild as to look like fiction. “World” isn’t spotless: Its examination of chess as a game and a trigger for mental illness, in particular, feels half-baked. But the final stretch of Fischer’s life — his comments on 9/11, the 2004 detainment in Japan, a return to the public eye in Iceland a year later — is less familiar ground to casual observers, and “World” saves some of its most striking moments for that last leg. Here, more than anywhere else in the film, we see Fischer completely unfiltered, a bit unburdened and — in perhaps “World’s” most purely revelatory moment — a bit recognizant of all the potential he let wither and die.
Extras: A Feature on the history of chess, a feature on the fight for Fischer’s estate.

Mildred Pierce (NR, 2011, HBO)
Every year, great books become cramped movies when they probably should have fleshed themselves out as miniseries instead. Every once in a while, the opposite happens. “Mildred Pierce” comes based on the 1941 novel of the same name and tells the story of the titular character (Kate Winslet), whose collapsing marriage amid the Great Depression forces her to fend for herself in a world that isn’t exactly friendly to single mothers fending for themselves. Unlike the Oscar-winning 1945 movie, this five-part version has all the time in the world to bring the book’s every last detail to life, and it rises high to the occasion. Provided you’re willing to just coast leisurely through those details during parts of those five hours, such devotion to the source material isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Pierce” surrounds outbreaks of storyline growth with consecutive scenes’ worth of downtime and idle character development, and given the polished presentation, attention to period detail and considerable skill of Winslet and her castmates (Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, James LeGros), idle time need not mean wasted time. Sometimes, though, “Pierce” slows and stalls to the point where even polish can’t cover for it. If, for instance, you aren’t particularly fond of Mildred’s semi-bratty oldest daughter Veda (Morgan Turner/Evan Rachel Wood) — whose role here is considerably more pronounced than it was in the movie — her domination of part four may challenge your will to get to part five. “Pierce” redeems itself in time for the finale, and it hits more than it misses. But its failings stand as proof that ample time alone can’t ensure that a book’s finer points will translate to screen without losing something along the way.
Extras: Commentary on parts three and five.

I Don’t Know How She Does It (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
There’s nothing wrong with a little genre blending … unless, of course, the blend becomes so muddled as to undermine a movie’s intentions in the first place. “I Don’t Know How She Does It” uabashedly has intentions, and its means of expressing them range from the occasional screed about the perils of being a mom in the corporate workforce to the similarly familiar story of a working woman (Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate, the “She” in the needlessly literal title) finding her soul just as her neglected family is about to tell the search party to go home. Problem is, this is supposed to be funny. “IDKHSDI” gets off to a reasonably funny start, using multiple-character narration and some “Fight Club”-esque mental illustrations to suggest this will be a new twist on an old tale. But the longer the movie carries on, the less concerned it becomes with being funny, and as the need to amuse fades, a distressingly high volume of naked whining and preaching takes its place. “IDKHSDI” never totally goes off the rails, and even when the grousing and evangelizing reaches its shamelessly literal zenith, it’s never so soulless or stupid as to become intolerable. But tolerable is a long way from great, and “IDKHSDI’s” awkward leap from comedy to drama need not be disastrous to still be disappointing. Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Munn, Greg Kinnear, Seth Meyers, Christina Hendricks and Kelsey Grammer also star.
Extra: Interview with author Allison Pearson, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel (of the same name) on which the movie is based.

Worth mentioning
— “Greatest Super Bowl Moments (NR, 2012, NFL/Vivendi): Between the title on the front and the NFL Films pedigree on the back, the whole thing kind of sells itself, doesn’t it? With that said, it is worth noting that in addition to upholding its brand’s high standards of storytelling, “Moments” also doesn’t just settle for the usual suspects. The 156-minute runtime provides ample room for every Super Bowl up to now, and “Moments” mines even the most lopsided games for what little gold they had. Extras include three expanded features — on the semantics of winning, the onside kick from Super Bowl XLIV, and the agony of head coach Sam Wyche, whose Bengals let their lead slip away with only 34 seconds left to play in Super Bowl XXIII.
— “Transformers: The Japanese Collection” (NR, 1987, Shout Factory): 2011 was a pretty productive year for “Transformers” fans: They finally got a movie that wasn’t completely terrible, and the first volume of the revered Japanese cartoon — which directly followed the events of the American cartoon but never made it to America in any polished, official capacity — finally arrived on DVD. Provided you don’t mind buying that volume again, 2012 won’t be half-bad, either. “Transformers: The Japanese Collection” includes all 114 episodes (in their original Japanese with new English subtitles) from all three volumes (the previously-released “Headmasters,” plus “Super-God Masterforce” and “Victory”), and each volume has at least one art gallery as an extra. It’s available only at shoutfactorystore.com, which, unfortunately, doesn’t offer the second and third volumes for sale by themselves if you already own “Headmasters.”

Games 1/3/12: Pushmo, Wind-up Knight

For: Nintendo 3DS (via Nintendo eShop)
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

Though it took its sweet time, a stream of exciting original games is trickling onto Nintendo’s new handheld. Elsewhere, and following an even longer wait, Nintendo’s downloadable portable games channel is finally finding a groove.

No game embodies the light at the end both tunnels quite so perfectly as “Pushmo,” a $7 gem that also ranks among the best puzzle games to appear on any platform this past year.

In “Pushmo,” the goal of each level is to rescue a kid who’s stuck atop a structure and has no safe way to get down. You play as Mallo, and you have complete control of his running and jumping prowess.

Were the structures arranged accessibly, Mallo could simply climb them and rescue the kid. Of course, they aren’t. Each structure is comprised of multiple blocks of different shapes, and your task is to push and pull each piece (toward or away from you, but not side to side) until they’re arranged in such a way that Mallo can navigate upward and save the kid.

As Mallo’s mentor, Papa Blox, reveals different methods for arranging pieces, “Pushmo” offers some disconcertingly elementary levels on which to practice. It’s enough to wonder if the entire game will be entirely too easy to enjoy.

But around level 20, the tricks learned in those insultingly easy early levels start to manifest in more intricate ways.

At around level 55, “Pushmo” starts revealing its true self. The structures — sometimes formed in the shape of objects, animals or Nintendo characters — grow increasingly intricate and require layers of manipulation before a clear solution takes shape. A few additional wrinkles — manholes that warp Mallo around a level, switches that dictate which pieces can be manipulated at a given moment — eventually join the fray to complicate things further.

“Pushmo” comes with a staggering 250 levels baked in, and as the level count rises, it mixes patterns, switches and warp spots to create arrangements that are deviously clever and often look impossible to solve at first glance.

The fun, naturally, comes from the realization that a solution really does exist in there somewhere, and “Pushmo” takes wonderful measures to never let that fun degenerate into frustration.

There are, for instance, no unnecessary limitations in place. No time limit means you’re free to approach a puzzle as methodically as you please, and the lack of a move limit means you can engage in reckless trial and error without penalty. If you become hopelessly tangled, a reset switch at the far end of the level instantly resets everything. And a rewind button literally rewinds your progress if you make a mistake or two and want to hit the undo button without starting over. Finally, the option to skip levels and return later avails itself if you get stuck for a while.

None of these assists dumbs “Pushmo” down in any way whatsoever, but all of them combine to make even the most deviously difficult level a total pleasure to slowly pick apart and solve.

Also a pleasure: “Pushmo’s” presentation. Mallo and friends are the most delightful characters to debut in a Nintendo-branded game in years, and every facet of the game — from polished controls to vibrant level designs to an excellent utilization of stereoscopic 3D — would look first-rate in a $50 retail game.

Also? For your $7, “Pushmo” also throws in a shockingly robust level editor, complete with a means to trade created levels with other players. It’s easy to use, it works, and if “Pushmo” develops an active online community, the best value on the 3DS will only get better.


Wind-up Knight
Reviewed for: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
Also available for: Android
From: Robot Invader
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

If you play your share of mobile games, you’ve likely played “Wind-up Knight’s” opening level before. As the Wind-up Knight, you’re automatically and continually running forward, and your only means of control is to jump over trouble when trouble draws near. Yes, another running game. But “Knight’s” second level adds a wrinkle by giving you a sword and challenging you to thwack a few enemies while also leaping over trouble. Momentarily, you’ll also acquire the ability to roll underneath low-lying obstacles and block peril from above with a shield. Once you have a full arsenal, “Knight” truly comes into its own, throwing intricately perilous levels at you and demanding you juggle all four moves (sometimes two simultaneously) to survive the gauntlet. An upgrade system provides armor that affords some room for error (and, this being a mobile game, there naturally is the option to pay real money to unlock items without earning them). But until those slight comforts avail themselves, “Knight” is a make-one-mistake-and-try-again affair, making it one of the purest embodiments of NES-era console gaming to appear on mobile devices thus far. If that sounds like a recipe for aggravation, it’s worth noting “Knight” makes concessions to alleviate frustration: Challenging though its 52 levels become, they’re also manageably short. The controls are about as responsive as could be hoped for, collision detection is more generous in your favor than not, and when all else fails, the amusing visual and storytelling presentation make “Knight” too likable to stay mad at for long.