DVD/Blu-ray 2/28/12: Hugo, The Catechism Cataclysm, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Todd & the Book of Pure Evil S1, Stags, Answers to Nothing, I Melt With You, Pac-Man S1, Steve Coogan Live

Hugo (PG, 2011, Paramount)
On what appears to be a broken droid-like automaton, there’s a heart-shaped keyhole that young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) believes contains a message from his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker who died tragically before he could finish fixing the bot. Finding the key is, obviously, the first order of business. But when a bitter toy store owner (Ben Kingsley as Georges) brands Hugo a thief and confiscates (and threatens to burn) a notebook full of diagrams and notes related to the robot, priorities change. If you’re wondering where this is going — or, perhaps, how a quest to activate a discarded pile of nuts and bolts became one of the Academy’s 10 favorite movies of 2011 — stop wondering and just watch. Laying out “Hugo’s” story like an outline won’t do it any favor, because this isn’t so much about the outline as what happens around and above it. At face value, “Hugo” is a wide-eyed adventure set inside a beautiful world that, with its self-contained ecology and mix of classical and steampunk iconography, may as well exist inside a biosphere. Between the lines, though, “Hugo” is a two-hour love letter to man, machine, the weird relationship the two have forged, the magic they’ve created together, and the shared need for purpose that keeps both going when rust, age and changing times make a push to take away their place in the world. With respect to the kid whose name comprises the title, “Hugo’s” magic lies more in Georges’ odyssey than Hugo’s. Espousing on that point would constitute a spoiler, so again, just watch and see.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

The Catechism Cataclysm (NR, 2011, IFC Films)
Father Billy (Steve Little) is a well-meaning priest, but between the rambling parables he shares with his flock and his improper use of the church computer to surf YouTube, he isn’t a very productive one. After being granted an involuntary sabbatical, Billy does the only thing that makes sense (to him): He sends a ton of emails to a guy (Robert Longstreet as Robbie) he idolized in high school and, upon getting a response, sets up an afternoon canoe trip with him. Why not, right? Robbie reluctantly acquiesces (how do you turn down a priest, after all?), the two set sail on a canoe trip, and as “The Catechism Cataclysm’s” horror-comic tag teases, things eventually go sideways. Delving into details would technically constitute a spoiler, but to do so also would miss the point. Yes, there’s horror in “Cataclysm,” but it’s one scene long, presented almost without context, and so off the wall that when the movie doesn’t even bother placing it in context, it arguably makes more sense than if it had tried. But it need not bother. “Cataclysm” isn’t a story about something bad happening to Billy and Robbie: It’s a story about Billy and Robbie, their hopes and dreams, their favorite music and — when things go south — one character’s absolutely hilarious ability to melt into a puddle under pressure. The dash of horror exists more as a tool for self-parody than a legitimate plot device, and in the context of this sharply, stupidly funny saga about two men who have no business riding a canoe but every reason in the world to be friends, it somehow makes sense.
Extras: Little/Longstreet/director commentary, short film “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2,” outtakes.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (NR, 2010, Sundance Selects)
The shocking thing about “The Myth of the American Sleepover?” It isn’t all that shocking. “Sleepover” takes place over the course of roughly 24 hours on the eve of a new school year, and scattered amongst a couple parties and a few sleepovers are the stories of incoming freshmen, mentally checked-out seniors, a gaggle of kids in the thick of their high school careers and one should-be college senior who misses high school and wants out of college. Yes, all the topics you expect to come up — sex, alcohol, drugs, blah blah blah — do come up in some fashion. But shocking movies about kids acting shocking and talking like well-traveled adults are kind of passé and — because kids, even today, are too socially green to talk like adults — also kind of stupid. “Sleepover,” by contrast, strikes a seemingly impossible chord as a meandering story with the dual capacity to relate to those in the thick of it today and connect with those who remember how simultaneously wonderful and wretched it is to be that age. It has an edge to it, but it has far more heart than it does edge, and its musings about being young, saying stupid things and bidding slow farewells to being a kid ring absolutely true even when they trip and fall out the mouths of credibly confused teens. No extras.

Todd & the Book of Pure Evil: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, Entertainment One)
Losing any book for any reason isn’t fun. When the book you lose is the Book of Pure Evil, it’s downright stressful. And when you keep losing it week after week in a high school crawling with self-absorbed teenagers who won’t hesitate to harness its powers (picture The One Ring from “The Lord of the Rings,” only as a hideous book) for their own gain? Well that’s just ridiculous. Fortunately, “Todd & the Book of Pure Evil” is keenly aware. Every episode, a ragtag quartet of students (Alex House, Maggie Castle, Melanie Leishman, Bill Turnbull) and a demonic servant posing as their guidance counselor (Chris Leavins) race to recover the book, and without fail, the book instead lands in the hands of a student who uses it to solve his or her problems in a powerfully petty way. But the repetitive resolution to this song-and-dance plot routine isn’t really the point. While its characters scramble to save or control humanity, “Evil” just wants to have a farcical good time, and between the cheeseball not-quite-special effects and the deliriously campy (but genuinely funny) writing, it has a blast. It isn’t subtle, and the campiness sometimes goes well beyond the recommended dosage for a 22-minute episode. But considering how hard it is to maintain this kind of energy for any length of time, much less solidly across 13 episodes, the occasional tendency to go overboard is entirely forgivable. Jason Mewes also stars — and steals numerous scenes — as the school janitor.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, the original 2003 short film that spawned the series, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, cast Q&A, bloopers.

Stags (NR, 2011, Monarch Home Entertainment)
Snedden, Victor and Price (Mark Giordano, Matthew Rauch and Jesse Joyce, respectively) are, as Jack (Benim Foster) phrases it, the people he doesn’t have to say hi to because he knows them so well. They’re the guys he grew up with, they’re his best friends today, and all four — for separate reasons ranging from sleaziness to fear of the opposite sex to general arrested development — are approaching their 40s while clinging desperately to their 20s. For lack of a better description, “Stags” is their inevitable story — helped along by a fifth friend’s surprise wedding and subsequent wedding night death, no doubt, but a dance with reality that was going to commence no matter what else happened. Things begin shakily while “Stags” tries a little too hard to make a funny first impression, but even when it misses more than hits, the earnestness with which it swings sets a tone that sticks. “Stags” is more comedy than anything else, and it’s reasonably amusing even when its jokes flop, but its finest moments come when it’s too busy being reverent, silly, pensive or clumsily philosophical to worry about being funny. The early wobbliness never fully straightens out, but as “Stags” chips away at the early facade and lets us get to know these guys as they know each other, it evolves into a point of endearment more than contention.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Answers to Nothing (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
What’s in a name? Sometimes, unfortunately, an unintentionally damning self-indictment. “Answers to Nothing” tells the loosely-connected stories of a number of people, including a woman (Kali Hawk) who hates her own race, her adulterous psychiatrist (Dane Cook), his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) and mistress (Aja Volkman), a woman (Miranda Bailey) fighting to keep her incapacitated brother’s dream alive, a wet-behind-the-ears cop (Erik Palladino) with a tragic past, a “World of Warcraft” player (Mark Kelly) obsessed over a missing persons case and the detective (Julie Benz) leading that investigation. That there — plus a few other folks to consider — is what you might call a mouthful. And as often happens in movies that fly with that many co-pilots, “Nothing” struggles to let any single one of them live up to his or her full potential. As a side effect, it also leaves precious little time for humor or any kind of lightening of the mood. Consistently strong writing gives rise to an army of well-developed (if not fully realized) characters, but the dark cloud that forms in “Nothing’s” opening moments is still hanging high above when the credits roll in. The resolutions don’t feel like resolutions, and the stunted development dulls the impact when everything comes to a head. Calling “Nothing” bad is going too far, but it’s hard to justify the two-hour investment when dreary answers to nothing is practically all we get for our time.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, two music videos.

I Melt With You (R, 2011, Magnolia)
Every year, four old college friends (Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay) reconvene for a long weekend of bonding in the form of parties, women and every form of vice available to them. Unfortunately, all four designated this year as the one in which they engage in a midlife meltdown that makes a normal meltdown look like a sigh. Also unfortunate: “I Melt With You” handles adversity as poorly as its characters. A laughably pretentious storytelling approach presents normal problems — broken marriages, failed dreams, tragic pasts, plans gone awry — almost as if they’re experiences we simple viewers couldn’t understand without a impenetrable lacquer of music video-style trimmings to feed it to us. When the first wheel falls off the wagon after a drug-fueled party sends both the guys and their guests completely out of their minds, “Melt” simply extends the arm’s length at which it holds us by continuing this process and feeding it through a core of main characters whose ShamWow-worthy levels of self-absorption give way to completely irreconcilable methods of self-destruction. How have they lived this long if all they need is a bad weekend to break them in half? Who knows. Who cares. “Melt” stays its course, with each self-serious moment more unintentionally amusing than the last. When one character’s metaphorical internalization of his own meltdown draws in audio and video from the Challenger explosion — yes, the space shuttle — it’s enough to wonder if the whole thing (and the fittingly pretentious special features) are a brilliant practical joke.
Extras: Lowe/Piven/director commentary, filmmakers commentary, director’s statement, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, interviews, image galleries.

Worth mentioning
— “Pac-Man: The Complete First Season” (NR, 1982, Warner Bros.): Much as he beat Mario and Sonic to the video game scene, Pac-Man was first in line (exactly 30 years ago) for an animated television series cash-in. It pays to be first, too, because none other than Hanna-Barbera shepherded the series, which lasted two years and 21 episodes on ABC. Don’t mistake that as a claim for “Pac-Man” being as timeless as “The Flintstones” (it isn’t) or even as good as your nostalgic mind’s eye remembers it being (it isn’t). But do know that the drop-off between memory and reality is nowhere near as severe as the cold water that accompanied Mario and Sonic’s recent DVD revivals. Includes 13 episodes, no extras. Available exclusively at wbshop.com.
— “Steve Coogan Live” (NR, BBC): There are two types of people in the world: those familiar with Steve Coogan’s comedy, and those who should become familiar with it. With this set, both stand to benefit. Includes three specials — “The Man Who Thinks He’s It,” “Live ‘N’ Lewd” and “Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters” — plus “Steve Coogan: The Inside Story,” the animations of Paul and Pauline Calf, and highlights from his Australia live show.

Games 2/28/12: Asura's Wrath, Syndicate, Nexuiz

Asura’s Wrath
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: CyberConnect2/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, use of alcohol, violence)
Price: $60

Everything you do in “Asura’s Wrath,” you’ve done before … except, perhaps, the part where you have to fight only with your feet because your arms were ripped off during a fall from space. Or the part where you literally fight a sentient planet. Or the part where you battle what resembles a metallic Buddha, who gets devoured by a demonic elephant who himself is blasted into oblivion by a spaceship.

Other than that and some two dozen other things, you’ve done this before.

“Wrath” assembles the wildly grandiose odyssey of Asura — a disgraced demigod whose anger and lust for vengeance makes “God of War” star Kratos look like a teacup puppy by comparison — with three familiar ingredients.

Primarily, it plays like a “God of War”-style brawler, offering Asura an arsenal of melee, ranged and special attacks he can chain together with abandon.

“Wrath” intersperses the brawling with on-rails sequences — sometimes on the ground, other times soaring through space — that play like “Rez.” You control Asura’s lateral movements with the left stick, roll the targeting reticule around the screen with the right stick, and unleash a maelstrom of missiles after locking onto a dozen or so targets at once and pressing the fire button.

Gluing everything together are quick time events, those interactive cutscenes where you follow a series of onscreen button prompts to help your character execute some amazing stunt. “Wrath” has garnered a reputation for leaning excessively on the mostly unpopular QTE mechanic, but it’s undeserved. Though a regular occurrence, the QTEs never overwhelm the other facets of “Wrath’s” gameplay.

More importantly, “Wrath” actually makes them fun. Failing a QTE has consequence, but that consequence doesn’t include (as it often does in other games) resetting the cutscene ad nauseam until you recite the prompt correctly. The QTEs make sense in where and how they’re implemented, they’re generous with regard to how much time you’re given to hit them, and unless you completely drop the ball and flub every single prompt, the cutscene barrels ahead.

“Barrels” isn’t an exaggeration, either. Whether brawling, flying, QTEing or storytelling, “Wrath” screams forward at a frantic pace that ignites all these familiar gameplay concepts with a fresh, exhilarating energy.

The speed does not come at the expense of technique, either: You’ll have to evade as well as attack, whether on foot or in flight, and every boss enemy (even the planet) has patterns and tells waiting to be exploited. It’s controlled chaos at it’s finest, and when “Wrath” interweaves its three big ingredients into a single sequence that starts in the sky and ends on the ground, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen or done in a game.

“Wrath’s” story mirrors its gameplay — absolutely bananas, but surprisingly coherent (and reverent, and even funny) upon closer inspection. The game presents itself like an 18-episode television show, complete with credits on both sides, mock commercial breaks (without the actual commercials) and narrated bumpers teasing the next episode. The presentation is amusing, but it also serves a purpose: Each episode brings its own story arc to the larger narrative, and being mindful of those arcs and starting points allows “Wrath” to unfurl its increasingly crazy saga at a tempo that’s accessible in spite of all the insanity.

Depending on your play style, “Wrath’s” run doesn’t necessarily end when it ends. Casual players can complete the 18 episodes in six-ish hours and find little else to do, making the $60 price hard to swallow in spite of how great those six hours are. But overachievers have reason to give it a second and maybe third spin. Each episode has a scoring system to master, there’s an achievement for beating the game under special conditions that ramp up the difficulty, and there’s a special 19th episode waiting to be unlocked if you have what it takes to unlock it. (The end of episode 18 spills the details.)


Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Starbreeze/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

Fans of the beloved 1993 strategy game “Syndicate” unleashed a nuclear moan when EA pronounced it reborn as a first-person shooter, and developer Starbreeze responded with assurances that the heart and soul would return intact.

The finished product is a rare case of both sides being right. This most definitely is “Syndicate’s” world, but fans of the strategy games most definitely have reason to howl anyway.

Mostly, it’s because the one hopeful straw at which that crowd could grasp — a storyline that meaningfully takes the universe into a new chapter with the benefits of modern production values at its back — never really pans out.

Conceptually, the finer details of “Syndicate’s” world are there, and outside of some needlessly tiny text and a bizarre case of light bloom so bright it occasionally washes out your view, it looks very good.

But it’s mostly a tease. The concepts behind “Syndicate’s” storyline — corporations battling for control governments once had, a power struggle where even the good guys (you included) have bloody hands, a bizarre technocracy where getting microchipped and connecting your mind directly to the Internet is a status symbol, source of power and grave risk all at once — are immensely fascinating, but the meat of it unfolds via audio logs and a library of text you can read in the menu screen (tiny text and all). The story that plays out in front of you alludes to everything, but it overwhelmingly focuses on you, the corporation for which you work and a select handful of allegiances that threaten its (and your) health.

Ultimately, as perhaps you feared, “Syndicate” boils down to another case of you against most of the world. Here’s hoping you like shooting a whole ton of enemy soldiers as they rush at you from everywhere, because that, more than anything else, is what “Syndicate” is all about.

In fairness to Starbreeze, the shooter they’ve built is a fine one, with polished control, a powerful arsenal of guns, and enemy A.I. that flashes a strong combination of brains and teeth.

Your microchipped mind comes into play, too. A limited-use interface overlay can temporarily slow time and give away enemy positions, while special abilities let you hack enemies’ minds in order to overload their circuits or brainwash them into sacrificing themselves or fighting on your side. Occasionally, you’ll also hack other objects — sentry guns, elevators and so on — to operate in your favor. “Syndicate” never puts the hacking mechanic to use in the form of a truly clever puzzle, but it’s prevalent enough to give an otherwise boilerplate shooter campaign the identity it needs.

Along with the single-player campaign, “Syndicate” offers a wholly separate co-op campaign (four players, online only) that puts you in the boots of a capable but less powerful corporate foot soldier.

The co-op campaign is even flatter in terms of storytelling, but if you come prepared to play — i.e., with three friends ready to work as a team — it’s the better of the two modes. Your hacking deficiencies are compensated for when your three teammates hack alongside you, and being able to heal each other is a godsend. You’re weaker, the enemies are stronger and bolder, and the campaign difficulty is an order of magnitude higher even on its lowest setting, so teamwork and communication are imperative. (The difficulty doesn’t scale for fewer players, either, so find a quartet. You’ll need it.)

For your trouble, “Syndicate” offers a persistent upgrade tree that’s considerably more rewarding than the meager upgrades found in the single-player campaign. You get experience points for being a good teammate as well as marksman, and with time, the perks and weapons you unlock will make you a more formidable soldier than your single-player counterpart.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Illfonic/THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (Crude Humor, Mild Language, Violence)
Price: $10

“Nexuiz” may proudly proclaim it’s one of the first downloadable games available that’s powered by the CryENGINE 3 engine, but anyone with a discerning eye for shooters knows that the presence of “Quake III Arena’s” heart and soul is the real story here. Originally conceived years ago as a “Quake” mod, “Nexuiz” comes into its own by taking that series’ core principles — blindingly fast first-person shooter combat, small but intricate maps laden with weapons and game-changing power-ups — and giving them a polished, modern sheen (thanks, largely, to CryENGINE 3’s impressive visual capabilities). Those in search of storytelling and along time need not apply: “Nexuiz” offers a practice mode with A.I. bots, but you must play against others (eight players, online only) to pad your statistics and get those achievements. But much like “Q3A” was so pure in its freneticism that anyone could play it, so is “Nexuiz,” which plays spotlessly online and offers a lot to like — nine maps, nine dual-fire weapons, a ton of mutators that can temporarily enhance your skills or sabotage your enemies’ abilities — for its $10 price tag. The emphasis on team play — team deathmatch and capture the flag are its sole match types — also means you’re never fighting alone.

Games 2/21/11 (Part Two): Playstation Vita + Launch Game Roundup

Playstation Vita
From: Sony
Price: $250 (Wi-Fi only version) or $300 (Wi-Fi/3G version)

Even when it was brand-new, Sony’s Playstation Portable left something to be desired. With the Nintendo DS finally coming into its own, the merits of having a touchscreen were plain to see. And for a system attempting to distill the console experience onto a handheld with nothing lost, the lack of a second analog stick crippled the PSP from day one.

Until technology comes along that allows us to control games with our minds, the Playstation Vita has no such problem. It supports the tried and true, with a full complement of buttons and two analog sticks. It has a capactive, multitouch-capable touchscreen that vastly outclasses Nintendo’s resistive screen. It has an accelerometer for tilt control, a microphone for voice control and front and rear cameras for augmented reality. There’s Internet via Wi-Fi and, optionally, 3G. With a capactive touch panel adorning the back of the device, there’s even something brand new.

As pieces of hardware go, the Vita impresses in almost every major respect. Though a little larger than the PSP, it’s surprisingly light and comfortable to hold. The sticks and buttons look alarmingly small at first glance but prove comfortable and capable in the heat of gameplay, and the touchscreen and touch panel are pleasantly responsive (a credit, perhaps, to the snappy system software as well as the hardware). A glowing Playstation button provides easy access to core system functions, even mid-game, and the directional pad is better than the one on the Playstation 3’s controller. Only the Start button, on system’s far bottom right, feels awkwardly positioned. But it had to go somewhere, and like anything else, accessing it becomes second nature with practice.

On top of responding quickly and precisely to the touch, the 5-inch OLED touchscreen is roomy, bright and stunningly crisp. As the system’s launch lineup demonstrates multiple times, there is no barrier whatsoever to replicating a high-definition console experience on this screen.

The only potential dud on the hardware side are the cameras. They’ll more than suffice for augmented reality gaming purposes (a set of AR cards comes bundled with the system, though AR games weren’t available on the Playstation Store as of this writing), and if Sony introduces a video chat app, it should work for that as well. But if you have a smartphone made after 2008, you almost certainly have a better camera for picture-taking purposes than the ones packed in here.

Though responsive, unique and almost certain to improve through future firmware updates, the Vita’s system software isn’t quite as sparkling as the hardware housing it. Instead of the XMB that made the PSP and PS3 so easy to navigate, the Vita’s main screen arranges games and applications on the home screen as a series of orb-shaped icons, with no way to group them into folders or hide the built-in apps you don’t plan to use. Arranging the icons is tedious — in no small part because the home screen allows touch control only for some reason — and as you play more games and add more icons to the screen, things can get unwieldy in a hurry.

With that said, there’s an excellent reason icons for games you play stay on the home screen even when you eject the game from the system. In addition to save data, each game’s icon contains a Live Area — a screen where you can launch/resume the game, view your play/trophy history, check for updates, view the digital instruction manual, and access website links, bonus features or whatever else a game’s developer decides to put there.

For all the system software presently does awkwardly, the Live Area is brilliant. It’s unintrusive — your game state immediately freezes if you pop out to the Live Area and it resumes just as instantly when you jump back in — and always having the manual a tap away is the best answer yet to the decline of paper manuals. (Sure enough, Vita games are a dead tree-free zone.) Even downloading game updates no longer disrupts your game: Just initiate the download, jump back into your in-progress game, and apply the update at your leisure later on. How’s that for a night-and-day improvement over the PS3’s Byzantine update process?

As evidenced by the existence of a 3G version, Sony would like you to use your Vita for more than just games, and while most of the non-gaming apps have not appeared in the Playstation store as of this writing, the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr — are en route. For its part, Sony packs in a web browser that’s decent in a pinch but feature-deficient, and its Group Messaging, Party, Trophies and Friends apps are good for managing and enhancing your Playstation Network lifestyle. (All but the browser can be accessed without losing your place in a game, too) Music and video players do exactly what you expect them to do, and the Content Management app provides a reasonably painless way to transfer music, video and games from a PS3, Mac or PC.

(A few notes about the 3G version: A 3G plan — via AT&T — costs $15 a month but comes with no contract and can be activated and canceled at will. If your only aim is to play games, though, you probably should opt for the Wi-Fi version: Gameplay over 3G is untenable if it’s even supported, and the 20 MB download limit means you can’t even download most games unless you’re on a Wi-Fi connection.)

The oddest oddball in Sony’s initial app offerings is, by far, the Near app, a location-based program that aims to connect players who are nearby and reward them with discoverable bonuses for games that integrate its features. In its current state, Near is considerably promising but also considerably confusing — jumbled with enough vague icons and self-contained jargon to make it seemingly impossible to understand, but fun enough to try and figure out anyway. An expanded help section would go a long way in a future update, but for now, there’s fun to be had in figuring this virtual wilderness out.

Overall, the Vita’s upside far outweighs its downside, and the initial launch library is one of the best ever assembled for any system.

But there’s always a caveat, and in this case, it relates to storage.

Specifically, the Vita has no internal storage. To download, update and even save progress in your games, you’ll need a proprietary memory card. Many launch-day bundles ship with one, but it isn’t necessarily a given, and the prices for the cards (ranging from $20 for 4 GB to $100 for 32 GB) mean it isn’t a trivial expense. If you’re budgeting for a system, factor that in now so you don’t feel sticker shock later.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss
From: SCE Bend Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $50

The Vita’s most prominent launch game likely will also be its most polarizing. For the most part, “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” plays like an “Uncharted” game, mixing lots of climbing and platforming with third-person, cover-based shootouts against legions of enemies armed to the teeth. In between, though, “Abyss” eschews the blockbuster set pieces of recent “Uncharted” games in favor of intelligence gathering — treasure hunts, charcoal rubbings, photography, examining and cleaning artifacts, a puzzle here and there — that utilizes the Vita’s other control inputs. On one hand, it feels like a textbook case of a big-ticket launch game using every piece of a new system by any means necessary. But “Abyss” doesn’t cram the stuff down players’ throats. A few of these instances lie on the storyline’s main road, but most are optional endeavors for those who enjoy the leisurely challenge of finding obscure pathways and gathering all the back story clues. “Abyss” makes it fun rather than a mindless chore to do so, so the gimmickry is forgivable. The core gameplay, by contrast, gets a best-of-both-worlds treatment: Traditional button-and-stick controls apply, but everything has a complementary touch or tilt method as well, and some of them prove surprisingly handy. You need not choose one or the other, either: Both schemes are simultaneously in play, and you can utilize and ignore methods in whatever fashion suits you best. Presentationally, “Abyss” upholds the series’ high values with an engaging story, a great cast of characters and some of the best voice acting in the business bringing it all to life. Not surprisingly, and much like its bigger console brothers, it’s one of the prettier games in the library thus far.

Lumines: Electronic Symphony
From: Q Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

If you ever had a PSP, you’re likely familiar with “Lumines,” which merged a falling-block puzzle game with a rhythmic music game to create an engrossing experience that stole the show during the PSP’s launch. Seven years, a few sequels and a new portable Playstation later, little has changed. In terms of features, “Lumines: Electronic Symphony” is a bit more substantial, thanks largely to a persistent experience points system that rewards continued play with new unlockable special abilities and levels (each accompanied by a completely distinctive visual aesthetic and song selection). Online leaderboards are ingrained into the interface, as is an amusing community feature where Vita players worldwide band together to clear millions of blocks in a 24-hour span. (What happens if they succeed is, thus far, a mystery.) Master and time trial challenges cater to advanced players who like clearing blocks under heavy pressure, while two-player local multiplayer (no online, unfortunately) follows multiplayer puzzle game conventions pretty faithfully. Ultimately, though, “Symphony’s” centerpiece remains its marathon mode, where players keep the playing field clear while the game cycles through levels whose audiovisual exteriors dictate the tempo of the action. (In turn, your actions in the game influence portions of that soundtrack’s construction. Hard to explain on paper, but you’ll understand once you catch onto it.) Much as “Lumines” was an audiovisual showpiece for the PSP, so too is “Symphony” for the Vita, and the game at the center of it all hasn’t lost a step. A means for playing using only the touchscreen is available if you need change for changes’ sake, but the classic tandem of D-pad and face buttons remains the superior choice.

Escape Plan
From: Fun Bits Interactive/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, violence, blood)
Price: $15

The arguable oddball (in a good way) of the Vita launch? It has to be “Escape Plan,” which takes a simple premise — help best buds Lil and Laarg escape from a bizarre, factory-like prison laden with danger — and packages it in a wrapper that’s pretty, charming, twisted and the most clever introduction there is to the Vita’s touch (and to a lesser extent, tilt) control capabilities. You control neither Lil nor Laarg directly: Rather, using the touchscreen and touch panel, you swipe and poke at them to guide their movement and interact similarly with the surrounding environment to keep them from strolling into peril. Past the opening levels, “Plan” doesn’t tell you what to do: It’s up to you to look around the level and figure out what can be done — perhaps tapping a mattress from behind to push it over for a safe landing, perhaps holding a finger over a damaged pipe to block a gas leak while using another finger to guide the friends across — to escort them safely. As usual, easy early levels eventually give way to genuine brainteasers, and while you can cheat “Plan’s” three-star grading system by replaying levels once you figure them out, the real sport comes from keeping Lil’s and Laarg’s death count to a minimum. The number of times each character perishes is displayed prominently and humorously on their body, which is but one of the many darkly funny touches — Tim Burton-esque character design, a monochrome presentation that looks like a cross between 3D and charcoal art come expressively alive, a delightful appetite for slapstick, a classical music soundtrack that jubilantly belies the otherwise dark tone — that make “Plan” a beast of its own creation.

Wipeout 2048
From: Studio Liverpool/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

If you don’t follow the “Wipeout” timeline, you may not realize “Wipeout 2048” actually predates the original Playstation “Wipeout” game by a few years. What this means — in addition to a really impressive opening video that beautifully animates the evolution of the automobile into the hovering ship for which the series is known — is that “2048’s” tracks are a cool hybrid of regular concrete roads and the futuristic tracks that populate the other “Wipeout” games. Beyond that visual twist, though, this is as “Wipeout” as “Wipeout” gets — a very fast, very pretty and eventually very challenging futuristic racing game that will absolutely punish you if you don’t learn to use your ship’s air brake. Long load times between races — in the 30 to 40 second range — make “2048” the slowest Vita game as well as the fastest one, but if you can ride out the wait, the spotless on-track action is worth it. (Just be sure to stick with the tried and true: A tilt-and-touch control scheme is available as an option, but it holds no candle to the sticks and buttons.) “2048’s” customary career mode mixes races, time trials and kart racer-style combat events, all of which carry over to local and online play (eight players each). As a first taste of Sony’s plans to cross-pollinate the Vita and PS3, those who own “2048” also can race against those who own “Wipeout HD” on the PS3. If you own both versions, the two forthcoming downloadable packs of “HD” tracks are yours to download for free when they release for “2048” this spring.

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
From: Clap Hanz/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Another Sony system means another place to drop a “Hot Shots Golf” game, and if you’re surprised at how safely “Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational” mostly plays its hand, you must not be very familiar with this series. But why fix what isn’t broken? Familiar though a lot of it may look, there’s a healthy amount of courses to play through, characters to unlock and tournaments to win in “Invitational.” “Hot Shots” perfected the recipe for accessible video game golf years ago, and that system — anchored by a default swing mechanic anyone can understand and complemented by additional and alternative methods of control for those who want them — shows no age here. “Invitational” iterates similarly, adding a new touchscreen swing option and letting players use the tilt and touchscreen to pan the course and plot a path to the tee, respectively. As always, if you play alone, there’s plenty to do in the career mode, but “Invitation’s” best features lie on the multiplayer side. Along with eight-player local multiplayer and 30-player online tournament support, players can enter a daily worldwide tournament. You play one round and get one chance per day to post a score to a global leaderboard. The top score gets fame and glory, while everyone else has to wait until tomorrow for another chance. No pressure.

Little Deviants
From: Bigbig Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30

With every new system, there must be a minigame collection that doubles as a coming-out party for all the new features. The Vita bakes one into the system in the form of “Welcome Park,” but if you want something meatier, “Little Deviants” — a minigame collection that puts the touchscreen, accelerometer and camera through numerous paces — is it. Some of the games — including the showpiece game, which has you guiding a Deviant around an area by touching the back panel to “push” the land up and roll him along — are clever. Most — using augmented reality to blast robots flying around your own home, tilting the Vita to roll a Deviant around a maze or steer him through an obstacle course — are not. Almost all reside on the shallow side, as minigames tend to do. But if “Deviants” is more a statement about the Vita’s quality than a game you’ll still be playing months from now, it’s a pretty convincing one. Achieving medal-worthy scores in these games requires some pretty nimble Deviant guidance, and the precision and speed with which the system responds to touch and tilt may surprise even those with high expectations. The polished control makes “Deviants” fun in spite of how shallow most of the games are, and if you like a challenge, chasing the games’ gold medal score requirements most certainly is one. “Deviants” also does a nice job of integrating your friends list and Sony’s Near software: If you have friends or neighbors playing the game, you’ll be able to chase their scores and send them challenges to return the favor when you pass them.

Super Stardust Delta
From: Housemarque/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 (free with activation of a 3G data plan)

One of the PS3’s original standout downloadable games is now pulling similar duty on the Vita, which has the dual sticks to do it justice. In the vein of “Geometry Wars” and “Robotron,” “Super Stardust Delta” is a pure dual-stick shooter (left stick to fly the ship, right stick to aim and fire). Its primary gimmick — that the levels are spherical planets rather than flat arenas — gets put to better effect here than on the PS3, thanks to an ability to tilt the Vita to change the perspective from which you view the planet. Five offshoot modes take advantage of the touch and tilt controls, including a tilt-based game in which you control a rolling asteroid, a touch-and-drag game where you keep a blue disc out of harm’s way, and an amusing game where you pinch the touchscreen and rear touch panel together to “squish” asteroids like a god. But “Delta’s” main modes — a planet-by-planet campaign or an arcade-style marathon mode — are as pure in spirit as their PS3 counterparts. The Vita’s sticks are up to the task, the game is as polished and responsive here as it’s ever been, and the confluence of challenge, activity and special effects makes for an exciting and very pretty way to put $10 to very good use.

Army Corps of Hell
From: Entersphere/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

The wait for Nintendo’s third “Pikmin” game has entered its eighth year, and if you’re inpatient enough to play the best “Pikmin” game Nintendo wouldn’t dare make, this one has your name written all over it. “Army Corps of Hell” puts you in control of the literal King of Hell, but the real action comes from commanding a massive army of minions to do your bidding. The fundamental similarities to “Pikmin” are undeniable: You “command” minions by chucking them two or more at a time at enemies and other points of interest, and your duties as king revolve around keeping minions alive and managing different formations of sword-, spear- and spell-wielding minions. The primary difference with “Hell” is, of course, the theme: In place of “Pikmin’s” cute creatures and lush landscapes, “Hell” sets shop in a scorched underworld, populates it with hideous allies and enemies alike, drenches everything in blood, and wraps it inside a heavy metal soundtrack that’s so deliriously overt as to be amusing. Elsewhere, “Hell” is alternately a deeper and shallower game. Though level arrangements change and boss fights force you to consider new attack formations, there’s still little objective beyond killing enemies. On the other hand, you can level up your minions and outfit them with new weapons and armor. If you’re up to the challenge, there’s fun to be had in finding the perfect formation and putting it into play to finish a level quickly, forcefully and stylishly enough to get the highest grades. Should you wish to apply that knowledge toward destroying your friends as well, a local multiplayer option (four players) is on hand to let you do just that.

Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen
From: Acquire/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Price: $40

One look at the graphics is all it takes to wonder if “Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen” began life as a PSP game before rebuilding the deck and jumping aboard the Vita launch. Unflattering visual presentation aside, though, the move was for the best. The Vita’s dual joysticks prove to be a considerable asset in a game where you’re trying to maintain stealthy awareness in levels with multiple open ends. Similarly, while the touchscreen gets put to limited use and nearly every function has a button equivalent, they’re useful functions (calling up a map, honing in on a target’s general location when the game alerts you to his presence) that are easier to access this way than via buttons. “Zen” has some wobbly control working against it: Zen (that’s you) is a bit clumsy when climbing ledges and peeking around corners, and he’s downright messy when fighting an enemy who has spotted you and is fighting back. (Theres a reason your specialty is stealth, so just flee and try to surprise your enemies again. “Zen” and Zen, to their equal credit, are flexible enough that getting spotted isn’t a deal-breaker if you aren’t stubborn enough to admit your mistake and bolt for the shadows.) “Zen’s” action is fast, limber and engrossing enough to make even its control shortcomings pretty forgivable, and the story brings with it lots of control over upgrades, special moves and allegiances with different factions. It won’t make your newfangled handheld feel very new, but as stealth action games go, it offers a lot to like.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip
From: SCE San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $30

The endlessly customizable kart racer makes a Vita debut that’s at once impressive, imperfect and incomplete. Outside of some occasional framerate stutters, “ModNation Racers: Road Trip’s” on-track action looks and feels as good as the original “ModNation Racers” did on the PS3. Better still, because both games feed into the same ecosystem, every one of the hundreds of thousands of karts, racers and tracks players created in the PS3 edition is immediately available to download for free in this version. The customization options remain enormous, and the track builder benefits from the optional touchscreen sculpting tools (though the traditional interface remains available as well for those who prefer it). On the other side of the coin, “Trip” sports some lengthy load times that lend an air of unresponsiveness to the touchscreen-only menu interface. And while “Trip” supports local multiplayer (four players) and mobile-friendly asynchronous online play via time trial challenges, the lack of head-to-head online racing is baffling considering the 2010 PSP version had it. There’s an obscene amount of content here for single and local multiplayer purposes, but if your primary goal is to compete online, another racer will have to suffice.

Touch My Katamari
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $30

“Katamari Damacy” — that bizarre game where you roll a ball-shaped katamari around and… forget it, just watch a video to understand it — was such a weirdly original stroke of genius that it remains beloved in spite of Namco’s inability to meaningfully improve it over the course of numerous sequels. “Touch My Katamari” is no different, and its self-aware storyline — in which the King of all Cosmos mounts a furious return to form after his once-loyal subjects declare him stale and washed up — might have been insulting if it wasn’t so sharply, hilariously on point. Like its predecessors, “TMK” resides at the three-way intersection between weird, genuinely funny and easy to play/hard to master, and there remains something compelling about rolling around a ball smaller than a bottle cap that gradually grows large enough to absorb cows, trains and entire buildings. The level count is low — only 12 environments — if all you plan to do is blaze through the story. But each level offers two additional variants upon completing it the first time, and beyond the pursuit of top grades and high scores, there’s a ton of hidden and unlockable content for completists to discover by replaying levels. As the name implies, an optional touch interface accompanies the traditional dual-stick controls, and you can switch freely between both. In a minor twist that’s useful and amusing all at once, you also can use multitouch to pinch or stretch the katamari to squeeze between tight spaces and/or sweep a wide area that would require two or three passes in standard ball form.

Asphalt: Injection
From: Gameloft/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence, tobacco reference)
Price: $30

How much are buttons and sticks worth to you? In the Vita launch, no game contextualizes the 99 cent-versus-$30 price debate as pointedly as “Asphalt: Injection.” On its own merits, “Injection” is a well-made and well-rounded racing game, with 45 licensed vehicles, 15 cities’ worth of tracks, a comprehensive career mode with numerous event types and local/online multiplayer (eight players each). But “Asphalt 6,” available for a buck on iOS, offers most of these features as well. Support for Playstation Network features (friends, trophies, Near) aside, the primary difference is the ability to drive with the sticks and shoulder buttons instead of tilt and virtual touchscreen buttons. For many, that’s enough. “Injection” controls respectably with its optional tilt and touch control scheme, but it’s a superior experience with traditional controls, which are just plain better at handling a racing game that threads the needle between fast arcade action and consideration for vehicle weight and other simulation-like features. For those less concerned about acing “Injection’s” career and online arena, control precision may not be worth the 2,900 percent markup. And if that’s the case more than it isn’t, developers in Gameloft’s position have some stuff to ponder with regard to how they price their games.

Rayman Origins
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Pound for pound, “Rayman Origins” — the magnificently pretty 2D platformer that ranked among 2011’s best games — is as good as any game on this list. If you haven’t played it on a console yet, this port may also be the version to get. Though a lengthy game that easily commands its price, “Origins” also breaks into stages that are very portable-friendly. The 2D graphics look stellar on the Vita’s screen, and a new layer of touch controls enhance the experience without changing anything about the core gameplay. The only downside: This version doesn’t have the console versions’ two-player co-op support.

Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Like “Rayman Origins,” “Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3” is powered by a hand-drawn graphical presentation that just looks awesome on this screen. Every feature from the console versions — 50-plus characters, eight-player online play, the Heroes and Heralds mode — makes it into this edition, and an accessible and flexible touch control scheme is available for casual players who want to pull off the prettier moves without putting in the effort to master them. (Competitive players, worry not: You can avoid these players online if you please.) Capcom has jumped on the cross-compatibility train as well: If you own the PS3 version of “UMvC3” and have purchased any downloadable content for it, that DLC is yours for free in this version (and vice versa).

Plants vs. Zombies
From: Popcap/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Because you can’t have a system these days without a version of “Plants vs. Zombies” on it, kudos to Sony Online Entertainment for having one ready to go right at launch. The Vita also benefits from all that prior porting: It has the console version’s controller controls, the mobile versions’ touch controls, and pretty much every important feature Popcap has built into the game since it first appeared. If you somehow haven’t played it yet, this may be the definitive version until a sequel comes along

Games 2/21/11 (Part One): Word Trick

Word Trick
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Outplay Entertainment
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

At first (and maybe second) glance, “Word Trick” looks like a shameless knockoff of “Words With Friends.” It’s Scrabble, it lets you play multiple games at once with the same turn-based multiplayer system, and it interfaces with Facebook to allow cross-platform play between Facebook and iOS players. (A Facebook account is, unfortunately, required to play the game — a disappointment considering “Trick” is otherwise integrated with iOS Game Center.) With all that said, if you like “Friends” but have grown exhausted with the glut of friends playing two-letter words that clot the board and award cheap points, “Trick’s” lone innovation may be all the originality you need. Scattered amongst the usual letter tiles are special green tiles. Build a word with three or more consecutive green tiles, and your reward is a double-, triple- or quadruple-word score on top of whatever score multipliers you cover on the board. In other words, large, board-opening words are officially back in fashion. If only these games could auto-detect rampant cheating, it’d be perfect. If you’re fond of rivalries and stats, “Trick” outdoes “WWF” in another respect with a some stat-tracking features that (among other stats) break down your win/loss records against each person you play. Achievement hunters also get a large stash of Game Center achievements. And if you have freemium and in-app purchase fatigue, you’ll be happy to know the price for “Trick” being free — an easily-dismissed ad after each turn played — is pretty harmless.

DVD/Blu-ray 2/21/11: Tower Heist, The Space Between, On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. 1, I Ain't Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac, Retreat, Borgia: Faith and Fear S1, Underdog CE, Weeds S7, Nurse Jackie S3

Tower Heist (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Condominium building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) has been a deeply loyal employee to the building’s obscenely rich owner (Alan Alda as Arthur), and the price for that loyalty is a Bernie Madoff-style swindle that wipes out his and his fellow employees’ pensions. That loss rates pretty low on the list of people Arthur wronged, which effectively wipes out any legal chance of recouping it. But then word leaks that Arthur is hiding a $20 million safety net in his tower penthouse, and you can see where this is going, right? Right. Think of “Tower Heist” as what “Ocean’s Eleven” would look like if Danny Ocean’s crew was a ragtag band of low-level employees and criminal amateurs instead of calm and collected old pros, because that’s essentially what it is. It’s louder, not as gifted in the clever writing department, and it prefers wacky set pieces (using the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a prop, for instance) over cunning twists. But “Heist” also is a silly good time with a loaded cast and enough charisma to make a lot of so-so situations funnier than they would be in lesser hands. Also helpful: Just about everybody in the group is likable on some level, while Alda’s gift of smug means Arthur most assuredly is not. Even if “Heist” doesn’t make you laugh much, it provides plenty of occasions to root for the little guys. Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sidibe, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni and Michael Peña, among others, also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, two alternate endings, deleted/alternate scenes, video diary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, second screen content for tablets (Blu-ray only).

The Space Between (NR, 2010, Inception Media Group)
To call grizzled flight attendant Montine (Melissa Leo) caustic would be what we call an understatement. To wit: When a scared child flying alone (Anthony Keyvan as Omar) holes up in the lavatory so long that he falls asleep and reemerges well after his plane has landed and emptied, Montine’s first instinct is to chew him out before promptly taking a bite out of the sobbing fellow flight attendant responsible for the oversight. On a normal day, that would be the end of the episode. But Sept. 11, 2001 was, of course, no normal day, and with Omar’s flight grounded halfway to Los Angeles and his father out of reach in New York, the two are stuck with each other while bedlam ensues. You can guess one of “The Space Between’s” overriding themes the instant Omar — a Pakistani-American and devout Muslim — comes into focus. But “Between” eschews predictability by focusing overwhelmingly on Montine and Omar, both as individuals and extremely reluctant partners, while relegating the themes to background duty. Neither character is as simple as the outer shells imply — an amusing conversation about Elvis Presley, of all things, ensures that — and neither changes too much to comfort the other. If you’re waiting for Montine to devolve into a weepy bleeding heart, you’ll wait forever. And that’s fine, because the attention to detail “Between” pays to its two leads would only undermine itself by taking such easy ways out. No extras.

On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. 1 (NR, 1956, Milestone Film & Video)
Lionel Rogosin assembled “On the Bowery” by co-writing a semi-biographical screenplay, hiring his drinking buddies to act it out as themselves, and punctuating those scenes with documentary-style shots of New York’s skid row (known not-so-affectionately as The Bowery) in its unfiltered element. The story — three days in the recreational life of railroad worker Ray Salyer (playing himself) — offers no pretense whatsoever, and if “Bowery” released in 2012, we might call this an engaging low-concept indie film that takes the “Clerks” formula and gives it a bit of an uncomfortably truthful edge. But “Bowery” beat “Clerks” to the theater by 38 years, and that alone makes it considerably more special. More than just a story about some friends who really are friends, “Bowery” is a snapshot of a time and place few of us have ever seen in this light, and it’s just as much a snapshot of a filmmaker who put ideas in motion decades before they came into fashion. You can tell the cast isn’t professionally trained (to put it diplomatically), but the mere knowledge of “Bowery’s” back story makes their performances — and the subtly earnest tone of the script on the whole — a genuine treat to watch. Whether you prize film history, American history, or simply the chance to see something truly original unfold in front of you, this is not to be missed.
Extras: Two additional Rogosin films (“Good Times, Wonderful Times,” “Out”), an introduction to “Bowery” by Martin Scorsese, two retrospectives produced by Rogosin’s son Michael, the 1933 newsreel short “Street of Forgotten Men,” the 1972 documentary short “Bowery Men’s Shelter.”

I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac (NR, 2011, Image Entertainment)
For those fixing to see “I Ain’t Scared of You,” a little tip: If you don’t know what the title is referencing, do yourself a favor and don’t find out (or look at the back of the box) beforehand. “Scared” packs a dizzying amount of storytelling inside its slim 61-minute runtime, and while the account of that phrase’s origins has considerable company, it’s an easy contender for best story of the show. Even if you already know the details, “Scared” has such a blast with the recap that it may as well be new to you as well. That little thing about this being a tribute instead of a mere documentary cannot be overstated: A ton of familiar faces — from Chris Rock to Don Cheadle to Angela Bassett to Cameron Diaz to Bernie’s high school sweetheart wife and daughter — chime in, and their contagiously jubilant stories about Bernie’s talent, work ethic, authenticity, and relentless devotion to all whom he loved are wonderful testaments to a man who took the 50 short years he was given and made absolutely sure they counted and endured.
Extras: Bonus interviews and live performance footage, backstage at the Chicago Theatre.

Retreat (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
If it’s true that you can’t truly appreciate life’s peaks unless you spend some time in the valley, some deliriously good times lie ahead for Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) if they get out of “Retreat” alive. Too bad we can’t even imagine what that would look like. Martin and Kate venture to an isolated island retreat in hopes of overcoming a recent setback, but their recovery is interrupted by a bloodied stranger (Jamie Bell as Jack) who claims a virus has ravaged the area and orders them, gun in hand, to board up the place and stay inside. Is he right? Is he crazy? Well given Kate and Martin’s gloomy dispositions, should anyone care? They’re disconnected from each other, prone to on-the-nose breakdowns and pretty vocal about how neither necessarily wants to be there — and that’s before Jack even crashes their party. By the time he arrives, the black cloud is so thick that “Retreat” is playing from behind. As act two carries on further with too much gloomy telling and not very much showing, the deficit becomes insurmountable. There’s merit to the less-is-more approach, and if you squint and tune out some of the babbling, “Retreat” stealthily puts a framework in place for a creepy, tense finish. But when the baggage spills over once again in act three, it’s a cold reminder that you have no one to root for in this story. By then, there’s only so much the twists at the end can do.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Worth Mentioning
— “Borgia: Faith and Fear: Season One” (NR, 2011, Lions Gate): Well this is awkward. In what amounted to television’s version of two women showing up to the same party wearing the same dress, 2011 gave us two entirely separate but equally excellent shows about the Borgia family. This, likely, is the one with which you’re less familiar. Though in English, it comes by way of France’s CANAL+ instead of Showtime. And while fans of “The Wire” will recognize John Doman in Rodrigo Borgia’s shoes, he lacks the universal cachet of Jeremy Irons, who plays his counterpart in the Showtime series. Fortunately, there’s no rule against watching two Borgia-themed shows in the same year. Additionally, while “Faith and Fear” covers the same thematic ground as “The Borgias,” it goes its own way in terms of presentation and dramatization. Specifically, if you thought “The Borgias” was a little tame in terms of sex and violence, “Fear” won’t disappoint you the same way. It’s thoughtfully constructed, but relentlessly fierce, and Mark Ryder’s snarling embodiment of Cesare Borgia gets the show off to a running start that rarely stops to catch its breath. Includes 12 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Underdog: Complete Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1964, Shout Factory): Never fear: Though labeled as complete, this nine-disc collection does not count the ill-devised 2007 live-action movie among its contents. Rather, this set is devoted entirely to the original cartoon, which spanned three seasons and 62 episodes, all of which are perfectly preserved here. In case you’re wondering: Yes, they’re the full episodes — including the bonus cartoons starring Underdog’s friends (Klondike Kat, Tooter Turtle, Go Go Gophers, Commander McBragg) as well as Underdog’s own adventures. Extras include commentary with (among others) co-creator W. Watts Biggers, a behind-the-scenes feature and a 20-page color booklet with liner notes, a brief history, concept art and more.
— “Weeds: Season Seven” (NR, 2011, Showtime/Lions Gate): Usually, when a show moves to a big city like New York, it’s a sign that it’s out of ideas. When a show about dealing drugs in the suburbs goes to New York, it would appear to be a sure thing. But “Weeds” is a different animal, because it started running out of ideas three seasons ago before reinventing itself for season five and doing it again for season six. Season seven jumps ahead three years following Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) surrender to the FBI, and the big city is simply another stop for a show that’s been on the run half its life and has yet to lose its way. Includes 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features and multi-scene comparisons.
— “Nurse Jackie: Season Three” (NR, 2011, Showtime/Lions Gate): If you’ve ever wanted to see a seemingly smart and capable person (Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie) architect her professional and personal demise in slow, painful and (for us) wondrously entertaining fashion, there may be no show on Earth that makes it happen better than this one. Season one ended with the walls closing in, season two somehow made it even more claustrophobic, and there would seemingly be nowhere to go for a third round of escaping lies by telling more lies. And yet, season three provides proof: No matter how bad it looks, it can always get worse (and for us, better). Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

DVD/Blu-ray 2/14/12: Take Shelter, Beavis and Butt-Head V4, Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story, Second City Presents: Buzzkill, The Dead, VIPs, All Things Fall Apart, The Human Centipede 2

Take Shelter (R, 2011, Sony Pictures Classics)
There’s a storm coming, and Curtis (Michael Shannon) is doing the only sensible thing he can do and building a storm shelter for his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart) in the back yard. Problem is, the signs of pending disaster so far exist only in Curtis’ dreams, where calamities from bird swarms to tornados to car crashes leave effects that, at least delusively, stay with him during his waking hours. So is he onto something? Or is Curtis, who watched his mother succumb to paranoid schizophrenia, simply following in her footsteps? “Take Shelter” gradually dangles clues that could lead to either conclusion, but caring solely about that is akin to skipping the journey and wondering what the fuss is about with the destination. “Shelter” moves at a measured pace to which even the word “slow” doesn’t necessary do justice, and while its depictions of Curtis’ dreams are visually impressive, it’s not really about the weather even when it is. Even if these events are real in Curtis’ world (which they may or may not be — no spoilers!), they’re mostly metaphorical in ours, accompanying stories about a family man’s potential breakdown amid a family and working-class community in similar straits. If that sounds insufferably pretentious, fear not. Though careful with its words, “Shelter” never safeguards them behind pretense. Even when things trickle along as methodically as they sometimes do, there’s entirely too much raw, relatable energy running through “Shelter’s” veins for boredom or standoffishness to become a concern. Shea Whigham also stars.
Extras: Shannon/director commentary, deleted scenes, Shannon/Whigham Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature.

Beavis and Butt-Head: Volume 4 (NR, 2011, MTV/Paramount)
The world sure has changed since Beavis and Butt-Head left us in 1997. But the bigger news regarding the “Beavis and Butt-Head” revival is that MTV itself has changed alongside it. Now, in addition to the occasional music video, the boys have the Internet, UFC fights and the entire gamut of MTV reality shows — from “Sixteen and Pregnant” to “Jersey Shore” — at their disposal. A cynic might cry foul and pan the show for covertly airing commercials for other shows, but considering how harshly (and hilariously) Beavis and Butt-Head skewer highlights from those shows, it really doesn’t matter. The new “B&B” takes place in our present day, which means the boys can tackle predator drones, “Twilight,” the Gulf oil spill and other weighty matters that weren’t on their radar back in the day. The only thing that hasn’t changed at all are Beavis and Butt-Head themselves, and remarkably, no evolution was necessary. Spouting off dialogue that’s simultaneously sharply funny and purposefully stupid isn’t as easy as these two make it look, and the new episodes are legitimately funny enough not to wear out their welcome after the nostalgia honeymoon is over. Against all odds, these two are timeless.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus 2011 San Diego Comic-Con panel footage, Beavis and Butt-Head Interruptions and a PSA about ringing cell phones.

Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story (NR, 2010, Docurama)
You probably always just figured the arguable king of polarizing board games had a history attached to it. But did you know it included what basically amounted to a 30-year beta test while a growing crop of people passed around and iterated on homemade versions of the game like it was a family recipe? Or that citizens in communist countries went to great risk during the World War II era to make and distribute underground editions after the official game was banned? There’s more where that came from in “Under the Boardwalk,” which pulls double duty as a document of the 2009 United States and World Monopoly Championships. If you’re surprised to hear such things exist, you’ll be floored when you see one player sling mud at another over what he perceives to be shenanigans during the qualifying rounds. (Then again, if you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly to completion, that shouldn’t surprise you at all.) “Boardwalk” bounces from history lesson to sports showdown and back with a terrifically reverent energy, and its stops in between — with Monopoly fanatics and those who lovingly express what the game means to them beyond just the game — makes this as celebratory (and, when the fates of our championship competitors hang in the balance, dramatic against all odds) as it is educational.
Extras: Tips from Monopoly pros, an uncut (42 minutes!) copy of the 2009 World Championship, outtakes/extended scenes, an interactive copy of the quiz players had to take to qualify for the 2009 U.S. Championship.

Second City Presents: Buzzkill (NR, 2011, Indican Pictures)
Struggling screenwriter, struggling boyfriend and all-around struggling person Ray Wyatt (Daniel Raymont) is a toxically bitter mess from almost the moment his story begins. And yet, when “Buzzkill’s” opening scenes bring with them a dead animal in his dumpy apartment’s walls, a burst pipe in the ceiling, the full implosion of his relationship with Sara (Reiko Aylesworth) and the chance to settle for writing a script that offends his soul, there’s still somehow nowhere for Ray to go but down. Fortunately, plumbing the deaths of soulless, acrimonious darkness is what “Buzzkill” does best. It’s black even by the bleak metrics of black comedy, with a vile lead character who miraculously elicits some sympathy simply for making acquaintance with people somehow worse than him. Even for aficionados of dark comedy, calling it funny may be a stretch. But that isn’t damning criticism, because “Buzzkill” feels like it was designed more to be a raging, contemptuous misadventure that wants you to snarl with instead of laugh at it. And on that level, it completely works. As fictional anger goes, the raging unrest of one Ray Wyatt is uncaged enough to be cathartic if you can get over the urge to hate the guy. And as goes Ray’s weird energy, so goes “Buzzkill” as a whole. If you’re down for a little vicarious indignation therapy, the film’s title is a complete misnomer. Krysten Ritter and Darrell Hammond also star. No extras.

The Dead (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Zombie movies have gone seemingly everywhere they intend to go, and they’ve made the trip multiple times over. The sub-genre is so saturated with also-rans, in fact, that “The Dead” became a cult curiosity simply on the premise that it doesn’t do the same old thing the same old way. Instead of another loud and campy story crammed with characters whose deaths are all but guaranteed, “The Dead” centers around two survivors — an American Air Force Lieutenant (Rob Freeman) whose evac plane crashed in Africa, and an African soldier (Prince David Oseia) forced to fend for himself in a homeland crawling with zombified countrymen. And instead of a gabby, gory script that allows characters to talk each other’s ears off before zombies do the literal equivalent with their teeth, “The Dead” treads quietly, choosing its words carefully (when it uses any at all) and relegating the action to exception rather than rule status. Is it refreshing? If you love zombie movies but crave something in search of faux-authenticity, it sure is. Is it also boring? If you’re all zombied out or have no interest in movies that take the subject this seriously, it almost certainly is. “The Dead” looks good and absolutely succeeds at being what it wants to be, so it’s silly to fault its execution. But if you don’t share its tastes, it stands no chance of changing that.
Extras: Directors commentary, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes feature.

VIPs (NR, 2010, Focus World/Entertainment One)
Like so many others, Marcelo (Wagner Moura) wants to live a glamorous life and see the world. So he sets out to do so the only way he figures he can — by literally being like so many others. Let the comparisons to “Catch Me if You Can” commence: “VIPs” throws one up on the back of its own box, so it clearly doesn’t mind, and considering Marcelo’s adventure is based on a true story of its own, it doesn’t really need to mind. Beyond the superficialities, the two stories have little in common anyway. While “CMIYC” played the stylish and cute card to the point of being more comedy than drama, “VIPs” embroils itself in a world of drug trafficking, internal demons, and games played with dangerous people on two sides of the law. It’s still presented as a good time, and you might still envy Marcelo at the height of his best bluffs, but “VIPs” has a savvy knack for countering every glamorous moment with just enough edge, paranoia and sneaking suspicions of lurking danger to keep any desire to be him at bay. If the movie’s goal was to be a compelling and exciting story about a guy in over his head, mission accomplished. But even if “VIPs” never states it outright, it’s just as engaging as an argument about the liberating power of a life honestly lived. In Portuguese with English subtitles.
Extra: Cast/crew interviews.

All Things Fall Apart (R, 2011, One Village/Image Entertainment)
If there was an Oscar for most hearts slathered on one sleeve, go ahead and give it to Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who not only co-wrote “All Things Fall Apart” but lost more than 50 lbs. to carry it in the lead role. Jackson stars as Deon, a football star whose destiny date with the NFL is derailed by the discovery of a tumor near his heart. Sure enough, his transformation — muscular, dreadlocked and invincible one moment and hairless, rail-thin and invisible to all who previously worshipped him the next — is visually striking. But “Apart’s” keen sense to show rather than describe that transformation is all for naught when just about every other emotion and effect is verbally fed to the audience like worms from a mama bird. Earnest intentions or not, “Apart” plays like a calculated Oscar-by-numbers project, cramming in every genre cliche it can accommodate. It drops the dramatic weight on an actor ill-equipped to carry it, it chips in wince-worthy lines like “I didn’t mean to get sick” to accentuate the after-school-special motif, and two scenes meant to be respectively heartbreaking and stirring — Deon’s mother (Lynn Whitfield) letting the mental toll finally break her and Deon’s father (Mario Van Peebles) delivering a speech about how Deon needs to work like a Chinese man but get an education like a rich white man — are botched to unintentionally comic effect. It’s hard to bag too hard on “Apart,” which — calculated or not — seems like it could have its heart in the right place. But even angelic intentions need a good follow-through, and this one’s simply playing out of its league. No extras.

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2011, IFC)
You’ve probably heard of “The Human Centipede.” But if you actually saw it, you know its real genius lied in how it almost completely rejected gore and guts and still managed to paint a wholly unnerving picture of what an enterprising and brilliant surgeon is capable of when he loses his mind. “The Human Centipede 2,” by contrast, exists in our world: The original “Centipede” is a fictional movie, and dangerously disgruntled parking lot attendant Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is anything but surgical when he decides to mimic (and outdo) his favorite film by grafting people together as a living human centipede. As you might guess, Martin’s anger and lack of surgical credentials come into play. And consequently, as you might fear, “HC2” does a complete 180 on its predecessor’s methods despite being helmed by the same writer and director. Where the original film’s surgeon was convinced he was somehow making science, Martin is just a bumbling nutjob who kills with abandon, and where the first movie blazed its own trail by forgoing blood and scaring with madness instead, “HC2” has no problem whatsoever being as artlessly, pointlessly exploitative as its 91 minutes allow. That it’s presented like an art film — shot in the most pretentious shade of monochrome achievable on the light spectrum — is good for an ironic (and potentially unintentional) laugh. But in every other respect, the bad-as-bad-gets “HC2” is the new poster child for what happens when a director’s talent runs out at the very same moment his budget runs wild.
Extras: Harvey/director commentary, deleted scene, director interview, three behind-the-scenes features.

Games 2/14/12: The Darkness II, Gotham City Impostors, Shank 2

The Darkness II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Digital Extremes/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content)
Price: $60

Though certainly a first-person shooter at its core, “The Darkness” may be remembered most fondly for the unique ways it applied thick layers of stealth, adventure gaming and a bold devotion to sink-or-swim immersion that no game since has quite captured. Playing “The Darkness” often felt like being a tourist in a new town — albeit one where a disproportionate percentage of the locals wanted to kill you.

Playing “The Darkness II,” by contrast, feels like passing through as Godzilla. Jackie Estacado (that’s you) is more powerful, the powers ingrained in him by the enigmatic force known as The Darkness are considerably nastier, and the game — set two years later and produced by a new developer — sheds most of those layers in favor of a straight sprint that’s exhilarating and potentially dispiriting all at once.

Let’s not mince words: The six-ish hours that embody “TD2’s” main campaign may very possibly be the six craziest hours you spend playing a first-person shooter this year. Jackie’s brandishes the usual crop of firearms, but the upgradable powers granted by The Darkness — wieldable swarms and black holes, a demonic underling who does your bidding while calling you names, and a pair of demonic arms that can tear enemies apart, feed on them and toss them across the room — are anything but rudimentary.

Instead of piecing out combat and creating scenarios where acting stealthily works best, “TD2” throws you into the fire and encourages you to mix gunplay and demonplay in whatever ridiculous fashion pleases you best. One firefight never differs dramatically from another, and even the most powerful enemies aren’t terribly smart, but a mix of busy environments and relentless enemy formations ensures plenty of room for attacking creatively instead of simply twitching and reacting.

With that picture painted, let’s not mince words here either: While “TD2” preserves the original game’s soul in some respects, and while the game is a riot to play on its own terms, the new gameplay comes almost completely at the expense of everything the first game dared to do differently.

The need to literally read street signs and check subway schedules to navigate around an unfriendly and non-linear city is, for instance, no more. “TD2” is nearly always straightforward, and a button press tells you exactly where to go if you somehow still get lost.

The need to shoot out streetlights in order to design the perfect stealth ambush is, to name another example, almost absent. Jackie’s Darkness powers still disappear in bright light, so shooting lights out still works to your advantage, but you’ll do so in the heat of a battle in progress instead of in anticipation of a fight you’re starting on your terms.

Where the spirit of the first game shines without contradiction is in “TD2’s” storytelling, which resumes where the original left off and arguably outdoes that game in terms of presentation, character design and exploration of The Darkness and its roots. “TD2’s” voice acting is superb, its cast (down to that strangely adorable name-calling demon underling) extremely memorable. And the new visual style — which uses hand-drawn and hand-painted textures to give players the sensation of playing inside a freely explorable graphic novel — is a night-and-day improvement over the first game’s more traditional look.

Instead of the first game’s competitive multiplayer, which few will miss, “TD2” complements the campaign with a collection of hit missions and a second, shorter campaign you can play alone or cooperatively (online only, four players). None of the four playable characters are as powerful as Jackie, nor are the missions very creatively designed. But each has a unique power that Jackie lacks, and the game’s devotion to strong storytelling and character design applies remains in full effect.


Gotham City Impostors
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Monolith/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, comic mischief, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $15

“Gotham City Impostors” posits a wonderfully crazy idea: an urban battleground pitting self-appointed vigilantes in shoddy Batman costumes (Team Bats) against similarly entrepreneurial criminals in homemade Joker getups (Team Jokerz).

It’s such an inventive premise, in fact, you might be dismayed to see it applied to a multiplayer first-person shooter that, beneath the surface, is only so different from the multitude of other class-based shooters already crowding the market.

Purely in terms of being what it sets out to be, “Impostors” is mechanically excellent. Monolith’s first-person shooter expertise — if you’ve played “F.E.A.R.” or “Condemned,” you’re familiar with its work — gives “Impostors” a rock-solid foundation in terms of control responsiveness and other particulars. You can choose preset loadouts catered to five classes (Striker, Defender, Medic, Scout, Sniper) or configure your own, and between the guns you expect and a few that are special to this world, your firearm needs are covered.

Though your toys are nowhere near as impressive as Batman’s or The Joker’s gadgets, “Impostors” gives you a few to play with, and it doesn’t force you to level up before you can play with them. That’s a very good thing, because while you can freely sprint around the five maps, it’s more fun to glide, spring into the air and zip around with the grappling hook. “Impostors,” realizing this, designs the maps to take full advantage, with multiple vertical levels, numerous hiding spots in high places, and lots of opportunities to flee harm’s way in a flash.

For those dismayed by the increasingly uneven playing fields that make most multiplayer shooters practically impenetrable for new players after a few weeks, the news about “Impostors” is good. Unlockables are numerous, but they’re cosmetic and personal enhancements rather than weapons and perks that offer players an unbalanced performance edge. For those invested in the game, the personal enhancements — including new performance trackers and in-game challenges to complete — are terrific carrots within a carrot. A truckload of clothing pieces makes it possible to design Batman and Joker costumes that bring out your personal sense of shoddy style. You even can use unlocked graphics to design a special calling card that other players see when you take them out.

Here’s hoping you enjoy that kind of ribbing, because if you aren’t here for the online multiplayer (12 players), you may as well not be here at all.

Though the Bats and Jokerz spout some funny lines during the course of a match, there’s no story mode to really let the premise shine. You can’t play against bots or against friends via splitscreen, and outside of a tutorial mode and some very brief skills challenges, online play is your only option. The three match types are your standard class shooter match types, the matchmaking system is predictably prone to dropping you into fights against players ranked higher than you, and if you don’t enjoy duking it out online in “Call of Duty” and its ilk, the amusing little things that set “Impostors” apart from its humorless contemporaries will be cold (and short-lived) comfort.


Shank 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Klei Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

The original “Shank” took a handful of good ingredients from different genres and combined them into one surprisingly focused action game. “Shank 2” doesn’t mess with that approach, providing a second helping of all the first game did right and making adjustments to the few places where it went wrong. For the uninitiated, “Shank 2” is a violent but cartoony sidescroller in the “Metal Slug” vein, outfitting players with guns and explosives but placing special emphasis on close-quarters combat and providing an abundance of weapons (from knives to shovels to chainsaws to wieldable fish) with which to deal damage. The melee combat is, despite the 2D presentation, somewhat in the “Devil May Cry” vein. A when-all-else-fails pounce attack come straight out of Wolverine’s playbook. And the running and jumping occasionally feels like a classic “Prince of Persia” game when Shank is in chase and chaining moves together without hesitation. Beyond telling a new story, “Shank 2” tempers the first game’s occasionally cheap difficulty, fixes a few unfortunate button-mapping choices, and adds some new moves — most notably, a very convenient evasive roll and a terrific counterattack mechanic — that allow players to better fight defensively. A new arcade-style Survival mode (two players, online or offline) also complements the story and allows players to unlock and play as new characters. That feature comes at the expense of the first game’s collection of co-op-only missions, but it’s a better fit that’s built to endure longer than those missions did.

DVD/Blu-Ray 2/7/12: Project Nim, The Sunset Limited, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Other F Word, The Rebound, Fireflies in the Garden

Project Nim (PG-13, 2011, Lions Gate)
It shouldn’t have been like this, and you literally can say that again … and again, and maybe two or three more times after that. “Project Nim” begins gently as the story of Nim, a young chimpanzee who received a wholly human upbringing in an attempt to understand chimps’ ability to grasp language and human thought processes. Unfortunately, such grasps often eluded the humans charged with caring for him. Their adventures in pettiness, lust, bullheadedness, emotional stagnation, red tape and general ineptitude result in one mishandling after another of Nim’s upbringing. “Gorillas in the Mist” this absolutely is not, and the presentationally polished “Nim’s” willingness to let Nim’s handlers verbally hang themselves years later is as admirable as the whole odyssey is infuriating to anyone who sees animals as more than canvases for science and medicine. Fortunately, for every imbecile who gets a chapter in Nim’s story, there is someone with common sense and a will to use it for Nim’s good. The battle that ensues as Nim matures from cute baby chimp into a force of nature with a long memory is a dizzying, life-consuming and occasionally bloody look at people — and primates — at their best as well as at their worst.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Sunset Limited (NR, 2011, HBO)
“The Sunset Limited’s” miserable professor (Tommy Lee Jones) certainly didn’t expect to spend his evening in the kitchen of an ex-con (Samuel L. Jackson). But who can blame him? He figured he’d be dead before the sun even set. (Un)fortunately for the professor, an attempt to jump in front of a train was thwarted by the ex-con (neither character gets a name, in case you’re wondering), so life — liberating, harrowing, meaningless, wondrous, miraculous, terrible life — goes on. “Limited” spends the entirety of its 90 minutes at the ex-con’s kitchen table, and it expends the full might of its energy on a debate about the soul that packs more earnest verbal impact into a random tangent than most politicians can wedge into a thousand empty campaign speeches. Never excessively anything — from preachy to glum to even serious, thanks to some perfectly-timed patches of genuinely funny levity — “Limited” also never sleeps on its two-man cast, nor does it take either actor’s talents for granted. The script is too fearlessly thought-provoking to grow dull, the characters far too animated to remind you they haven’t even changed rooms, and one wonders if even a second-rate cast could fail something so sharply written. After watching Jackson and Jones close the conversation with even more fire in their heart than they had when it began, though, let’s be glad we don’t have to find out.
Extras: Commentary with Jackson, Jones (who also directs) and writer Cormac McCarthy, making-of feature.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas: Extra Dope Edition (R/NR, 2011, New Line)
Really, did we need a third “Harold & Kumar” movie? Of course not. But we didn’t need the first and second ones either, and no one understood that as vividly as the people responsible for making them. “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” takes place a couple years after Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have gone their separate ways — the former married and working on Wall Street, the latter more stoned and out of shape than ever, and both having found new sidekicks (Thomas Lennon and Amir Blumenfeld) to fill their respective voids. A long story follows about Harold needing to replace a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve to keep his wife’s family from killing him, but as “H&K” connoisseurs need not be told, it’s little more than an elaborate means to reunite Harold, Kumar and Neil Patrick Harris for another absurd adventure. (Nitpickers, you can relax: Even though Harris was killed in the second movie, “Christmas” has a perfectly plausible explanation for his return.) Impressively, the title is good for more than a gag: “Christmas,” displays a crudely lovable fondness for Christmas movies and the holidays in general, and the 3D is both deliberately, gratuitously stupid and kind of great (even if you lack a 3D display and have to just imagine its effect). Most crucially, it upholds the “Harold & Kumar” tradition of taking stupid, tasteless ideas and mining them for genuinely, cleverly funny gags. That’s a feat precious few comedies pull off at all, much less consistently, so maybe these movies are pretty necessary after all.
Extra: Extended version of the film.

The Other F Word (NR, 2011, Oscilloscope)
Your images of punk culture likely exclude bottle feedings, playing ball in the yard and frequent applications of hair dye to hide the grey. But even these guys get old and have families, and guess what? At least according to the testaments of those who appear in “The Other F Word” — Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen, Tony Adolescent, Art Alexakis, Tony Hawk, Flea — they love it too. That isn’t to say it’s easy, especially when their version of providing for the family means long stretches on the road and a need to play songs they barely can stand to hear in order to give fans what they want. “Word” initially plays one note by emphasizing the comedy of tattooed, explicative-laden-shirt-wearing dads channeling their inner Ward Cleavers against all superficial odds. Before long, though, it’s covering the phenomenon from all angles — not just fatherhood, but their own childhoods, the rigors of making a living in a new musical landscape, and the sometimes-Herculean efforts needed to summon the desire to go on stage and channel an energy that no longer comes naturally. In terms of brutal, frank honesty, this one has it in spades. But don’t confuse hardship and heartache for self-pity or anything remotely in that ballpark. To the contrary, “Word” is a portrait of love labored — for son, daughter and wife as well as for fellow performers and the scene at large — and, even at its most mournful, a loving testament to the unspeakable power only a newborn baby wields.
Extras: Director/producer/Alexakis/Lindberg commentary, SXSW Festival post-screening Q&A, outtakes, two music videos, two acoustic performances.

The Rebound (R, 2011, Fox)
If you have a cynical disposition, even “The Rebound’s” title — what is it about romantic comedies with two-word titles beginning with “The?” — portends mediocrity. The premise — a newly-divorced, recently-cheated-on mother of two (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a much younger, freshly-single, recently-used coffee shop employee (Justin Bartha) are each on the rebound and very predictably on a collision course with each other — doesn’t inspire any additional confidence. But then something shocking happens. Actually, just kidding, no it doesn’t. “The Rebound” is nowhere near a bad movie: To the contrary, it’s pretty consistently pleasant even when its jokes mostly fall flat and the story bounces from one well-worn romantic comedy cliche to another. But as should be pretty clear by now, it has little interest in being anything a ton of other also-rans haven’t already been. That’s unfortunate in any context, but when “The Rebound” shows just a glimmer of ingenuity in its final five or so minutes, it’s especially baffling. Without spoiling anything, there are more milestones passing through those final minutes than in the 90 that preceded it. But with time running out, a perplexing music montage and spoken-but-not-really-shown recap are all “The Rebound” has to show for them.
Extra: Cast/crew interviews.

Fireflies in the Garden (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
There’s a snake in the grass in “Fireflies in the Garden.” Unfortunately — for the snake and, consequently, “Garden” and all who see it — it’s about as camouflaged as an anaconda on a fairway. In its opening scene, “Garden” introduces us to Charles (Willem Dafoe), whose irrational, out-of-context berating of his son Michael (Cayden Boyd) presumably intends to set the tone for a complicated and troubled father-son relationship. But all it does — with considerable help from the scenes that follow — is establish Charles as an insufferable monster whose bad behavior punishes his wife (Julia Roberts) and surrounding family as well. Years later, an older Michael (Ryan Reynolds) returns home for a celebration that turn tragic (of course), and “Garden” embarks on a second generation of family angst while occasionally jumping back in time to pile onto Michael’s tormented upbringing. If you’re wondering what the point of any of this is, rest assured you aren’t alone. “Garden’s” intentions — yet another story about a superficially perfect family that’s as dysfunctional as any other — is tiresome enough. But its failure to do even that in the face of its hideously unlikable patriarch is a miserable exercise in futility, and when it practically breaks its neck in an attempt to provide Charles some wholly unearned redemption, the family’s acquiescence feels like a betrayal of what little sympathy you might have invested in them. That’s obviously a spoiler, but when a movie this unpleasant achieves an ending that still feels like a letdown, a spoiler becomes a time-saving favor.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 2/7/12: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, SoulCalibur V, Niko

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Big Huge Games/38 Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

Role-playing games aren’t expected to play as crisply as pure action games do, and action games need not run as deep in the storytelling and character-building departments as role-playing games do. These are the compromises we’ve come to accept and expect.

So when something like “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” comes along and shoots for the moon in both areas, it’s hard not to pay attention.

And when it hits the moon flush, it’s impossible.

It doesn’t hurt that, while doing this, “Reckoning” also inspires hope that it’s capable of putting a similar charge in the stagnant art of fantasy storytelling.

Whether it actually succeeds may come down to how you play. “Reckoning’s” massive world easily holds more than 100 hours’ worth of main and side quests awaiting completion, and each has a story to tell or character/land/race/legend to introduce. But as often happens with a story that sprawling, tales have a tendency to get weighed down and spread thin amid a gargantuan list of names to remember and quest objectives that, at least structurally, are more formulaic than not.

At the same time, there’s plenty to love about the colorful world in which “Reckoning’s” legend unfolds, and your role in it — as a mortal human who returns from death to shatter an immortal race’s sacred (and comforting) belief that everyone’s fate is set in stone and documented in full — is a terrific catalyst around which to assemble it. That storyline can’t help but occasionally disperse in the sea of characters, quests and everything else “Reckoning” offers outside the main road, but if you tend to it regularly and stay abreast of the mythology, the story makes good on the possibilities.

For its part, “Reckoning’s” interfaces make it pretty painless to manage not only your quest log, but the usual host of traditional role-playing elements. Though combat is as real-time here as it is in a game like “God of War,” classic role-playing underpinnings — hit points, experience points, dropped spoils from defeated enemies — still apply.

Most of what “Reckoning” does is borrowed, but it’s borrowed from the best. Dialogue trees and moral barometers are Bioware game staples. The chance to find (and craft) rare armor and weapons is heavily reminiscent of “Diablo,” right down to the color-coded system for increasingly rare tiers of loot. Lockpicking, extracting plants for potions, joining factions, committing crimes and warping to locations you’ve previously discovered are “Elder Scrolls” hallmarks. And while the system for leveling up your character is smartly designed around your fateless blank slate, it’s assembled using timeless role-playing pieces.

Where “Reckoning” surprises is with how it puts those pieces into play. The aforementioned “God of War” comparison wasn’t an oversell, because “Reckoning’s” polished action plays markedly in that vein — fast, violent, and with equal importance placed on your skills as a player and the choices you make for your character’s abilities and arsenal.

Initially, when your skills are limited and your inventory light, it’s fun but simple. But as you level up, unlock new abilities and tap into the surprisingly wide array of weapon classes, the doors blow off the barn. Streamlined controls make it possible to transition between melee, ranged, and magic attacks without pausing the combo, much less the game, and as tougher enemies appear, “Reckoning” places a premium on blocking, evasion and (to a wholly optional degree) stealth tactics as well.

Before long, “Reckoning’s” combat is dishing out a kitchen sink’s worth of ways to play, and doing so at the same fast pace at which it began. It’s always been fun to find a rare, absurdly powerful weapon in a role-playing game, but being able to wield it with abandon — as “Reckoning” gleefully allows — takes that fun to a whole different plane.


SoulCalibur V
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Call it a shame, call it wonderful or call it inevitable and/or overdue. But if you’ve traditionally counted on “SoulCalibur” to give you a comprehensive single-player fighting game experience that’s accessible to all, your calls to “SoulCalibur V” may go unanswered.

It’s a sign of the times. Since “Street Fighter IV” revitalized the genre, fighting games have become kings of the mountain with regard to attracting high-level players and packing ballroom arenas and online lobbies with those bent on challenging or even simply watching them play. It’s a serious business, and “SCV” feels like Namco’s attempt to reposition the series as one to be coveted rather than mocked by that crowd.

Whether “SCV” succeeds at that is a question only that crowd can definitely answer in time. But the strides it makes toward that end at least give it a chance, even if they feel like me-too mechanics instead of innovations.

To wit, the most plate-shifting change to the fighting system, the Critical Edge, is “SCV’s” answer to “SFIV’s” Ultra Combo: You fill up a Critical Gauge meter, pull off nearly the same stick/button combo, and unleash an attack that’s visually spectacular and devastating to your opponent’s health. (Also customary: If you’re bad at these games, executing a Critical Edge is, let’s say, trying.)

Fortunately, the Critical Gauge feeds into other, easier maneuvers as well, including Brave Edge attacks (slightly more powerful versions of regular moves) and parrying. The inability to parry at will without cost means you’ll have to time your blocks and pick your spots to fight defensively — no curling into a ball allowed.

Along with the need to manage the Critical Gauge for maximum effectiveness, “SCV” places a premium on fighting smart instead of mashing buttons. That’s a pillar of any respectable fighting game. But if you’re accustomed to playing “SoulCalibur” with your button-wailing hat on, take heed: Unless you’re playing against like-minded friends or the A.I. on its easiest setting, you will be punished.

(Disappointingly, while “SCV” offers a training mode in which to practice at will, there’s no in-game tutorial that effectively lays it all out. If you need lessons, look to Youtube.)

As should be expected with the shifting mindset, “SCV” is plenty capable with regard to competitive play. The lag that tarnished “SoulCalibur IV’s” online component isn’t present here, and the new offerings — spectator mode, the ability to watch other players’ replays — are obvious concessions to those who want to study how others play.

Most fun is the Global Colosseo mode, which turns the online lobby into a 100-person virtual meeting place where players can chat, size each other up and set up matches as if in an arcade. With the Fighter Creator mode back and considerably more robust than before, there’s no telling whom you’ll end up fighting against once you dip into these waters.

If, however, you flock to “SoulCalibur” precisely to get away from the competitive scene to which “SCV” caters, you might be dismayed to discover just how costly that groveling was to its single-player offerings.

In particular, the abundance of match variants and challenge missions that made the series a must-play even when its only multiplayer offering was two players on the same couch? Nowhere to be found in “SCV,” which includes a standard arcade mode, an even more standard quick battle mode and a completely substandard story mode (roughly two hours long, no branches, one ending and most between-fight “cutscenes” comprised of little more than static storyboards and spoken dialogue) as its prime single-player offerings. Unless you’re willing to bite the bullet, make like Namco and join the competitive fray, that’s not a lot of return on your $60 investment.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Sulake Corporation Oy
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free for first six levels/$2 to unlock full game

There’s a big gap between the kind of platformers you can play with a fully-stocked controller and the stuff we typically get on buttonless mobile devices, and “Niko’s” attempt to close that gap just a bit is most welcome. Instead of automatically running forward, Niko (a cute little creature of unknown classification) waits for you to control him directly with standard virtual left and right arrow buttons. And instead of tapping the screen to make him jump and hoping you timed it right, an “Angry Birds”-style slingshot mechanic allows you to control the distance and angle of the jump to almost foolproof effect. (Fortunately, if you miscalculate or need to change tactics, you can adjust Niko’s trajectory while he’s airborne.) Control touches like that are, of course, nothing new in the land of buttons and joysticks. But they’re an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what is typically found in mobile games, and “Niko” makes all the right moves — precise controls, a clean interface and elaborate, wide-open levels that exploration as well as survival — to make them work in this space. Like any good platformer these days, it’s also as easy or tough as you want it to be. A generous checkpoint system means anyone can feasibly reach a level’s finish line, but if you want to do it right — a three-star performance, no lives lost, all collectibles found and an enviable high score on the online leaderboards — your work is cut out for you.